Summary: Paul/Saul was a righteous man, but not until he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus was his life forever changed. This message deals with Paul's transforming encounter with Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the greatest transformation story in the Bible, perhaps the greatest transformation story in all Christian history is the transformation of a man named Saul into the Apostle named Paul. Perhaps there is no more well-known story of transformation in the Bible than this one. A commentator in the IVP New Testament Commentary series says it this way:
“The most important event in human history apart from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the conversion to Christianity of Saul of Tarsus. If Saul had remained a Jewish rabbi, we would be missing thirteen of twenty-seven books of the New Testament and Christianity's early major expansion to the Gentiles. Humanly speaking, without Paul Christianity would probably be of only antiquarian or arcane interest, like the Dead Sea Scrolls community or the Samaritans.”
Paul’s story is one most of us, if we’ve been in the church any length of time, have heard. We’ve heard of this dramatic encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, and we know that Paul is introduced to us as the man holding the coats of those who stoned Stephen (one of the first Christians) to death. And, our text today begins by reminding us that this Paul (who was Saul) was “breathing threats and murder” against the people of The Way, and was holding warrants for their arrest. We hear the story and we think what a transformation! What a change from a murderous enemy of Christ to the greatest advocate for Christ. We even get the impression from the words of Luke that Paul was an evil man, and that his encounter with Christ transformed an evil, arrogant man into a humble saint of God. Might I rather suggest this was the transformation of a righteous man?
Paul was a Jew. Paul, in the first century context, would have been a man after God’s own heart. He was a teacher of Judaism. In Acts 23:6, Paul cries out before the Council, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!” Later, in Philippians 3, Paul would describe himself this way: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.”
He grew up in a Pharisee’s home. He was taught the life of a Pharisee as a child. As he got older, he sat under the teaching of Gamaliel, the most influential Jewish teacher of his day. This was the same Gamaliel who, in the church’s infancy, told the Sanhedrin to leave this fledgling group of Jesus followers alone. If this was a move of God, the Sanhedrin couldn’t stop it. If it wasn’t, it would soon die out on its own. Paul knew all of the laws and ordinances of Judaism. Paul was considered among the most righteous of the righteous, and he was, this day, on a mission for God. There was one problem: Paul may have been on a mission for God, but he didn’t really know the God whose mission he was on. Here was a person, as righteous as he was, in need of transformation.
The transformation Paul needed came in an encounter with the risen Christ on his way to “do God’s will.” Paul, who was a passionate man (some would translate passionate as arrogant), was headed to Damascus with arrest warrants for Christians, and I suspect he was even meditating and praying over the Scriptures. Isn’t that what “righteous” people do? Suddenly, a flash of light literally knocks him down and a question, “Why do you persecute me?” And when Paul asks who it is, the voice says, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” The KJV, as well as the NKJV, includes a little phrase that says, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” In an instant—literally, in a flash—everything that Paul thought and believed is turned on its head, and he sees that he wasn’t actually doing what God wanted after all.
Jesus said Paul was kicking “against the goads.” What does he mean? Most of us are unfamiliar with a goad. Today, we call them prods. Before the advent of the battery, a goad was a long sharp, pointed stick used to move cattle. Jesus was telling Paul that he was resisting God’s prodding, causing God to goad him even harder. God was trying to get Paul’s attention even while Paul was busy for God.
So, what was wrong with Paul’s life that God would try to get his attention? First of all, there was a problem with Paul’s faith. You see, Paul had a religion – but he didn’t have a relationship. Paul’s was an inherited religion. It hadn’t been made personal. Let me offer a qualifier here. There is much about inherited faith that is deep and meaningful. The traditions of those faithful folk who have gone before us are wonderful and moving. Tradition is a great thing. Tradition has been defined as “the living faith of the dead saints.” But, too often, we become defined by those rules and regulations of religion, and we fall into the trap of traditionalism, which is nothing more than the dead faith of those still alive. What do I mean? Let me illustrate it this way.