Chapter 20: The Damascus Road experience—and beyond
1 Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
3 As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. 4 Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ 5 And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ Then the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 6 So he, trembling and astonished, said, ‘Lord, what do You want me to do?’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’ 7 And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one.
8 Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ 11 So the Lord said to him, ‘Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. 12 And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.’ 13 Then Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.’
15 But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.’ 17 And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’
18 Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized. 19 So when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus.
20 Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God.
Saul is stopped
Saul’s hates the blossoming Christian church. Armed with written authority from the high priests to the Damascus synagogue leaders, he pursues his murderous threats against Christ’s disciples. If found they will be bound and taken back to Jerusalem to face terrible consequences. He is in hot pursuit of them. But God is in hot pursuit of the pursuer! He stops him in his tracks.
Nearing Damascus, a brilliant light flashes around him from Heaven. He falls down. He hears a distinct voice: ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ is his spontaneous question, which the Lord replies to with: ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads’. Jesus knows that Saul’s conscience is being pierced and prodded by the Holy Spirit because of his sinful rebellion against Him and consequent cruelty to His people, just as an ox feels the sharpened point of the goad of its driver forcing it on when it pulls a plough or cart.1
Saul is told to go to the city and be told what to do. His travelling companions cannot speak. They hear the voice but see no speaker. They take Saul by the hand as he gets up from the ground, to lead him to Damascus. Saul’s eyes are open, but he cannot see. For three days he is without food and drink, and without sight.
Even with healthy physical eyes, Saul cannot ‘see’ spiritually because his understanding is blinded by his sin.2 He comes to realise later that his ‘understanding’ was ‘darkened’, and that he was ‘alienated from the life of God because of ignorance’ within him ‘because of the blindness of [his] heart’.3 The same was true of religious Nicodemus when Jesus insisted that he must be ‘born again’.4 Otherwise he would neither ‘see’ nor ‘enter the kingdom of God’.5 A sinner turning to Christ receives the Holy Spirit, enters God’s kingdom, and begins to understand God’s word. The result is a growing love for the Bible and a new desire to read and follow it. After his own conversion to Christ, John Newton, the former cruel slave trader wrote ‘I once was lost, but now am found: Was blind but now I see’.6 Saul, the proud Pharisee and persecutor of Christians opposes the only One who can save him, and give him eternal life and spiritual sight. That Person is the Lord Jesus Christ. Saul now feels deeply his own need.
Saul is saved
God speaks in a vision by name to Ananias, a Christian disciple in Damascus. His response shows his close walk with Christ: ‘Here I am, Lord’. He is available to serve the Lord Jesus. The Lord tells him where to go to find Saul praying. God has also told Saul in a vision that after Ananias comes and puts his hands on him, he will see. Ananias wavers. Instead of going to Judas’ house in Straight Street, Damascus he stupidly begins to tell the Almighty what He has ‘overlooked!’ Does He not know that Saul has been sent by the chief priests to seize and imprison Christians? He tells the Lord of his fear and concern ‘for all who call on Your name’.
The Lord simply tells him, ‘Go’, and reveals His great plans for Saul. The former arch-persecutor will suffer much for the name he once hated. He will carry Jesus’ name to Gentiles, kings and Israelites. God makes no mistakes!
Ananias gets the message! His wavering is over. He trusts and obeys his Lord. Off he goes to Judas’ house, enters it, and greets Saul as ‘Brother’. This warm-hearted Christian welcomes into God’s family a new babe in Christ—albeit a special one!
Jesus has sent him to bless Saul. As Ananias lays hands on Saul ‘something like scales’ fall from his open eyes, as God keeps His promise to fill him with the Holy Spirit. Saul is now baptised (presumably by Ananias). His new faith in Christ makes him a child of God and His obedient servant.7 Washed from his sins, he now gratefully begins a new life of ‘calling on the name of the Lord’, the Lord Jesus Christ.8 There is no other dramatic external evidence to others of his conversion. He does not immediately speak in another language.
