Sha’ul Turns from Murder to Messiah
Pilate’s rule as procurator in Judea ended
Sha’ul turns from murder to Messiah DIG: Sha’ul traveled 150 miles to Damascus in order to expand what started as a local persecution against believers in Jerusalem (8:1). What does that tell you about him? Sha’ul’s former teacher was Gamaliel (22:3). What had Gamaliel advised the Sanhedrin regarding believers in 5:34-39? How did Sha’ul respond to that advice? What does that say about him? How do you think Sha’ul felt when confronted by Yeshua? When he proceeded to preach about Messiah in the synagogue, how did they react? Why? The events of verses 23-28 probably happened two or three years after Sha’ul’s conversion (see Galatians 1:15-18). How has the Lord totally changed things for Sha’ul during that time? Why might the Yerushalayim disciples still fear him? What risk was Barnabas taking? People in Damascus and Jerusalem want to kill Sha’ul. What does that say about him? How is the story of Sha’ul related to 1:8?
REFLECT: How did the Lord first get your attention? Was it in some dramatic way like Sha’ul, or in a quieter, more natural way? What types of people do you assume are beyond God’s reach so that, if God spoke to you about them, you would question him? Be honest. How does this story challenge these assumptions? When have you, like Ananias, obeyed the Lord even when you had doubts about it? What happened? Who has played the role of Ananias in your life? To whom does the Lord want you to play that role? What challenges has knowing Jesus brought into your life? How have other people responded? Who has been a Barnabas to you? How? To whom have you served as a Barnabas?
At a young age, John Newton went to sea. Like most sailors of his day, he lived a life of rebellion and debauchery. For several years, he worked on slave ships, capturing slaves for sale to the plantations of the New World. He sank so low that at one point he became a slave himself, captive of another slave trader. Eventually, he became the captain of his own slave ship. The combination of a frightening storm at sea, coupled with his reading of Thomas a Kempis’ classic Imitation of Christ, planted the seeds that resulted in his conversion. He went on to become a leader in the evangelical movement in eighteenth-century England, along with such men as Charles Wesley, George Whitefield and William Wilberforce. On his tombstone is inscribed the following epitaph, written by Newton himself: “John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and Libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.” When he wrote the beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace,” he knew firsthand the truths that it proclaimed.191 Church history is filled with accounts like this, which highlight the wonderful power of the gospel to transform sinners. But no transformation is as remarkable, or has had such far-reaching implications for history, as the conversion of Sha’ul of Tarsus.192
After the interlude of Chapter 8, which describes the ministry of Philip and the salvation of the Samaritans, the scene shifts back to Jerusalem. Now Sha’ul, still breathing out threats and murder against the Lord’s disciples, went to [Caiaphas], the cohen gadol. He requested letters of introduction from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any men or women belonging to the Way, he might bring them as prisoners to Yerushalayim (9:1-2). Sha’ul was so incensed at the Messianic Community (8:1 and 26:11) that he was not satisfied merely to conduct his inquisitions and persecutions only in Jerusalem. Letters from the high priest would carry weight in the Diaspora. Under Roman rule the Sanhedrin did not have temporal power; but in internal Jewish matters it was honored even beyond the borders of Isra’el, for example, in Damascus, which had a large Jewish population.193
People belonging to the Way: Evidently this is how the early believers referred to themselves (19:9 and 23, 22:4, 24:14 and 22). In addition, this is the favorite name for the new faith in the book of Acts. The Greek word the Way has a Jewish origin behind it. In the TaNaKh it referred to a definition of life. Based upon Isaiah 40:3: the way of ADONAI, and Psalm 1:6 that contrasted the way of the righteous as over against the way of the wicked. So this was the Way, a clear definition of life, the Way of the Messiah specifically. Other Jews, in calling themselves Natzratim or the Nazarene sect (24:5), identified them as one Jewish sect among many; but the term the Way is a claim of Messianic Judaism. Indeed, Yeshua called Himself the Way (John 14:6).
