1. What the Lord does always far surpasses our imagination. The Lord added Saul (Paul) to the church. The Lord added the worst persecutor of all persecutors to a persecuted fellowship. The Lord added a character, who had oppressed down and killed, to a flock of people who had been oppressed and their peers killed. And he willed that they would worship the Lord together and preach the gospel together. This is the event we see in today's passage of scripture of Saul's conversion and baptism. We need to make a careful consideration of what this still means.
Saul The Persecutor
2. The man Saul first appeared in the story line at the scene in chapter seven where Stephen was massacred. The text reads that "The people shouting with loud voices plugged their ears with their hands, and aiming at Stephen they rushed him all together, and dragged him outside the city and began to throw stones at him. The witnesses placed at the feet of the young Saul the articles he was wearing," (verses fifty-seven and fifty-eight), and "Saul approved of Stephen's massacre," (8:1).
3. As far as in reading the description in chapter seven, Stephen's punishment by execution was clearly a lynching. It was not even near to being a legal execution. However, it is worthwhile to take note of what is written here in the text regarding "the witnesses." According to the way it is set in the law, the witnesses threw the first stones first. At least in form this meant that they committed Stephen's death by execution in a lawfully punitive manner. That way they could make a strong statement of their own righteousness and justice. The reason the Jews killed Stephen was not just because they got riled up. It was an execution rigidly based upon their justice [system].
4. There was this man named Saul who coldly watched over Stephen as he was struck by the stones, became bloodied, and then died, and Saul showed his approval to this. We think, "What a cruel act!" But, neither the man Saul nor the other people who cast the stones were bad persons or hooligans of any kind. Perhaps all the people who had been there were members of the high court of the Sanhedrin. [These men] were respected leaders. [These men] were righteous men who kept the law and valued order. This man named Saul was able to declare later in recounting his past that "In regard to the righteousness of the law I was spotless," (Philippians 3:6).
5. The really cruel people don't show up among the bad people in this world, but among the righteous people in the world. Rather than putting it like that, it may have been more accurate to say that truly cruel acts are possible in the name of righteousness. While a bad person sees his or her sins, yet he or she doesn't get used to his or her cruelty. This could be between two people who know each other or between one state and another. There is always some theoretical reasoning tied to righteousness in its own unique way whether it's bullying, murder, or war. When there is a theory of righteousness behind an act, a person does the cruel act without even noticing one's own barbarity.
6. Saul, who had agreed to the death of Stephen, began a thorough persecution of the church. "Furthermore, Saul pushed from one house to the next and desolated the church, without interrogating them he dragged off males and females and sent them to jail," (8:3), says the scripture. Then finally, he extended his hand of persecution as far as Damascus in Syria. Today's passage of scripture reads as follows, "So, Saul threatened the disciples of the Lord even more, entering with full intention to kill, he went to the high priest and sought a letter for the different meeting places of Damascus so that he might seize either male or female without questioning them, bind them, and run them back to Jerusalem upon finding anyone obedient to the Way," (verses one and two).
7. The persecuting of people is not fun. It requires the right mix of hard work. Not sparing any effort, Saul was ready to go up to Damascus. Regardless of the labor he would hurt and kill. Why would he do that? Because Saul believed he was serving God by his work of persecution. Because he believed that what he was doing was righteous in God's eyes and that God was pleased with it.
8. Generally speaking, not mattering whether it was for God or not, in his activity for righteousness, a marvelous joy went along with his feeling of anger toward his unrighteous enemies. No matter how barbaric it may have been or how senseless his behavior, a joy accompanied his activism for righteousness. So, people find meaning for their self existence. They are grasping for a feeling that is real, that [gives them] life. Thus, people are not put off by hard work. At times they just give their lives up for it.
9. But, God did not will for Saul to arrive in Damascus as a champion for righteousness. He did not permit him to go on as he did unchecked and burning with passion for righteousness. Christ put a block to his advancing hand [of persecution]. Christ knocked Saul down.
