(66) As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him – Acts 9:3

The central character of the second half of the book of Acts is Paul. Paul was an intelligent, passionate and courageous man who was brought up as a devout Jew and became a Pharisee, a teacher of the Old Testament law. He lived in Tarsus, a city in the Roman province of Cilicia (in present day Turkey) and didn’t meet Jesus during his lifetime but came to live in Jerusalem during the time of the early church. As a Pharisee, Paul was convinced that the growth of the early church was a bad thing. He thoughtthe disciples of Jesus who worshipped him as the Messiah were dangerous heretics and he set out to persecute them into silence.

We first come across him at the stoning of Stephen when he is called Saul, which was his original name. As the crowd stoned him Luke notes that, “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58) and that he approved of Stephen’s execution. Saul then took the lead in persecuting the church, dragging men and women from their homes and putting them in prison.

As the church spread so did the persecution and Saul set off for Damascus with the authority of the high priest to arrest “any there who belonged to the Way” (Acts 9:2) – this is what disciples of Jesus were known as at this time – and to bring them back to Jerusalem as prisoners. But near the end of his journey Saul had an encounter that dramatically changed the course of his life. ‘Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting, he replied”’ (Acts 9:3-5).

Saul was left blinded by this experience and had to be led by his companions – who had heard the voice but not seen anyone – into the city. For three days he was blind and so stunned that he neither ate nor drank.

A man called Ananias, one of the bit-part heroes of the Bible, was told by God to go and find Saul and pray for him to receive his sight. Ananias is naturally concerned at the thought of going to meet Saul given his reputation and tells God about his evil exploits (just in case God was not aware of this information!). God then tells him that Saul “is my chosen instrument to carry my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Ananias goes to see Saul, prays for him and he regains his sight. He was immediately baptised into the Way of Jesus.

Saul had clearly done some thinking during his three days of blindness, combining his deep knowledge of the Old Testament with what he had learned about Jesus because he immediately goes into the synagogues proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God. This completely bewildered the Jews in Damascus who were expecting him to come and arrest those who followed Jesus and after a short period of time they decided to kill him. Saul the persecutor had become Saul the persecuted and he had to escape from the city by being lowered down the city wall in a basket.

We still use the expression ‘a Damascus Road experience’ to refer to a sudden, life-changing experience. For Saul, it turned his whole thinking upside down and set his life on a completely different course. However, the transformation didn’t happen overnight and we know from his own writing that he then spent three years in Arabia (see Galatians 1:18) where he must have done a lot of rethinking about everything that he had learnt as well as praying about his future. After those years he returned to Jerusalem. The church, understandably, was very wary of him until a man that the apostles had nick-named Barnabas, meaning encourager, took Saul to the apostles so they could hear his story.

Without the bravery of Ananias and the encouragement of Barnabas, Paul might not have become such a key member of the early church and we might not have had his letters which make up a quarter of the New Testament. We do not know the impact that it may have when we encourage other people.

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