Conversion of St. Paul
The Conversion of St. Paul marked a pivotal point in the history of the early Church. A leading opponent to the faith became one of its most visible proponents. Paul’s encounter with the Risen Lord would form his message and ministry as he traveled on his missions. Insights Paul had from that encounter would advance Christian self understanding and doctrine for the next two millennia.
The conversion is mentioned four times in the New Testament: Paul’s first hand account in his letter to the Galatians and three times in the Book of Acts. Let us begin with Galatians then move to Acts.
11 For I made know to you, brothers, the Good News, (the message) having been evangelized through me, that is not (a message) from man. 12 For, I did not receive it from man nor was taught (it by man), but through the revelation of JESUS CHRIST.
13 You heard about my conduct (from back) then in Judaism, that I kept pursuing the Church of God aggressively, and kept trying to destroy her, 14 and I advanced in Judaism beyond many peers of my generation, being extremely defensive of the traditions of my fathers (in faith). 15 When [God], having set me apart (while) in my mother’s womb and having called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his SON to me so that I might evangelize about him to the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to (those being) apostles before me, but I went off to Arabia, and again returned to Damascus.
18 Then, after three years, I went to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and I stayed with him for fifteen days, 19 but I did not see another apostle except James, the brother of the LORD. 20 What I write to you (now), Look! before God I do not lie (about this matter). 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Celicia, 22 but I was not known by sight among the assemblies in Judea, the (ones) in CHRIST. 23 They only heard, “The (one) pursuing us then now evangelizes about the faith which (back) then he tried to destroy.” 24 They gave glory to God because of me.
1:11 “Good News” is actually “evangelion,” the noun form of “evangelize.”
1:17 “Arabia” St. Paul did not refer to the penisula modern geographers call “Saudi Arabia,” but to an area southeast of Damascus, also called “Nabatea.” Tradition maintains that Paul retreated in the area as a desert experience, but some modern scholars speculate he went to the area to preach the Good News without interference from his former Jewish allies (see 1 Corinthians 11:32-33 about his escape from Damascus).
1:18 “Cephas” is Simon Peter. Cephas is Aramaic for Peter (“rock” in Greek).
1:19 “James, the brother of the Lord” Since James was the bishop of the Jerusalem church, hospitality demanded Paul visit the leader of the local community.
St. Paul’s first hand account of his conversion is sparse, compared to the accounts found in Acts (9:1-22, 22:3-16, 26:12-18). He spoke of his activities before his encounter with the Risen Lord and afterwards, but, of his experience, he insists that it was a revelation of Jesus Christ. However, that experience changed his life, to say the least. He evangelized others (some insist for span of three years in “Arabia”) before he met with the leadership in Jerusalem. We can speculate that the reason for his meeting was to receive official sanction for his missionary efforts, rather than instruction in the faith. After all, he was proud of his status as apostle (1 Corinthians 9:1), although of a lower rank than the Twelve (1 Corinthians 15:9). Nevertheless, Paul always pointed to the origin of his thought and work as a revelation directly from the Risen Christ (1:11-12), not from culture or popular thought (or even the traditions of the early Church, although he used those traditions in his teachings).
1 Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the MASTER, having approached the High Priest, 2 asked letters from him (addressed) to the synagogues in Damascus, that if he might find some being of the Way, both men and women, (whom) having been bound, he might lead to Jerusalem. 3 On (his) journey, he approached Damascus, and, suddenly, a light from heaven shone around him, 4 and, falling to the ground, he heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you pursue me?” 5 He said, “Who are you, Lord?” HE said, “I am JESUS, the (ONE) you pursue. 6 Stand up and go into the city and it will told to you what you need to do?” 7 The men traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but seeing no one. 8 Saul rose up from the ground, but, his eyes having been opened, he saw nothing. Leading (him) by the hand, they took him into Damascus. 9 (For) three days, (he) was not able to see, and (he) did not eat, nor did (he) drink.
