Menu

The Conversion of Paul

The fourth detailed conversion in the book of Acts is that of the man who would become the apostle to the nations — Saul of Tarsus. This is also the most lengthy and detailed record under study as it is recounted in three parts with varying detail (in the eighth, twenty-second and twenty-sixth chapters of Acts).

Paul was a Hebrew of the tribe of Benjamin, highly educated and a freeborn Roman citizen who had studied “at the feet of Gamaliel” the founder of the Pharisees. That he was renowned is not anywhere disputed. That he was zealously affected by his religion (both before and after coming to Christ) also is not disputed. He was best known by the Greek version of his name as Paul.

How he came to be an apostle is useful to study, however the means of his conversion is really the basic interest here.

When he was practicing the religion of the Hebrews and as Christianity had its beginnings he was wholly set against the new religion. The first two verses in the ninth chapter of Acts state, “And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.”

He was therefore committed to the undoing of Christianity. He had been a participant in the stoning of the deacon Stephen and had set about persecuting Christians wherever he went (“…and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.” Acts 8:58 — 9:3).

On the road to Damascus he and his companions were halted by a blinding visitation of the spirit of Christ. The details of this vision are recounted in some varying detail in all three of the chapters where the story is relayed. I believe that Michael Schmidt had it right when he said that had it not been for this direct intercession by Jesus that Paul would never have become a Christian. He would have continued his withering assault. He was unflappable and relentless and would not have desisted in his work against Christ and his church had it not been for the direct intervention of the Lord.

Some people believe that they should have a similar path set for themselves in seeing a vision that gives proof of their status and salvation. They believe that they have had or should expect an appearance by Christ to seal up things. They note Paul’s situation and would make it their own. But, there are two distinct peculiarities that set Paul’s situation in a class all by itself. First, Paul was no believer when this miracle was visited upon him, he wasn’t even leaning that direction. He neither called upon nor asked for Christ to enter his life, nor did he have any intention of joining the Christians on that day or on any other. Nothing like that happened until after this epiphany. Second, Christ made it clear what the intent of his visitation was — that he had identified Paul as a chosen one and had plans for him as his emissary and ambassador to the nations, which history shows us was fully explored in his use in converting both the high and low of the Roman Empire. But in no way was any part of that plan for Jesus to personally “save” Paul. Jesus sent a preacher to the future apostle to accomplish that.

If there ever was an occasion when a person should have been able to jump up and shout out that they were now saved, then a personal appearance by the Christ to this man should have been it. However, Paul did not jump up and did not go on his way rejoicing, but rather had to be helped up and led away by others, as he was then yet blind. He did not eat for three days, but was penitent and praying. So, he certainly was not “saved” when he “saw” Jesus, and that had obviously not been the purpose of the miracle. The miracle was performed to set Paul on the path of meeting up with God’s purpose for him. It was to get his full attention. And though true that without a miracle that he never would have become a Christian. Yet he still had to contact the preacher in order to “…be told what you must do.” Fanciful thinkers would have it otherwise, but the facts speak just fine on their own. And although we too might wish to have it otherwise, it is occasionally useful to remind ourselves that it is not always about “us” and how we might have it. It wasn’t about Paul either, but rather, it was to be about the service he would render and the work he would in time accomplish. Left to his own desires he would have chosen another path, one with different trouble, hazards, and turmoil. Yet no man has ever accomplished more for the cause of Christ.

Upon inspection then, it appears, in spite of the attendant details and the engrossing elements surrounding his conversion, that he was “saved” by doing exactly the same things as had the participants in the three previous conversions we have so far studied in this series. That would be to hear, believe, repent and be baptized.

Note what the scriptures have to say. As he journeyed to Damascus, he was overshadowed by a blinding light and heard the voice of authority and inquiry: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? Saul, not knowing whose voice he was hearing, asked “Who are you Lord?” This statement indicates that he recognized that he was now powerless and not in control and humbled. Although he did not know who had spoken or the conditions being applied, he recognized that the situation evidenced that he was not the one that was working the events. He was to be under the charge of another.

The spirit replied, “I am Jesus whom you persecute.” Paul being a Hebrew, recognized immediately the name of God and the name of Jesus given before him in the reply and coupled with the evidence of the miracle, he made a quick decision. He simply asked, “What would you have me to do Lord?” In so doing he had stated that he was abruptly making a turn on to another road in life to be led by other ideas. He will be the servant rather than the served. The signs and statements were extraordinarily persuasive and compelling.

