Sunday School Lesson
Lesson 13 (KJV)
Saul of Tarsus
Devotional Reading: Philippians 3:1–14
Background Scripture: Acts 9:1–31
9 And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink. 10 And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord.
11 And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth,
12 And hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight.
13 Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem:
14 And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name.
15 But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel:
16 For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.
17 And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.
Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. —Acts 9:17
Jesus Calls Us
Unit 3: The Birth of the Church
After participating in this lesson, each learner will be able to:
1. Summarize Ananias’s objection and the Lord’s response.
2. Explain the significance of blindness as a possible spiritual metaphor.
3. Cultivate an attitude that seeks clearer spiritual sight.
How to Say It
Gamaliel Guh-may-lih-ul or Guh-may-lee-al.
Sanhedrin San-huh-drun or San-heed-run.
A. “I Once Was Blind …”
John Newton was an eighteenth-century Englishman who served as captain for ships that transported captured Africans to North America as slaves. The horrendous nature of that occupation included not only the acceptance of slavery but also the imposition of the inhuman conditions on the ships. To do this, one needed a callous soul.
In 1748, Newton was in a terrifying storm in a ship off the coast of Ireland. Fearing for his life, he began praying in a way that led to his conversion to Christ, eventually becoming a minister in 1764. He began writing about his faith, and in 1772 he published the words to “Amazing Grace,” a semi-autobiographical account of how God had “saved a wretch like me.”
One of the most memorable lines in the hymn is “[I] was blind, but now I see.” While this phrase is drawn from the story of Jesus’ healing of the blind man in John 9:25, it also fits the story of Saul in Damascus.
B. Lesson Context: Damascus
Even in Paul’s day, Damascus was an ancient city, having been inhabited for at least 3,000 years (see Genesis 14:15). It figures prominently in Old Testament narratives, mentioned there 44 times in Hebrew. It lies about 150 miles north of Jerusalem.
As for the New Testament era, the book of Acts mentions the city of Damascus 13 times. It was a city of many ethnicities. It had become part of the Greek world after the conquest by the forces of Alexander the Great (356–323 BC). Under later Roman influence, Damascus was designated as one of the cities of the Decapolis, meaning “10 cities” (see Matthew 4:25; Mark 5:20; 7:31). Jesus performed miracles near those cities (Matthew 8:28–33; Mark 5:1–17; 7:31–37), although not in Damascus itself. Greco-Roman ruins are extant in Damascus today. These include a section of an impressive boulevard that is likely “the street which is called Straight” of Acts 9:11.
Damascus had many Jewish residents and synagogues in the first century AD. The historian Josephus (AD 37–100) records that thousands of Jews were killed by the Romans in Damascus during the first Jewish Revolt (about AD 66). This testifies to a large presence with many houses of worship in that city. It is no wonder that Saul would travel there, expecting to find synagogues where Jews had embraced Christianity.
We are not told how or when the gospel message reached Damascus. A reasonable speculation is that it occurred as a result of the Day of Pentecost, as people returned home (see Acts 2:5–11). By the time of today’s lesson, at least a couple of years had passed since that event, the stoning of Stephen, and the beginning of Saul’s persecution. Acts 8:1 records that the Jerusalem church was scattered at that time, although only the destinations of Judaea and Samaria are mentioned there.
C. Lesson Context: Saul
We first meet Saul—later known as Paul, beginning in Acts 13:9—when he acted as a witness to the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7:58; 8:1 (see also 22:20). He is presented elsewhere as an ambitious young man who was building a career in the rabbinic tradition of Jerusalem and as a trusted servant of the temple officials and religious leaders (Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:4–6). He could never have been a priest, because he was from the tribe of Benjamin rather than the priestly tribe of Levi (see Deuteronomy 18:1; Hebrews 7:5; etc.). But he could have become one of the greatest of the Pharisees, like his teacher Gamaliel (Acts 5:34; 22:3).
The climb up this career ladder accelerated when Saul oversaw a direct assault on the believers in Jerusalem, where he searched for them house to house and threw into prison those he found (Acts 8:3; 26:10). He apparently did effective work at that, for the high priest agreed to authorize him to go to Damascus to find Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial and punishment (9:1–2; 22:19; 26:9–11). His ambitious trip to Damascus was the occasion of the resurrected Jesus appearing to Saul and asking, “Why persecutest thou me?” (9:4).
