Do you ever think about how Jesus feels when Christians are persecuted? If you’re like me, probably not. We read stories of Christians being arrested or put to death and it is so sad, so unjust. But how does Jesus feel when this happens? It’s a weird question because it feels disconnected. Acts 9 shows that it’s anything but.
When Saul (also known as Paul) sets out for Damascus, the text tells us he was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). He was a religious extremist willing to go to any length to squelch the spread of the gospel, and he’d earned a reputation as a man to be feared. He was on a mission to destroy the Church.
Jesus had other plans for Saul. The way Jesus introduces Himself is not at all what you might expect. He doesn’t offer a statement of lordship or a declaration of His resurrection or even a miracle to show His power. He says “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting” (v.5). Not friends with the persecuted, not in charge of the persecuted—the one you are persecuting. Jesus makes clear that every persecuted Christian is part of His body. At the same time Jesus is making clear to Saul who he has chosen as his enemy, and with great effect.
The unity of Christ’s body shows up elsewhere in the story of Saul’s conversion. Ananias, an otherwise innocuous saint, risks welcoming Saul, caring for him, and discipling him to baptism. Later, when Saul arrived in Jerusalem believers were understandably leery about him until Barnabas (for whom I have great personal affinity, for obvious reasons) “took him and brought him to the apostles and explained to them how Saul had seen the Lord on the road and that the Lord had talked to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus” (v.27). Both these men exhibited the gracious, sacrificial character of Jesus toward an unlikely believer by welcoming him into the body and even advocating for him. In doing so they served the entire Church for centuries thereafter.
One of the most striking verses describing Saul’s conversion is when God tells Ananias “this man is my chosen instrument to take my name to Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (vv.15–16). Later, in his own ministry, Paul says God “set me apart and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me, so that I could preach him among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:15–16). At no point did he forget the miracle of his salvation, nor did he forget from whence he came, saying “I intensely persecuted God’s church and tried to destroy it” (v.13). By the mercy of God, through Christ, Saul went from persecutor to one with Christ and one with his fellow persecuted believers.