The Conversion of Saul
Howard W. Hunter
"These are the facts from the record of one of the most important encounters in history. There are those who are skeptics and cannot reconcile the events which might be classified as supernatural. Appearances of Deity and voices and visions are often looked upon with suspicion. Some are inclined to explain away the marvelous experience of Paul by saying it was merely the imaginative culmination of an inner conflict of a man who had taken a strong position in defense of the law, who had resolved to stamp out the threat to Judaism, but who had a deep feeling that he was doing wrong. It doesn't seem likely that the whole course of a man's life upon which he was so urgently set would be changed so suddenly and drastically by an inner conflict. Men who are as determined as Paul are not quickly changed although there may have been a spark which had smoldered for a long time before bursting into flame that day on Damascus Road.
"Some have said it was the long journey from Jerusalem to Damascus which gave him time to think and contemplate during the days of travel upon the recent events of the persecution. Paul had been present at the stoning of Stephen and had seen him die. He heard him ask in his last words that those who had dragged him from the Sanhedrin and stoned him in defiance of the law might be forgiven for their acts. This must have made a lasting impression on the mind of Paul. He had personally gone from house to house and brought men and women before the tribunals which condemned them to prison or imposed the sentence of death. Because of him, many had left their homes and fled. Now he had traveled to Damascus with further threats to inflict persecution upon those who followed Christ. Could it be that these things commenced to weigh heavily upon his conscience?
"...There are many men in the world who could be like Paul, men who could be changed in the twinkling of an eye if willing to change the object of their lives as did Paul. There are some who see but do not believe. One needs to be only a bystander to see, but to believe, one must accept wholeheartedly and commit himself to his belief. This requires faith and repentance of old ways. Paul had been raised in the belief his family had held for generations. He had been trained in that faith, and it is fair to say that he understood it, but it was not until that day on Damascus Road when Jesus spoke to him that the object of his life was changed. There are persons in every church who see, but some do not believe. Because they have been raised in the beliefs of their fathers, their minds are closed, and they are satisfied to continue. We wonder why it took Paul so long to see the light and why he so vigorously opposed the teachings of the Savior. The answer is apparent. He was born into a certain belief and followed it until it became a habit. He had a preconceived idea of the law which closed his mind to the truth until that event on Damascus Road.
"...It is startling to many in the world to learn that there is a prophet of God on the earth at the present time who speaks to us the will of the Lord, and of this fact I bear witness. There are hundreds of thousands who also so testify, yet today as in Paul's day there are others who see but do not believe because of old traditions, closed minds, and preconceived ideas. For this reason I invited you to walk with me down Damascus Road. If you are willing to do so with a prayer in your heart for the truth, the Lord will shed his light upon you as he did Paul, and the truth will be made manifest to you." (Conference Report, October 1964, 108-110.)
Acts 9:1-2 Saul...went unto the high priest
That Saul had direct access to the high priest shows that he was a Pharisee of good reputation and high standing. Paul respected the authority of the high priest (Acts 23:2-5), but there was another High Priest to whom Paul had not yet subjected himself.
"Paul represented the Sanhedrin's inner circle, as he said of his power as persecutor 'in Jerusalem'-'and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests . . . and I punished them oft in every synagogue' (Acts 26:10-11). Years before, the Savior warned his first apostles of the misplaced zeal of oppressors: 'The hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God' (John 16:2, RSV). That is just how Paul explains himself-he carefully concluded that duty required persecution of Jesus' disciples (Acts 26:9); out of 'zeal' for God, he persecuted Christians (Philip. 3:6)." (Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul, p. 25)
Acts 9:3 The ancient city, Damascus
"Claiming to be the world's oldest city having continuous habitation, Damascus, present-day capital of Syria, was also in the Roman province of Syria in the days of the apostles. Situated some 130 miles northeast of Jerusalem and approximately 65 miles from the Mediterranean Sea, Damascus lies in the heart of a fertile plain.
"The supremacy of Damascus among ancient cities is clearly found in the fact of its location. It was the terminus point for three principal trade routes of the ancient Near East. Its close proximity to Jerusalem made Damascus a city of great importance to ancient Israel and Judah." (The Life and Teachings of Jesus & His Apostles, (1979 Institute Manual), p. 257)
Acts 9:5 it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks
We must remember that the King James Version of the Bible was written in 17th century English. Hence, the meaning of certain phrases requires some explanation. 'To kick against the pricks' is an expression meaning to persecute the Church (see DC 121:38). That it was 'hard for [Saul]' doesn't mean that he lacked the tendency or the natural ability, but that his efforts were hard on him in ways he did not yet understand. In essence, Saul's efforts were destroying himself more than they were destroying the Church.
