The chapter has sometimes been titled “How Paul lost his bad breath.” Paul later describes himself to have been in a kind of raging fury against the Christians. 26:11: “Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.”
In other words, he went to Damascus to secure the extradition of Christians — perhaps the more prominent ones — who had escaped there from Jerusalem. The High Priest was the head of the Jewish state so far as its internal affairs were concerned and the Romans upheld his authority, especially in matters of public peace and order. There was a large Jewish community in Damascus. Between 10 and 20 thousand Jews were massacred there in A.D. 66.
This was a midday as Paul will later say (22:6; 26:13).
Christ spoke to him in Aramaic as Paul says in 26:14.
In other words, he encountered Christ in a somewhat similar way to the experience of Stephen when he was being killed and Paul was there. No one else had seen Stephen’s vision of Christ either. These men saw the light (Paul says in 22:9) but did not hear the voice. They heard sound, perhaps as those in John 12:29, some of whom thought they heard thunder when the Father answered Christ’s prayer from heaven, others thought that an angel had spoken to him.
Straight Street is still a main thoroughfare in Damascus today.
In 22:14-16 we are given a fuller account of what Ananias said to Saul. Of Ananias we hear nothing more, but what an honored place in the history of the kingdom of God belongs to him! Most of us will never be of any note in the Lord’s kingdom, but we may be God’s instrument in the life of someone who will be! The old man on the beach talking to Justin Martyr! Or, our children!
In some ways, this is the most important narrative in the NT for the defense of the Christian faith. Paul is the great expositor of Christianity and, in the modern world, those who wish to discredit that message do so, in the first place, by attempting to demonstrate that Paul is the inventor of Christianity and that his version of the faith is not derived from the teaching of Jesus Christ himself. Paul’s Jesus, of course, is the divine Savior, the incarnate Son of God; his doctrine of redemption that of penal substitutionary atonement, etc. Jesus, they know, was simply a Jewish holy man teaching us to love our neighbors and being, at the last, overwhelmed by forces he neither understood nor could control. Rudolph Bultmann, earlier in this century popularized this way of thinking. According to him we know a lot about what Paul thought, but we know virtually nothing about what Jesus himself thought, the Gospels being written later and reflecting the teaching, not of Jesus himself, but of the Christian church a generation later. Paul’s doctrine, his presentation of Christianity was a concoction of various influences, Christ’s own teaching and view of himself being but one of those influences and not, perhaps, the decisive one at all. A.N. Wilson, in his new book on Paul, argues similarly.
All of this breaks down completely, of course, if you take seriously this account in Acts and believe that Paul was a direct disciple of and ambassador for the risen Lord Christ. One of the great purposes of J. Gresham Machen’s great work, The Origin of Paul’s Religion, published in 1928, was precisely to demonstrate the weakness in those views that seek to drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul and to argue again that the best way to account for Paul’s religion is, as in the NT itself, to see it as the expression of the teaching and meaning of Jesus Christ himself. That is certainly what Paul himself taught. He was a disciple and an apostle of Jesus Christ and had received his message and the authority to deliver it from him. And that relationship, Paul says plainly and repeatedly, originated on the Damascus road.
That makes it necessary for those who wish to drive a wedge between Jesus’ teaching and that of Paul to give another account of the Damascus road. Interestingly, few feel that they can simply dismiss it. Paul’s report is too impressive and he is too solid and substantial a mind to accuse of either credulous superstition or outright fraud. Further, it is frankly impossible to accept that Luke’s entire account of Paul’s former hatred of Christianity, confirmed by Paul explicitly in his own letters, is untrue. Clearly there was a revolution at some point in his life and thinking. What caused that revolution? The answer of Paul and the NT is, of course, the Damascus road. So what happened on that road if not what the NT says happened? Naturalism, of course, will not hear of a vision of the exalted Lord Christ, so what then?
All manner of proposals have been floated: an epileptic seizure, hallucinations of various kinds, a psychological crisis created by unresolved feelings of guilt, etc. Fact is, Paul stakes his entire life and ministry on the evidentiary value of Christ’s appearance to him on the Damascus road. That appearance worked a complete revolution in his thinking and his living, a revolution that was to cost him dearly. He is a brilliant man of the truest conceivable character and perhaps the single most influential human being ever to have lived in this world, save one. No wonder Bible-believing Christians have never been overly troubled by the Bultmanns of this world! (Eta Linnemann was a Bultmannian, until her own Damascus road!)
Now, first and foremost this is the account of a conversion of a sinner. It has massive ramifications for the spread of Christianity into the Gentile world, of course, for Paul will lead that effort. It has similarly large consequences for Christianity as a whole, for Paul will define that faith and communicate it in his thirteen letters that make up a substantial portion of the NT.
