Because Christ knew His earthly ministry would only be a finite period, He appointed men to be His emissaries and carry on His work in the world. They were fully invested with His authority and could speak for Him, on His behalf. The most familiar of these to readers of the gospels are the twelve apostles. What is a bit ironic, however, is that the apostle who wrote the most, possibly had the most extensive and visible ministry, and is one of most visibly associated with Christianity is Paul, who never met Jesus in His earthly ministry and so calls himself an “untimely” apostle (1 Cor. 15:8). The one who arguably did the most to spread the gospel, give Christianity its definitive and inscripturated shape, contributed the most to the body of doctrine (including some of the most fundamental doctrines, like justification), is a former persecutor whom the risen Lord personally appeared to, commissioned, and set apart, years after His earthly ministry.
Furthermore, both Paul’s conversion/consecration and the Lord’s dealings with him in them prove to be a pattern for our ministries and lives. Thus, it is instructive to understand how our Lord worked in and through this man—taking him from Christianity’s most formidable persecutor to its greatest cultivator, pastor, evangelist, and theologian.
A. Humiliation (vv. 1-9)
In our fallenness, human nature is fundamentally unbelieving (we do not trust God nor the authority, sufficiency, and clarity of Him or His words) and proud (we think ourselves good enough, smart enough, and able enough to accomplish whatever we wish). Thus, a decisive breaking of our wills and enslavement to our pride and unbelief must take place if we are to look away from ourselves—our righteousness, abilities, wisdom, etc.—to Christ as Savior and Lord. This does not end after we are saved; salvation’s initial brokenness births us onto a path of continual, greater revelations of our sin, pride, and unbelief, and greater casting of ourselves on God’s knowledge, wisdom, holiness, and authority. Only in grasping our utter insufficiency and thereby throwing ourselves on His sufficiency can we be of any use to Him, both in His overall purposes and in our own sanctification (and those things are not separable from one another, on several levels).
In order to use Paul, the Lord would have to significantly crush his confidence in his abilities, knowledge, morality—and more fundamentally, the very way he processed information and viewed the world. Only in being completely crushed under the Lordship of Christ could Paul be rebuilt into who God desired him to be.
Damascus was the capital of Syria, called Aram in the Old Testament. It is one of the 70 nations into which humanity was divided after Babel (Gen. 10:22) and was the home of the false prophet Balaam (Num. 23:7). Damascus was conquered and subdued, to an extent, by King David (2 Sam. 8), but regained its independence and threat to Israel after the divided monarchy. As a Gentile nation, Syria would have been pagan, but by New Testament times featured a reasonably prominent and enduring Jewish population, including many Jewish Christians. Some of these would have escaped there after the persecution Paul instigated in chapter 8, but doubtless there were many new freewill offerings (cf. Psa. 110:3) due to their faithful ministry. Paul, of course, is traveling there are a representative of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, who wish to stamp out the Christian threat. But this mission was personally motivated for Paul, as he hated Christ and Christianity as perversions of the Judaism he loved.
So as Paul moves forward with his destructive mission, the risen Lord Jesus visibly appears to him, with such shock and force that Paul is thrown to the ground. The Lord asks Paul why he is persecuting Him (v. 4). Is this not a ringing declaration of the believer’s indissoluble, intimate oneness with Christ—that great phrase “in Christ” which will flood Paul’s writings? This is the root of Paul’s understanding of that most important and practical doctrine, and it begins with him brought to nothing before the One who knows every detail of his opposition. Only in Paul’s account of his conversion recorded in chapter 22 do we get this part of his response: “What shall I do, Lord?” (v. 10, emphasis mine). It is possible the first “Lord” (9:5) is simply a terrified, reverent form of address towards one Paul thought would likely kill him. However, I believe the second “Lord” was spoken out of a genuine, if perhaps not yet full, understanding of who Jesus was: the risen, reigning, authoritative Lord to whom every atom was immediately accountable. Of course, Paul’s conquered heart instantly obeys, though he must rely on his doubtless bewildered, confused companions to get him to Ananias’s home. Paul, the great theologian and debater and fearsome attacker of the Way has now been razed to the ground. He is a broken, humbled, struck-down man after a clear vision (metaphorically and literally) of who Jesus is.
B. Commission (vv. 10-16)
Christ only commissions the broken. Only they are surrendered and sensitive to His will and purposes. As Paul stumbles his way into Damascus, the Spirit newly indwelling his once-dead heart, the heavenly Lord moves to accomplish the next part of His plan. A Jewish Christian named Ananias, well-attested to by even the Jews of the region (22:12), has a vision of the Lord. Jesus tells him to go to the house where Paul is staying, as he is blind and spending his time in prayer, and has seen (another!) vision of Ananias coming to him to restore his sight. Ananias, of course, is reluctant, having heard of the immense opposition this man has displayed towards the Lord (vv.13-14).
