Acts 9 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Resources chevron-right Commentaries chevron-right Acts » Chapter 9 » exegesis

Paul's Conversion

The most important event in human history apart from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the conversion to Christianity of Saul of Tarsus. If Saul had remained a Jewish rabbi, we would be missing thirteen of twenty-seven books of the New Testament and Christianity's early major expansion to the Gentiles. Humanly speaking, without Paul Christianity would probably be of only antiquarian or arcane interest, like the Dead Sea Scrolls community or the Samaritans.Saul the Enemy (9:1-2)

With Old Testament imagery for anger--snorting through distended nostrils (Ps 18:8, 15)--Luke builds up the picture of Saul as a rampaging wild beast in his hateful opposition to the disciples of the Lord (compare Acts 8:3; Gal 1:13, 23). When the NIV renders "threats and murder" as murderous threats, something is lost of the reference to the two-part Jewish judicial process (Longenecker 1981:368) and the highlighting of Saul's violence (Lake and Cadbury 1979:99). Saul does not just make threats (compare Acts 4:17, 29); he helps bring about actual executions (8:1; 26:10). Aside from this initial note, Luke gives us no indication of Saul's inner thoughts and motives before, during or after his conversion (but see 7:54-8:1; 26:9-11; Rom 7:7-12; Gal 1:13, 14; Phil 3:4-11).

Saul takes action. He goes to Caiaphas (4:6) and receives letters of introduction to the synagogues in Damascus, some 140 miles northeast. He seeks to enlist their aid, or at least permission, to arrest any fugitive Hellenistic Jewish Christians and return them to Jerusalem for trial (22:5).

The hostility to Christianity of pre-Christian Saul presents both challenge and hope to any non-Christian. The hope is that if God can turn the fiercest opponent of the Lord into his most willing servant, he has the ability to save anyone. The challenge is not to be deceived by self-satisfaction. Saul was quite content with his life spiritually. But God's sovereign grace arrested him.Saul's Encounter with Christ (9:3-9)

As Saul travels to Damascus at midday, he experiences the divine presence: a light from heaven flashing around him and a voice addressing him (compare 7:31/Ex 3:4-10). The descent from Mt. Hermon to Damascus in the plain goes through a region known for violent electrical storms. Though this flashing light may have had the effects of lightning, however, it was a supernatural midday phenomenon.

Saul and his traveling companions see the light, but Saul sees more: the risen Lord Jesus in all his resplendent glory (9:17, 27; 22:14; 26:16; 1 Cor 9:1; 15:8). So overwhelming is the sight that Saul falls to the ground (compare Ezek 1:28; Dan 8:17). The sound or voice probably reminds him of the bat-qol ("daughter of the voice"), the way pious Jews believed God had directly communicated with human beings since the gift of prophecy had ceased with Malachi (Longenecker 1981:370). But the divine presence creates confusion for Saul, for if God is speaking with him, who is this heavenly figure addressing him?

The voice gives the divine perspective on Paul's activity. With a repeated address (compare Gen 22:11; Ex 3:4; 1 Sam 3:10; Lk 10:41; 22:31) the voice asks, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? Jesus identifies with his disciples, his body (see Lk 10:16; Acts 1:1; 9:1; 1 Cor 12:27; Eph 4:12). In doing so he reveals that Saul's teacher Gamaliel's worst fears have materialized (Acts 5:39).

Saul grapples with his dawning realization that his life, though lived in zeal for the one true God even to the point of persecuting the church, has in reality been one of "ignorance in unbelief" (1 Tim 1:13). Through the question "why?" he begins to see that in proving his commitment to God by persecuting the church, he has actually been proving himself an enemy of God. As Saul deeply considers that "why?" and accepts the divine perspective on his actions, his whole spiritual world will be turned upside down. What was gain will become loss (Phil 3:6-9). What was a badge of honor will become a lifelong shameful blot on his character (1 Cor 15:9; 1 Tim 1:13, 15).

