Heroes of the Faith Part 1B: Saul’s Conversion

Here is the next instalment in my book, “7 Heroes of the Faith”. In this instalment we will look at the remarkable events surrounding Saul’s conversion. From this point forward, I will post a new instalment of this book every Sunday. I encourage you to share these instalments with as many people as possible, as I believe there is great blessing in studying the lives of these incredible saints. Please forward this email or the link to the blog post to anyone you think might be interested.

SAUL’S CONVERSION

Saul’s conversion is set against the backdrop of the intense wave of persecution that broke out against the Christians after the martyrdoms of the Apostle James and a deacon named Stephen:

“On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the Word wherever they went.” (Acts 8:1-4)

These few simple verses describe a cataclysmic turning point in the history of the early church. Prior to this, the Christian church in Jerusalem had flourished under the leadership of the Apostles. For several years they had met openly in the Holy City and proclaimed their faith in Christ with little or no official pushback. They lived alongside their fellow Jews and were allowed to go about their daily lives in peace. But Stephen’s martyrdom changed everything. In a single day, Christians became ‘persona non grata’. With almost no warning, the dam broke, and the full force of Pharisaic hatred was poured out upon them. The Jewish authorities could no longer tolerate their ‘heresy’. The followers of Christ were rounded up and thrown into prison. Overnight, Christian families fled the city, gathering what few possessions they could carry, leaving their homes, their businesses, their friends and extended families and fleeing into uncertain exile. One can imagine devasted parents trying to comfort their frightened children while wondering, themselves, why God had allowed this terrible suffering to come upon them.

Of course, God had a purpose in all of this. “Those who had been scattered, preached the Word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). This was part of God’s plan to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. God had kingdom plans that were more important than the temporary discomfort of his people. There is a whole sermon in that! In fact, this enforced expansion of the church’s witness was long overdue. Despite being commanded by Jesus to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), by the time this persecution broke out the Jerusalem church had not even bothered to share the gospel with the people in the nearby city of Samaria, which was a mere few kilometres distant (see Acts 8:4-8). Furthermore, as best as we can determine, the persecution of Acts 8 took place around eight years after the resurrection.[1] So for six to eight years, the church in Jerusalem had lived in a holy huddle, soaking up the teaching of the Apostles and enjoying their Christian fellowship and had not even bothered to walk down the road a few kilometres and share the message with a town that Jesus had specifically mentioned. So, in the end, God got tired of waiting. He simply kicked them out of Jerusalem, with the result that “those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). At last they were doing what Jesus had commanded them to do eight years earlier!

But let’s focus again on Saul. Notice the zeal of Saul in executing the Pharisee’s genocidal intentions towards these Christians:

But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 8:3)

This is extremely aggressive language. Saul is hellbent on wiping out this new sect. He has become the Pharisee’s ‘terminator’, relentlessly seeking out and arresting the followers of Christ so that they, like their leader, could be tried for heresy and executed.

Acts chapter 9 finds Saul leading a Jewish delegation to the city of Damascus for the same purposes. Having arrested all the Christians he could find in Jerusalem, Saul is not content. He is now determined to track down those who managed to escape from the Holy City, and he has apparently learned that many of them fled to Damascus.

Damascus was the nearest important city outside the Holy Land, about 240km from Jerusalem, and the journey would have taken Saul and his companions at least five days. The city had a large Jewish population and Saul is obviously worried that the newly arrived Christians might spread their heresy further among the Jews living there. Like James Cameron’s ‘terminator’ in the film franchise of the same name, Saul is relentless. He will not rest until he has exterminated this sect from the face of the earth. He is determined to track them down wherever they go and destroy them. Acts 9:1 describes him as “breathing out murderous threats” as he heads toward Damascus. One can almost see the red glow of demented fury in his robotic eyes!

But God has other plans. He will use this dogged determination for the extension of his kingdom. He will transform this Pharisaic bulldog and turn him into a fearless missionary who will spend the rest of his life serving the very movement he is now trying to destroy.

But first, he must meet Jesus.

His encounter with the risen, ascended Christ is remarkable. It happens toward the end of his journey, as he nears Damascus (Acts 9:3). A blinding light from heaven. A booming voice. Saul falls to the ground in terror. Those travelling with him hear the voice but don’t see the light. It is for Saul’s eyes only. A brief conversation ensues:

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4)

So closely does Jesus identify with his people that he describes himself as suffering along with them.

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked (v.5)

Saul has no idea what is happening or who is speaking to him. That this is a supernatural encounter is beyond doubt, but the identity of this powerful heavenly being is not yet known to him.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (v.5)

These few words completely shatter Saul’s world. He is confronted with the sickening realisation that he has been working for the wrong side. He has been opposing God himself! The Galilean whom Saul’s religious buddies had nailed to a cross on that fateful Passover several years ago was not the misguided heretic that they had thought him to be. He was who he always said he was; the eternal Son of God and mankind’s Saviour. The rumours of his resurrection and ascension were, indeed, true, and Saul is now in the terrifying presence of this glorified Lord. As this awful realisation sinks in, Jesus speaks again:

“Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” (v.6)

As Saul stands and the light from heaven fades, he finds that he is now completely blind (v.8). He is then “led by the hand” into Damascus where he sits for three days in total darkness, neither eating nor drinking (v.9). It is an ironic reversal. The one who came to Damascus to place Christians in chains is now effectively incarcerated in a prison of darkness awaiting what, in his mind, must surely be the looming judgment of God. Too late, he now realises that he has been opposing God’s work and God’s Messiah. He has persecuted and murdered innocent people; their blood is on his hands, just as surely as if he had thrown the stones and wielded the sword himself. Saul’s fasting from food and drink during these three days is a sign of his remorse and, quite probably, his fear of what was about to happen. He had been found guilty of rebellion against Almighty God, and the sentence was about to be passed.

