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In Acts 9 we have the story of Saul who would later become Paul. Saul fully intended to continue wreaking havoc upon the Christians that had gone to Damascus when the persecutions broke out in Jerusalem. Of course, his trip was interrupted by a bright light and Jesus’ presence as He questioned Saul the persecutor: “Why are you persecuting Me?” Led by the hand into Jerusalem by his associates he is left alone for three days, blind, disoriented, angry and bewildered. Finally, after 3 days, he falls to his knees in submission to Jesus and the Lord summons Ananias to go to Saul “…for he is praying.”
Knowing Saul’s reputation Ananias at first objects but the Lord makes it clear to Him:
…“Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
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.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. (Acts 9:15-19)
At this point Luke condenses about three years of Saul’s life into the remainder of this story ending in Acts 9:31. We learn from Galatians 1:18 that he refused to go directly to Jerusalem. Instead, he went to Arabia for the next three years finally ending up back in Damascus. Perhaps he took that time to test his new-found faith in Christ, re-thinking the Old Testament prophecies in light of the resurrected and ascended Messiah and assessing the damage he had brought about in the church in Jerusalem.
So, when he ends up back in Damascus he starts debating with his former Jewish friends to the point that they are waiting for him at the city’s gates to do him in. So, Luke tells us, his friends take him to a residence on the outer wall of Damascus, put Saul in a basket, tie a rope to it and lower him to the ground to escape. In 2 Corinthians 11:30-33 the apostle Paul cites this event as being a low point in his life; a time of weakness. Just imagine, late at night, lowered in a simple basket, outside the wall where refuse was likely dumped out the window, left to make his own way, alone.
But his time of weakness was not yet done as he finally, after three years, steals away to Jerusalem to try to meet with the apostles…and everyone is still scared of him, not believing his conversion is genuine. So, finally, Barnabas brings Saul to meet Peter and James and he stays with Peter a couple of weeks according to Galatians 1:18 again, moving around freely in Jerusalem until he encounters his old buddies, the Hellenistic Jews, who tried to kill him. In Acts 22, Paul tells us that the Lord told him to get out of Jerusalem:
“When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking to me. ‘Quick!’ he said. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.’
“‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’
“Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ”
Apparently, Saul was not listening. Based upon his discussion with the Lord, I think he was looking to make amends with many of the Christians in Jerusalem he may have persecuted 3-4 years earlier. He was obviously convinced that he could finally persuade his former friends about the validity of Jesus’ claims to be the promised Messiah.
But, the time was not right yet. The wounds were too deep for the formerly persecuted Christians. The anger still just under the skins of his friends who felt betrayed. More time would be needed before he could return to Jerusalem. The brothers in Jerusalem heard of the death threats from the Jews and, Luke tells us, the Christian brothers came and got Saul and put him on a boat and sent him to Tarsus, the town of his origins. Key words: “took” and “sent”. Saul did not willingly go along with their plan. I think they forced him onto the boat and bought him a one-way ticket back to Tarsus.
…and Saul disappears for the next ten years.
I love the final verses of this story:
Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.
“Changing You Begins With Me”
We all have times when we need to change. New job. New marriage. New kids. New school. New church.
Saul encountered a time when he had to change. He had a Damascus Road experience.
Who was Saul? He was a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up Jerusalem. He studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of Moses. He was zealous for God (Acts 22:3). He told the Philippians (3:5-6) that he was “…circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless” (Philippians 3:5-6).
We can assume that Saul was known by the locals in Jerusalem from shop keepers to local politicians, government and temple officials, the great teacher Gamaliel and the most conservative school of the Pharisees. Impeccable credentials, politically connected, powerfully influential, a person about town.
The circles within which he lived approved and encouraged his persecution of the church. “After all,” some may have thought, “perhaps the true Messiah will come and rule the world after we are rid of these believers in the false Messiah named Jesus Christ!” And so he began to destroy the church, going from house to house in Jerusalem, dragging off men and women to put them into prison (Acts 8:3). He actually “went to the high priest 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).
We tend to brush over the intensity and scope of his persecution of the church. He was convinced, as Paul told Felix, “…that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” He continues:
And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities” (Acts 26:9-11).
But that was not all. In Acts 22 he admits that he
persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 5 as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished. (Acts 22:4-5)
It’s not too hard to imagine the scenes that would have been created when Saul came knocking on the doors of friends and associates who had become followers of Jesus, arresting fathers amid screaming children, weeping wives, and horrified neighbors. The prayers for God to open Saul’s eyes as Christian prisoners are escorted before the Sanhedrin then taken outside the city gates to be stoned in the way Stephen had died. How many times could these scenes have been repeated in Saul’s persecution? We know it was widespread enough to cause the majority of Christians to evacuate Jerusalem, leaving everything behind to escape the city-wide purge (Acts 8:1-3).
To summarize, the extent of the damage Paul inflicted on the early church can hardly be overstated. The collateral damage of grieving families torn apart with emotional, psychological and physical scarring. Businesses that had to be abandoned, family properties confiscated, professions destroyed and communities shattered and scattered would be huge. The list of offenses begins with the execution of Stephen, and continues with arrests, imprisonment, torture, beatings and even death. The suffering and grief among the Christians of Jerusalem would have been pervasive and intense. And now the rumors have spread to the regions to which the believers have scattered.
