Conversion is vital to the Christian church, as the three examples in Acts 8-10 show. Jesus does not build his church through political change, cultural reform or simply by attracting people with kindness. Rather, it requires a work of his Spirit to bring them to himself (Jo 3:5). Each person’s conversion tale may follow a very different path to others, of course. But some elements will be repeated as we see with our three men, each of whom: is confronted with the Lord; learns of his need of forgiveness; puts his trust in the Saviour; and is baptised to wash away his sins.
Here we meet Saul who will become the key member of staff for the next stage of Jesus’ plan. Until now Christianity has been a Jewish movement in Israel. The church began in Jerusalem. From there it spread out across the ancient land of Israel, pulling into its ranks both Jews & semi-Jews (Samaritans). Thus by Ac 8:25 the church can be seen as the rebirth and unification of old Israel (long divided and broken) under the rule of Jesus. The end of Ac 8, however, saw that change when a visiting Gentile was welcomed into the church. Though a one-off (no general Gentile mission was launched), this event pointed towards the work which Saul will undertake.
Saul is a fine Jewish man. Though originally from Tarsus (modern Turkey) he has lived and studied in Jerusalem. He speaks the ancient language, comes from a once-royal tribe, is very well-trained and is faithful, as a Pharisee, in the law (Ph 3:4-6; Ac 22:3, 23:6). He is also socially powerful (and almost certainly wealthy) with access to the high priest (v1). Saul is from the heart of Judaism and it is his passion, which is why he reacted so violently (Ac 8:1-3) to Stephen (Ac 7) whom he saw as undermining all he held most dear. His reaction exposes the division which grew between Judaism and its Christian members in the first century. Believers were seen as cutting away at the special status and culture the Jews felt they had from God. But that is precisely what Jesus, and John the Baptist, did do. They preached repentance, telling their hearers to turn back to God from the ruinous path they were on (Lu 3:3-9); they preached radical conversion.
So after Stephen Saul set out to cut the cancer of the church out of the body of Judaism (Ac 8:3). Now he can barely breath without vitriol spewing forth (v1). Thus when he hears of the gospel touching the large Jewish community of Damascus in Syria, he requests letters of authority to go there (v2). His intention is to find any who follow the ‘Way’. Why does Luke call Christianity that? Firstly, because its message puts you on a new way to live. Secondly, the term may link back to previous statements. For example, Jesus talked about being the ‘way’ himself (Jo 14:6). And John the Baptist’s work was described as being to ‘prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths…’ (Lu 3:4). Saul, however, is determined to close the road!
But he’s stopped in his tracks by a heavenly light (v3). Stephen spoke of God meeting people in dramatic ways outside of Israel; now Saul has that experience. Then in a deeply personal way the Lord asks why Saul is persecuting him (v4). The words show the deep union Jesus has with his people (cf Mt 24:34-45). They also show that Saul’s anger is directed personally at Jesus, whom he may well have heard and met. Saul, however, is utterly bewildered by the voice, asking: who is this? (v5) When Jesus replies, it devastates him. In this moment Saul’s old life is turned upside down as he comes under Christ’s rule (v6) to be set apart from others (v7) and plunged into three days of darkness (v8-9). When his eyesight is restored, he will never see the world the same way again. The old Saul will have died and a new one born. This is conversion.
Why did the Lord choose to convert Saul? (a) God delights in humbling the proud. (b) He also delights in loving his enemies. (c) Saul, of all people, shows the weakness of the Law to save us from sin. (d) The Lord is pleased to take his enemies’ gifts and use them for his kingdom: Saul is well suited to the task ahead. (e) Ultimately, it’s simply God’s kindness. Saul, in later life, would write much about the grace of the Lord (Ep 2:1-10), which he first found on the Damascus Road.