Jesus Encounters: Saul - A terrorist radically changed!

Jesus Plus Nothing Bible Studies

Jesus Encounters: Saul - A terrorist radically changed!

by I Gordon

In today's world, Christians are coming under severe persecution and attack in many parts of the world. Organizations like Open Doors and Voice of the Martyrs tell us that persecution of Christians have reached 'historic levels' in 2014 / 2015 with no sign of it abating. Islamic terrorism, especially in the Middle East and North Africa are at epidemic levels. And yet, where the enemy comes in like a flood, so does the salvation of God! Today's encounter is with a terrorist determined to wipe out the church of God. He was a man who hated the rise of Christianity and sought with all his might to stop it in its tracks. And yet, through a miraculous encounter with the living Lord Jesus, he went on to become the very instrument that God used to bring the message of salvation to the Gentile world! I'm speaking of course about Saul of Tarsus - otherwise better known as the apostle Paul! We'll end this study with a modern day story of another radical conversion that shows that God is still working in the lives of terrorists today! This study will come from Acts 9:1-22. 

A wee bit of background...

The first mention in the Bible of Saul of Tarsus comes at the end of Acts chapter 7 and the context is not overly pleasant (but appropriate for who Saul was at this time) for it comes during the stoning of the godly believer, Stephen:

Acts 7:55-8:4 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. (56) Look, he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." (57) At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, (58) dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. (59) While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." (60) Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep. (8:1) And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. (2) Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. (3) But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. (4) Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.

Yep... that's the wonderful first mention of Saul. He is first seen giving full approval to the murder of Stephen before going on his own terror quest to destroy the church. And he wasn't just arresting people that were speaking about Jesus out in the open but was going from house to house to drag believers away to prison. Nice guy our Saul. Zealous? You bet. Thought he was acting for God? Yes siree. But, much like some misguided religious souls today, a terrorist in every sense of the word.  Later, before King Agrippa, Paul describes his actions and state of mind at this time:

Acts 26:9-11 I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. (10) And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. (11) Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.

Acts 9:1-2 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest (2) and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.

So the start of Acts 9 sees Saul acting in character and right on form... he's breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. And he wasn't just interested in those in Jerusalem or Israel... Nope. He is heading to Damascus in Syria to round up and imprison any who 'belonged to the Way'. Damascus is about 130 miles northeast of Jerusalem and, at that time, was a six day journey. This all goes to show the lengths that Saul went to to destroy the church. He wasn't just trying to drive the Christians out of town. He wasn't just trying to remove Christianity from Israel. He wanted Christianity removed completely from the whole Middle East! And this, unfortunately, is again the mindset of Islamic terrorists in that region today.   You may remember that Jesus said that the time will come when:

John 16:2-3 ...anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. (3) They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me.

Who can stop such terror?

Acts 9:3-4 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. (4) He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"

On the road towards more terror, something radical begins! God sovereignly moves on the one that is persecuting His people. It is the equivalent of God appearing in a vision or dream to a terrorist today that thinks he is doing God's will by persecuting and possibly even killing Christians. Did you know that God is giving visions and dreams to many Muslims today, showing them that salvation is found in Jesus Christ? One such interesting book that records some of these stories is 'Dreams and Visions: Is Jesus awakening the Muslim world?  by Tom Doyle. It seems that in radical times, God does radical things!

Now note also what Jesus says to Saul, and what He didn't say. It is very simple. Very short. Non-judgmental but still convicting. Jesus simply says 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' Persecution of God's people is actually persecuting Jesus. An attack on any part of the body of Christ is an attack on Jesus. No wonder Jesus responds in such trying times.

Asking the important questions

Acts 9:5-6 Who are you, Lord? Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. (6) Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.

Now Saul didn't even know who was speaking to him so he has to ask. The answer must have come as a tremendous shock! Previously he had thought that Jesus was dead and he just had to stamp out the remaining embers that were His followers. Now he discovers that Jesus is alive and speaking to him! Meeting the risen Lord changes everything! We may not have had such a radical encounter as Saul did but we all need to meet the risen Lord in some way. It is what tells us that Jesus is alive.

