The Conversion of Saul/Paul
(from ravaging the church to speaking boldly in the name of the Lord)

Acts 7:54-8:3

Acts 9:1-7

Acts 9:8-19a

Acts 9:19b-25

Acts 9:26-30

Other Recollections

Text is from the New Revised Standard Version 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

The Beginning of Persecution in Jerusalem
(Acts 7:54-8:3)

         Stephen, only recently chosen as one of the first "Deacons" in the Jerusalem church (6:1-6), did much more than "wait on tables" in the daily distribution of food to the needy. His "great wonders and signs among the people," (6:8) drew the attention of those who questioned his work. Filled not only with God's "grace and power," but also with wisdom and the Spirit (6:10), he was an able speaker. In refuting their criticism, he stirred up a hornets' nest of opposition (6:9-15). Like Peter (2:14-42), he proved to be an inspired preacher. His first recorded sermon on earth, when brought before the religious authorities (7:1-53), turned out to be his last.

         On the charge that he has spoken "blasphemous words against Moses and God" (6:11), Stephen faces the Sanhedrin. His lengthy testimony there enraged those who heard them, but their fury was not unleashed, according to the writer of Acts, until after his proclamation, when he had a vision of Jesus with God, and said so.  Strictly speaking, was this blasphemy? Regardless, the hearers cover their ears and act. Was this upon the official decision of the high council, or was it a mob action? Whether a court sanctioned punishment or a lynching, the result is the same. Stephen's last words remind us of an earlier cross. There Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" and "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." (Luke 23:34, 46) Here, Stephen places his spirit into the hands of his "Lord Jesus."

Deuteronomy 17:2-7

{2} If there is found among you, in one of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, and transgresses his covenant {3} by going to serve other gods and worshiping them--whether the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden-- {4} and if it is reported to you or you hear of it, and you make a thorough inquiry, and the charge is proved true that such an abhorrent thing has occurred in Israel, {5} then you shall bring out to your gates that man or that woman who has committed this crime and you shall stone the man or woman to death. {6} On the evidence of two or three witnesses the death sentence shall be executed; a person must not be put to death on the evidence of only one witness. {7} The hands of the witnesses shall be the first raised against the person to execute the death penalty, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

In the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 6:1-4

         "When the trial is finished, the man convicted is brought out to be stoned. The stoning place was outside the court ... When ten cubits from the stoning place they say to him, 'Confess: for it is the custom of all about to be put to death to make confession; and every one who confesses has a share in the world to come.' ... Four cubits from the stoning place the criminal is stripped ... The drop from the stoning place was twice the height of a man. One of the witnesses pushes the criminal from behind, so that he falls face downward. He is then turned over on his back. If he die from this fall, that is sufficient. If not, the second witness takes the stone and drops it on his heart. If this cause death that is sufficient; if not, he is stoned by all the congregation of Israel."     (from Bruce, pp. 170-80)

(Click for more on capital punishment from the Mishnah and other Jewish sources.
Or check out the various offenses for which stoning was commanded in the Torah )

         Saul, a Pharisee, is there. The cloaks of the witnesses (note - it is not Stephen's cloak - from when, as the Mishnah prescribes, he is stripped - here his accusers remove their outer garments to better accomplish the task), are laid at Saul's feet. "And Saul approved..." From this point Saul (known also as Paul) provides leadership for a campaign against the followers of Jesus. He becomes the focal point of fear among the early Jewish Christians. There is, however, no justification here for later generations to reverse the trend and use Paul as an excuse for anti-Semitic pogroms of their own.
  
{54} When they heard these things,
                       they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.
{55}        But filled with the Holy Spirit,
                       he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God
                                                              and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
{56}                        "Look,"  he said,  "I see the heavens opened 
                                                             and the Son of Man
                                                                              standing at the right hand of God
!"
{57}        But they covered their ears, 
                       and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.
{58}                        Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him;
                                        and the witnesses laid their coats
                                                at the feet of a young man named Saul.
{59}               While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed,
                                "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
{60}                                 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice,
                                "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."
                                                  When he had said this, he died.         (or "fell asleep")

{8:1} And Saul approved of their killing him.
                 That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem,
                        and all except the apostles were scattered
                                 throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.
{2}                                   Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him.
{3}            But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house;
                         dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.

return to top of page


  

On the Road to Damascus
(Acts 9:1-7)

         When someone is headed in the wrong direction, it may take a blinding light to expose his own blindness. In Acts, Paul embodies the persecution of the early church. The "Road to Damascus" has become, for succeeding generations, the path of turning. It was so for Paul, who was headed (as is written) with permission to stamp out this Jesus movement. On his way to root out adherents of 'the Way,' he begins to walk in a new way himself. In this telling, Paul's companions heard the voice but saw nothing. In a later recollection (22:9), they saw the light but didn't hear the voice. Even later, before King Herod Agrippa, Paul (and/or the writer of Acts) adds a bit more detail (cf. 26:12-18).
         There are some similarities between this account and the story of Heliodorus in the Old Testament apocrypha. This chancellor of the Seleucid king was sent to Jerusalem to raid the Temple treasury. Before he could accomplish his task, his way was blocked by a blinding vision, and he (supposedly) turned to the God of Israel (cf. 2 Maccabees 3:24-40). God has a way of opening eyes! Perhaps those of us who have not been "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord," or robbing the Temple treasury, still need to be confronted with the question, "Why do you persecute me?" Have we really never 'been there, done that' - even within the church? Are we blind to some of the consequences of our own actions (in a personal or a social sense, as in our lifestyle choices), even those which seem benign but have a negative effect upon others? "I once was blind but now I see," that old slave ship Captain, John Newton, once wrote of God's "Amazing Grace." Why do the words to that old hymn resonate so well with our experience?
  
