Salvation of the Terrorist

Bible Book: Acts  9 : 1-22
Subject: Salvation; Grace of God; Terrorism

Just last week, ISIS rounded up and killed another group of Egyptian Christians in Libya. It is the second such massacre perpetrated by the Islamic terrorist group this year. The head of ISIS is a man named Abu al-Baghdadi. Imagine that this coming week, CNN came out with the breaking news that al-Baghdadi had publicly converted to Christianity, renounced the violence and religion of Islam, and was now preaching the gospel.Can you imagine Wolf Blitzer trying to explain that story? It would be no more shocking than what the Spirit records for us in Acts 9.

When Saul of Tarsus set out for the city of Damascus, he was a religious terrorist. His intention was to intimidate and ultimately eliminate every single Christian he could find. Saul was hunting Christians. What he didn’t know was that Christ was hunting him. On the road outside of Damascus, Saul ran into the Jesus he was persecuting, and by the time their meeting was over, Saul the terrorist was converted to the very faith he had set out to destroy. The conversion of Saul, who would become the Apostle Paul, is arguably the most important event in the history of the church after the death and resurrection of Christ.

Just as Americans look back to the so-called “shot heard ‘round the world”, we as Christians can look back to this salvation heard ‘round the world. In many ways, we as Gentile believers are here today because of what Jesus did with Saul on that day. The importance of this one conversion is hard to overstate.

The story of Saul’s salvation in Acts 9 is also a reminder of the power of the gospel. Saul was the last person in the world anyone would think would ever become a Christian. And yet, he did.

John Piper said, “…God wants us to see in this conversion…that the most unlikely people can be converted and are converted.”[1]

Think of the last person you’d ever expect to become a Christian. Think of your atheist friend, your drug-addict cousin, your worst enemy, and then realize that they are not outside the reach of the sovereign grace of God.

Jesus chose Saul as a unique instrument to display His grace and His power. My prayer is that we will see today how Jesus saved this terrorist, and be reminded that He can still save the chief of sinners today.

What happened in the conversion and salvation of Saul of Tarsus? Well, first of all, we see here that:


What happened that day on the Damascus Road was a showdown at high noon. It was an epic confrontation between two forces, Saul and Jesus. Yet, it was a terrible mismatch. Saul never had a chance. Jesus confronted him, and with little more than a flash of light and the word of His mouth, He converted him.

Luke sets up the story of this confrontation well, and he wants us to notice a couple of things. Look at the text and:

A. See Saul as a foe of Jesus

Chapter 9 begins by describing Saul the terrorist. Look at verse one. Luke says, “And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest.”

A.T. Robertson explains that verse by saying, “…threatening and slaughter had come to be the very breath that Saul breathed, like a warhorse who sniffed the smell of battle.”[2]

Saul was the most zealous of the Jews, and he saw clearly what a threat these people were who claimed to be following “the Way” – that is, the way of life found in Jesus – a crucified Jew. He had watched Stephen be stoned to death, and he approved of it. He had smelled the blood of persecuted Christians, and it was an aroma he liked. He was so thirsty for their blood, he went to the high priest in Jerusalem and asked for extradition papers, allowing him to hunt down and arrest Christians living outside of the city. Specifically, Paul wanted to go hunting in Damascus, a city 150 miles north of Jerusalem. Think of that! Saul was willing to travel for days in order to find more Christians to assault and arrest. This man was a violent foe of Jesus and those who claimed to follow Him.

The Holy Spirit, speaking through Luke in Acts, wants you to see that. He wants you to see how utterly opposed to Jesus this man was. Why? Because it serves to show how gracious and powerful Jesus was when this same man became His follower rather than His foe. If this avowed enemy of Christ could become one of His most devoted apostles, who could possibly be outside the reach of His grace?

Is there anyone Jesus cannot save? Is there any sinner so sinful, any enemy too spiteful for Jesus to reach down and change them? The answer is, no.

We are meant to see not only Saul as a foe of Jesus, but in this confrontation, we are also meant to see:

B. Saul at the feet of Jesus

Listen to Luke’s telling of the story. He says, “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?”

