And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’
And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said ‘I am Jesus whom you persecute: it is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, ‘What would you have me to do?’ And the Lord said unto him, ‘Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.’
And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.” (Acts 9: 1-9)
“It is given to man once to die and then judgment.”
Our preparations for the times beyond this life, assuming that we make any, must be made on this side of the great divide. However, the hard fact is that most will make no true provision for eternity. And so most of us will pass into history without so much as a ripple or so it might sometimes seem, and many will fall from earth squarely into the hands of the adversary and his minions. The only thing left behind will be the memories of a good life or well intended legacy.
If we choose to prepare to meet God, and decide to follow the other less well tread path, we will leave with life, and we will also leave an evidence of something left behind when we go — that also is the evidence of our character for the good that we have done.
For the most part, we never give much thought to what is left behind as we move on. We do not ponder the trail of life and beyond our families and friends, in time most memories fold into the lost recesses of history and we seem to become only names carved on old stones. Our own short lifetimes seem to get lost in the rumbling movement of time marching on, erasing most of what came before.
Rarely does a name last beyond the age in which the person lived or carry with it the castings made of a good and godly character, becoming a lasting name, a name for all ages. Jesus’ name and the detail of his life has extended through the centuries; and the name of the Son of God is yet held in reverence by countless thousands, and not without good reason.
But among those carrying only human strength, there are but a relative few names which speak from beyond their own days and conjure up accomplishments and words — the deeds that have extended beyond the time of their natural lives.
Two of the twelve apostles have such names, but in many peoples minds perhaps for widely different reasons. Both Peter and Paul are remembered and honored. These were the two dominant and the most prominent of the apostles of the Lord, and that mainly is due to what they left behind in the evidence of their lives and their character, in the work they did in clearing the path that leads to eternal life and in the worth of the Spirit inspired writings they left behind. It also lies in the clear adherence to the work that was left them to fulfill, and in the example they left for others to follow — whose examples, as with the example of our Lord, that we are told that we should follow closely.
And so, I would like to spend the remainder of this exercise looking at the life and particularly the record of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, the most unlikely of candidates to become an apostle of the Lord.
You should know from reading this site that I believe that the book of Acts of apostles is chiefly a book of conversion. While it provides a history of the work of the apostles and also as a record of the beginnings of the church, its principal value is, I think, in its recording of a series of nine detailed stories of conversion to Christ. There are detailed records of large multitudes, of Jewish proselytes, of Roman soldiers their friends and cohorts, of men who were worshipping dead religions, of single men and single women, including Samaritans and Persians, all seeking the truth, and some people who knew next to nothing of Christianity and perhaps religion in general prior to coming into contact with the preacher.
I believe that without these records that it would be much more difficult to find out exactly what must be done to be saved. But the Holy Spirit identified that serious need and then set out to explain in exact detail what you or I or anybody else must do in order to be saved. So it seems there are certain things that must be done in order to become a Christian and to be in covenant relationship with God where Christ will act as our advocate.
To begin we could first say Saul had been the valedictorian of his class: we could say he had graduated magna cum laude, and he had said as much. He was an educated man who had written that he was a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and more zealous than his brethren. He was of the tribe of Benjamin, and a freeborn Roman citizen who had studied “at the feet of Gamaliel” the founder of the Pharisees.
That he was renowned is not anywhere disputed; the work he did and the evidence of his character is as solid as oak and as sturdy as a modern skyscraper. That he was zealously affected by his religion (both before and after coming to Christ) also is not disputed. He was best known by the Greek version of his name as Paul, and he was to become the apostle to the nations, and when that transition was made he was thenceforth known as the apostle Paul.
How he came to be an apostle is useful to study, however his life and the means of his conversion is really the basic interest I will be presenting here.
When he was practicing the religion of the Hebrews and as Christianity had its start he was wholly set against it. He saw it as his God given duty to see that this new religion never got out of the local arena, and that if he had his way, no Christian would ever make it out of Judea alive. He was a single-minded man. The first two verses in the ninth chapter of Acts as we previously read state, “And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord…” So it seems Paul had a serious case of spiritual halitosis, and he wanted the end of Christianity to be brought about at his own hand, and he wouldn’t be satisfied without that.
“…and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, who calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women, committed them to prison.” (Acts 7: 58 — 8:3)
So he went to the high priest, and obtained his seal of approval and the sanction of the leaders of the Jews to go to Damascus to the synagogues, that he might bring the wayward Christians back to Jerusalem for trial before the Sanhedrin.
