Acts 9:1-31

A Bible Study Led by Dr. Larry Reynolds

April 30, 2009


(Acts 9:1-31)


Some events in life are so dramatic and life-changing that you never forget where you were and what you were doing when you first heard news of the event.  Of course, we all have personal events in our lives that fall into that category, most of which evolve around some tragedy.  But there are some collective events we experience together that fall into that category as well.  If you are like me, you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when you heard of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on lift-off or when you first heard the news of the terrible events on September 11, 2001.


The event on which we are going to focus tonight would fall into that category for people who lived in the Jewish and Christian communities of 1st century Palestine.  I am referring to the conversion the man whose Jewish name was Saul and who later came to be identified by his Roman name, Paul.  It is nearly impossible to overemphasize Paul’s conversion.  In the book Turning Points of History Earl of Birkenhead puts it this way:

            Of all men who may claim to have changed the course of the world’s history, St. Paul must surely take first place.  He altered the basic ideas of Western Civilization; the whole of our history bears the marks of that busy career of impassioned teaching which the Jewish tent-maker undertook after his conversion of faith in Jesus Christ. [Quoted by Vaughn in Acts:  A Study Guide Commentary]

Another writer says:

            We simply cannot make too much of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus from the fiercest enemy of the church to its greatest spokesman and theologian.  All of world history has benefited from his Christian witness, the exemplary and intense life he lived, and most of all, his legacy as a writing theologian. [Acts:  Layman’s Bible Commentary]


We have been looking during our past several sessions at the second major section of the book of Acts.  This section tells the story of the expanding witness of the early church into Samaria and the coastal regions of Judea.  The ministries of three people dominate this section:

·        Acts 8:4-40 tells of the ministry of Phillip

·        Acts 9:1-31 tells of the conversion of Saul

·        Acts 9:33 – 11:18 tells of the work of Peter

One of the transitions taking place in the church in this period was a transition in leadership from Peter to Paul.  While it did not happen overnight, from the moment of Paul’s conversion recorded in Acts 9, he begins to move toward becoming the dominant figure in the 1st century church.

The book of Acts gives us a rather detailed profile of Paul.  From the text of Acts we know the following about him:

·        He was a “young man” which means he was probably between twenty-four and forty when Stephen was martyred (Acts 7:58)

·        He was born in the city of Tarsus in Cilicia (Acts 21:39; Acts 22:3)

·        He was reared in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3)

·        He was a Jew (Acts 21:39; Acts 22:3)

·        He was a Roman citizen by birth (Acts 22:25-29)

·        He was fluent in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew (Acts 21:37, 40; Acts 22:2)

·        He received a superior theological education under the teaching of Gamaliel, a respected Pharisee (Acts 5:34; Acts 22:3)

·        Both before and after his conversion he was motivated by a great zeal for God (Acts 22:3)

As impressive as his background was, strong Christian tradition indicates Paul was not too impressive physically.  One ancient writer describes him this way:

            [Paul was] a man of middling size, and his hair was scanty, and his legs were a little crooked, and his knees were far apart;  he had large eyes, and his eyebrows met, and his nose was somewhat long. [Quoted in The Book of Acts:  The Smart Guide to the Bible, Robert Girard] 


The mention of Saul’s name in Acts 9:1 is the fourth time his name appears in Acts.  We first see him in Acts 7:58 as those who stoned Stephen laid their robes at the feet of Saul.  In Acts 8:1 we are told that Saul was in “hearty agreement” with the killing of Stephen.  Then in Acts 8:3 we read that “…Saul began ravaging the church…”  After an interlude dealing with the ministry of Phillip, in Acts 9:1 Luke picks up the thought of Acts 8:3.  There is not complete agreement among Bible scholars about when the conversion of Saul occurred, but the consensus of thought seems to be somewhere in the mid-30’s A.D.


Luke tells the story in four movements:

·        The conversion experience (Acts 9:1-9)

·        The visit of Ananias (Acts 9:10-19a)

·        Paul’s first preaching (Acts 9:19b-22)

·        Conspiracies against Paul’s life (Acts 9:23-31)


The Conversion Experience (Acts 9:1-9)

Three times in the book of Acts Luke records this story (Acts 9:1-9; 22:6-16; 26:12-18).  That Luke would record the story three times is indicative of the importance he attached to the event.

