Meeting Jesus changes us forever.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 9:3-20
Paul/Saul found out the hard way that he had been completely wrong about Jesus, but that didn’t stop Jesus from saving him and putting him on a path to change the world. Paul’s testimony can help encourage us and show us how we can share the gospel with people who need to hear it.
Go! For this man is My chosen instrument to take My name to Gentiles, kings, and the Israelites. Acts 9:15
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Light is a super-common image in the Bible, and for good reason. When there’s light, you can see. When there isn’t, you can’t. Of course, walking around in the dark is dangerous (both in terms of what you might trip over and what might be sneaking up on you). But if you’ve noticed those commercials about a phone that supposedly takes really good pictures in the dark, you know that the dark is also really good at disguising things. (In the commercial, they do that really superficial thing of making someone look really different in a dimly lit room). If you have a room where you can control the light, it would be fun to bring some obscure objects, dim the lights, and see if your group can guess what the objects are. If they can’t, then you’ve proven how important light is! (Incidentally, in one of my favorite Mythbusters episodes, they prove the idea that pirates actually wore eyepatches so one of their eyes could always be ready to fight in the dark.)
There’s another side to light—it can be so bright as to be dangerous. If anyone has ever accidentally looked at the sun, you know what I mean! (And if you have a set of those eclipse-looking-things, bring it.) Something that far away is so powerful that it can essentially blind us. And of course, light can also be so focused that it can cut through metal (lasers). Think about that for a while and see if your brain doesn’t start hurting. Light can be made deadly!
Let’s look at how Jesus spoke of light. We are the light of the world (Matt 5:14) in the sense that our good deeds make it possible for the rest of the world to realize the glory of God. He also said that He is the light of the world (John 1:9) in the sense that He will reveal the motives behind people’s actions. John makes it clear that people love darkness because it hides their sinful actions. He also uses the “walking in darkness” image (John 11:9, 12:35) to mean that it is wiser and safer to make decisions when you have sufficient light to see the consequences of your decision in front of you. Paul, who lived this experience personally, realizes the importance of light to guide people toward Jesus and away from the evil in their hearts (1 Cor 4:5).
Here’s your point and application. Paul “sees the light” in our passage—this is of course where the Hank Williams song came from. It was so powerful that not only did he look at his entire life’s accomplishments as completely worthless to that point, but he was literally blinded. When we have a come-to-Jesus moment, we should see ourselves more clearly than we ever have before, and it should make us very aware of the true condition of our heart and soul.
This Week's Big Idea: Who Is Saul / Paul?
Paul believed that God had been preparing him his entire life for ministry to the Gentiles (Gal 1:15). So who was he? Most importantly to him, Paul was 100% Jew, of the tribe of Benjamin (King Saul was of the same tribe). He was born in Tarsus (Acts 22:3), a Gentile city, which demonstrates how devout his parents were for raising him strictly according to Jewish law. His father was a successful tentmaker; we know that because Paul was born a citizen of Tarsus (Acts 21:39), something his father would have paid more than a year’s wages to receive or would have earned through extraordinary service to the city/military.
However, Paul grew up in Jerusalem, a fact he used to argue that he was not heavily swayed by Gentile culture. Most likely, he followed the standard pattern for Jewish boys: learning Scripture at 5, learning interpretation at 10, learning the masters at 15, taking a calling at 20, and finally earning authority at 30. He was trained by the famous and well-respected Gamaliel (I put an aside about him a few weeks ago). Gamaliel was renowned for his high moral standards, something that clearly rubbed off on Paul. And he made sure to remind his audience of this more than once! Paul wasn’t just some guy telling Jews what to do, he was a former super-Jew who had seen the light!
Most likely (by virtue of his Roman citizenship, rare among Jews), Paul’s calling and job was to travel and win Gentile converts to Judaism. This is how he would have determined how dangerous this new sect of Christians was to Judaism. If he had the authority to put Christians in prison, he must have been in his 30s (incidentally making him pretty close in age to Jesus). In Acts 26, we learn that he voted in favor of having Christians executed and that he used torture to try to get them to renounce Jesus, a man he considered a blasphemer and under the curse of God. (Crucifixion was considered a cursed death to Jews, which is why Paul speaks so often of it as a “stumbling block” likely referring to his own experience.)
