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The Spreading Flame - Series 2: Episode 6

Paul on the Damascus Road

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 9:1-19

On his way to persecute the Christians in Damascus, Saul has a very dramatic experience of the risen Jesus. He is blinded and shocked and waits three days for Ananias to come and baptise him, pray with him and confirm his calling. Both Ananias and Saul experience visions.

On his way to persecute the Christians in Damascus, Saul has a very dramatic experience of the risen Jesus. He is blinded and shocked and waits three days for Ananias to come and baptise him, pray with him and confirm his calling. Both Ananias and Saul experience visions.


Welcome back as we continue in Series 2. We’re now on Episode 6, and the story is developing as we see how the Church progresses from Jerusalem into the surrounding districts, Judea and Samaria - two of the main three districts in the country of Israel.

Background and Introduction

We’ve seen in the last episodes how the area of Samaria has had a huge impact from the Gospel, as Christians are being scattered from Jerusalem, as a result of the persecution. An evangelist called Philip has followed on and preached very effectively; he performed many miracles; and the Church has been spreading really fast. In the last episode, we saw that same Philip the evangelist, miraculously called by an angel to go in a different direction, south of the city of Jerusalem, to head on a road towards the city of Gaza. There he met an Ethiopian royal official, a civil servant, who came to Christ through evangelism on the road, was baptised, and went off to Ethiopia. That’s the context. Things are moving fast and it’s a dramatic story.

We end chapter 8 with Philip, this very gifted evangelist, going through the towns and cities on the Mediterranean coast of Israel, preaching in each place until he gets to the northern city of Caesarea. It’s a great story; everything is going incredibly well. There has been this terrible persecution but the story is very positive. There’s momentum for the Gospel moving forward.

Saul the Persecutor

In this episode, the story takes a dramatic turn. Something happens that is so remarkable that it is one of the principal events of the book of Acts. The story of what happens to a man called Saul or Paul, who we’ve met in a previous episode, is so significant that Luke recounts the story three times in the book of Acts. This is the first time, when he recounts the event in its original context. Let’s read the first few verses, Acts 9:1 - 2.

1 ‘Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the High Priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.’

Acts 9:1-2, NIV

‘Meanwhile’, is a very telling word; whilst this great story was happening of the Gospel spreading, at the very same time in the city of Jerusalem, things were very difficult for the remaining members of the church. This was because of the persecution that had broken out, which I described in earlier episodes. One of the ringleaders of this persecution, mentioned briefly when Stephen was martyred, is a man called Saul or Paul. Saul is his Hebrew Jewish name; Paul is his Greek name. This man, according to the information we have earlier, and in this passage, and as he retells the story again later, when you add the information together, suggests that Paul was conducting a systematic persecution of the church, by finding as many Christians as he could in their homes, and interviewing them to find information about where their friends - who were Christians - had gone; looking through their possessions and then following the leads in order to catch as many Christians as possible, and to either threaten them to be silent, or to imprison them. This is what Paul or Saul was doing at this very time. While the Church was expanding in Judea and Samaria, right there in Jerusalem, it was a really tough time for the church. On one occasion, according to Paul’s account, when he retells the story in Acts 22: 5, whilst interviewing some Christians in Jerusalem, he found some letters and information that they had fellow believers in the city of Damascus - a city that was about 250 km north east of Jerusalem; a major city at the time. He decided that he wanted to go to Damascus to find these believers and take them captive, to imprison them in Jerusalem. That’s the context of what he is doing here. He’s discussed it with the High Priest, Caiaphas the High Priest, and got permission to go on this journey. It appears that some Christians have fled to Damascus and Paul is out to find them. Paul made a decision that he was going to go to Damascus to find these Christians. This is the context of the story that we are going to read now, and the extraordinary events that happened at this time.

Damascus was a very important city, on a major trade route between the north and the south. Israel was in the centre of a major trade route which ran through both Damascus and Jerusalem areas. It was a big, bustling and commercial city. It was not a Jewish city. It was outside the land of Israel, although there was a Jewish population there. It was right on the eastern border of the Roman Empire, very near the end of Roman rule. This is where Paul went, on this occasion.

The Damascus Road

3 ‘As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” 7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.’

Acts 9:3-9, NIV

This event, on the Damascus road, has become a world famous event. It’s a key moment in the advance of Christianity. We can imagine Saul heading into the city of Damascus, not far away. The people he’s taken with him are probably Temple guards from Jerusalem - probably armed guards - because if they’re going to capture people and take them to prison, they’re going to need force to do that. He’s got an armed guard with him.

