A leading persecutor of Christians, Saul of Tarsus sought to destroy the Church (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13, 23). Except for Jesus, no one influenced the early church more than Saul, also known as the apostle Paul. This paper will examine the circumstances and events prompting a zealous persecutor of the church to become the most influential leader for the spread of the Gospel to the Gentiles. It will be shown that the “calling” of Saul was a true conversion even though he was not moving from one religion to another. His “calling” emphasized change but emphasized the conviction that the final expression and intent of Judaism had been born.
Paul was born a Jew, and was a citizen of Tarsus where he was a tentmaker by trade. He received his rabbinic training in Jerusalem, under the teaching of Gamaliel. According to Paul’s own account, he was a strict adherent among Pharisees (Gal. 1:14, Phil. 3:5-6). Paul inherited Roman citizenship (Acts 22:2528), which was widely granted during the latter part of the Roman republic. Paul claims in Acts 22:28, that he had been born a Roman citizen. This would mean that he had inherited Roman citizenship from his father. Little is known of Pauls life prior to the events discussed in Acts. He is first mentioned in chapter 7 in connection with the execution of Stephen. According to Acts 7:58, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Paul was a Pharisee, a prominent young member of that sect. Steeped in the monotheism of the Old Testament Scriptures, he could only count as blasphemy the claims of Jesus’ disciples that their Master was the Son of God. He could only ridicule the issue of a life that terminated, as he thought, on a despised cross and in a gloomy sepulcher, rather than on a throne of glory. With regard to Pauls pre-Christian attitude to the gospel, one thing is certain; he was opposed to it with his whole heart. In his apostolic letters he speaks of his previous hatred for the church (Gal 1:13; Phil 3:6). His persecution of Christians was to him a holy war. The only explanation that can be given of his sudden reversal is that the risen Christ actually appeared to him and by the sheer persuasion of His deity, claimed the faith and allegiance of the persecutor.
Paul’s conversion/calling to the “Way” took place near the city of Damascus. Four characteristics stand out in the accounts of this event. First, Paul was actively engaged in persecuting Christians and did not anticipate his conversion (Acts 9:19; 22:416; 26:917). Second, the event that initiated the unexpected change of course was a revelation of Jesus Christ made to Paul alone. Third, Soon after this revelation Paul had contact with a certain Christian (Ananias) in Damascus who recognized Paul as a believer in Christ by baptizing him. Fourth, Paul was immediately called by Jesus to take the Gospel to the Gentiles (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:89; Gal. 1:1516; cf. Eph. 3:16).
Paul’s Damascus experience becomes the most famous conversion/calling in history. Suddenly he is blinded by a light from heaven the light of the glory of Christ. His surrender to Jesus was instantaneous and complete: What shall I do, Lord? (Acts 22:10). He could not see because of the glory of that light (Acts 22:11), but he had already seen the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). The god of this world could blind him no longer.
At his conversion/calling, Paul was commanded to open the eyes and turn them from darkness to light (Acts 26:18). Although Paul was blinded after his encounter with the Lord, Ananias laid hands on Paul, “something like scales” fell from his eyes (Acts 9:18), and he was able to see. He had first-hand knowledge and experience of turning from darkness to light, and his command from the Lord was as clear as his newly regained sight.
Content to allude to Paul’s blindness and recovery as historical events, Luke wishes by a sober narration of carefully selected facts to make it clear that Paul’s meeting with Christ is not to be classed with other visions, however supernatural, but is to be accepted on a par with the other
appearances of the Risen Lord. So Paul goes from opposing God and persecuting Jesus to joining the persecuted side. After spending several days with the disciples at Damascus, Saul went into the synagogues and boldly proclaimed Jesus, that he is the Son of God (Acts 9:20).
Krister Stendahl argues that a proper interpretation of Romans 7 shows that Paul, as a loyal Jew, had experienced no struggle or guilt feelings that would have led him, through dissatisfaction with the law, to turn to Christ….Neither did he suffer from an introspective conscience…..Stendahl prefers to regard him as someone who did not abandon his Jewishness for a new religion but, rather, as a Jew who was given a new vocation in service of the Gentiles.
The description, in Acts, of Paul’s sudden conversion on the road to Damascus is primarily the creation of Luke; Paul’s biographer. Luke’s description of Paul is not impartial biography either, for it was intended to dramatize the early church’s journey from Judea into the gentile world. In some ways Luke downplays Paul’s claims, but he uses Paul’s life and mission to illustrate the destiny of Christianity. Many of the details of Paul’s life come from Luke since most biographical details are missing from Paul’s own letters. Luke’s description of Paul’s conversion draws on the Hebrew Bible for themes of prophetic calling, paralleling the commissioning of Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5-11) and Isaiah (Isa. 6:1-9).
