And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? — Acts 9:3-4
Mosab Yousef was a young Palestinian who wanted to be a fighter. He was first arrested when he was ten years old. Before reaching his teen years, violence and terror had become so commonplace in his life that he was bored during the rare times when their town was quiet. Mosab wanted to be just like his father, a devout Muslim who was a founding leader of Hamas, a terrorist organization responsible for countless deadly attacks against Israel. As he grew older, Mosab began helping his father, and before he turned twenty-one, he had seen abject poverty, suffering, torture, and death.
While still in his early twenties, Mosab became an integral part of the Hamas organization, and was even imprisoned several times by the Israelis. However, doubts about Islam and Hamas began surfacing in his mind when he observed how Hamas used the lives of innocent civilians and children to achieve its goals.
One day as Mosab was walking past the Damascus Gate, a main entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem, he had an encounter that put him on a new path. After some casual conversation with a tourist from the United Kingdom, he was invited to a Bible study at the YMCA in West Jerusalem. Being a bit bored at the time, and somewhat curious about Christianity, he agreed to go.
Mosab was given a New Testament at that meeting. Because gifts are respected in the Arab culture, he decided to read it. He recounted, “I began at the beginning, and when I got to the Sermon on the Mount, I thought, Wow, this guy Jesus is really impressive! Everything he says is beautiful. I couldn’t put the Book down. Every verse seemed to touch a deep wound in my life. It was a very simple message, but somehow it had the power to heal my soul and give me hope.”(1) Thunderstruck by what he read, Mosab realized that this was what he had been searching for all his life. Jesus’ words made sense to him, and overwhelmed, he began to weep. He continued to read about Jesus and to pray, and eventually was secretly baptized in Tel Aviv by an unidentified Christian tourist.(2)
Mosab’s story brings to mind another encounter that took place near the same location. The conversion of Saul of Tarsus recorded in today’s text is one of the most significant events in the history of the Church.
The transformations of Saul and Mosab stand as potent testimonies to the love of God. They remind us that God finds people even when they are not looking for Him. No belief system, no past history, no political regime can block the hand of God from drawing seeking souls to Himself. Every conversion does not occur in a spectacular manner, but when an individual has an encounter with Jesus, and yields to Him, that person’s life will be changed. Like Saul and Mosab, that one will find a new purpose, a new path, and a new peace.
Today, let us give thanks to God again that He is still reaching out to all men everywhere, and saving souls. Nothing is impossible with God!
This text describes the conversion of Saul, later known as Paul. His testimony also is recorded in Acts 26:12-18, and referred to in 1 Corinthians 9:1 and 15:8. This emphasis is reasonable, as over half of the Book of Acts is a description of Paul’s activities, and he authored thirteen of the New Testament books (not including Hebrews, which many scholars attribute to him).
In the previous chapter, Acts 8:3 states that in Jerusalem, Saul “made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling [violently pulling] men and women committed them to prison.” In today’s passage, he purposed to expand his efforts to the Syrian city of Damascus. The phrase “breathing out threatenings and slaughter” in verse 1 portrays his hot anger against the believers.
The high priest mentioned in verse 1 was Caiaphas. In 1990, an ancient burial box (called an “ossuary”), was found in Jerusalem inscribed with the name of this high priest and positively dated to the era of Christ. These are the first physical remains to be identified of a specific person mentioned in the New Testament.
It is likely Saul and his companions traveled on foot. Damascus was 130 miles from Jerusalem, a journey of at least six days. Saul’s eagerness to make that trek shows how committed he was to his cause.
Jesus addressed Saul by name in verse 4. In Scripture, the repetition of a name emphasizes the importance of what will be said and indicates deep emotion (as in the “Martha, Martha” of Luke 10:41, and the “Jerusalem, Jerusalem” of Matthew 23:37). In Saul’s response, “Who art thou, Lord?” the word “Lord” was simply a title of respect similar to “Sir,” rather than an acknowledgement of divinity.
The statement, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (verse 5), alluded to the use of a goad — a long, extremely sharp stick used to move an ox in a certain direction. The hind legs of the ox were jabbed with this instrument until the animal cooperated. The inference was that Saul was only harming himself in his efforts because he was fighting against God.
The men with Saul fell to the earth with him (see Acts 26:14) but apparently arose to their feet while Saul continued to lie on the ground. They saw the brightness but did not see the Person of Jesus. In the original Greek, the difference in the verb forms for “heard” and “hearing” used in verses 4 and 7 indicate that Saul’s companions probably heard the sound of a voice but could not discern the words.
Ananias, whose name means “the Lord is gracious,” was not an Apostle, evangelist, elder of the church, or deacon — he was simply identified as “a certain disciple.” Though the command he received was startling and he initially protested, he ultimately obeyed and went to the humbled persecutor of believers.
The reference to the Christians in Jerusalem as “saints” (verse 13) is the first time in the Book of Acts this designation is given to the followers of Christ. The original Greek word, hagios, literally means “holy ones.” Paul’s later writings used this title forty times.
Immediately after his conversion, Saul “preached Christ in the synagogues” (verse 20). As a well-known rabbi who had been trained by Gamaliel (an esteemed doctor of Jewish law), he would have been a welcomed speaker. However, the fact that he was proclaiming the “heresy” he had violently opposed was startling to his hearers. The word proving in the phrase “proving that this is very Christ” (verse 22) means “joining together” and implies skillfully deducing or demonstrating.
Galatians 1:17-18 indicates that after his conversion, Saul spent three years in Arabia, the desert region southeast of Damascus. This period of time may have occurred between verses 22 and 23, or verses 25 and 26. Alternatively, his night escape described in verses 23-25 may have occurred shortly after his conversion, when the Pharisees first learned of his conversion.
Barnabas, who verified Saul’s testimony before the Apostles (verse 27), is first mentioned in Acts 4:36 as being among those who laid their possessions at the feet of the disciples.
Beginning at verse 32, the narrative of chapter 9 returns to Peter, describing two incidents in his ministry: the healing of Aeneas of the palsy (verses 33-35), and the raising of Dorcas from the dead (verses 36-42).
(Hannah’s Bible Outlines - Used by permission per WORDsearch)
III. The witness in Judea and Samaria
B. The witness to Saul (9:1-31)
1. The call to Saul (9:1-9)
2. The conversion of Saul (9:10-19)
a. Ananias’ dilemma (9:10-14)
b. Ananias’ instructions (9:15-16)
c. Ananias’ obedience (9:17-19)
3. The confession of Saul (9:20-22)
4. The conspiracy against Saul (9:23-31)
a. The plot (9:23-24)
b. The narrow escape (9:25)
c. The removal to Jerusalem (9:26-29)
d. The removal to Tarsus (9:30-31)
C. The witness of Peter
1. His witness at Lydda and Sharon (9:32-35)
2. His witness at Joppa
a. The raising of Dorcas (9:36-43)
God is still reaching out to seek and save those who will open their hearts to His truth, no matter what their upbringing, beliefs, or past history.
1 Mosab Hassan Yousef and Ron Brackin, Son of Hamas, United States: Tyndale House Publishers, 2011, pg. 122.
2 In 2007, Mosab Yousef left the West Bank for the United States, where he sought and eventually was granted political asylum. In August 2008, he publicly revealed his conversion to Christianity and renounced Hamas and the Arab leadership. In his book, he describes his agonizing separation from family and homeland, the dangerous decision to make public his newfound faith, and his belief that the Christian mandate to “love your enemies” is the only way to peace in the Middle East.