When you look at this encounter as mentioned in Acts 22, we find that Paul actually asked two critical questions at this time:

Acts 22:8-10 'Who are you, Lord?' I asked. 'I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,' he replied. (9) My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me. (10) 'What shall I do, Lord?' I asked. 'Get up,' the Lord said, 'and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.'

What did Saul ask at this time? He asked the two most important questions any human can ask! Are these questions you ask?

1. Who are you Lord?
2. What shall I do, Lord?

David Guzik, in his commentary says the following on this: 'Most everyone has questions they would like to ask God. A recent Gallup Survey asked people to choose three questions they would most like to ask God. The top five responses: "Will there ever be lasting world peace?" "How can I be a better person?" "What does the future hold for my family and me?" "Will there ever be a cure for all diseases?" "Why is there suffering in the world?" It is strange that people would want to ask God these questions when they are already answered in the Bible! But they really aren't the most important questions for us to ask. Saul asks the right questions!'

We can also learn from the answers Jesus gave to Saul. In reply to his first question He says 'I am Jesus'. If people genuinely, no matter what religion they currently follow, want to know who God is, that is the answer! And to the question 'what shall I do Lord? Jesus replies 'Get up and go!' That is still the way. Having become Christians we are to arise in our new life and go and do what He commands us to do!

Reluctant obedience

Acts 9:7-16 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. (8) Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. (9) For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. (10) In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, "Ananias!" "Yes, Lord," he answered. (11) The Lord told him, "Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. (12) In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight. Lord, Ananias answered, "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. (14) And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name." (15) But the Lord said to Ananias, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. (16) I will show him how much he must suffer for my name."

The men travelling with Saul heard something but did not see the vision that Saul saw. God was sovereignly moving on one particular target and the others, though they were there, were none the wiser at the end of it. But something had happened to Saul. The vision of the Lord was the last thing that he saw for three days. Like the Lord Jesus, Saul had his own three days without light - a death type experience but at the end of it he will come forth as a new man in resurrection life!

The second vision in this passage comes to a disciple called Ananias. He is clearly told by the Lord to go to a particular house in a particular street and pray for a particular man. Very clear instructions! The only problem is that Ananias doesn't want to go! Now, to be fair, you can understand the hesitancy Ananias has. This is like a believer being asked to go visit a Muslim terrorist who has been issuing murderous threats as well as dragging people from their homes and throwing them in prison. So Ananias is not exactly putting his hand up straight away saying 'pick me, pick me!' He thinks he had better inform the Lord of Saul's character as it has obviously escaped His notice! The answer from the Lord is pretty clear - Go! The Lord knows all about Saul, what he has been doing and, more importantly, what plans He has for this man. We should always remember that God has His plan for even the difficult times in our life. He has reasons for giving us the testing tasks that He asks us to complete. Saul's salvation would be from God but the Lord still used Ananias to play a role in this. In like manner He can and will use us to help others come to know Him but we need to be obedient! It may cost you something... It may not be easy... But even reluctant obedience like Ananias is still obedience!

The last thought from this passage is that we need to be careful with the way the Christian life is presented to people - especially non-Christians. We love to tell them that God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their life, which is true, but the reality is that it normally comes through difficulty and death type experiences. God had a wonderful plan for Saul. But it is according to His terms not ours, and how it is achieved isn't always what we would call wonderful! His message to Saul was 'I will show him how much he must suffer for my name'. Now Saul would be wonderfully used, more than any of the first century disciples. But it came with tremendous trials and testing (see 2 Cor 11:23-30). Now maybe your Christian life is 'harder' than what you expected. Maybe things haven't worked out as you hoped or God has allowed (or arranged) a path full of obstacles that you didn't expect. If that is you, be not surprised but submit yourself unto Him again and thank Him, like the Apostle Paul did:

2 Corinthians 12:9-10 But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. (10) That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

One radical salvation! Signs of Paul's conversion and ours.

Acts 9:17-22 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord--Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here--has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." (18) Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, (19) and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. (20) At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. (21) All those who heard him were astonished and asked, "Isn't he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn't he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?" (22) Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.