{1} Meanwhile Saul,
                still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,
                                 went to the high priest
{2}                                   and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus,
                        so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women,
                                   he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
{3}      Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus,
                                             suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
{4}              He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him,
                               "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"
{5}              He asked, 
                               "Who are you, Lord?"
                    The reply came, 
                               "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
{6}                                    But get up and enter the city,
                                                      and you will be told what you are to do
."
{7}      The men who were traveling with him stood speechless
                        because they heard the voice but saw no one.

return to top of page


  

New Vision
(Acts 9:8-19a)

The immediate result of this vision is a lack of it. This man who had become leader of the effort to squash the Jesus movement needed to himself be led by hand. He had been headed straight to the synagogues of Damascus, but now he found himself on a "street called straight."  A different "way," indeed! Is he fasting by choice, having experienced a revelation, or is food and drink now just an unimportant detail? An interesting crisscross of visions takes place. As he prays, Saul "sees" a man named Ananias come and lay hands on him. And Ananias, in a vision, hears of what this blind man "sees," that he (Ananias) is coming.
        Saul's reputation had preceded him to Damascus. Ananias knew, and was reluctant to go, but the Lord prevailed upon him the importance of what is is to do.  "Has Saul come to persecute those who call on the name of the Lord? Quite the reverse! He is a chosen instrument, destined to bear the Lord's Name before the Gentiles and Kings and the children of Israel." (Haenchen, pp. 324-25)
        Here, the Lord does not tell Ananias what to do when he reaches the house of Judas where Saul is staying. Instead, he does as he has "seen" in the telling of Saul's vision. The "be filled with the Holy Spirit" is his own addition in the narrative. Note: this one who approved of Stephen's stoning, and witnessed this deacon "filled with the Holy Spirit" (7:55) seeing Jesus standing at the right hand of God, now receives the prayer of another believer that he be filled in the same way.
         In a scene reminiscent of the healing of Tobit's father in the Old Testament apocrypha (Tobit 11:7-15), Saul is healed. His sight is restored, he is baptized, and he eats and drinks once again.
  
  {8} Saul got up from the ground,
               and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing;
                       so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
  {9}                         For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

{10} Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias.
                The Lord said to him in a vision,
                       "Ananias."
                He answered,
                       "Here I am, Lord."
{11}        The Lord said to him,
                       "Get up and go to the street called Straight,
                                and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul.
                                       At this moment he is praying
,
{12}                                       and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in
                                                       and lay his hands on him
                                                              so that he might regain his sight
."
{13}        But Ananias answered,
                       "Lord, I have heard from many about this man,
                                 how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem
;
{14}                                  and here he has authority from the chief priests
                                                   to bind all who invoke your name
."
{15}        But the Lord said to him,
                       "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen
                                 to bring my name before Gentiles and kings
                                                      and before the people of Israel
;
{16}                                   I myself will show him how much he must suffer
                                                                for the sake of my name
."

{17} So Ananias went and entered the house.
                He laid his hands on Saul and said,
                       "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here,
                                                             has sent me so that you may regain your sight
                                                                                    and be filled with the Holy Spirit
."
{18}                        And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes,
                                        and his sight was restored.
                                                 Then he got up and was baptized,
{19a}                                                  and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

return to top of page


  

Still Causing Havoc
(Acts 9:19b-25)

         Saul/Paul, previously seeking to end this movement, now becomes an ardent proponent. Rather than bringing his letters from the high priest to the synagogues of Damascus, he becomes a letter for Jesus, the Son of God. His about face is almost incomprehensible. He is still making havoc, but this time it's for the good news message he brings and not for his earlier threats against the disciples of Jesus. A plot against him begins, and he escapes his detractors by basket lowered through the town wall. He is, however, no basket case!
  
