"And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high Priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he 'might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven; and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? And he said, Who art Thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus wham thou persecutest; it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man; but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.
"And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias,, and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord. And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth" (Acts 9:1-11).
How often had I pondered over these words, yet they never seemed so vivid as when we were permitted only recently to view the very scenes mentioned, as we spent two most interesting days in and about Damascus. Our visit there has had the effect of making the Word of God more graphic, more living, more real, than ever before. I do not mean to say that the Word seemed any more true. We have known it all through the years as the veritable Word of the living God. But you remember what the Apostle Peter said concerning the voice that he heard when he was with the Lord Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration; he declared, "We have also a more sure word of prophecy."
I think it is possible to improve on that translation. I do not suppose that anyone here takes it for granted that when we say we believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible we mean that we believe that any translation is perfect. One might gather from those words as rendered in our English version that the Apostle Peter meant to tell us that the word of prophecy was more to be depended on than the Father's voice. "We have also a more sure word of prophecy"—but that was not really what he was saying. I think a correct and very careful rendering would be this: "We have also the word of prophecy confirmed." That is, you see, the Father's voice simply added its testimony to what was already declared in the word of prophecy. And so a visit to Palestine and Syria and Egypt will but confirm what is already written in the Word of God.
It was a thrilling thing to ride over the hills and valleys where the Saviour once walked so many, many years ago, to enter into the towns and villages where He lived and talked and wrought His works of power; but the city that I am thinking of particularly today is one that He never visited while He was here on earth, and that is Damascus. Damascus is probably the oldest inhabited city existent in the world. It was an old city in Abraham's day thousands of years ago, and you will remember that the steward of Abraham's house was Eliezer of Damascus. It occupies a large place in the Bible. For many years it was the capital of Israel's Syrian foes. From Damascus came Naaman, the Syrian, to the land of Israel to be healed of his leprosy. As I looked at the rivers of Abana and Pharpar on either side of Damascus, watering that lovely plain, and then later on, gazed on the muddy waters of the Jordan, I felt as though I could sympathize more than ever before with Naaman when he said, "Are not Abana and Pharpar better than all the rivers of Israel? May I not wash in them and be clean?" But no; there was only one place where Naaman could be cleansed that day, as there is only one place and means of cleansing for guilty souls now, and that is the precious atoning blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It was impossible to be in Damascus and not think a great deal about the Apostle Paul. Even though our guide was a Mahommedan, yet his mind was full of his history. He seemed delighted to lead us about from place to place to show us where the Apostle had linked his name with the city of Damascus. We went outside the city and stood on the hill opposite the road coming up from Jerusalem, looking down over that city in all its beauty; and to look at it from the outside, it is indeed a lovely place. You remember, 600 years after St. Paul's visit there, Mohammed and a number of his associates stood on that very same spot and looked down upon that city. They had come so far intending to enter it, but Mahommed turned to his friends and said, "It is given to man to enter but one paradise. We will not go into Damascus;" and they turned away.
Saul of Tarsus was journeying along that very road, nearing the city, when suddenly there shone upon him that light from heaven, and he fell to the ground; and he could say afterwards, "I could not see for the glory of that light." He heard a voice saying, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?" And Saul cried out in amazement, "Who art Thou, Lord?" only to get the remarkable answer, "I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest. It is hard for thee to kick against the goads;" referring of course, to the goads with which they still drive the oxen in that country.
Now, think of this: Here was man who was a sincere opponent of Christianity, and a man who was an absolutely honest person. He said, speaking of his years before his conversion, "I verily thought within myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth; which thing I did." And in referring to those days again, he said, "I have lived in all good conscience toward God until this day." He was an honest Jew, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, a member of the strictest sect in Israel, a Pharisee, a firm believer in the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament, looking for the coming Messiah; but he honestly believed that Jesus Christ was an impostor, that He was misleading the people of Israel. He believed that when Jesus died upon that cross and was laid away in that tomb, that He never came out of His grave alive again. He believed that He was dead and would remain dead until the resurrection at the end of the world. And therefore he believed that the Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ were deliberately deceiving the people when they said that they had seen Jesus after He came forth from the tomb, and had been commissioned by Him to carry His gospel into all the world.
