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The Conversion of Saul – Acts 9: 1-19 (With additional focus on Acts 1-9)

September 29, 2012

This is a rough draft of a paper that I just wrote for a class I’m taking. The style is rather informal, as it’s intended to be for a Bible Study, there’s a lot more that I needs to be said and expanded upon (which I may do later) and I have a feeling some of the punctuation and spelling (and other technical stuff) got a little discombobulated on the transfer from there to here, but I’m too lazy to care about that right now… I need to focus on my coffee.

When I was young and growing up in the church, the big, miraculous conversion story was very popular. I remember sitting in the pews of “big church” listening to special guests stand on stage and present their personal stories of deliverance from drugs, sex, gang violence and even murder. They would talk about how they had hit rock bottom, or even almost died, when Jesus did something unbelievable that saved them. I once remember a lady talk about how she had gone through a horrible period in her life. Her husband, father, and son all died in separate incidents within the span of a few months. She had grown up in the church, but had pretty much abandoned it in her adult life. After the first death occurred, she turned to the church for comfort, but she quickly rejected it after the other two deaths. She recounted how she had taken a walk around a lake one morning to meditate on everything that had happened and near the end of her walk had decided that she would take her life as soon as she got home. As she was about to leave the park, she noticed how beautiful the sun looked reflecting on the water and took a picture with her polaroid camera. As she was walking home she looked at the picture and saw what was clearly an angel coming out of the water in the sunlight, wings spread and carrying a sword. She immediately walked into her house, got on her knees by her bed, and asked Jesus into her life. She believed that Jesus had sent that angel to her to give her hope and to show her that Jesus was on her side and was fighting for her. She then passed around the polaroid to those of us in the audience.

I still remember the shiver down my back as I stared at that picture. I also remember thinking how lame my conversion story was. In fact, that was always the case with all of these remarkable testimonies. I felt a little inferior, a little unworthy. Iʼm pretty sure I wasnʼt the only one either. After all, the majority of us Christians do not have some fantastic, miraculous conversion story. Of course, the older I got, the more skeptical I became. I had seen a number of these converts with the amazing testimonies turn out to be frauds, and I began to question the motives behind these stories. Despite the shiver down my spine, thereʼs still a part of me that doubts the polaroid was real. Still, because I believed the Bible was true, I did not become completely cynical, because I knew that the apostle Paul had experienced one of these amazing conversions. As rare as they may be, there was always the possibility….

The conversion of Paul is one of the better known stories of the Bible. Even those who rarely open their Bible are at least somewhat familiar with the story. If asked to sum it up, most people would say something like this: “Saul was a bad guy who killed Christians, he saw a bright light on the road to Damascus, heard Jesus speak to him and he was saved, becoming a great missionary.” I think that because most people think of the story in these terms, the whole “bright light/voice from heaven” scenario becomes associated with Paulʼs moment of conversion. And even though we most likely have not experienced anything remotely similar to this incident in our own lives (and probably donʼt know anyone who has), we are still aware of people who claim to have had similar experiences, and we automatically assign some sort of special blessing to their lives or ministries. After all, if Jesus saw fit to convert someone in this manner, then there must be something special about them – just look at what Paul did after his encounter!

Now, I donʼt want to downplay anyoneʼs conversion experience – even the oneʼs that are pretty extraordinary. I think it behooves us, as Christians, to accept the testimony of a fellow believer on itʼs face, rather than question their motives or experience. Obviously this is hard to do – as Iʼve already stated – but until an experience is found to be contrary to the teachings of scripture, Iʼm not sure it is profitable to question a brotherʼs honesty. That said, we do need to realize that even if these remarkable conversions do occur from time to time, they do not have a lot in common with Paulʼs conversion. This is because Paulʼs conversion was a very specific incident that recapitulated certain events of old covenant history, as well as inaugurated certain events in the new covenant.

First, we should remember what Paulʼs context was. We are first introduced to Paul at the death of Stephen as he is witnessing his stoning at the hands of fellow zealots. He was a vicious persecutor of the early church, and it was his threats that caused the church to scatter to various regions. At this point, I should mention that I believe Paulʼs conversion occurred in A.D. 30. Popular scholarship normally dates his conversion around A.D. 32 – 33, and that is certainly possible, but I believe the scriptures tell us differently if studied closely. Hereʼs a quick summary of the reasons why I hold to an A.D. 30 conversion:

1. In Galations 1 and 2, Paul begins his letter by detailing the events after his conversion. In Galations 2:1, he mentions that after fourteen years, he went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas because of a revelation.