10 (There) was a certain disciple in Damascus with the name “Ananias,” and the LORD said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” (He) said, “Look! I (am here), LORD.” 11 The LORD (said) to him, “Stand up and travel along the street named ‘Straight’ and seek at the house of Judas (one) Saul in name from (the city of) Tarsus. For, look! He is praying, 12 and he saw a man [in a vision], Ananias by name, having entered (the house) and having laid hands (on him) so he might see again.” 13 Ananias answered, “LORD, I have heard from many (people) about this man, as much evil as he committed against YOUR saints in Jerusalem, 14 and here he has power from the chief priests to bind all calling upon YOUR name.” 15 The LORD said to him, “Go, for this (man) is my select vessel to bear my name to the Gentiles and (their) kings, and the sons of Israel; 16 for I will show him how he needs to suffer on behalf of my name.” 17 Ananias left and entered the house and, having set hands on him, said, “Brother Saul, the LORD JESUS, the (ONE) having been seen by you on the way which (you) came, sent me, so that (you) might see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit. 18 Immediately, (things) like (fish) scales fell from his eyes and he saw again, and, having stood up, he was baptized, 19 and, having taken food, he gained strength. (For) some days, (he) was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately, (he) proclaimed in the synagogues (there), “This JESUS is the SON OF GOD.” 21 Everyone hearing (him) were amazed and kept saying (to each other), “Isn’t this the (one) having ravaged the (ones) calling upon this name in Jerusalem, and (he) has come here in this (place) so that, having bound (them), he might lead them (back) to the chief priests?” 22 Paul was gaining more strength (in his preaching) and was confounding the Jews living in Damascus, proving this (JESUS) was the CHRIST.
9:2 This verse described how Saul obtained letters that gave him authority to arrest Jewish Christians outside the Roman providence of Judea. As a rule, Roman officials allowed local leaders handle local matters. Since this was a “Jewish” issue (a problem the regional leadership could address), the Romans appeared to “turn a blind eye” to the matter. The Jewish community would keep their own in line.
Paul addressed the Sanhedrin:
3 “I am a Jew, having been born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but having been fed in this city, having been instructed (like a child) at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict (ways) of the Law of (the) fathers, being (dedicated) to God just as you are today. 4 I pursued (those) who (followed) this Way unto (their) deaths, binding both men and women, and handing (them) over to the (prison) guards, 5 just as the High Priest and the elders (of the Sanhedrin) can testify about me, and, having received letters from them, I traveled to the (Jewish) brethren in Damascus, leading away (Christians) living there, (these Christians) having been bound (back) to Jerusalem, in order (they) might be punished.
6 As I traveled and neared Damascus about midday, suddenly from heaven there was a great light shining around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why do you pursue ME?” 8 I answered, “Who are you, Lord?” (HE) said to me, “I am JESUS OF NAZARETH, WHOM you pursue.” 9 (Those) with me indeed saw the light, but they did not hear the voice speaking to me. 10 I said “What must I do, LORD?” The LORD said to me, “Stand up and travel to Damascus, and there you will be told about everything which has been arranged for you to do.” 11 As I was not able to see because of the brightness of that light, I came to Damascus being led by the hand (by those) being with me.
12 A certain Ananias, a reverent man according to the Law, witnessed (as such) by all the Jews residing (there), 13 having come to me and having stood by me, said, “Brother Saul, receive your sight. At that very hour, I received my sight). 14 (He) said, “The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will and to see the RIGHTEOUS (ONE) and to hear his voice, 15 so that you will be a witness for him to every man to what you have seen and heard. 16 Now, what are you all about? Stand up, be baptized, and wash off your sins, calling upon HIS name.
22:3 “having been born in Tarsus of Cilicia...” Cilicia was a Roman province on the southeast coast of modern day Turkey. This coast line faces Cyrus and the western coast of Syria. Tarsus was the capital of the province; it was the major trade center for the region, since the city was along a major trade route and possessed a good harbor on the Mediterranean.
“...in this city” That is, Jerusalem.
“...but having been fed in this city, having been instructed (like a child) at the feet of Gamaliel...” The construction of these two clauses is unclear. The phrase “at the feet of Gamaliel” can be applied to the participle “having been fed.” In this case the phase could read: “I am a Jew...raised in this city at the feet of Gamaliel and instructed strictly in the Law of our fathers.” Notice, according to this reading, Gamaliel would become more of a father figure than a mere rabbi. The translation above, however, applied the phrase “at the feet of Gamaliel” to the participle “having been instructed;” this construction restricted the role of Gamaliel to that of a teacher. Of course, Luke could have meant the phrase to be applied to both participles; Gamaliel was both father figure and teacher.
22:4-5 “I pursued (Christians)...and...I traveled to the Jewish brethren...” These two verses form a compound sentence. Paul pursued Christians in Jerusalem, then he traveled to Damascus to arrest others.
22:13 “receive your sight” is literally “look up” in Greek. If one could look up, we can assume they could see.
“Now, what are you all about?” In other words, Ananias asked, “Where do you stand now?”
The two readings from Acts above tell the same story. Acts 9 portrayed the narrative of St. Paul’s conversion, while Acts 22 summarized the story in a speech Paul gave to the Sanhedrin. Another passage from Acts 26 can be added to his conversion narratives:
Paul addressed King Agippa:
9 I myself most certainly thought that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 This I also did in Jerusalem. I both shut up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, and when they were put to death I gave my vote against them. 11 Punishing them often in all the synagogues, I tried to make them blaspheme. Being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.
