9 Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
3 As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. 4 Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
5 And he said, “Who are You, Lord?”
Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Each of us knows what it is like to join in on tormenting someone when you are part of a crowd and there is an easy victim. Reach back to a memory of the schoolyard: it's recess and there is a new kid who does not act or dress the same, speaks with a different accent or simply does not seem to fit in. No matter how it begins the social order of playground savages can cut someone from the herd and before long it is easier to simply be another voice causing pain rather than take a stand to protect an innocent person. We can console ourselves later by thinking that “things simply got out of hand” or “after all, it could easily have been me bearing those insults if I had spoken out.” Surviving the deepest jungle of the Amazon has nothing on surviving the jungle of the fifth grade.
When it came to persecuting the early church, Saul was not a mere face in the crowd or a follower of orders; Saul was the tip of the spear and his hands were stained with Christian blood. He was confident and cocksure, in his prime and at the top of his game. Saul of Tarsus was a man on a mission of persecution, and he was perfect for the job. Educated to the highest degree, a zealous follower of the Jewish law and cunningly skilled, Saul was an instrument of destruction for the band of heretics known as “The Way” and he loved his work.
We are introduced to Saul in Acts chapter 7 and the murder of Stephen, the first Christian martyr:
58 and they cast [Stephen] out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. — Acts 7:58
The scene here is not simply that Saul was a bystander or that he was responsible to look after the outer cloaks of his fellow Jews like a non-athletic friend guarding sweatshirts and wallets in a pickup game of football. No, Luke writes in a few verses later in Acts 8:1 that Saul was consenting to his death.
The Greek word here is suneudokeo, to “approve” or “be pleased with.” Saul did not simply believe that Stephen’s horrible death was a mere consequence of violating the law, Saul was glad that it was happening. As he stood among the cloaks Saul likely smiled as the stones struck home and the precious blood of Stephen who so passionately loved his savior spilled onto the dust in that ditch.
With this act of violence Saul’s own career of persecution of followers of Christ began. As Luke records:
3 As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. — Acts 8:3
Saul was no mere thug wielding a stick but instead possessed a gifted and brilliant intellect that he used to seek out and destroy these meddlesome heretics. The word here for “havoc” is ἐλυμαίνετο and implies the chaos and slaughter that accompanied the sacking of a city by an invading army. Saul sought to disrupt and destroy not just the message of Jesus but all those who followed Him.
He became a leader of men and as he later explains in Acts 26:11: And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.
Perhaps this is why on that fateful day in the Syrian desert Saul is confronted by Jesus not simply as someone who is causing problems for a movement or is hurting another team but instead as one who was directly causing pain and suffering. Saul may have been a harsh interrogator who ferreted out rumors, gifted administrator who led others to do his dirty work of physically beating and killing Christians but on the road to Damascus he meets the One whom he has actually been causing direct pain.
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
Jesus, the bridegroom of His church, is feeling the suffering of his young bride and He brings it personally to Saul. You can almost sense it in agonized tones: “why are YOU persecuting ME?”
Jesus confronts us in our guilt as he confronts Saul: He makes it personal. It is easy for us to make our sins impersonal, that we have violated a code or simply not measured up. We can bear the guilt of the past like a bad mark on a college transcript that can be filed away in hopes it’s never brought up again. Jesus reminds us on the Damascus road in a blinding ray of light and a voice of pain that our guilt is borne by Him, on the wide shoulders of the carpenter. Once we see that reality we can be free to give up our hold and let Him carry all.
That day in the desert Saul began a long road of belief in which he too would learn that Jesus, whom he had so gleefully persecuted, bore his sins too.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.