A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 9:3-9. Saul and Jesus: his conversion on the Damascus Road.
The second piece of evidence that Saul’s conversion was due to God’s grace alone is Luke’s narrative of what happened. We will draw from all three accounts in Acts, although in a later chapter we will compare and contrast them. Saul and his escort (we are not told who they were) had nearly completed their journey of about 150 miles. It would have taken them approximately a week. When they approached Damascus, a beautiful oasis surrounded by desert, at about noon (22:6), suddenly it happened: *a light from heaven flashed around him* (3), brighter than the midday sun (26:13). It was such an overwhelming experience that it both blinded him (8-9) and knocked him over. *He fell to the ground* (4), ‘prostrate at the feet of his conqueror’. Then *a voice* addressed him personally and directly (in Aramaic, 26:14): ‘*Saul, Saul* [Luke preserves the original Aramaic *Saoul*], *why do you persecute me?*’ And, in answer to Saul’s enquiry about the speaker’s identity, the voice continued: ‘*I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting*’ (5). At once Saul must have grasped, from the extraordinary way in which Jesus identified with his followers, so that to persecute them was to persecute him, that Jesus was alive and his claims were true. So he promptly obeyed the order *get up and go into the city* (6), where further instructions would be given him. Meanwhile, *the men travelling with Saul stood there speechless*, for *they heard the sound*, but they *did not see anyone* (7), nor did they understand the invisible speaker’s words (22:9). Nevertheless, *they led him by the hand into Damascus* (8). He who had expected to enter Damascus in the fullness of his pride and prowess, as a self-confident opponent of Christ, was actually led into it, humbled and blinded, a captive of the very Christ he had opposed. There could be no misunderstanding what had happened. The risen Lord had appeared to Saul. It was not a subjective vision or dream; it was an objective appearance of the resurrected and now-glorified Jesus Christ (Acts 9:17, 27; cf.22:14-15; 26:16; 1 Cor.9:1; 15:8). The light he saw was the glory of Christ, and the voice he heard was the voice of Christ. Christ had interrupted his headlong career of persecution and had turned him round to face in the opposite direction.
The third piece of evidence which attributes Saul’s conversion to God’s grace is the apostle’s own later references to the event. He never mentioned his conversion without making this clear. ‘It pleased God’, he wrote, ‘to reveal his Son to me’ (Gal. 1:15-16). God took the initiative according to his own will and pleasure. And this truth Paul went on to illustrate by at least three dramatic images. First, Christ ‘took hold of’ him (Phil.3:12), or ‘seized’ him, the verb *katalambano* perhaps even suggesting that Christ ‘arrested’ him before he had a chance to arrest any Christians in Damascus. Secondly, he likened his inward illumination to the creative command, ‘Let there be light’ (Gn. 1:3) or ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ (2 Cor. 4:6). And thirdly, he wrote of God’s mercy ‘overflowing’ towards him, like a river in spate, flooding his heart with faith and love (1 Tim. 1:14). Thus God’s grace arrested him, shone into his heart and swept over him like a flood. This variety of images reminds me of another series of metaphors, which C.S.Lewis uses in the last chapters of his autobiography. Sensing God’s relentless pursuit of him, he likens him to ‘the great Angler’ playing his fish, to a cat chasing a mouse, to a pack of hounds closing in on a fox, and finally to the divine chess player maneuvering him into the most disadvantageous position until in the end he concedes ‘checkmate’.
To ascribe Saul’s conversion to God’s initiative can easily be misunderstood, however, and needs to be qualified in two ways, namely that the sovereign grace which captured Saul was neither sudden (in the sense that there had been no previous preparation) nor compulsive (in the sense that he needed to make no response).
First, Saul’s conversion was not at all the ‘sudden conversion’ it is often said to have been. To be sure, the final intervention of Christ was sudden: ‘Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him’ (3), and a voice addressed him. But this was by no means the first time Jesus Christ had spoken to him. According to Paul’s own later narrative, Jesus said to him: ‘It is hard for you to kick against the goads’ (26:14). By this proverb (which seems to have been fairly common in both Greek and Latin literature) Jesus likened Saul to a lively and recalcitrant young bullock, and himself to a farmer using goads to break him in. The implication is that Jesus was pursuing Saul, prodding and pricking him, which it was ‘hard’ (painful, even futile) for him to resist. What were these goads, with which Jesus had been pricking him, and against which Saul had been kicking? We are not specifically told what they were, but the New Testament gives us a number of hints.
One goad was surely his doubts. With his conscious mind he repudiated Jesus as an impostor, who had been rejected by his own people and died on a cross under the curse of God. But subconsciously he could not get Jesus out of his mind. Had he ever seen him, met him? ‘There are those who categorically…deny the possibility’, writes Donald Coggan, but ‘I cannot be among their number.’ Why not? Because it is ‘more than likely that they were contemporaries pretty close in age to one another’. It is therefore probable that they both visited Jerusalem and the temple at the same time, in which case ‘is it not possible, indeed highly likely, that the young teacher from Galilee and the younger Pharisee form Tarsus would have looked into one another’s eyes, and that Saul would have heard Jesus teach? Even if they did not meet, Saul will have heard reports of Jesus’ teaching and miracles, character and claims, together with the persistent rumour from many witnesses that he had been raised from the dead and seen.
Tomorrow: Acts 9:3-9. Saul and Jesus: his conversion on the Damascus Road (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.