The Conversion: The story of how Rabbi Sha’ul came to trust in Yeshua is told again in 22:5-16 and a third time in 26:13-18, each with varying details (see 26:13-18 on recording these differences). This is Luke’s way of emphasizing the importance of Sha’ul’s conversion and it actually ends up being eight percent of the entire book. As he was traveling, approaching Damascus to begin his carnage when suddenly a light from heaven, God’s Sh’khinah glory, flashed around him. Falling to the ground, he heard a voice.
The rabbis taught that when God speaks in heaven, “the daughter of His voice” the bat-kol, or an echo, is heard on earth. After the last of the prophets, it was considered that God provided the bat-kol to continue to give guidance to the people (Tractate Yoma 9b). How very interesting that the bat-kol testified after the last of the prophets and before the New Covenant was established, that Yeshua is indeed God’s Son. This is the first time since Messiah’s immersion (Matthew 3:17; Luke 3:22c), that the bat-kol was heard.
He heard and saw (see 22:17-18) a voice saying to him in Aramaic (to see link click Bf – Peter’s Vision: A closer look at visions or dreams): Sha’ul, Sha’ul. The repetition is emphatic, as elsewhere in Luke’s writings (Luke 10:41, 13:34, and 22:31). There is nothing in the narrative to suggest that Yeshua subsequently changed Sha’ul’s name. In Galatians 1:15-17, Sha’ul speaks of being set apart before birth to preach to the Goyim (Gentiles), but there is no mention of any name change.
Why are you persecuting Me? Now Sha’ul never directly persecuted Yeshua and is not mentioned in any of the four gospels. But in persecuting His children, Sha’ul was also persecuting the Messiah; to persecute the Body was to persecute the Head. It is hard for you to kick against the goads, or sharp pointed sticks (9:3-4 and 26:14)? The point is that it is fruitless for Sha’ul to resist ADONAI and what God has planned for him.
But this confused Sha’ul and he asked: Who are You, Sir? At that point he didn’t think he was persecuting a heavenly being. But Messiah gave him a big dose of reality when He said: I am Yeshua – whom you are persecuting (9:5). When Sha’ul heard those words, the light of truth was confirmed in his soul and the gospel became real to him. Having debated the Good News with Stephen, Yeshua, whom he believed to be dead, was obviously alive. Sha’ul’s resistance was crushed at that moment, and his heart, broken by repentance, was healed by faith (Philippians 3:4-11). For the rest of his life, Sha’ul could only offer one explanation to what had happened to him – he had seen the risen Lord Yeshua Messiah.
The genuineness of Sha’ul’s conversing immediately became evident. From Acts 22:10 we learn that he asked, “What shall I do, Lord?” His surrender was complete, as he humbly submitted himself to the Lord he had hated. Yeshua continued: But get up and go into the city of Damascus, and you will be told what you must do (9:6). This is the first of four times that Paul saw the Lord in a vision (here; 18:9-10; 22:17-21 and 23:11).
The men travelling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one (9:7). Here the word voice is used with a genitive, which means to hear a sound, but not to understand it. So his traveling companions did hear the voice, but they couldn’t make out the words. Only Sha’ul understood the words. Paul recounts the same incident in 22:9: Now those who were with me saw the light, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me. Here the Greek word for voice is used with an accusative. In that case it means they could make out the words but couldn’t understand what they meant.
Secondly, they did see the light, but they didn’t see anyone, but Sha’ul saw both the light and the One who was speaking. That meant he was qualified to be an apostle of the second category, that of seeing the resurrected Messiah. The first category was to have lived with and witnessed Messiah’s earthly ministry.
