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Study Notes:

Acts 9:1-22

A Collision With Christ

Summary: What happens when a man riding high on power and ambition runs into Christ?

Last week we saw what happened when the gospel collided with the lives of two “great” men – Simon the Sorcerer and the Secretary of the Treasury of an Ethiopian Kingdom.  This morning we see yet another collision, this time with another important man we’ve briefly met before – Saul of Tarsus.

Saul was a young man, but he was on the right track. He had credentials and connections.  He came from a good family – he was actually named after the first king of Israel, King Saul, and was from the king’s own tribe, the tribe of Benjamin.  He had a solid upbringing with all the right opportunities; he was a student of the famous rabbi Gamaliel.  It’s not certain, but many people think he was even a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish equivalent of a combination Congress and Supreme Court that dealt with religious and political issues.

He was zealous, as young people can be, eager to get involved in what he saw as the hot-button issue of his day – the fight against the followers of this new group know as the Way – disciples of Jesus of Nazareth who claimed to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6).

He was there when one of Jesus’ disciples, a man named Stephen, was questioned about his role with the group. He listened to Stephen’s response and defense of Jesus, and stood by as an angry crowd murdered the man in act of spontaneous mob violence because they didn’t like what Stephen had to say. 

Well, Saul knew a viral trend when he saw one and figured this was a good time to get involved, so we read back in Chapter eight that Saul began hunting down other people who believed in Jesus, and arresting them.

In fact, he was so zealous he wanted to track down Christians that were fleeing Jerusalem and stop them from spreading their views any farther.  So, he got a letter from the Chief Priest, an extradition request for religious fugitives, and set off for the city of Damascus, about 150 miles away – the same Damascus in Syria today.  It’s one of the world’s oldest cities and there was a significant Jewish population there, as well as a new Christian population as well.

We pick things up this morning with Saul on his way to serve the arrest warrants when suddenly something unexpected occurred:

Acts 9:1 Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. 4 Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”

Now picture this: you have this young man, full of strength, full of enthusiasm, armed with the endorsement and approval of the highest-ranking official in Jewish life.  Imagine his confidence.  This is like being sent out as a presidential envoy in modern politics.  He’s got to have his head held high, his chest puffed out, and a look of confidence that borders on arrogance as he approaches the city.  This is his moment.

And then, out of nowhere, there’s this blinding flash of light, he’s knocked to the ground, and he’s face down in the dirt.  What’s going on?

Then a voice speaks, calling him by name.  “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”

5 And he said, “Who are You, Lord?”

Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”

Around the world today you will find men and women, boys and girls, shepherding flocks of livestock.  And one thing they almost always have in their hand is some sort of stick that they can use to guard, and guide, and goad the flock. 

To goad means to push something along when it doesn’t want to go.  And so, the shepherd will often use their stick to prod the animal along by poking it in the backside of its legs.  It’s not comfortable, it’s meant to get your attention, it’s meant to convince you to obey.

Well, God has been goading Saul for quite a while, but Saul has been resisting like a stubborn animal.  No doubt Saul had been struggling in his mind and conscience, wrestling with nagging questions about the character, conduct, and teaching of this Jesus from Nazareth.  He was arguing in his own mind against the things he heard from Stephen before he was martyred and he was troubled by the way the man died – with such peace, asking God to forgive the men who were responsible.

And, of course, he was struggling with the convictions he felt over his own sins.

He knew he looked good on the outside, he seemed to have it all together, people were impressed.  But he also knew the things he struggled with inside – things no one else could see, like the covetousness he would later write about in Romans 7 – the desire to have even more of what others had for himself.  It was a sin. It broke the tenth commandment, and he knew it. 

But what could you do about it?  He had enough will power and self control to keep the rules about external things, to look good in public, but what do you do about a sin, like covetousness that pops up from within?  How do you control or change your heart?

All of these things, and likely more, were at work in Saul, goading him, keeping him from finding rest until he found it in submission at the feet of Jesus.  It’s probably part of the reason he was so zealous and aggressive, he was trying to accomplish something, achieve something, but he was trying to do it his own way and that meant constantly kicking against the very goads that God was using to direct him.