The record states that the Christians would be brought bound to Jerusalem where they were to be thrown in prison. Have you ever thought of what that meant? It meant if Paul caught up with you that first you spent some time in the local accommodations for thieves and murderers and when he had a load of prisoners, you walked in chains for the 120-mile journey through the mountains and across the deserts, probably with no food and little if any water. Remember he wanted these people dead, and if you didn’t survive the journey that just lightened his load. Your well-being wouldn’t have been foremost in Paul’s mind. And he and his companions weren’t likely to waste a wagon ride on heretics, and there were no modern conveniences or any concern for fair treatment along the way. We live in a much different place and time.
As Saul was committed to the undoing of Christianity, he wanted to see it gone in his lifetime. He had been a participant in the stoning of the deacon Stephen and had set about persecuting Christians wherever he went.
So he sets out to capture all Christians as Public Enemy Number One. His intent was to get to Syria and catch some of those runaway Christians and bring them back to trial and land them in jail, or better yet, to do to them what had been done to Stephen.
“And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said unto me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you persecute.’ And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spoke to me.
And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said unto me, ‘Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told you of all things which are appointed for you to do.’
In Acts 9 he was told “Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.”
By these accounts, while on the road to Damascus Paul and his companions were halted by a blinding vision of the spirit of Christ.
I believe that Mike Schmidt has it right when he has said that had it not been for this direct intercession by Jesus that Paul never would have become a Christian. I think he was a hard enough man so that was true. He would have continued with his assault. He was relentless and would not have desisted in his work against Christ and his church had it not been for the direct intervention on that day. He would not have been stopped. But because of this vision he hit the brakes and did a quick turn.
Now if there ever was an occasion when a person should have been able to jump up and down and shout that they were now saved, then a personal appearance by the spirit of Christ should surely have been it. You have possibly heard of people claiming that they have seen Jesus in a vision and that it was wonderful, and beautiful, and that they were saved from their sins. Let’s see what Paul’s reaction to his vision was. And the Lord has never appeared to anyone else.
First off, Paul did not jump up and did not go on his way rejoicing. He simply didn’t seem very happy and I don’t get the impression that his emotions were gushing over (at least not those emotions). Rather he had to be helped up and led away by others, as he was completely blind.
Second, as he could not see and did not eat for three days, he was clearly shown to be seriously contemplating the events, completely sober minded, penitent, and prayerful. And, unless I’m missing something else, he certainly was not “happy” afterward in the sense of being elated about his vision of Christ and was, at this point, apparently too dumb to know that he had been “saved” when he “saw” Jesus.
So, saving Paul doesn’t appear to have been the purpose of the miracle. Then the miracle wasn’t done to make him feel good about himself, or to let him know that he was somehow all of a sudden now acceptable to God. There was something else at work.
What then was the purpose of the Spirit of Christ visiting Paul as he approached Damascus? Answer: This visitation and miracle was performed to set Paul on the path of meeting up with God’s intended purpose. This is what Paul quoted Jesus as saying to him:
“For I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.”
Therefore the purpose of the miracle was to get his complete and undivided attention.
It did just that.
And while it is true that without a miracle that he never would have become a Christian, the miracle didn’t make him one either. It didn’t serve to do anything other than to stop the flow in the wrong direction and start it in another, and to drive home to Paul that he was not serving God in what he had been doing, but that a change was coming, and he was left little choice but to pay attention to it. Here then was an educated religious man who, though fervent and zealously affected in his worship, that was completely and utterly wrong in his beliefs and in what he was doing.
False teachers and deceivers would have it otherwise, but the facts speak just fine on their own. And although we too might wish to have it differently, it is occasionally useful to remind ourselves that it is not always about “us” and how we might want things to be.
You know it wasn’t about Paul either, now was it? But rather, it was about the service he would render and the work he would eventually accomplish for the cause of Christ. Left to his own motives and desires he would have chosen the earlier path, one with different rewards and different troubles. And no one has ever accomplished more for the gospel of God.
Yet he still had to contact the preacher in order to “…be told what you must do.”
Some people are crass enough to believe that they have had a similar conversion and they have chiseled out the same circumstances for themselves. They believe in their own desperate minds that they have seen or had an appearance by Christ or the Holy Spirit. They are so delusional they would have you believe that Deity had personally come directly to them and “saved” them.
You should know friends, that though a Christian when he arose from the waters of baptism there is no absolutely no indication that the Eunuch so much as ever heard of the Holy Spirit when “…he went on his way rejoicing.”
Yet some people note Paul’s situation (or even the Eunuch’s) and want to make it their own. How arrogant.
They will tell you that Jesus (or the Holy Spirit?) came to them in the still hours of the night (conveniently it is never in daylight, in public, and in front of witnesses) and that with that personal visitation they had “seen the light” and were saved.