While travelling to Damascus to arrest Christians (see below), Jesus stopped Paul, saying that he had been “kicking against the goads” which means that God had already been convicting him of his rebellion. Paul repented, was led into Damascus where he met Ananias and was slowly admitted to the Christian community there. Eventually, he became such a problem to the Jews in Damascus that he had to escape by being let down in a basket over the wall (2 Cor 11:32). Paul then fled into the Arabian desert where he ministered among the Nabateans (Gal 1:17), a tribe that had authority over Damascus (see below). He eventually returned to Damascus, and then to Jerusalem where, with the help of Barnabas, he was accepted into the Christian fellowship. There, he spent time with the apostles, no doubt learning much about Jesus’ ministry and teachings (Paul had basically been proving that the Old Testament taught a suffering Messiah). Soon, Barnabas asked him to come to Antioch, and that is a later lesson . . .
The Context of Acts
It is generally held that Luke was one of Paul’s companions on parts of his missionary journeys and had a very close relationship with Paul (see my introduction to Acts from March 6). Luke understood the importance of Paul to the history of the church, so it should come as little surprise that he interrupted his narrative of the work of the Jerusalem church to mention the conversion of Paul, then known as Saul. I think it is most likely that Luke is following the actual chronology of events, but that is not necessary. Luke pointed out that Saul/Paul had approved of the execution of Stephen, the persecution from which forced men like Philip to travel widely where they continued to share the gospel with great effect. Now, the further spread of Christianity has forced men like Paul to also travel more widely in an effort to find and imprison Christians (the focus of our passage this week). After this, Luke turns his attention again to the primary players in Jerusalem as their ministry expands further and further out into Gentile territory. All of that sets up for Paul’s eventual return to the story as the apostle to the Gentiles.
Part 1: The Confrontation (Acts 9:3-6)
As he traveled and was nearing Damascus, a light from heaven suddenly flashed around him. Falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” “Who are You, Lord?” he said. “I am Jesus, the One you are persecuting,” He replied. “But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
All right—between the mini-article I gave you on Paul/Saul, Damascus, and the road between Jerusalem and Damascus, that should pretty well set your bearings. Damascus is about 175 winding miles from Jerusalem, which means it was a full week of pretty heavy travel. Paul likely would have left immediately following the Sabbath in the hopes of making it to Damascus before the next Sabbath (no one wanted to spend a day on the open road during the Sabbath; Pharisee rule said no one could travel more than 2 miles on a Sabbath). From what I can gather, he was almost to Damascus when Jesus intercepted him, and he was extremely surprised by the encounter. He knew he had encountered God; that much is obvious from his behavior. He didn’t know that God was Jesus! Paul would soon go on to help us understand the distinction between God the Father and God the Son, but for this moment, try to imagine Paul’s shock at how wrong he had been.
Illustration/Activity. If you just want to get your group thinking, ask them about a time they realized they had been really wrong about somebody. Usually, people think of that in a negative sense, but try to get them to think of a positive example (someone they had feared or distrusted turned out to be a great person). Most importantly, try to get them to remember what that moment felt like. If you think you have time, do an exercise in mistaken identity. Make up a story about a person who moved down the street or to your class. They look different, they talk different, and that makes you suspicious. Then, things start disappearing. Who do you think is doing it? Then, you get called down to the police station to find a bunch of your stuff in the same room as this new guy. What are you going to think? And then the chief tells you that this new guy found out what was going on and helped them catch the real culprit, and he bought your stuff back from the pawn shop at his own expense. Whoa! That’ll blow someone’s mind. (Remember, Satan worked hard to frame Jesus in the eyes of the Jews.)
You leader guide points out the importance of Jesus’ statement that persecuting Christians was the same as persecuting Him. I agree—that’s a big deal. Jesus is not just on our side, He suffers when we suffer. Literally. He suffered every pain ever felt by a human when He hung on the cross. He is in it for us and with us. And now Paul was going to get a crash course on knowing the true God.
Damascus is the current capital of Syria and one of the oldest cities in the world. It was once the most important city in the region, able to conquer Israel, but was eventually conquered by Assyria. It was recreated by the Greeks (as part of the Decapolis) as a model city-state, but Antioch was chosen to be the capital of the region. The Nabateans (Petra) conquered it in Greece’s dying light, and Rome allowed local Nabatean rule. Damascus was an important exporter of Arab goods and very successful in the Roman Empire. Due to its intimate trading connections with Rome, it was a very Hellenized city.
