I love conversion stories. I love hearing the stories of those saved in far-off lands, where Christianity is hardly known. I love hearing stories of those saved in our midst. The stories are all so different. I know of a friend of mine who was saved simply by reading the Bible. He went to the library on regular occasion and read the Scriptures and came to believe that Jesus is the Christ. I know of many who went off to college and came to Christ. When they were no longer under the influence of their parents, they decided to get involved with a campus group of some type and trusted in Jesus for their forgiveness. I know of those on the brink of divorce, looking for help and finding Jesus. I know those whose business collapsed and they turned to Jesus. I have heard of many in Nepal and India (where I have traveled to train pastors), who have been sick and turned to their holy men for healing. When they weren't a help, they turned to Jesus and were healed of their physical sickness and saved from their sins.
But of all the conversion stories I have heard, one of my most favorite conversion stories is that of Charles Spurgeon. He grew up in England with a great spiritual heritage. His father was a preacher. His grand-father was a preacher. His great, grand-father was a preacher. His great, great, grand-father was a preacher. With such a legacy, he knew the gospel from an early age. He said, “The light was there, but I was blind."
He said, “For years, as a child, I tried to learn the way of salvation. Had I never read my Bible? Yes, and read it earnestly. Had I never been taught by Christian people? Yes, I had, by mother, father, and others. Had I not heard the gospel? Yes, I think I had; and yet, somehow, it was like a new revelation to me that I was to ‘believe and live.’” Charles Spurgeon was your typical church kid. Knowledgeable of the Bible in his head. But lacking the knowledge of God in his heart.
Then, one snowing January day (January 6, 1850), when Spurgeon was 15 years old (soon to be 16), he was on his way to worship at church, but the snowstorm proved to be too much for him. And he didn’t make it to his destination. Instead, he saw a little Primitive Methodist Chapel along the way. So he turned in to join them in worship. There were, perhaps a dozen or fifteen people at the worship service. The regular pastor wasn’t there, as he was probably snowed in. So a very thin-looking man with a feeble voice was preaching that day. He was a layman. He was probably a bit unprepared, as he wasn’t anticipating preaching that day. But in the absence of the pastor of the church, preach, he did His text was from Isaiah 45:22, “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.”
Here is Spurgeon’s testimony of what happened when he preached. He said,
The preacher began thus: "My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, 'Look.' Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pain. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; It is just, 'Look.' Well, a man needn’t go to College to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look.
But then the text says, 'Look unto Me.' Ay!" said he, in broad Essex, "many on ye are looking to yourselves, but it is no use lookin’ there. You’ll never find any comfort in yourselves. look to Christ. The text says, 'Look unto Me.'”
Then the good man followed up his text in this way: "‘Look unto Me; I am sweatin’ great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hangin’ on the cross. Look unto Me; I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend to Heaven. Look unto Me; I am sittin’ at the Father’s right hand. O poor sinner, look unto Me! Look unto Me!'" 
His message was about 10 minutes long. Spurgeon said that after 10 minutes “He was at the end of his tether.” With only a dozen people in the pews, the preacher looked onto Spurgeon, knowing that he was a stranger. He then addressed him and said, “Young man, you look very miserable. And you will always be miserable—miserable in life, and miserable in death—if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.”
Then, as Spurgeon said, this preacher lifted up his hands and shouted, “as only a Primitive Methodist could do, 'Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.'” Spurgeon said,
I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said—I did not take much notice of it—I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, "Look!" what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to Him.
A few months later, when the weather warmed up, he was baptized in a river. Later that year, he preached his very first sermon. His gifting was obvious to all! When he was 18 years old, he took his first pastorate. When he was 20, he was called to be a minister of the historic New Park Street Chapel in London, which quickly grew to be the largest church in London. where he ministered for decades. Spurgeon went on to be known as “The Prince of Preachers.” He was arguably the greatest preacher that the world has ever known. It all started when the snow diverted him into a small church meeting among strangers.
