Summary: Paul persecuted Christians of the early church with a ferocious intensity. That is until he encountered Jesus. Meeting Jesus turned Paul's life around. He, who was dead, experienced new life.
Acts 9:1-6 “From Death to Life”
Almost all of us have experienced a life changing event in our lives. The people who worked at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 (but missed being at work that morning) share that their lives have been changed. For many of us, our life changing events are less dramatic. They could be the birth of our first child, attending an inspiring conference or seminar, the death of a close friend, or even enduring and overcoming the difficult circumstances in which many find ourselves, at this time.
Paul’s trip to Damascus was a life changing event for him. He changed vocations—from a persecutor of the church to its greatest missionary. His name was changed from Saul to Paul, and his spiritual life was transformed from an observance of laws and rituals to a dynamic relationship with a living Lord.
While Paul’s experience is not meant to be normative for Christians, there is much we can learn about ourselves and our God from it.
The early church had no greater enemy than Paul. He participated in the execution of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. He was a one man Gestapo or KGB. His goal was to eradicate all remnants of Jesus’ followers. He considered Christians to be dangerous to the Jewish faith and the nation of Israel. Our story takes place as Paul is headed toward Damascus in order to expand his persecution of Christians. It is on the road to Damascus that Paul encounters Jesus—a transformative event.
The first question that pops into my mind when I read this story is, “Why Paul?” There were many people who had responded to God’s grace in the cross of Jesus Christ and who became followers of Jesus. There were also many people who were searching for something more in their lives and who were open to the possibility of becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. Why pick Christianity’s greatest enemy?
The answer to this question will never be found. We can, however, marvel that the greatness of God’s grace. God’s grace extends to his enemies and beyond. There is absolutely no one who cannot be touched by God’s grace and experience God’s love. This is good news!
Few of us will claim to be saints—innocent and free from guilt and shame. Even if we feel that we are “God’s gift to creation,” we know of a few skeletons in our closets that we want no one else to know about. Some of us go through life convinced in the validity of the theological doctrine of “Total Depravity.” We believe that we are rotten at our core and wear a façade of “goodness” to keep people from discovering who we really are. These thoughts frequently cause us to believe that we are not worthy of God’s love and grace. We convince ourselves that we can never have a close, dynamic and abundant life with God because we are the type of people God wants to include in his family.
God’s appearance to Paul on Paul’s trip to Damascus proves these thoughts to be false. Jesus died for sinners and people who were enemies of God, so that we might all have a new life and live in a relationship with God.
Another element of this story that catches our attention is the change that takes place in Paul’s life. He changed from being an enemy of the church to being its greatest missionary. Instead of attacking the gospel of Jesus Christ, he defended it. We cannot understate the immensity of these changes and the abruptness that they took place in Paul’s life.
Few people change religions even today. People may journey from Roman Catholic to Lutheran or Presbyterian to non-denominational, but rarely do they change from Jewish to Christian or Muslim to Buddhist. People in the first group are still Christian no matter what their “brand” or denomination is. The second group of people has to change their understanding of salvation their purpose in life and their perspective on life.
Paul changed at the core of his being. His characteristics, habits, understanding of reality and perspective on life all changed. Encountering Jesus brings changes in our lives.
It is important for us to note that God did not change in any way in this story of Paul’s conversion. The Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Paul’s opinions and beliefs were what changed. A vibrant faith and close walk with God challenge us to accept the reality of change. Our knowledge of ourselves and of our world changes and increases, and these may demand that our interpretation of some passages of Scripture need to change. For example, I grew up indoctrinated in the notion that Roman Catholics had no hope of salvation. We now understand that different Christian denominations are united in a common faith that Jesus is our Lord and savior. It wasn’t until the early ‘70’s that we decided that women were equal to men and should be allowed to have leadership in the church and serve as ordained ministers. Changes continue and we are forced to struggle with what should and shouldn’t be changed in our understanding and beliefs.