With each success in persecuting Christians, Sauls favor with the Jerusalem authorities grew. The city had returned to normal and Caiaphas was back in control, and now the high priests agent must broaden his search for those who escaped. When a merchant informed him about an increasing number of believers in Damascus, Saul went to Caiaphas and applied for letters to the synagogues in that city, authorizing him to arrest any followers of the Way he found, men or women, and bring them to Jerusalem.
A few days later, Saul set out for Damascus, with money from the temple treasury and necessary supplies, and a detail of guards to bring back the prisoners. After crossing the Jordan, he joined a caravan heading northeast through the district called Gilead. Damascus lay farther north between Mount Hermon and the vast Syrian Desert, and was an important center on the trade route ruled by Arabia under Nabatean King Aretas. The trip of about 150 miles from Jerusalem was boring, and the young agent was anxious to arrive and pursue his campaign, expecting to bring back a large number of Christs disciples.
Christs Appearance to Saul
After a weeks travel from Jerusalem, he was finally nearing the city. Damascus was visible now, but it still was only a blur of white in a field of green, with the brown thread of the Barada River winding through it.
Suddenly a light from heaven flashed all around Saul, brighter than the rays of the sun, so intense that its flash blinded his eyes. Unable to see, he fell off his horse and stumbled over a rock in the path and fell sprawling in the sand, almost under the feet of the horse. Ahead he heard the excited babble of voices as he fell, then everything went silent around him.
All he could see was that brilliant light and what appeared to be a figure inside of it. The figure spoke with a voice he never heard before, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?
Tell me sir, who are you? he cried in agony.
The voice answered, I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
In that moment Saul met the shattering truth. Jesus was God! He suddenly knew that every stone which had struck Stephen was also against Jesus; that every chain he had fastened to the believers was also laid on Christ. In persecuting the church, he had persecuted the Lord. He fully understood the meaning of what Jesus asked him.
It was the realization of this terrible wrong that broke Saul. In trembling submission he asked, What shall I do, Lord?
This was a question of true repentance and an open heart to receive Gods forgiveness and healing of his soul. His terror was gone, erased in the instant Jesus of Nazareth had entered his heart. Instead of fighting the fire of Pentecost, he now had the fire of Pentecost within him and was born from above. The Shekinah glory, the Light of Life would forever illuminate his path in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus instructed him, Get up and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all you are to do.
After the light and voice faded away, the Spirit confirmed that he had actually heard and seen the risen Lord! As he struggled to his feet he suddenly noticed his outward vision was clouded and rubbed his eyes to clear it, but only darkness remained. Then he realized his eyes had been struck blind so he could truly see with inner vision that Jesus was God.
Meanwhile, the men who were traveling with him stood speechless; they heard the voice but could see no one. Saul motioned for the caravan to go on without him. He did not want anyone to see his condition before he could understand the extraordinary event that had blinded him.
When the caravan moved out of hearing range, all of a sudden he heard himself saying, Take me into Damascus. Go to Straight Street, to the house of Judas, and tell him a man from Tarsus named Saul must stay with him. The guards put him back on his horse, leading it into the city to the place where they were told. Judas, a gentle old man who was a believer, came out of his home and led the blinded Saul by the hand inside to a separate room.
Im safe now, the young agent told his companions, then reached into his belt and held up a small bundle. Here, take the gold I brought. Go your way and use some of it to buy lodgings for the night. In the morning return to Jerusalem, give the rest of the money back to Caiaphas, and tell him what happened. I dont know what is in store for me or what I will do next. I must sort things out for a while. He could no longer use the high priests blood money.
After the men went their way, Judas offered his guest food and drink, but he would not accept any. For three days, he sat blind and alone in the room, not speaking to anyone. Shut up in a world where all he could see was the form of the One who had appeared to him, Saul would weigh his error in persecuting Jesus and get acquainted with him. Although he had peace of mind that God had forgiven him, he hoped Christs followers would also. The only thing he knew for certain at that moment was that he would serve his Lord and Savior with even more furious passion than he had served Judaism. There was so much more to learn from his heavenly Teacher who was even higher than Rabban Gamaliel!
Ananias Has a Vision
Not far from Judas house in Damascus, lived his friend Ananias, an honest merchant and also devout follower of the Way. He was highly respected by all the Jews. God called to him in a vision, Ananias!
Here I am, Lord, he answered.
Christ gave specific instructions, Go to Straight Street, to the house of Judas, and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. You will find him at prayer; he had a vision and saw you coming in and laying hands on him to restore his sight.
Ananias was fearful of Saul, Lord, I have often heard about this man and all the harm he has done to your people in Jerusalem. Now he is here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who invoke your name.
But Jesus replied, You must go and do as I have told you. This man will not hurt you, for he is my chosen instrument to bring my name before the nations and their kings, and before the people of Israel. I myself will show him all that he must go through for my names sake.
