There was once a couple who were fervent believers. They were religious fundamentalists and feared that their children would be polluted by the world around them. So they cut them off from the world. These strict parents were absolute in their devotion to God, and perhaps they may have been a little extreme. We cannot know all the details for certain because they lived far away from here in Turkey, and a long time ago. They banned all outside influences from their home, despising them as faithless. They insisted on speaking a foreign language, because it was the original language of their faith. They sent their son away to a strict religious school in their holy city when he was 13 and he was trained to be a fervent young man of great religious zeal. His early life was characterised by brutal violence, and the relentless persecution of any other believers who he thought might be a threat to the faith he followed. His name was Saul. He lived in Jerusalem. He was a highly educated religious extremist, and a scary guy.
Saul became determined to eradicate a particular cult of radicals that he thought was especially dangerous. His favoured method was to stone the cult members to death. Saul became more ruthless in his pursuit of the cult members as he believed he was doing it in the name of God. Arguably, there is no one more frightening or more vicious than a religious terrorist, especially when he believes that he is doing the will of the Lord by killing people. Saul was a religious terrorist. Acts 8:3 states, “Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison.”
Saul decided go and find more victims in a city 135 miles north of Jerusalem. There were tens of thousands of Jews in that city, and among them were some who followed Jesus. He asked his friends in the Sanhedrin to write a letter requesting the local leaders to cooperate in his campaign of terror. His letter from the high priest would have assured their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of The Way.
Armed with great authority, filled with great zeal, Saul set out to purge Judaism of heretics.
We all know what happened to him, don’t we. We’ve heard the story before and perhaps seen it in films.
Saul and his companions were approaching Damascus, probably a six-day journey on foot, when a bright light shone from out of the sky. The light is what is called the Shekinah, and it indicates God’s presence and shows his glory. Saul fell down and heard someone ask him why he was persecuting them. People often fell to the ground when they had a divine encounter. Usually they were then commanded to stand. Saul was left sprawled in the dust.
That suggests that God was not too happy with Saul at that moment.
Saul’s response to being spoken to in this way was not entirely humble. It is entirely possible he was not expecting God to talk to him. He said, “Who are you?” He adds to his blunt phrase a polite, sir. The Greek word is kuros, and it means master or lord or sir. It is an address expressive of respect that servants might use to greet their master. It doesn’t mean God. Though it could be used to refer to God, as we shall see in verse 10.
Saul was told what to do, and to reinforce the point he is now made blind. So often in the Bible we see blindness, and many times it has a physical and spiritual aspect. Saul is blind and has to go where he is led. Will he do it? Will he obey? Yes, he does.
God has previously struck people blind to prevent them from doing evil and protect his people.
2 Kings 6:18 – ‘As the Aramean army advanced toward him, Elisha prayed, “O Lord, please make them blind.” So the Lord struck them with blindness as Elisha had asked.’
What makes the episode with Saul more unusual is to have another person involved who also has a divine encounter. This time he is a man of faith and a follower of Jesus. His response is to say, “Yes, Lord!” Now that’s a much better response to a direct encounter with God, and in his case he certainly used kuros to mean Lord God.
The second man’s name is Ananias. He checked with God that he had really understood the instructions correctly. This is much better than running off eagerly in the wrong direction and doing the wrong thing. God doesn’t seem to mind clarifying what he has said. Ananias is surprised because he has heard about Saul. He’s heard about the terrible things this man has done to the believers in Jerusalem!
Both these men obey God. Reluctantly perhaps, maybe even doubtfully. And when they did, God acted in power. See verse 18.
“Instantly something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized.”
In cooperation with God. In trust and obedience. In these things, God moves. It was then that God took away the scales. In that moment Saul understood. He repented. He was changed by God. He responded with as much enthusiasm as he had pursued the wrong path.
It’s a great story. It’s exciting. We love to tell this story. But friends we are followers of the Lord Jesus, and this is not just a story for us. This is a lesson. It is an example.
When God blinded the eyes of the attacking Aramean army, it was because Elisha had prayed.
Had the followers of Jesus been praying for Saul? Had they desperately night after night been pleading with God to protect them from Saul. Had they been crying out day and day for the saving of Saul’s soul? We don’t know.
Look at this though. After God blinded the enemy army, they were not hurt. “The king made a great feast for them and then sent them home.”
God’s intention is to bless.
After he stopped Saul, he blessed him. God’s purpose is to draw all people to him. People we think of as enemies or wicked, God wants to bless. And then he wants them to tell everyone else about their experience of his love.
Jesus is to be experienced. Jesus is not to be held on to and kept for ourselves. We are to tell everybody about our experience of being blind, but now being able to see. That is what Saul did. The final verse of our reading this morning, Verse 20, tells us this.
‘Saul immediately began preaching about Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is indeed the Son of God!”’
What I see in this story is that Christ is alive, to be experienced everywhere. There is a universal call to healing and wholeness, embracing all of humanity but going beyond that to address all creation. It’s his free gift.
Christianity is not intellectual. It is not a system of beliefs that is better than other systems. It is an encounter with a living messiah. That is what Saul had. He met the living Jesus. Then he was prayed for and received the Holy Spirit. He was able to see. Then he told everyone about his experience. The forgiveness. The love. The grace. The mercy. Because of his background, he was equipped to give an explanation from Scripture. Because of your background, you may give a different explanation.
An encounter with Christ will change you. It’s not about the encounter experience. It’s about the possibility of everyone having that experience of love. It’s about telling others. Pray and listen. Act and tell everyone what happens. Your testimony is important. Your experience of God’s grace and love is important.
Let’s share the Good News. Jesus is alive. You can know him. He wants to bless you. He loves you. He wants to bless even the worst people, if they will listen to him.