Rituals are found in human societies across the world and often come with a strong pressure to conform. First century Judaism had quite a few, developed from the Old Testament (Mk 7:1-13). However, the reason for them is not always understood and their practice can, for some, become a negative force in their lives, leading to sin. We see that happen in Paul’s (Saul’s) early years.
In Acts 22, Paul is reviewing his life, pointing out to the mob who wants to kill him how he was once just like them. During those days Jesus antagonised him into violence (Ac 22:4). However, his ‘Damascus Road Experience’ changed everything (Ac 22:6-10). His certainty collapsed as he saw and heard the risen Jesus. Paul who claimed to love God, had actually been persecuting God’s king and people! All he could do was ask the Lord what his next step should be; the Lord sent him into Damascus, Syria. And he had to be led due to the blindness caused by seeing God’s glory (Ac 22:11). The blindness, however, was symbolic too of the state of his soul.
In Damascus, a man called Ananias helped Paul (v12: note how Paul emphasises Ananias’ Jewish respectability and devotion). In his speech Paul mentions five things Ananias did, starting with the miracle of healing Paul’s eyes (v13). That was a gracious gift, but it also spoke to Paul’s soul. He had learned and kept Israel’s laws zealously (Ph 3:6), but had never truly understood them. Had he done so, they would have exposed his sinful heart and left him ‘poor in sprit’ (Mt 5:3). God’s laws show up the brokenness of us and our world due to sin, and how sin ultimately leads to ruin. It is so important to see this. If we don’t, then we are living in a make-believe world; we are blind to reality. Sadly, that was exactly Paul’s state before meeting Jesus. But no longer!
Hence, secondly, Ananias could say to Paul that God had chosen him to know his will (v14). In the past Paul believed that as a law-abiding Jew, he was already chosen of God and doing his will. But Jesus exposed that he wasn’t. Paul, who claimed to believe in law and justice, unjustly and unlawfully attacked Jesus and his followers, who had done nothing wrong. Such moral pride can be a dangerous trait in any of us. Our living well in our own eyes can be easily blind us to our sin; it did in Paul. Jesus pointed this out bluntly when speaking with Pharisees who were very much like Paul, calling them to see the state of their hearts and not just their actions (Mt 23:23-28). Finally, on the road to Damascus, Paul began to do just that.
Which brings us to Ananias’ third point: God has now shown Paul the ‘righteous one’ (v14). He was talking about Jesus, whom Paul used to think of in the very opposite way. Once he saw Jesus as unrighteous: a law-breaker who deserved any punishment he received! Now, in the bright glory of his Damascus road encounter with the Lord, Paul saw that Jesus was the true law-keeper, the one who had been faithful to his word; Paul now knew that Jesus’ words had been true. This is the impact of meeting and hearing the risen Jesus. In our sin we become trapped in our own opinions, sure of our own rightness. But, like Paul, sin twists and distorts our judgement. Jesus highlighted this when he warned his disciples how wicked pride horribly damages our ability to judge (Lu 6:41,42). It does this so badly that whilst looking to see a speck in another’s eye (a fault in their life), we fail to notice a huge plank sticking out of our own (our proud spirit). To be of any genuine use, Jesus first has to humble us, as he did with Paul. But that meant that Paul was now ready to testify to what is true (v15) – Ananias’ fourth point to him. Which is why Paul knows he must stand before a bloodthirsty crowd in Jerusalem and make this speech.
So Paul, then, humbly calls the mob to see the reality about themselves and Jesus. Christians must speak the same way. We have to show up sin, but must do so with mercy in our voice and humility in our hearts, because the Lord has shown us our own corruption and granted mercy to us. This was Ananias’ final point to Paul: it’s time to wash away your sins (v16). Paul had long thought of himself as ‘clean’ – fit for God – due to his careful keeping of laws and rituals; he had washed many times in the right way. Yet his unjust, violent rage showed him still unclean. But now, through Jesus, he could truly be made clean. Obeying Jesus in baptism would see all his sins washed away. Not because Ananias’ bath was filled with special water, but because Paul would act in faith to receive what what we all need and what only Christ can give: true cleansing.