As chapter 9 begins, Saul continues his persecution of Christians. Not content to root out Christianity in Jerusalem, Saul receives permission from the high priest to go to Damascus and bring back Jesus’ followers for trial in Jerusalem. Damascus is a city located 135 miles northeast of Jerusalem in the Roman province of Syria. John Polhill notes, in Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary, that
Damascus was an ancient city, dating back at least into the second millennium b.c. It was an oasis city on the border of the Arabian desert and along the main trade route linking Egypt and Mesopotamia. From 64 b.c. it had been under Roman influence and belonged to the association of ten Hellenistic cities known as the Decapolis. It had a large Jewish population, as is attested by the many Jews Josephus reported were killed there during the Jewish war with Rome.
As Saul nears Damascus at noon (Acts 22:6), a bright light shines on him and the other men traveling with him. Paul falls to the ground and hears a voice:
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” (Acts 9:4-6).
The men with him hear a voice, but see no one. Saul rises from the ground, but he is now blind. His companions take him into Damascus, and he stays at the house of a man called Judas on the main road (Straight) through the heart of the city. For three days he neither eats nor drinks, likely contemplating what Jesus said to him.
Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), writes that Jesus’ question to Saul
presupposes that Jesus is resurrected and alive (he is not in the grave), that he is in a close relationship with the people who embrace him as Messiah and Lord (he is not a messianic pretender), and that by persecuting Christians, Saul is actually persecuting the Lord and standing in the way of what God is accomplishing in fulfillment of Old Testament promises. What a shattering realization!
Darrell Bock adds, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament:
Jesus tells Saul that the persecution is really directed against himself, who is appearing to Saul as a heavenly glorious figure. Luke 10:16 indicates how serious a charge persecuting Jesus is. It means to be against God. Would Saul really want to challenge heaven? Larkin (1995: 139) sees a reminder of Gamaliel’s remarks in Acts 5:39 about which side God is on (also Williams 1990: 169).
In verse 10, a Christian named Ananias receives a vision of Jesus. In the vision, the Lord tells Ananias to go to Saul at Judas’ house and lay hands on him so that he can see again. Jesus has already given Saul a vision that Ananias would come to him.
Ananias, however, protests that Saul has done great harm to the church in Jerusalem. Jesus explains to Ananias, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16). Saul is to become a great missionary for the church, especially to Gentiles. Just as Saul persecuted Christians, he will suffer great persecution at the hands of his former Jewish allies.
Ananias obeys and goes to Saul. He lays hands on Saul and immediately Saul’s blindness is healed. Saul also receives the Holy Spirit and is baptized. Luke reports that Saul spends several days learning about Jesus from the Christians in Damascus. He then proclaims to the synagogues in Damascus that Jesus is the “Son of God.” Recall that synagogues “served as a central meeting place for local Jewish communities. The synagogue played a complementary role to the temple by providing a venue for local services of word and prayer, as well as a forum for communal assemblies, study, hospitality and even religious courts” (NIV Archaeological Study Bible).
What does Saul mean when he pronounces Jesus to be the “Son of God”? Clinton Arnold writes:
A central part of Saul’s teaching is declaring Jesus as the Son of God. This does not mean that Jesus is God’s Son in any sort of physical sense. The background of this phrase needs to be understood in its Old Testament context of God’s special relationship with the anointed king of Israel. The Lord had a unique relationship with David and promised him that one of his descendants would be king of Israel in the future, that he would have a glorious and eternal reign, and that he would enjoy a relationship of sonship to the Father: ‘I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son.’ To announce that Jesus is the Son of God is to proclaim the arrival of the anointed king (the ‘Messiah’) who will reign on the throne of David.
At some point in the future, probably during a second visit to Damascus, the Jewish authorities in Damascus plot to kill Saul. He discovers the plot and his disciples lower him in a basket down the city wall at night. Saul/Paul himself describes this incident in 2 Corinthians 11:32, although Paul places the blame primarily on the government authorities. Most likely, the Jews of Damascus and the government authorities both wanted him dead. His preaching undoubtedly was causing civil unrest among the Jewish population in Damascus.
Saul escapes Damascus and travels to Jerusalem. He attempts to join with the believers in the Jerusalem church, but they are afraid of him because of his former reputation. Barnabas, who Luke introduced in the Acts 4, takes Saul to the apostles and vouches for Saul’s conversion. The apostles accept Saul, and he is, therefore, accepted by all the believers in Jerusalem.
Saul then starts preaching in the Hellenist synagogues, just as Stephen had done years before. In a great twist of irony, the Hellenist Jews plot to kill Saul. Just a few years before, Saul had participated in the stoning of Stephen! The believers in Jerusalem learn of the plot and send Saul away before the Hellenists succeed. Ultimately, Saul returns to his hometown, Tarsus, in Cilicia. Clinton Arnold explains:
To go to Tarsus is to go home for Saul. He may have had family and friends living there since he spent his earliest years there before being sent to Jerusalem for his education. The extensive Jewish population of the area along with the many Gentile sympathizers to Judaism provide an ideal mission field for him to continue fulfilling his divinely given commission. He probably spends between three and four years in Tarsus and the neighboring cities of Cilicia before going to Antioch in 39 or 40 A.D.
After Saul leaves Jerusalem, Luke reports that persecution effectively ended for a time in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. The church lived in peace and multiplied.
Saul’s conversion is a major turning point in the early church. John Polhill explains its significance:
Paul the persecutor was stopped dead in his tracks on the Damascus road. The risen Jesus showed himself to Paul; and with this confirmation that the Christian claims were indeed true, Paul was completely turned from persecutor to witness. Only one category describes Paul’s experience, a category not uncommon in Acts. It was a miracle, the result of direct divine action. When all is said and done, both Acts and Paul give strikingly similar pictures of his conversion. Both speak of Paul’s former life as persecutor of the church (1 Cor 15:9), even use the same vocabulary to describe how he ‘ravaged it’ (Gal 1:13). Both speak of his intense zeal (Phil 3:6). Both place the conversion in Damascus (Gal 1:17). Both describe the experience as a vision of the risen Lord, a Christophany (1 Cor 15:8; 9:1; cf. 2 Cor 4:6). Both speak of his testifying to Christ as ‘God’s Son’ immediately after his conversion (Gal 1:16; Acts 9:20). For both it was a radical turning (Phil 3:6–7). For Paul and for Luke, a totally different man emerged from that vision of the risen Lord; and that is conversion.