It was the persecutor’s hope utterly to exterminate Christianity.
But little did he understand its genius. It thrives on persecution. Prosperity has often
been [nearly] fatal to it, persecution never. "They that were scattered abroad went
everywhere preaching the word" (Acts 8:4). Hitherto the Church had been confined
within the walls of Jerusalem; but now all over Judea and Samaria, and in distant
Phoenicia and Syria, the beacon of the gospel began in many a town and village to twinkle
through the darkness.
We can imagine with what rage the tidings of these outbreaks of
fanaticism which Saul had hoped to stamp out would fill the persecutor. But he was not the
person to be balked, and he resolved to hunt up the objects of his hatred even in their
most distant hiding-places. Having heard that Damascus, the capital of Syria, was one of
the places where the fugitives had taken refuge, he went to the high priest and got
letters empowering him to seize and bring to Jerusalem all of the new way of thinking whom
he might find there.
As we see him start on this journey, which was to be so momentous, we
naturally ask what was the state of his mind. We are told that, as he was ranging through
strange cities in pursuit of his victims, he was exceedingly mad against them (Acts 9:1).
But on this journey doubt at last invaded his mind. It was a long
journey of over a hundred and sixty miles and would occupy at least six days. A
considerable portion of it lay across a desert, where there was nothing to distract the
mind from its own reflections. In this enforced leisure doubts arose. What else can be
meant by the word with which the Lord saluted him: "It is hard for thee to kick
against the goad" (Acts 9:5)! The figure of speech is borrowed from a custom of
Eastern countries. The ox-driver wields a long pole, at the end of which is fixed a piece
of sharpened iron, with which he urges the animal to go on or stand still or change its
course. If the animal is obstinate, it kicks against the goad, injuring and infuriating
itself with the wounds it receives. This is a vivid picture of a man wounded and tortured
by compunctions of conscience. There was something in him rebelling against the course of
inhumanity on which he was embarked and suggesting that he was fighting against God.
It is not difficult to conceive whence these doubts arose. Probably his
compunctions were chiefly awakened by the character and behavior of the Christians. He had
heard the noble defense of Stephen and seen his face in the council-chamber shining like
that of an angel. He had seen him kneeling on the field of execution and praying for his
murderers (Acts 7:60). Doubtless, in the course of the persecution he had witnessed many
similar scenes. Did these people look like enemies of God? As he entered their homes to
drag them forth to prison, he got glimpses of their social life. Could such spectacles of
purity and love be products of the powers of darkness? Did not the serenity with which his
victims went to meet their fate look like the very peace which he had long been sighing
for in vain?
Their arguments, too, must have told on a mind like his. He had heard
Stephen proving from the Scriptures that it behooved the Messiah to suffer; and the
general tenor of the earliest Christian apologetic assures us that many of the accused
must on their trial have appealed to passages like the fifty-third of Isaiah, where a
career is predicted for the Messiah amazingly like that of Jesus of Nazareth. He heard
incidents of Christ’s life from their lips which betokened a personage very different
from the picture sketched for him by his Pharisaic informants.
But onward he pressed, and the sun of noonday, from which all but the
most impatient travelers in the East take refuge in a long siesta, looked down upon him
still urging forward his course toward the city gate of Damascus. The news of Saul’s
coming had arrived at Damascus before him; and the little flock of Christ was praying
that, if it were possible, the progress of the wolf, who was on his way to spoil the fold,
might be stopped. Nearer and nearer, however, he drew; he had reached the last stage of
But the Good Shepherd had heard the cries of the trembling flock and
went forth to face the wolf on their behalf. Suddenly at midday, as Paul and his company
were riding forward beneath the blaze of the Syrian sun, a light which dimmed even that
fierce glare shone round about them, a shock vibrated through the atmosphere, and in a
moment they found themselves prostrate upon the ground.
It would be impossible to exaggerate what took place in the mind of
Saul in this single instant. So measured, this one moment of Saul’s life was perhaps
longer than all his previous years. A voice sounded in his ears, "I am Jesus, whom
thou art persecuting" (Acts 9:5).
When his companions recovered themselves and turned to their leader,
they discovered that he had lost his sight, and they had to take him by the hand and lead
him into the city. What a change was there! Instead of the proud Pharisee riding through
the streets with the pomp of an inquisitor, a stricken man, trembling, groping, clinging
to the hand of his guide, arrives at the house of Judas amidst the consternation of those
who receive him and, getting hastily to a room where he can ask them to leave him alone,
sinks down there in the darkness.
But, though it was dark without, it was bright within. He neither ate
nor drank for three days. He was too absorbed in the thoughts which crowded on him thick
and fast. In those three days, it may be said with confidence, he got at least a partial
hold of all the truths he afterward proclaimed to the world; for his whole theology is
nothing but the explication of his own conversion.