I love this conversion story, because it shows what God can do in an instant. How the Lord can turn a sinner to himself, and use him greatly. I love how the preacher was unknown to Spurgeon throughout his life. He never saw that man again. Yet the Lord used him to the human means to direct Spurgeon to the Lord, who, in turn impacted millions in his day, and millions in our day.
But as much as I love this conversion story. And as much as I think it is one of the greatest conversion stories. It isn’t the greatest. The greatest conversion story is found in our text of Scripture this morning: Acts 9:1-19. It is the famous story of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. The title of my message this morning is, “The Greatest Conversion Story.”
I say that this story is “the greatest conversion story” for several reasons. First of all, it is in the Bible. If you are going to claim that any conversion story is the greatest, I believe that it has to be an inspired story. Second, this story is told more times than any other conversion story in the Bible. It is told here in Acts, chapter 9. It will be repeated in Acts 22 and in Acts 26. Further, Saul will allude to it in Galatians 1 and Philippians 3 and 1 Timothy 1. Finally, this story is the conversion from the extremes. From the greatest enemy of the church, who becomes the greatest advocate of the church.
Listen to his short testimony in 1 Timothy 1:13, 15, "Formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy. ... The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost." Saul considered himself the “foremost” of sinners, because he blasphemed against the Lord. because he persecuted the church. Yet, he became the greatest of saints, one who labored more than all of the other apostles, one who planted churches and discipled many, writing nearly a fourth of the New Testament (23.5%). That’s why I consider his conversion story “the greatest” of all conversion stories. Let’s read the account, beginning in verse 1.
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he 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 rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, 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 evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.
My first point is this:
This is the famous “Road to Damascus.” This is the road that Saul was traveling when he encountered the Lord. This is parallel to that Primitive Methodist Chapel, where Spurgeon first looked to Christ. What brought Spurgeon to the chapel was a storm. But what brought Saul to this road was his intense hatred for Christ.
Look at verse 1, "But Saul." Before we proceed, I simply need to mention that this "Saul" is also known as "Paul." “Saul” was his Hebrew name. But “Paul” was his Greek name. It’s a little bit like when I took Spanish in high school. Within the Spanish class, I was called, “Esteban.” But outside of the class, I was called, “Steve.” So it is with Saul. In Hebrew contexts, he is called, “Saul.” In Greek contexts, he is called, “Paul.”
Anyway, we read the entire first verse:
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,
This brings us back to the beginning of chapter 8. For it is here that we are introduced to this man. And we see the vileness of his heart. When Stephen was stoned for preaching the gospel, Saul was there. At the actual event, Saul was merely a witness (Acts 7:58). He threw no stones. But he did approve of his execution (Acts 8:1). And two verses later, we read that Acts 8:3 Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
Such was the hatred of Saul toward those who followed Jesus. He didn’t merely disdain them in his heart. Nor did he simply speak against them with is mouth. No, he actively pursued them with his feet. He hunted them down and brought them to prison as heretics, where they were beaten, and perhaps, killed for their faith. This is what made Saul’s actions so vile. He got it exactly wrong. He went after God’s people, thinking that he was doing the work of God. When, in fact, he was doing the work of the devil.
What Saul did in Jerusalem in chapter 8, he continued to do beyond Jerusalem.
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Now, the high priests in Jerusalem had no civil authority in Damascus. Damascus is north of Jerusalem some 140 miles. It would take about a week to walk there on foot. Yet, the high priests had some pull with the Jewish religious leaders. So, Saul, with these letters in hand. And working with the local leaders, would be able to bring prisoners back to Jerusalem.
Just think about what a difficult task this would be. You are going to travel north for a week. And then, when you find any following in the Way of Jesus, you are going to capture them, bind them with handcuffs, and force them to come with you down south to Jerusalem, where you can turn them over to the high priests for prosecution. The effort and zeal on display here shows how hard Saul’s heart was against the Lord.
This is the good news of our text. I don’t care how hard a heart is, God can soften a heart. He can soften it in an instant. Further, he doesn’t need you. And he doesn’t need me to do it. He can do it on his own, as we see, beginning in verse 3.
Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him.
