The Conversion of Saul
by Chip Scivicque


Conversion back to top

Saul was the most distinguished and promising disciple of Gamaliel, perhaps the leading scholar in all Israel during the first century A.D. And Gamaliel had been the most distinguished disciple of Hillel, the high water mark of Jewish thought for centuries after his death (F.F. Bruce, New Testament History, 236). But in a flash of blinding light, Saul became a disciple of Jesus Christ (Acts 9:1-22). For Saul to suddenly shift his loyalties from Gamaliel and the Torah is no less baffling than if a star student of Karl Marx had suddenly rejected Karl Marx's Hegelian ideas for social change and immediately engaged in powerful debate for democratic government and a capitalistic economy.

From the moment Saul was blinded on the Damascus road, he lived in total obedience to the very One whom he had opposed. "As a token of his meek submission, [Paul] allowed them to lead him by the hand into the city (of Damascus), which he had expected to enter as an inquisitor, and bent low to receive instruction from one of those simple hearted believers, whom he had expected to drag captive to Jerusalem" (F.B. Meyer, Paul, 45). Paul then "meekly asked what... the new and rightful Master of his life would have him do" (Ibid) and he lived in subjection to Christ for the rest of his life.

Paul set out for Damascus a most aggressive persecutor of the disciples of Jesus, but suddenly became a champion of their cause. "The young man Saul was exceedingly mad against the pilgrims of the Way. He made havoc of them, and the word [used in Scripture to describe him] is that which would be used of wild boars uprooting tender vines. He devastated them with the fury of an invading army. Not content with attacks on their public meetings, he paid visits to their homes, dragging forth the patient, holy women as well as the uncomplaining men, scourging them, thrusting them in prison, putting them to death, and compelling them to blaspheme the holy name by which they were called...He was so mad against them, that when the church at Jerusalem lay desolate, and its garden was torn and trampled into a desert, he pursued the same methods in distant cities, and on the present memorable occasion had received letters to bring those of the Way that were there in bonds unto Jerusalem to be punished" (F.B. Meyer, Paul, 41). But a glimpse of the bright glory of Christ transformed the persecutor of Jesus into His boldest proclaimer.

From the day Saul was born, the Law as taught in the Jewish Torah was central to his thought and life. But his experience on the Damascus road brought Jesus into focus as the center of his very existence (F.F. Bruce, New Testament History, 240). The most far reaching result was a complete rebuilding of Saul's theology. When Saul listened to the sermon of Stephen (Acts 7), he violently objected to every major point of Stephen's message (F.B. Meyer, Paul, 34-35) and then applauded his execution (Acts 8:1-3). But by the end of a short conversation with Christ Himself at a very unexpected fork in the Damascus road, Saul immediately changed his mind about the Person of Christ, the character of the Messiah and His kingdom, and the way to justification before God (Ronald Y.K. Fung, "Revelation and Tradition: The Origins of Paul's Gospel," Evangelical Quarterly, Volume 57, 23-41). What really happened to Saul on the road to Damascus? Why the radical change in his thought and life?

There are those (i.e. Bultmann) who have tried to explain the conversion of Saul in terms of psychological experience a gradual change of heart which dramatically culminated on the road to Damascus; an hallucination; emotional ecstasy; or simply a profound religious experience. By his own testimony (Acts 22:1-21), and evidenced by the radical change in his life, Paul saw Christ "risen, living, speaking, and his face shining with light above the brightness of the sun" (F.B. Meyer, Paul, 12). He was literally blinded by the experience and could not see for three days until his sight was restored. Hallucinations, visions, religious experiences, and dramatic changes of heart do not usually result in the loss of one's eyesight.

Paul not only saw the risen Christ, but there was verbal exchange between him and Jesus (F.F. Bruce, Paul Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 74-75), and those who accompanied Paul definitely heard the voice even though they could not understand what was being said (Acts 22:9) (J. Greshem Machen, The Origin of Paul's Religion, 57-62). Saul's encounter with Christ was an objective experience, verified by physical phenomena experienced by Saul and an entire group of people (Acts 22:6-10; 26:12-18).

