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We continue our series through the Book of Acts, Jesus Saves. We’re particularly looking at the conversion accounts given to us in this book, which chronicles the beginning and initial spread of the early Church. We spent the last two weeks with the preacher Philip, as he went to the city of Samaria and established a Church there. Then he suddenly was called away to the south to meet a man on the Gaza Road and convert him to Christ. Today, we leave Philip as he goes to do his work elsewhere and we travel to another famous road, this time to the north–the Damascus Road. One of the most famous and powerful stories of conversion to Christ began along this ancient road. We meet a man feared by the early church, but who will soon become one of its greatest leaders and champions. Saul, who became the great apostle Paul. Read with me.
Acts 9:1-8, 17-18 Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one. Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.”
This is one of three occasions where either Luke or Paul himself recounts the story of Saul’s conversion. This account in Acts 9, and later told by Paul himself in Acts 22 after his arrest at the temple, then in Acts 26 as Paul stands before Agrippa. When we put these three accounts together, a powerful story emerges of how one of Christ’s greatest enemies became one of His most devoted disciples. Today, we’ll talk about Saul’s experience along the Damascus Road. We’ll pose the question, should we expect to have a Damascus Road experience today? Is that how people are saved today?
Saul of Tarsus was an angry man full of what he would consider righteous indignation. He was on a dreadful, merciless mission: to eradicate the Church of Christ from the face of this earth. He viewed the Church as an enemy of God and a threat to everything he believed and held dear in his life up to that time. Saul was a distinguished member of the Pharisee sect. He was an educated and pedigreed Jew, zealous for God and for the nation of Israel. He viewed anyone who challenged the traditions of the Pharisees or the law of Moses as a dangerous heretic. Anyone who followed Jesus Christ and dared to speak His name was a blasphemer and their movement must be put down.
This is how we find Saul as we turn to Acts 9. You recall he was introduced to us in Acts 7 as the angry mob was picking up the stones with which to kill Stephen after his fiery sermon.
Acts 7:58 “and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
When we next see Saul, he is going throughout the land seething with hatred for followers of this Christ and breathing out threats of imprisonment and death against them. He has gone to the high priest in Jerusalem to obtain letters that would now empower him go to the synagogue in Damascus way up to the north and arrest any that he found who were of the Way and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains to be punished. That’s who Saul of Tarsus was and that’s what he was doing.
But God had other plans for him. Little did Saul know that his world was about to be turned upside down when he left Jerusalem headed for Damascus. I want to pause right here to say that if God could make the kind of transformation in the life of Saul of Tarsus that He did, then He can make that kind of transformation in YOUR life. If God was interested in the salvation of a man who was doing the things that Saul of Tarsus was doing, my friend, I don’t care who you are or what kind of sin you’ve been involved in or how far down in the gutter you’ve gone, how opposed you may have been to the truth of God—the fact of the matter is, if God was interested in a man like Saul, God is interested in YOU. He’s interested in your soul and your salvation, and His gospel is powerful enough to save if you have room in your heart to repent of your sins. As we will see today, Saul did.
Saul was on the road to Damascus outside of the city at about noon when verse 3 tells us that suddenly, a light shone around him from heaven. Paul later says this about that light:
Acts 26:13 “at midday, O king, along the road I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and those who journeyed with me.”
He fell to the ground and heard a voice. It was the voice of Jesus.
Acts 26:14 “And when we all had fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me and saying in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’”
I want you to notice as he persecuted the Church, Jesus says you’re persecuting ME. When you despise the Church of the Lord Jesus, you’re despising the Lord Jesus Himself. When you abuse and neglect the Church of the Lord Jesus, you’re abusing and neglecting the Lord Himself. Saul asked at this point what I believe are the two greatest, most important questions that any person can ever ask.
Acts 9:5-6 “And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads. So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.””
Friend, you can never ask any question of anyone that will be of as great consequence as these two questions that Saul asked. Have you seriously and sincerely asked them? Who are you, Lord, and what do you want me to do? That really captures the theme of the last several studies that we’ve had here. First of all, who is Jesus? Where did He come from? What did He come to this earth to do? And then, what does Jesus want me to do? You cannot afford to NOT ask those two questions and you don’t want to ignore the answers. It’s not enough to ask what should I do because doing won’t save without knowing. It’s also not enough to ask who are you, Lord because knowing won’t save without doing. Saul asks both questions of Christ. Once he knew who Jesus truly was, his next question logically follows, what does this Jesus want me to do?
