The Persecutor Sees a Great Light
SAUL was seething with rage at Jesus’ followers. Not content with the persecution already meted out to them in Jerusalem, including the stoning of Stephen, he now sought to extend the repression. “Still breathing threat and murder against the disciples [Saul] went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, in order that he might bring bound to Jerusalem any whom he found who belonged to The Way, both men and women.”—Acts 9:1, 2.
As Saul walked toward Damascus, he must have been contemplating how he could carry out his mandate most effectively. The authority granted him by the high priest would undoubtedly secure cooperation from the leaders of the large Jewish community in that city. Saul would seek their help.
Saul’s excitement must have been mounting as he neared his destination. The journey from Jerusalem to Damascus—a seven- or eight-day walk of some 140 miles [220 km]—had been taxing. Suddenly about midday, a light brighter than the sun flashed around Saul, and he fell to the ground. He heard a voice say to him in Hebrew: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? To keep kicking against the goads makes it hard for you.” “Who are you, Lord?,” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” came the reply. “Nevertheless, rise and stand on your feet. For to this end I have made myself visible to you, in order to choose you as an attendant and a witness both of things you have seen and things I shall make you see respecting me; while I deliver you from this people and from the nations, to whom I am sending you.” “What shall I do Lord?,” asked Saul. “Rise, go your way into Damascus, and there you will be told about everything it is appointed for you to do.”—Acts 9:3-6; 22:6-10; 26:13-17.
Those traveling with Saul heard a voice, but they did not see the speaker or understand what he said. Because of the brilliance of the light, when Saul arose he could not see and had to be led by the hand. “For three days he did not see anything, and he neither ate nor drank.”—Acts 9:7-9; 22:11.
Three Days of Meditation
Saul received hospitality from Judas, who lived on the street called Straight.* (Acts 9:11) This street—called the Darb al-Mustaqim in Arabic—is still a main thoroughfare in Damascus. Imagine what went through Saul’s mind while he was in the home of Judas. The experience had left Saul blind and shocked. Now there was time to meditate on its implications.
The persecutor was confronted with what he had dismissed as absurd. The impaled Lord Jesus Christ—condemned by the highest Jewish authority and ‘despised and avoided by men’—was alive. Why, he even stood approved at God’s right hand in “unapproachable light”! Jesus was the Messiah. Stephen and others were right. (Isaiah 53:3; Acts 7:56; 1 Timothy 6:16) Saul had been utterly wrong, for Jesus identified himself with the very ones whom Saul was persecuting! In the face of the evidence, how could Saul keep “kicking against the goads”? Even a stubborn bull is eventually prodded in the direction its owner wants. By refusing to cooperate with Jesus’ urgings, therefore, Saul would be hurting himself.
As the Messiah, Jesus could not have been condemned by God. Yet, Jehovah had allowed him to suffer the most ignominious of deaths and to fall under the Law’s sentence: “Something accursed of God is the one hung up.” (Deuteronomy 21:23) Jesus died while he hung on the torture stake. He was cursed, not for his own sins, since he had none, but for the sinfulness of mankind. Saul later explained: “All those who depend upon works of law are under a curse; for it is written: ‘Cursed is every one that does not continue in all the things written in the scroll of the Law in order to do them.’ Moreover, that by law no one is declared righteous with God is evident . . . Christ by purchase released us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse instead of us, because it is written: ‘Accursed is every man hanged upon a stake.’”—Galatians 3:10-13.
Jesus’ sacrifice had redemptive value. By accepting that sacrifice, Jehovah figuratively nailed the Law and its curse to the stake. On grasping that fact, Saul could esteem as “wisdom of God” the torture stake that was “to the Jews a cause for stumbling.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Colossians 2:14) So, then, if salvation was not to be had by works of law but through God’s exercise of undeserved kindness toward sinners like Saul himself, potentially it was open to those outside the Law. And it was to the Gentiles that Jesus was sending Saul.—Ephesians 3:3-7.
We cannot tell just how much of this Saul understood at the time of his conversion. Jesus was to speak to him again, perhaps more than once, about his mission to the nations. Moreover, several years passed before Saul set all of this down in writing under divine inspiration. (Acts 22:17-21; Galatians 1:15-18; 2:1, 2) However, mere days passed before Saul received further directions from his new Lord.
A Visit From Ananias
After appearing to Saul, Jesus also appeared to Ananias, telling him: “Go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man named Saul, from Tarsus. For, look! he is praying, and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands upon him that he might recover sight.”—Acts 9:11, 12.
Since Ananias knew of Saul, his surprise at Jesus’ words is understandable. He said: “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how many injurious things he did to your holy ones in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to put in bonds all those calling upon your name.” However, Jesus told Ananias: “Be on your way, because this man is a chosen vessel to me to bear my name to the nations as well as to kings and the sons of Israel.”—Acts 9:13-15.
Reassured, Ananias went to the address Jesus had given him. Upon finding and greeting Saul, Ananias laid his hands on him. “And immediately,” says the account, “there fell from [Saul’s] eyes what looked like scales, and he recovered sight.” Saul was now ready to listen. Ananias’ words confirmed what Saul probably had understood from the words of Jesus: “The God of our forefathers has chosen you to come to know his will and to see the righteous One and to hear the voice of his mouth, because you are to be a witness for him to all men of things you have seen and heard. And now why are you delaying? Rise, get baptized and wash your sins away by your calling upon his name.” The result? Saul “rose and was baptized, and he took food and gained strength.”—Acts 9:17-19; 22:12-16.
After fulfilling his commission, faithful Ananias disappeared from the scene as quickly as he entered it, and we are told no more about him. But Saul astonished all who heard him! The former persecutor, who came to Damascus to arrest Jesus’ disciples, began to preach in the synagogues and to prove that Jesus was the Christ.—Acts 9:20-22.
“Apostle to the Nations”
Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus halted the persecutor in his tracks. Realizing the Messiah’s identity, Saul could apply many concepts and prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures to Jesus. Awareness that Jesus had appeared to him and ‘laid hold on him’ and commissioned him as “apostle to the nations” profoundly transformed Saul’s life. (Philippians 3:12; Romans 11:13) Now as the apostle Paul, he had a privilege and authority that were to shape not only the rest of his days on earth but also the course of Christian history.
Years later, when Paul’s apostleship was disputed, he defended his authority by referring to his experience on the road to Damascus. “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?,” he asked. And after mentioning the resurrected Jesus’ appearances to others, Saul (Paul) stated: “Last of all he appeared also to me as if to one born prematurely.” (1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8) It was as if Saul, by his vision of Jesus’ heavenly glory, had been granted the honor of being born, or resurrected, to spirit life ahead of time.
Saul acknowledged his privilege and exerted himself to live up to it. “I am the least of the apostles, and I am not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the congregation of God,” he wrote. “But . . . [God’s] undeserved kindness that was toward me did not prove to be in vain, but I labored in excess of [all the other apostles].”—1 Corinthians 15:9, 10.
Perhaps like Saul you remember the time when you realized that to have God’s favor, you needed to modify long-held religious views. No doubt you were very grateful that Jehovah helped you to grasp the truth. When Saul saw the light and realized what was required of him, he did not hesitate to do it. And he kept on doing it with zeal and determination for the rest of his life on earth. What an excellent example for all who desire Jehovah’s favor today!
One scholar thinks that Judas may have been a leader of the local Jewish community or the proprietor of an inn for Jews.
[Picture on page 27]
The street called Straight in present-day Damascus
Photo by ROLOC Color Slides