In one sense Saul of Tarsus is the first convert presented to us in the Scripture. Souls were saved on the day of Pentecost, and afterwards; and they were added to the company of believers, who had now been formed into the house of God by the descent of the Holy Ghost. But beyond the fact no particulars are given - whether of their exercises of soul or of the method of their great change, save that it was through the testimony rendered by the apostles to the resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God of the Jesus who had been crucified in their midst. The testimony, moreover, was addressed, up till the death of Stephen, rather to the Jewish people, the nation, than to individuals. As Peter declared before the council, when charged, together with John, with filling Jerusalem with his doctrine concerning Christ, "Him hath God exalted with His right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel [that is, the nation], and forgiveness of sins." (Acts 5:31, see also chap. 3:19, 21.)
From Pentecost until the death of Stephen, the long-suffering of God waited on His ancient people, in answer to the Lord's prayer on the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." But when they rejected the testimony of the Holy Ghost, through the apostles, even as they had refused the testimony of Christ, and slew Stephen, God broke off His dealings in grace with the Jewish nation, and began to unfold the secret of His eternal counsels, "which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit." (Eph. 3:5.) On the day of Pentecost the church was formed, though presented in the narrative as the house of God. The truth of the body of Christ was not yet revealed, albeit every believer who received the Holy Ghost on the day of Pentecost was thereby united to Christ, and thus became a member of His body, of which He as glorified was Head. The knowledge of this was not yet communicated. As soon however as Stephen had been stoned, God began to disclose His eternal counsels as to the church, and the vessel chosen to proclaim them was Saul of Tarsus. Accordingly he is first introduced in connection with the martyrdom of Stephen. "The witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul."
To understand the grace displayed in the conversion of Saul it is necessary to consider his previous character. Materials are abundantly supplied wherewith to instruct ourselves on this point. As we gather from Phil. 3, he had everything to exalt him as a man in this world, whether derived from birth, education, religion, or moral character. In his own words, he was "circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless." (Phil. 3:5, 6; see also Acts 22:3; Acts 26:4, 5, etc.) He was in truth a model man according to the natural judgment, one who would enjoy the respect and esteem of those amongst whom he lived and moved, and one at the same time on whom it would be thought, by all who did not know that the carnal mind was enmity against God, the favour of heaven rested in a special degree. So contrary are the thoughts of men to the thoughts of God!
It was this very man, Saul of Tarsus, who was the champion of Judaism, yea, of Satan, against Christ. A zealot in the Jews' religion, he was the foremost in the manifestation of bitter hostility to Christ and to His followers. "Young man" though he was when Stephen was being stoned, he stood calmly by, "assisting" at his death, endorsing in his wicked zeal that outburst of religious frenzy which, setting aside all legal forms, slaked its thirst in the martyr's blood. He would seem to have been a member of the Jewish council, before which all such heretics were tried and sentenced; for he said, when before Agrippa, "When they were put to death, I gave my voice [vote] against them." Commending himself thus to the Jewish authorities by his energy and zeal, he received authority from the chief priests to act against the saints in Jerusalem, and he shut up many of them in prison; and, to quote his own language, "I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities." (Acts 26:10, 11.) This will explain the statement in chapter 8:3, that Saul "made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison"; and again, that he breathed "out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord." (9:1.)
Such was Saul, one whose whole soul was in his deadly work; a man of resolute and unbending will, with all his natural energies urging him on in his mission of relentless persecution of the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, determined as he was to blot out their, and their Master's, name from the face of the earth. His own moral estimate of his doings in these days is found in 1 Timothy. He says, "I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; who was before a blasphemer,, and a persecutor, and injurious"; and further he tells us that lie was the "chief" of sinners. Once more he writes, in 1 Cor. 15, I "am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God." There cannot therefore be any misconception of the moral condition of Saul before conversion; for while it must not be forgotten that the same possibilities of evil lie in every heart, and that the flesh in all is utterly corrupt, it is yet true that there are degrees in the exhibition of hostility to Christ, and in this no one ever surpassed that shown by Saul of Tarsus.