Up until this point, Saul didn’t know either one. He ignorantly opposed Christ because he didn’t understand who Jesus was. But now, in this great encounter and this revelation, he encounters the very presence and voice of Jesus on the Damascus Road. And He is alive. The crucified Jesus, whom Saul considered a fraud, a blasphemer, a heretic, a dangerous false prophet. The crucified Jesus who met His end on that Roman cross a few years before. Oh, His followers were claiming that He rose from the dead, but Saul didn’t believe that. He thought they were delusional or deceivers. But now, everything changes. Now he knows it wasn’t a lie. He himself knows that Jesus is alive. And if He is alive, that means that Jesus is who He claimed to be. He really is the Christ, the promised Messiah. The prophet, priest, and king that the old system and the Old Testament foreshadowed.
Friend, everything hinges upon the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus rose from the dead, then everything He claimed about Himself is true. You have to contend with the facts of the resurrection. Now, Saul comes face to face with the facts of the resurrection. When he now comes to realize that Jesus, whom he had opposed and denied, is indeed the risen Christ, now comes the crushing guilt of what he’d been doing. He had been reviling and opposing God Himself. He had been working against the plan of God and persecuting the Church of God. In that moment, when the light of heaven blinded him and the voice of Jesus spoke to him, his world came crashing down and all he could do was cry out in contrition, what do you want me to do? Friend, when you and I truly come to understand who Jesus is, that’s the only thing left for us to say as well.
Let’s stop and think about what Saul has just experienced. He saw a great light and he heard a voice from heaven—not just any voice, but the very voice of Jesus. He is convicted of his sins. This is a great experience that Saul had on the Damascus Road. Why did he have such an experience, a supernatural experience? And should sinners who come to Christ expect such an experience in the process today? Some people say that salvation can come in different ways Maybe a still, small voice through a very discreet, quiet process. Others claim that they’re saved through a Damascus Road kind of experience. There have been many claims of alike or similar experiences to what Saul had. You might hear someone say that they, too, saw a light or heard a voice, that Christ spoke to them. Or they had some sort of great vision. Usually, the testimony of such experiences is meant to corroborate that the person was saved in some kind of supernatural encounter. But is that what happened here to Saul?
First, notice that when Jesus spoke to Saul, others heard a voice at the same time.
Acts 9:7 “And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one.”
They heard a voice speaking, but they didn’t hear what was being said. Bible critics have long alleged a contradiction between Luke’s account here in Acts 9 and Paul’s later account in Acts 22 because Luke says that others heard the voice, but Paul says others did not hear the voice. Well, that’s not a contradiction. What it simply means is that they heard a voice speaking but they didn’t hear what was being said. They could certainly tell that someone was saying something, and it was a supernatural encounter. They could not see the person speaking. In other words, this was not some still, small voice whispering to Saul that he later made claims to others about. Saul had witnesses to the fact that someone spoke to him on the road. It’s strange to me that people claim that some special revelation came to them in the middle of the night in some soft whisper or feeling that swept over them and compare it to Saul’s experience. But here, all who were around Saul heard the voice as Christ spoke to him. The Bible says it left them all speechless. They were amazed.
But why did the Lord appear to Saul? Why did this encounter even happen? Why did He come to Saul on the Damascus Road and speak to him? Is that how the Lord saves people today? Is it how He saved people even then? The answer may surprise you, but the answer is no. We’re going to see in a moment that Saul was not saved on the road to Damascus. The events on the Damascus Road helped lead to Saul being saved, but he was yet in his sins when he left that place on the road. And Paul himself tells us why Christ appeared to him in this special revelation and it had nothing to do with the manner in which people are saved today. Let’s notice a few pertinent passages.
In Paul’s account in Acts 22, when Ananias came to him a few days later to restore his sight, he said this:
Acts 22:14-15 “Then he said, ‘The God of our fathers has chosen you that you should know His will, and see the Just One, and hear the voice of His mouth. For you will be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard.’”
Now, what’s that all about? Why was it necessary for Saul to see and hear the Just On–Jesus–directly? If you remember in Acts 1 after the defection and death of Judas, when the apostles were choosing Judas’s replacement, they noted that to be an apostle, one had to have been with the Lord (Acts 1:22). And the apostles had seen Him after His resurrection. Later, well after Paul’s conversion, when Paul writes to the Church at Corinth in I Corinthians 15, he says that Christ was raised from the dead. He then lists the occurrences of when Jesus appeared to the apostles.
1 Corinthians 15:7-9 “After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
Did you catch what Paul said? He said he was the last person to see Jesus after the resurrection. The other apostles saw Him immediately after His resurrection, including John, who later received The Revelation. But the fact is, Paul was the last apostle to see Jesus, the risen Lord. But Paul saw Him on the road to Damascus when Jesus made this unusual, one-of-a-kind appearance to Saul, and it was for the express purpose of making Paul the last one of His apostles—the apostle that He would especially dispatch to the Gentile world and the Gentile Church.