This was a divine light, sent from God. How? We have no idea. It was miraculous. Yet Saul, approaching the city, found himself engulfed in this great light.
Isn’t it interesting here that God waits for Saul to get near Damascus. God could have brought this light when Saul was three steps out of Jerusalem. He could have brought it when he was a day’s journey from Jerusalem. But God didn’t do that. He waited until Saul “approached Damascus.” God let Saul stew on his evil deeds for 140 miles. If he was walking, it was up to seven days. If he was riding a donkey or a horse, it would have been three or four days, still a long time.
God was showing his patience to Saul. God was allowing Saul to see and understand the depth of his sin. So also today, when God breaks in upon the life of a sinner, he doesn’t always do it right away. God will often let people go in their sin, that they might fully understand the depth of their sin. and the depth of God’s grace.
Well, not only did Saul see a light, he also heard a voice.
And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
What a great question! Saul thought that he was on the side of the Lord. But really, he was going against the ways of the Lord. This question was exposing Saul's real actions.
Also, Jesus is showing his solidarity with those who follow him. To persecute a follower of Jesus is to persecute Jesus, himself. That’s because we are members of the body of Christ. You harm a believer, and you are harming Jesus. What a great thought.
This has always been the case with God’s people. Remember when Israel asked Samuel for a king? Samuel was seeking the counsel of the LORD. And the LORD told him, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7). It’s the same here. When Saul was persecuting the church, he was persecuting Jesus.
Now, Saul didn’t understand this right away. He didn’t even know that it was Jesus who was speaking to him. That’s why he asked the question in verse 5,
And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
Certainly, those words hit him like a ton of bricks. Here was Saul, thinking that he was doing the Lord’s business, only to find out that he was persecuting the Lord Jesus.
And this point, Saul’s world was rocked. He was like a criminal caught red-handed in the midst of a sting operation. His reality was called into question, Like the one who finds out that the drug dealer was actually a cop in disguise. Saul’s head was surely spinning, trying desperately to understand what it all meant. Jesus didn’t let Saul think too long about these things. Rather, he gave him some clear directions.
"But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
That is, the city of Damascus. He was close by, after all. Remember, Jesus didn’t appear to him until he “approached Damascus” (verse 3).
In actuality, Saul could do nothing less than this, anyway. For the light had blinded him.
The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
All of these events show how miraculous these things were. Everyone who had been traveling with Saul heard the voice and the conversation that followed. But Saul was the only one blinded by the light. It’s not like they all experienced some sort of solar flash or meteor explosion or some other bright object. No, the light was directed at Saul. because God was pursuing Saul, even though, it is safe to assume that Saul’s traveling companions were all in rebellion against the Lord. But the Lord was interested in Saul.
This brings us to understand that conversion is supernatural. It’s a miracle when anyone turns to Jesus. Because we all are born with sinful hearts, which naturally live in rebellion against the Lord. And we are incapable of changing ourselves. We need God to work in our hearts. Jesus said that we need to be “born again” (John 3:3). Saul describes conversion as being a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). We can’t do this by ourselves. We need God to intervene, to soften our hearts. to open our eyes. to change us from deep within. All of that is a miraculous work of God.
Now, the Lord doesn’t always do it with a blinding light and a voice from heaven. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Saul’s conversion was the only time that this has ever happened in the history of the world. There are times when the Lord uses a thin-looking, feeble-voiced, laymen on a snowing day to preach a simple text for 10 minutes. There are times when the Lord uses a financial crisis or a near-death experience to turn people to Christ. I have no doubt that many will trace their conversions to COVID-19, as they have come to realize how fragile life is on earth.
The Lord works in miraculous ways. And we all need a miracle in our lives, if we would ever see God.
A few years ago, I wrote a book entitled, “Passing By the Field.” It’s a collection of short observations of life as it relates to spiritual truths. One of my favorite observations is entitled, “The Righteous Need a Miracle.” It reads thus, ...
Christians who grew up attending church and believing in Christ at a young age, often feel their testimony is “boring.” They lack a dramatic story of Jesus miraculously rescuing them out of a dark and sinful past. They are sorrowful that they can’t tell a similar story of the power of God to save them from their sin. But there is no need for despair.
