Read Acts 9:1-18
ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” (Galatians 1:14, NRSV)
When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.
Part 243: Paul. We often look at Saul of Tarsus’ journey to Damascus as his big “conversion” experience. Most who grew up going to Sunday School know the story:
Saul of Tarsus was this really, really mean, bad guy who hated Christians so much that he hunted them down, arrested some and had others killed. One day, while traveling on the road to Damascus to arrest and kill more Christians, Saul saw a great, blinding light. It was so bright that it stopped him in his tracks and he fell off of his horse.
A voice cried out, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul answered, “who are you Lord?”
“It is I, Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the voice answered back.
From that point on, Saul was blind and Jesus told him to continue to Damascus and await someone to meet him there. Three days later a Christian came, laid hands on Saul, prayed over him and he could see once more.” From that point on Saul became Paul and converted from being a Jew to a Christian.
This summary, while it may sound familiar and seem accurate, is actually significantly different from what actually happened. Sure, some of the details are the same; however, the subtle difference add up and significantly change the trajectory of our understanding. It is true that Saul of Tarsus detested Christians and persecuted them. It is also true that he traveled to Damascus to persecute more Christians and encountered the risen Lord along the way. Even more, it is true that his encounter with Christ brought from being an opponent of Christ to being his greatest proponent.
So, you might be wondering, what is different? First, Saul was not a “bad guy”. He was a Pharisee who believed in strict adherence to the Torah in order to live holy lives set apart from God. Anything that contradicted that understanding was false and needed to be shown to be false. It was Saul’s religious and moral duty, as a Pharisee, to counter false teachings that went against the Scriptures.
Second, while it is true that Saul encountered Christ on the Road to Damascus and that encounter dramatically changed the course of his life, he did not convert to Christianity. This may throw you for a loop and shock you. Some of you might think I am going against Scripture and falling into heterodoxical claims; however, if you read Scripture closely and understand the context, Saul never converted from Judaism to Christianity.
How do I know this? Simple, Paul wrote it. In Philippians 3:5-6, he wrote that he was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:5-8, NRSV). Though he came to accept Christ, Paul never, ever denounced his being Jewish. In fact, he saw his newfound faith in Christ as the perfect expression of his Jewishness.
Even still, the term Christian did not even exist at the time of Saul’s “conversion”; rather, Christians were actually a new sect of Judaism known as “The Way”. Thus, it is silly to refer to Saul’s Damascus Road experience as a conversion as all, as if he went from one religion to the other. Instead, it was a transformative encounter that illuminated his understanding of what it meant to be Jewish!
The third and final point is this, Saul did not initially change his name to Paul. In Acts, we see Saul still using his Hebrew name in Jerusalem and the people there were afraid to come and hear him preach for fear that he was the “same ol’ Saul”. At some point, during his missionary journeys through Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), Greece and Rome, he began using his Roman name, Paul. This was no doubt done to make his evangelism efforts among Gentiles more effective.
What does all of this mean for us today? It means that God is not looking to bring us into a “new religion”, but is rather calling us to be transformed and brought into a NEW RELATIONSHIP with God. If Saul of Tarsus can be transformed into Paul the Apostle, we can too. Not all of us will have Damascus Road encounters, but God will reach us in the way that is best suited for us to receive and respond. Be open to transforming power of God through Jesus Christ and you will find that God can and will recreate you in powerfully miraculous ways.
THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more…” (Romans 5:20, NRSV)
Lord, open my heart and purge me from my unwillingness to be transformed by your grace through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.