God’s Acts of Providence (36)

Michelangelo, Conversion of Saul 1542-5.jpg

Michelangelo, Conversion of Saul

Becoming the Apostle Paul (3)

The Road to Damascus

This event is the basis for Paul’s claim to full Apostleship.  Though he would admit that this office came to him as to “one untimely born” (1 Corinthians 15:8), he nonetheless claimed direct communication with the risen Christ as the motive force behind his conversion and mission.  Given what he endured and accomplished for Christ’s sake can we anything but accept him at his word, as did the primitive church?

Acts 9:3-9

9 3Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. 4And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

First, note the complete identification of Christ with His Church.  Saul was persecuting Jesus Christ Himself when he attacked the Saints who made up His Church.  If you have ever wondered where the Apostle Paul conceived the metaphor of the Church as Christ’s Body[1], wonder no more.

Second, we must wonder at the fact of this sudden, dramatic intervention of Christ into Saul’s life.  Hundreds, even thousands of millions have been converted through the quiet inner workings of the Spirit.  Why not Saul also?

Here we are on the shifting sand of conjecture.  Mine is that Christ had determined before the foundations of the universe were laid that this man’s overpowering will would meet a defeat so total, and yet so glorious that it would emerge simultaneously humbled by impossible love and empowered by irrepressible joy.

5And he said, “Who are you, Lord?”

The question must have been asked more in fear than in ignorance.  Saul was sharp enough to know the only possible heavenly source of such a question.

Note that Saul addresses the divine Questioner as Lord.  It’s as if the conversion was instantaneous and all that remains to be done is work out the details.

And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; 6but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

My first response to this statement is almost disappointment.   “What, at perhaps the most dramatic, consequential conversion in the New Testament that’s all Jesus has to say?”  Why not some overpowering statement of Scriptural prophesy fulfillment or a detailed set of marching orders?  But all Christ does is identify Himself and say to continue into Damascus.

On second, hopefully deeper, Spirit filled thought, it becomes clear that Christ has said and done everything required in its perfect fullness.  First, to limit God’s work here to Christ’s words is to deny the reality of the Holy Spirit, Whose secret but all so real activity is always at play.  Second, to meet Jesus Christ is nothing like meeting a mortal human.  You are meeting the Way, the Truth and the Life, you are meeting the Word made flesh, and you are meeting the Light of the World.  For as Saul would later come to understand: For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (Colossians 2:9,10).

Jesus Christ touched Saul and commissioned him.  The rest of his life would be spent working out the implications of this one momentary experience.  All of his epistles only scratched the surface. It is a true testament to Christ’s power that these few words are all that were necessary to launch this Apostle’s relentless mission of love. He now continues discovering ever more to glorify and enjoy in blessed eternity.

7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

The men with Saul heard sound, but was it intelligible?  More striking, they didn’t see the light from heaven.  When God chooses to reveal Himself He is selective.  And yet weren’t Saul’s companions also on their way to persecute Christ?

Can we but be assured that the Apostle pondered every detail of this awesome event, integrating them into the theology that would flow from his Spirit-enlightened mind?  And, the fact that he was exclusively touched by Christ’s presence while his companions were, literally, left in the dark must have left its mark.

Saul enters into a kind of proto-death, with the darkness of blindness.  The power of this encounter throws him into a state of fasting.  Although not said, we can easily imagine Saul in a near constant posture of prayer, seeking understanding for this colossal event that has turned his life upside down.

[1] Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church  (Colossians 1:24)

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