5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” – Acts 9:5
15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” – Acts 9:15-16
Acts 9 continues the narrative of the persecution of Christians, starting from the stoning of Stephen, which Saul of Tarsus participated in. We have seen how persecution led to dispersion of Christians and the gospel to Samaria. The next part of the narrative shows us how persecution gave rise to the apostle to the Gentiles. The chief prosecutor surrendered to Christ and became the great apostle of the Gospel.
Saul (Saul in Hebrew; Paul in Roman) was single-minded in his zealous persecution of Christians. He volunteered to go to Damascus to sniff out and hunt down Jews who had converted to Christianity, to drag them to Jerusalem to be charged (according to the law in Deuteronomy 13:6-11). (Here, Christianity is called the Way, possibly named after what Jesus said about himself being the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Interestingly, Taoism is also literally translated as the Way.) Saul was clearly a man of conviction. What would this man be if only he would take his zeal and single-mindedness to serve Christ instead? We would see this later. Saul/Paul would become one of the greatest missionary apostles in the New Testament Church. What would we be if we take the personalities, the talents, the abilities, which God has placed in us to serve Him?
As Saul made his way to Damascus with his gang, a bright light and voice from heaven struck him. It was not just Saul who experienced it. People around him witnessed it too.
The voice of Jesus spoke to Saul at that moment, saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
Saul had been persecuting Christians. Jesus had already ascended. Why did Jesus say that Saul was persecuting him? Because Jesus identifies with His Church, not just as an abstract concept, but with each and every individual Christian. When the unbelieving Jews stoned Stephen, they were stoning Jesus. When Saul dragged out men and women from their homes, they were dragging out Jesus. Jesus is the head of the Church. The Church is the body of Christ. When we deal with the universal Church, we are dealing with Jesus. When we serve in our local church, we serve Jesus. When we love our fellow church members, we love Jesus. When we hate a Christian brother, we hate Jesus. How are we relating to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ? Are we relating to them as we would Jesus?
Now, Jesus called Saul by name. Twice. If you’re just walking at a mall, someone shouts “eh!” would you stop and respond? Maybe. But if someone shouts your name, shouting it twice, would you stop and respond? I bet you would. Not all of us would have the privilege of Saul’s experience. But then, not all of us were like Saul. So convicted and single-minded about his belief that Jesus is a lie, and that YHWH’s name whom he loved had to be preserved. Yet, Jesus called each of us for that we came to Him. Jesus called each of us in a way unique to who we are. Remember it and treasure it.
Saul spent the next 3 days blind, and without eating or drinking. When something like that happens, what would one do? Go party? Continue on one’s original plans? No. When we are struck by God, when Jesus speaks, we must stop and listen. We must fast and pray. We must meditate and reflect on what happened. That’s what Saul did. That was also what Zechariah did after he was struck mute in the temple (Luke 1). After Jesus was baptised and heard audibly the words of His Father affirming Him, He spent 40 days fasting in the desert. We must fast, pray, and meditate on what God has spoken.
In the meantime, God spoke to Ananias, a devout Christian in Damascus. He must have been a faithful Christian, because the moment Jesus called his name in a vision, he responded immediately without doubt, “Here I am Lord”.
If we want to hear God and be used by God for His purposes, we must be ever attentive to God, ever expectant to hear Him and to obey His word. We cannot read God’s word and assume that it’s just ordinary text. We cannot pray to God and assume all we hear is our own voice. We cannot go through each day assuming that it’s another ordinary day. We cannot go to bed every night assuming that it would be an uneventful time of rest. Instead, we must be always present before God. Always attentive to any sign that God’s hand is at work. Always nudging our souls to centre back on meditating on God. Always shifting our thoughts back to God after we have exercised our mind for our work.
Now Jesus told Ananias specific directions to find Saul, and lay hands on him so that he will regain his vision. Ananias was fearful of course because Saul was known as a severe persecutor of Christians.
15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” – Acts 9:15-16.
Jesus revealed to Ananias His plans for Saul. Truly, Jesus treated Ananias like a friend not a slave. Jesus said that He treats us like friends, revealing to us His purposes (John 15:15). If He treated us like slaves, He would just give commands and expect us to obey without any understanding. But also, Jesus must have told Ananias this so that he would convey this life calling to Saul. We would later see in the rest of Acts and the other epistles by Saul that he indeed fulfilled this calling.
It’s easy to see the life calling upon Saul as just the first part in verse 15, that is carry Jesus’ name to the Gentiles, kings, and the Jews. But the calling disclosed by Jesus includes the second part in verse 16, that is suffering for the sake of Jesus’ name.
The idea of a calling from God can be exciting. Yet, it’s not for the faint hearted. Obeying the calling of God can entail suffering for His sake. Are we only interested in the glamour? Are we also ready for the danger?
We may also wonder why God chose to use Ananias to pray for Saul, rather than just speak directly to Saul. And accompany such a meeting with the supernatural and spectacular (something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes!). In fact, this arrangement recurs later in Acts 10 when Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, received the gospel from apostle Peter. The who is sent and the one who receives both have a vision from God. This is not a point of doctrine but I think a point of wisdom. God in His wisdom must have known that if it was just the recipient who had a vision, and that there was no Christian witness to testify to the recipient’s encounter with Jesus, then that recipient may not be accepted by the other Christians. In the case of Saul, the Christians would not have believed that Saul truly encountered and believed in Jesus, because they may suspect he’s infiltrating them to persecute them. In the case of Cornelius, the Jewish Christians would probably not believe that the gospel is for Gentiles too. This modus operandi also shows us that God desires our partnership in His mission to bring people into His Kingdom. Sure, God can do that Himself. But He has chosen to have us participate and play key roles in His work.
The moment Saul was prayed for by Ananias, Saul got baptised. The encounter was sufficient to convict Saul of Jesus and to make him publicly declare of his faith in Jesus. Verse 20 says immediately, Saul proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues.
Clearly, Saul was a man of convictions. He did not fear that the non-Christian Jews would criticise or persecute him for his sudden change in allegiance. He did not start to doubt or waver about his encounter with Jesus. Once he knew that Jesus is the true Lord and Messiah, he straightaway got baptised and publicly proclaimed Jesus. He immediately identified with the church. And once he did that, he surrendered his personalities, talents and resources to be used by Jesus. Such that the Jews were confounded by his arguments proving that Jesus is the Messiah.
The chief prosecutor surrendered to Christ and became the great apostle of the Gospel. When we surrender to Christ, we are not defeated; we are exalted. When we surrender to Christ, we are not erased; we are raised.
What are we waiting for? If we believe in Jesus, what can hold us back from being baptised? What can hold us back from publicly declaring Jesus? What can hold us back from surrendering our personalities, talents, and resources to be used by Jesus?