Summary: the light of the gospel impacted on Saul in a way that would lead in the end to the gospel being proclaimed all the way to Rome, to the centre of the Roman Empire, in fact in the Emperor’s palace itself.
It’s interesting to notice, as we read through these chapters of Acts, from 7 to 10, how there’s a theme of blindness and sight, so reminiscent of the words of Jesus at the end of John 9. [In fact let’s listen to them now.]
First Stephen retells the story of the Jewish people and the members of the council refuse to hear what he’s saying. Then in ch8 there’s the Samaritans and particularly the Ethiopian Eunuch who hear the gospel and instantly respond as though they’re suddenly seeing things clearly. In two weeks time we find Peter having his eyes opened as far as his understanding of the place of the Gentiles in God’s plan is concerned. And here in the middle is the most striking example: Paul, spiritually blind to start with, is struck blind physically by an encounter with the risen Christ then has his sight restored through the intervention of Ananias, previously one of his enemies.
There’s no doubt, as ch. 9 begins, that Saul is a dangerous opponent of Christianity. He’s not satisfied with instigating this great persecution in Jerusalem. Now that most of the Christians have fled he proposes to follow them as far as Damascus, to track them down and wipe them out. He makes sure that he’ll get the cooperation of the Damascus synagogues by getting letters from the high priest and then he sets out.
Later on in Acts (26:11) he describes his attitude at this moment as being in a raging fury. And this makes what happens all the more remarkable doesn’t it? There’s no way that Saul is temperamentally prepared for Christian conversion at this point. There haven’t been any bridge building efforts to bring him close to the point of decision making. He’s about as opposed to becoming a Christian as I guess it’s possible to be. He’s like a modern day Muslim living in Iran, or Sudan, or one of the Shiite extremists perhaps who have been taking hostages to try to get the foreign invaders out of Iraq.
But his great opposition to the Christian faith is also an opposition to Christ himself, as he soon discovers.
He’s going along the road, getting near Damascus when suddenly there’s a great blinding flash of light all around him. He’s so terrified he falls to the ground.
Then he hears a voice speaking to him. "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" "Who are you, Lord?" He asks. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." Hang on a minute! Isn’t Jesus dead? In any case how am I persecuting Jesus, even if he were risen from the dead as these Christians claim?
Here’s another one of those examples of the way that the acts of the apostles are in fact the ongoing works of Jesus. Not only are the things they say and the things they do the words and works of Jesus, performed by his followers in the power of the Holy Spirit, but also the things they suffer are things the Jesus Christ suffers. Paul isn’t just throwing Christians into prison. He’s persecuting Jesus himself. And suddenly he discovers that all that these Christians have been saying is true. Jesus is risen. He is alive. And he has a job for Saul to do.
I’m sure Saul had no idea at this stage just what would be involved in this task of his. All he knows is that he’s to go into the city and wait for further instructions. It’s a bit like "Mission Impossible" isn’t it? Except that there’s no explosion as the message self-destructs. He’s already had a blinding light.
Now I want you to notice that although he’s been doing incredible damage to the Church, there’s no hint of judgement in what Jesus says to him. He certainly asks him why he’s been persecuting him, but there’s no judgement implied. Rather the grace of the gospel is applied to him in a remarkable way. I guess it’s similar to the grace received by the criminal who was crucified with Jesus. All Saul has to do is to respond with faith to this call to follow him. And that’s what he does.
He’s led into Damascus where he spends three days fasting. He may be responding to what he’s just experienced, this revelation of God in Jesus Christ. This is what’s called a theophany. It’s what Moses and Elijah experienced. A miraculous vision of the living God. So his fast may simply be a response to that. Or it might be in preparation for a further revelation to come; for the revealing of God’s plan for his future. But whatever the reason, he spends 3 days fasting and praying, at the end of which he sees a vision of someone coming to his assistance to help him see again.