Saul was probably riding in on the back of a horse, like a wild-west bounty hunter. Suddenly, a flash of light, like a lightning bolt, knocked him to the ground onto his own back. From the light, Saul heard a voice he recognized to be from someone higher than any human standing nearby him. Trembling and terrified, Saul answered the voice, asking, “Lord, who are you?” What he heard next must have stabbed him like a knife in the heart. The answer came back, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest…” Some texts include it here, and Saul later testified that Jesus also said, “…it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” Like a dumb ox, Saul was kicking against the cattle prod of God’s will, and though he thought he was doing right, he was only hurting himself.

Listen to what R.C. Sproul says about these words of Jesus to Saul. He writes, “Resisting the lordship of Christ is not only sinful, but it is stupid, because God has raised Him from the grave, placed him at His right hand, and given Him all authority in heaven and on earth and has called every person to bow the knee before Him. To resist Him is foolish.”[3]

In an instant, all of Saul’s resistance and opposition were gone. The strongest foe of the gospel “tapped out” before the overwhelming glory of Jesus Christ. Saul said, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” No more a fighter; now He is a follower.

If you are a sinner today, still fighting against the Lordship of Jesus, please understand that like Saul of Tarsus, you will one day end up at His feet calling Him Lord. You may do it now, in response to the gracious words of His mouth, or you may do it on Judgment Day, when with the Word of His mouth He condemns you. Either way, like Saul, all of us will at some point be confronted by this Christ. He is Lord of all, and all will one day know this and confess it to the glory of God.

In the salvation of this terrorist, we see not only that Saul was confronted by the Christ, but notice also that:


The very Christ Saul had persecuted reached down to save Him. That’s grace. We also read in this ninth chapter how the very church Saul had persecuted reached out to comfort Him and welcome Him into their ranks. That too is grace. This happened initially through the ministry of a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. He is one of the unsung heroes of the Bible.

Notice how this transpired. In this story, we are reminded of:

A. The risk in going to Saul

Blinded Saul was led by the hand into Damascus, where for three days he laid in darkness, not eating or drinking a thing. During that time, he prayed, and as he prayed, the Lord showed him a man named Ananias, coming to him and restoring his sight. While Saul was seeing this vision, on the other side of town, Ananias had no idea what Jesus was about to ask him to do. But then, Jesus appeared to him in a vision, and gave him these shocking instructions. He said, “Get up and go to Straight Street to the home of Judas. There is a fellow there named Saul of Tarsus. He is praying and he will be expecting you.”

Notice Ananias’ response in verses 13 and 14. He said, “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.” Now, Ananias wasn’t telling Jesus anything he didn’t already know. In fact, Jesus knew what Ananias did not yet know. Nevertheless, Ananias’ point was a valid one. Saul was public enemy number one to the church in that day. There was a risk, at least from a human perspective, in getting anywhere near him.

There is a reminder for us here that Jesus calls us to go to dangerous places and to witness to dangerous people. The Great Commission for the church does not exclude those who hate us and wish they could kill us. Nevertheless, when Jesus calls you to go, He must know something you do not. Therefore, we must obey His call!

As the church reached out to Saul, we see not only the risk in going to him, but we also see:

B. The reward in going to Saul

Ananias hesitated, but Jesus insisted. He said in verses 15 and 16, “Go thy way: for he is chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: for I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” Jesus had a bigger plan for Saul that Ananias could even begin to imagine, so, Ananias got up and went as he was told. Verse 17 gives us such a beautiful picture. It says that Ananais, “…entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul…” How sweet must that have sounded to Saul’s ears? “Brother”. Only the church that serves a Lord like Jesus can love like this!

Only sinners who have themselves been born again into the family of God can know the joy of saying to someone who had been their enemy, “You are my brother!”

Saul’s sight was restored when Ananias touched him, and he was filled with the Holy Ghost. He got up and was baptized into the very church he had hated and hunted. They gave him some food, and verse 19 says he spent the next few days with the disciples of Jesus in Damascus. That is an amazing thing! That is an amazing church!

Ananias’ brave obedience to Jesus would reap countless rewards for the kingdom of Christ and His church in the days to come. But, just think about the reward Ananias received when he got to be the first arm of the church to embrace this most amazing convert. I wonder; who could you be the first to welcome into the family of God if you would only be willing to step out in faith and reach out to those no one else wants to touch?

Who is the former enemy of Christ you could have the privilege to first call “brother”, if you’d just follow Christ and go where they are waiting for you to come? We as the church must fear no one when the Lord we serve can save anyone! The most dangerous person for the Christian might just become the most glorious preacher for Christ. That’s what happened with Saul.