This Damascus Road story is told three times in Acts: once as narrated by author Luke (Acts 9:1–19) and twice as told by Saul/Paul himself (22:3–16; 26:9–18). As today’s text opens, Saul had been struck blind by the Lord on that road. Subsequently, Saul was led by the hand into the city (9:1–8).
I. Saul’s Waiting
A. Days of Fasting (v. 9)
9. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink. We certainly can imagine what Saul was thinking for these three days without sight, food, or drink! Acts 9:11 (below) fills this in, but only in general terms.
What Do You Think?
Do you practice fasting as a spiritual discipline? Why or why not?
What value do you experience or can you imagine from incorporating fasts into your spiritual walk?
B. Disciple of Damascus (v. 10)
10a. And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias. Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, uses the word disciple dozens of times in his two works. In Luke’s Gospel, a disciple is a dedicated student of Jesus the teacher. In Acts, a disciple is a committed follower of the risen Lord. In that regard, Ananias may be much like many Christians today who serve the Lord faithfully in relative anonymity.
We gain a bit more information about this certain disciple in Acts 22:12. There Paul (formerly the Saul of today’s lesson) described Ananias as “a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews which dwelt there.” We take care, of course, not to confuse this Ananias with two others by the same name in Acts 5:1 and 24:1.
Regarding the city of Damascus, see Lesson Context: Damascus, above.
10b. And to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord.
How surprised Ananias must have been to experience a vision in which the Lord communicated with him personally! The word vision implies a supernatural origin. It involves seeing things not normally seen, but it may also consist of hearing things not normally heard, as in the calling of Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1–14). The same may be the case here. But unlike the calling of young Samuel, Ananias recognized what was happening immediately. So he answered Behold, I am here, Lord.
What Do You Think?
How do you express your availability for God’s unexpected ministry opportunities?
What responsibilities, fears, etc., prevent you from being fully available?
Responsive? Hiding? Fleeing?
When my youngest was a teenager, he would hide whenever some chore needed to be done. It didn’t matter if it was cleaning his room, doing the dishes, or pulling weeds—I would call his name and get cricket chirps in return. My oldest son, however, was quite the opposite. More often than not, whenever I called his name, he would answer. And even though he really didn’t want to do those chores, he would come running when I called him. It was responsiveness, plain and simple.
The Scriptures describe varying responses to calls from the Lord. The responses recorded in Exodus 4:13; Judges 6:15; 1 Samuel 10:21–22; Isaiah 6:8; Jeremiah 1:6; Jonah 1:3; Matthew 1:24; 2:14; Luke 1:34, 38, 46–55; and Acts 10:7–8 are quite instructive when compared and contrasted in their respective contexts. The Scriptures also tell of individuals who claimed to be obeying a call from the Lord when no such call existed; see Numbers 12:2; Jeremiah 14:14–16; 23:25–26; and Ezekiel 13 as examples.
Let’s make clear at this point that there are two categories of callings by the Lord. First, there are the high-profile callings of specific individuals to specific tasks. Then there are the general callings given to all Christians; Matthew 28:18–20 and John 14:15 are examples. My child who hid from either kind of “calling” in a family-household sense always ended up with unwanted consequences for doing so. Similarly, it’s easier (and better) in the long run to obey the Lord than it is to disobey (see Matthew 11:30).
Before concerning yourself with any specific calling you may be sensing from the Lord, how responsive are you to the general callings all Christians receive? —P. M.
C. Directive by the Lord (vv. 11–12)
11a. And the Lord said unto him.
The Lord may refer to God in the general sense that does not distinguish among members of the Trinity. In this case, however, it refers to the risen Jesus in particular, as Acts 9:17b (below) makes clear.
11b. Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth.
The instructions are detailed—there can be no doubt regarding where and to whom Ananias is to go. The street which is called Straight is the grand boulevard of Damascus. This may indicate that this particular Judas, the homeowner, is a well-connected person of some wealth. His may have been the sort of place with whom a person authorized by the high priest for his task (like Saul was; Acts 9:1–2) might find lodging.