12 “Whereupon as I traveled to Damascus with the authority and commission from the chief priests, 13 at noon, O king, I saw on the way a light from the sky, brighter than the sun, shining around me and those who traveled with me. 14 When we had all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’
15 “I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
“He said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 26:16 But arise, and stand on your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose: to appoint you a servant and a witness both of the things which you have seen, and of the things which I will reveal to you; 17 delivering you from the people, and from the Gentiles, to whom I send you, 18 to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive remission of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
19 “Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but declared first to them of Damascus, at Jerusalem, and throughout all the country of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, doing works worthy of repentance.”
World English Bible
If we compare the four versions of Paul’s conversion, three periods stand out. Before his conversion, Paul (known by his Hebrew name “Saul”) was a learned, but zealous Jew who persecuted followers of the Nazarene. Next, Paul had a revelation from Jesus Christ. His first hand account was vague beyond his insistence that the source of the vision was Christ; the three accounts from Acts developed the details of the revelation. Last, Paul converted after the revelation, and proclaimed Jesus as Lord throughout the area. In fact, evangelization became Paul’s raison d’etre.
Our interest here lay in the revelation-conversion moment itself. While Galatians lacked details, Acts portrayed the moment on a journey to Damascus. Paul had arrest documents for any and all Christians in the city. His intent was evil. Then he encountered Christ. Acts presented the revelation as a bright light and a vocal message from Jesus. Act 9 added another aspect to the story, the subject of visions.
Light as a symbol of revelation: Light is a symbol of God’s presence. Consider the Psalms:
For with you is the spring of life. In your light shall we see light. Psalm 36:9
YHWH, let the light of your face shine on us. Psalm 4:7
YHWH, my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty. He covers himself with light as with a garment. He stretches out the heavens like a curtain. Psalm 104:1-2
Images of light were also prominent in the two great revelations of Judaism. Abraham realized the covenant of land and descendants in a dream; Abraham saw a burning ember make its way between sacrificed animals (Genesis 15:17). Moses saw the burning bush and heard the voice of YHWH speak to him on Mt. Horeb (Exodus 3:1-6). These images of light represented the divine presence in revelation; the images guaranteed the credibility of the message.
Voice in the revelation: It goes without saying that Judaism (and by extension Christianity) was a religion of the word, first oral, then written. The word of the God gave the revelation content and power. God “spoke” the cosmos into being (Genesis 1). YHWH spoke through his prophets (Isaiah 1:2, 6:8-10; Jeremiah 1:2). Ultimately, early Christians saw the Christ as THE word of God, God’s definitive revelation (John 1:1, 14).
The revelation of light and word that stands out in the Gospels was the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13, Mark 9:2-10, Luke 9:28-36). Jesus and his garments emanated light. The divine voice from the cloud spoke. Both light and voice pointed to Jesus as the Christ and toward his death and resurrection in Jerusalem.
The reaction of Paul to the encounter with the Risen Lord was the same as that of Peter, James and John at the Transfiguration. They fell to the ground at the revelation. (Also see the reaction of the mob when they arrested Jesus in John 18:6.) At the point of revelation, the one who witnessed the light and heard the voice was humbled, placed in a position of weakness, even subservience. The witness had no choice but to cower at the sight of light and the potency of the spoken message.
Unlike the Transfiguration, however, Paul encountered the Risen Christ, so his experienced paralleled those of the disciples on and after Easter (Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20-21). In every case, the revelation of the resurrection involved a commission of evangelization. While Paul did not experience the corporeal reality of Jesus in glory, he did hear the voice of the Lord in the midst of the divine presence. And that’s what makes Paul’s conversion so unique in Bible. The bright light and the voice denoted the presence of the divine. Paul’s bodily position indicated reception of revelation. But the person who spoke was not God the Father, but his Son, Jesus. The three accounts from Acts clearly imply Jesus was God.
To develop this point further, let’s again consider Moses’ encounter with YHWH on Mt. Horeb. Certain details parallel the Paul’s conversion on the way to Damascus. In both, the heavenly voice calls the person by name and the person responds (YHWH to Moses in Exodus 3:4; Jesus to Paul in Acts 9:5). In both, the voice gives the person a commission (Exodus 3:, Acts 9:5). The most important parallel, however, lie in the self-identification of the heavenly voice; this identification was the core of the revelation. Many Jews believed that, when God spoke his name (“I AM WHO AM” in Exodus 3:14), his name was the sum total of revelation. The Law was pregnant within and flowed from that single revelation. So, too, Paul held that his thought and ministry flowed from the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ; in Acts, that revelation was summed up in the self-identification of the voice (“I AM Jesus...” in Acts 9:5, 22:8, 26:15). So, in Acts, Paul’s world crumbled and was reborn in a single phrase, “I AM Jesus...” In the moment, Paul knew the truth of the Christian message because he knew Jesus of Nazareth lived, yet transcended human existence.