Something happens on that road - something divine. The light is a representation of the glory and the presence of God. Often the presence of God in the Bible is communicated to men and women in the form of an immeasurably powerful, bright light - brighter than any light that we know. Then a voice, the divine voice of Jesus - the risen Jesus -“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” What a shock to Saul, who was humbled by this confrontation. He couldn’t stay on his feet. He lost the ability to see for a temporary period. He was helpless suddenly. The man who was so powerful, now completely humbled. When you lose your sight suddenly, it’s a deeply humbling and fearful experience. He lost orientation. In fact, he went into a state of shock; he wasn’t even able to eat or drink. Something so profound had happened to him, that he could hardly believe what had happened and it completely contradicted everything he previously believed. He thought that the Christian story, the resurrection of Jesus, was complete nonsense and he was working to suppress it. Now, in this vision, Jesus appears to him, risen from the dead, in glory and in power, and shows Paul who he is, and challenges him.

The guards were very confused. They didn’t know what to make of what was going on. They stumbled into the city of Damascus, found somewhere to stay and waited to see what was going to happen next. Paul was unable to see. His sight didn’t come back straightaway. That evening the guards would be talking to Paul, and saying, “Can you see anything yet?” “No, I can’t see anything.” “Do you want something to eat?” “No, no, I can’t eat anything.” “Do you want something to drink?” “I don’t feel like drinking.” This is a state of shock, of somebody who’s had a divine encounter that was totally unexpected, and extraordinarily challenging because everything he stood for was crumbling; crumbling in his mind; crumbling in his heart and he had time to think painful and difficult thoughts about his life.


What was going to happen next? We introduce another very important character in the story.

10 ‘In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. 11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” 13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the Chief Priest to arrest all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” 17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Paul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.’

Acts 9:10-19, NIV

Ananias was an ordinary disciple. In Acts 22:12, we have another reference to Ananias and it appears that he had really good character. He was devout, committed, had come to faith in Jesus, and he was part of the church community that was just starting in Damascus. He had a vision; he had an encounter with the Lord Jesus speaking to him directly. Meanwhile, Saul had had another vision in which he had seen a man called Ananias coming. God was preparing the way for these two to meet, and for Ananias to be the instrument of moving Paul, from this difficult position that he was in, into connection with the Church, into baptism, into healing and into restoration. Ananias had a critical role but he hesitated, for an obvious reason. As soon as Jesus said to him, “The man you need to go and meet is Saul, Saul of Tarsus”, that put terror in his heart for a few moments because all the Christians knew the name of the arch persecutor. All over the districts where they’d scattered, they knew that if Saul came to town, you were in trouble. Saul was hunting people systematically, just like modern secret police and military regimes seek out the Church where there is active persecution. This is exactly what Saul was doing. He had the means to do it. He had armed guards; he had the authority of the Priest; he had money; he had permission; he had travel freedom. It was a risk for Ananias to obey this vision. What would happen if he got to Saul and found that it wasn’t true? There was Saul, with his arm guards. They would arrest him and take him back to Jerusalem. He had to believe the revelation, and overcome his fear in order to go to the house on Straight Street, right there in the city of Damascus, where he was instructed to go. He risked everything to obey the vision. The reason was that he ultimately trusted God. He trusted that these words were true. He was hugely impacted by the message that Jesus gave to him, which was that Saul had been chosen by God to be the number one communicator of the Christian faith in the whole region, not just amongst the Jews, but amongst all the non-Jewish people as well.

Here is the ultimate statement of the sovereignty of God. The arch persecutor becomes the number one communicator of the Gospel. The change is astonishing! Ananias, in a moment, caught a vision of how great this reality was. He went into the house and he spoke to Saul, and he addressed him as Brother Saul. In other words, he affirmed his faith. The term brother or sister in the New Testament always refers to a fellow believer. He addresses the major persecutor as a fellow believer, Brother Saul, and then he carries out his mission of mercy to Paul, to Saul. He helps him. He encourages him. He lays hands on him that he may be healed of this temporary blindness, and that he may be filled with the Spirit. He prays for him and he offers to baptise him in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and they did it there and then. It’s possible that other people may have gone with Ananias to this meeting with Saul; they’re not mentioned. We know that the guards would be there as witnesses and they would be completely confused now. What are they going to do? Their leader has now joined the other side and they’re 250 km away from home. But they fade out of sight. We don’t hear any more of them because the focus is on Saul, who, at this point, was at last, after three days, able to eat and drink and to regain his strength.

What had happened in his inner thoughts in those three days, I wonder? He’d been praying. We hear this from the passage here. He’d been converted. He had come to believe in Jesus. He had had three days to rethink his whole life. He’d had three days come in utter humility and repentance to the Lord Jesus in prayer and say, “I am truly sorry for the terrible things that I’ve done to your people. I’m truly sorry, Lord Jesus, that in persecuting your people, I’ve persecuted you” - the very words that Jesus used in his message, “You’re persecuting me.” Sometimes, in Christian history, we do have this extraordinary experience where people who were persecutors then become converted, and their repentance, and their shame, is an overwhelming emotional reality when they realise that to persecute a Christian, is to actually attack Jesus Christ personally. He had three days in which to humbly confess his sins, go through all the things he’d done, re-evaluate and just ask for help, “Lord, help me. What’s going to happen next?” He was in a position of total weakness and fragility and shock. But then came Ananias. What joy there must have been when he was baptised. Just imagine that situation. No doubt there were tears of joy on account of this astonishing miracle that had taken place a few days earlier, on the Damascus road.

