Paul’s Road to Damascus Conversion
Paul always looked to the future, though he never forgot his past.
Paul is a prominent character in the New Testament. He was the Apostle to the Gentiles and was responsible for writing much of the New Testament. A large part of the Book of Acts is devoted to Paul’s work to preach the gospel message throughout the Roman world. In addition, there are many letters Paul wrote to ecclesias and to individual believers who were in those ecclesias. However, Paul started his life and religious career in a very different way.
I want to ask you to imagine a picture of two different men. The first man is a young, proud, and arrogant figure. He’s a man from a noble family in Israel. He possesses the highest educational qualifications in Jewish law and traditions. He is successful, highly regarded by his peers, and destined, it seems, for the highest rabbinical position.
Our second man is old, tired, bent, and frail, a man rejected by his noble family and with few friends. His own countrymen hate him and have left him to rot in a Roman prison. Yet despite these apparent differences between the two men, and the advantage the first seems to have in every respect, the first man is frustrated, angry, and confused. He is fighting against his conscience. By contrast, the second old and tired man is at peace with himself. He is a man who rejoices in his sufferings, knowing a crown of everlasting righteousness awaits him.
They are the same man but with totally different characters
Of course, you have realized these two men I have described are the same man but with totally different characters. They are Saul of Tarsus and Paul, the beloved Apostle. In Acts 22, we have Paul’s account of the dramatic moment that changed his life. He was no longer one whose ambition was to be the proud, zealous “Pharisee of the Pharisees” in Israel.
Now a humble, dedicated servant of Jesus Christ, the apostle to the Gentiles. We would like to spend a few moments thinking about this dramatic change of heart in Saul of Tarsus, a change which was affected by that glorious vision of the risen Christ as Saul made his way to Damascus, determined to stamp out Christianity.
Saul of Tarsus was a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, born in the city of Tarsus (in modern-day Turkey) but raised in Jerusalem (Phil 3:5-6, Acts 22:3). Saul’s family had become citizens of Rome. So, by birth, Saul also had Roman citizenship (Acts 22:28). He was born into an eminent family of Pharisees. He trained in Biblical studies and Law under the guidance of Gamaliel (Acts 5:34; 22:3), one of the greatest and most respected rabbis of the first century.
As a result, Paul had the very best education in his society. Because of his upbringing, he became fully devoted to his faith in God’s Law, as a Jew, and as an eminent member of the sect of the Pharisees.
Paul had the very best education in his society
It is difficult to overestimate the influence of the sect of the Pharisees in those days. The Pharisees were a group of zealous Jews who were contemporaries of Jesus Christ. They believed they would please God by meticulously following the Law and observing the long list of religious rules and regulations they had developed over time. Saul of Tarsus espoused this way of thinking.
Despite his preeminent legal training, when Saul of Tarsus could not refute the preaching of Stephen, a man without his education in the Law, he became arrogant, bitter, and angry. He couldn’t accept the truthful and wholesome words of Stephen. This is the portrait of Saul of Tarsus, carnally minded, hardened, proud, and angry!
Other Plans for Saul
No one possessed the power to change Saul but our Lord Jesus Christ! It required a true conversion to the mind and teaching of Christ, like Peter, who, after three years with the Lord, was told, “when you are converted strengthen your brethren.” (Luke 22:31-32)
We also should also understand in our hearts the meaning of true conversion (Matt 13:15). True conversion may not come immediately after baptism. It can come much later, just like Peter and the disciples. Saul of Tarsus had heard and known of the teaching of the gospel before his Damascus conversion. Saul was just so stubborn that he refused to accept the Master’s teaching.
However, God had other plans for Saul. Along that road to Damascus, the resurrected Jesus appeared to Saul and questioned why he was persecuting him and his followers. Saul responded, “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10 ESV).
Saul, though he had an incorrect understanding of what was happening in the religious climate of his time, was a sincerely devout man dedicated to serving God. Therefore, when Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus, Saul’s heart was ready to be changed. This recognition of his own failings did not cause him to despair or become preoccupied with his weakness. He realized God’s love and mercy were far greater than his shortcomings and sin.
What About Us?
So, there is a lesson for us, brothers and sisters. Paul always looked to the future, though he never forgot his past. His bitter persecution of the ecclesia, and his hand in the murder of Stephen and Christ’s followers, did not paralyze him with self-pity but caused him to acknowledge his failings (1 Cor 15:9).
As we partake of the emblems, we also are exhorted to reflect upon our past life. Suppose our examination is really an honest one. In that case, we too will acknowledge the flaws in our character, words, thoughts, and actions and commit to rededicating ourselves to follow the Master’s example.
Our conversion will never be as dramatic as Paul’s. But each week, we must be converted, little by little. The task of being converted from a sinner to a saint is not the work of a moment in the waters of baptism. It’s the work of a lifetime! We must slowly convert the mind of the flesh to developing the mind of the spirit. But if we can achieve that transition, what joy awaits us!
Quezon City Ecclesia, Philippines