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What Did Paul See?

Acts 9:1–31

Luke describes the conversion of Saul (Paul) in three places in Acts of the Apostles — in chapters 9, 22 and 26 — and in each case the story is told differently. Many commentators in the past have looked at the three stories and tried to ‘add them together’ to find out ‘what really happened.’ But this ruins the effect on the reader intended by Luke. Acts 22 is written as a speech of Paul intended for Jewish hearers; Acts 26 is written as a speech of Paul intended for gentile hearers. Acts 9 is very different, and we will pay close intention to the way Luke portrays the conversion of Saul as this tells us a lot about Luke’s themes in his double work of Luke–Acts.

Luke introduces Saul into his account at Acts 7:58 where he witnesses the martyrdom of Stephen, and approves of it (8:1). Saul becomes the zealous persecutor of the Church in 8:1–3, going from house to house and not differentiating between men and women, but dragging all Christians off to prison.

The Lukan text changes dramatically now: in Acts 1:8, the disciples were told the Gospel would be preached to the ends of the earth, but so far it has not left Jerusalem, although apparently some years have passed. Now, however, the Gospel moves in all directions, and it is the direct result of the persecution by Saul. Philip goes to Samaria (8:4–13), and Peter and John follow him. While Saul is trying to lay hands on believers, Peter and John are laying hands on unbelievers and they are receiving the Holy Spirit in Samaria (8:15–17). Meanwhile, Philip heads South, baptising an Ethiopian on the Gaza road, and proclaiming the Gospel all the way up the coast (8:26–40). It seems somehow, mysteriously, to have also reached Damascus.

As Chapter 9 opens, Saul is depicted as being almost out of his mind in trying to stop the spread of the Gospel (for Luke, of course, nothing can stop its spread). Irrationally, although there are obviously still believers in Jerusalem and elsewhere, Saul rushes off to Damascus to find “any who might belong to the Way,” and presumably kidnap them, since the Jerusalem priesthood held no authority in Damascus.

Everyone loves this story of Saul on his way to Damascus. Perhaps it is the finesse that Jesus shows by tripping him up just as he is about to come to the end of his long journey. Perhaps it is the ease with which he brings Saul to the ground. Saul is surrounded by the light (v.3); there is no escape from it. Jesus as the light appears early in the gospel tradition (cf. Mark 4:21), and is a motif that is growing by the time Luke writes; it will come to its fullness in the Fourth Gospel.

Only now do we discover that Saul is not alone, but he is the only one who sees the light. Who are his companions? Are they only fellow travellers? Nevertheless, they are useless as witnesses as they see nothing and hear only a “sound” – for them, the great Saul apparently falls to the ground for no reason and begins talking to himself.

The words of the Voice are shocking — Saul is accused of persecuting him, the Voice, whereas Saul thought he was persecuting blasphemers. “The voice” knows Saul’s name (in a call like Moses’ (Exod 3:4) and Samuel’s (1 Sam 3:4)), but Saul does not know the name of the Voice, replying courteously and speaking his only words of this text: “Who are you, Sir?”

The great Saul is reduced to silence as he will speak no more until we find him later publicly answering his own question, “Who are you, Lord?” when he returns to Jerusalem as the great proclaimer of the Gospel in vv.26–30 (Kyrios means “Sir” or “Lord”). There he will effectively pick up the mantle from the Stephen he watched being martyred, the Church will flourish, free from persecution, and will spread further afield.

But at this moment in our text, Saul is reduced to silence (the only time in the New Testament!), and he is in darkness although he was surrounded by the Light.

A very strange thing happens in our text now. Rather than keeping our eyes on Saul for the three days he is blind (what is he doing? — we are not told), we are suddenly transported to the house of a believer we have never heard of, and will never hear of again, Ananias of Damascus. Why are we taken here by Luke?

The dialogue between Ananias and the Lord in vv.10–16 tells us, not only that there are already believers in Damascus, but ironically that they already know of the mission of Saul! How could any messenger have got there faster than the Saul who was “still breathing threats and murder” of v.1?

Ananias’ response to his call (“Here I am”) is like Isaiah’s (Isa 6:8), a model for disciples. Saul, the representative of the Jews, had not said, “Here I am.” When Ananias objects (v.13), the Lord tells him (v.15) that Saul is his chosen instrument to spread “my name” to the Gentiles, and surely there is a hushed anticipation by the readers of this story — at this moment the spread of the Gospel is totally dependent upon the response of this unknown disciple. Nothing will happen unless Ananias responds. Jesus has become totally dependent upon the ordinary believer for the spread of the Gospel

But, of course, this is what Luke has been telling us since the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary in Luke 1:26–31 — the Gospel will only be spread through the witness of people who are willing to respond. God’s grace is mediated through people, usually unknown people of no fame, and there is a sense of mystery in the way the Gospel spreads so quietly. It begins with Mary, but then, after the Ascension, becomes all the disciples, especially Peter, and then Paul. This is how the Gospel spreads to the ends of the earth.

Happily, Ananias is the model disciple. When he hears of Saul’s mission (one dear to the heart of all believers, surely), he immediately goes (fearlessly) to Saul. The Lord had told him to lay hands on Saul to heal his blindness, but Ananias does even more than — he immediately lays hand on Saul so that he may “be filled with the Holy Spirit.” The Lord did not need to tell him to do that — every disciple knows how necessary this is, and Ananias models for us what we are to do in bringing a person into the body of believers.

Saul has still not said a word. Indeed the whole focus of this narrative has not been upon Saul, but upon Ananias, the believer upon whom everything depends. When Saul’s sight returns, it is not Jesus he sees — it is Ananias. And it is in the seeing of the believer, filled with the Spirit, that Saul suddenly ‘sees.’ He sees that God works in power through the ordinary believer, and he sees what the Church is.

When Ananias had walked in on Saul, he first used a most important word — “Brother” (v.17). Saul has become a brother, that is, a member of the community of disciples that is the Church. Saul’s ‘seeing’ includes that realisation, as will be evident in his return to Jerusalem to join up with the disciples there (vv.26–30). Even in Damascus, he is described as working “with the disciples” (v.20). His recovery of strength even has Sacramental overtones: “He got up and was baptised, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.”

There is much irony to follow: in Saul’s ignominious escape from Damascus (v.25), in his inability to convince the Jerusalem disciples, and in his preaching the very Gospel he was so desperately trying to destroy. But throughout vv.20–28, one thing stands out — Saul has come to know the identity of The Voice. In these verses, he proclaims to the Jews that Jesus “is the Son of God” (v.20), and “the Messiah” (v.22). He preaches in Jerusalem “boldly in the name of Jesus … boldly in the name of the Lord” (v.27,28). He has answered his own question, “Who are you, Sir?”

This account of the conversion of Saul stands at the turning point of the story of the spread of the Gospel, and it is the presence of Jesus in the text that we are forced to notice. Jesus has apparently been absent since his Ascension in Acts 1:9, immediately after commissioning the disciples. Those disciples have been undergoing persecution ever since. Where has Jesus been?

With great finesse outside of the gates of Damascus, Jesus shows that he has been in control of events all the time, and would be present any time he is needed. From this moment on, the reader of this amazing story is assured that Jesus is present as the Gospel goes on to the ends of the earth.

Matthew’s community knew this:

“Remember, I am with you always, to the end of time”
(Matt 28:20)