We have come a long way in our study of the events and nature of the Jerusalem church and the Great Commission. Take a moment to reflect. The entire first eight chapters of the Book of Acts has been set in Israel’s promises, expecting the Tribulation and the coming of the Millennial Kingdom and Christ the King. Where Gentiles have benefited, it has been through Israel, by becoming proselytes to Judaism or by the outworking of the Great Commission in the hands of the twelve apostles, to whom had been promised rule over Israel on twelve thrones in the new Kingdom.
But Israel’s obstinacy against Jesus of Nazareth being the Messiah is about to trigger the beginning of a plan by which God will bless Gentiles directly, in spite of Israel! By God’s orchestration, all of the players are now in place, especially one young man, Saul of Tarsus. He is, in his own estimation and that of many others, at the top of his game. He’s about to be taken down more than a few notches!
There is a wealth of information about the event we are about to study, both from Luke and from the Apostle Paul himself. In this blog post we’ll observe the facts as recorded by Luke, and in the following posts will turn to Paul’s own description of this event (some recorded by Luke as Paul spoke, others from the pen of Paul himself).
To begin, please read Acts 9:1-31 for yourself carefully. In this post we’ll focus on Acts 9, verses 1 through 6.
The Lord Appears to Paul
Luke’s record is straightforward. Saul is still hunting down believers. He asked the High Priest for documents that would empower him to carry out his persecution in the synagogues at Damascus, about 130 miles NNE of Jerusalem in Syria, well outside Israel. His intent was to bring them back to Jerusalem as prisoners. This intent raises an interesting question. Why would there be any who “belong to the Way” (v2) so far from Jerusalem, in an area far beyond Judea and even Samaria? It’s almost as if there was a “church” in Damascus at the same time that the church in Jerusalem was just beginning! Certainly news of the events in Jerusalem at the time of the most recent Passover would have traveled there, and some devout Jews from Damascus might even have been present in Jerusalem as they transpired. But it seems unlikely that they would have been organized or of any significant number. The most plausible explanation is that Saul’s persecution of the church in Jerusalem, as part of a larger persecution under the High Council who had murdered Stephen, was so intense that it drove some of the believers this far in order to escape it.
As Saul’s party neared Damascus, he was suddenly hit by brilliantly blinding light from overhead! And “hit” he was, for this light was so intense that it caused him to fall to the ground. This was no ordinary light! This light has always intrigued my scientific mind. Of course, God is described as pure light (I John 1:5). Old Testament people knew that seeing God would be instant death. That’s why God covered Moses with His hand as He passed by the crack in the rock where He had placed Moses for his own safety. From a thermodynamics standpoint, any object placed near a source of light will absorb that light’s energy and its temperature will rise. Even a chrome-plated wrench, when left out in full sun for even a few minutes, will grow too hot to handle, even though it reflects away about 99% of the light that hits it. Consider then what would happen should a dull-surfaced human being be placed before the pure Light of the Person of God! Instant, total vaporization, without time even to sizzle momentarily! Scientists understand that a beam of light can act like a stream of tiny bullets (called “photons”), and when they hit a surface they can drive it forward. Perhaps you’ve seen the little glass globes with the four paddles inside at a museum gift shop. Shine a flashlight on it from the side, and the paddles go round and round like a windmill. Light can exert pressure! It’s only conjecture, but was this light strong enough to knock Saul to the ground?
While on the ground, Saul heard a voice. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Although not a joking matter in the least, it must have hit Saul something like the joke about what 800-pound gorillas eat! (A-n-y-t-h-i-n-g they want to!) The question must have confused him. Who was he persecuting that was this powerful? It couldn’t be that carpenter from Nazareth, that scum who got what he deserved on a cross, that these idiots claimed had come back from the grave. There was nothing to it! So who could this be? Whoever it is, they are powerful, and must be a great ruler.
Paul replies, “Who are you, Lord?” We must observe carefully here. Did Paul know who it was before he asked, was he just playing with this powerful being? No, for this person answers his question — He is Jesus! What, then, did Saul mean by addressing him as “Lord”? The Greek word is kurios, and is a standard form of address when in the presence of any authority figure, much as we address magistrates as “Your Honor.” Interestingly, the Greek language has two words for powerful authorities, this one, and despotes. While they both are authorities, one is benevolent and the other is evil. Can you tell which is which? Yes, we get “despot” from despotes.
What caused Saul to identify this being as a powerful good authority? Perhaps he knew instrinsically that light was good, and that darkness was evil. It’s interesting that Paul uses this same word over and over in his letters to the churches to refer to Jesus Christ. To Paul and to us, this Jesus had become more that the man from Nazareth. He was forever after this same powerful good authority that spoke to him in light on the road to Damascus. I believe it caused him to write to the Corinthians later that “even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him thus no longer.” (II Corinthians 5:16) The Twelve would always remember Him as they knew Him during His earthly ministry and as He ascended. Saul would always remember Him as he first saw Him on the road to Damascus, surrounded in unapproachable but benevolent light.
This One who he was persecuting, after identifying Himself, further instructed Saul to proceed into Damascus and wait to be told what he had to do. Do you remember what Jesus, just before He ascended, told His disciples to do? They were to go back to Jerusalem, unanswered questions and all, and wait. On the very heels of those instructions, Jesus commissioned them with what we call the Great Commission. Here we have a parallel scene, where the already-ascended and glorified Lord Jesus Christ is directly commissioning another apostle. The details of that commission wouldn’t be revealed to him for three days, and then only through the voice of the reluctant servant of the Lord, Ananias. It is assumed by many that Paul was just another apostle operating under the same training and commission as the Twelve (the Great Commission), and that he had learned his message from them. Hence Paul’s message must be the same message as that of the Twelve. But if that was true, Paul and his ministry would have been redundant, and Paul would have been only an underling to Peter’s leadership. But in his letter to the Galatians Paul demonstrates that he saw his commission as equal to that of Peter’s, but different. “But on the contrary, seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised (for He who effectually worked for Peter in apostleship to the circumcised effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles)… (Galatians 2:7-8)
In the same letter Paul also addressed the mistaken notion that his knowledge of the Gospel had been learned from any man, let alone the other apostles: “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man, for I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ… But when He who had set me apart, even from my mother’s womb, and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me…” (Galatians 1:11-12, 15-17) Take careful note! If he did not learn it from Peter and the Twelve, who were certainly available to him, then Our Lord must have had something else in mind. It’s my strong belief that the message and commission He gave to Paul differed from that given to Peter and the Twelve in important ways. And the instructions Paul received three days later through Ananias distinctly omitted any suggestion that he should return to Jerusalem to receive his understanding and message, as we will see in the next post.
Just before these verses in Galatians, Paul says twice for emphasis that if anyone preaches to them a different message from what he delivered to them, they are accursed. Strong language. But Paul understood from those first three days in Damascus that God was sending him directly to the Gentiles, not through Israel nor her apostles nor her prophetic program and earthly Kingdom.
God has revealed the mystery at this point in Luke’s narrative, at least to Paul. I believe that God raised up Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, not because the apostles in Jerusalem needed the help, or even because the Twelve were not doing their job (they were doing exactly what Christ expected them to do), but because of Israel’s obstinate unbelief. God has taken the first step in setting Israel aside temporarily. But there is much work to be done so that the other apostles will accept Paul’s authority and commission apart from theirs — not merely as another apostle to be absorbed into their own commission and teaching, but one of equal authority set apart from them with a different commission and teaching. And that is where the next several chapters in Acts will take us.
In the next post we’ll take a more detailed look at Paul’s commission and the story of the reluctant Ananias.