Saul of Tarsus passionately pursued what he thought mattered most because he thought the law of Moses was the source of life. That passionate pursuit led him down the Damascus Road
and to an encounter with Christ that would not only change him but would also change the world.
A Terror-Filled Mission (Acts 9:1-2)
Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Saul’s passion for the law drove him to persecute followers of Christ. We first see this when he participated in the murder of Stephen, an early Christ-follower who boldly declared the message of Jesus. Extending the reach of the persecution, Saul moved beyond his meticulous observance of the law and embarked on a murderous campaign against the young church (acts 7:58–8:3). In an attempt to eradicate the influence of Jesus of Nazareth, Saul went outside Jerusalem to pursue the followers of Jesus. First stop, Damascus.
A Transforming Encounter (Acts 9:3-9)
As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one. Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
The story of Saul’s conversion has become so well known that the catalyst for a fundamental change in perspective is often described as “a Damascus Road experience.” It is a fitting description,
for few transformations have been so sudden and so sweeping as Saul’s encounter with Christ.
The scene is vivid. An intense light knocked Saul to the ground, literally depicting what was taking place in Saul’s heart. Even as the light of Christ engulfed him on the road, Saul’s heart was rescued from darkness and brought into light. This relocation is at the very core of experiencing salvation in Christ. In one of his letters, Paul described the transformation this way: “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (col. 1:13).
This is precisely what Saul experienced on the Damascus Road. Though his life was marked by spiritual passion, it had been cloaked in spiritual darkness and, as a result, his passions had been misguided. Now, in the light of Christ, young Saul saw clearly. The target of his persecution was not merely those he felt were opposed to the laws of Moses, he had been opposing Jesus Himself. On the Damascus Road, Saul came to an intersection that demanded a choice—a choice that would reorder his personal and private world. His life would never be the same.
When he asked, “Who are You, Lord?” (acts 9:5), Saul heard words he could not have expected: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” His life was immediately rerouted to one of loving submission to Christ. Saul’s encounter with Jesus produced a dramatic change in purpose. Moments before, he had been persecuting Christ’s followers. Now he would be numbered among them.
Saul’s purpose was now grounded in a new relationship with the very Jesus he had been so vigorously opposing. He would continue on to Damascus, but for a radically different reason.
A True Change (vv.19-22)
So when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus. Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. Then all who heard were amazed, and said, “Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ.
For me, the key word in this passage is immediately. With the changing of his purpose, there was no lessening of his passion. Saul immediately became a messenger of the Christ he had once feared and resisted. And he presented this message in the synagogue—the very place he had sought to “protect” from the gospel. It’s hard to imagine a more profound change. Saul had moved from spiritual darkness to the light of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Saul’s life changed at a foundational level, and his passion actually increased, preparing him to endure the kind of persecution he had once imposed on others. He began his journey to Damascus driven by a passion for the law, but a purpose more worthy of his devotion overtook him.