But, there are two distinct peculiarities I would like to put before you that set Paul’s situation into a class all by itself. This is what the scriptures state.
First, and this is one of those blinding glimpses of the obvious — when this miracle occurred Paul was not a believer. When the vision of the Son of God came to him he wasn’t even leaning in that direction. In fact, he was hard the opposite way. He hadn’t been pondering a change and he neither called upon nor asked for Christ to enter his life, as the ignorant and unlearned do today; nor did he have any intention of joining up with the Christians on that day or on any other, that is unless it was to be at the jailhouse and they were to be taken by him as prisioners to stand trial. Nothing like that happened until after this epiphany.
Second, Christ made perfectly clear the intent of his visitation — he had identified Paul as a chosen vessel and had plans for him as his emissary and ambassador to the nations, which history shows us was fully explored in his use in converting both the high and low of the Roman Empire. But in no way was any part of that plan for Jesus to personally “save” Paul.
Jesus sent a preacher to the future apostle to accomplish that deed.
Get the preacher and get saved. Get the word of God and get saved. It doesn’t matter how smart you think you are or how educated you may be.
Friends, it has worked that way since the beginning of these things and it works that way now. No man can change that, and no one with any sense would be interested in trying.
Note what the scriptures have to say (chapter nine). As he journeyed to Damascus, he was overshadowed at about noon by a blinding light and heard the voice of authority and inquiry: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
Saul, not knowing whose voice he heard asked, ”Who are you Lord?”
This question indicated that he recognized in the flash of that blinding light that he was in a completely powerless position and no longer in control. Although he did not know who had spoken or the conditions being applied, he recognized quickly that he was not in charge, the force present was beyond his understanding, and he was not the person that was leading the events.
The spirit replied, ”I am Jesus whom you persecute.”
Paul’s heart must have sunk like a rock when he heard that. The words surely cut straight into his brain like a hot blade. He was dropped by the heavyweight with a single haymaker. And you know that this was the last thing he wanted to hear at that minute. With Paul undoubtedly reeling he made a very quick decision based on the facts before him.
He asked, “What would you have me to do Lord?”
By this he made it known that he was submitting instantly and he stated that he was abruptly making a turn right then on to another road in life to be led by other ideas. He will now be a servant to new things. The signs and statements were extraordinarily persuasive and compelling. He made the only logical choice.
When you are out gunned – you submit, you retreat, or you die.
His instructions were to proceed to Damascus, where as we have already repeatedly noted the command was that “you will be told what you must do.”
Jesus told Paul to get up and get on with it, as he was now to start moving in a different circle, to eventually be appointed and confirmed as his disciple and as a bearer of the gospel to the nations.
But there was more to it, yet all that wasn’t going to be covered this day, and so he told him to continue on to his destination. Then without any further offer or sympathy, with no “are you okay with this Paul?” the Lord only said that at some point, “you will be told what you must do.” No detail was offered and no agreement was sought to any conditions, because no conditions were offered. “You will be told what you MUST DO.”
The message for Paul was not put in easy and genteel terms; it sent a shockwave through him. It was not meant to be thoughtfully and softly penetrating or to slowly seep through into his delicate sensibilities. Paul was not a submitting kind and God didn’t give out a list of alternatives.
“It’s do or die Paul — make a decision now.”
“Saul, though blind you can see that you can’t fight me. In my weakest moment I am stronger than you. You are putty in my hands. And I’ve got plans for you to bring lost souls to my house, so get up and follow my instructions and go down the road and you will be told what you must do.”
Paul didn’t get angry or demand an immediate appeal of the conditions. But, do you suppose that at this point that he had so far enjoyed the proceedings?
We don’t like being told we’re wrong; and Paul surely did not like this situation? We know all the answers — so did Paul. But Paul, though he could not see, realized the prognosis. He wasn’t going to make it as far as the gates of Damascus without help and so he wasn’t going to get away from this incident no matter what else happened that day or on any day following. The power displayed towards him was stronger than even his own stubborn unyielding will.
He didn’t stop on the road to query the fellow travelers as to how they had heard or seen things, to see whether consensus could be reached on the details. Although his ego was about the size of a Greyhound bus he knew that unless he complied that it could only get worse. He was smart enough not to demand a replay or to brainstorm possibilities and responses or to ponder whether or not his interpretation fit the facts. He didn’t struggle with the obvious.
He might have been dead if he had done that.
Paul got it. It took only one serious knock to the head to get his attention.
How many hits can you take before you get it?
Some of us have to be shot through and through before we would ever get it, like the cereal in the Quaker Oats ad from the sixties. I took considerable target practice before I got it. Some folks never will get it. How about you?