Luke tells this story beautifully, and he’s going to retell it twice, through the words of Paul, when he is giving testimony to various rulers, later on in his life. More details emerge about this story in the subsequent retellings in chapters 22 and 26 and we’ll come to those further details when we return to this story in that context, and realise why it has been retold then. The story here is incredibly powerful because as soon as Saul becomes a believer, it has a tremendous impact on the persecution movement from Jerusalem. We’ll find more out about that in our next episode.


As we reflect on what we’ve learnt in this episode, let me talk about a few things that come to mind. First of all, in the history of the Church, there are always great turning points, when a single event causes a massive change in the fortunes of the Church, because God intervenes. This could be the time of an outbreak of a revival in a particular country. Or it could be, as in this case, the conversion of a key person who becomes a leader. This story is about conversion and calling, all rolled into one because Paul realised immediately, from the words of Ananias, and we’ll see more details of that in the subsequent retellings, that he has now got a job to do of enormous proportions. Turning points come for the Church, and the advance of the Kingdom, at certain points in the history of nations and movements. This is such a point.

If I think about the history of my own country, I can think of a turning point that had a massive impact. It took place on 24 May in 1738 where a man called John Westley, was in a church meeting in London. He felt his heart strangely warmed, as the Gospel was explained. Very shortly after that, he realised that he was called to be totally on the front foot of re-evangelising his own nation. From that day until his death, over 50 years later, he travelled relentlessly around the country. He travelled 250,000 miles, largely on horseback, sometimes on foot, and sometimes in a horse-drawn carriage, particularly in his later years. He organised the re-evangelisation of the whole of Britain and Ireland, and he travelled elsewhere too, hinging on a key moment with huge implications for this country, for many years after his death, and for other nations in the world. Such events may have taken place in your country, or you may be praying for such events to take place. You may be able to think of turning points for the Gospel in your history. If you can’t think of those right now, you can pray that such an event may happen, as happened to Saul because the Early Church in Jerusalem prayed for their persecutors and God reached out to Saul, and he was converted.

Let’s think too in reflection, not just of the great leaders, but of the ordinary disciples. There are two people in this story and they both matter. Let’s not forget Ananias. This story also tells us that ordinary Christians are very important in the service of God and the advance of the Kingdom. What would have happened if Ananias had said, “No, I’m not willing to do that”? A problem would have emerged. God is always looking for ordinary Christians who are willing to play their part, however insignificant. Ananias disappears from the story after this event but he’s important. God uses great leaders and he uses ordinary people. They need to work together in order for the Kingdom to advance. You may feel, “I’m that ordinary person”. Well, you can see yourself, I hope, in Ananias, in terms of character and availability. Just be available for the things that God wants you to do.

Paul reflected on this astonishing occasion in the book of 1 Corinthians. We’re going to end with a brief reflection on Paul’s thoughts about his calling. You see, in the New Testament, the word Apostle, primarily refers to those that Jesus called to be with him, to be witnesses of his resurrection, and to be founders of the Church with an unique authority. There were Twelve. To those Twelve were added a few more in the Early Church - people like Barnabas, he’s one of them and people like Jesus’ half-brother, James, who we see appear in this story, and we’ll talk more about him in a subsequent episode. Paul is one of these. The early Apostles were a unique and small group, unrepeatable in Church history - the foundational Apostles. They had to witness the resurrection in order to qualify. As Paul reflects on this in 1 Corinthians 15, this is how he describes the Damascus Road experience in the context of Jesus calling Apostles and revealing himself in his resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15:3 - 10:

3 ‘For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,(or Peter)and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the Apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 9 For I am the least of the Apostles and do not even deserve to be called an Apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am,’

1 Corinthians 15:3-10, NIV

Paul recognised here, in these moving words, that he was the last person to be called to that original group of Apostles. The timing was that he was one who was, sort of, born at the wrong time. He wasn’t someone who Jesus appeared to in that 40-day period that we described at the beginning of this series. It happened later. He was the very last person to be drawn into this early group, the founding Apostles of the Church. He was last and he was least because he didn’t deserve to be called an Apostle, because of all the terrible things he’d done.

“But by the grace of God I am what I am”.

God’s grace reached Paul with spectacular consequences for the growth of the Church, and much of the rest of the book of Acts tells us that story - a story that emanates from the Damascus Road conversion of Saul, who became Paul the Apostle. Thanks for joining us, and I hope you’ll join us again for the next episode

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What important turning points have there been in your life?
  • Discipleship
    1. As a leader or a regular member of church, what is your role?
    2. Recount your own conversion story.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Look at how the different senses are used in telling this story. What was seen, felt, heard, touched, smelt?
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