So sudden had been his placing of faith in Messiah that Sha’ul needed some time to reflect on the transformation of every aspect of his life. Sha’ul got up from the ground – but opening his eyes, he could see nothing because of the blinding light of the Sh’khinah glory. They led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. He for three days could not see, and was so shaken, he did not eat or drink (9:7-9). All he could do was to sit in blind silence. It was then that ADONAI led him through the process of reconstructing everything he was and everything he did. His entry into the city was very different than he had anticipated. Instead of barging in as the conquering hero, the scourge of the Way, he entered helplessly blinded, led by the hand.194
The contrition: While Sha’ul waited, blinded and fasting, reflecting on what had occurred, God was dealing with another man. Now there was a disciple named Ananias, the Greek form of the Hebrew name Hananyah, meaning ADONAI is gracious, in Damascus. He is described in 22:12 as a devout man according to the Torah, well-spoken of by all the Jewish people living there. He was one of the spiritual leaders of the Damascus Synagogue, and ironically, would have been one of Sha’ul’s main targets.
The Lord said to him: Ananias (see Bf – Peter’s Vision: A closer look at visions or dreams).
He said: Here I am, Lord (9:10). The Greek Idou ego (Here I am), corresponds to the Hebrew Hineni. Ananias joined a select company when he gave this answer expressing ready and expectant submission to God. Abraham answered, Hineni, when ADONAI told him to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1), and also when the Angel of Adonai told him not to lay a hand on the boy (Genesis 22:11). Moshe answered, Hineni, to God’s call from the burning bush (Exodus 3:4). Samuel did the same when YHVH first spoke to him (First Samuel 3:4-10), likewise Isaiah when the voice of Adonai asked: Who shall I send (Isaiah 6:8). Today, people can say Hineni to ADONAI by agreeing that He speaks through the Scriptures, repenting of their sins, accepting the LORD’s forgiveness through Yeshua’s death as atonement, and offering themselves to God unconditionally in obedient, holy service.195
The Lord said to him: Get up and go to the street called Straight (most streets in the ancient world were crooked, so this would have been easy to find), and ask in the house of Judah (who was probably an unbeliever and Sha’ul’s original place of residence while in Damascus before he was saved, but it seemed to be so well known that Ananias knew where he had to go) for someone from Tarsus named Saul. For look, he is praying; and even though he was blind, in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and laying his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight (9:11-12). That would have been a severe test of Ananias’ faith, since Sha’ul’s fearsome reputation was widely known. Ananias would have had no way of knowing of Sha’ul’s conversion, since the Lord did not reveal it to him. And as for Sha’ul, when Ananias showed up, it would authenticate that the vision he had received was clearly from ADONAI. Yeshua Messiah appeared to Sha’ul of Tarsus on two other occasions (Acts 18:9 and 23:11). There is no trustworthy evidence that He has appeared to anyone else since the close of the era of the apostles.
But Ananias protested, saying: Lord, I have heard from many about this man – how many evil things (26:10) he has done to your kedoshim (holy ones) in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the ruling cohanim to tie up all who call on Your name (9:13-14). News had come from many sources of the harm that he had already done in the City of David, and it had quickly become known why he had traveled to Damascus. The request no doubt seemed to him to be suicidal. His life and his ministry were at stake and he was asking if the Lord really meant to end them both.
But the Lord explained to him: Go, for he is a choice instrument to carry My name before Gentile nations and kings and Bnei-Yisrael (the sons of Isra’el). Then a warning in advance: For I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake (9:15-16). Sha’ul was called by God Himself (Galatians 1:1; First Timothy 2:7; Second Timothy 1:1). He also understood that the gospel was to be preached first to the Jews (13:14, 14:1, 17:1, 18:4, 19:8), although his primary calling was to minister to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13, 15:16). Further, he was privileged to bear witness to his Lord before kings, such as Agrippa (25:23ff), and most likely, Caesar (Second Tim 4:16-17).
