19 June 2023

Do you believe God can still change the hearts of people?

Major David Murray

Major David Murray reflects on the power of Jesus to transform a person’s life.

Key text

More than 2,000 years after the event, Paul’s conversion has become part of everyday speech. For example, you might say ‘they have seen the light’ when someone has a change of heart or use the phrase ‘Damascus Road experience’ to describe a deeper spiritual change.

Some of the people in the Bible had their names changed by God. Paul isn’t one of them. Across the Roman Empire, having multiple names was the norm. In Acts 8:1–3, we are introduced to him as Saul. From Acts 13:9, he is known as Paul.

We first encounter Saul at the stoning to death of Stephen. Saul is not only present but also approves of it. He then makes it his mission ‘to destroy the Church’ (Acts 8:3).

We first read Luke’s account of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9:1–19. Luke also records when Paul recalls the event in Acts 22 – in his defence before a crowd in Jerusalem almost 30 years later – and in Acts 26, in his testimony before King Agrippa.

Pause and reflect

  • Read the three accounts of Saul’s conversion.
  • What picture of Saul do you have in your mind?

In our study passage, we find Saul preparing to continue his campaign to persecute followers of Jesus in Damascus. He gains official approval, gathers some men, and sets out on a journey to the Syrian capital.

Not far from Damascus, ‘suddenly a light from Heaven flashed around him’ (v3). Only Saul hears a voice, which he doesn’t recognise as being the Lord’s. From within the light, Jesus reminds him that they have actually met many times before – for, in persecuting his followers, Saul had been persecuting Jesus himself.

Before King Agrippa, Paul later explains: ‘I saw a light from Heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads”’ (Acts 26:13 and 14).

Photo shows four stages of a chrysalis.

Acts 9:15

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.’

Read Acts 9

A goad is a long stick, similar to a cattle prod, which was used to persuade the likes of an ox to plough in a straight line. In Ecclesiastes 12:11, we read that ‘the words of the wise are like goads … like firmly embedded nails – given by one shepherd’. Saul as a Pharisee – with his advanced knowledge of Jewish Scripture – would well have understood the implications of Jesus’ words.

After confronting Saul, Jesus briskly dismisses him, telling him to proceed into the city and wait for further instructions.

Saul is left temporarily blinded by his exposure to the intense light. This may have been due to a condition known today as ‘flash blindness’ – it is normally a temporary condition that overwhelms the retinas of the eyes. Saul’s companions lead him into Damascus, where he spends three days in reflection and prayer without food or drink.

Pause and reflect

  • How good are we at turning our challenges into opportunities by waiting for God to act?

Elsewhere in Damascus, Ananias has a vision. In it, Jesus tells him to visit Saul (see v11). Ananias knows that Saul is coming to town to harm the believers. He is aware of Saul’s intended mission and reputation. Concerned, Ananias expresses his reservations.

Jesus does not criticise Ananias nor ignore his concerns. He simply tells him that he has a job for both of them to do. Ananias is to go to visit Saul (see v11); Saul will go to visit the Gentiles (see v15). Jesus adds that he will show Saul ‘how much he must suffer for my name’ (v16).

Whatever his initial reservations, when Ananias finds Saul, he has clearly forgiven him, greeting him as ‘brother Saul’ (v17). After three days of prayer and fasting, Ananias’s acceptance of him must have brought Saul a deep sense of encouragement. Scales fall from his eyes and Saul’s sight is restored.

Pause and reflect

  • Jesus’ use of ‘goads’ suggests that Saul had heard the message of Jesus (see Acts 7:54 to 8:1) but had not obeyed it. Do we suppress God’s claim on our lives, pretending we haven’t heard?

Paul never forgets what Jesus did for him. He writes: ‘For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God’ (1 Corinthians 15:9).

There are many reasons why Ananias reaches the wrong conclusions about Saul. However, Ananias obeys Jesus’ command and goes to Saul on Straight Street. Ananias is willing to forgive Saul despite his past or his future intentions for believers in Damascus.

Pause and reflect

  • Ananias obeyed Jesus, found Saul and was ready and willing to forgive him.
  • How might genuine love and forgiveness of someone’s past encourage them to discover that they are loved and accepted by Jesus and his followers?

Saul’s life was transformed. He met with Jesus, who gave him a new mission to grow the Church and not destroy it. General John Gowans writes: ‘I believe in transformation,/ God can change the hearts of men,/ And refine the evil nature/ Till it glows with grace again./ Others may reject the weakling,/ I believe he can be strong,/ To the family of Jesus/ All God’s children may belong’ (SASB 34).

Pause and reflect

  • Do you believe God can still change the hearts of people?
  • What are you prepared to do about that?

Bible study by

Photo of David Murray.

Major David Murray

Corps Officer, Leighton Buzzard

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