Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1-2)
Christianity, as it was spreading its gospel message of Christ and grace, posed a real threat to Saul’s religious tradition. Feeling that the church must be stopped, Saul sought permission from the Jewish high priest to search out and arrest Christians in Damascus, a city in Syria, in order to bring them to Jerusalem to be tried before Jewish courts. Little did Saul know that when he set his will against the church to attack it, he was attacking the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” (Acts 9:3-6)
Saul was completely caught off guard. The word “Lord” in Acts 9:5 translates the Greek word kurios and was most likely used by Saul as a synonym for God, as Saul probably knew this was a divine encounter due to the supernatural “light from heaven” that knocked him to the ground. In the OT, the proper name of God is YHWH—sometimes used with vowels as Yahweh—and is translated LORD, using all capital letters. When the Septuagint was written around 250 B.C.—the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT—the translators chose the Greek word kurios as a substitute for the Hebrew word YHWH. Though the word is sometimes used in the NT to mean sir (John 4:11; Acts 16:30), and master (Col. 3:22), it is also used to refer to the deity of Jesus Christ (compare Isa. 40:3 and John 1:23; or Deut. 6:16 and Matt. 4:7; cf. John 20:28; Rom. 10:11; Phil. 2:11). Surely Saul was surprised to learn that he was talking with the resurrected Lord Jesus. More so, by attacking the church, Saul learned he was attacking Christ Himself, who is the head of the church (Eph. 1:22-23). Jesus did not ask “why are you persecuting My church?” Rather, the Lord said “why are you persecuting Me?” At the moment of salvation, a believer is in union with the resurrected Christ, and when one attacks a Christian, it is an attack on the Lord Himself.
The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (Acts 9:7-9)
Though there were men traveling with Saul, the divine encounter with the risen Lord Jesus was meant primarily for him. Rising from the earth, Saul realized “he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus” (Acts 9:8). The brazen Saul who had originally rushed to Damascus on horseback, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1), ultimately reached his destination blind, on foot, and perhaps a little bruised from his fall. His cohorts led him like a helpless little child to the city he intended to crash with waves of violence. Once there, Saul “was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9). I suspect Saul was anxiously waiting for the Lord’s next instruction, since the Lord had commanded him to “get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do” (Acts 9:6).
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 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.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” (Acts 9:10-14)
Saul had come to Damascus to attack the disciples of the Lord (Acts 9:1); yet God’s grace was upon Saul, for it was through “a disciple at Damascus named Ananias” that God would heal Saul of his blindness and show him love he did not deserve. The Lord spoke to His servant Ananias and commanded him to “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” (Acts 9:11). This verse gives us the first glimpse into Saul’s background, for we learn that he was born in the city of Tarsus. More importantly, Saul was praying to the Lord at this time, seeking Him from the place where the Lord had brought him, a place of helplessness. The Lord went on to reveal to Ananias that Saul had “seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight” (Acts 9:12). It’s interesting that God had given Saul a vision of something that was certain to happen, involving the volition of Ananias, even before the Lord had asked Ananias to go and lay hands on Saul. At first, Ananias offers fearful resistance to the Lord’s command. Ananias was genuinely afraid of Saul, citing previous acts of violence against Christians in Jerusalem, and stating that he had religious authority from the chief priests to persecute the Lord’s disciples even in Damascus (Acts 9:13-14). The Lord did not rebuke Ananias for his fears, but offered him kind reassurance.
But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” (Acts 9:15-16)
Here is divine revelation into the eternal counsel of God, who revealed to Ananias that Saul was His “chosen instrument” (Acts 9:15). The word chosen translates the Greek word ekloge which means to select for one’s own purpose. God chooses—or elects—to salvation (Acts 13:48; Eph. 1:3), spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3-6), holy and righteous living (Col. 3:12; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 2:9), and service for the Lord (Jer. 1:4-5; Gal. 1:15-16; cf. Acts 9:15). Election is always the free choice of God, based on His sovereignty (Rom. 9:10-21), and never based of the worthiness of the object (Deut. 7:7-8; 1 Cor. 1:26-31; Rom. 9:11). God chose Saul, not because he was sweet and lovely and doing all the right things; rather, the Lord chose Saul in order to demonstrate His grace, His love and His power. As the “chosen instrument” of the Lord, Saul was to carry the Lord’s name “before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Thank God for His sovereign grace!