The merchant obediently went to the house of Judas. On entering, he walked over to Saul, laid his hands on him and said, Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus has told me about you. He said to me, he is my chosen instrument to bring my name before the nations and their kings, and before the people of Israel. I myself will show him all that he must go through for my names sake. Then he said to tell you, The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and hear him speak. You are to be his witness to tell the world what you have seen and heard. He sent me so that you may recover your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.
When Ananias revealed to Saul his divine commission as Apostle to the Gentiles, it was as if scales had fallen from Sauls eyes, and he regained his sight. He had already received the Holy Spirit when Jesus appeared to him and personally chose him as an apostle. Now he was baptized and filled with the Spirit, an ordination for his ministry in much the same way as Christ was baptized and ordained at the beginning of his ministry.
After Saul had eaten, his strength returned, and he stayed for a few days with the disciples in Damascus. Without delay he proclaimed Jesus publicly in the synagogues, declaring him to be the Son of God. All who heard were astounded, Isnt this the man who was in Jerusalem hunting down those who invoke this name? Didnt he come here for the sole purpose of arresting them and taking them before the chief priests?
But the apostle was a novice and not yet equipped with the knowledge to answer questions fully. He would need much more training to become a mature evangelist of the Gospel and fulfill his commission. Even though the young scholar had the finest education in Old Testament Judaism under Gamaliel, he must have an ever greater New Testament education taught by the Holy Spirit. He knew nothing about the New Covenant and all that Jesus had taught the apostles in those three years about the Kingdom of God in preparation for their ministries. Saul needed three years of private tutoring to catch up to the knowledge of the eleven apostles, and to be instructed in future missions where he would spread the good news of the risen Savior to the world.
Into the Desert
As Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit after his baptism, so was Saul. He told Ananias and Judas of his decision.
Ananias encouraged him, You are learned, Saul. You can set the Gospel of Christ against a background of the Law and the Prophets, as a silversmith builds the setting of precious metal to hold a beautiful jewel.
But I dont know where to start.
Start at the beginning, Judas suggested, by thinking through your conversion and the way it came about. Let the Spirit guide and teach you. But leave Damascus first. Jews have been stirring up the synagogues against you; it would be a triumph for them to return you to Jerusalem in chains.
As a merchant, Ananias had traveled widely and had a general location in mind, Why not go into the desert? Caravans leave here for the south every few days and I often send goods to be sold in the markets of Arabia. You can accompany one of them.
Where should I stay?
The Lord brought you to me when you were blind, Judas reminded him. You can be sure he will guide you, even in the desert.
Saul left Damascus the next morning with a caravan taking the trade route south to Ezion-Geber, on the Gulf of Aqaba. After four days journey almost due south from Damascus, they came to Bosora (Bosra). Following the twin stars, they turned rather sharply westward, and after a journey of several days, came to Gerasa. The caravan paused only long enough to sell part of its bales of cloth and some swords and knives forged in the famous iron shops of Damascus. Then taking on additional goods, it moved on to the southernmost Decapolis city of Philadelphia, former capital of the Moabites who had inhabited this area in the time of Moses.
The caravan now must cover the distance between Philadelphia and Petrathe longest leg of the journey. They moved along desert trails, traveling mostly at night when it was cool, rather than during the day when the sun beat down relentlessly from a cloudless sky. Much of the time no road was visible across the sand and the caravan leader determined his course by the stars rather than any markings. To Saul, it seemed a vast endless sea of sky and sand, constantly changing with the swaying movement of the camels gait.
After a lengthy journey of 230 miles from Damascus, the caravan appeared to be passing through a canyon whose walls closed in until it seemed that no one could pass through them. Saul had the sensation of moving down a long dark tunnel, then suddenly light burst upon his eyes. A rosy colored vista appeared, made up of graceful columns and arched doorways with carved figuresan entire city carved out of stone. A colorful fortress, an oasis with a freshwater spring hidden away in the middle of the desert!
Where are we? Saul asked excitedly. Hed never seen anything like this.
In Petra, capital of the kings of the Nabatean desert, the caravan leader said proudly. We stop here for the night. You can stay here, or go on to Ezion-Geber with us in the morning.
The hot drink and meal had a soothing effect on Saul, and he quickly fell asleep in one of the rooms carved out of sheer walls. When he awakened the next morning, he saw daylight coming from the caves opening. It revealed a large room that was open to his. A pot with the tantalizing aroma of lintels, onions, savory herbs, and goats meat was cooking on a glowing bed of coals. The smell reminded him that he was hungry, and he went into the large room where the stew was cooking.
The inn had been hollowed out of what appeared to be pure sandstone, with layers of lighter color running through the formation. Large enough for several rooms, the cave was quite clean with furnishings for daily living. Saul joined a group of people who was sitting together around the cooking stew and talking about the latest news from the caravan.