Verses 1-2 set the stage for the event.

“still breathing” – Looks back to Acts 8:3.

“went to the high priest and asked for letters” – In the Roman Empire certain sub-groups of people were allowed to govern themselves with some limitations.  The Jewish Sanhedrin, headed by the high priest, had jurisdiction over the approximately six million Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire.  Letters from the high priest authorizing Saul to arrest Christians would be honored by both religious and civil authorities.

“synagogues at Damascus – Located about 150 miles north of Jerusalem.  Was on a major trade route connecting Egypt and Mesopotamia.  It is estimated that about ten thousand Jews lived in Damascus so the hunting ground for Christians who were at this time still meeting in the synagogues would have been fertile for Saul.

“the Way” – This is one of the earliest designations for Christianity.  It is used at least six times in Acts (9:2; 19:9; 22:4; 24:14; and 24:14,22).  The word (hodos) means road or path.  It calls to mind the statement of Jesus in John 14:6 where He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no-one comes to the Father, but through Me.”  

“bound to Jerusalem– Presumably for trial and punishment.


Verses 3-7 describe Saul’s encounter with the Lord.

“was approaching Damascus – Damascus is about a week’s journey from Jerusalem.  As the predator approached the flock in Damascus, the Good Shepherd intervened!

“a light from heaven flashed around him” – This event occurred at noon (see Acts 22:6 and 26:13).  At that time of the day the sun in the middle east is extremely bright.  However, this light was brighter than the noonday sun.  Some have suggested this was a manifestation of what the Old Testament refers to as the shekinah of God coming from Jesus. 

“heard a voice” – Acts 26:14 tells us the voice spoke in the “Hebrew dialect” which would have been Aramaic.

why are you persecuting Me?” – That question is a reminder of the close relationship which exists between Christ and His people.  He is present with us in our sufferings!  When Christians are persecuted, it is a persecution of Jesus as well.  Augustine says of this statement, “It was the head in heaven crying out on behalf of the members who were still on earth.”

“Who art Thou, Lord?” – Notice the immediate surrender of Saul.  From that instant forward there was no doubt about Paul’s commitment to Jesus as Lord.

“the men who traveled with him … hearing the voice” – Acts 22:9 says those traveling with Paul did not hear the voice.  Critics have attempted to make a big deal of this supposed discrepancy in Scripture.  A closer examination of the language reveals that there is no discrepancy.  The case of the noun “voice” is different in Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9.  The case in Acts 9:7 means suggests hearing a sound.  The case in Acts 22:9 suggests not understanding what is heard.  The clear meaning is that the people traveling with Paul heard the sound of the voice but did not understand the words.

“three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank” – Imagine what was going through Paul’s mind during this period of time.  He had no idea what was ahead of him.  He had no clue who might come to assault him.  After all, he had been waging war against these Christians.  Surely, they would use this opportunity to take their revenge on him!


The Visit of Ananias (Acts 9:10-19a)

Ananias is one of the unsung heroes of the New Testament.  All that we know about him is mentioned in Acts 22:12.  He was a devout Jewish believer and was well respected by all the Jews (both believers in Christ and unbelievers) who lived in Damascus.

Verses 10-12 describe the vision Ananias received from the Lord.

“the Lord said to him in a vision” – Notice the extensive occurrence of visions in Acts.  I counted at least six (6) accounts of visions in this book.  Two occur in this passage—one to Ananias and one to Saul.

“street called Straight” – That street can still be seen in Damascus to this day.

Verses 13-14  describe Ananias’ initial response to the vision.

“Ananias answered…” – The hesitation Ananias expressed in verses 14-15 is understandable.  Perhaps he was in Jerusalem when the persecution instigated by Saul had begun.  Certainly he had heard of Saul and he was well aware of the purpose Saul’s coming to Damascus.

“how much harm he did to Thy saints at Jerusalem – This is the first occurrence in the New Testament of the word “saints” to describe Christians.  It became one of Paul’s favorite ways of referring to followers of Christ.  The word essentially means “holy ones.”  It is a reference to every believer.  All believers in Christ are saints (holy ones) not by virtue of their own actions but because of the sacrifice of Jesus on their behalf.

