We must now return to the even current of Saul’s history as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.
The authorities at Jerusalem could not fail to become soon acquainted with the fact, that the severe measures they had taken against the Christians in that city, had tendered rather to the furtherance than to the suppression of that Gospel, against which their power had been exerted. They learned, that through the labors of the fugitives, this new doctrine was making rapid progress, not only in territories immediately beyond the borders of Judea, not only in Samaria, in Galilee, and in Perea, but among the Jewish congregations of cities beyond the limits of Palestine. From the greatness of the city, and from the large number of Jews established there, the news from Damascus was of especial and prominent interest; and the news that did come was, that the Gospel had there been received with remarkable favor. In the disappointment and rage which this intelligence excited, none shared more strongly than the furious young zealot who had made himself so active in the home persecution. He grew, as he himself says, “exceedingly mad” against them, and “breathed out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.” The term chosen by the sacred writer, “breathing, out,” is very emphatic, and occurs in the classical writers to express such deep and agitating emotions as produce rapid and violent breathing, as in extreme wrath and the like.
Saul’s anger was not spent in threatenings merely. In his vehement zeal he thirsted for the punishment of the heretical innovators, and conceived the idea of pursuing them even beyond the bounds of Palestine. He therefore applied to the high-priest, and requested to be employed in this service. What he desired was, that he should be furnished with a commission, in the form of letters to the synagogue at Damascus, authorizing him to seize all those who were found to be disciples of Jesus, whether men or women, and bring them in chains to Jerusalem for trial and punishment. The desired commission was gladly given to one so well known, and so distinguished for his zeal as Saul had now become, the high-priest being, doubtless, much rejoiced to find so willing and able an instrument for his own purposes. Presently, then, we behold Saul on the road to Damascus, with a suitable retinue, and armed with full powers as chief inquisitor, for the holy work of extirpating heresy. Never, perhaps, was the heart of a man more elated in the persuasion that he was in the path of high duty, and in the conviction that he was rendering to God a most acceptable service, than was Saul when upon this journey; and, to the eye of human calculation, never was a man less likely to become a convert to the truth he sought to destroy, than was Saul of Tarsus in that hour when the fair city of Damascus burst upon his view, seated like a bride amid her gardens, with the rivers of Abana and Pharphar watering her feet. Yet this was the man, and this the hour, when the fierce persecutor was to be struck down in his pride of place, and rendered the docile follower of that Nazarene, at whose name he had formerly ground his teeth, and the most conspicuous upholder of that truth he was prepared to lead captive in his chains. The time was now fully come—the fit time—the time fittest for himself, for the church then and in all ages, and for the saints at Damascus, who stood in much want of their Lord’s protection from this fierce oppressor. The time had come that the Lord had need of him. And so He called him; and the call was made in a way so effectual as rendered it irresistible to himself, and irresistible for the authentication of the great mission entrusted to him. Of this event—the greatest since the descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost in all the history of the early church—we have three accounts: The leading narrative by Saul’s own confidential friend and follower, Luke; and two by Paul himself, first in his address to the council at Jerusalem, Note: Acts 22. and again in his speech before King Agrippa at Caesarea Note: Acts 26.—by comparing which together, we obtain a clearer view of this most extraordinary transaction.
It was not at night, but under the glare of the noontide sun, that Saul approached the city of Damascus. Then suddenly there burst upon the party not merely a light, but a radiance, an excessive brightness, far exceeding that which is felt in looking in the face of the sun in an eastern sky. So intense was that light, so confounding to the senses, that they all fell to the ground, and lay prostrate there. Then as he lay thus, Saul heard a voice, saying to him in the Hebrew tongue, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” The whole of them heard the voice; but none but he to whom it was addressed were able to distinguish the words it uttered. He himself, confounded and amazed, could only say, “Who art Thou, Lord?” To which the voice answered, “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest.” And, resorting even then to that form of parabolic instruction which had during his abode on earth distinguished his utterance, He added, “It is hard for thee to kick against the goad,”—an expression drawn from the act of an unruly ox in resisting the goad by which it is impelled—resistance not only abortive, but greatly increasing its own distress. As much as to say—Neither the preaching nor the death of Stephen; no miracles, no arguments have prevailed with thee. Now, therefore, I appear to thee in a more express and strange manner, and appoint to thee a great work, to which I call thee, and for which I will qualify thee. All resistance to the power of my grace is as vain as the opposition of the unruly beast to the hand of its master.