10. "However, as Saul traveled and when he drew near to Damascus, all of a sudden, a light from heaven shone around him. Saul fell to the earth and he heard a voice calling out to him, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' When he said, 'Lord, who are you?,' he answered, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Get up and go into town, after that, it will be made known to you what you should do.' Those traveling with him, even though they heard the voice, but seeing no one at all, stood [there] without saying a thing," (verses three through seven).
11. Paul fell down to the earth. When Paul stood up again, his eyes could not see. He was led by the hand by others and he started for Damascus. I don't think that the picture drawn here is simply a physical experience. [As a man] who believed he stood so solidly and never wavered, Paul got knocked down. Up to now he believed he had stood on the side of the righteous, he had condemned others and led them to death, but now he was the person getting knocked down flat. And the eyes that were blinded were the eyes of Paul who had believed that righteous things were plain to see in him. When Paul could not see a thing, he must have realized that his life up to that point had been cold black darkness.
12. Getting knocked down, going blind, getting placed into the darkness was not the end for him. He heard in it a voice calling to him, "Saul, Saul." It was the voice of Christ affirming Saul's existence, pardoning his sin, getting him to stand up again, and trying to give him his future. The Lord says to Saul, "Get up and go into town, after that, it will be made known to you what you should do." The Lord had prepared a future for Saul.
The Meeting Set Up By The Lord
13. Furthermore, the Lord appeared in a vision to another disciple named Ananias who was in Damascus. When the Lord called out "Ananias," Ananias replied, "Lord, here am I." Whereupon, the Lord commanded him something surprising, "Get up and go to the street called 'Straight Street' and visit a man from Tarsus, by the name of Saul who is in Judah's house. Now he is praying. He saw in a vision that a man named Ananias would come in and would place his hand on him and would grant his sight back to him like before," (verses eleven and twelve).
14. The two men meet in an unusual way. No one experiences things like that where two men meet in such a manner that one of them is designated in a dream. But, we certainly do have frequent times when we experience encounters that we never expected but that the Lord planned for us. And the encounters that the Lord sets up are not necessarily desirable as seen from the human perspective. It wasn't in the case of Ananias as Saul wasn't the most pleasant of fellows.
15. There were all kinds of reasons that Ananias should have rejected Saul. Ananias himself did not experience any of the persecution in Jerusalem. But, there were plenty enough people in Damascus who had fled out of Jerusalem. All around Ananias there were many who had friends killed or their peaceful lives attacked by this dreaded Saul. And this time around [Paul's] hand of persecution was about to extend to Ananias. Nobody would want to go to a man like that.
16. As you'd expect, Ananias did resist the Lord some. By explaining to the Lord what kind of person this Saul was, he expressed his discontent in this area of the Lord's leadership. But, the Lord told him to "go." The reason was simple. The Lord said, "This man is the vessel that I have chosen to speak my name to the Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel," (verse fifteen). Whatever his past, whatever kind of man he may be, he is the vessel the Lord has chosen. "I have chosen [him]." -- No other reason beyond this is given. That's enough.
17. Ananias proceeded on to Paul. Then he placed his hand upon him and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord, who appeared to me while you were coming here, has sent me so that your eyes will see just as they did before and so that you would be filled with the Holy Spirit," (verse seventeen). "Brother Saul" -- That's what Ananias called Saul the former persecutor. That's not because Ananias was particularly such a tolerant and generous person. It was only because he had accepted the word of the Lord. The Lord chose Saul, assigned a task to him and gave him unto the church. The Lord made Saul a true "brother" to Ananias, the truth of which, Ananias had accepted before his Lord.
18. Some scale like thing fell from Saul's eyes and he could see like he did before. Then the first thing he saw was a brother in the Lord. Saul got himself up, got baptized, and got added to the church of the Lord. In effect, it came to pass that a man who had done the persecuting was worshipping, serving and preaching the Lord with those who had been persecuted.
19. We mustn't forget that the Lord, who willed it and made this happen, is our Lord too. We mustn't forget that the early church where this all took place and our church today is the same church that takes the same Lord for its head.