The Conversion of Paul

Published September 8, 2022 by John Allen in 

It is impossible to fully understand the missionary journeys of Paul without understanding Paul’s conversion. Although we typically refer to what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus as a “conversion,” Paul himself calls it a “revelation” (Gal. 1:16), a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) and an “appearance” (1 Corinthians 15:8). 

We can assume that Paul was moved by the behavior of Christians under persecution—especially by the behavior of Stephen when he was stoned to death (Acts 7:54-8:1). Although Paul never mentions Stephen, he witnessed the unfailing spirit of the early Christians, unbroken by persecution, who maintained an inner peace that he longed for. 

Paul presents his conversion experience on the Damascus road as the act of God, penetrating to the core of his being. For Paul, the action of God and the revelation of Christ were God’s unmerited favor and grace. The three accounts in Acts (9:1-18; 22:1-16; 26:1-18), and scattered references in the letters, agree. The accounts in Acts are incomplete without Paul’s words in his letters. All three stress the voice and the light, but not the actual vision of Christ, which is central in Paul’s own words (1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8). Paul refers to his own transforming experience on several occasions (1 Corinthians 15:8; Gal. 1:15-16; and 2 Corinthians 4:6). 

Paul considers his experience with the resurrected Christ to be the last appearance of Christ. There is no indication in Acts (or any of Paul’s letters) that he is suggesting that his conversion be a model for others. Instead, the “vision” or “revelation” was the basis for his apostleship. It was his calling to the Gentiles. 

Acts 9:1-18

As Saul approaches Damascus, he hears a voice and sees a bright light. Jesus calls out, “Saul, Saul” (v. 4), reminiscent of the way God’s voice was often heard in the Old Testament. The light Saul sees (v. 3) must have been strong, for it is around noon when he encounters it. It would have reminded him of the Shekinah glory of God in the Old Testament, which accounts for Saul’s question, “Who are you, Lord?” (v. 5). Considering the circumstances of the light from heaven and the calling of his name, Saul must have realized that he was in the presence of the Lord God. 

The voice from heaven asks a simple question: “Why do you persecute me?” (v. 4). In response to Saul’s question about who is speaking to him, the voice replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” In other words, while Saul was hitting the church, Jesus felt the pain! 

The use of the human, earthly name “Jesus” (v.5) rather than a divine title would have put everything into focus for Saul. Jesus of Nazareth was alive. His disciples had been right to proclaim His resurrection from the dead after all. The evidence was too compelling to reject any longer. Saul had been coming to Damascus “to arrest all who call on Your name” (v. 14). In the Old Testament, “calling on the name” is a standard description of prayer to God. He had heard Stephen call on the “Lord Jesus” as he was dying (7:59). All this was blasphemy to Saul, and it had to be stopped! Now, as he is on his way to do just that, he is jolted into the realization that Jesus is indeed alive.

Acts 22:1-16

The second account of Paul’s conversion is included in his address to the Jewish High Council when he was arrested in Jerusalem at the end of the third missionary journey. The testimony of Paul is similar to the description in chapter 9, but there are some interesting points that complement the earlier account. Here Paul focuses on his call rather than his conversion. He defends his work with the Gentiles and shows that he is still a good Jew. This account has a greater emphasis on light than Acts 9: Paul specifies that it was around noon when he saw the light, which would make it a powerful light indeed (22:6). The first account reports that the men with Paul heard the sound but did not see anyone (9:7). Here Paul says that his companions saw the light but did not understand the voice speaking to him (22:9).

Acts 26:4-23

Paul’s defense speech before King Agrippa gives us the most detail of Paul’s conversion. While it is evident that the political charges were the primary concern of the Romans, Luke insists that Paul has committed no crime against the state. Christianity is no threat to good order; it is a religion of resurrection, fulfilling the hopes of Jew and Gentile. Now the reader is told that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles is the cause of the charges against him. 

As in 22:3-16, Paul describes his early life. Details told in earlier passages are not repeated. The main point is that Paul has been a strict Jew, yet as a former Pharisee, Paul sees the resurrection hope as the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise – the hope of all Israel (the twelve tribes). In verse 8, the defense turns into an evangelistic appeal.

Most importantly, Paul’s commission to preach to the Gentiles is given in his conversion experience (Galatians 1:16). The commission of Paul is presented under the motif of the prophetic call (Ezekiel 12:1; Isaiah 35:5; 42:7, 16). This use of Old Testament allusions makes it clear that Paul’s mission is under the direction of the God of Israel. 

