The Apostle Paul’s encounter with Jesus absolutely explodes into a rich collage of sight, sound, and emotion exhibiting God’s grace.
Acts 22:6-8 “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ ” ‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. “ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied.”
The conversion of the Apostle Paul was so outlandishly radical, so powerful and instantaneous that we even now today have a term for that kind of encounter; we call it a “Damascus Road” experience.
By contrast, most of us come to faith in Christ fairly slowly. Maybe through the love of a Christian family or friend growing up, maybe via a weekly church worship, or a meaningful youth camp gathering, and most often due to the reading or preaching of God’s Word; the Bible.
But not so with St. Paul. Paul was NOT coming towards Christ in any way but was rather moving forcefully and intensely in the exact opposite direction.
To be blunt, Paul was an enemy of the fledgling church of Christ before his amazing and intense Damascus Road experience. In fact, Paul (aka Saul) was a terrorist in the fullest sense of the word as he actively persecuted, intimidated, imprisoned, and even participated in the murder of those following Jesus (like Stephen, Acts 8).
Paul earned his reputation as an energetic Pharisee who went way out of his way to stop the growth of this new movement of God in Jesus Christ. He was so dangerous to those new followers of “The Way” (Acts 9:2) that their turbulent anxiety became heightened in his presence. Certainly Ananias was extremely wary (Acts 9:13) when called directly by God to go to Paul’s side. For many years to come, Christians most likely slept with one eye open when Paul was in their vicinity (as trust is slowly earned, over time).
But God had other plans. To showcase His immense grace, Jesus chose the “public enemy number one” (at least as far as the new and fragile Christian church was concerned) and promoted him the director of evangelism to Jews AND Gentiles; the very reverse role that would have been opposite of what everyone would have expected. Talk about counter-culture and counter-intuitive!
The first time this Damascus Road narrative appears in Acts is in Acts 9 where Luke describes the occurrence in third person detail about the Apostle Paul’s encounter. The second time is in Acts 22 where Luke recounts Paul’s first person apologia to the riled up Jewish crowds rioting in Jerusalem. In that particular instance, Paul strongly emphasized both his and Ananias’ Jewish backgrounds and faithfulness in order to gain an effective hearing, even speaking in Aramaic. But his “called to go to the Gentiles” speech was just too much for people to take in (vs. 20-21) and, much like with Stephen earlier, they roared with the same violent destructiveness that Paul had been known for up to his miraculous change. Clearly, Paul’s life was in serious danger there in Jerusalem, but God had other plans. The third time this Damascus Road encounter is recounted is in Acts 26 where Luke again retells Paul’s narrative in the first person, but this time to the mostly Gentile royal court in Caesarea (King Agrippa, Bernice, and Festus).
So this story of Paul’s conversion is told not just once, but three separate times by the historian Dr. Luke in his book of Acts. Obviously this was an event so outlandish and unexpected that it penetrated the hearts and minds of the listeners and readers alike.
Think deeply about the reasons why this might be.
- Firstly, the religious climate and cultures into which Christianity was born did not believe in a bodily resurrection. The Jewish religious leaders were split on this (Pharisees –vs- Saduccees, Acts 23:8) and the Greeks held a very Gnostic “material world is intrinsically less” worldview. So into this context comes Paul announcing, along with the other apostles and disciples, that there is indeed hope of resurrection as he has met the risen Christ himself.
- Secondly, we must recall that Paul was an apostle unlike the other apostles in that he was not a “follower” during Christ’s life and ministry. Instead he was one later called (in this Damascus Road christophanic appearance) and would then be “validated” to jump immediately into the apostolic circle by having also encountered the glorious risen Christ. Did this fact also empower Paul multiple times while he himself was being persecuted, imprisoned, even murdered? The New Testament scriptures inform us yes.
Like Paul himself self-reported in his circular letter to the Galatian churches (Gal 1:22-24) “I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: ‘The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they praised God because of me.”
On today, January 24, a day where many churches celebrate the “Conversion of St. Paul”, let us recall the glorious christocentric appearance of God, in Christ, to Paul on that Damascus Road, and may our hearts too be powerfully changed in our own personal encounters with Jesus as well.