Paul’s “calling”, and ultimate conversion to Christianity, depicts the decisive change Paul experienced. Not only was Paul’s conversion/calling remarkable with respect to his view of Jesus, but in his attitude toward Gentiles. Judaism is well known for its exclusivist attitude. It was unlawful for a Jew to have fellowship with one who is uncircumcised. Along with his conversion he received a prophetic commission to convert the gentiles. It is inadequate to speak only in terms of Paul’s conversionas if he were moving from one religion to another; and likewise only in terms of his callas if he were continuing in an unaltered faith. The conversion-call combination emphasizes both continuity and change.
Stendahl challenges the appropriateness of conversion language because Paul has not changed religions, that is, he never turns from loyalties to the God with which he began. While the answer might seem clear enough, working with Stendahl’s assumptions complicates the task; and furthermore, Luke nowhere explicitly defines conversion, nor provides a consistent pattern of entry into the church. When he does specify the means by which one joins the group, he is generally rounding out narrative portions which demonstrate the overarching effects of preaching. He does, however, offer sufficient material for us at least to consider the nature of a changed relationship with God, and ask whether the change constitutes conversion. Although we customarily label this experience Pauls conversion, this can be done only in retrospect, for at that time Judaism and Christianity were not yet separate religions. In reality, Paul changed brands of Judaism, switching from Pharisaic to Christian Judaism. One of the main ways that Luke demonstrates Saul’s changed relationship with God is to show this change in group affiliations. That is, while not an end in itself, his new corporate identity points to the ultimate reality underpinning his change.
What is evident is the fact that the gospel message is beginning to extend beyond Jerusalem and Judea. Paul inhabits that world of Christianity which he formerly tried to exterminate through the killing of Stephen. However, it was Stephen and his circle, not Paul, who launched a mission to Gentiles.
Paul’s missionary enterprise is not framed in generalities, as it is in Acts 1:8 (to be my witnesses) and Acts 9:15 (to carry my name). In Acts 22 and 26, Paul is directed to testify specifically about what he has seen and heard on the road to Damascus. The missionary charge to preach “before kings” in Acts 9:15 is Luke’s anticipation of the way he closed Paul’s public ministry by having Paul preach before King Agrippa (Acts 26:1-32), and it is suggestive of a Pauline appearance before Caesar (cf. Acts 23:11, 25:10-12 and 27:23-24.)
Since Paul is the great missionary to the Gentiles, it is appropriate that his conversion/call immediately precede the worldwide spread of the gospel. Hence, Luke introduces it immediately before the movement of the gospel into the Gentile world, as the conclusion to the Palestinian mission.
What were the consequences of this event for Pauls theology? The most difficult question to solve was, What impact does the Christian Gospel have on the concept and observance of the Law (Torah)? This question is still disputed today. The basic problem is that Paul seems to be vacillating between two concepts of law, a Jewish concept and his own Christian concept. Paul called his new concept the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). The law summarized the Scriptures in another way, by regarding the love command as the common denominator. “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14). As Paul attempted to make sense of Christian theology, the Damascus event provided an unexpected answer to an old Jewish question: Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of gentiles also? Because Christ ordered Paul to preach the gospel to the gentiles, Paul could now answer boldly: Yes, of Gentiles also
When reading Acts, one is struck by the immediacy of Paul’s activity as an apologist and theologian for the Christian community after his conversion (Acts 9:20-22, 28-29). His theological views were already so profound as to be irrefutable by his first-century Jewish opponents (9:22). Neither the brevity of the Damascus event nor the three short days of blindness following it allowed for a new theological education. Therefore the encounter with Jesus must not have required the abandonment of his former learning, but informed and reoriented it toward a new understanding of salvation-history around some key theological point revealed to him in the event.
It was Paul’s conviction that if one read the Torah story, emphasizing it as a story of God’s works of salvation and righteousness for ancient Israel, then one could not escape seeing that God had wrought another salvation, and committed another righteousness, in Christ just like the ones of old but an even greater one ! Paul was so excited by his belief that God had committed a new, mighty act in Christ, that he just could not understand why everybody did not see it the way he did. For Paul, as for Jeremiah, it was a question of how you think.
The New Testament contains six summaries of Paul’s conversion experience (Acts 9:1-30; 22:1-21; 26:1-23; Gal. 1:13-17; 1 Cor. 15:8-10; Phil. 3:4-11). Paul also alludes to the event on the road to Damascus several times (Rom. 10:2-4; 1 Cor. 9:1, 16-17; 2 Cor. 3:4-4:6; 5:16; Eph. 3:1-13; Col. l:23-29). Those references emphasis the significance Paul placed on his conversion experience and for determining his ministry.