{19b} For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,
{20}          and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying,
                          "He is the Son of God."
{21}          All who heard him were amazed and said,
                          "Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem
                                         among those who invoked this name?
                                 And has he not come here for the purpose
                                               of bringing them bound before the chief priests
?"
{22}      Saul became increasingly more powerful
                              and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus
                                       by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.
{23}             After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him,
{24}                      but their plot became known to Saul.
                                       They were watching the gates day and night
                                                so that they might kill him;
{25}                                               but his disciples took him by night
                                                               and let him down through an opening in the wall,
                                                                         lowering him in a basket.

return to top of page


  

Back in Jerusalem
(Acts 9:26-30)

         Jerusalem, still the center of the Jesus movement - as it is the center of Judaism - is the place to which one returns. Saul comes back traveling a very different (spiritual) road, than when he left. The change is still hard to fathom, even for those who had known Jesus personally, and how the Lord continues to turn the world upside-down. Saul will not be silenced, much to the horror of those who will not swallow his message. The "Hellenists" were Greek speaking Jews, as opposed to "Hebrews" - Jews who speak Aramaic or Hebrew. There is a division between these two groups within Judaism, as will as within the church (the calling of the first deacons happened because Hellenists within the church complained that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food - 6:1-6). Were Saul's opponents here among the Greek speaking believers in Jesus? Hardly, but with future opposition to his mission to the Gentiles (non-Jews within the wider Greek and Latin speaking world to whom Saul was called by God to minister), this remains a puzzling question.
  
{26}  When he had come to Jerusalem,
                 he attempted to join the disciples;
                                                    and they were all afraid of him,
                                                     for they did not believe that he was a disciple.
{27}                 But Barnabas took him, 
                                               brought him to the apostles,
                                        and described for them how on the road
                                                     he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him,
                                                                      and how in Damascus
                                                     he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.
{28}         So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem,
                                                              speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.
{29}                  He spoke and argued with the Hellenists;
                                  but they were attempting to kill him.
{30}                                  When the believers learned of it,
                                                   they brought him down to Caesarea
                                                            and sent him off to Tarsus.

return to top of page


  
         Apparently, Jerusalem is not where Saul is to be at this time. Tarsus awaits, a "waiting" place. In Acts, the scene now shifts the Peter, who is drawn, first to Lydda (9:32-35), then to Joppa (9:36-43), and then to Caesaria (10:1-48). Here, the way is paved to reach beyond Israel - to the Gentiles, as Peter is shown in his own vision that "God shows no partiality" (10:34-43). The news returns and influences the home church in Jerusalem (11:1-18). From Jerusalem, the scene fast forwards to Antioch, where the Spirit does not wait for the church to get in gear. Already the boundary wall between Jewish Christians and Gentiles is coming down, and Barnabas is sent there (11:19-24). At this point, Barnabas journeys to Tarsus, where Saul has been waiting. Thus begins a new mission (11:25-30). The time has come for Saul, also known as Paul (13:9).

   

Other Recollections of these Events

         "Why did Luke (the writer of Luke/Acts) recount Paul's conversion three times? Luke employs such repetitions only when he considers something to be extraordinarily important and wishes to impress it unforgettably on the reader. That is the case here... Why did the Christians not content themselves with the mission to the Jews? Had they done so, they would have been spared the conflict both with Israel and with Rome. Against this, Luke constantly drives home the idea that Christ himself brought about the change of front. Paul did not want to become a Christian or a missionary, but he had no option... Luke wishes to show that no human evolution is responsible for the change, but an act of God - and that alone!" (Haenchen, pp. 327-28)

Acts 22:3-21
(Paul - before the Sanhedrin)

         {3} "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today. {4} I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, {5} as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment.

         {6} "While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. {7} I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' {8} I answered, 'Who are you, Lord?' Then he said to me, 'I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.' {9} Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. {10} I asked, 'What am I to do, Lord?' The Lord said to me, 'Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.' {11} Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus.

         {12} "A certain Ananias, who was a devout man according to the law and well spoken of by all the Jews living there, {13} came to me; and standing beside me, he said, 'Brother Saul, regain your sight!' In that very hour I regained my sight and saw him. {14} Then he said, 'The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice; {15} for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard. {16} And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.'

         {17} "After I had returned to Jerusalem and while I was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance {18} and saw Jesus saying to me, 'Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.' {19} And I said, 'Lord, they themselves know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. {20} And while the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing by, approving and keeping the coats of those who killed him.' {21} Then he said to me, 'Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.'"

Acts 26:4-20
(Paul - before Herod Agrippa)

         {4} "All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, a life spent from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem. {5} They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee. {6} And now I stand here on trial on account of my hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors, {7} a promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship day and night. It is for this hope, your Excellency, that I am accused by Jews!

         {8} Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? {9} "Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. {10} And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. {11} By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.

         {12} "With this in mind, I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, {13} when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. {14} When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.' {15} I asked, 'Who are you, Lord?' The Lord answered, 'I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. {16} But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. {17} I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles--to whom I am sending you {18} to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'

         {19} "After that, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, {20} but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance...."

Galatians 1:11-24
(Paul's words to "the churches of Galatia")

         {11} For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; {12} for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

         {13} You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. {14} I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. {15} But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased {16} to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, {17} nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.

         {18} Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; {19} but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother. {20} In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! {21} Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, {22} and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; {23} they only heard it said, "The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy." {24} And they glorified God because of me.

return to top of page


Other resources on this passage (Acts 9:1ff) can be found at  "The Text this Week."

comments 2001 Peter L. Haynes

sermons on this text:
Acts 7:54-8:3,   Acts 9:1ff

return to texts online

return to main sermon page

On "commentary" from an Anabaptist perspective

On keeping scripture God's living Word