So Ananias, probably shaking in his boots but still obedient, does what the Lord asks. And what a result! Something like scales fall from Saul's eyes and he can see again. What's more, its not just physical sight that he now has but spiritual sight as well. The scales being removed were an outward sign of what has happened within. 'Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I'm found, was blind but now I see.' What a radical conversion! Saul the persecutor has become Paul the Apostle. God loves to change our name and character as well! William MacDonald in the Believers Bible Commentary writes:

"When a person is truly converted, certain things always happen. There are certain marks which show the reality of that conversion. This was true of Saul of Tarsus. What were these marks? Francis W. Dixon lists a few of them:
1. He met the Lord and heard His voice (Acts 9:4-6). He received a divine revelation, and only that could have convinced him and made him the humble inquirer and devoted follower that he became.
2. He was filled with a longing to obey the Lord and to do His will (Acts 9:6).
3. He began to pray (Acts 9:11).
4. He was baptized (Acts 9:18).
5. He united in fellowship with God's people (Acts 9:19).
6. He began to testify powerfully (Acts 9:20).
7. He grew in grace (Acts 9:22)."

David Guzik also makes some useful observations of Saul's conversion and ours stating:

a. Paul regarded his conversion experience as a pattern for all believers: Although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief . . . However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. (1Tim 1:13,16).

b. If Paul's conversion is a pattern, then we can share his experiences. First, Jesus must confront us with Himself, with our sin and rebellion against Him, even the sins which were done in ignorance. Then we must humbly wait for the work within us that only He can do.

c. Saul's conversion reminds us that at its core, salvation is something God does in us. What we do is only a response to His work in us.

d. Saul's conversion reminds us that God finds us, even when we are not looking for Him.

e. Saul's conversion reminds us that God looks for people to cooperate in the conversion of others, even when they are not really necessary, except as a demonstration of the importance of the family of God.

f. Saul's conversion reminds us that it isn't enough that we be broken before God, though that is necessary. God's desire is to only use brokenness as a prelude to filling.

Appendix - A modern day terrorist encounters the Lord

It is also good to know that God has not retired from the radical salvation business! The following is an amazing account that Joel Rosenberg gives in his book 'Inside the revolution'. In this book he gives several testimonies of Muslim terrorists encountering Jesus. Radical encounters and salvations like Saul/Paul's that we have looked at are not just part of history. They continue today. The following is one interview that he did with 'Shakir' and it is well worth reading!

 'Were you raised in a Christian home?' I asked through our translator.
'No,' he replied quietly. 'I was raised a Muslim.'
'Really!' I said, a bit startled. 'What did you do before becoming a pastor?'
'I was a jihad cell commander.'

I gulped. You don't say, I thought. He certainly had my full attention now. 'Please, tell me your story,' I said eagerly, pulling out my notebook. Shakir graciously agreed.He explained that he was born in 1975 to a devout Sunni Muslim family and that as he grew up he became deeply religious. Even at an early age, he loved going to the mosque regularly, and by the age of seventeen, he had joined a secret Radical Islamic movement. He studied hard and learned quickly, and before long he was teaching the Qur'an in various mosques.

'My leaders then sent me to a military training camp where I was trained to use light weapons - pistols, machine guns, and RPGs [rocket propelled grenades] - against the infidels,' he told me. 'I was so excited because I wanted to do jihad for God. I was fully convinced that the Shias and the Christians were blasphemers and that if I killed them I would be blessed.'

After successfully completing 'Terrorism 101,' Shakir was made a jihad cell commander and was ordered to quietly recruit other jihadists. 'I soon had a group of my own followers,' he explained. 'I would put them through this military training and then help them get jobs in different government offices and other shops and businesses so they could spy for me and be in position to do great damage when we launched the overthrow of Saddam and his regime.'

One day, one of Shakir's Radical Muslim disciples came to him and said that someone was distributing Bibles to everyone in the machine shop where he worked. The disciple was very angry and told Shakir that he had cursed out everyone in the shop, collected all the Bibles, and promptly destroyed them. All but one.

