The Zeal of the Lord
9:1Now Saul was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. He went to the high priest 2and requested letters from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3As he traveled and was nearing Damascus, a light from heaven suddenly flashed around him. 4Falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul said.
“I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting,” he replied. 6“But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the sound but seeing no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing. So they took him by the hand and led him into Damascus. 9He was unable to see for three days and did not eat or drink.
10There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias, and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.”
“Here I am, Lord,” he replied.
11“Get up and go to the street called Straight,” the Lord said to him, “to the house of Judas, and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, since he is praying there. 12In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and placing his hands on him so that he may regain his sight.”
13“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard from many people about this man, how much harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. 14And he has authority here from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
15But the Lord said to him, “Go, for this man is my chosen instrument to take my name to Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. 16I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
17Ananias went and entered the house. He placed his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road you were traveling, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
18At once something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized. 19And after taking some food, he regained his strength.
Saul was with the disciples in Damascus for some time. 20Immediately he began proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues: “He is the Son of God.”
21All who heard him were astounded and said, “Isn’t this the man in Jerusalem who was causing havoc for those who called on this name and came here for the purpose of taking them as prisoners to the chief priests?”
22But Saul grew stronger and kept confounding the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.
23After many days had passed, the Jews conspired to kill him, 24but Saul learned of their plot. So they were watching the gates day and night intending to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and lowered him in a large basket through an opening in the wall.
26When he arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, since they did not believe he was a disciple. 27Barnabas, however, took him and brought him to the apostles and explained to them how Saul had seen the Lord on the road and that the Lord had talked to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. 28Saul was coming and going with them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He conversed and debated with the Hellenistic Jews, but they tried to kill him. 30When the brothers found out, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
31So the church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.
(Act 9:1-31 CSB)
What happened to a Pharisee named Saul on the road to Damascus was the perhaps the most pivotal event in the early Church. Lest we miss the centrality of the Damascus road, Luke repeats the story three times in the book Acts; Acts 9 narrates an abbreviated version, and later Paul tells his story twice while addressing different audiences, filling in relevant details. While the tale is certainly dramatic, what makes it so significant?
The road to Damascus isn’t just about Saul’s conversion, it’s about his calling.
We hear this calling from Jesus Himself when He tells poor Ananias to pray over Saul: Go, for this man is my chosen instrument to take my name to Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.
I have often wondered what Ananias felt as he walked down Straight Street and knocked on the door. I used to imagine his fist pausing before the first knock, his voice low as he asked for Saul, hopeful he wasn’t there, but that’s not what I imagine anymore. Ananias raised his concerns, Jesus responded, and Ananias went in bold faith. This is the only time we meet Ananias, yet despite his fleeting appearance he fulfills a grand calling—to pray and anoint the one whom Jesus had chosen as the greatest evangelist in the history of the Church.
Have you ever wondered…why Saul?! He stood there, smug and self-righteous, as a mob brutally murdered Stephen, and then he initiated a campaign to drag others back to Jerusalem to face the same fate. As reprehensible and evil as those activities were, though, is was his (misguided) zeal for the Lord that motivated him. While jealousy and fear of losing power might have motivated the priests, Saul had no power—spiritual or political—to protect. He was all in for protecting the name of the Lord.
Saul was a Pharisee—a self-described “Pharisee of Pharisees.” Pharisees were a strict sect within Judaism zealous for the Law of the Lord (the Torah). Pharisees did not need to be priests or even from the tribe of Levi (the only tribe allowed to serve as priests and Temple ministers); they were Jews who learned Torah under a Teacher (called a Rabbi), debated Scripture, and then strictly adhered to Torah in hopes of hastening the Messiah’s appearance. (If you’re noticing similarities, you are correct—the way Jesus gathered, taught and discussed Scripture was in the Pharisee rabbinical tradition, which is why followers often called Him Rabbi). Pharisees knew Scripture, memorized Scripture, discussed Scripture, lived Scripture. Jesus criticized the Pharisees’ hypocrisy and legalism, but never their passion or knowledge. And Saul was the star student.
