(Series: “The Early Church of Jerusalem” post #15)
Imagine Osama Bin Laden becoming a Christian and asking to speak in Christian churches. Imagine Adolph Hitler converting to Judaism and asking to speak in Jewish synagogues. Imagine the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan becoming an advocate of civil rights and asking to speak to gatherings of Jews and blacks. Do you think such conversions might be met with skepticism? Do you think some of those churches, synagogues, and gatherings might say, “No way, you’re not coming here.” Well, allow me to introduce you to Saul of Tarsus.
My previous post provided the scriptural evidence that Saul was the leader of the persecution against the church of Jerusalem. So I won’t rehash all those verses. Suffice is to say that the name “Saul of Tarsus” was on the lips of every Christian who lived in Jerusalem at that time. He was a terror.
Let me clear, though. There was nothing fake or hypocritical about the man’s zeal for God. Saul was 1000% real. What you saw was what you got, no ulterior motives, no hidden agendas. Actually, it was the sincerity of his dedication to God that fueled his intense hatred of the followers of Jesus. Saul believed to the depths of his soul that Jesus was a false Messiah and that the God-ordained Jewish religion, Judaism, had to be protected and preserved against this new religion that so many were calling “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22).
Let me ask you something. What’s the difference between a saintly reformer that history praises and an evil terrorist that history condemns? In many ways there isn’t much difference except for the fact that one fights for what turns out to be the truth and the other fights for what he believes to be the truth but turns out to be a lie. Do you see what I mean? I’m not defending Saul’s persecution of Christians. I’m just trying to help you understand it correctly.
But something happened to Saul, something that got him to rethinking everything he had been raised and trained to believe was true. That something was the death of Stephen. Saul was an eyewitness to that brutal stoning. He even stood guard over the coats and outer garments the members of the Sanhedrin took off in order to carry out the stoning (Acts 7:58).
When the stoning began, Saul was in full support of it. No doubt he thought, “Yeah, get him.” Maybe he even mocked a bit when Stephen cried out just prior to the stoning, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55-56). Did Saul even bother to look? If he did, he saw nothing.
And so the stoning was carried out, and Stephen breathed his last. He said two things, however, just before he died. First, he said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). Second, with his dying breath, he said, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Acts 7:60).
Saul heard both of those statements, and they resonated with him. No matter how wrong he thought Stephen was about Jesus, he had to admit that Stephen’s faith was genuine. A dying man just doesn’t call upon a Savior he secretly knows to be a sham. Something else a dying man, one being executed, doesn’t do is ask God to cut his executioners a break in regards to judgment. And yet that’s exactly what Stephen did.
The days, weeks, and months that followed Stephen’s death saw Saul become the embodiment of persecution against the Jerusalem church (Acts 8:3). Even when that persecution caused many of the church members to flee the city and relocate to other places, Saul hunted them down and brought them back to Jerusalem to be tried by the Sanhedrin. He was relentless. Years later, as he retold the story of that part of his life, he used graphic language to describe his behavior. Take the time to read what he says and hear the religious rage that drove him:
“Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.” (Acts 26:9-11, N.K.J.V.)
Saul was on one of these hunts one day as he made his way from Jerusalem to Damascus, a trip of about 140 miles. He was carrying with him official letters, signed by the Jewish High Priest, written to the synagogue leaders of Damascus. Those papers gave him the right to arrest any man or woman who were members of “the Way” and bring them back to Jerusalem to be tried and put to death (Acts 9:1-2).
Saul and his group were just outside Damascus when suddenly an exceedingly bright light burst down upon them (Acts 9:3). Saul would later describe it as “brighter than the sun, shining around me and those who journeyed with me” (Acts 26:13). The light was so overpowering that it knocked each man to the ground (Acts 26:14). Then came a voice saying in Hebrew, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). The men who were with Saul heard the voice, but they laid there speechless. For one thing, even if they did know Hebrew, they weren’t Saul. For another, they weren’t about to carry on a conversation with a bright light.
As for Saul, he managed to reply, “Who are You, Lord?” (Acts 26:15). Perhaps the fact that he addressed the speaker as “Lord” is a tip-off that he knew, deep down, the speaker was God. Whatever Paul did or didn’t suspect about the voice, Jesus quickly removed all doubt about His identity by saying, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 26:15). By the way, don’t miss that. Isn’t it wonderful to know that Jesus takes it personally when His followers are persecuted? From His viewpoint, the persecution is being done to Him every bit as much (if not more so) than it is to His follower. Take heart in that, Christian, the next time you find yourself being persecuted for your Christianity.