And think about that phrase, to kick against the goads – you’re being poked with something sharp and instead of going in the direction of the poke, instead of absorbing the force and softening the impact by going with it, you kick, forcefully, back against it.  What happens if you do that?  You wind up driving the stick further into your own thigh.  It hurts.

This is one of the problems that happens when you boil religion down to formulas – it leads you to believe that if you’re not getting the results you want, if you are not feeling holy, you must need to try harder, do more, offer a bigger sacrifice, go to extremes – but often times that only propels you faster and farther in the wrong direction like Saul doing something fanatical that you think will help and then wondering why it’s still not working.

So, let me ask: is God goading you?  Is He trying to move you in a particular direction?  Trying to get your attention?  And if so, are you kicking against Him?  Or, are you ready to submit?  My friends, you have to know, that if God is your shepherd, you’re not going to win the fight.  Even if you’ve got as much going for you as Saul, even if you double down and try harder.  More thrust doesn’t work when you’re on the wrong vector.

There’s something else we need to see here too.

Jesus asks Saul: why are you persecuting Me?  Now, as far as we know, Saul never met Jesus, and he certainly wasn’t doing anything directly to the Lord who had already ascended to heaven.  So, why this question: why are you persecuting Me?

Well, all sin, at its core, is primarily against God, not man. When we hurt another human, by our words, our actions, or our conduct, we’re actually sinning against God. In persecuting the Church Saul was persecuting those who identified with Jesus most closely.

Keep a finger here, but turn with me to Ps 51 where we see this clearly.

Psalm 51 is written by King David who has just had an affair with the wife of one of his best soldiers, who he then had killed.  The prophet Nathan confronts David about all of this and God brings down judgment, leading David to write this Psalm of repentance.  Pay attention as we read, and notice that although David has sinned against all kinds of people by having this affair, he realizes that ultimately he has sinned against God.

David writes:

Ps 51:1 Have mercy upon me, O God,

​​According to Your lovingkindness;

​​According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,

​​Blot out my transgressions.

2 ​​Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

​​And cleanse me from my sin.

3 ​​For I acknowledge my transgressions,

​​And my sin is always before me.

4 ​​Against You, You only, have I sinned,

​​And done this evil in Your sight—

​​That You may be found just when You speak,

​​And blameless when You judge.

David has committed this atrocious sin of adultery and murder, but he’s asking forgiveness from God.  Why?  Because all sin is against God – it may God through other people, but’s always, always, ultimately against God.

Think with me about this: what if Bathsheba forgave David for killing her husband?  Would he be OK, would he be truly innocent, in God’s eyes? 

Or, let’s say you commit a crime in America and you’re arrested but, there’s a technicality in the collection of evidence and they can’t get a conviction. They have to let you go.  Does that mean you’re truly innocent? 

Or, what if you do get convicted, and you do your time, serve your whole sentence. You’ve paid for your crime in the eyes of the justice system.  Are you also scrubbed clean in God’s books? No, not if you don’t repent.

You see, we live in a state of spiritual double-jeopardy, we are under both the law of God and of man. 

When I was a little boy going to elementary school in Texas, my step-dad had a special promotional offer going at home – it was two for one. If I got in trouble at school and was disciplined there, he told the teachers to call and let him know and then he would take care of me at home too. And this was back in the day when teachers were still able to take you into the hallway and paddle you. 

So, I got two spankings every time I got one at school.  The teacher was dealing with the effect of my behavior – disrupting the class; my stepdad was trying to get at its cause – my failure to listen to authority, including his for he had told me to listen to and obey my teachers.

When we sin against people on this earth, we’re ultimately sinning against God because He’s the one who says how we should treat each other in the first place.

Think about this: How do you know it was wrong for David to commit adultery with Bathsheba?  We have laws in this country, but they can easily be dismissed, overturned, or thrown out by judges or referendums. You can even have an administration that simply refuses to enforce them, even though they’re laws.  So, how do you really know what is right or wrong?

Ultimately, we know something is right or wrong because God says it is. 

But that means if we go against His instruction, the first thing we do is disobey God who made the rules.  That’s the primary issue.  Only then do we sin against our fellow man. 

Think about this: can you sin against God but not man?  Yes. 

