May 1 Sermon Resource

Paul’s Conversion

Main Text: Acts 9:1-19a

Accompanying Text: Matthew 6:24


“Saul was brought up in Tarsus, a cosmopolitan city located on the coast in modern-day Turkey. As a Roman citizen, he would have been immersed in Greek literature and Roman culture from an early age. However, he was also part of the Jewish diaspora who retained a strong sense of identity while living away from their homeland. Saul was educated by the famous Rabbi Gamaliel and would have known the Hebrew Scriptures backwards. He was proud of his Jewish roots and later let slip that he was even a member of the Pharisees, the religious party that orchestrated the crucifixion of Jesus. True to form, when Stephen was stoned to death, Saul was there, cheering them on (Acts 7:58).” [1]

“It is true that Saul was brought up as a legalist. A strict Jew. A Pharisee. But as Acts 9 tells us, on that now famous Damascus road, this ultra-legalistic, fiercely nationalistic, religious conservative, on a mission to destroy the infant Church, experienced ‘a light from heaven flashing around him, blinding him’. We are then informed that ‘as he fell to the ground he heard a voice calling to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” and that on enquiring who was speaking to him, he received the response ‘I am Jesus . . . now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’

Of course, the exact details of what happened are contested. Historians, theologians and psychologists have been arguing for many years about the exact nature of this encounter.  Was it psychological or physical? Was this a literal blinding searchlight from the sky? Was anyone else aware of it? Acts tells us that the people with him heard a sound, but doesn’t confirm whether they could recognize it as a human voice.  So, was Saul’s whole experience internal?

These are impossible questions to answer. However, what is indisputable is the outcome.  Whatever happened on that road, Saul was transformed by it.” [2]

Thoughts re application today

“No narrative, no theology, is of theoretical and abstract interest only. All our beliefs matter for us and for others. Now and for the next generations. They shape us. They shape our world. They shape the lives of others.

Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus changed his story. But rather than destroying it, his experience completed it. It brought it alive. It brought him alive. But the question remains:  why exactly was Saul hounding the followers of Jesus in the first place? The answer is not quite what you might expect.

Saul’s decision to seek permission to hunt down the followers of Jesus was not because of their belief in a messiah. He also believed in – and longed for – the coming of a Jewish messiah. His problem was a different one. His problem was that Jesus was the wrong kind of messiah. Jesus was dead. And a dead messiah was no messiah. How could a dead liberator be a liberator? How could a dead messiah take on the Imperial army and win freedom for Israel? It was simply intolerable for a zealous Jew like Saul that a would-be messiah could have died a criminal’s death. How could the holy end up full of holes?  In fact, years later, he acknowledges this very point. A crucified messiah, is, he admits, a ‘stumbling block’ or ‘scandal’ for the Jewish people.

This is the reason why Saul feels that he has to snuff out the fledgling movement, which is diluting Judaism, and doing so at the very moment when its distinctiveness has to be maintained. The followers of the Way have to be destroyed before they can do too much damage.

But on the road to Damascus Saul hears the voice of Jesus. And through this encounter – whatever form it takes – Saul recognises that Jesus is alive. For him this has huge implications. From that moment on, with the same boundless energy he has brought to his task of exterminating the Church, he spends the rest of his life telling this new story about Jesus, the unlikely Messiah.” [3]

Paul’s own analysis of what happened in Acts 9 is that God “was pleased to reveal his Son in me” (Galatians 1:15-16 ESV). His experience seems strange to those Christians who have come to Christ in less dramatic ways. There is such a stark contrast between his former life in Judaism and his new life in Christ. “Does Paul not write only for those who have experienced a sudden, complete, decisive, conversion, and does he not overstate a contrast between ‘formerly’ and ‘now’, on the grounds of his unusual experience and personality?

Many readers of the Bible today have not experienced Paul’s kind of call and conversion. Are Paul’s writings still relevant to them? Paul’s ‘formerly’ and ‘now’ refers not so much to autobiography or to human psychology, but to God’s new creation. Whether they have experienced a sudden conversion or a gradual process of renewal, all Christians have shared together in God’s act of new creation. Paul writes, ‘If anyone is in Christ — new creation’ (there is no verb in the Greek, 2 Corinthians 5:17).” [4]

Some other Scripture Resources

  • Galatians 1:11-24
  • 1 Corinthians 15:3-11
  • Acts 26:1-23

Other GCI resources

Footnotes and references

  1. Andrew Ollerton, The Bible: A Story that makes Sense of Life, Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 2020, 2021:254.
  2. Steve Chalke, The Lost Message of Paul, published by SPCK, UK, in 2019:16-17.
  3. Ibid: 30-31.
  4. Anthony C Thiselton, The Living Paul: an Introduction to the Apostle and his Thought, published by SPCK, UK, in 2009:11.
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