My parents named me Paul – not because Paul was a traditional family name, but rather in honour of the Apostle Paul. The name itself simply means ‘small’; but the man who bore this names was the greatest of the apostles and was even termed ‘the second founder of Christianity’ (William Wrede).
This week – as every January 25th – the church celebrates Paul’s conversion. Not without reason Luke recorded this event three times in his account of the early church’s beginning (Acts 9.1-19; 22.6-16; 26.12-18). Paul’s conversion was of the greatest significance. So it seems appropriate to reflect on this life-changing event when Paul was ‘surprised by grace’ (Klaus Haacker).
At the time Paul was a fanatic and had much in common with today’s Muslim extremists. Unlike his tutor Gamaliel, he was not prepared to sit back and wait to see whether or not God was in this new Christian movement. Only blood would satisfy his obsessional hatred. This was why he was on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus, a journey of some 140 miles.
It was a long journey – on foot a trek of seven days. It was also a lonely journey. Paul’s only companions were officers of the Jewish Sanhedrin detailed to make the necessary arrests in Damascus. These men were on a very different level from Paul, both socially and religiously. Paul as a Pharisee was not allowed to pass the time of day with ordinary ‘plebs’ such as these. So all that week Paul was isolated from his fellows: as he walked, he walked alone, aloof from others, wrapped in his thoughts.
What were those thoughts? Did he think of the Christians whose blood he was after? I have no doubt that he thought of Stephen. We know that Paul was present when Stephen was stoned to death for his faith in Jesus (Acts 7.58) It was a nasty death, but a magnificent death too: for as Stephen died he cried out in a loud voice, “Lord! Do not remember this sin against them!” (Acts 7.60). Was this troubling Paul? I like Augustine’s suggestion that the Church owed Paul to the prayer of Stephen.
Perhaps Paul was also struggling to come to terms with Stephen’s claim that Jesus was God’s “Righteous One” (Acts 7.52). For any Jew who knew their Scriptures that was an impossibility: “Anyone who is hanged on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deut 21.23// Gal 3.13). As Gordon Fee points out, a crucified Messiah would have made as much sense to Paul as fried ice to us.
Certainly something was troubling Paul. Indeed, according to Paul’s own account, the Risen Lord said to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? You hurt yourself by hitting back, like an ox kicking against its owner’s stick” (Acts 26.14). It is not far-fetched to suggest that beneath Paul’s assured exterior lay a divided heart. It is often the case that irrational hostility is a barrier erected to defend our threatened security. As Jung, the Swiss psychologist observed, fanaticism is almost always found in individuals who are trying to compensate for secret doubts.
Nearing Damascus, “Suddenly a light from the sky flashed around him” (Acts 9.3). Paul later told King Agrippa, this light was brighter than the midday sun, such was its intensity. What was that light? The truth is we don’t know. I like the comment of Donald Coggan: “Perhaps above every story of conversion we should write the warning: ‘Mystery! God at work!’” Interestingly later when Paul wrote of his conversion, he internalised the light: “God… made his light shine in our hearts, to bring us the knowledge of God’s glory shining in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4.6). This is ultimately what conversion is about. Conversion is not about having an extraordinary conversion experience, but about coming to know God in Christ.
In that moment of encounter, Paul heard a voice: “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9.4). “Who are you, Lord?” (Acts 9.5) Paul replied. Was Paul just being polite, and addressing Jesus as ‘sir’. Within this super-natural context it is more likely that Paul with a degree of awe was acknowledging Jesus as Lord. Later Paul wrote: “If you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from death, you will be saved” (Rom 10.9). Conversion involves the surrender of self to the Lord of life.
The voice answered: “I am Jesus, whom you persecute” (Acts 9.5). Paul might have said: ‘But I have not been persecuting you – I have been persecuting your followers’. That is precisely it. We cannot separate Jesus from his church. Was it this experience which caused Paul to later describe the church as the Body of Christ? Some want to follow Jesus without being part of his church. But if Jesus identifies himself so closely with his church, then we need to do the same.
As a result of this encounter Paul became a changed man. At first the change was rather pathetic: this dragon of a man, who had been breathing fire and brimstone against the Christians, now had to be led by the hand like a child into Damascus (Acts 9.8). It is not difficult to imagine why was Paul in such a state. Prior to that moment he had been persecuting Christians for their ‘blasphemous lie’ that Jesus was risen, but in that blinding moment he discovered that far from persecuting a band of miscreant messianists, he had been persecuting the risen Lord himself. Not surprisingly Paul experienced trauma induced by the shock of this encounter. Previously he had been so sure of himself, now his pride had been smashed to smithereens. Paul was at first a deeply confused and broken man.
His companions were mystified. “They heard the voice but could not see anyone” (Acts 9.7). They were aware that something had happened, yet they did not know what. Is this not typical of how non-Christian people react when a friend or loved one is converted? Family and friends know that something has happened, but find it difficult to understand what.
Within a matter of days Paul was baptized, so completing and sealing his conversion. Paul arose from those waters of repentance and renewal a changed man. Where once there was smug self-righteousness, now there was a consuming desire to know only Christ and the righteousness that comes by faith in him. Where once there was moral impotence and spiritual frigidity, there was the power and joy of the Holy Spirit. Where once there was a fanatical ambition to destroy the churches, there was a consuming desire to multiply churches. As Paul later wrote, “Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being [a new creation]; the old is gone, the new has come” (2 Cor 5.17). He was now well and truly converted, a ‘follower of the Way’.