I went to high school with a friend whose life couldn’t have been more opposite from mine. I grew up in a stable, loving, church-attending family. The path to following Christ was natural. My friend, on the other hand, grew up in a home filled with problems. In describing his drug problem to me, he said, “I wasn’t high on drugs all the time, only when I was awake.” He went to college and found Jesus Christ, who forgave him all of his sins. He went on to seminary and to serve as a pastor.
I remember well the time that he came to our home for lunch. He gave me a great perspective on my salvation and his salvation. He said, “Steve, it’s not a miracle that I became a Christian. My life was so messed up that I knew I needed help. So I searched for help and found Jesus. But you needed a miracle. You had everything that you could ever want in your earthly family. You had parents who loved you. Your siblings were loving and supportive. You had sufficient financial resources. In an earthly sense, you had no need for Jesus. You had no reason to even search for Him. It’s a miracle that you recognized your need for a Savior.”
After hearing my friend’s description of my salvation, I was encouraged afresh at God’s working in my life. It was a miracle that He opened my eyes to see my need for Him.
Jesus said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Jesus didn’t come to save the self-righteous Pharisee. Instead, He came to save the one deep in his sin.
Certainly, it’s a miracle when those who are engaged in great sin turn to Christ. But it is also a miracle whenever a “righteous” person turns to Christ.
If you have grown up in church and have loved Jesus from an early age, may this perspective encourage you to tell your miraculous story of God’s grace in your life.
The question naturally comes to you this morning, “Have you been converted? Have you experienced the miracle of the new birth? Are you a new creation? Have you looked to Christ as Spurgeon did?"
In verse 9, we find Saul seeking the Lord.
And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
For three days, he was confused. He fasted and prayed and sought the Lord. As he did, God was working. We read about this with our next point. We have seen "
the Road" (in verses 1-9). And now, beginning in verse 10, we see, ...
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.”
Ananias was a common name in Saul’s day. In Acts 5, we read of Ananias and his wife Sapphira (Acts 5:5). Ananias was also the name of the high priest in Jerusalem (Acts 23:2; 24:1). But neither of these men are the Ananias mentioned here in verse 10. In fact, all we know about this Ananias comes from this passage. He is an obscure man, much like the thin, feeble-voiced laymen who preached in that chapel long ago to Charles Spurgeon. All we know of that man is what Spurgeon remembers. And all we know of this man is what we read here.
We see him identified as “a disciple at Damascus.” That is, he was a follower of Jesus. He was a Christian. In chapter 8 of Acts, we saw Philip bring the gospel to Judea and Samaria. And now, in chapter 9, we see the gospel having spread to Damascus.
How Ananias came to follow Jesus is uncertain. He may heard the gospel in Jerusalem when the apostles were first preaching in Jerusalem. Then, he may have been one of those who scattered after the persecution of Stephen (Acts 8:1). Or, he may have been a resident of Damascus, who first heard the gospel through someone else who scattered with the persecution. At any rate, Ananias believed and was a follower of Jesus. And the Lord appeared to him in a vision.
And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, 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.”
This sounds a lot like the story we will read in a few weeks in chapter 10. When the Lord appears in a dream to two people. In Acts, chapter 10, the Lord will appear to a god-fearing Gentile, named Cornelius. The Lord will also appear to Peter on the rooftop. These two visions will bring Peter and Cornelius together without a doubt that their meeting was from the Lord. That’s exactly what we see here. The Lord comes to Ananias and tells him to go and see Saul. Also, the Lord came to Saul in a vision as well. In Saul’s vision, a man named Ananias would come to the place where he is staying. And this Ananias would lay his hands upon Saul and he would regain his sight. When these two things came together, it would be clear that these events came from the Lord.
