Summary: Paul goes from persecutor to Apostle. Conversion is the process by which God brings us from darkness into the Light.
Conversions in the Book of Acts> “Sonstroke on the Damascus Road” Acts 9:1-22 Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
The Apostle Paul’s conversion is regarded as one of the most significant, monumental events in the Bible. He starts out being the church’s #1 enemy and becomes its foremost missionary and writer. We first see Paul at the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7, approving the stoning, holding the cloaks of the angry mob. But he’d heard Stephen’s speech, which may have sowed seeds of doubt. In chapter 9 we see Paul “breathing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (vs 1), obtaining authority to take into custody Christian refugees who have fled to Damascus, an ancient city about 170 miles north of Jerusalem in the Roman province of Syria (and now the capital city). The garden-like terrain led people to regard Damascus as the location of Eden. Paul isn’t there as a tourist; he is hunting those “who belonged to the Way” (vs 2). The early believers were sometimes called companions of the Way, referring to the way of salvation. The violence of the persecution drove believers far from Jerusalem; yet not out of the reach of the Sanhedrin. Had he been successful, Paul likely hoped to arrest believers in other foreign cities. Psalm 76 affirms, “The wrath of men shall praise thee” (vs 10). Paul was filled with wrath and rage, yet on the Damascus Road he discovered his true destination, resulting in praise.
Paul was a zealous religious leader who considered this “Jesus movement” a plague and threat to the Jewish faith. His aim was to halt the spread of what he regarded as a fanatical, heretical cult. Paul had every reason to think that he was doing God’s will. We first know him as Saul, but with his spiritual awakening he goes by the Greek form, Paul, largely because of his later calling as missionary to the Gentiles. He was born a Roman citizen in Tarsus, an ancient city in what’s modern-day Turkey, and received an orthodox upbringing in Jerusalem. He was of the Hebrew tribe of Benjamin; the most well known Benjamite in Jewish history was Saul, the first king of Israel. Paul studied under the finest religious teachers and became a devout Pharisee. It is without question that the last thing he ever intended was to become a Christian. His aim was to arrest Christians, yet he himself is arrested by God.
As they approach the gates of Damascus, Paul and his companions are suddenly halted and blinded by an intense light--the dazzling glory of God. He falls to the ground and hears his name being called. Paul is bewildered; the Voice, clearly divine, accuses him of opposing the plan of God. In another account, ch 26, the Voice adds, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (vs 14). An ox-goad was a sharp cattle prod. The Holy Spirit had already started steering, prodding Paul, and he was resisting…but now he’s stopped in his tracks. Paul had been struggling with an inner battle, questioning whether the testimony of Stephen may be true. Why would Stephen willingly die for a lie? On the ground, Paul is uncertain as to Who is speaking and asks, “Who are you, Lord?” And then Paul learns specifically Who he is persecuting--the risen Jesus. At that moment Paul sees that the Christian message is true; he is jolted into the realization that the Messiah had come. His belief system was turned right-side up. The truth he sought to extinguish was real! He realizes his error--Christianity was not a threat to the Jews, but rather the fulfillment of all that they hold true.
Paul’s conversion is not from one religion to another. He never stopped thinking of himself as Jewish. Though rejected by many (Jews and Gentiles), Jesus was and is the Jewish Messiah. As a devout Jew, Paul came to the startling realization that the coming of Jesus is the culmination of Hebraic prophecy. Paul enters Damascus a completed Jew, with a deepened biblical faith. Rather than ridding Damascus of believers, the city became a center of early Christianity.
Paul’s experience was more than a vision. Paul’s companions also saw the light and heard the sound. Paul encounters the risen Christ, and surrenders his life to his Lord’s authority. This wasn’t some kind of seizure or hallucination (skeptics say Paul must have been epileptic), but an encounter with the Truth that took hold of Paul. He states in Galatians, “I did not receive (the Gospel) from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:12). At that moment his life took on a new direction.
Paul’s spiritual blindness is removed, but the radiance of this epiphany temporarily blinds him physically, and he asks to be taken into the city, to a house on Straight Street, to fast and pray and wait. His plans to seize Christians has been terminated. The blindness is not a punishment but a way to get Paul to focus on his new life.