'He brought one Bible - a New Testament - to me and said I should read it and see how to react to it and counter it,' Shakir explained. He said he praised his disciple for acting quickly and decisively. Then he sent the disciple away and took the Bible home, and that night he began to read the Gospel according to Matthew.

'I read the book very fervently to find all the blasphemies and corruption,' Shakir said. 'But I discovered the words started affecting my mind, and my heart started changing. These were powerful words, not human words. They seemed to me like God's words. But I thought, 'How could this be?'' Shakir became deeply troubled. He kept reading through Matthew but was ashamed of himself because rather than finding fault with these Christian Scriptures, he found himself completely intrigued. He had so many questions. But whom could he ask? He couldn't very well start discussing the life and teachings of Jesus with the members of the terrorist cell group he was leading. He couldn't very well ask questions of the terrorist leaders above him. He didn't dare seek out any Christians. So night after night he kept reading the Gospels, searching for answers. The more he did, the more troubled and anxious he became.

'After reading the Bible in a deep way, I began comparing it with the Qur'an,' he told me. 'I was so confused, and in my confusion, I began pleading with God, 'Please show me Yourself.' I begged God, 'Please, show me the right way - is it the Qur'an or the Bible?'' This went on for several nights. 'One night,' he said, 'I was really pleading with God fervently to show me the true, straight path. And that night I had a dream. I found myself standing on the side of a road. There was a large crowd gathered on both sides of the road, and they were cheering and very excited. And I realized that they were awaiting a parade to go by. So I looked down the road to see who was coming, and I saw many prophets riding on horses coming towards us. Suddenly Jonah was riding by. And then David. And Abraham. And Moses - riding on high, strong horses. Everyone was cheering and I was cheering. It was so exciting to see these prophets.'

Shakir kept waiting for Muhammad to come riding by as well, but Muhammad never came. He was not in the parade of prophets. Instead, Shakir said that 'at the end of the procession, I saw another person riding, but He was riding on a donkey instead of a horse. He was wearing a white robe, and His face was covered by a white shroud. When this person approached, for some reason I heard myself calling out to Him and asking, 'Are you Jesus?' Like I said, His face was covered by a white cloth. So I couldn't really see His face at that moment. But when He heard my question, the man pulled the cloth away from His face and smiled at me and nodded yes.

'Something came from His face that filled me with a joy I had never felt in my whole life. I started shouting, 'I saw Jesus! I saw Jesus!' I was so happy and so joyful and I was laughing. But as soon as I woke up, I realized that my pillowcase and my sheets were all wet around my head. I realized that at some point during my dream I had been crying - sobbing - in shame for all of my sins, for all of my hatred.'

Shakir said he found himself overcome with the realization that he had been so wrong about God, about Islam, about terrorism. He also found himself incredibly grateful and humbled that Jesus would come and rescue him and forgive him of all of his sins and set him on the true path to heaven.

'I felt a strong joy, and I wanted to find my Muslim disciples and tell them that I loved them and that Jesus loved them,' Shakir explained. 'After that dream, my life was completely changed. I was eager to evangelize - to tell people about the love of Jesus Christ. I couldn't hide that joy. The more I read of the Gospels, the more I felt I had to tell people about this love of God, even people that I had hated. This was not easy. I was mocked and persecuted by many. Once I was beaten by eight people. I was nearly assassinated three times. But it is okay. Since I came to know the Lord Jesus as my Savior, I am ready to put my life - and my family - as a sacrifice for Jesus.'

What a remarkable transformation, I thought as Shakir finished his story. He seemed to be thinking the same thing, for when our time was up and the interview was over, Shakir stood up, looked me straight in the eye, and without any expression on his face said, 'Joel, you are very lucky.''Yes, I think that's true,' I said. 'But why do you say it?'

He took a deep breath. 'Because if I had met you in 1993, I would have killed you immediately.'

My pulse quickened, and then he added, 'But now you are my brother in Jesus, and I love you!'

A huge smile flashed across his face. He threw his arms around me and gave me a bear hug. I breathed a big sigh of relief, and - laughing - gave him a hug as well.