Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral, 15 May 2022. Paul Beasley-Murray
The story of Paul’s conversion appears three times in Acts: first in Acts 9; then in Acts 22.6-16 where Paul tells the story of his conversion to a crowd of Jews in Jerusalem who were baying for his blood; and yet again in Acts 26.12-18 where Paul defends himself before Agrippa. Clearly Luke regarded the story as highly significant. This morning we will look at the story as found in Acts 9.
“In the meantime Saul kept up his violent threats of murder against the followers of the Lord. He went to the High Priest and asked for letters of introduction to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he would find there any followers of the Way of the Lord, he would be able to arrest them, both men & women, and bring them back to Jerusalem” (Acts 9.1-2 GNB)
Saul’ is the original Jewish name of the man we know as ‘Paul’. He probably took the Latin name of ‘Paul’ (Paulus) to enhance his acceptability in Gentile society. But at this stage in his career, such a concession would have been unthinkable. For Paul was a fanatic. He would have had much in common with some of the Muslim extremists of today – save that he was a fanatical Jew who was determined to eradicate these heretic Christians. Unlike his tutor Gamaliel, Paul was not prepared to sit back and wait to see whether or not God was in this new Christian movement. Paul’s heart burned with passionate fanaticism – only blood would satisfy his obsessional hatred.
Having created religious mayhem in Jerusalem, his attention switched to Damascus. Why Damascus? Presumably because many Christians had fled to that city. Damascus was a natural place for Jewish Christians to flee to (and remember that at that stage there were no Gentile Christians):
- it had a large Jewish colony. We know that after the Roman war against the Jews in AD 70 some 18,000 Jews were massacred there.
- it had a reputation as being a ‘haven for heretics’
So Paul got the necessary “letters of introduction” from the High Priest, presumably Caiaphas, the same High Priest before whom Jesus had appeared. NB it is generally agreed that Paul’s conversion took place no more than three years after the death & resurrection of Jesus.
Paul set off to find “any followers of the Way of the Lord” (v2). This description of Christians as “followers of the Way” reminds us that there is nothing static about Christian faith: a Christian is not a person who has made some decision for Christ in the dim & distant past and that is that -a Christian is one who has committed him/herself to the way of Christ and is now going the way of Christ.
To get to Damascus Paul had to undertake a journey of 140 miles. For us 140 miles is not far – three hours at the most by car. But Paul had to make the journey on foot. And on foot the journey took a week. It was a long journey.
It was also a lonely journey. Paul’s only companions were the officers of the Jewish Sanhedrin – members of the Temple guard who were detailed to make the necessary arrests in Damascus.
- Socially they were on a very different level from Paul.
- More importantly, they were on a very different religious level from Paul. For Paul as a Pharisee was not allowed to pass the time of day with ordinary plebs.
For a whole week Paul was isolated from his fellows – as he walked, he walked alone, alone, aloof from others, wrapped in his thoughts.
What were those thoughts?
- Almost certainly Paul thought of those Christians whose blood he was after. In particular, I have no doubt he thought of Stephen. It is significant that Luke records that Paul was present when Stephen was stone to death for his faith in Jesus: “the witnesses left their cloaks in the care of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7.58). It was the nastiest of deaths that Stephen died, but also a magnificent death too: for as he died “he cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord! Do not remember this sin against them!’” (Acts 7.60). Was this troubling Paul? Augustine said that the Church owed Paul to the prayer of Stephen.
- Or was he thinking more of Jesus? As Saul walked, was he struggling to come to terms with him? Maybe he was attracted to Jesus, but then he thought of the Cross – as he did so he perhaps said to himself ‘In no way could he have been the Messiah, for did not the Jewish Scriptures say that “Anyone who is hanged on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deut 21.23// Gal 3.13)? A crucified Christ made as much sense to Paul as fried ice might to us. Was Paul wrestling with these kind of theological issues as he walked to Damascus?
Certainly something was troubling Saul. According to Paul’s own account of his conversion, he heard the Risen Lord say 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). I do not believe it to be 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.
After 6 or more days of walking Luke tells us that “Saul was coming near the city of Damascus”. The road was now climbing the side of Mount Hermon – Damascus lays below – a white city in a green plain, ‘a handful of pearls in a goblet of emerald’.
“Suddenly a light from the sky flashed around him” (9.3). As Paul later told King Agrippa, this light was brighter than the midday sun, such was its intensity.
What was that light? There has much speculation.
- Some have thought Paul had an epileptic fit
- Others believe that Paul was hit by lightening
- Yet others suggest he experienced ‘psychogenic blindness’ as the result of repressed guilt.
We do not know. A former Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan: “Perhaps above every story of conversion we should write the warning: ‘Mystery! God at work!’”
Interestingly, later when Paul writes of his conversion, he internalizes 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 all about. Conversion is not about having an extraordinary conversion experience – it is about coming to know God in Christ.
To go back to the story, in that moment of encounter, Paul heard a voice: “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” (v4b). Do notice: the Lord called Paul by name. Jesus, the good shepherd, knows each one of us by name. The words of Rev 3.20 come to mind “Listen! I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in” .
Paul heard the voice and asked: “Who are you, Lord?” (v5). There is a good deal of debate as to what Paul meant when he used the term ‘Lord’.
- Was he just being polite, and speaking to Jesus as ‘sir’.
- Within this super-natural context, it is more likely that Paul with a degree of reverence & 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 replied: “I am Jesus, whom you persecute” (v5b). Note the identification of Jesus with his church. Paul might have replied: ‘But I have not been persecuting you – I have been persecuting your followers’. But that is precisely it. We cannot separate Jesus from his church.
People have often speculated that it was 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 that is not on. To follow Christ is to be a member of his church.
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 (v8). It is not difficult to imagine why was Paul in such a state. Prior to that moment he had been persecuting Christians for what he regarded as their ‘blasphemous lie’ that Jesus was risen, but in that blinding moment he had encountered the risen Lord himself. Now he had discovered that far from persecuting a band of miscreant messianists, he had been persecuting the risen Lord himself. This was enough to break any thinking man. Not surprisingly Paul experienced the trauma induced by the shock of this encounter. The carpet had suddenly been pulled from beneath his feet – previously he had been so sure of himself, now his pride had been smashed to smithereens. Paul was a deeply confused and broken man.
His companions were mystified. “They heard the voice but could not see anyone” (9.7). They were aware that something had happened, yet did not know what. Is this not typical of how non-Christian people react when a friend or loved one is converted? They know that something has happened, but find it difficult to understand what.
Time, alas, is limited, and so we must skip most of the lovely story of Ananias, a man of immense courage, but also of immense love. He goes to the house where the church’s enemy No. 1 is staying and says: “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus has sent me – Jesus himself who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here”.
I have little doubt that it was then that Paul was instructed in the faith and taught the Aramaic creed which Paul repeats in 1 Cor 15.3-5: “I passed on to you what I received, which is of the greatest importance: that Christ died for our sins, as written in the Scriptures; that he was buried and that he was raised to life three days later, as was written in the Scriptures; that he appeared to Peter and then to all the apostles.”
It was then too that Paul was baptised, presumably by Ananias. In the days of the early church there was no such animal as an unbaptised Christian: conversion was completed & sealed in the waters of repentance & renewal. According to Paul’s account to his fellow-Jews after his arrest by Roman soldiers, Ananias said: “Now, why wait any longer? Get up now and be baptised and have your sins washed away by praying to me” (Acts 22.16).
Paul arose from those waters of baptism a converted man – a changed man.
As Paul later wrote to the Corinthians: “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’.