Imagine for a moment that this is the week of Saul’s arrival at Damascus. By this time Saul has gained a reputation as the ringleader of the movement to make Christianity extinct. A devout Hellenistic Jew, of the tribe of Benjamin, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, Saul was a member of the Pharisees. Saul did not agree with his teacher, Gamaliel, on how the Christians should be dealt with, however. Rather, he sought the arrest, trial, conviction, and punishment (with imprisonment the norm and death the ideal, it would seem) of those in Jerusalem. His career as a persecutor of Christians seems to have begun with Stephen, but it quickly spread to all of the Christians in Jerusalem. Saul was not content to punish some and to drive the rest from the “holy city.” He did not want to merely contain Christianity or to drive it from Jerusalem; he wanted to rid the earth of Christianity and its followers. Thus, his opposition to Christ and His church took on a “missionary” spirit. Saul went to other cities where he sought to arrest Christians and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. Damascus, a city some 150 miles to the northeast of Jerusalem, was one such city. Word was out that Saul would soon be arriving.
Suppose you were a Christian who had just arrived in Damascus, and you had been able to learn the whereabouts of a group of believers. Let us suppose further that the church had gathered on this particular evening for a time of prayer, prompted by the news that Saul was soon to arrive, with all the necessary legal machinery to arrest and extradite the saints who were in the city.
What would the saints have prayed at this special prayer meeting? Probably the saints who gathered would have prayed for the protection of the church in Damascus and for the safety of individual saints, especially the leaders and the most visible Christians. Some might have prayed that Saul be waylaid, or “terminated,” in some divine act or providential accident (“act of God”). No one, it would seem, was even thinking of what God was about to do.
There would likely be another group of people meeting on the evening before Saul arrived in Damascus—those who did not believe in Jesus as their Messiah, and who eagerly sought the eradication of the church in their city. Were these people as eager as Saul to destroy the church? Did they send for Saul? Or did they somewhat dread his arrival, knowing how zealous he was in his opposition to the church. If he were viewed as a reactionary, a trouble-maker, perhaps there were some unbelievers who thought Saul was too much trouble. Nevertheless, there must have been those who intended to use Saul’s coming to oppose the church. They may have been attempting to compile a list of known (and even suspected) Christians, along with addresses, to facilitate Saul’s task.
What a shock Saul’s conversion must have been to both groups! To the church, Saul turned out to be a friend, a fellow-believer, in fact, a flaming evangelist, who proclaimed Christ more clearly and powerfully than anyone had previously done in Damascus. The church did not shrink or suffer for Saul’s arrival, but it grew because of it. And the second group, who were waiting for Saul to come and help them deal with the followers of “the Way,” were about to discover that Saul had joined them, perhaps bringing other members of the opposition along with him. Did they think their task would be a simple one? They found that their cause was literally shut down by Saul’s arrival, and the wind was taken out of their sails by his conversion. What can you say about Christianity when its most outspoken and zealous opponent suddenly claims to have seen the risen Christ, and to have trusted in Him as the Messiah?
The importance of Saul’s conversion can hardly be overestimated. Three times in the Book of Acts it is reported. This three-fold repetition is a clear indication of the importance of this event, especially in the themes Luke is seeking to develop in the Book of Acts.
It is not just in the Book of Acts that the importance of Saul’s conversion is evident. On various occasions in his epistles, Paul made either direct or indirect references to his former life of opposition and his radical conversion. Paul’s theology, his lifestyle, his ministry, and his methodology, all are rooted in his conversion. This event is one of the historical landmarks of the church.
The story of St. Paul then is not so much a story about a great man, as it is a story about the way that God chooses to work in the world and accomplish his purposes.
Before Paul appeared, the disciples were spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Jews. They saw Christianity as a “denomination” of Judaism. If you were not a Jew, and wanted to become a Christian, you first had to become a Jew. It seems that God didn’t object to this route for some people. He didn’t seek to destroy this method of learning about Christ. But God knew that it wasn’t enough. So he planned a different way for people. He turned Paul’s life around, disrupting what was familiar to him. Paul was sent to places where he was not known, in order to do God’s will. Paul became the one to spread Christianity beyond Jewish circles into the rest of civilization … eventually to Rome, the centre of the empire.
Text adapted from Sermon Central, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church
Image from Gandynet Gallery (no longer available)