For the author we call Luke, the revelation of the Risen Christ equaled the revelation of the divine name to Moses. The vision on Mt. Horeb established the mission to free the tribes and form the Israeli nation. The resurrection narratives and Paul’s conversion marked another mission, the Messianic mission to gather all believer and prepare for the Day of the Lord. So, Luke presented the conversion narrative in the context of an end time image. The revelation to Paul was succeeded by a vision to Ananias by Jesus. The vision echoed the preaching of Peter to the crowds on Pentecost when he quoted the prophet Joel:
But this is what has been spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘It will be in the last days, says God, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions. Your old men will dream dreams.’
Acts 2:16-17: World English Bible
For Luke, the revelation of the Risen Lord marked the beginning of the final days when the Spirit would be poured out onto all believers, even zealous enemies of the Nazarene.Top of the page
15 HE said to them, "Go into the entire world and proclaim the Good News to all creation. 16 The one having believed and having been baptized will be saved, but the one not having believed will be condemned. 17 To those having believed, these signs will follow: in my name they will expel demons, in tongues they will speak new (things), 18 they will lift up snakes, if they drink something deadly, it indeed will not hurt them, on the sick they will lay hands and (the sick) will get better."
16:15 "Go into the entire world" is actually a past participle "having gone into the entire world." Since the participle modifies the imperative "proclaim," it carries the same force. Hence, it is translated as an imperative.
16:16 "will be saved . . . will be condemned" Mark inferred both actions will take place on Judgment Day.
16:17 "in tongues they will speak new (things)" The phrase can have three different meanings. First, the utterance is in a new, unintelligible language (a "charismatic utterance" as 1 Cor. 14). Second, the utterance is in a different language (a proclamation of the Good News in a language where it has not been heard before, as in Acts 2:4-11). Finally, the utterance is new to the speaker (an unexpected statement promoted by the Spirit, as Jesus promised in Matthew 10:20). Some translate this phrase as "they will speak in new tongues," which favors the first two meanings.
16:18 "it indeed will not hurt them" This phrase is emphatic because it contains a double negative ("it in no way will not hurt them").
(Note: Mark 16:15-20 is derived from the so-called "Longer Ending" (Mark 16:9-20). The vocabulary and style of these passages argue against Mark's authorship. Hence they were added by a scribe or later editor. However, the Roman Catholic Church implied their canonicity at the Council of Trent.)
In Mark, Jesus began with order for traveling evangelization. "Go everywhere and preach the Good News to everyone," mirrored Jesus' own mobile ministry. The disciples were to do as Jesus did, but only on a universal scale. In fact, the ministry of Jesus became THE sign of the end times. Instead of judgment, the power of God's Word would be revealed. The Good News would be proclaimed. And evil would be rejected. Those who accepted God's Word would be saved (i.e., they would participate in these signs of the end times). But those who rejected God's Word (who refused to accept the Good News and its accompanying signs) were lost.
Mark 16:17-18 described fives signs of the end times, all done in the name of Jesus. They were:
1) expelling demons.
2) speaking new things in tongues.
3) picking up snakes (serpents).
4) not being harmed if poison is drank.
5) healing the weak.
Notice that signs 1 and 3 parallel each other. So do signs 2 and 4. Signs 1 and 3 signaled the power of the disciple over Satan. (The snake or "serpent" symbolized evil personified in the culture of Jesus.) The follower could handle or expel the Evil One in the name of Jesus.
Signs 2 and 4 signaled the power of proclaimed Word. In a culture that distrusted novelty, people would be amazed at new message God communicated through Jesus and his followers. The message could be a new revelation, a proclamation to a new (and foreign) audience, or a new prayer. No matter. Through Jesus and his followers, everyone would hear God's Word. And nothing, not even poison, would stop God's work!
Signs 1 and 2 described the work of the end times in positive terms (the good the disciples would perform). Signs 3 and 4 described the work in negative terms (the evil the followers would be free from). Sign 5 bridged the gap between the two sets of signs. The disciples would free the weak, those who were "bitten by the snake" and "poisoned." In other words, the believer would partake in the ministry of Jesus: to bring others from the powers of Satan (whether physical, spiritual, or moral evil) to the Father.