Strengthened by the vision from the Lord, and overcoming his fears, Ananias left and entered into the house and greeted Sha’ul warmly. Laying hands on Sha’ul he said: Brother Sha’ul, the Lord – Yeshua, the One who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming – has sent me, so that you might regain your sight and be filled with the Ruach ha-Kodesh (9:17). Interestingly, Acts 9 does not mention that Sha’ul spoke in tongues (ie. languages) at that time. Yet later he told the Corinthians that he spoke in languages more than all of them (First Cor 14:18).
Sha’ul of Tarsus was well aware of the varieties of experiences that had happened to people as recorded in Acts. He was right in the middle of them. But in none of his letters did he ever hint that one must be saved first and then experience the immersion of the Spirit sometime later. The same is true in the writings of Jude, James and Peter. No apostle ever wrote or taught the charismatic or Pentecostal doctrine of subsequence (salvation first, and then a second experience of speaking in ecstatic utterances later down the road).196
The Spirit was already active in Sha’ul’s life, convicting him of sin (John 16:9), convincing him of the lordship of Yeshua Messiah (First Corinthians 12:3), converting him (John 3:5; Titus 3:5), placing him in the Body of Messiah, and indwelling him permanently (First Corinthians 12:13). Beyond all that, he was to be filled, or controlled, with the Ruach ha-Kodesh in a way that empowered him for service.197 Immediately, something like scales fell from Sha’ul’s eyes, and he regained his sight 9:18a).
There is no mention of a name change, and Yeshua is still calling him Sha’ul even after his encounter with the risen Lord on the Damascus road. So he is referred to as both Sha’ul and Paul. In fact, after his conversion experience, he is called Sha’ul eleven more times. Again, this would be odd if Jesus had changed his name to Paul.
At that point he left the house of Judas and remained for several days with the disciples in Damascus, allowing them to celebrate his conversion with him and minister to his needs. By that act he openly united with the very people he had hated and persecuted. His hated enemies became his friends, while his former friends instantly became his enemies (9:23). In keeping with the consistent pattern of believers’ testimonies in Acts, Rabbi Sha’ul was immersed following his conversion. Then Sha’ul enjoyed his first taste of fellowship in Messiah as he took food and was strengthened (9:18b-19). One can only imagine the overwhelming joy of those days and the continuous praise of God.
The conflicts: Immediately he began proclaiming Yeshua in the synagogues, saying: He is the Ben-Elohim. Paul’s message was all about Messiah! All those hearing him were beside themselves at the sudden change in Sha’ul the persecutor. They were saying: Isn’t this the one who made havoc in Jerusalem for all those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to bring them as prisoners before the ruling cohanim (9:20-21)?
Then we are given a short summary of Sha’ul’s stay in Damascus. Sha’ul kept growing stronger. Like Stephen before him, Sha’ul met the Jews in open debate about the deity and messiahship of Yeshua. And the more he preached, the more confounding the unbelieving Jewish people living in Damascus became by proving that Yeshua is the Messiah (9:22). The word for proving (Greek: sumbibazon means to knit together, hence by extension to teach) shows that he was bringing the passages of the TaNaKh together with what he knew about the life of Messiah, proving that He fulfilled the Scriptures.
Probably at this point, Sha’ul left for Arabia or Nabatea, in what is today Syria. At various times Damascus was the principle city of Nabatea. So Sha’ul merely went out into the Syrian countryside outside of Damascus. The inspired author did not choose to record this part of his life. But Paul himself tells us about what happened later: But when God – who set me apart from birth called me through His grace – was pleased to reveal His Son to me so I would proclaim Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with any human. I did not go up to Yerushalayim to those who were apostles before me, either. Instead I went away to Arabia (Galatians 1:15-17a). Sha’ul spent close to three years learning from ADONAI in the kingdom of Nabatean Arabia.
