Rotation.org Writing Team
Paul and the Bright Light
Lesson Objectives and Bible Background
Acts 9:1-22, the story of Saul's encounter with Christ on the Road to Damascus.
Additional Scripture for teacher preparation:
Acts 7:54-8:3 and Acts 9:23-25
A Memory Verse: "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NRSV)
The meaning of the story in a nutshell:
When Saul, later known as Paul, met Jesus on the Road to Damascus, his life was dramatically changed.
Encountering Jesus can transform our lives as well, if we are willing to have our eyes opened and become one of his disciples.
Lesson objectives for the Rotation:
After completing this Rotation, participants will be able to:
- Locate the story in the Book of Acts.
- Outline the basics of the story, who's in it, what happened.
- Describe how Saul/Paul was transformed by meeting and believing in Jesus.
- Know that Jesus' "amazing grace" reaches out even to those who resist him or hate him.
- Discuss ways Jesus encounters us and changes us, and steps we can take to help others "see" Jesus and become his disciple.
This story is a great example of why we in Rotation teach a story for more than one week. It has so much information and ways to look at it that one week simply would not do it justice. Not at all. It is a critical story to explore and drive into memory over several weeks for several reasons:
1. Because it lays the foundation for what is arguably the greatest story in the New Testament after Jesus' —the ministry of Paul and the spread of the Gospel beyond Israel. Everything else we will read about Paul in Acts and from his letters stems from his personal transformative encounter in the Acts 9 story.
2. Because Saul's Conversion to Paul is an "archetype" for each of our conversion stories as well. Saul was very religious, but it wasn't until he personally encountered Christ that his steadfast faith and real ministry began.
3. Because it reveals Christ as still present, not gone at all, and continuing to forgive and reach out to those who rejected him. This is the good news of the story:
If it can happen to Saul the persecutor, it can happen to us.
Amazing Grace ⇒ Amazing Transformation
As the weeks unfold, you will want to teach that transformation is an ongoing-process in our lives, and not merely a specific event. Paul says that we continue to grow in Christ. He "presses on toward the goal." (Phil 3:14). The initial and ongoing encounters with Christ's Holy Spirit can be dramatic for some and subtle for others. Indeed, many people have them but don't recognize them or understand them, and part of your task as a teacher is to help prepare students to recognize Christ's presence. Let them know that Jesus is a personal presence, and not merely an abstract idea or religious practice (such as coming to church).
Christ's Spirit can feel like wrestling with our conscience (Jacob), like being blind then "seeing" (Paul), It can feel like comfort in adversity (Mary), strength of conviction (Peter), love when others condemn, caring when other reject, the right words when looking for guidance, peace in the middle of strife, etc. etc. We often don't see or feel Christ's Spirit until after the fact.... as it transforms you --makes you bear its fruit (peace, patience, kindness....etc, Galatians 5).
It is also important to teach you do not need to identify a "personal encounter" in order to think you are "saved." Jesus died for Saul on the cross long before he met Saul on the road. And many others Christians never had a Damascus Road encounter like Saul's. Saul needed the presence and challenge of Christ, but the story says he also needed to pray and have OTHERS enter his life and lead it towards his baptism. And Christ was only getting started with him.
Bible Background Notes for Teachers
It is easy to understand why Jesus chose to appear to Saul.
Saul was a man immersed in three cultures - Greek, Roman, and Jewish. He was trained in the scriptures as Pharisee (Acts 22). And he could support himself as a tentmaker wherever he went (Acts 18). This made Saul uniquely equipped for taking Christ's message beyond the Jewish world, and into the Greek and Roman world.
What this says to us is that our gifts, however mis-used or undeveloped, can be re-directed by Christ for his purposes, and that none of us is so damaged or "wrong" as to be beyond Christ's transformative reach.
What do we know about Saul?
Saul was born around the year 3 AD in Tarsus in southern Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey. Tarsus was a bustling commercial center brimming with Greek culture, education, and philosophy. It is believed that Saul came from a relatively wealthy family because he had Roman citizenship (which could be purchased), and because his letters reveal him to be well-educated.