Human nature would assume that the church in Jerusalem was struggling. “So, this is the new normal” some might have said. We know fear enveloped them. It would have been hard to not remember the good old days when Peter’s shadow would result in healed cripples, seeing blind people and hearing deaf people. Now, those days are gone. Everyone is underground or gone, afraid, broken hearted, and quiet.
Then Saul met Jesus.
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.
What might those three days have been like for Saul?
His entire world was now turned upside down. Everything crumbled around him: his influence, prestige, mission, reputation…all gone! In addition, he was now blind! From now on he would have to be led by the hand! It would be another 1800 years before Braille would be invented in France. No longer could he read the Scriptures on his own! Getting around now would be so much more difficult, especially in unfamiliar cities.
Total Brokenness, Complete Devastation, Total Wipeout–3 Days without food or water!
Jesus talked about sewing new cloth on old cloth tears or new wine in old wineskins (Matthew 9:16-18). As one generation hands off its traditions to the next things will not remain the same. New life experiences force a re-examination of Scripture and questioning established interpretations. Former, hard-fought assumptions are now challenged anew with fresh eyes, hearts and minds.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said (Matthew 5:3). Shattered lives. Being confronted by the Lord leaves us totally undone and open to change. It’s time for new wineskins to contain the new wine!
Question: Why 3 days? Why not restore Saul’s sight on day 1?
The truth is that change often occurs in our lives only when accompanied by great difficulties. We naturally fall into rhythms of behaviors and patterns of routines. We like stability and predictability.
When confronted with dissonant information the resilience of our beliefs can be highly resistant to change. We become provincial: accustomed to thinking that the way I view the world is the way the world is, what I’ve always believed is always true everywhere and for all time, that what I’ve been taught was the final answer, the decided conclusion and the accepted norm.
In my opinion, those three days for Saul were excruciatingly difficult. Jesus had rocked his world to its very core and Saul found himself being forced from a place of total control to total devastation; from confident certainty to abject uncertainty. It’s one thing to believe something to be true and to be hard-headed and stubborn about those beliefs. It is quite another to be so dogmatically confident about one’s beliefs that a person is willing to rob other men and women of their freedom and livelihoods, their families, their property and, indeed, their very lives.
Make no mistake about it, with this new awakening on the Damascus Road, Saul would have scars to deal with, a wounded conscience that had gone to sleep in his rage, and frightening memories of regretful behaviors that would haunt him for the rest of his life. It addition, the damage done among the Christian community would have gone deep. On account of this one man, families would be forced to visit graves of those who had died untimely deaths, visit prisons where beloved friends, family and loved ones were imprisoned for their faith. Houses and businesses once occupied by associates and friends would now be inhabited by new people who had purchased the property at foreclosure prices, further enriching the religious rulers who had likely fanned the passion of Saul’s heart to its murderous conclusions. These are things that Christians would struggle to forgive; but, many would likely find it impossible to forget.
Some might think that Saul would have spent those three days in humble prayer. Others might believe that he reflected upon his theological moorings in contemplative silence.
I believe that those three days were filled with every imaginable emotion from bitterness, anger and rage about his untimely circumstances, to overwhelming guilt, self-deprecation and depressing resentment for not seeing the truth sooner before the damage had been done. The name “Israel” had been coined for the Jewish people based upon Jacob’s “wrestling with God” (Genesis 32:27-29) and I believe Saul was in the most intense wrestling match of his lifetime…until the third day.
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.
“…for he is praying.”
Saul finally fell to his knees, confessed his sin, opened himself to God’s will and Christ sent Ananias!
“…for he is praying.”
This theme is echoed throughout Scripture
Nehemiah’s prayer as a captive in Babylon as he contemplates his beloved city, Jerusalem, lying in ruins (Nehemiah 1) – Praises God, Confesses Sin, Makes Request
Moses’ Prayer as recorded in Psalms 90 – Praises God, Confesses Sin, Makes Request
Daniel’s prayer in Daniel 9 – he praises God, Confesses His sin, and makes his request. And then…
Gabriel came “in swift flight”: 23 As soon as you began to pray, a word went out, which I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed.
People have Damascus Road experiences.
Churches have Damascus Road experiences.
In all circumstances, I believe Scripture tells us that it is very important that people remember to pray: praise God, confess sin, present petitions. We’ve seen the acronym for prayer:
Certainly, the first question we must ask before formulating plans, is to remember to pray: Praise God, Confess sin, Present Petitions. Acts reminds us that Jesus Christ cares about His bride, the church. He was not dead, absent, boring, or predictable (See John Piper: “Jesus is not Dead, Absent, Boring or Predictable”).
People need new wineskins so Jesus can pour the new wine of life in them. Sometimes it takes Damascus Road experiences to start the process.
Churches need new wineskins so Jesus can pour the new wine of life in them. Sometimes it takes Damascus Road experiences to start the process.
When the Damascus Road demand for change breaks through it is easy to find fault with others or to try to repair the old wineskins rather than deal with the real challenge we all must address: changing you begins with changing me.