His instructions were to proceed to Damascus, where as I have already noted the command was that “you will be told what you must do.”

Why didn’t Jesus tell Paul to get up right then and get on with it, as he was now confirmed and appointed as his disciple and he was now also an apostle and leader of the bearers of the gospel? Instead he told him to continue to his destination, and without any offer of sympathetic information, simply states that at some point, “you will be told what you must do.” There was no detail, and no agreement to any conditions was sought of Paul. “You will be told what you MUST DO.”

All of this might have to be put differently to us today, in some more genteel manner, so as to not shock but only to thoughtfully and softly penetrate through our delicate sensibilities. We know nothing of submission and don’t give ourselves over to any notion of authority easily. “Saul, you can’t fight me, follow my instructions and go down the road and you will be told what to do.” That would probably make us angry or we might want some immediate appeal of the conditions; we might demand more details. We might want negotiations. We might have to have it repeated. But Paul, though yet blind, fully realized the prognosis. He wasn’t going to get very far without help and so he wasn’t going anywhere without granted authority and assistance. The power displayed towards him was stronger than even his own will.

Some of us would no doubt want to stop on the road querying the fellow travelers as to how they had heard or seen things, to see whether consensus could be reached on the details. We might want to start up a team or to brainstorm possibilities or to ponder whether or not our interpretation fit the facts as we thought that we had witnessed them. We might struggle hard with the obvious. We might be dead. Paul got it. It only took one knock on the head to get his attention. How many hits will it take to get you the reader? Although Paul was single minded and intense in his service, he was altogether wrong this time, and Jesus had a purpose and mission for his unique talents and the miracle was the sounding bell for sea change.

Yet this did not save him. “You will be told what you must do.”

The Gospel had already been given over to men and women to further — given over to “earthen vessels.” And Christ had some good time earlier already ascended back to the throne of heaven. Therefore, Jesus does not personally come here to save anybody. Even if you were to be an apostle, the savior instructed, “You will be told what you must do.” Even Paul had to follow the instructions as given.

So then what did he do to be saved? Paul continued on his way and when Paul arrived in Damascus he was taken to a house where he clearly showed evidence that he heard and understood what was told him by Christ. That he understood and believed Jesus was Lord and God, and that he displayed hard evidence of not only a change of mind but of direction and purpose – repentance. Then it states that Ananias (a prophet) was sent to him to baptize him, and that he did just that (v. 18). Now whether or not the Holy Spirit ascended upon Paul then or at some other time and in some other fashion, is not important to us for our salvation. We are not apostles, and we cannot stake a claim to being recipients in any fashion “as Paul was” for nothing at all is ever said about how Paul received his “greater portion” of the indwelling of the Comforter. No one can say how he got his gifts, and they surely then can’t say they should have received it the same way. What is clear is that he was not baptized into it.

I can say that I was saved just as Paul was. No, it wasn’t on the road to Damascus and no, it wasn’t through my own personal vision of Christ. But it was through following the instructions and hearing, believing, repenting and being baptized.

Then someone will inevitably think or say that Paul’s baptism was a baptism of the Holy Spirit. But, that couldn’t have been the case as Ananias’ question to Paul (“And now what are you waiting for, but get up and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord — Acts 22:16) indicates that something, an action, had to be completed by Paul to accomplish that act. And the Holy Spirit of God did not require anything of him to take up its purpose for him. Such notions have no basis in scripture.

We have already proven in previous essays appealing to the scriptures that only the apostles and the members who were baptized of the household of the Centurion Cornelius were the only recipients of recorded immersions of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s indwelling was certainly granted by some means, but that means is never mentioned, whether it came straight from the throne of heaven or by some other unknown mechanism. Also, we have already proven with scripture that only the apostles could transfer the Holy Spirit to others, and no apostle is mentioned as ever having done so in Paul’s case. But Paul could also transfer the gifts just as the other apostles. So, by what mechanism he was endowed we cannot say, but only that the scriptures teach that Paul had the same measure of the Spirit of God as did the other apostles. We can also say that the baptism he underwent was not to give him the Spirit of God — it was to “wash away (his) sins” — the same function it is applied to with everyone.

The count and the amount is now four cases of hear, believe, repent and be baptized, and no cases of any other means mentioned as being used to become a Christian, to have sins remitted or “to be saved.” We have five detailed conversions yet to cover. The next is found in Acts chapters 10 and 11 — the conversion of the Centurion Cornelius and his household