What could change a cold-hearted killer into a compassionate and harmless person? Saul of Tarsus was a dangerous, heartless man. By his own testimony, Saul persecuted the church. It began with the stoning of Steven, a deacon in the church at Jerusalem. Saul then directed a campaign of imprisonment and death for many men and women who were following Jesus. Consider what Saul did to Steven. (Acts 6:8—8:3) Imagine yourself taking an innocent, good person, and telling damnable lies about him. Then getting an angry mob together and supervising the stoning of that person to death. What “normal” person could contemplate doing that kind of evil? Who could watch without compassion as stone thumped against flesh and cracked against bone? Who could look without pity at the sickening splatter of innocent blood? You would have to be someone whose conscience was clouded by hatred and self-justification.
How was Saul the pitiless changed into Paul, the compassionate? He was forged in the fire of the Holy Spirit and hammered into a new man. What happened to Saul was not pleasant. One moment he was traveling along the road to Damascus. In the next moment, Saul was forever changed. In his satchel, Saul carried a blanket warrant for the arrest of any of his fellow Jews whom he thought were following Jesus. As a Pharisee, his fine clothes and full money bag testified to great prosperity and religiosity. The slaves that accompanied Saul attended to his every need and heeded every command. But God was faithful to His future slave. Saul’s conscience began to break through the barricades of anger and denial. He was goaded by some frightful vision. Perhaps the angelic face of Stephen accompanied “heartless” Saul, convicting him of sin and judgment. There was a blinding flash of light. Saul was struck to the ground. A thunderous voice spoke his name, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” Smacked down by Jesus! It was the beginning of change.
For Saul, the path to humility began with humiliation. Saul heard Jesus speaking, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” The servants of Saul heard a loud noise but no voice. The slaves had to lead Saul by the hand into Damascus as a parent would lead a child. After taking those stumbling steps in the blindness to a house in Damascus, Saul began crying out to God. He prayed for three days. He refused all food or water. Who did God send in answer to the prayers of Saul? Ananias, one of the men that Saul was seeking to arrest! The first words out of Ananias’ mouth were two words of compassion, “Brother Saul…” Brother! Jesus sent a servant to Saul who would be obedient to His command, “Love your enemies and pray for them.” That was the beginning of sight for Paul, the compassionate and harmless.
Paul remained a zealot. But the Lord sanctified the zeal, redirecting Paul’s passions toward the gospel of Jesus Christ and compassion for all people. The result was something that Paul could never achieve through his own efforts. He would have become more dangerous, arrogant, and pitiless as the years went by in his life. The wonderful insight into all the positive change that came to Paul is that the same power is available to each one of us in Jesus Christ.