But, before that, this is an account of the conversion of a sinner. And it is so important an account, indeed, the NT’s definitive account, that this is only the first of three reports of this same event. There are two more to come in Acts itself (22, 26) and then again in Romans 7. In fact, more space is devoted in the NT to the account of Paul’s conversion than to any other event apart from the crucifixion of Christ, including the resurrection of the Lord!
- Given the fact that Luke omits so much and repeats so little, there must have been great significance in his mind to this history of Paul’s conversion.
- He is the example, par excellence, for us of the Christian man in the NT and so his conversion is the great pattern. Christ is our example in many things, of course, but he cannot be in some essential matters an example for us. He cannot show us how to repent of sin, he cannot show us how a person is converted to God or what such a conversion means. We need another model for such things and that model in the NT is chiefly Paul.
- And, fact is, though Paul was an exceptional convert, in most important respects, his conversion is entirely regular in its character and effects.
- It is not, of course, in certain ways. The supernatural element is visible here and invisible in other conversions. Most conversions are not so sudden, though there have been others not much less sudden or dramatic (e.g. Pascal). Cf. for example the different experience of Cesar Malan, “God awoke me as a mother wakens a child with a kiss.” Every conversion differs according to time, place, circumstances, violence, etc. But in its character and substance Paul’s conversion is set forth in the NT as a pattern.
Let me set out that pattern in three general respects.
I. First, there was preparation for the change.
In v. 1 we read that Paul, as he elsewhere says, was boiling with rage against the Christians, that is, there was a greater zeal in his persecution of the Christians than can be accounted for by an interest in preserving the theological purity of Judaism, which had at that time any number of different views and sects. His rebellion against God had, in fact, increased to a white-hot intensity.
In 26:14 we learn that when the Lord spoke to Paul he said, among other things, “it is hard for you to kick against the goads.” This is a catchphrase from rural life — a goad or prick would be attached to an animal’s harness to keep him in line, if he wished to go any way other than straight ahead he would get stuck. Many have thought that this is a reference to a half-conscious but growing conviction in Paul’s mind that Christianity was true — a conviction that only increased his sense of guilt and rage, exacerbated perhaps by his memory of Stephen’s death and manner of dying.
Add this to the clearly autobiographical statement in Romans 7:9: “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.”
“alive apart from the law” — as the rich young ruler; Paul as a Pharisee (Phil. 3:6)
“the commandment came” (cf. “before faith came” in Gal. 3:23), that is, before it came home to my heart. When? At least, so it would seem, before the Damascus road.
“sin sprang to life and I died” that is, sin raging in response to conviction, sin growing under the more active rebellion against the law boring in on the conscience; is this Paul on his way to Damascus, vicious in his hatred of the Christians for what is going on inside of him, though he would never have thought of it in these terms? Is it then in this state and condition that he is met by Christ?
Now, obviously, the preparation for grace is not always like this in intensity or circumstances (though often it is: Augustine, Luther, Wesley, Spurgeon, Colson).
- But there is always an awakening sense of need (The Spirit is sent into the world to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. Jn. 16:8)
- Those who are at ease rarely come to Christ. Why would they?
- There must be conviction because there must be repentance, a readiness to seek the Lord as Savior and an awareness of the need to forsake oneself to call upon Him.
- not always so agonizing
- not always so clearly perceived (sometimes it is more the effects of sin that are felt not the sin itself or its guilt)
II. Second, in conversion there is a divine work illuminating the understanding and changing the will.
I think that it is particularly significant that though there were a number in Paul’s party and all were somehow effected, only Paul heard the voice distinctly, only Paul encountered Christ, only Paul was blinded and only Paul’s life was transformed, so far as we know.
Further, it is not an accident that Paul was blinded and then had his sight restored to him. This is a powerful biblical image of spiritual bondage and liberation (Jesus used it too, John 9). The external events are clearly signifying an unseen and spiritual liberation. It was the true answer to his troubled conscience and to his rage.
Just compare Paul with the rich young ruler who went away from Jesus sorrowful.
“You must be born again…”
“No man can come to me unless the Father in heaven draws him…”
“If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation”
This was a divine work and cannot be explained in any other terms, nor can any other conversion, whatever its circumstances. (A young man converted among us a few years ago — was considering the gospel for some time, was reading books we had given him, a number of conversations — but it was a sermon on the conversion of Zaccheus that brought the change — a sermon that came the morning after he had been reading about the conversion of Paul and began to see clearly what a change must occur in the life of one who would be saved. A few years ago you couldn’t have made him believe that he would be doing what he is doing now, that he would have the convictions that he has, etc. [Robert Bode])
III. Third, there is in any true conversion a transformation of life.
The story only begins on the Damascus road. The changes have only begun: all radical, uncomfortable, painful in some ways. “Unless a man is willing to deny himself and take up his cross, he cannot be my disciple.” So, conversion must make a man willing! “The Lord will make them willing in the day of his power!”