What was it that changed that man so wonderfully, on the occasion of his visit to Damascus, that he afterwards became one of the most earnest advocates of the new faith? I think there is something here that needs to be explained. I have heard very foolish attempts to explain it. I have heard people say that Saul of Tarsus was an honest man, but an emotional fanatic, and that he was an epileptic; and that day on the Damascus turnpike he had an attack of epilepsy, and that as he fell to the ground he imagined that he saw Jesus Christ enthroned in glory; and therefore we owe the conversion of Saul of Tarsus simply to an epileptic fit! A leading modern minister preached on that some years ago. As I read his sermon I could not help but wish that every unbeliever in the country might have that kind of epileptic fit if it would result in such a marvelous change as took place in the life and inner experience of Saul of Tarsus.
Others, again, have declared that Saul's conversion was simply due to a sunstroke as he travelled along that warm summer day. He fell stricken to the ground, overcome by the heat, and he had hallucinations for all the rest of his life. He actually imagined that he had seen Jesus Christ and heard His voice; that he was commissioned to become His apostle and carry His gospel to the Gentiles. I confess I was angry within, I was indignant, the first time I read that statement; but then, after thinking it over, I came to the conclusion that perhaps the author was not so far wrong. It was a Son-stroke, but the word "Son" should be spelled S-o-n, and not s-u-n. It was the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ that shone upon Saul of Tarsus that day, and shone into the very depths of his soul and changed him from Saul the Pharisee to Paul the humble, devoted Christian.
It was a very real thing that took place. He was born of God; he was made a new creation. Oh, how real it seemed to us as we stood there and looked down over the city and realized that we were practically in the very place where the Word of God laid hold on that man's soul!
And then we went back into Damascus, and walked all the way through the old city from one wall to the other, along "the street called Straight." It is there today as it has been for thousands of years. It is a street with bazaars on every side, and hundreds of people can be seen walking up and down. We are told that when Saul of Tarsus arose from the ground and found himself blind, he sought for someone to lead him by the hand, and he was led into the city and along the street called Straight to the house of a friend of his named Judas. As we were walking down that street we heard a man behind calling out something in Arabic which we could not understand. I asked our guide what he was saying, and he replied, "Look out! Lookout!" We turned to see why he called like this, and we saw that he was leading a blind man by the hand down that busy thoroughfare. We stepped to one side to let him pass, and I said to my wife, "Nineteen hundred years ago that might have been Saul of Tarsus—the blind man led by the hand."
To that blind man of old came Ananias with the glorious message of the gospel of God; and Saul of Tarsus believed that gospel, and, believing it, was baptized in obedience to the command of the Lord Jesus Christ, and then began immediately to preach the faith that once he denied. You remember how opposition developed, and the Jews sought to slay him, he who before had been the persecutor but was now the advocate of the new gospel of the grace of God; and so his friends to save his life, took him into a house built on the wall of the city; and through a window in the wall they let him down in a basket, and he fled to Jerusalem to join himself to the disciples there.
Visitors are still shown the traditional window where it is said he was lowered over the rampart to avoid his enemies who were thirsting for his blood. Whether one can place much reliance on this attempted identification or not, we could not but be interested in what enabled us so clearly to visualize this event of the distant past.
To the Moslem as well as to the Christian Paul is a notable personage, but the gospel committed to him is perhaps as little known among many in so-called Christian lands as in countries where Islam holds sway. Damascus is a city of mosques today. Long years ago it contained many Christian churches, but their teaching and their practices became so corrupt that God would not defend them against their bitter Mohammedan enemies, and so the crescent has largely supplanted the cross in this ancient capital. There are struggling Christian missions, but I was told they have thus far made very little impression upon the adamant fortress of the followers of the false prophet. Oh, for a mighty work of the Holy Spirit of God, that will open the blinded eyes of the millions of the Islamic world to see their need of Christ and to find in Him an all-sufficient Saviour!