Can you sin against man but not God?  No. 

Without God and His commands, there’s no such thing as sin.  Sin is defined by God and it is always against Him first.  That’s why David turns to God and asks for forgiveness, after committing adultery and murder – skip with me down to

Ps 51:7 ​​Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

​​Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

8 ​​Make me hear joy and gladness,

​​That the bones You have broken may rejoice.

9 ​​Hide Your face from my sins,

​​And blot out all my iniquities.

10 ​​Create in me a clean heart, O God,

​​And renew a steadfast spirit within me.

11 ​​Do not cast me away from Your presence,

​​And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.

You remember we said that in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, at times the Holy Spirit comes upon people for strength and service. That’s different than the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of you which happens at salvation.  If you have received Christ, the Spirit lives in you and will never leave you, but you can lose the power of the Spirit on your life through sin and disobedience, that experience can be taken from you.

I encourage you to come back to this Psalm, spend some time in it, read it over and over, dig into it, and let God teach you through it.

But right now, we need to move on and think about the other side of this. We’ve seen that all of our sin is ultimately against God, but spin that around and consider: what if you’re the victim here?  What if you’re the one being persecuted or sinned against? 

Well, in a strange way you can actually draw comfort from knowing that everything that comes against you has to pass through Christ first.  As Paul would later write, we are “in Christ” so nothing can come to you without first passing through Him.

Parents know what this all about.  When some other child hurts your child on the playground and your child, your child is hurt.  But you, as the parent, are mad at the other child, and their parents for letting it happen. 

Well, we are God’s children, and He is a far better Father than we are.  If we get hurt down here on the playground, He knows and He cares.

So, our Dad sees someone picking on the early Church and He steps in to get involved.  Back in Acts 9, we Saul, the hot-shot young bully, laying on the ground with his face in the mulch flattened in awe and submission:

Acts 9:6 So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?”

Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

7 And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one.

You have to see the total and complete submission here.  Saul is entirely conquered by the majesty of Jesus.  Saul recognized that he was confronted by someone much greater than he was, so he offers no objection, he just gets up and obeys:

8 Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Imagine the contrast between how he was going to enter the city, full of power with a subpoena in his fist and chains to arrest, and how he actually does: quiet, humble, and blind waiting for instructions instead of executing his own brilliant plan.  His whole outlook on life has been transformed, and his new life is about to begin.

Meanwhile, we get to see what’s going on behind the scenes as God is weaving everything together, moving all the pieces into place.

10 Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, “Ananias.”

And he said, “Here I am, Lord.”

11 So the Lord said to him, “Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. 12 And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.”

Did you catch that?  What is Saul doing right now?  He’s praying, waiting on God to show him what to do next.  He’s completely submitted – God has his total attention, and he has this vision of a man named Ananias coming and putting his hand on him. 

Do you know that the name Ananias means – the Lord is Gracious?  So, ‘the Lord is Gracious’ will put his hand on you Saul.

Think how this story would have been reversed if Jesus hadn’t stopped Saul on the road. Saul would be putting his hands on Ananias and it wouldn’t have been an act of grace.  But now Ananias is sent to lay his hands on Saul.  He’s got a question about that though:

13 Then Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.”

Ananias knew what Saul was up to. He had heard the rumors of what this man had done and wasn’t too eager to meet him. 

Christian, sometimes God is going to call you to do hard things.  Risky things.  Things that might not go so well.  But notice the humility in Ananias – he’s not saying, “No way God, I’m not your man, you’re going to need to find someone else.”  He calls Jesus Lord, Master, Boss, Supreme Authority figure in my life.

You can be honest with God, you can wrestle with God.  It’s OK to honestly question God about the circumstances and direction He’s calling you through.  As long as you always come back to the prayer Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before He went to do something incredibly difficult for us on the cross.  He prayed, “Never the less, not my will, but thy will be done.”

Consider that Ananias was essentially turning himself in to the authorities if things went wrong or if he had not heard God clearly.  He knows why Saul is here.  There’s a lot stake here.  This is a bold step of obedient faith. And so God gives Him a little more conviction and clarity. 

15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.”