- First, there is a new understanding. The great rabbi must admit that he had got it all wrong, exactly wrong. He claimed to be serving God and he was fighting him instead! He had to accept that all of his learning was nothing and that he had to begin all over again and accept Stephen’s understanding of the Bible as right and true. What he had publicly scorned now he must not only embrace but preach! Talk about being brought down! Especially for an intellectual! [Cf. the American university campus, the most conformist culture in the country! Why? Because academic types cannot bear to be thought fools by peers.] It is always a great danger if a man supposes to enter the new life with only a few adjustments in his thinking — it is the difference between darkness and light, blindness and sight.
- Second, there is a new prospect. Certainly the Lord does not sugarcoat the pill in v. 16. Not, how much he will do for me, how great is the calling I have for him, not even how hard the work will be, but, “how much he must suffer for my name.” He caused the Christians to suffer, now he must suffer for their sake. God does not seem to be concerned to make the prospect as pleasant as possible. Nor was Christ before him: “Unless a man is willing to deny himself and take up his cross and follow me, he cannot be my disciple.”
The seal of the French ministers of the Synod of the Desert read “Ne a patir et mourir,” “Born to suffer and to die.” And the seminary diploma of their school in Lausanne was known, in a kind of black humor, as the “Certificate for the Gallows.” Paul was before them in this. So much more could be said, of course — of joy, of peace, of heaven — but it is noteworthy that the Lord started with the suffering. Let there be no misunderstanding at the outset. In this world you will have tribulation. You should understand that, Paul, you’ve been the cause of a great deal of it in the case of other Christians!
- Third, conversion brings us to a new task.
In v. 15 we read the specific task that the Lord had for Paul. And how perfectly chosen he was for it: his own personal history — which, upon his conversion, set him free from the shackles of his rabbinic legalism, his theological/philosophical education, his Roman citizenship, and all the rest. From the destroyer of the church he becomes its protector and builder, and, wonder of wonder, Saul the zealous Jew, becomes the father of Gentile Christianity.
- Fourth, conversion brings a new family.
Surely one of the most beautiful moments in NT history is that in v. 17 where Ananias comes to the feared enemy of the church and addresses him: “Brother, Saul.” No wonder he could later speak with such conviction to Philemon about his runaway slave, “no longer a slave, but better than a slave, a dear brother (v. 16).” What you see here in a lovely picture, is what is always true and to be practiced in the body of Christ — enemies (for without Christ we are all, finally, the enemies of one another because we are all the worshippers of ourselves) becoming not just friends, but family.
But, not only did he find a new family, a new community, he lost his old one in that same moment. His old associates became his enemies, his family perhaps (“I have suffered the loss of all things…”). (He has to run for his life early on and then must be protected from the very folk who were his former friends and associates!) Remember what the Lord Jesus said, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword and to divine father and son, brother and sister, etc.” Once again, an illustration of the radical character of Christian faith. The antithesis.
Such is conversion in the NT and in the experience of the church, such is it always and everywhere, with only the outward circumstances varying from person to person.
A Scottish minister acquaintance of mine tells of a man he knew who was seeing his sister off on a bus one day. “Having been recently converted and being too embarrassed to speak to him [about it], she handed him a New Testament as she got on the bus and said, ‘Read that. It will do you good.’ He stood amazed and surprised that his sister should have been interested in this sort of thing. He took the New Testament, went home and read it, and could not stop reading it. Into the early hours of the morning he continued to read it. When he went back to his factory the next morning, the sound of the machinery began to echo in the depths of his soul, ‘Get right with God. Get right with God.’ He came out at lunch time and looked for somebody who might be religious who could help him. He found his way to a place where the Christian gospel was preached. There he spoke to some people and said to them, ‘What is this that is happening to me?’ Somebody said to him, ‘What do you think it is?’ He said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, it’s God, I think.’ It was. Two days later the eyes of his understanding were most gloriously opened, his life was transformed, and he became a new man in Jesus Christ. He knew what it was to be drawn by the Father to the Son.” [Eric Alexander in To Glorify and Enjoy God, pp. 238-239]
Your experience may be, will be, very different from that of Paul or this man. But, conversion should produce the same thing in you that it did in them, because that is the nature of the change that the Spirit of God effects in a heart.
So begins the Christian life of Christendom’s titan and the protagonist of most of the rest of Luke’s history of early Christianity.