Of course, God had other plans for Saul. He decided that he would use this bulldozer of a zealot to take the gospel to the far reaches of the known world. After letting Saul stew in his own juices for three days (which is an interesting point in itself ­ ­– God did not rush to forgive Saul but allowed him to spend three miserable days pondering the seriousness of his sins!), God sent a reluctant Christian named Ananias to announce God’s forgiveness, heal him and lead him to faith in Jesus. Saul was then immediately baptised and the rest, as they say, is history.

What is remarkable about Saul’s conversion is his unique encounter with the risen Christ. Prior to this, Jesus had appeared to many people after his resurrection, over a period of 40 days. He had walked and talked with his disciples, had let them touch him and had even eaten with some of them. On one occasion he had even appeared to a group of more than 500 of his followers at once (1 Corinthians 15:6). On each of these occasions, Jesus had appeared in his human form, perhaps slightly altered (Luke 24:13-35) but still recognisable as the rabbi who had previously walked the dusty trails of Galilee. But his appearance to Saul on the road to Damascus was vastly different. Saul encountered not merely the resurrected physical Christ, but he saw Jesus as he now exists in his ascended heavenly glory. Even then it must only have been the merest of glimpses, for scripture declares that “no one can see God and live” (Exodus 33:20). Indeed, many years later, Paul would write to the young pastor of the church in Ephesus, Timothy, declaring that “God is immortal and lives in unapproachable light, and no one has seen or can see him” (1 Tim 6:16). Yet Saul, as he approaches the city of Damascus to continue his devasting crusade, is given the smallest of glimpses of Christ’s ascended glory. It is as if the curtain between this world and the next is drawn back ever-so-slightly to reveal Jesus as he sits at the Father’s right hand in unimaginable splendour, and the light of that briefest of glimpses is enough to blind him. 

It is this overpowering vision of Christ’s glory that rocks Saul to his foundations. A bearded man sitting on a rock by the side of the road would not have done it! Saul needed to be utterly convinced that the One he was opposing was none other than the Lord of the universe, enthroned in heaven itself. This stunning vision of the ascended and glorified Jesus literally drove Saul to his knees, and it remained with him for the remainder of his life. Years later, he wrote:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

His description of himself as “one abnormally born” refers to his late call up to ‘team Jesus’ as an Apostle and his complete unworthiness to be given such a role. But the main point he is making here is that it was Jesus’ manifestation to him on that Damascus road that was the turning point in his life. His encounter with the blinding glory of the ascended Jesus was utterly convincing and compelling. It explains why the Apostle Paul’s subsequent faith in Jesus was indomitable and uncompromising. It explains why he was immovable in the face of staunch opposition, even when subject to the most intense persecution and torture. His faith was never in doubt because he had glimpsed Jesus in his heavenly glory. As Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians, about 30 years later, his vision of Jesus’ ascended glory was still etched vividly in his mind:

“God raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet to be head over everything.” (Ephesians 1:20-22)

It is a big picture of Jesus – one that Paul carried with him for the rest of his life.

There is a sense in which every Christian needs this big view of Jesus. We need to see him, not merely as the bearded rabbi who lived 2,000 years ago, but as he exists now, in his ascended glory. I suspect that many Christians have too low a view of Jesus. They picture him in his incarnate state which, although it was a wonderful and helpful image of what God is like ‘with skin on’, was a deliberately dialled down representation of Christ’s eternal glory. Philippians chapter 2 tells us that Christ “emptied himself” of his eternal glory in order to come down from heaven and take the form of a man. Although he was both fully God and fully man while on earth, the glory of his eternal divinity was not as obvious during his incarnation. When people looked at him during his three years of earthly ministry, they did not go blind or faint! His presence did not cause people to tremble in fear. But when Jesus ascended to heaven again after his resurrection, he reassumed his former heavenly glory. Jesus foreshadowed this in his prayer to the Father not long before he was crucified:

“Now Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the creation of the world” (John 17:5)

The Apostle John, who recorded these words, was later given a vision of the ascended and glorified Jesus while he was in prison on the island of Patmos:

“The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.” (Revelation 1:14-16)

In that brief vision, Jesus’ overpowering, glorified image was so terrifying that John fainted with fear and had to be revived by Jesus:

“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last.” (Revelation 1:17)

This is extraordinary, considering that John was one of Jesus’ closest disciples and had lived and worked alongside Jesus for three years without even once fainting with fear! Yet the glorified Jesus was so overpowering that even one of Jesus’ closest friends was terrified.

This is Jesus as he continues to exist today, in his exalted, eternal, heavenly glory. And although the picture we are given in the Gospels of the incarnate Jesus is a very helpful one, it is not the full picture – not by a long shot. The incarnate Jesus was a deliberately dialled down, “emptied” manifestation of the eternal Son of God, simplified and constrained so that we would not be overwhelmed. But if we were to see Jesus today as he now exists, we would most likely be terrified as John was or even blinded as Saul was.

How big is your concept of Jesus?

Just the merest glimpse of Jesus’ ascended glory was enough to transform Saul for the remainder of his life. In fact, his transformation was instantaneous:

“Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” (Acts 9:19-22)

Saul’s conversion has direct implications for our own concept of Jesus. In a sense, we all need to be confronted with Jesus’ power and glory as Saul was, so that we treat our Lord with the reverences and awe that he deserves. 

In next week’s final instalment regarding the life of the Apostle Paul, we will jump ahead and examine the circumstances of his martyrdom. It is a story that will inspire and encourage you.

* Follow this link to check out all the current instalments of “7 Heroes of the Faith”.

[1] The Great Dispersion, as it is called, occurred around 35 AD, eight years after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection which probably took place around 27 or 28 AD.