1 Corinthians 9:1 “Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?”
So, this was the reason that Christ reached Saul in the extraordinary way that He did. Christ is not making more apostles today. Not only that, but Saul was not saved on the road to Damascus anyway. The text bears that out. Christ appeared to him and Saul became convicted of his sinful state. He now realizes he’s been wrong. What did Saul then ask, and how did Jesus answer?
Acts 9:5-6 “And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.””
You see, Jesus didn’t tell him what he had to do. He sent him to wait in Damascus until someone came to him and told him what to do. Why is that? Remember what we learned last week.
2 Corinthians 4:7 “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.”
God commissioned men to preach the gospel and tell others what to do to be saved. Friend, no one is saved by Jesus speaking to them and telling them what to do to be saved. No one is saved through lights, voices, visions, feelings, or experiences. In fact, here is an axiomatic statement that is without exception in the New Testament after the Great Commission was given to the apostles: No one is saved but by hearing the gospel, believing the gospel, and obeying the gospel. It’s just as plain and simple as that.
Christ appeared and spoke to Saul in order to arrange a meeting with Ananias, who then came and told him what to do to be saved. And He qualified Saul for the office that he would hold after his conversion to be a chosen apostle or eyewitness of the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s what this experience on the Damascus Road was really all about.
Now, let’s follow Saul into the city. He’s blind after encountering Jesus. He’s led by the hand into Damascus into a house where he spends three days fasting and praying. One may say, if the experience of the Damascus Road didn’t get Saul saved, surely three days of fasting and praying did. The Bible doesn’t tell us anything about what Saul was praying for. We might could well imagine, but the Bible doesn’t say. These were three days of suspense as Saul is waiting for God’s man to come to him to answer his burning question that he posed to Christ, what will you have me to do? He has not heard the answer to that question yet. I’m sure he was anxious, confused, excited. We might can imagine what his prayers might’ve been like and how fervent they must’ve been. After all, Saul was already a devoutly pious and religious man, but keep in mind that while he is fasting and praying, he has still not heard what he is supposed to do. He is waiting to hear what to do. The answer did not come until after Ananias comes to him in the house of Judas.
We used to hear a lot about mourner’s benches and praying through; that one would seek salvation by praying sometimes for hours or even days or weeks until, finally, the light broke through and the person had some assurance that God had heard and answered their prayer and they had been gloriously saved. Nowadays, most people are simply told by preachers and revivalists that to be saved, you just quietly bow your head where you are and pray the sinner’s prayer. But there’s not one word in this story or any other story of the Book of Acts of a person simply verbally inviting Jesus into their heart by saying a prayer, or about praying through until salvation comes. It’s simply not there. Saul is just spending these days waiting for Ananias to come by praying. Notice what happens when Ananias comes.
Acts 9:17 “And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.””
Now, he had to be filled with the Holy Spirit in order to do the work of an apostle. That couldn’t happen until he first had his sins forgiven and entered into Christ, becoming a disciple himself.
Acts 9:18 “Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.”
Paul himself gives us an even more detailed account of what Ananias said when he came to him.
Acts 22:12-13 “Then a certain Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good testimony with all the Jews who dwelt there, came to me; and he stood and said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that same hour I looked up at him.”
Some people say that the fact that Ananias called Saul ‘brother Saul’ indicated that Saul was already saved, but if you go back and look at verse 5, it shows that Jews called one another ‘brethren’ upon their mutual Jewish heritage. That’s all that refers to.
Acts 22:14-16 “”Then he said, ‘The God of our fathers has chosen you that you should know His will, and see the Just One, and hear the voice of His mouth. For you will be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’”
There it is, my dear friend. Saul wanted to know, who are you, Lord? By this point, he already knows the answer to that question. Now the question is, what do you want me to do? Jesus tells him to go into the city and wait for one who will come and tell him what to do. Saul goes, he waits, and Ananias comes and commands him, arise, be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord. You see, until he was baptized, he was still in his sins and had not yet called on the name of the Lord for salvation. He heard, he believed, and now, he obeys the gospel. Just like every single person who would be saved must do, even today. Paul went forth and became one of the most devoted disciples that Jesus Christ has ever had and one of the greatest heralds of the crucified and risen Lord the world has ever known or ever will know.
And now, why are YOU waiting? That’s the question. Don’t wait for a Damascus Road experience. That was to make this man uniquely an apostle—the last apostle of Jesus Christ. Salvation came when he—now knowing who Jesus is—believed and obeyed what Ananias told him what the Lord required of him. So, I ask you again: why are you waiting? If you haven’t, you need to arise and be baptized and wash away your sins, and in so doing, call upon the name of the Lord.
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