A Commentary by John Stott

Acts 9:3-9. Saul and Jesus: his conversion on the Damascus Road. (continued).

Another goad will have been Stephen. This was no hearsay, for Saul had been present at his trial and his execution. He had seen with his own eyes both Stephen’s face shining like an angel’s (6:15), and his courageous non-resistance while being stoned to death (7:58-60). He had also heard with his own ears Stephen’s eloquent speech before the Sanhedrin, as well perhaps his wisdom in the synagogue (6:9-10), his prayer for the forgiveness of his executioners, and his extraordinary claim to see Jesus as the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand (7:56). It is in these ways that ‘Stephen and not Gamaliel was the real master of St. Paul’. For Saul could not suppress the witness of Stephen. There was something inexplicable about those Christians – something supernatural, something which spoke of the divine power of Jesus. The very fanaticism of Saul’s persecution betrayed his growing inner uneasiness, ‘because fanaticism is only found’, wrote Jung, ‘in individuals who are compensating secret doubts.

But the goads of Jesus were moral as well as intellectual. Saul’s bad conscience probably caused him more inner turmoil even than his nagging doubts. For although he could claim to be faultless in external righteousness (Phil.3:6), he knew that his thoughts, motives and desires were not clean in God’s sight. In particular, the tenth commandment against covetousness convicted him. The other commandments he could obey in word and deed, but covetousness was neither a word or a deed, but a disposition of the heart which he could not control (Rom.7;7ff.). So he had neither power nor peace. Yet he would not admit it. He was kicking violently against the goads of Jesus, and it was hurting him to do so. His conversion on the road to Damascus was , therefore, the sudden climax of a long-drawn-out process in which ‘the Hound of Heaven’ had been pursuing him. The stiff neck of the self-righteous Pharisee bowed. The ox had been broken in.

If God’s grace was not sudden, it was not compulsive either. That is, the Christ that appeared to him and spoke to him did not crush him. He humbled him, so that he fell to the ground, but he did not violate his personality. He did not demean Saul into a robot or compel him to perform certain actions in a kind of hypnotic trance. On the contrary, Jesus put to him a probing question, ‘Why do you persecute me?’ He thus appealed to his reason and conscience, in order to bring into his consciousness the folly and evil of what he was doing. Jesus then told him to get up and go into the city, where he would be told what to do next. And Saul was not so overwhelmed by the vision and the voice as to be deprived of speech and unable to reply. No, he answered Christ’s question with two counter questions: first, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ (5) and secondly, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ (22:10). His response was rational, conscientious and free. *Kyrios (‘Lord’) could have meant no more than ‘sir’. Yet, since he realized that he was talking to Jesus, and that he had risen from the dead, it must already have begun to acquire the theological overtones which it was later to have in Paul’s letters.

To sum up, the cause of Saul’s conversion was grace, the sovereign grace of God. But sovereign grace is gradual grace and gentle grace. Gradually, and without violence, Jesus pricked Saul’s mind and conscience with his goads. Then he revealed himself to him by the light and the voice, not in order to overwhelm him, but in such a way as to enable him to make a free response. Divine grace does not trample on human personality. Rather the reverse, for it enables human beings to be truly human. It is sin which imprisons; it is grace which liberates. The grace of God so frees us from the bondage of our pride, prejudice and self-centredness, as to enable us to repent and believe. One can but magnify the grace of God that he should have had mercy on such a rabid bigot as Saul of Tarsus, and indeed on such proud, rebellious and wayward creatures as ourselves.

C.S.Lewis, whose sense of God’s pursuit of him has already been mentioned, also expressed his sense of freedom in responding to God:

“I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armour, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armour or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corset meant the incalculable. The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional. I was moved by no desires or fears. In a sense I was not moved by anything. I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. On the other hand, I was aware of no motives. You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom, and perhaps a man is most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say, ‘I am what I do’.

Tomorrow: Acts 9:10-25. 3). Saul and Ananias: his welcome into the church in Damascus.

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.