This page is a verse by verse study of Acts 9:1-19. These verses describe the conversion of Saul with the assistance of Ananias.
The Conversion of Saul of Tarsus
¶ "Saul kept breathing out threats and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues of Damascus. The letters authorized Saul, if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, to bring them bound to Jerusalem."(Acts 9:1-2).
Saul at Damascus. Saul has ravaged the church in Jerusalem, only to find that his persecution and scattering of that church has caused it to rapidly spread. Saul heads northwards to try to head it off at Damascus in southern Syria, and stop it spreading further north.
The Way. At this point the terms “Christians” and “Christianity” had not become common (Acts 11:26). The new religion was known as “the Way”, and its followers were called “disciples” (eg Acts 19:23,30). These descriptions remain acceptable to use as descriptions of Christ’s religion and followers. Jesus himself provided “The Way” as a name for his church and his faith. He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me."(John 14:6).
It always surprises me how willing people are to invent strange names for themselves when there are several perfectly good descriptions in the word of God. Why do we hear names such as, “Jehovah’s Witnesses”; “Seventh Day Adventists”; “Roman Catholics”; “Uniting Church”; “Anglicans”; “Reformed Baptists”; and so forth? None of these names honors Jesus, nor were they ever on his lips or written in his word. What has gone so wrong that we cannot stay with the scriptural names? “I'm a Christian, I follow the Way”—isn't that enough?
¶ "As Saul, on his journey to Damascus, came near the city, suddenly a light from the sky shone around him. He fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul said, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. [ It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” So Saul, shaking and astounded, asked, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” The Lord said to Saul,] “Arise and go into the city, and there you will be told what you must do.”"(Acts 9:3-6).
Who Are You Lord? Saul’s response to the light and the voice acknowledges the one speaking to him as “Lord” but doesn't acknowledge that this Lord is Jesus. Saul, a Pharisee, certainly believed in angels and spirits (Acts 23:8). He did not believe that Jesus, a man, had risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. Even though the voice said, "Why do you persecute me?"(Acts 9:4), Saul did not recognize that Jesus speaking. Yet Saul was obsessed with persecuting the followers of Jesus.
Kick against the goads. Jesus makes it plain to Saul, that Saul is not hearing an angel. He is hearing Jesus, and Jesus is Lord. Having made that clear, Jesus shows Saul, in the remark about the goads, that he can look deep into Saul’s heart. A goad is a pointed stick used to prod stubborn beasts of burden into movement.
What were the goads that Saul was kicking against? They weren't pangs of conscience, because Saul later said, "I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God until this day"(Acts 23:1)."I truly thought that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus"(Acts 26:9).
The goads were the words of truth from the gospel, and the proofs in the form of signs and miracles. Paul, in his dealings with disciples of Christ, could not help but be informed about the message preached and the signs done. An honest man, like Saul, would have to be pricked by the truth and finding it ever harder to argue against it.
Missing words. Some translations omit, in verse 5, the section marked with square brackets. However other versions (such as the New King James Version) include the extra words. The omission or inclusion depends on which texts a translation follows. Paul later relates that Jesus spoke the part about kicking against the goads (Acts 26:14).
¶ "Saul’s companions on the journey stood speechless. They heard the sound, but saw nobody. Saul arose from the ground. Although his eyes were open, he couldn't see anything. His companions led him by the hand, and took him into Damascus. Saul was blind for three days. He didn't eat or drink."(Acts 9:7-9).
Stood speechless. When Saul’s companions got up off the ground, they "stood speechless"(Acts 9:7). You might expect them to be all babbling at each other, “What happened? What on earth was that? Is anybody hurt? Was that lightning? Are you all ok?” But instead they stood silent, unable or unwilling to say anything. They'd seen a glory brighter than the noonday sun. They were awe-struck and words failed them.
Saul was blind. Although Saul opened his eyes, he had no sight. The glory of the light (Acts 22:11) had caused some kind of scale to form on his eyes (Acts 9:18). Saul’s companions were not affected in that manner, although they saw the light as Saul did. This blindness was therefore a personal lesson and a sign to Saul from Jesus. It was to impress upon him that he had allowed himself to be blind to Jesus’s glory, so now for a time he will be blinded by it. When the eyes of his heart see the truth, then the eyes of his flesh will also see. He is now under Christ’s power, and how easily the Lord has humbled him and put an end to his persecutions.
Contradictions? Paul says that his travelling companions did not hear the voice of Jesus who spoke to him (Acts 22:19), whereas Luke says they heard the sound (Acts 9:7). Paul also says that he and his companions all fell to the ground (Acts 26:14), whereas Luke says that Saul fell to the ground and his companions stood speechless (Acts 9:7). This is one of those famous “contradictions” that some people think they have discovered in the Bible. However Luke is hardly likely to write an account that contradicts Paul’s own accounts, and then quote those accounts in the same document! It is easy to reconcile these accounts: Saul and his companions all fell to the ground when the light shone, but his companions stood up before Saul did. Saul heard what Jesus said, but his companions heard only the sound, but did not hear in the sense of comprehending what was said.
¶ "There was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” Ananias said, “Behold Lord, here I am.” The Lord said to him, “Arise, and go to the street named Straight. Inquire at the house of Judas for someone named Saul, a man of Tarsus. For behold, he is praying, and has seen a vision. He saw a man named Ananias coming in and laying his hands on him to give him back his sight.” "(Acts 9:9-12).