We see in the story of this salvation not only that Saul was confronted by the Christ, and that Saul was comforted by the church, but we see also thirdly that:


No doubt, there would be many who would question the authenticity of Saul’s conversion. There are always skeptics. Nevertheless, time would tell the truth of what had happened in Saul’s life. This conversion was confirmed by a remarkable change in Saul’s life.

George Lyttleton was a British Lawyer in the eighteenth century who was a staunch skeptic and unbeliever. In order to support his unbelief, he set out to disprove the story of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. In the end, Lyttleton actually became convinced that Saul had been supernaturally saved, and Lyttleton became a believer himself. He once said, “…the conversion and apostleship of St. Paul alone…was itself a demonstration sufficient to prove Christianity to be a divine revelation.”[4]

The radical change in Saul after his conversion is a testament to the reality of the gospel that changed him. Notice with me that:

A. The change was obvious

After Saul was regained his strength and had spent some time with the believers in Damascus, notice what verse 20 says. “And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.” This is so remarkable! Saul had been sent to the synagogues in Damascus with letters from the high priest in Jerusalem, giving him authority to arrest anyone who called on the name of Jesus. When he finally made it to those synagogues, he stood up and preached in the name of Jesus – testifying that He was none other than the Son of God.

R.C. Sproul said, “Just minutes before his conversion, all that Paul could think of was what he could do to Christ, but immediately after, all he could think of is what he could do for Christ, which reveals the essence of his radical conversion.”[5] Everyone in Damascus may not have understood what had happened to Saul, but everyone could clearly see that something had happened to him.

If someone ever comes into real, redemptive contact with the risen Christ, they will not walk away the same. He will change them in an obvious way. I remember reading years ago about a man who was a terrible alcoholic. Every one simply called him “Old Bill”. One night Old Bill stumbled into a rescue mission and heard the gospel preached. In that service, Jesus did something in Old Bill’s life. He was converted, and in much more than just an emotional decision, Bill received genuine salvation. From that day forward, he was a different man. His entire life was changed. The change was so obvious, that people stopped calling him “Old Bill”. Instead, they referred to him as “New Bill.”

Old Saul had started to Damascus as an enemy of the people of Jesus. New Saul stood in Damascus as a witness to the power of Jesus. The change was obvious.

But notice also that as Saul was confirmed by the change in his life, we see that:

B. The change was ongoing

Look now at verse 22. It says, “But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is [the] very Christ.” As the days went on, Saul showed even more that what had happened to him days before was a real and radical conversion to a genuine faith in Christ. In the years to come, Saul would become Paul, and the remainder of his life would be lived out as a living proof of what he would later write:

“This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners: of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.” (I Timothy 1:15-16)

When we see this drastic, life-altering change in a terrorist turned apostle, preacher, and missionary, we are reminded that Jesus Christ can change anyone by His grace and for His glory.

Do you need to be radically changed? Do you need to your life to be transformed? Jesus can do that! You are by no means the hardest case He’s ever seen or the worst sinner He’s ever saved. Do you know someone who needs to be changed? Recognize that you know the One who can change them! Jesus has the power to save the one you perhaps have given up the hope of ever seeing saved.

Do I expect to hear this week that the head of ISIS, Abu al-Baghdadi, has been converted to Christ? Truthfully, no, I don’t. But that probably has more to do with my lack of faith than with the possibility that Jesus could save someone like him. We tend to think the gospel works only where the conditions are right, where the fruit is ripe for the picking, and the sinners are hungry for the gospel. The reality is that the day I was saved, and the day you were saved, there was nothing in our hearts that made us any more likely converts than an ISIS terrorist.

The same crucified and resurrected Jesus that turned the life of Saul is the same Lord who raised you and me from the deadness of our sins, and turned us into His followers. And, this same Jesus still has the power to save great sinners, no matter who they maybe – whether they live in Baghdad or Birmingham. Jesus saves! Jesus saves!


[1] Piper, John, “Overflowing Grace for All Who Believe”, 6/9/1991,, accessed 4/21/15,

[2] Robertson, A. T., Word Pictures in the New Testament: III, (Broadman Press, Nashville, TN, 1930), p. 113

[3] Sproul, R.C., Acts, (Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2010), p. 159

[4] Bruce, F.F., The Book of Acts, (William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1988), p. 183

[5] Sproul, R.C., Acts, (Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 2010), p. 162