But the part of Saul’s conversation with Jesus that I really want to emphasize are those words: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” A goad (“prick” K.J.V.) was a prodding device by which a farmer would poke an animal to either get the animal moving or get it to change course. This is where we get the phrase, “He goaded me into doing that.” A goad could be as simple as a slender piece of wood that was blunt on the handle end and sharp on the prodding end. Sometimes when an animal was stuck with a goad, the animal would respond by kicking back against the device. The animal soon discovered, though, that kicking back only drove the goad further into its flesh and caused more pain.
So, what was Jesus trying to goad Saul into doing? What course change was He trying to get him to make? The answer is obvious. He wanted Saul to stop persecuting the church and accept Him as Messiah/Savior. To that end, it seems clear from Christ’s words that Saul had inwardly been under conviction to make that change for some time prior to that day.
But what were the “goads” that Jesus had been using to create that conviction in Saul? First, surely Saul had heard the reports of Christ’s ministry. Perhaps Saul had even personally seen Jesus teach, perform a miracle, cleanse the temple, or die. Based upon the fact that by Saul’s own admission he cast votes in favor of Christians being put to death (Acts 26:10-11), some scholars believe that he was a member of the Sanhedrin council that had tried Jesus and relentlessly pushed the Romans to crucify Him. Even if Saul wasn’t a full-fledged member of the Sanhedrin, he was certainly closely associated with the group and as such would have had intimate knowledge of Christ’s arrest, trial, crucifixion, and purported resurrection.
Second, there’s no doubt that Jesus had been sticking Saul over and over again with the goad of Stephen’s death. It can’t be a coincidence that the Bible’s first mention of Saul places him guarding the clothing during Stephen’s stoning. Watching Stephen die that horrific death affected Saul. Even the defense that Stephen so eloquently provided for himself before he was stoned had to have resonated with Saul. After all, Saul himself was a scholar, an expert in the history of Israel, and Stephen’s defense was all about that history.
Because of these goads of conviction, by the time Jesus supernaturally appears to Saul on the Damascus road Saul is ripe for conversion. Trembling, Saul asks, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” That’s the question of a man who has stopped kicking at the goads. Jesus then instructs him to go into the city of Damascus (Acts 9:6). As Saul rises from the ground to carry out those marching orders he realizes that he has been struck blind. What a scene it must have been to see the great Saul of Tarsus, the most feared man in all the land if you were a follower of Jesus, being humbly led by the hand by some of his companions into Damascus (Acts 9:8).
For three days Saul remained in darkness (Acts 9:9). He didn’t eat anything. He didn’t drink anything. Then a man named Ananias, a follower of Jesus, showed up at the house where Saul was staying. Jesus had sent Ananias there to heal Saul’s blindness. Ananias laid his hands upon Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17, N.K.J.V.).
As soon as Ananias mouthed those words, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes and his sight was restored (Acts 9:18). Saul was then promptly baptized and given food, after which he stayed several days with some of Christ’s followers there in Damascus (Acts 9:18-19). To the astonishment of all, Saul even preached Jesus in the synagogues of Damascus (Acts 9:20-22).
Those first sermons there in those Damascus synagogues were merely the initial sparks of the roaring blaze that Saul’s ministry would become. Beginning with Acts 13:9, he will no longer be called “Saul.” Instead, he will be known as “Paul.” Even though that name means “little,” Paul’s ministry would be anything but that. He would become recognized as an apostle. He would perform miracles. He would write half the New Testament. He would embark upon three missionary journeys by which he would take the gospel to the Gentiles, win untold numbers to Jesus, found churches, ordain pastors, instruct Christians, and become the man that many refer to as the greatest Christian who ever lived. All this came from the greatest persecutor the early church knew.
In closing, let me say that Saul’s conversion proves beyond all doubt that Jesus can reach anybody, even the person who seems the most unreachable. Christ has all kinds of goads that He can use to melt even the hardest heart. Because of this we should never classify any lost person as being beyond hope. If Jesus could convert Saul of Tarsus, he can convert anybody. And when He gets all of that passion, fervor, emotion, and zeal turned around and working for Him, then look out. That’s how an apostle Paul is born.