With Saul at the helm of the Gentile mission—the expansion of God’s people to non-Jews—no one would be able to say that these Jesus-followers didn’t take the Law & Prophets seriously or that they had abandoned the Jewish faith. Few people in all of Judaism at the time took Torah observance and the hope of the Messiah more seriously than Saul.
When Saul encounters Jesus on that Damascus road, everything and nothing changes. Nearly every scholar of Acts notes the parallels between Saul’s experience and Ezekiel’s vision in Ezekiel 1. Most of us cannot describe Ezekiel’s vision off-hand (it’s Ezekiel), but Saul absolutely knew every detail of angelic beings surrounding a movable throne, the glory of God all around, and just out of sight above the throne…Yahweh Himself. On the Damascus road, Saul saw Jesus, but Jesus wasn’t just standing in the middle of the road. I think (as do most scholars) that Saul saw Ezekiel’s vision in real life, and then saw what Ezekiel couldn’t: Saul saw the throne…and standing on right hand of God’s throne, he saw Jesus. Saul was a Pharisee training in Jerusalem, a process of years, so sure-shootin’ he had seen Jesus teaching in Jerusalem prior to the crucifixion; Saul might have witnessed his death, which was still less than a year prior. On the Damascus Road Saul sees this same Jesus, alive, and in the place of glory and honor and power. In the place of Yahweh.
There are things in life that, once we see them or hear them, change the way we see everything from that point on. Reality does not change—just the way we see it. This is Saul. His zeal for the Lord, commitment to Judaism, love of the Scripture—that’s still the same. But now he sees. Literal scales fall from his eyes. Every law, every prophecy, every psalm he now sees through the lens of Jesus. This is why he immediately transforms into an evangelist. He debates Scripture with any Jew he can find, proving Jesus is the promised Messiah.
While Saul does not need training in Scripture, it seems he might need some training in tact (which is true of the rest of his career, but he gets better!). Despite his 180 degree turn, Saul is still causing trouble for Christ-followers, because now Saul is the one angering the Jews. The Church is sure glad Saul is on their side, but they’re also glad when he’s not in their city! These initial threats to his life are a meager sampling of what Saul will face. Saul’s calling is not just to preach…it is also to suffer. That will come, but Saul will endure and triumph by what has always driven him: the zeal of the Lord.
Whew. Thanks for hanging with me through that. The last half of Acts centers on Saul’s—soon to be called Paul’s—mission to the Gentiles, so it is important to understand his calling, both to preach and to suffer.
Saul’s skill, knowledge, and zeal were ideal components for God to transform and use. In the entire history of Christianity, the manner in which Jesus called him and the mission to which God called him is entirely unique. God calling and commissioning His people to His work is not unique, though, and our callings do not have to be as grand or globe-encompassing to be essential. Ananias was called to pray for an enemy; it is his only role in the entire NT, but what a role it was! How has God equipped you? What does he long to transform through His lens? What have you dismissed because it seemed inconsequential? God calls and equips and uses all for His glory when we obey in faith.
Lord Jesus, give me ears to hear Your call and the faith to answer it. Whether it is to face death over and over as Paul did, or merely to knock on an enemy’s door as Ananias did, give me a passion and zeal for you that trumps all fear. Take the scales from my eyes so that I may see all things through the lens of Christ and of faith, and not my own limited and sometimes blind perspective. You are the only reality worth seeing. Amen.
We looked at the practical reasons Saul was ideally qualified to spearhead the mission to the Gentiles, but there is another element to Saul’s conversion I think you’ll love as much as I do: it was an answer to a specific prayer.
Stephen knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” After saying this, he died.
On that Damascus road, God granted Stephen’s last request. Saul had stood there and watched Stephen die, believing to his bones that Stephen’s death honored God. Stephen’s death did honor God, but it was Stephen’s self-sacrifice, not the Jews bludgeoning him to death, that glorified God. After God transforms the Apostle Paul’s understanding, he introduces thousands to Christ and establishes churches throughout the Roman Empire. He wrote a few letters, too, that have been helpful in teaching about Christ for two millennia. While Paul’s legacy is immeasurable, Paul is Stephen’s legacy—the innocent man forgiving his murderer.
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