The promise that Paul will be delivered does not imply that Luke believes the trial will end in acquittal. Paul is to be “delivered” in the sense that his witness will be accomplished. God will use the arrest, trial, and even Paul’s execution to bring more believers to Christ. 

Our Focus

The conversion experience of Paul is rich with parallels to our lives and faith. First, Paul notes that while his traveling companions saw the blinding light, they did not hear the voice of Christ. The message seems to be for just Paul. Indeed, Christ addresses Paul by name with no mention of his companions, but could it be that the experience of the revelation is just as dependent on the hearer as on the divine revelation itself? The phrase, “Why do you kick against the goads?” seems to imply that Jesus has been trying to reach Paul for quite a while, and Paul was simply not listening. If this is the case, then Paul’s companions did not have the capacity to hear the words of Jesus. They did not have their ears tuned to the message. 

So what brought Paul to the point of hearing the word? Did the words of Stephen, pleading for his executors with his dying breath, impact Paul? Was it the courageous spirit of the early disciples who suffered Paul’s persecution with peace and courage? 

Second, Jesus mentions that Paul was “kicking” or “pushing” against the “goad.” A goad is a pointed stick used to train livestock, particularly oxen, similar to the cattle prods used by farmers today. In the first century, the sharp end of the goad was rarely used. Typically, farmers would tap the flank or hip of the oxen to encourage them forward. Only if the animal kicked or backed up would the sharp end of the goad stab the animal. The action of the animal moving back and against the goad, not the farmer stabbing, would inflict pain.

When Jesus says this to Paul, he insinuates that Paul has been ignoring the guidance of Christ. Paul, it seems, had caused himself pain by ignoring Jesus. The Spirit of Peace that Paul saw in the Christians he persecuted was the very peace he could not find for himself. 

Bridges to the 21st Century

Many of us in the church wonder about our conversion experience. “Is it once and for all? Is there something else? What do I need to be doing?” All of these are questions that haunt us at times in our faith. 

Our relationship with Christ is an ongoing experience. It cannot be measured by some “blinding light” incident. Instead, we live each day listening to the guidance of the Holy Spirit working through events, circumstances, and people. For Paul, the Damascus Road experience was only the beginning of many revelations from God.  

At one time or another, we all rebel against God. Jesus refers to Paul’s resistance as “kicking against the goad.” Following the goad metaphor, we inflict pain on ourselves by ignoring God’s place in our lives. The more we focus on ourselves, the less we can hear from God. The less we know of God’s guidance for our lives, the harder we “kick” against God’s good and loving will that brings blessing. 

Does this mean we will live in prosperity, health and good times? Not necessarily—God promises, through Jesus Christ, strength for every situation, peace in the midst of chaos and the ultimate victory in all things. 

Other Important Scripture

Acts 7:54-8:1 

No one can fully understand the change in Paul without understanding the stoning and martyrdom of Stephen. In this passage, we hear Stephen forgiving his attackers. Although they show nothing but hatred toward Stephen, he shows them complete, unconditional love. Paul witnesses this event, and Luke (the author of Acts) notes that Paul increases his persecution. If you were Paul, what would you have made of Stephen’s prayer for forgiveness? If you were Stephen, would you be able to ask God to forgive your attackers? Can you ask God for the spirit of Stephen?

Roman 5:1-11

This is Paul’s famous account of justification by faith. He says, “While we were still weak (or sinners), at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Christ’s sacrifice is the perfect gift we receive through faith. This experience in Paul’s life moved him from a vicious persecutor of Christians to the most prolific apostle of the first century. Can you pray right now for the forgiveness that comes only from above? God, through Jesus Christ, loves us more than we can ever know. Can you let that love transform the way you see yourself?

Galatians 3:1-29 

In this early letter of Paul, he reminds the Galatians of the cross of Christ. When they received Christ, they were given the Spirit by faith, not by works of the Law. Paul warns them not to return to the Law but to place their confidence in Christ. In what ways have you traded Faith for the Law? Are you working out your salvation by “being a good person,” or do you spend time each day listening for the word of Christ to come to you? 

Ephesians 2:1-21 

“For by grace you have been saved through grace, it is not any of your own doing but a gift from God” (Ephesians 2:8). Salvation is secured by Faith alone. This excludes any and all human works of righteousness. This is a regenerating faith that changes and transforms. It is a continuing work of God in each of us as we live for Christ. What did you do today to tune your ears to hear what God has for you?

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