Acts 9 is the climax of a power struggle, the conclusion to a campaign waged in Jerusalem. On the one hand, there is the campaign of Saul of Tarsus to get rid of the growing movement of Christians. His tactics are described in verses one and two. We note that he had great determination, that he had friends in high places, and he was ready to extend his crusade to faraway locations. So far, his pursuit of victory seemed to have been successful because a leader of the Christians, Stephen, had been put to death and most of the other Christians had been forced out of Jerusalem. There seemed to be nothing that could stop him in his pursuit of victory. Yet he discovered that his campaign was overthrown in a moment by Jesus, the one whom he regarded as an enemy to destroy.
Jesus also has been engaged in promoting his cause. Despite initial impressions, the expulsion of his followers from Jerusalem has not been a disaster. Instead, through this ejection the gospel has been blessed in Samaria and also a most powerful man from Ethiopia, the treasurer of that country, had become a follower of Jesus. Further the message of Jesus was declared in various cities on the Mediterranean coast. These successes had been brought about through the ministry of Philip, and no doubt Jesus was using other servants to bring his message to other places. Indeed the campaign of Jesus was making inroads into some of the territory that Saul of Tarsus may have regarded as his heartlands.
The conversion of Saul of Tarsus is one of the important events of world history. We know that the influence of certain people causes an observable change in the direction of nations. Saul of Tarsus, under the hand of Jesus Christ, changed the development of the Christian church. It was the writings of Saul of Tarsus that enlightened Luther and resulted in the Reformation, that challenged Wilberforce and others to do something about slavery, and that are still causing great changes today wherever his letters are read. Today millions of people read the words of Saul of Tarsus and give thanks to God for him.
Often the conversion of Saul is regarded as dramatic in a similar way to how conversions of other openly sinful people are perceived. The conversion of the Philippian jailor, a role often filled by a cruel and indifferent person, is rightly regarded as dramatic and, no doubt, it was a talking-point in Philippi for a while. Obviously the conversion of Saul would have been the topic of discussion in the streets of Damascus after he was converted, and the details of how it happened would have been repeated. Yet his conversion was more than a dramatic one which stimulated local interest; it was also a strategic one as far as the growth of the Christian church was concerned. What happened to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus qualified him to become an apostle of the Christian church, an individual possessing God-given authority among his people. It was strategic because Jesus Christ did not merely wish to defeat his opponent; he also intended to use him to spread the faith.
When did Saul know that he had become a Christian? Often it is assumed that because he was confronted by Jesus on the Damascus Road, Saul realised immediately that he had been converted. Perhaps he did, although a case can be made for him realising in Damascus what had taken place outside the city. His understanding of his conversion came in stages rather than a one-off event. Before Saul could believe in Jesus, he had to be made aware of who Jesus was. It seems to be that this was what happened on the Damascus Road, which was followed by a period of a few days in which Saul reflected on what had happened to him, and which climaxed with the message for Saul from Jesus delivered by Ananias.
While it is not possible that any will have the experience of Saul (i.e., meet the risen, exalted Christ), it is the case that many Christians cannot tell when they were born again. All they know is that during a certain period, be it a matter of days, weeks or months, they became followers of Jesus. It is not really possible for an individual to tell the exact moment when he was regenerated. Regeneration is the moment when God gives spiritual life into a dead soul. This new life will show itself in a variety of ways and does not follow the same order in every Christian. The various responses of the new life are covered by the term ‘conversion’. Regeneration and conversion do not mean the same experience. Regeneration is an instantaneous and secret act of God whereas conversion is a gradual turning from sin and embracing of Christ. When I say it is gradual, the process can take a few seconds, or a few minutes, or a few days, or a few weeks, or even a few months before the person realises that God has changed him. The great aspect of Saul’s conversion is that it revealed who was in charge – Jesus!