Saul’s hometown of Tarsus was a well-known city about 250 miles north-northwest of Damascus and 355 miles due north of Jerusalem (straight line). Tarsus became the capital city for the Roman province of Cilicia in AD 72 (about 40 years after the events under consideration). Saul (as Paul) would later mention his civic pride in his hometown (Acts 21:39).
12. And hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight.
With this information, Ananias learned he was not the only one to have received a vision. Saul himself had preceded Ananias in that regard, even though Saul had been blinded (Acts 9:8–9). Ananias learned something else as well: he was to be God’s chosen instrument for Saul to receive his sight back. The picture is remarkable: powerful Saul, a Roman “citizen of no mean city” (21:39; compare 22:26–29), in the house of wealthy Judas, praying and blind.
The outcome determined by the Lord could have been accomplished easily by the Lord himself in some other way. But He chose instead to work through a human as He often did—and still does (compare and contrast Ezekiel 22:30).
What Do You Think?
When have you been part of God’s answer to someone else’s prayers?
What texts suggest that God frequently desires to work through His people and not more supernatural interventions?
II. Ananias’s Objection
A. Fear of Saul (vv. 13–14)
13–14. Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: and here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name.
Saul’s reputation had preceded him—Ananias knew all about the notorious persecutor of the church and his plans. And Ananias was exactly the type of person Saul had come to arrest and haul back to Jerusalem.
We note in passing that Ananias referred to Jesus’ disciples as thy saints and all that call on thy name rather than “Christians” at this point in time; the latter designation was not to become reality until Acts 11:26. Ironically, the designation saints eventually became a favorite of Saul’s (when better known as Paul) when referring to Christians in his letters (see Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 1:1).
Acts 22:19 and 26:9–11 shed light on what to bind all that call on thy name entailed. Saul entered synagogues to find believers in Jesus in order to have them beaten, imprisoned, and/or put to death. So zealous was Saul that he went out of his way to punish this new and (to his prior way of thinking) heretical sect.
What Do You Think?
When have you acted timidly because of your knowledge of the risk involved in acting boldly?
What fears still hold you back from bold obedience to God?
B. Plans for Saul (vv. 15–16)
15. But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel.
The Lord could have chosen to discipline Ananias for questioning the directive given to him. Instead, the Lord revealed part of His plans for Saul. Henceforth, Saul was to be a chosen vessel unto the Lord rather than a vessel of the religious authorities in Jerusalem. That reassignment would involve being the apostle to the Gentiles (see Acts 13:46; 14:27; 18:6; 22:21; Romans 11:13; 15:16; Galatians 1:16; 2:8; Ephesians 3:8), including their kings (Acts 25:13–26:23). The book of Acts ends with Paul’s awaiting his hearing before the Roman emperor himself.
Even so, the regular practice of Saul (as Paul) would also be to try to convince his fellow Jews—the children of Israel—that Jesus was their promised Messiah (example: Acts 13:14–45). Indeed, preaching Jesus to fellow Jews would be his first order of business wherever Saul went (13:46–48; 18:5–6). By contrast, the task of the apostle Peter was something of a mirror image of that practice: Peter was the designated apostle to the Jews (Galatians 2:8–9), although he witnessed also to Gentiles (Acts 10:1–11:18).
As if receiving a vision from the Lord wasn’t enough of a shock to Ananias in and of itself, the revealed mission to the Gentiles was probably incomprehensible to him (compare Acts 11:18). Even more so was the predicted mission to kings, who were all Gentiles.
One of our favorite pastimes when we were young was tossing a Frisbee while at the beach. The sea breeze was often strong enough to carry the plastic disc far afield from its intended destination. And there were usually so many people at the beach that the disc would sooner or later strike an unsuspecting beachgoer. It was not unusual to hear “Heads up!” shouted throughout the game. Some bystanders would hear and react appropriately. Others would turn around in confusion and look for the source of the warning first—and such bystanders would be the ones to experience an unwanted Frisbee to the head!
Surely Ananias didn’t presume that the Lord lacked knowledge about Saul! But providentially, the Lord did not see fit to “throw a Frisbee” at Ananias’s head. Instead, the Lord patiently provided an explanation that should have been unnecessary for Ananias’s obedience.