The same omnipotent power that converted Saul of Tarsus can reach the people of Damascus, if they will but heed the voice of the Lord and obey the heavenly vision as he did. But just as, of old, few there were who earnestly sought the way of life, so it is still. Men are blinded by their great enemy, the god of this world, and do not care to inquire concerning a Saviour's grace because they have no sense of their need. Though "God commandeth all men everywhere to repent" they refuse to face their sins, and so persist on their own self-chosen course, making themselves believe that all is well, when in reality, all is wrong.
But to come back to the conversion of Saul. It is important to realize that it is possible for one to be wrong and yet honestly wrong. People say sometimes that it does not make any difference what a man believes so long as he is sincere. Saul of Tarsus was just as sincere when he was an enemy of the Cross of Christ as he was when afterwards he became a Christian. But first he was sincerely mistaken. Afterwards he was sincerely right, because God had revealed Himself to him in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And so you may have come to certain convictions in regard to religion, but let me ask you, Are they based on things that are certain and sure? Read the Word of the Living God; and in His blessed Book in the Old Testament we have the prophecies of the coming of Christ. In the New Testament we have the prophecies fulfilled: the coming into the scene of the Lord Jesus. And now God in His grace invites you to come to that blessed Saviour and trust Him for yourselves. If you are skeptical, if you are unbelieving, He says to you, "If any man willeth to do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of Myself."
As we walked the street called Straight we felt very close indeed to that zealous Pharisee who so long ago had been changed by the grace of God into the earnest apostle to the Gentiles. We wondered where his friend Judas lived. They showed us the reputed house of Ananias, but we could not credit the tradition, for we feel sure it was only that. But though we could not identify the sites with any exactness where the humble messenger received his direction to seek out Saul, "for behold, he prayeth," or the house into which the feet of Ananias somewhat reluctantly entered, we felt very near indeed to that bewildered and amazed glory-blinded man, who somewhere along that street was instructed by one of the very men he had hoped to arrest, and became himself the bondman of Jesus Christ.
It made it all very, very real indeed, and I do not so much wish to occupy you with any description of the city of Damascus as to press upon your heart the importance of a careful investigation of the great matter that was thus pressed upon the heart of Saul of Tarsus so long ago. He who revealed Himself to him desires to have you know Him too.
It is impossible to explain away that memorable conversion. Something very definite must have occurred to change that erstwhile persecutor into the greatest exponent of the Christian faith who has ever lived. It was an outstanding miracle of grace. Divine power and a Divine revelation are accountable for it. Nothing less can possibly satisfy any honest inquirer.
If you are sincere today in the desire to know the truth, may I direct your attention to a passage in the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John? There in verse 30 we read: "And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name." Now, observe, here is one particular book in the Bible, the Gospel of John, which we are specifically told was written "that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that believing we may have life through His name." If you have any doubt, therefore, as to the Messiahship of Jesus, if you have any doubt that He is the Eternal, Sinless Son of God, I beg of you, read this little book for yourselves. Read it carefully, thoughtfully, and as you turn its pages lift your heart to God in prayer and cry, "O God, if this be indeed Thy Word, and Jesus Christ be indeed Thy Eternal Son, the Saviour of sinners, then reveal it to me as I read Thy Word;" and I promise you that if you come to the Word in honesty of purpose like that, God will make Himself responsible to reveal Christ to you, just as long years ago by a light from heaven He revealed Him to Saul of Tarsus and changed him into Paul the Apostle.