The conspiracies: When many days had passed, the three years Sha’ul had spent in Nabatean Arabia, he returned and began preaching again in Damascus (Galatians 1:17b) more powerfully than ever, which thoroughly frustrated the [non believing] Jews who plotted to kill him. This is the first of many conspiracies against Paul (Second Corinthians 11: 21b-27). But their plot became known to Sha’ul. We learn from Second Corinthians 11:32 that in addition to the [non-believing] Jews in Damascus, the mayor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize [Sha’ul]. Apparently during his three years in Arabia, he had thoroughly preached the gospel and had worn out his welcome there also. They were so united in their effort that they were secretly watching the gates day and night, to kill him. A wall surrounded the city and the only exit was through the gates, but his disciples took Sha’ul by night and let him down over the wall, lowering him in a large basket made of reeds (9:23-25).
Then after escaping from Damascus, Sha’ul went up to Yerushalayim to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days (see the commentary on Galatians As – Paul Meets Peter and James in Jerusalem) When Sha’ul arrived in Jerusalem for the first time since his salvation, he made repeated attempts to join up with [other believers] – but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was really saved. He must have seemed like the quintessential wolf in sheep’s clothing, now trying to destroy from within what he had previously tried to destroy from without (Galatians 1:18-20). He wanted to become a part of the Messianic Community in Tziyon. But fortunately for Sha’ul, Barnabas took him in and brought him to Peter and James, the head of Messiah’s Community there. He described to them how Sha’ul had seen the Lord on the road and the Lord had spoken to him, and how he had spoken boldly in the name of Yeshua in Damascus (9:26-27). With the highly respected Barnabas to vouch for him, Sha’ul was finally accepted.
So he finally gained acceptance, Sha’ul was with the apostles, going in and out in Yerushalayim for fifteen days (Galatians 1:18), speaking boldly to the Jews in Yerushalayim in the name of the Lord. Picking up where Stephen left off, he was also speaking and arguing with the [unbelieving] Hellenists, but they were trying to kill him. So Sha’ul did the same thing to the same group that Stephen did, but with different results. But Sha’ul discovered this plot in a vision at the Temple (Acts 22:17-21). When the brothers found out the plot, for his own safety they brought him down from Tziyon to the port of Caesarea with a protected escort. Then they sent him off to Tarsus (his home town in Cilicia populated by a half-a-million people) by ship for ten years so that other aspects of Sha’ul’s spiritual life could grow to match his zeal (9:28-30).
Therefore, Sha’ul disappeared from the scene for ten years. During that time, however, he was far from idle (Second Corinthians 12:1-4). Between this time and the time when Barnabas found him in the seaport of Tarsus and brought him to Antioch (11:2-26), he was aggressively doing what ADONAI had called him to do. According to Galatians 1:21, he went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. At least some of the churches of that region mentioned in Acts 15:23 must have been founded by him in those years.198
This is a transition statement that provides reasonable clues to the development of Luke’s material that follows, the shift in ministry to Judea, Galilee and Samaria. So Messiah’s community throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had shalom and was built up because the chief prosecutor, Sha’ul/Paul, had become a believer. The Messianic Community/Church had then spread to Galilee and Samaria, well outside of Tziyon. Walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Ruach ha-Kodesh, the Messianic Community/Church kept multiplying (9:31).
It is important to understand that the change in Sha’ul’s life wasn’t because of the prophecies in the TaNaKh, although he knew them well. He just didn’t believe them. If Sha’ul had gone to the cross after Yeshua’s death, that wouldn’t have changed his life. And even if Sha’ul had gone to Messiah’s empty tomb, that wouldn’t have changed him forever. Salvation is not knowing about Yeshua . . . it is knowing Yeshua. Sha’ul personally met Yeshua on the Damascus road and everything changed. He turned from murderer to worshiper of Messiah.
Lord Jesus, though You have sought and found us in various ways according to Your perfect will and knowledge, Your Spirit testifies together with our spirit that we are Your children, and if children, also heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:16-17). Far from being for our sakes alone, this causes us to praise You for Your glorious grace – the grace with which You have favored us in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:6). We who deserve so little have been lavished with Your love. How can I begin to thank You? 199