Luke gives a graphic picture of the attitude of Saul of Tarsus before his conversion: he was ‘still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord’. This was his consuming passion. Whenever he thought of Christians, he went into a furious rage. The thought of his heart was, ‘I must destroy them! I must destroy them!’ Why was he so vehement?
One answer to that question is that Saul’s resolution was a religious one; it was an expression of his faith. His religion consumed him day and night, and he could not tolerate a deviation from it, no matter how small. For Saul, his faith could only be expressed in this manner. He regarded Christians as guilty of blasphemy, and he knew that the penalty for it was death. And he was prepared to implement it, whatever it cost him, because he believed he was serving the God of his fathers. His heroes may have been Phinehas, who slew thousands of Israelites who engaged in idolatry, and Elijah, who massacred the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. Saul was very zealous in a wrong religion, but he was about to discover the right religion to be zealous about.
As he made his way to Damascus, Saul had no time to look at the scenery. But Someone was looking at him and in a moment brought him to the ground. The interruption happened almost as he reached the city. The Christian Jews in Damascus were aware that Saul was coming to arrest them (v. 14). We can imagine the great fear they would have and, perhaps, they were praying for God to stop Saul from reaching the city. Whether they were or not, the method used by Jesus here is a common one – deliverance from trouble often occurs at the last moment. The believers living in Damascus were rescued from Saul’s intentions when he had almost arrived at the city.
Saul went through an experience that occasionally occurred in Old Testament times. God appeared to a person in great power and majesty, such as his appearance to the prophet in Isaiah 6. Such divine visits are called theophanies and Saul realised he had received one. We can see this realisation in his response, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul understood that he was in the presence of God. This question had not risen out of curiosity; instead it was a confession by Saul that he had met God.
Saul heard this unknown voice call him by name. This must have been a surprise to Saul, to hear himself addressed personally by a voice from within the bright light that surrounded him. Saul realised that he was face to face with one who knew all about him, not only his name, but also his struggles (kicking against the goads). Further, Saul would have known that often God, when he spoke to a person in the Old Testament, often said the name twice – he did so to Abraham, Jacob, Moses and Samuel, and it always signified a matter of great importance. Perhaps this is why Saul asked what Jesus would have him do.
One thing that is evident from Saul’s experience is that he is now a submissive man. All his previous independency of outlook has gone. Saul had assumed that he had been serving God. He realised now that his assumption had been false, and that he had to change his way of living. This desire for change is expressed in his question, ‘Lord, what will you have me do?’ The heart of Saul of Tarsus was now different.