There is one thing that I would like you to remember in regard to Saul, and that is this: we do not see in him a man saved from flagrant sins and vile, wicked, obnoxious behavior, but we see in him a self-satisfied religious zealot who thought his religion was enough to get him through to heaven, but who found that not religion, but Christ, is necessary to save the soul; and so he turned from his religion to a Living Saviour. What is your confidence today? Is it simply religion, or is it the Lord Jesus?
It is years since I was preaching one night in a little church in Los Gatos, California. Behind me was a choir composed chiefly of young men and women. As I preached that night I did so with a strange oppression of spirit. Somehow I felt that my words were as seed falling upon hard-trodden ground. When at the close I invited any anxious souls to meet me for personal conversation, no one came near. I went to my room discouraged and grieved in spirit. The next day I left for another appointment, and I thought nothing had really been accomplished for God and eternity.
But a few days later I received a letter from one of the members of that choir. She wrote somewhat as follows: "I cannot refrain from letting you know how wonderfully God has saved me. I joined the church several years ago, but I knew nothing of a second birth. As I love singing I became a member of the choir. The songs of praise I sang meant nothing to me excepting that I thought I was doing my religious duty in singing them. But the other night as I sat behind you, God showed me from His Word that I was lost. I realized that all my righteousness was but as filthy rags in His sight. Oh, how I wanted to speak with you and seek for help at the close, but my pride would not let me. To own that I was unsaved and yet in the church and the choir, seemed too humiliating. But I went home in great distress. I could not sleep. At last I arose and threw myself on my knees. I told God I was only a self-righteous hypocrite and I begged Him to save me." I do not pretend to give her exact words but the gist of them burned themselves into my memory and I have never forgotten the thoughts expressed. She went on to say that hours passed by, and she was in despair till the words of Jesus came home to her in living power, "Him that cometh unto Me, I will in no wise cast out." She told me how she trusted Him and rested on His Word, and then she added, "Oh, how different the gospel songs are now! They have a meaning I never saw before."
I met her often in after-years and had occasion to see how she grew in grace and in the knowledge of Christ. She had truly passed out of death into life.
My friends, do you know Him who met Saul that day on the Damascus Road? Have you taken Him as your Saviour? If not, I pray God you may do so now.
In closing let me carry you in thought a long way from the street called Straight, right over to the dungeon of the Mamertine Prison in Rome. For he who met the Lord first on the Damascus road and then had his faith confirmed in the house of Judas on Straight Street, finished his course as a prisoner in the Imperial City, and sealed his testimony with his blood when he was decapitated on the Appian Way just outside.
We stood in that dungeon a few weeks after walking the street called Straight. It took Paul over thirty years to cover the same distance! But what fruitful years they were—witnessing to Jew and Gentile alike, calling to "repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ."
Unhonored—nay, positively dishonored by the world—he went from land to land and city to city, testifying to free and bond, to cultured and barbarian, that He who had saved him was ready to do the same for all who would turn to Him and live.
And then to end it all, a prisoner in such a dungeon death-cell! It is a gloomy den indeed—an underground room, round in shape with a conical roof, a hole in the center-top from which all light and air had to come, until in our modern day electricity was installed. The floor and walls are of brick. The whole place is just sixteen feet in diameter. It was there that Paul wrote his second epistle to his friend and companion, the younger preacher, Timothy.
But there is no note of discouragement in that letter, no expression that would give the impression that Paul was ending his days a defeated man, no regret that he had not continued in the old life so that he might have become an honored Rabbi and died with the esteem of his people, and in circumstances of comfort. Not at all. His death was as triumphant as his life. Listen to his exultant words: "I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me in that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing" (2 Tim. 4:6-8).
It was a glorious finish to that new life which began at Damascus with the sight of the glorified Christ. For long centuries, as we count time on earth, Paul has been "with Christ which is far better," but never, throughout eternity, will he forget the experiences connected with the street called Straight.
If we would share his heaven we must in our measure share his experiences on earth by trusting in and following Him whom God has set forth to be a Prince and a Saviour.