Of note is the term used for “call” in verse 14. It is a technical term referring to appealing to a superior for intervention, protection, or provision. Paul uses it when he “appeals” to Caesar (Acts 25:11). I draw two implications from this word. First, Christians are characterized by “calling” on Jesus as authoritative Lord (call is a present middle participle). This is part of the essence of Christianity—seeing Jesus as in a position of authority who has power to actively transform things (including us). Second, doubtless many of these believers had called on Him for protection or deliverance from Paul’s persecution, and He was seemingly silent. Perhaps Ananias is upset that now he has to show mercy and love to this feared man. Perhaps he had lost friends or family to Paul’s attacks. Now the Lord wants to speak, to act, to change things? But Jesus answers that Paul has been chosen by Him for His purposes: “to bear My name” before men (v. 15) and will suffer greatly as a result (v. 16).
Having subdued Paul’s heart, the Lord ushers him into effective service.
C. Preparation (vv. 17-22)
Ananias submits his own heart to the Lord and finds Paul. He is fasting and praying, just as the Lord said, doubtless adjusting what has just happened and seeking the Lord’s conscious forgiveness for his months (years?) of hateful destruction. Ananias assures him that Jesus sent him so Paul could regain his sight and be filled with the Spirit—both incontrovertible proofs of the Lord’s mercy, welcoming of him, and of Paul’s inheritance as one of God’s people. He is immediately baptized (in water; cf. 22:16) and regains his sight.
He also immediately finds other Christians in Damascus, possibly some of the very ones who fled there due to his persecution (8:2). At this point, Paul begins what would become an evangelistic pattern for him: Going first to the synagogue(s) in a city to share the gospel with his fellow Jews. Gamaliel’s student, the great orator, the man of culture and letters, rushes into the heart of opposition and for all to hear declares that Jesus is God and Messiah (v. 20)! This broken man is bold before men. Moreover, he is “now preaching the faith which he once tried to destroy” (Gal. 1:23). The one who had sought to lit. “ravage,” “overthrow” the messianic community Jesus had planted (Matt. 13:31-32, 37-38) is now trying to build it! Paul kept growing as a believer, using his impressive knowledge of the OT and rhetoric to prove (lit. to instruct or teach by knitting together an argument or lines of evidence) to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah (v. 22). This is wonderful preparation, for Paul was immediately learning by doing. He had to throw his full weight on Christ and what He had taught him, testing its limits, exploring ideas and presuppositions, weaving more of the grand story of Scripture together, learning more of how he used to think and how those around him still did. All of these practical lessons would be invaluable for his perseverance and fruitfulness in the faith and in ministry.
D. Perpetuation (vv. 23-31)
Verse 23 tells us Paul ministered in Damascus for “many days.” We do not know how long this was. Likely it was at least several weeks to several months, but probably less than a year. At any rate it was enough for the Jewish people of the city to see Paul as an intense threat, and they seek to kill him. (To employ a cliché: How the tables have turned!) It appears this happened twice (cf. “also,” v. 24). The first time somehow Paul became aware of the plot and was able to evade or defuse it. The second time, he had to leave the city. By this point, people were already following Paul as a clearly God-ordained teacher and leader, for he is said to have “disciples” (v. 25). The enemy of Christianity now has Spirit-filled Christians following him and helping spare his life!
He makes his way to Jerusalem (but note an interval of about three years passes between his escape from Damascus and this visit; cf. Gal. 1:16-18), that epicenter of God’s program and where his hatred for the Way was born. The remaining Christians—who by this time are surely frazzled, worn out, and intensely fearful—refuse to associate with him. Understandably so, for Paul’s seething hatred for Christianity would have been apparent to no one more than to them! But Barnabas—that Son of Encouragement—comes to Paul’s aid and vouches for him to the rest of the apostles, who accept him as one of their own. “Moving about freely” (v. 28) is lit. “going in and out,” and is used as a kingly, shepherding term for Christ with OT Davidic roots (Acts 1:21). Paul is moving into an authoritative shepherding role as the rest of the apostles determine his clear gifts and unction. He continues to debate, and Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem try to kill him again (v. 29). But Christians intervene again and smuggle Paul to his hometown.
Luke summarizes the gospel’s impact through Israel in verse 31. Through all that happened, the Lord was still in control, and the congregations in each region continued to fear Him and be comforted by the Spirit, and they grew. And Paul would be used greatly for that! The point? Christ is sovereign. Christ is never not at work. And His mercy is so potent, so effectual, that one single, comprehensive manifestation can take a murderer and make him a timeless emissary of Jesus Christ.