2. In Acts 11, we read that Paul and Barnabas are sent to Jerusalem for famine relief, based on a revelation of Agabus.

3. Later on in Acts 12, we read that during this visit, Herod dies a gruesome death because he did not give glory to God. We know, historically, that Herod died in A.D. 44.

4. Given the dating by Paul in Galations 2, Paul appears to have been converted in A.D. 30.

This may seem insignificant, but I believe this particular dating sheds some interesting light on the situation. For starters, if this dating is correct, then all the events of Acts 1-9 take place the same year as Jesusʼ death and resurrection. For our purposes, what this means is that while weʼre only introduced to Paul at the stoning of Stephen, it is highly likely that Paul was around and aware of all of these events, perhaps even including Jesusʼ death and resurrection. If this is true, as I believe the Bible makes clear, then it gives us some great insight into what was most likely running through Paulʼs head at the moment of his conversion.

As we well know, Paul was a pharisee of pharisees. He tells us later in Acts 22 that he was well educated. This means that Paul knew the Old Testament scriptures backwards and forwards. It wasnʼt just a story – it was his story, his history. He most likely had the book of Joshua memorized and knew all the details of Israelʼs conquest of Canaan. When Paul stood by and watched the stoning of Stephen, he clearly heard Stephen say, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” This infuriated Paul, because this was blasphemy. Stephen had just accused them of killing their Messiah, and now he was mocking them by announcing that He was truly the King! No wonder Paul started pursuing and killing Christians all over the land. But now, as he lay on the ground somewhere between Jerusalem and Damascus, blinded by a bright light, he heard what Stephen saw – the voice of the King saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Not only did he realize in that moment that Stephen had been right, but if he had indeed been a witness to all the events that had happened in the last 6 months or so, imagine how they played out in his mind.

1.Remember that crazy prophet, John the Baptist? He was baptizing people in the Jordan river, and when he baptized that Jesus guy, they say that God exalted Him before Israel – He must have been trying to be just like our own Joshua (He even took the same name!), who was exalted by God before all Israel after they passed through the waters of the Jordan river on their way to the conquest of Canaan.

2.Remember how we caught Jesus? His own disciple, Judas – one of the “twelve” – betrayed him… well, I heard they had a special ceremony in an upper room to find his replacement… whatʼs the big deal about the number twelve anyways? – oh, wait, didnʼt Joshua set up twelve memorial stones once they crossed the Jordan?

3.I heard that something strange happened in Jerusalem not long ago… something about fire coming down from heaven onto the heads of Christians… they claim it was the fire of Yahweh – You know, just like the fire of Yahweh that they used to burn up and consecrate the city of Jericho after they defeated it and began the conquest… hmmm. 

4.And didnʼt this new faction called The Way have some issue a while back with a husband and wife lying about money and keeping it to themselves? I heard they died right there on the spot – sort of like Achan… he was killed too when he lied and kept the treasure to himse… um, this is getting eerie….

5.Iʼm noticing a pattern here.. letʼs see, what happened next? Well, the Gibeonites made a covenant with Israel, and Joshua gave them important jobs in the service of the Lord – that kind of corresponds to those Hellenists whoʼve become Christians… I heard they appointed some of them to do important jobs in the service of their Lord.

6.And remember how the king of Jerusalem gathered the other kings of the land together to kill the Gibeonites, but God protected them and caused the sun to stand still – well, our leaders in Jerusalem were angry with Stephen and wanted to kill him too… in fact, just as they were about to, didnʼt he say something about the Son standing in the heavens? This is getting too hard to ignore…

7.And then God sent stones down from heaven to kill the Canaanite kings because of their sin – which makes sense because, as the “righteous” hand of God, we stoned that blasphemer Stephen and… oh no.

Of course, hereʼs the rub: this time, the one who was stoned did not deserve it. God allowed it to happen, though, which means that not only is there a new conquest taking place, but God is going about it in an entirely different way. Death is still involved, but now the church is giving her life (just like Jesus) to ensure victory. The death of Stephen was really bad news for the Jews. Yes, they had killed the Messiah, just as Stephen had accused them of, but Jesus had asked the Father to forgive them… after all, they didnʼt really know what they were doing. But now… oh, but now… they had begun killing the Bride. Jesus never asks the Father to forgive them for that. Theyʼve now gone too far, and will continue to, as they slaughter more of the church… Paul even has had a hand in this. God is gracious, and Jerusalem will be given forty years (talk about a recapitulation!) to repent and follow the true King, but by A.D. 70, the Avenger of Blood will have made Himself known to all the world!

