The Life and Times of Paul – Paul's Conversion

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Last month we left Saul (not yet named Paul) “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” When Christians fled Jerusalem, Saul determined to follow them to the ends of the earth. So he went to the High Priest and asked for letters of introduction to the synagogues of Damascus. If he found “any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women,” he would bring them back as prisoners to Jerusalem. But Saul was about to have his own encounter with the Lord.

On the Road to Damascus
Damascus is about 150 miles north of Jerusalem. In the year 32 or 33 CE, as Saul approaches his destination, a light from heaven suddenly flashes around him. The word “flash” is an intense word, giving the sense that something incredible has happened. Saul falls to the ground and hears a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” As a devout Jew, Saul knows this is something heavenly, that this is a divine manifestation of something.

The problem, of course, is the question: “Why do you persecute me?” It turns Paul’s world upside down. Up to this point, he thinks he is ridding the world of people who are against God. He surely believes he is on a holy quest working as God’s emissary every day. But the question reverberates in his head: “Why do you persecute me?”

In response, Paul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply is, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Literally written, it would be: “I, I am Jesus, whom you, you, are persecuting.” “I” and “you” are both emphasized. No other identification needs to be made. “I am Jesus, the one that you are trying to get rid of. That’s who I am.”

There are actually three accounts of this experience in Acts, but they don ’t agree in all of the details. For example, one account says people around him heard the sound, but didn’t see anything. In another account it says they saw the light. And in a third account it says they fell to the ground. However, this just points to a scene of confusion.

No doubt what Paul’s companions see is their leader, who had been on a horse, suddenly on the ground. Imagine what he was like on that horse -- the power and authority he embodied, and the expectations he had. But suddenly he’s on the ground - groveling and talking. They may even think he’s talking to himself. It’s quite a change from the leader they have been following.

Into Damascus to Anaias
The voice tells him to “get up and go into the city” where he will get further instructions. Because the light blinds him, the people have to take him by the hand and lead him. It couldn’t be a bigger reversal. This man, who has had this tremendous attitude of power, is now being led by someone’s hand.

“For three days he was blind and did not eat or drink anything.” He is sick to his stomach, trying to figure things out, trying to make sense out of what has happened. But nothing makes sense.

In the meantime, readers begin to see what God’s been up to when another disciple, Ananias, is introduced. He is already living in Damascus and is well respected. The Lord calls to him in a vision and tells him to “go to the house of Judas on Straight street and to ask for a man from Tarsus, named Saul for he is praying.” Isn’t it nice to know that during this time Saul was praying?

God also tells Ananias about the vision he has given to Saul. This is a technique that Luke often uses – he’ll give us information by telling someone in the story about what’s happening to someone else.

Ananias, however, is not impressed. He says, “Lord, I’ve heard about this guy. I’ve heard about all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.” Ananias knows that Saul has come with authority from the chief priests, to “arrest all those who call on your name.” News has preceded Saul.

Scales Fall From His Eyes
Filled with reservations, Ananias questions the command, but the Lord is patient, repeating the instructions. Without further ado, Ananias does as he is told.

He finds Saul and places his hands upon him saying, “Brother, Saul, the Lord has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” The response is immediate. Saul is filled with the Holy Spirit, and “something like scales” fall from his eyes. Both literally and metaphorically, Saul certainly has a new viewpoint of everything. Saul is then baptized.

A Complete Conversion
This, of course, was an unforgettable and completely transformative experience for Saul. He wrote about his previous work persecuting Christians several times in his letters. In Phil 3:6 he wrote about his "zeal as a persecutor of the church." In 1 Corinthians 5:9, he identified himself as "the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God." In Galatians 1:13-14, he admitted, "For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it; and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.”

Remarkably, however, there is no place where Saul ever expresses a guilty conscience about his previously persecuting activities. In fact, he repeatedly affirmed his loyalty as a Jew and his adherence to the Mosaic Law. But at this moment – the event of his conversion – he experienced a revelation of Jesus Christ and was called upon to be an apostle to the Gentiles.

After the Conversion
From the description of events in the Books of Acts, we might get the impression that Saul got up the next morning, went to the synagogue, started preaching and teaching about the Christ, and immediately started generating opposition among the Jews. But in reality, Saul probably spent three silent years in Arabia thinking things over. There is no record of what he was doing there, but it might have involved missionary work.

He eventually ends up back in Damascus. The Jews living there become so upset with him that they conspire to kill him. Knowing that “his enemies were keeping a close watch on the city gates in order to kill him,….his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.” When Saul talked about this later, he referred to it as the low point in his career.

So where did he go from Damascus? To Jerusalem. Truth is, though, they weren’t any happier to see him in Jerusalem than were the people in Damascus. The people in Jerusalem didn’t trust him either. They couldn't believe that he’d really changed. But if he had been in Arabia/Damascus for three years, wouldn’t they have gotten the message in Jerusalem by this time? Maybe they should have understood, but these are some of the questions that cannot be answered definitively.

Relationship with Jesus’ Disciples and Other Christians
According to Gal 1:18, Saul spent some time with Peter during this visit to Jerusalem. Scholars would love to know what topics they discussed.

It is possible that Peter filled him in on some of the Jesus traditions, but Saul will always argue that his was not a mission from human agency. So it's not likely that Saul sat at Peter's knee learning how to do mission work.

It is not too long before the Hellenists in Jerusalem turn against him. And again, it’s “the brothers” in Jerusalem who take him down to Caesarea and ship him off to Tarsus. Of course, it appears the brothers are really very interested in his welfare. It looks like they care very much about him, that they’re trying to protect him, and that they’re all unified.

However, Saul will have a very different understanding of his relationship with the Jerusalem church. His letters reveal a relationship rooted in turbulence. One wonders what Saul did to arouse such hostility.

But ultimately, he does go back to Cilicia (his hometown) and works from there. And then it says, “The church throughout Judea, Samaria, and Galilee enjoyed a time of peace.”

Life and Times