The Conversion of Saul
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’
Saul intrigues me. How could a man who was so anti-Christian become possibly the most important believer, after renaming himself as Paul, in the early church, certainly from the perspective of gentiles (non-Jews) like us? Let’s consider first what has taken place up to this point. Saul came on the scene a couple of chapters earlier in the story of Acts when he appears as a bystander at the stoning of the deacon, Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
All that Luke (the writer of Acts) tells us is that Saul approved of Stephen being killed. After that Luke records how Stephen’s martyrdom was like a trigger that set off an avalanche of persecution against the early church, and Saul led much of this. He gets letters of recommendation from the high priest in Jerusalem that would give him permission to go into the synagogues in Damascus and drag any new Christians off in chains for trial in Jerusalem.
Why, then, was he so ardent in his persecution? What was it that had Saul so fired up by the early Christians that he felt that he had to pursue any believers? I suspect there are many potential answers to this question, but for me the key seems to be Saul’s personality. When we read the kind of things he writes in his letters we rapidly come to the conclusion that Saul was a passionate man who was utterly convinced that he was on the right track and that others were not.
I don’t think this is a personality trait that he ever entirely shed. In fact I would go so far as to suggest that this may even be the ‘Thorn in the Flesh’ that he referred to. People have long wondered what this so called thorn might be, and in this modern age I have heard insinuated that he had some kind of sexual flaw. But I don’t think it was that at all.
My thought is that Saul’s passion found its way out in terms of having a kind of righteous indignation that sometimes meant he lost his temper and drove others away. For example at the beginning of his ministry we find that Saul worked closely alongside a disciple called Barnabas, a nickname that meant ‘Son of encouragement’. When you read around the story you get the impression that Barnabas was a real nice guy.
The other disciples loved him and he seemed to be the kind of person that could always say the right thing at the right time to help people who were struggling. Every congregation has people like that and I can testify to just how much of a difference they can make when you’re not sure if you’re doing the right thing.
But when we read Acts 15 we find that Saul, by then renamed Paul, has a huge row with Barnabas. Apparently Barnabas had wanted to take another believer, John Mark, along with them. John Mark, however, had let them both down on an earlier missionary journey. Barnabas, perhaps typically of his encouraging nature, wanted to give John Mark another chance. Paul, however, did not.
They disagreed so violently that eventually they fell out and Paul took another believer, Silas, with him and went his own way. Barnabas took John Mark with him to a different destination. So we can see in this that Saul (or Paul) was a man who, when he believed he was in the right, could not give up. There are other places in his letters that also suggest the same kind of thing but there isn’t time to go into those here.
Now, armed with that slice of background, let’s turn back to Saul persecuting the church, and I think we can get some indication of why he was such a passionate persecuter. Saul was a pharisee, a Jew that was passionate about Torah, the Jewish Law. He believed fervently that the Torah was the way of righteousness for a Jew, and indeed refers to himself in a later letter as having been an excellent pharisee.
Now look at what the early church was called. They didn’t call themselves Christians at that point, they were called followers of the Way. Now to a passionate pharisee like Saul, the Torah was the way, and for any Jew to instead refer to following Jesus as being a follower of the Way, as in ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life - no one comes to the Father except by me’ was like a red rag to a bull.
You can imagine his internal anger overflowing. ‘How dare they! How dare these Jews declare that following a man who was crucified was the way to God rather than the law!’ It’s a remarkable turn around as later in his life he turned away from the Jews and took the message to the gentiles.
But at last we have an explanation as to why Saul could have been so merciless in his persecution of the church. He was convinced that he was right, and passionate in his beliefs that they were wrong, and he considered them a threat to what he thought was the right way for Jews, and so he tried to wipe them out and stop this threat to Judaism.
But then, in what was another resurrection appearance, he met Jesus face to face in an encounter that made him blind for a time, perhaps an indicator of his inability to truly ‘see’ the truth about who Jesus was. Yet once he grasped the truth we see him become a changed man, in a sense. I say ‘in a sense’ because we see Saul become just as ardent a crusader for Christ as he was for Torah.
Except that he no longer persecutes, and we gradually begin to see a new kind of humility about him, which is highlighted by the change he takes in his name. The name Saul means one that has been asked for or prayed for, in that sense of we asked for someone and this is who God sent. Anyone who had that name may have a degree of a sense of having been sent by God as an answer to someone else’s prayer.
You can see why, in an act of humility he took a new name, Paul, meaning small or humble. It’s as if he recognised the need to be aware that he might be wrong. He had been so wrong about Christ, that perhaps he could be wrong about other things too. And I think we see that old nature of self-righteousness and the new nature of humility at war within him for some time.
What then does this passage say to us? Firstly it is a guard against self-righteousness. We can be angry, and sure that we’re correct, to the extent that we hurt other people, but we might be wrong. How much damage will we have done before there is a space for Christ to change our minds? I’ve done this myself on several occasions, this inner conviction that I’m doing exactly the right thing, and so and so is in the wrong. And on several occasions I have been chastised by God
But there is also a huge message of hope here. Saul changed, and it took him the rest of his life for that change to take effect, but God continued to use his natural gifts of passion for the good of the church. We’re here today because of St. Paul going to the gentiles. We might look at his temper and his anger and wonder why God chose him rather than gentle Barnabas, but when tuned in properly, that flame of passion was what made him so effective.
So let us accept ourselves as we are for it is the gifts we have, with all their flaws, that the Lord can use for the sake of others who have yet to hear. Amen.