When he sat down, he asked, Where are you from?
We are from Galilee, one of them answered, and were forced to leave after the death of one of our leaders in Jerusalem called Stephen. A man named Saul of Tarsus was persecuting followers of Jesus of Nazareth and began extending the persecution to other cities. We thought it would be safer if we stayed here for a while.
I am a follower of Jesus also. You dont need to fear Saul anymore, he assured them. From a reliable source I know he had a conversion and is now one of the followers of the Way.
That would take a miracle! another commented. We hope this is true so we can return home. Where are you from?
Perhaps you know Saul.
You could say that; and yes, it did take a miracle from God. He went out into the street to avoid any more questions, not able to reveal his identity in a way they would accept it. Later he would tell everyone.
The caravan was ready to leave at that moment, and Saul called to the leader, God has revealed to me that I should stay in Petra. May he protect you on the rest of your journey.
In this secret city he found a secluded cave in which to live, work, pray, and learn. At Tarsus he was a tentmaker, and in Petra he worked just enough to earn a living by making and repairing tents for travelers who passed through. During the rest of his time Gods scholar prayed, studied the Scriptures in a new light, and was taught by the Holy Spirit. Occasionally, a group of believers came through with news of the followers abroad and what Jesus had taught them when he was on earth. It all added pieces to the puzzle and would make a complete picture when finished.
Taught by God
It would be a total reversal in his thinking and a complete redirection of his whole life. He was like a newborn baby starting from birth and learning how to walk and talk in the footsteps of Christ. He didnt know how long it would take, but it didnt matter.
In the spirit, Saul was caught up into the third heaven and given insight into the spiritual realm no one had ever seen, and heard things so astonishing they could not be told. Gods entire plan for his people was revealed to him from Genesis to the end of the age, the greatest truths of the Triune God, and the Fathers everlasting love for his children. When his education was completed, he would be an outstanding defender of the Christian faith and passionate evangelist to the Gentiles.
Gradually a picture emerged. At last, Saul began to fully comprehend the truth Jesus had called him to preach. With his fine creative mind, he could explain the deepest mysteries of Christ as the Holy Spirit and the deepest truths of the faith. They would be preserved in his precious letters to the churches he would soon establish across the Roman world.
Return to Damascus
It was three years later, A.D. 39, when Saul returned to Damascus. The essentials of his teaching and message were crystal clear: Gods promise to Abraham had been fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus. The risen Christ was the climax of history, for he was both Messiah and God. God had come to all people in the person of Jesus, as he had come to him. No words seemed adequate to express the apostles amazement at Gods grace in transforming him. It was as though he had died, and in fact been crucified with Jesus, and been given a new life.
He immediately created a sensation in both the Nazarene and Jewish communities. Three years ago, his brief appearance following his dramatic conversion had caused little stir, for he had been uncertain of just what had happened to him and of its ultimate significance. But it was a new Saul who arrived with the caravan from Petrafilled with the Holy Spirit and fire of Pentecost, certain and self-assured with the knowledge given to him by God. His preaching became more and more powerful, and the leaders in the Damascus synagogues could not refute his evidence that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. The synagogues were daily losing members to the new faith, and out of envy the leaders plotted to destroy him.
Escape to Jerusalem
Busy and happy with his work of making tents and preaching, Saul did not realize what was happening. One evening, Judas brought Ananias to his room in the older mans home where he was staying. The concern on their faces told him something was wrong.
What is it, my friends? the apostle asked.
Judas informed him about the plot, One of the leaders in our synagogue told me your life is in danger from those who will not accept the truth. Your power to move souls and change lives with the good news of Jesus has made some of the synagogue leaders jealous, and they are plotting to eliminate you.
Do you advise me to leave?
The older man confirmed it, For your own sake, yes. Its the only safe thing to do. But I was also warned of an ambush at the city gate by the guards who had been instructed by the governor of the city to arrest you on sight.
Is there another way out? Possibly an opening in or over the wall? Saul asked.
That gave Ananias an idea, My home is close to the city wall and the roof connects to it. If you are willing, tonight I can arrange for you to be let down over the wall by means of ropes. Some of the believers will help me.
Saul liked it, This must be a sign that I should return to Jerusalem and finally meet Peter and the rest of the Jerusalem congregation. I only hope they will believe I have changed and accept me as an apostle.
The merchant told him, The only way to find out is to go. Pilate, Annas, and Caiaphas were removed from office shortly after you left for the desert, and it should be a perfect time for you to return. I will arrange for men to lower you down from the wall. Come to my house when you are ready to leave and we will help you escape.
Later that night, when there was just enough moonlight to see by, Saul and Judas silently walked the short distance to Ananias home and up the stairs to the roof. The small group of believers was waiting with long ropes and a basket, and carefully lowered the Twelfth Apostle to the ground for his return to the Holy City.