All is well and good from our side of the story. But put yourself in the shoes of Ananias. He’s a follower of Jesus. He knew of this Saul of Tarsus. He knew of how he ravaged the church in Jerusalem (Acts 8:3). He knew that he was coming to Damascus on a quest to bind Christians and take them back as prisoners. But he knew nothing of the story we just heard, how the Lord appeared to Saul on the outskirts of the city. how the Lord was working in Saul’s life. And so, verse 13 seems like a totally reasonable response.
But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. Acts 9:14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”
In other words, “Lord, I know about this man. I know of the evil that he has done in Jerusalem. I know that he is coming here to do the same evil. If I go to him, he will bind me and bring me to Jerusalem as a prisoner.” The implicit assumption is that Ananias feels unsafe. Then the Lord explains, ...
But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
In other words, “Ananias, I know your concerns. But I have a plan for Saul’s life. I’m going to use him in great ways! He will spread the gospel, far beyond Damascus! I now that he’s the one persecuting my people now. But that’s all about to change. Soon, he will be the persecuted.”
Indeed, all of these things come to pass. And we will see them as we work our way through the book of Acts. We will see how Saul brings the gospel to the Gentiles, going out on three separate missionary journeys (Acts 13ff). We will see how Saul will stand before kings, telling them of Jesus (Acts 24, 25, 26). We will see how Saul will confront the religious leaders of Israel. We will see the suffering that he faced, traveling to Rome as a prisoner (Acts 28).
Before we move on, I need to make a point. As of yet, we hear nothing of Saul’s faith in Christ. From the standpoint of the story, the jury is still out. Will Saul believe and become a follower of Jesus? Or, will he go back to his old ways. What may be questions of the future in our minds, are established facts in the mind of the Lord. This is because of the way God works. He declares the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10). He knows the number of our days, before any of them took place (Psalm 139:16). Saul knew this. Years later, he would write to those in Galatia, "He who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles" (Galatians 1:15-16).
This meeting with the Lord on the road to Damascus, was known and established before Saul was born. And if you are a believer in Christ, the day when you came to Christ, was known and established by the Lord before you were born as well. That’s because God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). God's election of us insures that our salvation is all of grace. Do you know of his grace? Have you experienced a day of healing? Saul knew when his day of healing came. We read about it in verses 17-19, which is my third point.
The healings of Saul are both physical and spiritual. We see them both in verse 17.
So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
In verse 17, we see the two healings: physical sight and spiritual life. He regained his sight. He gained the Holy Spirit. It was at this morning that Saul was changed. He became a new creation. His heart of stone was transformed into a heart of flesh. In verse 18 we see it all happen.
And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; [in obedience to the Lord] and taking food, he was strengthened.
From this moment on, Saul became a mighty warrior for Christ. Next week, we will see him in Damascus proclaiming his faith in Christ! And throughout the book of Acts we will see him continue to do so. He preached Jesus in Antioch and Iconium and Lystra and Derbe. and Philippi and Thessalonica and Berea and Athens and Corinth and Ephesus and Jerusalem and Rome. He became a warrior in a moment! It all happened at his conversion. Indeed, this is the greatest conversion story ever told. It is the way that God works.
As we close, I do want to comment a bit on the idea of conversion. We live in a world that hates the stories of conversion. In Nepal and India, it is illegal to convert to another religion. The Hindu world hates Christianity and will do everything they can to stop it.
In our country, we have a movement to make “Conversion Therapy” illegal. That is, some want to make it illegal for a Christian counselor to counsel people to change their behavior, especially when dealing with the confusion of sexual identity. In some places it is illegal to counsel homosexuals to understand their actions as sinful deeds and not as a part of their being, because such counsel leads them to "convert" away from homosexuality. But we need to realize that our only hope as Christians is conversion! Our holy hope is that God would act and change people!
God works through conversion. Are you converted?
This sermon was delivered to Rock Valley Bible Church on May 23, 2021 by Steve Brandon.
For more information see www.rockvalleybiblechurch.org.
 Charles Spurgeon, Autobiography, Volume 1, p. 80.
 Ibid. p. 84.
 Ibid. pp. 87-88.
 Ibid. p. 88 (as are all the rest of the quotes in this manuscript).
 Steve Brandon, Passing By the Field, p. 38.