So, now Ananisas is sure he’s heard from God.  He knows he’s supposed to go, but he’s still got no guarantee of what’s going to happen.  But sometimes God asks us to do difficult things and there is no way to know how it will turn out unless you step out and go…

17 And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.

19 So when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus.

And you can imagine Ananias was a little tense the whole time, perhaps a little guarded, a little suspicious.  Who can blame him?  This is a big deal that he’s a part of. 

Now Ananias is an interesting man to me, because there’s nothing else ever said about him in the Bible.  God used him to heal and baptize Saul who later was known as Paul the apostle, but we know next to nothing about him.  And yet, people like Ananias are common, not rare.  God frequently uses the obscure to do something great – He uses lesser known people to spark something that will become better known.  Every torch needs a match to light it.

John Wesley is the founder of the Methodist church and author of numerous hymns still sung by the church today.  He was saved in 1738 when he attended a meeting of the Moravian Brethren where someone was reading the introduction to Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans 15.

Charles Spurgeon, one of the most famous preachers of the 19th century was caught in a snowstorm one Sunday morning so he ducked into a Primitive Methodist church to get out of the weather.  The church was about to begin their services and because the usual pastor was not there an unknown member of the church got up and preached and Spurgeon was saved.

The man read from

Isaiah 45:22—“Look unto me, and be saved, all the ends of the earth;

for I am God, and there is no one else.”

Spurgeon records the rest in his Autobiography:

“He [didn’t have much] to say, thank God, for that compelled him to keep on repeating the verse], and there was nothing needed—by me, at any rate except [that verse].”

Isaiah 45:22—“Look unto me, and be saved, all the ends of the earth;

for I am God, and there is no one else.”

Then, he stopped and pointed to where Spurgeon was sitting and said “‘That young man there looks very miserable’ … and he shouted, as I think only a Primitive Methodist can, ‘Look! Look, young man! Look now!’ … Then I had this vision—not a vision to my eyes, but to my heart. I saw what a Savior Christ was…” that He was a savior and that Spurgeon had a great need for Him.  So he received Christ in a church he didn’t attend where the pastor wasn’t preaching.  And he wrote:

“And as the snow fell on my road home from the little house of prayer I thought every snowflake talked with me and told of the pardon I had found, for I was white as the driven snow”

The famous American Evangelist DL Moody was trying to make a name for himself in business.  He was selling shoes, trying to get his start, when a customer, a Sunday School teacher, shared the gospel with him, and he was saved.  Moody went on to found Moody Bible College in Chicago and preached to crowds of tens of thousands all around the world leading countless people to Christ.

Every Paul needs an Ananias.  Every torch needs a match.  Christian, don’t be afraid to step out and obey God in the things He is calling you to, you have no idea how they will end up.  You are not responsible for the outcome, but you can be rewarded for your obedience.

And look at how things did turn out with Saul…

20 Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God.

21 Then all who heard were amazed, and said, “Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?”

22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ.

Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior promised by God who would take away our sins. 

It doesn’t matter if you feel like you’re a nobody who no one knows and no one cares about – just another face in Damascus like Ananias, or if you think you’ve got it all together and everyone knows your name – you’re the next great thing like Saul.  We all need Jesus because all of us have sinned and our sin is against God.

Fortunately, He comes to us, confronts us, and calls us to repent.  You might not see the blinding light and be knocked to the ground, but you know there are things you need forgiveness for.  God offers that forgiveness in Christ.  And then, He calls us to obey, to receive our assignments for life from Him.

And let’s be honest, that’s going to be hard at times.  God is going to completely reorient your life when you submit.  He’s going to turn you around.  And, He’s going to ask you to do some difficult and risky things.  Jesus is not just the bonus pack of ultimate accessories that you need to achieve all your personal goals and ambitions.

Saul asked Him: “Lord, what do You want me to do?” Ananias said, “Here I am, Lord.”

When God calls on your life, what kind of response do you give?

I want to encourage you to repeat the words of these men as we prepare our hearts for communion.  We’re about to receive the bread and the cup as reminders of the body and blood of Christ that were sacrificed for us, in light of that, may we confess our sins, receive forgiveness, ask “Lord, what do You want me to do?” and confess, “Here I am, Lord.”

Let’s pray.

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