There have also been those who have suggested that Saul's conversion was precipitated by early Greek influence in his life as he grew up in the city of Tarsus. Actually, the jury is still out as to how old Saul was when he was sent to Jerusalem to study. If he did spend most of his youth in Tarsus, his strict Jewish upbringing would have insulated him from many of the things which influenced most of the young boys his age (F.F. Bruce, New Testament History, 237). But Saul's own testimony seems to indicate that he was brought to Jerusalem early in his life (Ibid.), and there he enthusiastically drank in the visions and values of the strictest sect of Judaism (the Pharisees), becoming himself a Pharisee par excellence.

Both the historical evidence and the resulting radical change in the life of Saul (which, in turn, has made an impact on the entire Western world) make a clear statement that the conversion of Saul was not a psychological experience (Roy A. Harrison, "Acts 22:6-21", 181-185), not earlier influence of Greek thought whose profundity suddenly dawned upon him, and not a gradual change of heart which reached a sudden climax. Rather, as the Apostle Paul himself said, he was "apprehended", or "laid hold of", by Christ (Phil. 3:12) (Bruce, Paul Apostle of The Heart Set Free, 74). He was a man who was running hard in a direction he was convinced was right but Christ "laid hold of" him, turned him completely around, and set him off in the opposite direction. Saul's conversion "was due to the personal agency of the risen Lord, who appeared as literally as during any of the appearances of the Forty Days. This was no mere vision, like that which John had when he was in the Spirit, no mere transient impression on the sensitive plate of the imagination, no evanescent, dream like fancy; but a manifestation of the risen Lord, like that which won the faith of Thomas" (F.B. Meyer, Paul, 37).


Bibliography back to top

Books

  • Bruce, F.F. New Testament History. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1972.
  • Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free . Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1977.
  • Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. Theology of the New Testament . Trans. by Kendrick Grobel. New York: Scribner and Sons, 1951.
  • Debelius, M. Paul . London, 1953.
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  • Haenchen, E. The Acts of the Apostles . Oxford, 1971.
  • Kim, Seyoon. The Origin of Paul's Gospel . Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1982.
  • Knox, John. Chapters in a Life of Paul . New York, 1950.
  • Knox, W.L. St. Paul and the Church of Jerusalem . Cambridge, 1925.
  • St. Paul and the Gentiles . Cambridge, 1939.
  • Lyttelton, G. Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of St. Paul . London, 1747.
  • Machen, John Gresham. The Origin of Paul's Religion . Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1925.
  • Meyer, F.B. Paul: Servant of Jesus Christ . Pennsylvania: Christian Literature Crusade, 1953.
  • Paul: More Than Conqueror . Westchester, Illinois: Good News Pub. Co., 1959.
  • Nock, A.D. St. Paul . London, 1938.
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  • Pollock, John Charles. The Apostle: A Life of Paul . New York: Doubleday, 1969.
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Journal Articles

  • Bruce, F.F. "Paul and the Law." Bulletin John Rylands Library, Vol. 57 (1975), 259 279.
  • Fung, Ronald Y.K. "Revelation and Tradition: The Origins of Paul's Gospel." Evangelical Quarterly, Vol. 57 (1985), 23 41.
  • Harrisville, Roy A. "Acts 22:6 21." Interpretation, Vol. 42 (1988), 181 185.
  • Hultgren, A.J. "Paul's Pre Christian Persecutions of the Church: Their Purpose, Locale and Nature." Journal of Biblical Studies, Vol. 95 (1976), 97 111.
  • Jeremias, Joachim. "The Key to the Theology of the Apostle Paul." Covenant Quarterly, Vol. 31 (1973), 30 44.
  • Marshall, I. Howard. "Luke's View of Paul." Southwestern Journal of Theology, Vol. 33 (1990), 41 51.
  • Meyer, Marvin W. "The Light and Voice on the Damascus Road." Forum, Vol. 2 (1986), 27 35.
  • Obijole, Olubayo. "The Influence of the Conversion of St. Paul on his Theology of the Cross." East Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology, Vol. 6 (1987), 27 36.