By Paul’s day, a ruler named Aretas (who was Herod Antipas’ father-in-law) had taken control of Damascus (2 Cor 11:32). Because there was a very large Jewish population there (50,000?), Aretas was keen on keeping them happy. He would have given Saul the right to come and arrest Christians, and he was able to do so because the Romans gave him that autonomy. (Incidentally, this is why Paul wasn’t going to a larger city like Antioch—Rome wasn’t giving the Sanhedrin any such power in a Roman city!) This is also why Paul would have gotten into so much trouble with Aretas when he began preaching about Jesus. Eventually, Damascus grew in such importance that Rome took control of it and made it a Roman colony. When Constantine moved his capital to Constantinople, it became a very important Christian power. They and the Muslims fought over Damascus for many, many years with the Muslims eventually wresting control and making Damascus its capital of the region.
Bonus Aside: The Road to Damascus
There were two major roads that Paul might have taken to get from Jerusalem to Damascus (see above), and the Bible does not tell us which. The safer, and thus more likely, option was the western route that joined up with the heavily-traveled Way of the Sea (Via Maris). Yes, it involved a long hike through unpopular Samaria, but that would have been better than the unprotected desert, where bandits were plentiful. Paul would have preferred this choice because it would have taken him through Galilee, where he could research and persecute the large population of Christians.
I have heard it argued (and it makes for a fun theory) that God would have led him on this road as a way of teaching Paul about Jesus. This road goes through Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethsaida, and along the Sea of Galilee, central locations of Jesus’ ministry where he performed many miracles. The argument goes that Paul would have seen the people’s devotion, preparing/softening his heart for his encounter with Jesus as he got closer to Damascus.
Part 2: The Companions (Acts 9:7-9)
The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the sound but seeing no one. Then Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing. So they took him by the hand and led him into Damascus. He was unable to see for three days and did not eat or drink.
I always wondered what happened to Paul’s companions. I assume that they became Christians as well; their testimony would certainly have validated Paul. Some of them may have just been on the same road; some were probably there to help him arrest Christians. None of them were given the privilege of understanding what had happened. They saw a light, they heard a sound, but their brains could not make sense of it (Acts 22:9). One way or another, don’t miss the irony that Paul was going to Damascus to lead Christians out of there, bound and helpless. And now Paul enters Damascus being led, helpless.
Whether Paul was temporarily blinded by his encounter or truly blinded and then miraculously healed, and whether his fast was self-imposed for prayer or the physical result of his disorientation, we know that he was so shaken he went into isolation. Paul would have likely interpreted his physical blindness as reflective of his to-that-point spiritual blindness. Jesus told him to wait for further instructions. He waited for three days (Jonah in the fish, Jesus in the earth—there’s something about 3 days that is significant to God). Did his companions wait with him? Did they drop him at the nearest house and take off (we don’t know anything about the Judas who owned the home, if he was Jew or Christian or neither)? What matters is there was somebody out there who could verify Paul’s testimony, and the same is true of ours.
Aside: Theophany / Appearance of God
The word for “flashed” in Acts 9:3 is a rare word (literally “to flash as lightning all around”), only elsewhere used by Jesus to describe the similarity between lightning flashing and His return (Luke 17:24). In other words, this encounter is meant to be understood as a theophany, an actual appearance of God. This one is unique in the Bible, however, because it is of the post-ascension Jesus. Other appearances of God have been of God the Father (as in “no one can see Me and live” Ex 33:20, Gen 16:13, Ex 3:2, Ex 19:20, Judg 6:22, Judg 13:20). Sometimes that was in the form of a burning bush, a pillar of fire, or even a cloud, noting of course the importance of a bright/burning light with each. But God (who is Spirit) could appear and disappear anywhere and everywhere. Jesus, however, is now fully human and in a human body. He was “taken up” to heaven, and now He comes back down from heaven to appear to Saul. Obviously, we won’t ever know how that “works,” but Paul was profoundly struck by the significance. The Apostles (the 12) were all called face-to-face by Jesus; Paul could say the same, and he did so to validate his ministry. This is the last such theophany in human history because we have no need for such any more; we now have the presence of the Holy Spirit as God-with-us which means that we no longer need to “see” God as they did in days gone by.
Part 3: The Commission (Acts 9:15-20)
But the Lord said to him, “Go! For this man is My chosen instrument to take My name to Gentiles, kings, and the Israelites. I will show him how much he must suffer for My name!” So Ananias left and entered the house. Then he placed his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road you were traveling, has sent me so that you can regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” At once something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized. And after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul was with the disciples in Damascus for some days. Immediately he began proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues: “He is the Son of God.”