Spencer W. Kimball
"I often wondered just what this meant. I found one authority who offered this:
' . . Those who kick at the goad, that stifle and smother the convictions of conscience, that rebel against God's truths laws, that quarrel with His providences, that persecute and oppose His ministers, because they reprove them . . . and fly in the face of their reprovers, they kick against the pricks, and will have a great deal to answer for.' (Commentaries by Henry M. Scott.)
"A goad is defined as a spear or a sharp pointed stick used to sting or prig. The burro who kicks the sharp instrument with which he is being prodded is kicking at the pricks. His retaliation does little damage to the sharp stick or to him who wields it but brings distress to the foot that kicks it.
"I well remember in my youth a neighbor who moved about some days on crutches. He was evasive when asked the cause of his misfortune, but an ear witness told me, as he chuckled: 'John stubbed his toe on a chair in the night and in his quick, fierce anger, he kicked the chair and broke his toe.' The rocking chair rocked on and on, and perhaps smiled at the stupidity of man." (Conference Report, April 1955, p. 94.)
Spencer W. Kimball
"In this figure of speech is captured the essence of rebellion against God; we can only hurt ourselves. If one is pricked by a goad and angered by the pain, he may foolishly strike out at the source of irritation, only to suffer even more." (Faith Precedes the Miracle, p. 305.)
Acts 9:6 what wilt thou have me to do?
Much like Joseph Smith, Paul was given information about his personal mission in his "first vision," but all the details didn't make it into the public account. There are three versions of Paul's conversion in the book of Acts (see Acts 22:4-16; 26:12-20). From them, we learn that Paul was told more than is recorded in this chapter. The Lord said to him:
Giving Paul an understanding of his life's true calling, these words likely prompted Paul's practical question, 'what wilt thou have me to do?' Similarly, when we individually come to understand the nature of our life's calling, we will ask the same question.
Ezra Taft Benson
"The persistent asking of that same question can also change our lives. There is no greater question that we can ask in this world...'Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?' (Acts 9:6) God's will for us can be determined from three sources:
"The scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon, of which the Prophet Joseph Smith said, 'a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.' (History of the Church 4:461.)
"Inspired words from the Lord's anointed-counsel from prophets, seers, and revelators. Local Church leaders likewise are entitled to give inspired counsel for those over whom they preside.
"The people of the world have the light of Christ to help guide them, but members of the Church are entitled to the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the Holy Ghost to be fully operative in our lives, we must keep our channels clear of sin. The clearer our channels, the easier it is for us to receive God's message." (Come unto Christ, pp. 41, 351-3.)
Acts 9:6 go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do
"As miraculous as Paul's experience was on the Damascus road when he saw the light and heard the voice of the Lord, it did not grant him a remission of sins; it did not give him the companionship of the Holy Ghost or a knowledge of the saving principles of the gospel; nor did it grant him a call to serve in the church and kingdom of God. All of these blessings were to come, but when they came, they came under the hands of his priesthood leaders. Paul had a marvelous experience that placed him on the path, the pursuit of which would eventually lead him to great knowledge and power with God and ultimately to eternal life. But Paul, like all men, had to pursue that path step by step, learning first the great importance of his priesthood leaders as the source of the answer to his question, 'What wilt thou have me to do?'" (Joseph Fielding McConkie, Seeking the Spirit, p. 67.)
"We assume that there are many in the world today who would consider themselves fully called and ordained had they seen and heard what Paul saw and heard on the way to Damascus. But not so with Paul, and neither with Joseph Smith! They had to be ordained by one having authority, and so must all men who would authoritatively engage in the ministry." (A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, p. 88.)
David O. McKay
"There are two elements in that incident...The first is that the Savior recognized his authority on earth. He could, in a few words, have told Saul what he should do, but there was a branch of the Church in Damascus, presided over by a humble man named Ananias, and Jesus recognized that authority. He knew Saul's nature. He knew that in the future it would be difficult for him to recognize the authority of the Church, as instances later proved.
"He said, 'Go into the city, and there it will be told thee what thou must do,' and Saul had to receive from the very man whom he was going to arrest instructions regarding the gospel of Jesus Christ.