The Lord assured Ananias … This man is My chosen instrument to carry My name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. Saul was to become Paul, the apostle to the uncircumcised (Rom. 11:13; Gal. 2:2, 7-8; Eph. 3:8), including kings (cf. Governor Felix [Acts 24:1-23], Governor Porcius Festus [24:27-25:12], King Herod Agrippa II [25:13-26:32], and possibly Emperor Nero [25:11]). The apostle, of course, also ministered to “the people of Israel” (cf. 9:20; 13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:2, 10, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8; 26:17-20; Rom. 1:16). How amazing that the one who persecuted Christians so violently should himself be transformed into a witness of the gospel—and such a dynamic, forceful witness at that!
Attached to Saul’s divine calling were the Lord’s words to Ananias, “I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:16). The persecutor will now be the persecuted. Saul, who inflicted suffering on Christians, will now suffer as a Christian. Saul had the pronouncement of a lifetime of suffering from the very beginning of his call to ministry. Saul was no coward. He received the word of the Lord and accepted his commission to Christian service knowing fully it would be marked by a life of suffering wherever he went.
Ananias went to the house of Judas where Saul was staying and spoke the words of the Lord to him, and Saul received his sight again, and after eating and visiting with the disciples for several days, “immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (Acts 9:20). Because of Saul’s conversion, “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase” (Acts 9:30). Even though the church enjoyed peace for a while, not having to fear their greatest persecutor, the Lord’s new servant would begin his life of suffering for Christ.
Saul, who eventually came to be known as Paul after Acts 13:9, would serve three missionary journeys for the Lord and share the gospel with many who would be saved. Paul’s missionary journeys started in Acts 13 in the city of Antioch and concluded in Acts 28 in the city Rome. Between these chapters, Paul experienced much persecution.
Paul’s life was marked by suffering and persecution from the time he was saved on the Damascus road until he arrived in Rome. This was all in fulfillment of what was spoken by Jesus to Ananias when He said of Paul, “he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16). In addition to what is recorded in the book of Acts, Paul tells us of more sufferings he endured:
Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. (2 Cor. 11:23-28)
Paul knew suffering like few others in this world. His suffering was the result of his service for Christ, as one who boldly preached the gospel message and taught others from the Scriptures. Paul experienced hostility primarily from his own people, the Jews, but also from Greeks and Romans. Apart from the external hardships Paul faced throughout his life, he also had “the daily pressure…of concern for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). Paul was often internally distressed over the church because he knew that Christians were in real danger of false teachers who might lead them astray from Christ and from sound teaching (Acts 20:18-32; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Gal. 2:4-5; Phil. 3:2). In addition to all that he suffered during his time of ministry, there was a special form of suffering that came to Paul, a “thorn in the flesh” as he called it. Regarding this special form of suffering, Paul said,
Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:7-10)
Paul had personally received divine revelation from the Lord, and there was a real temptation that Paul might get prideful over having received such revelation, so the Lord gifted him with a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble and effective in ministry. It was unimportant for Paul to tell us what his thorn was, but rather that it kept him humble, which was his purpose in revealing his “thorn” to us. At first, Paul did not want his painful thorn, and even petitioned the Lord three times to take it away. God, in His great wisdom, denied Paul’s prayer request, informing Paul that He would give him the grace—or divine enablement—to cope with his new weakness. God loved Paul enough to give him what he needed, and the Lord needed Paul to be weak, so that he would learn to rely on the Lord and not himself. Paul’s pain kept him close to God. The wisdom and greatness of Paul is seen in his response to the Lord’s refusal to his prayer request, for Paul declared “most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9). Such declarations are contrary to human nature, since our first inclination is to complain about the things that cause us pain. However, we must fight against our human nature and live by faith, trusting God at His Word and believing that when He causes us to have pain—like He did with Paul—that it serves some purpose in us and benefits us as well as others. This requires faith. May we all learn to say with the apostle Paul, “I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
For Paul, pain and suffering were not anomalies that occasionally popped into his life; rather, they were a regular part of the fabric of his life and ministry. Too often Christian ministers sell Christianity as a way to escape pain and suffering, teaching others that if they’ll only come to Christ and live godly lives their troubles will go away. Such teaching is false; for “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). The Lord Jesus stated:
Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets. (Luke 6:22-23)
Not every Christian will suffer for their faith. Certainly there are Christians whom the Lord has blessed with a life of peace and prosperity. However, when looking through Scripture as well as through history, suffering is more the norm rather than the exception. For the Christian, joy is not found in the absence of suffering, but in doing God’s will and being found pleasing in His sight. This requires biblical understanding and a lifetime of learning to walk in God’s truth (Phil. 4:11-13).
This article is an edited excerpt from my book, Suffering: A Biblical Consideration (pages 91-117).
Steven R. Cook, D.Min.
 Stanley D. Toussaint, eds. Walvoord & Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 377.