Out of his confusion, Saul calls, Who are you, Lord? Is he simply addressing the heavenly being with respect (Marshall 1980:169), or is he for the first time confessing Jesus as his Lord (compare Rom 10:9-10; 1 Cor 12:3; Kistemaker 1990:332)? His inquiry about the person's identity may indicate the former. He receives a divine disclosure in the clear reply, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." Jesus of Nazareth is risen from the dead! Stephen was telling the truth when he bore witness to the Son of Man standing at God's right hand (Acts 7:56). Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior, the Lord (9:20, 28).

Immediately Jesus issues a divine demand that requires Saul's trust and obedience. In the city he will learn what he must do to fulfill God's purposes (compare 9:16; 14:22).

Saul's companions probably include a number of wayfarers banded together in a caravan for protection against the hazards of the journey, as well as temple police to aid Saul in his work (Lake and Cadbury 1979:101; Bruce 1988:185). At this encounter they stand speechless, hearing a voice or the sound of a voice but not understanding the words (9:7/22:9). They do not see Jesus, though they see the light (22:9).

Thus Saul's conversion experience is an objective event with third-party witnesses. It is also a very personal event. The witnesses do not participate in the theophany the way Saul does (compare Jn 12:29-30; Acts 7:56).

For Saul the physical effects are devastating. Getting up from the ground, he opens his eyes and discovers he is blind! Led by the hand (Judg 16:26; Tobit 11:16) into the city, he neither eats nor drinks for three days.

But the spiritual effects on Saul will last a lifetime. The spiritual significance of a Jewish rabbi's being physically blinded by the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ is not lost on Saul or Luke (2 Cor 4:4-6). Major themes in Luke-Acts are God's final salvation as a recovery of sight to the blind and as a light to the nations (Is 40:5/Lk 3:6; Is 61:1-2/Lk 4:18-19; Is 42:6/Lk 2:30-32; Is 49:6/Acts 13:47; compare 26:23; Lk 7:21-22; 18:35-43--last miracle before the cross; 14:21; Acts 26:18-23; Hamm 1990:68). The Jews, especially the rabbis, used the image "guide to the blind" to describe their God-given role among the Gentiles and the am haares (1 Enoch 105:1; Sibylline Oracles 3:194; Josephus Against Apion 2.41; Rom 2:19). As Saul meditates on the light during those three days of darkness, then, the greatness of the divinely promised final salvation available only in the last person he saw must become more and more clear and precious (Acts 26:18). And the role he is to play in becoming a light to the Gentiles must become increasingly evident (26:17).

What is Saul to make of his blindness? It is not a punishment (as Hamm 1990:70) nor an indication of divine disfavor (as Hedrick 1981:419) nor simply a concrete proof of the vision (as Haenchen 1971:323). An acted parable, it shows Saul the spiritual bankruptcy of his pre-Christian condition.

Saul's fast may be caused by the shock. Eye doctor John Bullock notes that the electrical shock from being struck by lightning causes violent muscular contractions; the throat can be so affected that it is hard to swallow (see notes for 9:8, 18). Or the fast may be a conscious act of penance for past sins (Haenchen 1971:323). The former seems more likely, since in 9:19, after his healing, Saul takes nourishment and is strengthened.

All conversion experiences are unique to the individual. What of Saul's experience does Luke intend us to take as normative? We should focus on the dynamic pattern of conversion, which includes a personal encounter with Jesus Christ via a witness to the gospel, a response of surrender in penitence and faith, and the reception of salvation blessings and incorporation into the church.Saul the Chosen Vessel (9:10-19)

In a vision the Lord speaks to Ananias, sending him on a mission to restore the new convert. The mission serves to preserve Paul's apostleship as by "revelation from Jesus Christ" (Gal 1:12), to bring him into the church, despite his notorious reputation, and to ensure that the Gentile mission will take place with the approval of the church (Acts 13:1-4; compare other visions that guide the church's advance: 10:3, 17; 16:9-10: 18:9-10).

Ananias, a resident of Damascus and a devout disciple (22:12), is part of a "double vision" divine encounter (9:12) in which both he and Paul are made aware of the next step. Ananias should proceed to the main east-west thoroughfare of Damascus, Straight Street. With great porches and gates at each end and colonnades for commerce running along each side, this fashionable address would be as well known in its day as Regent Street in London or Fifth Avenue in New York is today. He is to look for Saul of Tarsus in Judas's house. Tradition locates Saul's abode at the west end (Lake and Cadbury 1979:102). Saul is praying, probably in preparation for his restoration (compare 1:14).