His conversion may now be considered. The very atmosphere in which he lived was, as already seen, that of inveterate enmity against Christ and His people. Outwardly blameless in walk, punctilious in his attention to the ritual of the law, he cherished in his heart the bitterest feelings of revenge against those who had accepted Jesus of Nazareth as Lord and Christ. Thus actuated, he obtained letters "to Damascus to the synagogues" from the high priest, "that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, lie might bring them bound unto Jerusalem." He was consequently in the full career of his determined opposition to Christ as he journeyed to Damascus. As far as revealed there had not been a single misgiving as to his course; or if it be supposed that conscience had been uneasy from what is said in verse 5,* he had attempted to silence the inward monitor by a more resolute pursuit of his object. It is certain, in any case, that he had never sought Christ.
*These words, if omitted here, are unquestioned in chap. 26:14.
This brings out the distinguishing feature of Saul's conversion. "Light from heaven," neither prayed for nor sought, suddenly shone round about him, "and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" Herein the whole character of grace is displayed; for, just as when the Lord was here on earth He said that the Son of man was come to seek and to save that which was lost, so it still abides true that in the gospel God is seeking sinners. The Father seeketh such, as the Lord also said, to worship Him. Saul was therefore taken up as a pattern convert, a pattern convert of the day of grace, even as he afterwards wrote, "Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all ['the whole'] longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting." (1 Tim. 1:16.) That is, as we understand this language, our blessed Lord exhibited towards Saul of Tarsus, as the chief of sinners, the whole of His longsuffering, that His heart of grace might be known in all future ages, and that the worst of sinners, as men speak, might be encouraged to put their trust in Him. Saul is thus lifted up before the eyes of men as an illustration of the Lord's ways of grace with poor sinners. The Lord went after Saul and sought until He found him, and when He had found him He laid him on His shoulders rejoicing.
It will be instructive, before proceeding further, to observe the divine order unfolded in verses 3-5. The first thing noted is that light from heaven shone round about Saul. It is ever so in conversion. Until light from heaven enters, the soul is in complete darkness; and Paul himself afterwards wrote, "God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts." (2 Cor. 4:6.) This light, as explained in connection with this scripture, is the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. (v. 4.) In the case of Saul, the light streamed in upon him from the actual glory of Christ, who had gone forth to seek this chief of sinners; now it is brought to souls by the word of the gospel. If received, it exposes their whole condition (for that which maketh everything manifest if light), and the consequence is that they are convicted of sin. So here, following upon the shining of the light, which caused Saul to fall to the earth, a voice came to him, saying, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" Saul had thought that, in persecuting and killing the saints, he was doing God service (See John 16:2); and now he was convicted of persecuting Him who revealed Himself as the Lord of glory.* Next we have the presentation of Christ to the convicted soul. "Who art Thou, Lord?" Saul cried in his bewilderment and amazement; "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest," was the calm, solemn, and startling response.
*The full significance of these words, as containing the truth that believers are united to Christ in heaven by the Holy Ghost, is left for consideration at another opportunity.
The first stage of the work of grace in Saul's soul was completed. The effect of the presentation of Jesus in glory to his soul, and as the One against whom he had dared to lift up his hands in his fanatical zeal, was to subdue his proud and rebellious heart, to humble him at the feet of Jesus, and to compel him to cry, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?"* Saul was now, if not yet in the liberty of grace, converted. From a bitter and determined enemy he had been changed into a submissive captive. Jesus of Nazareth, whom he had hated with all the energy of his strong and religious nature, was now accepted as his Lord. He had been drawn to the feet of Jesus, and was finding it to be the place of all blessing. He has yet much to learn; and He who had taken him in hand will provide the instruction. For the present the Lord bade Saul to arise and go into the city, adding, "And it shall be told thee what thou must do."
*These words, if without authority here, are given in chapter 22:10.
Altogether it is a blessed picture of grace, one much to be pondered both by evangelists and also by anxious souls.