The same may not be the case regarding you or me the next time we hesitate to obey. When God calls on you, will your obedience depend on receiving an answer you deem satisfactory, or will you obey without question? Remember: Ananias could have experienced the Lord’s “Frisbee” to his head as did Zacharias in Luke 1:18–20. —P. M.
16. For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.
We continue to be in awe of God’s revealing His plans for Saul to Ananias, a revelation that God was certainly not obligated to provide. The fulfillment of the prediction in this verse is seen in 2 Corinthians 6:3–10; 11:23–29; and elsewhere. Paul’s suffering culminated in his execution (see 2 Timothy 4:6–7).
III. The Lord’s Healing
A. Obedience (v. 17a)
17a. And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said.
The actions of Ananias in this half verse harmonize with actions required of him in Acts 9:11b, considered above.
B. Facts (v. 17b)
17b. Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.
This half verse ties things together and clarifies. The Lord of the visions had been none other than Jesus himself. It was none other than He who had appeared to Saul on the road (compare Acts 9:5; 22:8; 26:15) and who had spoken to Ananias in Damascus.
As Saul was just about to receive back his sight, Ananias announced something we have not yet read about in the visions from the Lord: Saul was to be filled with the Holy Ghost. This phrase occurs eight times in the New Testament, all in the writings of Luke. Persons involved in the other seven cases are John the Baptist (Luke 1:15), his mother and father (1:41, 67), the apostles on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4), Peter before the Sanhedrin (4:8), a gathering of believers (4:31), and Saul himself (13:9).
Saul’s first action after having his sight restored was to be baptized, even before he broke his three-day fast from food (see Acts 9:18–19). He was strengthened in his soul and in his body. Later texts tell us that others sought to kill Saul, even enlisting the support of the city’s governor to arrest him (see 2 Corinthians 11:32). Instead, Saul’s life was saved in a surprising way (see Acts 9:25; 2 Corinthians 11:33).
Regarding our current lesson, that final case is particularly interesting for at least two reasons. First, it was the time when Saul began to be referred to as Paul. Second, it is ironic in that the one who had been struck blind as an enemy of Jesus became the instrument by which a “child of the devil” and an “enemy of all righteousness” (Acts 13:10) was himself struck blind (13:11).
A. Conversion, Call, or Both?
The story of Saul’s experience on the way to Damascus is usually portrayed as his “conversion.” That is a valid description in that the episode shows a life transformed from an unbeliever into a believer, one who was baptized and received the Holy Spirit. But was that Luke’s intent in documenting this story? Is Saul’s conversion experience, with its spectacular visions and drama, intended to be some sort of model or expectation for conversions today?
Certainly many conversions over the centuries have been dramatically sudden and powerful. I have heard the stories, and so have you. But I have never heard of an unbeliever being called in a vision to the sort of mission to which Saul was called. He was a young man (Acts 7:58) whom Jesus simply had to have as His servant. Jesus did not have to stir up passion in Saul; he was already passionate. Jesus did not have to infuse Saul with a great knowledge of Scripture; he already had it. Jesus did not have to put an obedient spirit in Saul; he already had one. Unbeknownst to Saul, he had been preparing his whole life to be redirected and used by Jesus!
Jesus can still redirect a person’s life while using all that person’s life experiences in kingdom service. We should be on the lookout for such people—people whose life experiences, education, etc., could result in their being massively influential in service to the risen Lord! Which would be easier: (1) to create zeal in an apathetic person or (2) to take an already zealous person and redirect that zeal for Christ? Think of people you know or have heard about whose lives were transformed by the gospel and redirected to do great things for Christ. How does your own story mesh with theirs? How might it?
What Do You Think?
What experiences illustrate the Holy Spirit’s bringing you from spiritual blindness to sight?
What practices help you be aware of times when the Holy Spirit is at work further clarifying your vision?
Heavenly Father, it is sobering to think how well You know us. Thank You for the inspiring stories of Your zealous ones! Empower and guide us to have similar zeal in doing great things for You. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
C. Thought to Remember
Christ calls us not only to Him but also for Him. Standard Publishing. KJV Standard Lesson Commentary® 2022-2023 (pp. 824-909). David C Cook. Kindle