To be converted means to move from self-centered independence to dependence on the Lord and interdependence with fellow disciples. Saul the convert needs the support and encouragement of the church. Today too the gospel witness should emphasize by word and deed that being born again is being born into the family of God, the church.

Ananias protests. He has misgivings grounded in the convert's past reputation. All the Lord has told him is that this Saul is blind and praying. When Ananias puts that together with the harm Saul has perpetrated against the saints (9:21; 26:10) in Jerusalem, he is not sure he wants the assignment. Besides, Saul's mission in Damascus, with the authority of the high priests (either Annas and Caiaphas [Kistemaker 1990:329] or the high-priestly families [Bruce 1990:238]), is to arrest all who call on [the Lord's] name. By negative example, at this point, Ananias teaches us that reluctant gospel messengers must not only love their enemies but also trust that the gospel has such redemptive power that a praying converted persecutor is a persecutor no more.

The Lord does not directly answer Ananias's misgivings; he simply repeats his command: "Go!" The sovereign Lord has spoken. That is all the rationale Ananias or we need. Yet in his mercy the Lord also tells Ananias Saul's new status as my chosen instrument (Jer 18:1-11; 2 Cor 4:7; 2 Tim 2:20-21), his new mission, to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel, and new relationship to persecution, to suffer for Jesus' name. These new realities mean Ananias has nothing to fear from Saul.

Though Paul later seems to practice a "to the Jews first" strategy (Rom 1:16; for example, Acts 13:5, 14, 46; 14:1; 16:13; 17:1, 10; 18:4; 19:8; 28:23-28), he will remain aware of his definite calling to the Gentiles (18:6; 22:21; 26:17, 20; also 13:46-47/Is 49:6). Suffering for the Lord Jesus' name will indeed be his portion (Acts 20:23-24; 21:11; 26:17; 2 Cor 11:23-27; Phil 1:12-14; 3:10; Col 1:24).

Every convert then and now needs to know "it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him" (Phil 1:29). This verse was used to charge inquirers in Russian churches in the days of active persecution under atheistic communism. New Christians must know that discipleship is purposeful and costly.

Ananias obeys and performs his ministry to Paul. Laying hands on Saul, he declares that he has been sent by the Lord Jesus so that Saul may see again and be filled with the Spirit (Acts 9:17). Saul's vision (v. 12) linked only the healing and the laying on of hands, consistent with other passages in Luke-Acts (Lk 4:40; 13:13; Acts 28:8). Ananias also seems to link it with Paul's being filled with the Spirit (Williams [1985:157] and Marshall [1980:172] say no). Saul's filling with the Spirit is not a delayed reception of the baptism of the Spirit as a salvation blessing, but is the first of many empowerments for apostolic witness (compare 13:9; also see 2:4; 4:8, 31). This is Paul's "Pentecost," further validating his apostleship.

Ananias ministers to Saul as a convert. He heals him--sight is regained as something like scales (film or scar tissue) falls from Saul's eyes. He instructs Saul, confirming that the Jesus whom Saul saw on the road is indeed the Lord. He comforts Saul, addressing him as a Christian brother. He baptizes Saul, formally incorporating him into the body of Christ. Finally Saul knows full physical restoration as he takes nourishment. In all, Ananias's ministry models for us the supportive, restorative role the church is to play in the lives of newly converted Christians.

Previous commentary:
Paul's Conversion and Early Ministry

Next commentary:
Paul's Witness in Damascus and Jerusalem

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.

Bible Gateway Recommends

Experiencing God's Presence
Experiencing God's Presence
Retail: $16.99
Our Price: $15.29
Save: $1.70 (10%)
Romans: A Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition
Romans: A Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition
Retail: $19.99
Our Price: $5.99
Save: $14.00 (70%)
Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, 4 Volumes
Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, 4 Volumes
Retail: $269.99
Our Price: $159.99
Save: $110.00 (41%)
5.0 of 5.0 stars