Preaching through Acts is an exciting journey! One of the most significant stories in Acts is the story of Saul/Paul’s conversion in Acts 9. It’s told three times in the book of Acts. Some questions arise out of a comparison/contrast of the three accounts, mainly regarding what the other men with Paul experienced. I tend to agree with Witherington’s conclusion that they all saw something and heard something, but not to the full extent of Paul. They saw brightness, but not the blinding glory of the risen Lord Jesus. They heard something, but not the clear, distinguishable voice of Jesus.
As important as these details are, however, they usually don’t play a major role in sermons. There are three observations I had, though, that probably will not be mentioned this Sunday other than a possible brief reference. I find all three interesting, and I hope they are thought provoking for you as well.
Acts 9 and Isaiah 6. If your Bible has headings for passages, Acts 9 is probably labeled “The Conversion of Saul.” That is appropriate, but it is more than a conversion story. It is a commissioning passage as well as a conversion passage. The commissioning is more prominent in the later accounts of Acts 22 and 26, in which Paul’s testimony of his conversion is coupled with a commissioning for ministry. In Acts 9, Jesus tells Ananias of Paul’s mission, but we don’t read of the message being communicated to Saul. This is most likely for literary purposes, and we can safely assume that the words spoken to Ananias would have been passed along to Saul. It is obvious in later passages that Paul connected his commission to take the gospel to the Gentiles as part of his conversion experience.
There are interesting parallels between Acts 9 and one of the more familiar commission passages in the Old Testament, Isaiah 6. In both texts, there is an appearance of God that highlights his glory (God in Is. 6, Jesus in Acts 9). The response of both Isaiah and Saul is one of brokenness. Isaiah acknowledges his sin (Woe is me, I am undone) and Saul is left blind for three days, most likely rethinking his view of Jesus and realizing the sinfulness of persecuting Christ followers. In each case, God sends someone to restore them: an angelic being places a hot coal on Isaiah’s lips and Ananias lays hands on Saul. Both are commissioned to go and proclaim the word of God. Both are warned that suffering will be involved (“How long, O Lord?” Isaiah responded, while Ananias was told, “I will show him how much he must suffer…”).
The comparisons are striking, which lends to the argument that Acts 9 should be viewed as a commissioning passage as well as a conversion passage. This is a clear message to us as readers with a personal application as well: if you have been converted, you have been commissioned. Except for the rare deathbed conversion experience, all Christ followers are called to make disciples (Ok, that part will probably be in the sermon!).
Ananias and Barnabas. Acts is filled with major characters and heroes. Peter and Paul are at the top of that list. But it’s important to notice the role of other characters as well. Ananias is a disciple (not an apostle, “just” a disciple), but he is the one who is called to lay hands on the greatest persecutor of the Church. This is a risky calling, but he obeys immediately. He addresses “Brother Saul,” which communicates complete acceptance into the family of Christ followers. He is brave. He is obedient. And as such, he is a positive example of how “typical” Christ followers should respond to the call of God.
Barnabas shows up later in the passage, as Saul is greeted with fear in Jerusalem. Barnabas (“Son of Encouragement”) comes alongside Saul and builds a bridge between him and the apostles. Saul is then welcomed into the Jerusalem Church.
Ananias and Barnabas have roles in one of the most significant accounts in the New Testament. One shows the importance of obedience, even in the face of risk, and the other shows the power of encouragement. We may not write or preach like Paul, but every Christ follower can live with courageous obedience and encourage those around us.
Paul’s Conversion and His Writing. It is interesting to observe how some of the themes of Paul’s theology are in the shadows of Acts 9. A major theme of Paul’s writing is the union between Christ and the Church (as well as individual Christ followers). At his conversion we read, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” As Saul persecuted the Church, the body of Christ, he was persecuting Jesus himself. There is a deep unity between Jesus and the Christ follower.
Paul would later write, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6) In Acts 9, Paul had first-hand experience of the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
At his conversion/commissioning in Acts 9, Paul realized the error of his thinking and actions. For him to turn to Jesus meant a rejection of his standing as a Pharisee and rising fame as a persecutor of the Church. He had found something (Someone) greater! This is evident in Philippians 3 as he counts all things as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. All of his “righteousness” he had worked for was now worthless, especially as he was led helplessly by hand as a blind man into Damascus. Jesus crossed his path on the road, and now nothing else mattered.