After all, Ananias and Saul speak the same language. As the apostle Paul, he will later write to the believers in Corinth that ‘by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit’.9 To others he will stress, if ‘anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ he is not His’.10 Saul clearly belongs to Christ, has His Spirit, and is continually being filled with His Spirit.11 He is baptised into [meaning ‘placed into’] the body of Christ by the same Spirit as every other Christian who is part of the body of Christ, which we call the church. When a sinner trusts Christ for salvation, he receives all this—and a lot more too!
Saul is strengthened
Hungry and weak, Saul eats food and is ‘strengthened’. Christian love must be practical and hospitable. Here that love strengthens the new brother in Christ, welcomes him into family fellowship, and helps him grow spiritually. Until now, Saul was a stranger to Christian fellowship. Christians were his targets, not his family.
Now that changes. His New Testament letters demonstrate his love for his brothers and sisters in Christ. Look at Paul’s opening and closing greetings in his letters to see him often expressing this. He now spends time with the Damascus disciples, themselves new Christians. Fellowship, friendship and serving together now fashion his new relationships. A new Christian needs to worship with others on the Lord’s Day, and at other times. He must read and study the Bible and pray personally each day. He will grow and thrill when praying together with other disciples regularly at prayer meetings. Saul now joins with ‘the disciples at Damascus’.
He will need them, and their fellowship, friendship and support!
Saul is serving
The Jews in the synagogues (not just in one synagogue!) at Damascus know Saul has changed! Immediately, like Stephen in Samaria and the apostles, Saul preaches Christ wherever he goes. This includes sharing the gospel in the synagogues. The news that he is not persecuting Christians but is preaching Christ will get back quickly to Jerusalem’s chief priests. Saul’s new life is therefore already on a collision course with his previous colleagues and masters as he brings blessing through the gospel.
Just as the scales were taken away from his sightless eyes, they are also removed by the indwelling Holy Spirit from his once sin-darkened mind. He now proclaims to them all that Jesus Christ ‘is the Son of God’. His heart is not only made right by God’s grace: he seeks to get his understanding of God’s word right also. This is essential as he proclaims the truth of God’s word and who Jesus Christ is and what He has done for sinners. Jesus is the eternal and spotless Son of God who towers above, yet lives among, dying sinful men. As with Saul, we must make the Lord Jesus Christ the centre of our worship, our walk, our witness, and our work!
Questions on Chapter 20
The Damascus Road experience—and beyond—Acts 9:1–20
A. Describe what happened to Saul on the Damascus Road, as if you were talking to someone who had never heard of it.
Acts 9:1–9, Acts 22:6–16, Acts 26:12–18, 2 Corinthians 5:17, 1 Corinthians 15:8–9, Romans 10:13
B. What kind of man is Ananias? Describe his strengths and any weakness you can see. How important is it to care for other Christians?
Acts 9:10–20, Ephesians 1:15–16, Colossians 1:3–4, Philemon 1:5–7, Hebrews 6:10
C. Consider the words of the Lord Jesus in this passage. What do you learn about the Him and His teaching from these verses?
Acts 9:4–6, Acts 9:10–17, John 10:3, Matthew 28:19–20, Matthew 7:7, Philippians 1:29, Philippians 4:12
- A goad is a spiked stick used for driving cattle. As the goad prods the cattle, so Paul’s conscience prods him. ↩
- 2 Corinthians 3:14–15, 2 Corinthians 4:3–4 ↩
- Ephesians 4:18 ↩
- John 3:7, John 3:3—born again is used in all reliable translations. ↩
- John 3:3—‘see the kingdom of God’ here means to understand how to enter God’s kingdom of forgiven sinners. John 3:5—to ‘enter the kingdom of God’ means by personal faith in Jesus Christ to come to know Him as your Saviour and as your King. ↩
- In his ever popular hymn Amazing Grace. ↩
- John 1:12 ↩
- Acts 22:16 ↩
- 1 Corinthians 12:13 ↩
- Romans 8:9 ↩
- Ephesians 5:18 ↩