"There is a lesson for us all in this Church. Let us, too, recognize the local authority. The bishop may be a humble man. Some of you may think you are superior to him, but he is given authority direct from our Father in heaven. Recognize it. Seek his advice, the advice of your stake presidents. If they cannot answer your difficulties or your problems, they will write to others, the General Authorities, and get the advice needed. Recognition of authority is an important principle." (Conference Report, October 1951, p. 159.)
Acts 9:7 the men...stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man
In this account, we are told that Paul's associates heard the voice of Jesus. However, a later account of Paul's conversion conflicts with this version. Paul stated that they 'saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me' (Acts 22:9). "Evidently here is a misstatement of fact. As corrected by the Prophet, the passage in Acts 9:7 is altered to agree with that in Chapter 22. This would seem to be the reasonable conclusion for surely the voice and message of the Lord was for Paul alone, although his companions in travel might be permitted to see the light and thereby be assured of the unusual event that was taking place." (Robert J. Matthews, Joseph Smith Memorial Sermons, p. 10)
Furthermore, the fact that these men '[saw] no man,' indicates that Paul did, in fact, see the resurrected Christ in the form of "a man" (see v. 27). The scriptures are replete with testimony that the resurrected Lord retained his perfected body of flesh and bone. He did not discard it in order to dwell as a Spirit whose Personage was one with the Father and Holy Spirit.
Acts 9:8-9 when his eyes were opened, he saw no man
We are taught by latter-day scriptures that the impure cannot withstand the presence of God. Moses declared, 'mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence' (Moses 1:11). Furthermore, the scriptures declare that the priesthood is necessary in order for a man to see God the Father (DC 84:21-2). Yet remarkably, Saul was allowed to see the Son without being destroyed-even though his actions had been wicked and he held no priesthood. But Saul could not withstand the presence of the Son unscathed-there had to be an effect upon his physical body.
The same is true of the conversion of Alma the younger, although he was visited by an angel. As flammable material in the presence of fire, their bodies necessarily were stricken by the power of God. For Saul, his physical eyes could not endure the glorious sight of the risen Lord (Acts 22:11). So he was struck blind-a symbolic representation of his spiritual blindness and misguided religious zeal. As for Alma, he was stricken dumb and weak because his flattering words and misguided actions had been such a source of dissension (Mosiah 27:8-9). That they were each stricken for a period of three days (Alma 36:10:16) is no coincidence, for the Lord was reminding them that their spiritual transformation and renewal was only possible through the atonement of the Son of God-which was heralded by His resurrection after a similar three-day period of darkness.
Acts 9:11 the street which is called Straight
"Recently, I went to Damascus, the oldest city in the world, to visit the members of our Church there. There, on the 'street called Straight,' one becomes vividly aware of the difference among customs and people...
"This is the same street to which Apostle Paul was directed by the Lord, to go to the house of one Ananias to have his eyes healed. The street has a high arch or vault of about fifty feet. The street is dimly lighted from small openings or cracks in the arch. There is no side-walk proper, so we walk right through the street wherever we find an opening. The street is anything but straight. Every fifty feet or so there is a small turn." (Joseph Jacobs, Improvement Era, 1938, Vol. Xxxi. December, 1938. No. 12)
Acts 9:15 Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me
"It is given to but few to wield a more powerful influence over Christian history than to Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor who became a prophet, the Pharisee who became the apostle to the Gentiles. The life and teachings of the Apostle Paul stand as bright reminders of the power of Christ to transform the souls of men and women, to remake the human heart, and to refocus one's misdirected zeal into the way of the Master. When the risen Lord appeared in vision to Ananias of Damascus and instructed him to send for the stricken and blinded Saul, Ananias answered: 'Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: and here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name.' The response that followed bespeaks the Redeemer's insight into the wonders that would be done at Paul's hand: 'Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel' (Acts 9:11-15; emphasis added)....[Paul] taught with a power, a persuasion, and a holy zeal known only to those who, like Alma and the sons of Mosiah, have gone from darkness to light and whose whole soul yearns to lead others to that same light." (Selected Writings of Robert L. Millet: Gospel Scholars Series, p. 69.)