In Acts 22, Luke tells us that Saul was a student of Gamaliel, a famed Jewish scholar in Jerusalem. In Philippians 3, Paul describes himself as a Pharisee. Pharisees were not priests, they were students of scripture who tried to enforce their strict interpretations and practices on others, believing that their salvation came through their own right-ness ("righteousness") of belief and practice.
It is questionable how closely Saul followed Gamaliel's teachings. In Acts 5:38-39, Luke describes Gamaliel as convincing the Sanhedrin not to kill the followers of Jesus, but instead, warning them that "If their plans and actions only come from people, they will fail. But if their plans come from God, you won’t be able to stop them." Yet, according to Acts 7, the men who stoned Stephen "laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul."
Using a term from today's headlines, we could say that at some point Saul became "radicalized." By Acts 9, he is on his way with authority to persecute Jesus' followers in Damascus.
What this says to us is that no one, however, wrong or evil, is out of Jesus' reach.
Paul's Point of View on his Past and Transformation
In Philippians 3, Paul makes his case that his former point of view as a "faultless" Pharisee is now to be counted as "garbage" (waste, useless). This theme of his world and perspective on his Jewish faith being turned upside down, would be revisited by Paul many times. But rather than rejecting the past, he simply described it as something that was to be put in the past, The Old Testament and old ways simply prepared us for the transformation of God.
"this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:13-14)
This theme should not be lost in our teaching. Saul was very religious, but that was not enough. Paul does not convert from one religion to another. He does not exchange one set of rules for another. Paul's encounter with Christ transformed his entire understanding of "religion." Instead of thinking we are saved by religious rules and practices, Paul repeatedly speaks about grace and love, forgiveness and tolerance. Paul's Good News finds its fullest expression in 1 Corinthians 13 where he describes "a more excellent way" —the way of Love.
Saul to Paul: Whats in a name?
"Saul" literally means "the one you prayed for" or "the one you asked for" –which is reference to the people's demand for a king in 1 Samuel 8. But Saul always refers to himself by the Greek (Gentile) name of "Paul," which can be translated as "small" or "humble." And in numerous letters, he refers to his "weakness" and "humility." So while some commentators simply ascribe the name change to a common custom among Jewish families living in the Gentile world to have both a Hebrew and a Gentile name, we can be sure that to Paul, his Gentile name was a perspective as well.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, our students are "small" in age and stature, and their talents are only beginning to be revealed. In a world that encourages them to "be big," "be the answer to prayer" or be #1 (literally: "be Saul"), "be gifted." Paul's name change and experience points us in a different direction. It is the upward call that humble-Paul now values, and calls us to strive for (Philippians 3).
Some Reflection Questions
1. Hearing Jesus’ Voice
- Once he knew Jesus, how did his life change?
- Was the change instant and complete? Or did his life continue to be transformed?
- Ananias doesn't think he should help. He questions God. Is that okay to do?
- When Jesus speaks to us, how will we recognize his voice?
- Jesus asked Saul, "Why are you persecuting me?" How do we "persecute" Jesus?
- How do we "hold other people's coats" while they are doing evil?
- How did Paul stand up for others once he became a Christian? And what price did he pay for doing the right things?
3. Called by Name
- Name some ways God tries to get our attention.
(lessons, scripture, experiences, other people, worship, service, adversity)
- What are kinds of "blinding lights" and voices we might hear in our life?
- Can we hear God's voice speaking directly to us? How?
- When God calls, it is often to do something unexpected. What did Ananias feel like when he was called to do something hard, such as going to visit Saul, the infamous persecutor of Christians? How did Ananias obey?
4. Blinded to the truth, blinded to God
- God said to Ananias that Saul had been PRAYING in his blindness. What do you think he was praying for?
- What and Who sometimes shuts your eyes or ears to God's voice?
- Saul spent the rest of his life sharing the gospel with others, trying to help them "open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light" (Acts 26:18). What are YOU doing to help others see Christ? In your actions, behavior, words?
Written for the Rotation.org Writing Team by Jaymie Derden & Neil MacQueen
Copyright 2016, Rotation.org Inc.