CONVERSION OF SHA’UL

The "Conversion"
of Sha'ul“And Sha’ul, still breathing out threats and murder against the Lord’s talmidim (disciples), went up to the Cohen HaGadol, 2 and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, so that if he found any of the Way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”

 

Studies in Acts (ch. 9)

Rick Aharon

Chaimberlin

The verses above introduce us to Acts chapter 9. Sha’ul was apparently a member of the Sanhedrin, and as such agreed to the execution of Stephen, in Acts 8:1. He wasn’t satisfied to merely persecute the Messianic Jews in Jerusalem; he wanted to go out to arrest Messianic Jews in Damascus.

     Most Christians are taught that Sha’ul (later called Paul) was seeking permission from the high priest to go to Damascus to arrest Christians. However, under Roman law, the Sanhedrin had jurisdiction only in internal Jewish affairs. Jews could not go out to arrest pagans, Christians, or members of any other religious grouping. The Messianic Jews (called “the Way” in the verses above, or HaDerekh in Hebrew) were considered a sect of Judaism, albeit a heretical sect. Therefore, under Roman law, the Sanhedrin had jurisdiction over what was an entirely internal Jewish matter.

     It’s interesting to note that in verse 2, these Messianic Jews were to be found in the synagogues. This is one of the places where Messianic Jews chose to worship. I remember when my wife and I were new Believers in Messiah. There were no Messianic congregations in Rochester in 1975. We had the desire to start attending a non-Messianic synagogue. Our Christian friends couldn’t understand that one at all! Some would look at me quizzically, and say, “Are you still saved?” They couldn’t begin to understand why anyone who believes in “Jesus” would want to go to a synagogue! However, in our desire to go to a synagogue, we were following the example of these early believers in the First Century.

     Rav Sha’ul was very zealous in his desire to put away heresy from the Jewish community. He wasn’t content to persecute the Messianic Jews in Jerusalem. He wanted to go to another country (Syria) to arrest Messianic Jews and bring both men and women back to Jerusalem, perhaps to stand trial before the Sanhedrin there. Israel and Syria were both part of the huge Roman Empire, so both were under Roman law.

     “And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus, and suddenly a great light shone forth from heaven, 4 and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Sha’ul, Sha’ul, why do you persecute Me?’ 5 And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Yeshua, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the pricks.’ 6 And he trembling, said, ‘Lord, what will you have for me to do?’ And the Lord said to him, ‘Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.’”

     Sha’ul was having a supernatural encounter with Yeshua. In Judaism, it was felt that the spirit of prophecy had departed from Israel after the time of Malachi, the last of the writing prophets. Thereafter, God didn’t speak directly to His people anymore. He spoke to His people indirectly, sort of like an echo, via what was called the bat kol, or “heavenly voice.” (Literally, bat kol means “daughter of the sound.”) The bat kol was also how God communicated occasionally even to the prophets, as in Isaiah 6:8-13 and Daniel 10:7. We see this also in Revelation 1:10-11, where Yochanan heard a voice, and then “turned to see the voice” from heaven.[1]

Initially, the voice said, “Sha’ul, Sha’ul, why do you persecute Me?” Persecuting the Congregation is considered equivalent to persecuting the Messiah Himself, because the Congregation is His body, as we learn in Ephesians 1:22-23. It is clear that Sha’ul didn’t know the source of the voice, as he had to ask, “Who are you, Lord?” The Greek word kurios can mean “Lord” or simply “sir.” I suspect that “sir” would be a better translation, as Rav Sha’ul was genuinely puzzled about who it was that was addressing him.

     Yeshua told him that he was “kicking” against the “pricks.” Another good translation would be “goads,” that is, the sharp objects that are sometimes used to get cattle to move forward. If you were to kick against the goad, instead of moving forward in the same direction as the goad, that would be especially painful. However, that is exactly what Sha’ul was doing.

     “And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.”[2] Rav Sha’ul retells this story, and seems to contradict himself in Acts 22:9 in the King James Version. I’m not a Greek scholar. However, the New American Standard seems to be a better translation of Acts 22:9: “And those who were with me beheld the light, to be sure, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me.”

     “And Sha’ul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing, and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. 9 And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”

     This must have been a really scary experience! Sha’ul discovered that he had been persecuting Yeshua, who he now knew was really the Messiah. And now he was blind! He must have thought he was being punished for his spiritual blindness! Perhaps that took his appetite away, or perhaps he deliberately took a three-day fast to better understand his situation.

“And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Behold, I am here,[3] Lord.’ 11And the Lord said to him, ‘Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one called Sha’ul of Tarsus: for, behold, he is praying, 12and has seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight.’”

 

We find God supernaturally intervening at various times in the Book of Acts. In this case, God wanted Ananias (“Chananyah” in Hebrew) to pray for Sha’ul. However, he knew that Ananias would be very reluctant to approach the man who had been sent to Damascus to arrest Messianic Jews, and had in fact been successfully persecuting Messianic Jews in Jerusalem. In this case, YHWH was preparing both Sha’ul and Ananias for the upcoming meeting that He had prepared for them. He arranged for both of them to have a vision, in which He spoke to them. In one vision, Ananias is told to go to Sha’ul. Ananias is also told that Sha’ul had a vision as well, in which Sha’ul was told that Ananias would lay his hand upon him so that he might receive his sight. Although God can (and does!) supernaturally speak to His people, the most common way He speaks to us is through His Word.

