The story of Saul’s conversion, from opposing the gospel to becoming a follower of Jesus, is found in the book of Acts. Unusually, the details of this story are repeated more than once. This is because Saul had a dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus which immediately turned his life around! What happened to him to completely change his way of thinking? Are there lessons that we can learn from his experience for our lives today?
Saul was a Jew who was born in Tarsus of Cilicia, a city that is in modern-day Turkey. He was a Pharisee, from a family of Pharisees and conformed to the strictest set of Judaism. Saul was sent to Jerusalem to study under the honored rabbi Gamaliel.
He was opposed to the name of Jesus and all who followed Him. Saul’s opposition to the early church was intense, and he was proactively involved in the persecution of the believers. He was described by Luke as ‘breathing out murderous threats’ against the Lord’s disciples.
Saul was not only vocal but also violent. He approached the high priest in Jerusalem for a commission to go to Damascus. He wanted letters of authority to take to the synagogue leaders there to enable him to arrest any of the followers of the Way.
Damascus was about one hundred and fifty miles from Jerusalem. It was the nearest important city outside of Israel and was central to many trading routes. The Way was another name for the believers of the early church. This was taken from Jesus’ declaration that he was the only way to God. It was only later that ‘believers’ would become known as Christians.
Saul wanted to put a stop to the spread of the gospel. He intended to take any believers that he found in Damascus as prisoners to Jerusalem. Saul wanted them to be put on trial before the Sanhedrin with a charge of blasphemy. Anyone found guilty by the Sanhedrin would be subject to the death penalty.
Road to Damascus Moment
Saul and his companions set out for Damascus, traveling for several days. On the final day of their journey, at about noon, Saul was blinded by a bright light from heaven. This was brighter than the sun and he and his companions fell to the ground. Saul heard a voice saying to him:
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? “Acts 9:4 NIV
This was the moment of Saul’s conversion. On the road to Damascus, he had a dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus.
Saul would have understood from his studies of scripture and rabbinic traditions that a bright blinding light and a voice from heaven would be God himself. These were familiar images from the Old Testament Scriptures.
Saul and his companions all saw the bright light and they all fell to the ground. But Saul was the only one who was blinded. He heard a voice from heaven, his companions heard a sound but did not understand what was being said. The message was for Saul alone.
Saul was called by name and was immediately challenged with a simple question;
“Why do you persecute me?” He knew he was in the presence of God, that this was a divine encounter, but he answers with; “Who are you, Lord?”
But the phrasing of the question already provided him with the answer. Saul knew whom he was persecuting. In persecuting the followers of Jesus, he was persecuting Jesus Himself. The answer was that he was speaking with the risen Lord Jesus!
What are the three accounts of Saul’s conversion?
There are three accounts of Saul’s conversion all in the book of Acts. The first short account is given in Acts 9:1-31 as part of the story of the early church and the spread of the gospel.
The second account in Acts 22 is similar. Here it is part of Paul’s speech to an angry mob in Jerusalem, who dragged him out of the Temple and were trying to kill him. Paul was then arrested by Roman soldiers for disrupting the city. Under their protection, he then managed to silence the crowd and share the story of his conversion with them.
The third and final, more detailed, account is in Acts 26. This is when Paul, under arrest, appealed to Festus to be sent for trial to Rome rather than to Jerusalem. Festus presents Paul to king Agrippa for him to hear Paul’s account and the charges against him. As Paul tells his story to Agrippa he reveals some extra details of his conversion and commission by Jesus.
“…I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”Acts 26:14
Jesus reveals His compassion towards Saul. The proverb that He quoted was based on an oxgoad. This was a long wooden stick with a metal point on the end used to guide oxen by prodding them when ploughing. The idea was to move away from the goad, not to resist and move towards it. Jesus was saying that by resisting the truth, and His teachings, Saul was hurting himself.
What happened to Saul on the road to Damascus?
On the road to Damascus Saul had an encounter with the resurrected Jesus, who appeared to him and talked with him. He was appointed and commissioned by the Lord:
“I am sending you to them (the Gentiles) to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God so that they might receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”Acts 26:17-18
At this moment, ironically, Saul couldn’t see. His spiritual eyes had been opened to the reality of his sin, but he had lost his physical sight. Saul who would have arrested and led believers, as prisoners, back to Jerusalem is now led helplessly into the city.
Furthermore, God was commissioning him, a man who was now blind, to open other people’s eyes. Not just other Jewish people but to bring spiritual sight to the Gentiles. This was unheard of at this time, particularly for someone who was by birth a Pharisee.
Road to Damascus Experience
Sometimes God intervenes and stops us in our tracks dramatically. That may be because he is unable to get through to us in any other way. People today still use the phrase road to Damascus experience for a life-changing moment. This is used when there is a sudden turning point in our lives when everything changes, and nothing is ever the same again.
After his road to Damascus experience, Saul’s life would never be the same again.
Saul and Ananias
In a house in Damascus Saul sits helplessly, waiting on God. Those hours during which he was unable to see must have been some of the longest in his life! He doesn’t eat or drink. This could be a spiritual fast or just the shock of the whole encounter.
During this time Saul receives a vision of a man called Ananias coming to pray for him and for his sight to be restored.
In the city there was a believer called Ananias, a devout Jew, highly respected by the people. God spoke to him in a vision and told him to go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for Saul. There Ananias would find Saul praying.
Ananias was troubled by Saul’s reputation – which had arrived in Damascus before him. The believers had heard the reports of what Saul had been doing in Jerusalem. They also knew the purpose of his visit to Damascus. Saul had come with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who called on the Lord’s name.
But Ananias was told clearly to go. Saul was God’s chosen instrument to proclaim His name to the people of Israel and to the Gentiles. Ananias was obedient and went to the house where Saul was staying. There he placed his hands on Saul and prayed for him:
“Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”Acts 9:17
Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. The first thing he did was ask to be baptized. This signified acknowledgment of his sin, repentance, and the desire to be cleansed.
Three lessons from Saul’s conversion
Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was dramatic and instant, a defining moment in his life. This may seem far removed from our own experiences. But there are lessons that we can apply to our own lives. There is encouragement and a challenge here for us all:
- 1 God Does Not Change. He is intentional, merciful, and compassionate toward each one of us. God seeks us out and salvation is His gift to all those who will acknowledge Jesus.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
- 2 A Time To Choose. There is no one who is too far from God. He is willing to meet us where we are. There comes a time for all of us to choose, and our acceptance by God comes simply through faith in Christ Jesus.
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” John 3:17
- 3 New Beginnings. It is possible for each one of us to begin again and leave our past behind. Spiritual transformation in the Bible begins with believing in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. With faith and commitment to Christ comes a new beginning which is God’s gift to us. Who we were, and what we have done in the past, is of no account. What matters is the new creation and whom we become in Christ.
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone; the new is here!" 2 Corinthians 5:17
However, or whenever, we encounter Jesus it is a defining experience with the possibility of changing our lives forever. We are challenged to either accept or reject the good news of Jesus Christ. Whether we literally see a bright light, or not, there is a moment of revelation for us all. Do we choose to follow Jesus wholeheartedly or do we continue to kick against the goads? If you are at a defining moment on your journey of life, I pray that you will choose well…
Related Post: What Does it Mean To Follow Jesus?