Saul is on a mission. It is not a mission for God though. The religious elites were out to destroy the followers of the Way and the power of the good news message of Jesus. Saul was the fixer and enforcer.
Saul is one of the original terrorists of the disciples of Jesus. A literal translation might be “And Saul, still breathing terrorism and murder against the Lord’s disciples …” It is still going on today. Daily we are arrested. Daily we are killed. Terrorists hunt us down.
I, like Saul, need to change my mind and act differently (aka repent) about who Jesus is. I can’t hide in my zeal to hunt down the disciples of our Master Jesus. Going after them is hunting down Jesus. What is my attitude about fellow disciples (aka Christians)? Am I seeking unity or to terrorize?
All this time Saul was breathing down the necks of the Master’s disciples, out for the kill. He went to the Chief Priest and got arrest warrants to take to the meeting places in Damascus so that if he found anyone there belonging to the Way, whether men or women, he could arrest them and bring them to Jerusalem.
He set off. When he got to the outskirts of Damascus, he was suddenly dazed by a blinding flash of light. As he fell to the ground, he heard a voice: “Saul, Saul, why are you out to get me?”
He said, “Who are you, Master?”
“I am Jesus, the One you’re hunting down. I want you to get up and enter the city. In the city you’ll be told what to do next.”
His companions stood there dumbstruck—they could hear the sound, but couldn’t see anyone—while Saul, picking himself up off the ground, found himself stone-blind. They had to take him by the hand and lead him into Damascus. He continued blind for three days. He ate nothing, drank nothing. | Acts 9:1-9 (The Message Bible)
Jesus is always asking questions. Jesus asks Saul, “… why are you persecuting me?” Jesus associates himself so closely with his disciples that to persecute them is to persecute him.
Saul is so overwhelmed that he doesn’t answer why he’s persecuting Jesus. For Luke, of course, the virtues of Jesus and his disciples mean that Saul doesn’t have a good reason for persecuting them.
Instead of saying why he does, then, Saul asks who is speaking to him. Whom in heaven could he be persecuting when he’s headed for Damascus to persecute believers there? He’s puzzled, but in view of the suddenly flashing light he has the good sense (or is it a gut reaction?) to address his interlocutor with “Master.”
Then Jesus identifies himself both as the one Saul addressed with that title and once again as the one Saul is persecuting when he persecutes believers in Jesus as Master.
“Nevertheless” means “despite the fact that you’re persecuting me” and therefore points to God’s grace in the following conversion and commissioning of Saul. Since he has fallen on the ground, he has to stand up to proceed into nearby Damascus.
Jesus has a surprise for him: “it’ll be told you whatever is necessary for you to do.” The phrase “whatever is necessary” is open-ended yet indicative that the “whatever” arises out of God’s predetermined plan.
Unlike Saul, his fellow travelers stood instead of falling on the ground and said nothing rather than engaging the heavenly voice. After all, it had addressed only Saul. But whereas he puzzled over the identity of the speaker, they puzzled over the speaker’s invisibility.
Saul of Tarsus made some wonderful discoveries that day. To begin with, he discovered to his surprise that Jesus of Nazareth was actually alive! Of course, the believers had been constantly affirming this, but Saul had refused to accept their testimony. If Jesus was alive, then Saul had to change his mind about Jesus and His message. He had to repent, a difficult thing for a self-righteous Pharisee to do.
Saul also discovered that he was a lost sinner who was in danger of the judgment of God. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”. Saul thought he had been serving God, when in reality he had been persecuting the Messiah! When measured by the holiness of Jesus the Messiah, Saul’s good works and legalistic self-righteousness looked like filthy rags. All of his values changed. He was a new person because he trusted Jesus.
The Master Jesus had a special work for Saul to do. The Hebrew of the Hebrews would become the apostle to the Gentiles; the persecutor would become a preacher; and the legalistic Pharisee would become the great proclaimer of the grace of God. Up to now, Saul had been like a wild animal, fighting against the goads; but now he would become a vessel of honor, the Master’s “tool,” to preach the good news in the regions beyond. What a transformation!
Some thirty years later, Paul wrote that Jesus had “apprehended him” on the Damascus road. Saul was out to arrest others when the Master arrested him. He had to lose his religion before he could gain the righteousness of the Messiah. His conversion experience is unique, because sinners today certainly do not hear God’s voice or see blinding heavenly lights. However, Paul’s experience is an example of how Israel will be saved when Jesus the Messiah returns and reveals Himself to them. His salvation is certainly a great encouragement to any lost sinner, for if “the chief of sinners” could be saved, surely anybody can be saved!
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 439). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
Gundry, R. H. (2010). Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation (p. 498). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.