In our last essay we studied Acts 8:25-40. In this essay we are studying 9:1-9, which tells us about the conversion of Paul. I would like to begin with a verse found much later in the book, in Acts 22:3. It is part of a personal testimony by Paul. It reads, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city [that is, Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today.”
Paul reveals quite a lot about himself in this one sentence. First he was a Jew who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees. Indeed he had the best Pharisaic education possible, because Gamaliel was the foremost Pharisaic teacher of Paul’s day.
We learn also that Paul was a native of Tarsus. Tarsus was a Greek city, located on a major trade route just around the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea, which is part of modern day Turkey. It had a university and it would appear from Paul’s letters that he attended the university and benefited from a fine Hellenistic education as well as the best in Jewish education.
Thus Paul was rather uniquely qualified for his missionary ministry. First, the very fact that he was a Jew gave Paul an advantage. As a Jew he had the right to speak once in any synagogue that he visited, because Jews extended that privilege to visitors as a common courtesy. If they liked what one had to say they might invite that person to speak again. And there was a synagogue in every city and village that had ten adult male Jews. Thus it became Paul’s practice to begin his preaching ministry in any town at the local synagogue, if there was one.
Second, having been raised in Tarsus, Greek was Paul’s native tongue. And since Greek was the language of the Roman Empire, Paul could communicate well with anyone, anywhere.
Third, although we learn it in Acts 16:17, rather than in Acts 22:3, Paul was a Roman Citizen. As a Roman citizen, Paul had certain rights, which made it easier for him to travel and deal with the Roman authorities as he traveled.
Thus we see that Paul was well qualified for his missionary ministry. He could communicate with anyone; he had a built-in audience just about everywhere; and he had the privileges of a Roman citizen.
The record of Paul’s pre-conversion experience begins in chapter eight, verses one and three, which read, “That day [the day of Stephen’s martyrdom] a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem . . . Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house: dragging off both men and women he committed them to prison.”
In 9:1-2 we see that Saul was an active participant in the Jewish persecution of the Christians. Indeed he was a major player. He was doing everything in his power to stamp out what he thought was a dangerous cult. The high priest, mentioned in verse one, from whom Saul sought letters that empowered him to bring Christians back to Jerusalem from Damascus, would have been Caiaphas, the high priest when Jesus was killed. He served as high priest until AD 36. This demonstrates, by the way, that the high priest’s authority over Jewish affairs was province-wide, rather than just in Jerusalem.
Notice the designation of Christianity as “the Way.” The name appears several more times in Acts (18:25-26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). In a sense that was a very appropriate name. I don’t know if the name originated with the Christians’ enemies, or with the Christians themselves. But in any case, it did not stick. We find it used only in these early days of the movement.
When Saul left Jerusalem, accompanied by others who are not identified, he was just as zealous as ever to stamp out Christianity. The distance from Jerusalem to Damascus was about 150 miles, and it would have taken them a week or more to complete the trip by foot. For unknown reasons, many assume that Saul was on horseback, but that is very unlikely. As Saul and his friends approached Damascus, a strange thing happened. The risen Jesus confronted Saul in some sort of manifestation of light and direct address. The experience was so overwhelming that Saul and his companions (26:14) fell to the ground.
The light was sudden and bright, like a lightning flash. According to Paul’s personal testimony in 26:13-14, the light was brighter than the midday sun, and Jesus spoke to him in Aramaic, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Flabbergasted, Saul asked, “Who are you Lord?” And Jesus replied, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
Saul undoubtedly grasped the idea that Jesus identified himself with his followers. To persecute them was to persecute him. Saul also understood that Jesus was alive, just as his followers had been preaching.
Luke tells us that the men with Saul were speechless. “They heard the voice, but saw no one.” In 22:9, which is part of another, later personal testimony by Paul, he says that they did not hear the voice. Apparently Luke meant here that the men did not hear an articulate voice. That is, they didn’t understand any of the words. A similar experience is recorded in the Gospel of John. In John 12 Jesus prayed in front of a crowd for God to glorify his name. Then God spoke from heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again” (vv. 27-28). The crowd heard the voice but didn’t understand the words. They thought it thundered (v. 29).
As you see in verses 8-9, Saul was much more affected by the light than his companions. They had fallen to the ground, but Saul not only fell, he was blinded. His companions had to lead him by the hand into Damascus (v. 8). For the next three days Saul remained blind, and he neither ate nor drank anything (v. 9). I suspect that Saul himself made the decision to fast. He knew that this was a turning point in his life and he was preparing himself for God’s directions regarding his future.
Now then, it seems obvious to me that Paul’s experience is not intended to be a model for us. There are several unique features of Saul’s conversion that are not normally part of the conversion experiences of others. First, Jesus does not make resurrection appearances to us, as he did to Saul. Second, he does not ordinarily knock us to the ground. Third, Jesus does not physically blind us with the light of his glory. And fourth, he does not ordinarily commission us as apostles when we are converted. Therefore, we ought not be teaching others that they should expect to be converted in the dramatic way that Saul was. Conversion can be very gentle, so gentle in fact, that some Christians, who were converted as children, have no memory of the moment that they repented and believed.
Some scholars, mostly in the Reformed tradition, interpret Saul’s conversion experience as though Jesus invaded Saul’s life with such intensity that Saul had little or no choice in the matter. Certainly Jesus came to Saul with more intensity than normal. But that did not mean that he had no choice in the matter. Saul prayed (v. 11) and fasted for three days (v. 11) after the confrontation on the Damascus road; and he undoubtedly earlier had heard the gospel message as he persecuted the church. Thus he knew what he was considering, and he had plenty of time to prayerfully think about the claims of Jesus before Ananias came to him, as recorded in the following verses and a final decision was made (vv 10-18).