This is the first in a series of articles on the life of Paul. In each article, I’ll summarize an episode or period in Paul’s life and either consider critical questions regarding it or suggest lessons that it has for us today. This article concerns Paul’s initial encounter with Jesus Christ and its immediate aftermath and is based on Acts 9:1-25, 22:3-16, and 26:9-18.1.
Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:3-6, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV)
Thus Luke describes Paul’s first known contact with Jesus Christ. At the time of their meeting, Paul (then known as Saul) was leading a group of men from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest Jewish Christians there. The men with him also saw the light, fell to the ground, and heard the voice, but they didn’t hear what the voice said. Not seeing anyone or knowing what the voice said, they were speechless. When Paul rose blinded by the light, they led him by the hand to Damascus.
After fasting and praying for three days, Paul was visited by a Christian living in Damascus named Ananias. He put his hands on Paul and told him, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (9:17). Ananias also told Paul that God had chosen him “to know his will, to see the Righteous One [Jesus] and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard” (22:14-15).
Immediately, something like flakes fell from Paul’s eyes and he could see again. He arose, was baptized in water, and was filled with the Holy Spirit. After eating, he began preaching in the synagogues of Damascus that Jesus is the Son of God and the Christ or Messiah (the king and deliverer that the Jews were expecting). His preaching was so effective that the Jews of Damascus eventually conspired to kill him and he had to flee from Damascus.
Many biblical scholars refer to what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus as a “call” rather than a “conversion.” They claim that the emphasis in the accounts of the event in Acts and in Paul’s letter to the Galatians (1:13-16) is on Paul’s being called to be an apostle to the Gentiles, not on his being converted, and claim that calling the event a “conversion” suggests that Paul changed his religion, which isn’t correct. Certainly, the notion of a call is present in all the biblical accounts of the event and Paul continued to think of himself as a Jew after the event.
However, just as certainly, the radical change that took place in Paul’s relationship to Jesus Christ when he met him on the road to Damascus and the resulting transformation of his life and thought warrants what happened there being called a conversion. From being a persecutor of believers in Jesus Christ, he became a follower of and a spokesperson for him. From trusting in his personal blamelessness under the law of Moses, he came to look upon it as worthless in comparison to the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. Here is how he later described his change in perspective:
But whatever gain I had [in my life before my conversion], I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. (Philippians 3:7-9)
Whatever we refer to it as, the conversion/call of Paul was one of the most important events in the history of Christianity after the Christ-event, its launching Paul on his way to becoming possibly the greatest missionary and theologian of the Christian Church.