God told Ananias (not the same man as Acts 5!) to go and care for Paul. Ananias, without being disrespectful, expressed his concerns to God about Paul’s motives and reputation. God, without being harsh, repeated His instruction. God had a special plan for Paul. Yes, Paul would be a witness to Jews, but God made it clear that His Word must also be taken to Gentiles and kings, two groups the Jerusalem Christians had basically avoided. Paul would lead the church to fulfill that part of the Great Commission, and in the process he would suffer. I think there’s a little bit of retribution in here—Paul inflicted much pain on Christians—but we don’t want to push that too far. God is not about “getting us back” for our wrongs. But in this very special case, Paul’s suffering would validate for the Christians he persecuted that God was the one who made the call. We all know why that matters. Someone who has suffered doesn’t really trust someone who has not.
David talked about in his most recent sermon from Colossians (a gospel servant is someone who 1. shares the gospel, 2. suffers for the gospel, and 3. struggles for the gospel). Paul took the idea of suffering with Jesus very seriously. David explained it with the illustration of a “band of brothers” - how close your relationship is with someone you have gone through hard times with. To know Jesus, Paul wanted to know both “the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His suffering” (Phil 3:10).
This seemed to reassure Ananias. Straight Street is still a major thoroughfare in Damascus, and there are artifacts from the 1st century still standing on it. Ananias found Paul/Saul, greeted him in the traditional Christian fashion (which I think is a big deal), and treated him not as a man who was coming to town to arrest him. [Just as a personal note: we don't hear anything else about this Ananias in the Bible. Do you think he did anything as “important” as this for the rest of his life? Maybe not, but does that make him any less important? Ananias played a vital role at a pivotal moment in the history of the church. We never know when God will call on us for that purpose.] So—when was Paul “saved”? Some folks think the reference to scales on his eyes symbolizes the reception of the Holy Spirit. That’s possible, but I personally think Paul was saved when he encountered Jesus. One way or another, Paul immediately was baptized to identify himself with the very people he had come to persecute. With their help, he recovered physically from his ordeal, and he began proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God. Think of the shock the Jewish leaders in Damascus would have felt! And the shock when this word got back to Jerusalem! Traitor! But Paul, knowing the Old Testament very well and knowing the reports about Jesus, was able to put two and two together and realize that the Jews had underestimated God’s Messiah. This is as bold a statement as a Jew could possibly make.
Application. Ask your group to think about Paul. Where was he headed in life? Would you have had any hope for him? Did he fit your stereotype for a “typical convert” to Christianity? Probably not. Who are the people you know today who you don’t think could ever possibly become a Christian? Let our passage today give them hope. But point out that timing is also very important. Paul would not have become a Christian before his encounter with Jesus; sometimes we won’t know how long we have to wait until a person is really ready to talk about Jesus. But it is very important that deep down we do not believe that “God could never save so-and-so.” Get rid of those thoughts.
Equally important is another chance to think and talk about our testimonies as witnessing tools. Below, I talk about how Paul used his testimony multiple times to share the gospel. Help your group work on their testimonies such that they can use it to talk about Jesus. Have them be careful about too much church-y talk, but make the church important!
Closing Thoughts: Your Testimony
Your testimony is absolutely vital to any gospel presentation. Why? Your testimony cannot be refuted by anybody! Even Paul the great evangelist relied in his testimony in his major evangelistic encounters (to the crowd in Jerusalem, Acts 22, and the Roman rulers, Acts 26). But you want to make sure to include several key points: (1) God Created Us; (2) We Sinned; (3) Jesus Died for Us; (4) We Respond; (5) God Saves Us. You want to make sure that your testimony isn’t just a good story but actually helps someone learn the gospel.
If you can save time, read Paul’s testimony in Acts 26:4-23. You’ll see his very simple explanation of what Jesus did for us, and you’ll also see 3 very important images: (1) Paul’s life before Jesus, (2) Paul’s come-to-Jesus experience, and (3) Paul’s life after Jesus. Crystal-clear and easy to follow.
Rules: (1) Don’t accidentally glorify your life before Jesus. Don’t make your sinful life sound appealing. (2) Don’t go into unnecessary detail if you aren’t sure how long you’ll have with your audience. Paul knew he had a while, so he went into detail. (3) Don’t use “church-speak”! Stuff like “walking the aisle” and “praying the prayer” and “vacation Bible school” and whatnot might be completely meaningless to your audience if he has no background with a church. And more and more these days people have zero background with a church. (4) Do make Jesus the hero of your story.
Those things take practice, and they often take refinement. Most witnessing training requires you to write out your testimony and let other people look at it to help it be as simple and powerful as possible. Do you think your story is “boring”? Then let someone help you see those parts of your life where Jesus has worked in miraculous and powerful ways, and shift the emphasis to those things. Like any tool, you need to sharpen your testimony to make it as effective as possible.