This Bible Study series will cover some of the major areas of S. Paul’s life, ministry and legacy to us. In it, we will cover the major events of his life, his writings and his theology; drawing from it all, lessons to reflect on our own lives as Christians.
Session 1: The Conversion of Saint Paul
Video Clip: Opening Sequence
The Conversion of S. Paul is one of the turning points of the Christian faith: the point where it starts to leave the territory of those who have followed Christ in person, and kept to the local and parochial, and it starts to affect the whole world, Jews and Gentiles alike.
Many have argued that it was Paul who made Christianity the world religion it was today, and it was his theology of Christ, his understanding of salvation, faith and the connection between the two which is the legacy of Jesus. We might, at the end of this course want to consider that, or seek to find through Paul, a closer connection with the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus and the post-Reformation, Post-Counter-Reformation faith we have today filtered through the insight of this powerful and effective missionary.
The story of the conversion of Saul, persecutor of the faith into Paul is attested in his own writing (Galatians 1:11-24) and in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 9:1-18 and again in Acts 22:6-16 and 26:12-18).
The pre-conversion Saul describes himself as a hardcore member of the Pharisee Party (Philippians 3:5) and his zeal against the early church is recorded in Acts 8:1-3.
Video Clip 1 – the Damascus Road
2 “The Lord’s Way” – a common usage in Acts to speak of “The Way of Salvation”
4 From the Greek, scholars[1 have deduced that Jesus spoke to Saul in Aramaic (“In Hebrew speech” Acts 26:14). Was this because Aramaic was the native language of Jesus or of Saul? Saul came from Tarsus, which is a part of modern Turkey, and then part of the diaspora of Hellenised Jews
3-6 Any attempt to explain Saul’s Damascus experience in medical terms, must reckon with its revolutionary and long term effects. The extraordinary enchancement of illumination experienced by epileptics as described for example by Dostoyevsky in “The Idiot” is a very different matter from a total conversion such as Saul underwent – a conversion of will, intellect and emotion which dictated the abiding purpose and direction of his subsequent life and activity.
Epileptic experiences appear to support and enhance the direction of one’s convictions (‘I KNOW I’m right because God told me’) whereas here, Saul is proved quite wrong.
Compare with the experience of Sadhu Sundar Singh:
Bitter over the death of his mother, Sundar Singh blamed God. The fourteen-year-old boy became vicious toward his Christian teachers. He threw filth on them, mocked their Scriptures, and interrupted classes. Then he made the ultimate gesture of scorn. He bought a Bible from the Christians. Outside his house he built a fire and page by page tore up the Scripture and burnt it.
“Although I believed that I had done a very good deed by burning the Bible, I felt unhappy,” he said. Within three days Sundar Singh could bear his misery no longer. Late one night in December 1903, he rose from bed and prayed that God reveal himself to him if he really existed. Otherwise — “I planned to throw myself in front of the train which passed by our house.” For seven hours Sundar Singh prayed. “O God, if there is a God, reveal thyself to me tonight.” The next train was due at five o’clock in the morning. The hours passed.
Suddenly the room filled with a glow. A man appeared before him. Sundar Singh heard a voice say, “How long will you deny me? I died for you; I have given my life for you.”[2 He saw the man’s hands, pierced by nails. This could only be Christ. In that moment of recognition, the boy who had burnt the Bible became a man who would endure anything for the Christ taught in it.
Saul attests to the external as well as the internal nature of his experience.
Did Saul actually SEE Jesus, or simply hear him. This passage is inconclusive, but the vision is confirmed in the words of Ananias (v17) and Barnabus (v27). Saul may be using the word “seen” as meaning “understood”. Does it matter? In 1 Corinthians 9:1 he exclaims “have I not seen Jesus, our Lord?” which sounds (and he is using it as such) like a claim to a physical encounter.
Compare with Ezekiel 1:26 and the use of the phrase “likeness of a man” but for Saul this “likeness” has a concrete form: Jesus. Compare with John 21:1-19 when Jesus is (pre-ascension) present although not definitively recognised: there must be something about the Post-Resurrection Body of Christ which makes him difficult to recognise, until he wants you to (cf John 20:16 Mary Magdalene).
However, Paul’s claim to be an Apostle would require him to be acquainted with Jesus, in this case the post-resurrection Jesus as he claims he was “untimely born” (? too young) (1 Corinthians 15:5-8)
9 The fasting should not be seen as a preparation for baptism here. The practice is first described in the Didache 7:4 and Justin’s First Apology 61.2 about a hundred years later. It was more likely shock.
10-12 The Visions were 2-way: Saul received a vision that he would be visited by Ananias and Ananias that he had work to do. Straight Street (and lots of ancient cities had one – I am thinking of Valetta in Malta) is still one of the main thoroughfares of Damascus
17 Ananias calls him “Brother Saul” with the same word in Greek which suggests he was addressing Saul in Aramaic
18-19 Saul was baptised immediately. His teaching / catechesis came later (in the desert) and it was a full three years before he came back to Jerusalem to encounter Peter and James (Galatians 1:11-24). For Saul, the encounter is the most important thing, the revelation, the emotional response which calls him to appear in the synagogue proclaiming Jesus. The strength of his conviction overrides his experience.
- Have we ever felt so convinced that something was so wrong that we had to devote our energies to undermining it or destroying it?
- If that thing is now so far past, are we able to reflect on our actions and see if it was right, or moral or justified?
- We often speak of “Damascus-road” changes, but have you ever experienced any dramatic volte-face or have changes and understandings been more gradual, more organic?
- Was Saul right to get out there straight away, or should he have bided his time, learnt more?
- Does that affect what we do in church? Are we more worried about getting it right than getting it done?
To close: Collect for the Conversion of S. PaulO God, who by the preaching of your apostle Paul have caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world: Grant, we pray, that we, having his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show ourselves thankful to you by following his holy teaching; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
[1 Bruce FF (1988) Commentary on the Book of Acts. NICNT. Eerdmans
[2 Interesting that Singh receives this in Hindustani. Jesus always wants to encounter us where we are, in our culture.