Although Paul was single minded and intense in his service, and though highly educated, he was altogether wrong. His religion was as contrary to what God wanted as it could be, even though he thought that he knew it all and was doing it just right.
He figured things out fast that day. Jesus had a purpose and mission for his unique talents and the miracle was the sounding bell for sea change. The new way wasn’t to be found on the same path where he had been walking all his life, it wasn’t to be found in the Law of Moses or in the council of the Pharisees.
And still none of this served to save him. “You will be told what you must do.”
Do you see how strong that statement is?
Jesus, the Son of God wants every one of his children to do his will, without questioning, and in order to find out what that is precisely, we must go to the approved source — the word of God given through godly men and women straight out of the source book. In Paul’s case he had to seek out the prophet of God, a preacher of righteousness; in our cases we have to seek out the word of the prophet as it is found within the Word of God.
By this time, the Gospel had already been given over to men and women to further — given over to “earthen vessels” as Paul would later write. And Christ had some good time earlier already ascended back to the throne of heaven.
Therefore, Jesus required of Paul that he do what was already set in the word of God, and first become a believer and a Christian. So, he sent him a preacher. If you are waiting for Jesus to send you a preacher you need to pay very close attention. You might miss the forest for a few trees.
Therefore the glorified Jesus does not personally come here to save anybody. He didn’t do it for Paul and so, you can rest assured that he won’t do it for you or anyone else.
No one can see God and live, and as Christ has long ago been glorified and is back in heaven with the Holy Father — you will never see God this side of judgment and live to tell anyone about it. And so Paul didn’t see Jesus that day — the scriptures state that he was struck blind by mere presence of the vision. You cannot look upon God and live.
Furthermore, God does not dwell with men. Even if you were to be an apostle, the savior instructed, “You will be told what you must do.” Paul had to follow the instructions exactly as they had been given.
Then what did he do to be saved?
Paul was led by the hand into Damascus and was taken to a house where he clearly showed evidence that he in fact had understood what had been told to him by Christ. That he now understood and believed Jesus was Lord and God, whether or not he knew the rest of the important details. He displayed hard evidence of not only a change of heart and mind but of direction and purpose — he evidenced repentance.
Then it states that Ananias (a prophet) was sent to him to teach him and to baptize him, and the record says he did just exactly that (c. 9 v. 18).
Now, as to whether the Holy Spirit descended upon Paul right then or at some other time and in some other fashion, is not important either to you or me, or to anyone else for salvation. That is not our business, and we don’t need to pull on God’s end of the rope.
We are not apostles, and we cannot stake a claim to being recipients in any fashion “as Paul was.” Nothing at all is ever said about how Paul received his “greater portion” of the indwelling of the Comforter, only that he would receive it and that he did in fact receive it. No one can say how he got the miraculous gifts, and they surely then can’t say they should have received it the same way. What is very clear is that he was not baptized into it.
But, you know I can say that I was “saved” just as Paul was. By being blinded by the light? No. And no, it wasn’t on the road to Damascus and it wasn’t through my own personal vision of Christ.
It was through following the instructions and hearing, believing, repenting and being immersed in water to wash away my sins.
Yet someone will inevitably think or say that Paul’s baptism was a baptism of the Holy Spirit. But, you know that couldn’t have been the case as it runs contrary to Ananias’ question to Paul “And now what are you waiting for, but get up and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” (Acts 22:16)
We can categorically state that the baptism he underwent at Ananias’ hands was not to give him any indwelling of the Spirit of God — it was as it was stated, “to wash away your sins” — the same function it is applied to with everyone. That is really what God has given us to know — that is what God has said on the subject. Nothing else will do.
Upon inspection then, it appears, in spite of the attendant details and the engrossing elements surrounding his conversion that he was “saved” by doing exactly what Jesus told him to do through obedience to the preacher’s instructions, doing the same things that had been done by the all of the others in the nine detailed sets of converts listed in the book of Acts. Hear, believe, repent, and be baptized.
So I wonder: what is it that we or any of our friends and family must do to be saved? Should we wait for Jesus to visit with us in the middle of the night? Should we sit alone in an emotional stupor in our closet? Should we fly over to Damascus and wander out to the desert and wait to be struck blind by a bright light, a vision of Christ, appearing brighter than the noonday sun? Should we wait for the Holy Spirit to descend upon us and jerk us up by the nape of the neck and then set over us cloven tongues like fire? Should we announce in prayer that we accept Jesus as our personal savior and that we are now Christians?
Or, should we do what Jesus has told us to do. To hear the word of God, the good news of salvation, believe in the word of God and in his promises, repent of our godless deeds, and turn from our lives lost in sin, to be immersed in water to wash away those sins?
How then should you answer the question, “what would you have me to do, Lord?”