"And I answered, 'Who are You, Lord?' And He said to me, 'I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting.'Acts 22:8(NASB)
The book of Acts is a continuation of the gospel of Luke. It traces the early beginnings of the Church from Christ's Ascension and the Day of Pentecost, when thousands of Jews came to faith in Jesus, through the tumultuous times of early Christendom. One memorable character in Acts is Saul, a strict Pharisee, who was later to change his name to Paul when he was wonderfully saved and commissioned by Christ to be His apostle to the Gentiles.
Before his conversion, Saul was a fanatically religious Jew who hated the followers of Jesus. He was the one who ruthlessly hunted down believers and threw many into prison. Saul watched approvingly when Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death by the Jewish leaders, and he was given authority from the Sanhedrin to hunt down all who followed 'the Way' and arrest them. However, Saul had an astonishing conversion when confronted by the risen, ascended, glorified Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus.
On three occasions, the apostle Paul describes his encounter with the glorified Christ Who met with him as he journeyed throughout the region of Judea and Samaria in his murderous attempt to stamp out Christianity, by savagely persecuting Christian believers. On each occasion, Paul relates his conversion experience - giving additional but complementary details.
The first account of Pauls's conversion is in Acts 9, and outlined the events that occurred while he was en route to Damascus to arrest Christians and fling them in jail. Breathing out threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, he was suddenly halted by a blindingly bright light that flashed round about him, causing him to fall to the ground.
His second account is in chapter 22, where he presented his testimony to the Jewish leaders. Paul had been arrested and falsely accused of bringing Gentiles into the Temple, so he spoke to his accusers in the Hebrew language. He described his exemplary Jewish heritage and exceptional educational credentials under the renowned teacher, Gamaliel. He recounted his hatred of Christians, his zeal in persecuting them to death, and his mission to stamp out Christianity by arresting as many as he could. He wanted his accusers to know that he originally felt the same hatred in his heart towards Jesus the Nazarene and those who followed Him, as they did, before giving them the good news of the gospel.
Paul spoke of his journey to Damascus and described the blinding light from heaven that flashed all around him at noonday. He described how he fell to the ground and heard a voice that said to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" And in this verse he related his reaction to the heavenly question, "And I answered, 'Who are You, Lord?' And He said to me, 'I am Jesus the Nazarene, Whom you are persecuting.'"
Up until the time that this blinding light shone about him, Paul despised Jesus. He hated His followers and wished to wipe them off the face of the earth, but his encounter on that momentous day caused a radical change in the future course of his life, his thinking, his passion, and his ministry. Paul realised that the Man he hated was in fact the Jewish Messiah and Son of the living God, and he explained to the Jews that by oppressing believers and mistreating Christian men, women, and children, he was fighting against Almighty God and persecuting the very One he claimed to follow!
Before his conversion, Paul had a form of godliness but denied the One Who bought him with His own blood, but the great light that blinded Paul's physical eyes caused his spiritual eyes to be opened, and he was both shocked and distressed to discover that he was fighting the true and living God whom he claimed, so fanatically, to serve! This proud Pharisee was brought to the precipice of despair in order to bring him to the point of brokenness before the Lord. His encounter with Jesus caused Paul to be willing to let God mould him into the man God wanted him to be.
Paul was an unbeliever when he discovered that aggression against Christian men and women was the equivalent of persecuting Christ, for as he discovered later, WE are His Body and HE is our Head. What a shock to discover that in abusing the Church, which is the Body of Christ, he was abusing Jesus - the Son of God Who is God the Son - the incarnate Word. When part of the Body of Christ is in pain or being persecuted, it is Jesus, our God and Saviour, Who feels the pain that we feel and suffers along with us - and in every situation His grace is sufficient.
As His Body, Christians are called to know Christ, to identify with Him, and to partake of His suffering. Jesus, Himself, informed us that in this world we will have tribulation and in his letter to the Romans, Paul explained that suffering with Christ is a necessary part of a Christian's journey. But he also encouraged us greatly when he wrote: "We suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him." What a comfort to know that Jesus identifies with US. He identifies with all our suffering and pain such that when WE who are His BODY suffer persecution, Jesus - Who is our HEAD suffers along with us.
When Saul set out to persecute believers in Damascus he was a proud, religiously minded man who was dead in trespasses and sin and at enmity with God, but after his encounter with Christ, he listened, he responded, his spiritual eyes were opened to the truth of the gospel, and Saul was wonderfully saved by grace through faith in Jesus - the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world - the sacrifice for sin including your sin, my sin, and the sin of ALL who turn to Him in faith.
Paul did nothing to save himself. He was not saved because of his privileged ancestry, his educational achievements, his financial advantages, his elevated position in the community, his seat on the Sanhedrin, or any other earthy assets. Paul was saved because he realised that he was a wretched sinner in need of the salvation that only comes through faith in Christ. And God took this murderous, hate-filled man, and Paul believed the truth: "God loved the world so much that He sent His only begotten Son, so that whosoever believes in HIM would not perish but have everlasting life."
And that same salvation is open to ALL who have ears to hear, a heart that is open to the truth, and a will to change.
Heavenly Father, what an amazing, life-changing experience it was for Paul to be confronted on the road to Damascus by Jesus, Himself. Lord, I am so thankful that You can and will save anyone who humbly turns to you for forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. Thank You for this insight into Paul’s life, from being the most zealot of persecutors of the "followers of the Way" to being the greatest missionary for the gospel of grace. Use me, Lord, in whatever way You choose, to further Your gospel in my corner of the world. In Jesus' name, AMEN.