     At this point, it is safe to assume that Sha’ul had joined in faith with those whom he formerly had persecuted. In the title of this article, I wrote “Conversion” surrounded by quotation marks. The reason for the quotation marks is that Sha’ul had accepted Yeshua as his Messiah. If we believe Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah (and He is!), then it certainly isn’t necessary for a Jew to convert to another religion (such as Christianity) in order to accept Yeshua as his own Jewish Messiah and Savior.

     However, despite the supernatural vision, Ananias wasn’t convinced. Apparently, he felt that the Lord wasn’t fully aware of who this character Sha’ul really was! “Then Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he has done to your kadoshim (“saints,” set-apart people) at Jerusalem. 14And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on your name.’ 15But the Lord said to him, ‘Go your way: for he is my chosen vessel, to bear My name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: 16For I will show him how great things he must suffer for My name’s sake.’” 

     The Lord made it clear that He hadn’t made any mistakes. What is more, He had chosen Sha’ul – the great persecutor of Messianic Jews – as His chosen vessel to bear God’s name to both Jew and Gentile. In addition, the Lord told Ananias that Sha’ul would suffer much for much for sharing the Gospel.

 

17And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Yeshua that appeared to you in the way as you came, has sent me, that you might receive your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ 18And immediately there fell from his eyes as it were scales, and he received sight, and arose, and was baptized. 19And when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then Saul was with the disciples which were at Damascus for several days.”

 

Sha’ul became blind because of a supernatural visitation from Yeshua. After Ananias laid hands on him, the blindness supernaturally departed. Finally after 3 days of not eating or drinking, Sha’ul finally ate, and spent several days as a new Believer in the Messiah with the talmidim (disciples) in Damascus.

 

“And immediately he (Sha’ul) preached Messiah in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God. 21But all that heard him were amazed, and said, ‘Is not this he that destroyed them who called on this name in Jerusalem, and came here for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests?’ 22But Sha’ul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Messiah.”

 

This of course was the exact opposite of what the non-Messianic Jewish community in Damascus was expecting. Word gets around rather quickly! It isn’t dependent upon the news media or the Internet! In biblical times, the primary means of receiving the news was by word of mouth. They “knew” that Sha’ul had come to arrest the Messianic Jews. Instead, he had become one of them! Not only that, but he was preaching Yeshua in the synagogues. It remained a consistent pattern of Sha’ul’s life to preach Yeshua in the synagogues, as we see in Acts 13:5; 14:1; 17:1-2; 18:4,19; and 19:4. In doing so, he was able to preach to Jews, and also to the Gentile God-fearers, as the synagogue was where a Gentile could learn about the God of Israel, who was also the God of Creation – the God of the Universe.

23And after that many days were fulfilled, the (non-believing) Jews took counsel to kill him: 24But their laying in wait was known of Sha’ul. And they watched the gates day and night to kill him. 25Then the disciples took him by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket.” 

 

Apparently, the non-believing Jews in Damascus weren’t too pleased about Sha’ul sharing the news of Yeshua. The Jewish people have many times been disappointed with false messiahs, both before the time of Yeshua (as mentioned in Acts 5:33-37), as well as in other centuries, right into modern times. The occupying Roman armies also didn’t take kindly to any who had any kind of a Messianic fervor to overthrow Roman power.

     In Galatians 1:17-18, we learn that Rav Sha’ul spent three years in Arabia before going to Jerusalem. Acts chapter 9 is a very abridged version of events. Much is left unsaid. However, it should be noted that there is a three-year gap between Acts 9:25 and 9:26.

 

26And when Sha’ul had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join himself to the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple. 27But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the sh’lichim (apostles), and declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Yeshua. 28And he was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem.”  As a result of Barnabas interceding for Sha’ul with the Messianic Jews, he was able to travel about witnessing for Yeshua throughout Yeshua.

 29And he spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Yeshua, and disputed against the Hellenistic Jews,[4] but they went about to slay him. 30But when the brethren knew, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus.” 

 

Curiously, it wasn’t the Hebraic Jews who sought to kill Sha’ul. Instead, it was the Hellenistic Jews, that is, the Jews who generally spoke Greek, and often took on the trappings of Greek culture. Perhaps the Hellenistic Jews sought to “prove” their Jewishness to the Hebraic Jews by attacking Sha’ul, who was considered a primary threat to the Jewish community.

 

30But when the brethren learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus. 31And the congregations had rest throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, continued to increase.”

 

Apparently, when Sha’ul came to faith in Yeshua, the main source of persecution against the Messianic Jews was eliminated. Thereafter, the congregations in Israel had peace, and continued to grow numerically and spiritually. However, Sha’ul was no longer safe in Jerusalem. Therefore, the Messianic Jews first sent him to Caesarea[5] for his own protection, and then finally on to Tarsus, where Sha’ul was born.                                                          


[1] It’s curious terminology – “turned to see the voice.” It reminds me of Exodus 20:18, when the people “saw the thunderings.” In the realm of the spirit, you can sometimes see sounds!

[2] Acts 9:7.

[3] In Hebrew, he would have said, “Hineini.”

[4] The King James version translates this as “Grecians,” which is a terrible translation in this particular verse. As in Acts 6:1, the Greek word Hellenistes means “Hellenist,” which in this case is a Jew who has adapted Greek culture. 

[5] The ruins of Caesarea were buried for many centuries, well-protected from the elements, and most have been unburied in modern times, looking much as they did when originally constructed by Herod in the First Century. Caesarea plays a major role in chapter 10.

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