The full meaning of every word the voice uttered went to the heart of Saul, and threw into his mind a flood of light, stronger far than that which had rendered his outward vision blind. Completely humbled, he could only murmur, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” He thought perhaps that he should be ordered back to Jerusalem, and there to put himself under the pupilage of the apostles. Whatever he thought, he becomingly casts himself upon the good pleasure of Him who had now revealed himself to his soul, and, as an obedient convert, submissively awaits His direction. He was probably surprised to hear that he was to proceed to Damascus, and that there he should learn the will of God concerning him.
He accordingly arose; but when he again opened his eyes, which he had instinctively closed at the sudden access of unearthly brightness, he found that he could not see. He had actually been
Blinded by excess of light;”
and those who were with him, perceiving his condition, led by the hand into Damascus—feeble as a child, and humble as a condemned offender, the pitiless persecutor whose arrival had, but an hour before, threatened sorrow and ruin to many families in that city. The blindness of Saul was no doubt mercifully intended by Providence to strengthen the powers of his mind, by compelling him to attend without distraction to the great matters which had been placed before him. The fact of this sudden and complete incapacitation, would also naturally prevent his being troubled about the business on which he came, either by those to whom his letters were addressed, or those who had been the companions of his journey. This lasted three days; and the state of his mind may be gathered from the fact that he took no food or drink during that interval. His soul was full of great matters, which left no taste or thought for meaner cares. And versed as he was in the Bible, he could even in his blindness, search the Scriptures, and, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was enabled clearly to discern the whole scheme of Christian doctrine in its fulness and truth. He repeatedly declares, in after life, that these things were not taught him by man, not by any apostle or disciple, but were imparted to him by the Spirit of truth. He was thus enabled to speak and teach with the same underived authority and Divine unction as the other apostles. It is important to notice this; because it might seem to some that Ananias, one of the disciples at Damascus, who had been sent to him, after the three days, in a vision, had been his instructor; but the close reader will see that the terms of this person’s commission, and the mode in which he discharged it, give no sanction to this impression.
The commission with which Saul was charged was well known in Damascus, and no suspicion was entertained that any change had come over him. It was probably conceived that his operations were merely suspended on account of his blindness. When, therefore, this Ananias was directed to go to him, and put his hand upon his eyes to remove his blindness, he was greatly astonished, and repeated what he had heard as to the antagonism and fell intentions of this same Saul. But the answer, decisive and full of deep matter, allowed no further remonstrance—“Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto Me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the people of Israel. For I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” This is the first mention of his high vocation in the direct narrative; but it appears from the apostle’s own account before Agrippa, that this had been very distinctly intimated to himself when our Lord spoke to him from amid the brightness.
Thus encouraged, Ananias proceeded, as he had been directed, to “the street called Straight,” and inquired at the house of Judas for one Saul of Tarsus; and soon he was introduced to the presence of the man who bore that so lately dreadful name. He at once let him know that he came with a message of peace and comfort; and told him that he had been sent by One, now not unknown to him, who had seen and pitied his condition, that he might receive his sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. Saying this, Ananias laid his hands upon his eyes; and instantly it seemed to him as if the darkening films fell from them, and his sight was completely restored. Saul then lost no time in evincing the new convictions which had entered his heart. At the word of Ananias, he arose from the posture of humble resignation in which he had lain, and was baptized, calling upon the name of that Lord who had so signally revealed himself to him. Throughout this interview, it is observable that Ananias does not say a word for the instruction of the convert, nor does he ask him any question as to the measure of his knowledge or the state of his mind. He knew already that Saul had been taught of God, and needed no teaching of his. The case reminds one, illustratively of the practice in Germany, where, if a person who has already obtained the high degree of Doctor in Divinity, desires to undertake the pastoral office, he is ordained without the examinations which all others must undergo. Note: In explanation of what may sound strangely in this statement, the reader may be reminded that degrees are academical, not ecclesiastical distinctions. Even in the Church of England, degrees are not essential to “orders;” and in Germany, the degree of Doctor of Divinity is often held by distinguished Biblical scholars and professors, who are not clergymen. Thus, the degree of D.D. was lately conferred on Chevalier Bunsen, the Prussian ambassador to our Court, who had been previously Doctor in Philosophy (Ph.D.), which is equivalent to our Master of Arts. Thus also, Tholuck was Doctor in Divinity, and Professor of Theology, before his ordination to the ministry, which, consequently took place without the usual examinations.