Saul s Conversion. We often hear reference to “Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus”. However, Saul was converted in Damascus with the ministry of Ananias. Whilst his conversion may not have happened without the experience on the road, that experience was not conversion. A person can certainly be converted without any such experience as Saul had, so conversion cannot be such an experience. Saul was told by the Lord to go into Damascus where he would be told what do do; Ananias was appointed to tell him. This account does not inform us what Saul was told, but unless he was told, and unless he obeyed, he could not be regarded as “converted” or a “disciple”.
People who speak of “Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus” may think that conversion is an ephiphany and a conviction forced upon those the Lord has chosen. In fact, it is a hearing of the word by a human ministry, and a personal decision to believe and obey that message. That's why Saul was sent into Damascus and Ananias was sent to him. The Lord may have made an exception of Paul in the manner in which he confronted Saul on the road. But he made no exception in the manner by which Saul would subsequently be converted.
¶ "Ananias replied, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, and how much evil he did to your saints at Jerusalem. Here in Damascus he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to Ananias, “Be on your way to him, for he is my chosen vessel to carry my name before the nations and their kings, and before the children of Israel. I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” "(Acts 9:13-16).
Ananias objects. Ananias seems to object; although perhaps he is just seeking clarification when there seems to be a conflict between what he has heard from others, and what he is hearing from the Lord. The Lord says, in effect, that he knows Saul better than anyone else, and he has chosen Saul as the right man for a great task.
The nations, their kings, and the children of Israel. The apostle Paul (whom Saul was to become) is known as the apostle to the Gentiles, here called "the nations and their kings." However Paul was to include the synagogues of the Jews in his outreach as he journeyed to the cities of the Gentiles. Paul was an apostle to the Gentiles "and to the children of Israel".
He must suffer. Saul was going to suffer greatly in his role as the apostle Paul. This was not punishment for the suffering his persecution had brought to the disciples of Christ. In fact, by undergoing much suffering for Jesus (2Corinthians 11:23-28), Paul could come to terms with the terrible things he had done against Jesus.
Saul later called Paul. Saul of Tarsus later took the name Paul (Acts 13:9). Saul was the name of the Benjaminite who became first king of Israel (1Sam 9:15-17). Saul of Tarsus was also a Benjaminite (Philippians 3:4-5). No doubt he wore this kingly name with pride. The name "Paul" comes from the Latin for "little" (the root of our English words "pauper" and "paucity"). To give up the kingly name Saul, and take up the name Paul meaning "little", shows humility. But Paul is the more humble, for he does not stop at the name: he calls himself, "I Paul a servant..." (Colossians 1:23,25).
¶ "Ananias went on his way. When he entered the house, he laid his hands on Saul. Ananias said, “Brother Saul, the Lord, who appeared to you on the road you were travelling, has sent me. I come so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. Then Saul arose and was baptized. He took food and was strengthened. Saul stayed several days with the disciples who were at Damascus."(Acts 9:17-19).
Immediately. When Ananias laid hands on Saul to heal him, the result was immediate and complete. Saul could see again. In my experience, immediate and complete healing doesn't happen today when people claim to have the powers of Ananias and when they lay hands on people to heal them.
Filled with the Spirit. Saul had not been filled with the Holy Spirit when Jesus spoke to him on the road. Ananias was sent so that Saul could be filled with the Spirit. Ananias was not an apostle, so the laying on of his hands would not impart the Spirit to Saul (Acts 8:18). At his baptism Saul certainly received the Holy Spirit as all converts do (Acts 2:38). We are left, however, to wonder how and when Saul received "the signs of an apostle" or the same powers that the twelve apostles possessed (2Cor 12:11-12). The safest assumption is that Jesus gave Saul his powers at an undisclosed time following his conversion.
He arose and was baptized. Ananias was to tell Saul the things that he must do. Baptism was one of those things (Acts 22:16). Why then do people say that baptism is not something we must do?
He took food. Saul had been fasting and praying (Acts 9:9,11). Now, after his baptism, he was reconciled to God and was covered by the death of Jesus (Romans 6:3-11). He could attend to the needs of the body having put his soul to rights by the word and power of Jesus.
Other accounts. Saul’s conversion is described (in his own words) in two other chapters (22 and 26) so we will have opportunity for further discussion of the subject.
A Startling Fact
J.W. McGarvey, circa 1823, in his Commentary on Acts tells this most interesting story...
Engaged in a public debate, a few years since, with a Doctor of Divinity of a numerous and powerful party, I determined to apply to him a test which had been employed before by some of my brethren, and charged that he dare not, as he valued his ministerial position, and even his membership in the Church, give to mourners seeking salvation the answers given by inspired men, in the very words, which they employed. He interrupted me, by asking if I intended to insinuate that he would not preach what he believed to be the truth. I replied, that I had no disposition to question his honesty, but that I was stating a startling fact, which ought to be made to ring in the ears of the people. I then told the audience I would put my statement to a test at once, and turning to the Doctor, I said: "Sir, if you had a number of mourners before you, as Peter had on Pentecost, pierced to the heart with a sense of guilt, and exclaiming, What shall we do? would you dare to say to them, 'Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit?' Or, if you were called into a private house, like Ananias, to see man fasting and weeping and praying, would you dare to say to him, 'Why do you tarry? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord?' I pause for a reply." I stood waiting, and the immense audience held their breath, until the silence became painful; but the Doctor hung his head and answered not one word.