This may seem like a lot to expect from Paul, as we are not really told specifically what he was thinking at the moment of his conversion, but there is certainly some precedent already established in Acts. The very first sermon by Peter is full of Old Testament scriptures being interpreted in light of Jesusʼ death and resurrection. Peter does this again in Solomonʼs Portico. So does Stephen. We also see Philip presenting the gospel through the Old Testament story. Later on, of course, we even see Paul doing the same thing. The fact is that every story in the New Testament is in some way a recapitulation of a previous story in the Old Testament… sometimes multiple stories. For instance, think about the testimony Paul heard from Stephenʼs lips just before his death. While on one hand Stephen is simply laying out the broad history of Israel in chronological order, many of his points of emphasis are not necessarily points that would be stated if it were only that. Stephen is showing the Jews how Jesus fulfilled all these Old Testament events, and frankly, there are way too many to mention here. For a  quick example, though, just look at how he emphasizes Mosesʻ confrontation and striking down of the oppressive Egyptian. It takes up a rather large portion of his speech, which seems odd if this is simply a re-telling of Israelʼs history. I think it is also highly likely that Stephenʼs speech, as well as his martyrdom, also passed through Paulʼs mind at his conversion.

Finally, I want to suggest one more Old Testament event that possibly contributed to Paulʼs conversion. Names have meaning in the Bible. Not just in the sense of definition (for instance, Jesus means “salvation”), which is often important, but also in the sense that names are used to identify a person with a particular event or person in history. So, to use the same example, Jesus is the same name as Joshua. This is not a coincidence. Jesus is a new Joshua. Just as Joshua led his people in a conquest of the Promised Land, so the greater Joshua does the same. I think this was not lost on Paul as he recounted the conquest in his mind. And speaking of Paul, as you are well aware, his Jewish name was Saul. I also do not believe this is a mere coincidence. The only other Saul in the Bible is, obviously, the first king of Israel. When Paul is recounting his conversion experience to the Romans in Acts 26, he mentions that when he heard the voice from heaven say “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” he heard it in the Hebrew language. In 1 Samuel 26:18, David says essentially the exact same phrase to king Saul. This is usually lost on us because it is translated “pursue” in the Old Testament, and “persecute” in the New Testament, but they both mean the same thing. I think when Paul heard this phrase from Jesus on the road to Damascus, he would have immediately recognized this phrase from David. The Jews were well aware that the Messiah would be a descendant of David, and both Sauls were from the tribe of Benjamin. So, in terms of recapitulation, this was perhaps the most powerful of all for Paul at that vital moment: A son of Saul persecuting the Son of David! Saul was no hero of the Jewish faith. Perhaps Paul realizes in that moment the path he is headed down, and converts.

If, indeed, Paul was aided in his conversion by his new understanding of these Old Testament stories, then Iʼm sure it came as no surprise to him that he was now entering into his own recapitulation of the Old Testament. As I mentioned earlier, this is what sets Paulʼs conversion story apart from the conversions that happen after the conclusion of the Bible. Of course, in a sense, all of our conversions are mini stories that retell the story of the whole Bible (Old and New Testaments), but with Paul it is more specific and recorded for our own good and understanding. We are told by Luke that Paul was without sight for three days. Again, thatʼs an interesting detail that doesnʼt seem important to the story unless it has a meaning. Naturally, three days is meant to direct our minds toward the death of Christ. I think it is no coincidence that Paul is blind and without food or water for these three days – Paul is following in Jesusʼ footsteps (as he does throughout the book of Acts) and this is meant to imply a sort of death. He is then resurrected (in a sense) by Ananias. Itʼs also possible to think of Ananias as a new Samuel. After all, Samuel was the one who anointed Saul with oil, and then later David, after Saul had rejected the Lord. This time, the old Saul who had rejected Jesus was now dead, and now the new Saul was like David, a man after Godʼs own heart, and he was anointed (baptized) for service by Ananias. Oh, and just in case the stories werenʼt similar enough, Samuelʼs name means “I have asked for him from the Lord,” and Ananias means “Whom the Lord has graciously given.”

Ultimately, itʼs important to understand what exactly conversion is. Conversion, for Paul, was not experiencing the bright light and voice from heaven. These things aided his conversion, the same way the Holy Spirit, working in the hearts of men, aids in their conversion. But at the end of the day, conversion is simply deciding to reject this world and choosing to follow Christ. So, in a way, all conversions are the same – they all boil down to a choice. Paul would have understood this. After all, as weʼve already discussed, he was well aware of the story of Joshuaʼs conquest. And at the end of that story, after Joshua has led Israel to conquer the land and settle in it; after he has divided the territories and given the allotments for each tribe; and after he has grown old and led the people in covenant renewal at Shechem, he gives this final charge to the people Israel: “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you swell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

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