God’s Word for You
Acts 9:3-7 Why are you persecuting me?
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, January 24, 2020
With his letters of authority, Saul the apostle of the Sanhedrin was storming along, snorting like an angry bull, ready to execute his final solution on all of those who belonged to this new sect, the Way. He thought he had a divine right to do this. Leviticus 24:16 commands that every blasphemer and false prophet must be stoned to death, and the command is backed up by Deuteronomy 13:1-5. Since Saul believed that Jesus was exactly such a blasphemer and false prophet, he believed that Jesus was justly executed, and his followers should fall under the same condemnation. Luke gives us a moment to ponder this with two verbs of traveling, allowing (as it were) the stomping footsteps of Saul to echo in our minds with “While he was traveling,” and then showing us just how close to the city he got by adding, “during the approach to Damascus” in the same sentence. It’s something like 150 miles from Jerusalem to Damascus by any road, but the Lord allowed Saul to huff and puff and snort and breathe out his threats and his murder all the way, until the walls of the city were, or were almost, in sight.
3 While he was traveling, during the approach to Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
Saul saw a light, a bright light, flashing all around. The verb “flashed” has the word-element aster in it: peri-asterapto, “to flash like a bright star all around.” Saul found himself within the light; inside the flashing brilliance. Falling down to the ground, he also heard a voice. We know immediately whose voice it was, but Saul was so set in his misguided belief that he didn’t yet understand.
Paul told and retold the events of this moment later in his life. Luke doesn’t report all of it here. The Lord’s voice also said, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14), and he also remembered that the Lord spoke to him in a Hebrew dialect (Aramaic). By asking, “Why do you persecute me?” the Lord was showing Saul that he was on the wrong side of the equation. There was something going on that he, Saul, did not fully understand. His persecution was not against blasphemers and the followers of a false prophet. His persecution was against God himself. But the conversation had only just begun; Saul had not yet had time to process all of this. His world was crashing all around him, but it was still that moment when he did not yet know how far down he was about to fall.
5 He said, “Who are you, lord?”
Saul didn’t yet know who he was talking to. If he understood that it was God, he would never have asked this question. He knew that he was being confronted by someone greater than he, but who was it? An angel? A demon? Some other being? Again, it was all happening too fast. He hadn’t yet had time to think. It was time to be told, and this is exactly what the Lord Jesus Christ did.
He replied: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
The Lord said nothing more than “I am Jesus,” and Saul knew who he was. How many men in Judea and Galilee went by the name of Jesus (Joshua)? But this Jesus spoke with the authority of God in person, and from within this miraculous display of light. These things together point to this experience of Saul being a manifestation of the Glory of the Lord. Recall what we said about this when Luke reported the Transfiguration (Luke 9:29): “Jesus’ transformation, his transfiguration, displayed his divinity in the same way that his ordinary body and earthly needs (hunger, thirst, sleep, etc.) displayed his humanity.” And when the Glory of the Lord accompanied the appearance of the angels at Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:9): “The holiness of God lays bare our unholiness, our utter sinfulness, and our inability to do anything about the accounting of our sins, right to the very top. We are hopeless before that holiness. But this is the very hopelessness that has beaten down every human argument that might say, ‘I’m not so bad; I can live so well that God has to accept me. I can have a say in my own salvation.’”
This is the word alla (ἀλλά), which breaks off the thought or the expected conclusion to what precedes. Jesus, Luke tells us, was speaking in Aramaic or Hebrew. In Hebrew, the strong disjunction of ἀλλά would be supplied by the simple conjunction (waw) together with the new subject, either noun or pronoun, and often with the direct object marker et. This is what we find in passages like Genesis 15:10 (“the birds, however…”) or Exodus 9:32 (“the wheat and spelt, however, were not destroyed”). In Aramaic, the speaker would use the term baram, as in Ezra 5:13: “However (baram), in the first year of Cyrus King of Babylon….” Jesus is changing the subject. This is what you’ve done to me, Saul: You’ve been persecuting me. However, this is what I want you to do.
6 But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” 7 Now the men who were traveling with him stood speechless. They heard the voice, but they saw no one.
The men who were with him were his enforcers; his police force from the Sanhedrin. They were under his orders, and now they were baffled. They heard the voice but did not understand it. Does that mean that they did not understand Aramaic, which is different from Hebrew, or vice-versa (2 Kings 18:26)? It’s more likely and probably better to say that they were not permitted to understand what was being said. Saul, however, saw a vision of the ascended Christ in all his glory (1 Corinthians 9:1).
Saul is given no task to perform at all. He will discover in a moment that he has gone blind; he could not find his way into the city even if he tried. Jesus is carrying out his conversion of Saul just the same way he carries out conversion with everyone: with law and gospel. At this point, there is no gospel at all; only law. Saul was being crushed by Jesus’ command. This is the function of the law, to condemn us so that we lie helpless on the ground, unable to do anything to rescue ourselves. This is why the explanation to the Third Article begins: “I believe that I cannot by my own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him.” Whenever anyone tries to assign anything to himself in the act of conversion apart from utter helplessness, despair, fear, or spiritual deadness, he is mistaken. This is why it’s so dangerous for theologians to tell their people that faith is required before baptism. Saul of Tarsus was on the ground a ruined man. He was no longer the disciple of Gamaliel; no longer the apostle of the Sanhedrin. He was no longer the persecutor of the Way. At this moment, Saul of Tarsus was nothing at all except a desperate soul yearning for an answer and a way out of his despair. Jesus didn’t leave him like that. “Get up and go,” he told Saul, knowing that Saul would have to be led by the hand. “You will be told.”
You will be told.
Pastor Timothy Smith