Acts 9:16 I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name's sake
Even if we had record of all the early apostles, we would not likely find any who had suffered as much persecution as did Paul. He who had been persecutor would now become the persecuted, and the murderous plots against his life begin right away (v. 23). In the Lord's mysterious way, justice is served to Paul. He who had persecuted the believers would spend the rest of his life suffering persecution for his beliefs. Similarly, Alma the younger and the sons of Mosiah spent years preaching the doctrine of the Church as if to compensate for their years of preaching against it. Paul later recounted some of the ways in which he suffered:
In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.' (2 Cor 11:24-7)
Acts 9:18 immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight
Thorpe B. Isaacson
"Saul was stricken blind and led away, but later he was miraculously healed of that blindness. Surely, if any man had had a testimony to justify the feeling of having arrived, if any one experience would seem sufficient to entitle anyone to say, 'This is enough, I need no more,' Saul had that experience. He had been made to see, but if he had been content to relate his experience to his friends or if he had stopped growing, he would never have become the great Paul the Apostle. Saul of Tarsus was the acorn, and Paul the Apostle was the oak." (Conference Report, October 1952, 65.)
Acts 9:22 Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews
Howard W. Hunter
"What is there in all of this that causes us to respect Paul as a man of vigorous practical judgment? Does his conversion differ from the conversion of other men? Let me point out to you that there were two factors in the awakening of the spirit of Paul. The first was revelation from on High, and the second was the vision which he witnessed. This brings me to the statement which I challenge to your consideration: Spiritual truths, those great truths that encompass man's relation to deity, come to the soul by a two-way process-revelation on the part of God, and vision on the part of man." (BYU Speeches of the Year, 1960, p. 5.)
Bruce R. McConkie
"Already the man from Tarsus is one with the saints and has commenced his ministry as a missionary, scriptorian, theologian, a preacher of righteousness, a student of the law. Soon he will become the apostle to the Gentiles, a special witness of Christ his adopted Lord, and an author of world renown. There are yet to come visions, revelations, and heavenly manifestations equalling those of Peter and the chiefest apostles....
"Paul was a small man physically, a giant spiritually. In outward appearance he had little to recommend him; his features and physique probably repelled rather than attracted others. But because of his inward grace and goodness, and as a result of his overpowering zeal for Christ, he radiated an influence that led thousands to forsake all in the Master's Cause. From the Prophet Joseph Smith we have received the following revealed knowledge about him: 'He is about five feet high; very dark hair; dark complexion; dark skin; large Roman nose; sharp face; small black eyes, penetrating as eternity; round shoulders; a whining voice, except when elevated, and then it almost resembled the roaring of a lion. He was a good orator, active and diligent, always employing himself in doing good to his fellow man.' (Teachings, p. 180.)" (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 2: 93.)
Acts 9:26 when Saul was come to Jerusalem
The record implies that Paul did not spend very much time in Damascus before returning to Jerusalem. However, three years transpired before Paul would return to the holy city. After his conversion, he reports, 'immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days' (Gal 1:16-18).
Acts 9:36-43 The raising of Tabitha from the dead
Relatively few years had passed away since Peter had been privileged to witness the Savior raise the daughter of Jairus from the dead (Mark 5:22-24, 35-43). Early on, Peter was untrained and at times impulsive, but now he was a completely different man. His raising of Tabitha is the greatest of his recorded miracles and emphasizes the complete personal transformation which was now complete. Peter had become as his Master-wielding power over life and death. Like his Master, Peter 'put them all forth' (v. 40) so there would be no distractions to his exercise of faith. The result was that 'many believed in the Lord' (v. 42).
David O. McKay
"At the first manifestation of life, we are told that 'she opened her eyes.' What her surprise upon seeing the Chief Apostle by her side instead of her nearer friends-what exchange of greetings were made-what expressions of gratitude, we cannot tell; but 'he gave her his hand, and lifted her up, and when he had called the saints and widows, presented her alive.'
"As a result of this miracle, which became known throughout all Joppa, 'many believed in the Lord.'" (Ancient Apostles, p. 101.)
David O. McKay
"Next to motherhood and teaching, woman attains her highest glory in the realm of compassionate service. One of the most impressive instances in the Bible is the history told by one or of one to whom I apply the title, 'A Relief Society [Sister] of the Ancient Church' whose life was full of 'good works and almsdeeds which she did.'" (Steppingstones to an Abundant Life, p. 366.)
Bruce R. McConkie
"How many faithful and but little known women there have been in the congregations of the saints in all ages...including Dorcas, oftimes called the Relief Society Sister of the New Testament, because her life, through good deeds, bore witness that 'charity never faileth.' (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 2: 95.)