In Acts 9:1-19 Luke tells the story of the conversion of Saul. Later, in Acts 22:3-16 and 26:12-20 Luke records Paul’s own versions of the story. The conversion of Saul was dramatic, definite, and radically life-changing. He was changed from a persecutor of the church to the chief emissary of the church to the Gentile world.
The events leading up to Saul’s conversion are interesting. When Stephen was stoned, his accusers (Acts 7:58) “laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” It appears that Saul had heard Stephen’s message. Now, he was tending the clothing of those who stoned Stephen. He watched as Stephen uttered his final words (Acts 7:59-60):
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 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.
Even though at this time Paul did not become a believer, this was a powerful moment. Stephen’s last words witnessed powerfully to him. It is a moment that throughout his life, he could not forget.
The stoning of Stephen was a crucial point with regard to the advance of the gospel. Many believers, including Hellenists, were scattered into Judea and Samaria. Later, Philip went down to Samaria to preach, and a great missionary impact was felt. The Spirit fell upon the Samaritans. After that, Philip witnessed to the Ethiopian. The gospel was moving ever outward and onward.
The Damascus Road Experience
At first Saul remained unchanged. Luke writes (Acts 9:1), “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” He obtained permission from the high priests to go to Damascus to arrest people of “the Way” and take them to Jerusalem. Then, while on the road to Damascus, it happened! Saul met Christ!
Few people have the dramatic conversion that Saul experienced. Saul had persecuted the followers of Christ, but now he encountered Christ is a very personal way. We read the story in Acts 9:3-9:
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 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. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
The Role of Ananias
Saul was taken to the house of Judas. Meanwhile, the Lord prepared Ananias, a disciple at Damascus, to deliver His message to Saul. Ananias was powerfully persuaded by means of a vision. In Acts 9:10-16 we read:
In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered. 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. 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 holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Obeying the Lord, Ananias (Acts 9:17-19) went to see Saul, laid his hands on him, and prayed for him to regain his sight and to be filled with the Spirit. The results were dramatic.
Much commentary about this passage centers on the following questions: Was Paul converted on the road to Damascus or in the house of Judas? Did he have an immediate or a three-day conversion experience? Did Paul receive the Spirit through the laying on of hands? Was the filling of the Spirit connected with baptism? Did the gift of the Spirit precede, accompany, or follow his conversion?
At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two lines of thought in answering these questions. One approach tries to connect Saul’s conversion with his being filled with the Spirit. In other words being filled with the Spirit was a part of his being converted. Another approach is to stress that being filled with the Spirit came after Saul was converted. Two different sets of answers emerge. We will consider these answers, but first let us note Luke’s main concern.
Empowered for Ministry
The questions above are not Luke’s main concern. As Hummel (p. 102) says, “the controversy arises from an attempt to get answers to questions Luke does not consider.” His concern is not when, in relation to salvation, that Saul was filled with the Spirit but rather that Paul needed to be empowered for his ministry. According to Bruce (p. 201): “Such filling with the Spirit was the indispensable qualification for the prophetic and apostolic service mapped out for Saul in the Lord’s words of v. 15.; henceforth Saul performed this service as one endowed with the heavenly power (cf. v. 22).” Similarly, Lampe (pp. 20-22) writes: “St. Paul receives the Spirit, and that Luke as usual conceives this as the ‘missionary’ Spirit is shown by the fact that he tells us that Paul immediately preached with power.”
In support of this view, we note how both Luke and Paul use the term “filled” with the Spirit. In addition to Acts 9:17 Luke uses the term eight times (Luke 1:15; 1:41; l:67; Acts 2:4; 4:8; 4:31; 13:9; and 13:52). None of these cases refer to a crisis moment of salvation. Paul himself only used this term one time. In Ephesians 5:18, Paul exhorts his readers “be filled with the Spirit.” This passage clearly has to do with ongoing and re-peated experience, not the initial moment of salvation.
Ananias laid hands on Saul and prayed for him. Ananias prayed with a twofold purpose: that Saul’s sight would be restored and that he would be filled with the Spirit. Here Luke uses two aorist verbs: anablephes (may regain) your sight and plesthes (be filled) with the Spirit. The immediate result was that Saul’s sight was restored. Luke does not explicitly say whether or not Saul was filled with the Spirit at this moment, but the implication is clear that he was. Soon the ministry of Saul would demonstrate that he was filled with the Spirit. His experience of being filled with the Spirit was not limited to an initial moment.
The question arises as to whether or not there was any immediate manifestation of the Spirit’s presence. For example, many ask whether or not Paul spoke in tongues at this time. Luke does not answer the question. We know that Paul spoke in tongues (I Corinthians 14:18) during the course of his life and ministry. There were many evidences, of course, in the life of Paul that he was filled with the Spirit.
The Question of When
We will return now to the common questions asked above. The sequence of events appears to be as follows: Ananias laid hands on Saul and prayed. As a result, Saul’s sight was restored and he was filled with the Spirit. Then (v. 18), Saul was baptized. At this point, Saul arose, ate, and was strengthened by his meal.
Now, we will turn now to the question of when Saul was converted and filled with the Spirit. Although it was not Luke’s main point, it appears to me that Saul was converted before he was filled with the Spirit. There are several reasons for this conclusion.
First, Saul uses (Acts 9:5) the term “Lord” (kurie) on the Damascus road. Kurie can mean either “Lord” or “Sir.” Here, he probably felt that he was in the presence of a divine person. Then Jesus speaks and identifies Himself as the Jesus that Saul was persecuting. Now, as Paul himself tells (Acts 22:10) the story, he asks Jesus, “What shall I do, Lord?” According to Rea (pp. 177-178):
Paul was immediately convinced by the glorious theophany who Jesus really is–the Messiah, True Deity, and the Lord of Glory. Even though he was a strict Jew, Paul at once con-fessed Jesus as Lord. This is tantamount to conversion, as Paul later wrote: “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your hearts that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved” (Rom. 10:9)
Second, Paul did not eat for three days. He was fasting and praying. In verses 11-12 Luke writes:
And the Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, “and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.”
I agree with those who hold that this is the praying of a changed man. He is no longer breathing out threats and murder. Rather he is intense in his prayers to God.
Third, when Ananias meets Saul, he calls him “Brother.” This term, of course, does not always mean Christian brother. However, given the context, this is implied. Lenski (p. 365) writes:
It cannot mean ‘brother’ in the superficial sense in which man uses it, nor in the sense of brother Jew. ‘Brother’ was sweet music to Saul’s ears. That word admitted him into the communion of ‘saints’ (v. 13), all his past guilt was erased.
The main point of this story with regard to the Spirit is that Paul was empowered by the Spirit for his ministry. Although it appears that Paul was filled with the Spirit after being converted, this does not mean that the filling was just a postscript. Being filled with the Spirit for ministry is the normal expectation for New Testaments saints. In the Book of Acts this filling normally occurred very early in the life of the believers. This should be the case today as well!
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