Verses 15-16 give God’s response to the objections of Ananias.

“chosen instrument” – Chosen as an act of God’s sovereignty.  Why Saul?  Certainly he was uniquely gifted and trained as a theologian.  He had the right credentials as a Roman citizen to reach outside Judaism.  He was a man of intense passion.  For all those reasons, Paul was uniquely qualified to become the Apostle to the Gentiles.  Also, perhaps the choice of Saul was a reminder to the early Christians of the power of the gospel to change the lives of people.  No doubt, once they got over their skepticism about Saul’s motives, his conversion was a source of great encourage to those early believers.

“to bear My name before the Gentiles” – This is an unusual prediction.  It moves the story toward the final part of Acts 1:8 – “…and even to the remotest part of the earth.”

“I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” – In effect, the Lord says to Ananias, ‘Don’t worry about how much suffering Saul has caused.  His turn for suffering is coming!”

Verses 17-18 describe Ananias’ visit to Saul.

“Ananias departed…” – Notice the immediate obedience.

“laying his hands on him” – This act was performed not by an apostle but by a man who apparently had no official rank in the church.  Dr. Curtis Vaughan says of that, “Perhaps we are to see in it the suggestion that Saul’s ministry was to be totally independent of the twelve.”

“Brother Saul” – A very tender greeting.  Those words must have given Saul some encouragement and sense of relief.  Maybe he was among friends, after all!

“filled with the Holy Spirit” – This was absolutely necessary for Saul to carry out the mission God had given him.

“was strengthened” – Both spiritually through his obedience (baptism, etc) and physically through the taking of food.


Paul’s First Preaching (Acts 9:19b-22)

Unlike any of the new converts mentioned to this point in Acts, Paul immediately began preaching.

“proclaiming Jesus” – The substance of his preaching.

“in the synagogues” – The location of his preaching.  Ironically, in the very synagogues where he had planned to arrest believers, he was now attempting to make believers!

“by proving that this Jesus is the Christ” – Paul’s extensive knowledge of the Old Testament allowed him to place the prophecies concerning the coming Messiah alongside their fulfillment in Jesus.  It was a compelling argument which the people in the synagogues were unable to refute.

Between verses 22-23 Paul’s visit to Arabia that is described in Galatians 1:15-18 occurred.

Conspiracies Against Paul’s Life (Acts 9:23-26)

Verses 23-25 tell of the conspiracy in Damascus.  Paul mentions this experience in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33.

      “many days” – The three years in Galatians 1:15-18.

      “the Jews plotted” – The hunter became the hunted!


Verses 26-30 tell of the conspiracy in Jerusalem.  This was Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem since his conversion at least three years earlier.  The visit is mentioned in Galatians 1:18-20.

“were all afraid … but Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles” – The disciples were afraid to associate with Paul.  One person says he was the first man to have his application for membership in the Jerusalem church rejected!

“arguing with the Hellenistic Jews” – This was the same group that had instigated the death of Stephen with Paul’s encouragement.  They wanted to do the same to Paul!

“brethren learned of it” – Acts 22:17-21 says Paul received a vision from the Lord concerning the plot against him while he was praying in the temple.  He apparently shared the vision with some fellow believers and they got him out of Jerusalem.


Acts 9:31 is the fourth in a series of nine summary accounts of the state of the church at various points of time in Acts.  Most are very brief consisting of just a sentence or two.  These summaries are located in Acts 1:14; 4:32-35; 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; and 28:30-31. 


Practical Applications from Acts 9:1-31

1.      No-one is outside the reach of the grace of God.

2.      What we do to others, we do to the Lord.

3.      Obedience is the only appropriate response to the Lord.

4.      God has a way of protecting His people.

5.      The call to Christianity is a radical call.


Over 200 years ago two skeptics, Gilbert West and George Lyttleton, set out to discredit the resurrection of Jesus and the conversion of Saul.  In the process, both became convinced of the reality of both events.  Concerning the conversion of Saul, Lyttleton wrote:  “The conversion and apostleship of Paul, duly considered, was of itself a demonstration sufficient to prove Christianity to be a divine revelation.”