On his way to Damascus, was Saul of Tarsus hit by a bolt of lighting? That’s the latest theory to explain Paul’s conversion. A certain Dr. John D. Bullock, from Dayton, Ohio, delivered a paper on his theory at the American Academy of Opthamology and Otolaryncology Convention held at Dallas. Dr. Bullock’s main theory suggests that “the light from heaven” was a bolt of lightning that struck the corner of Paul’s eyes causing scar tissue to obstruct his sight and giving him weird vision.
Others have speculated whether Paul was just having hallucinations. In an earlier generation some people believed it was all down to epilepsy. When someone told the famous London preacher Dr. Joseph Parker that Saul’s conversion was caused by epilepsy, Parker exclaimed: “Fly abroad, thou mighty epilepsy!”
Paul’s conversion was certainly one of the most significant events in the early church. Without Paul the good news about Jesus would have spread much slower, and probably not far outside Israel. Without Paul the apostle to the Gentiles the church would quite possibly remained mainly Jewish. And without Paul we would not have all his letters to the Romans and the Corinthians and the Ephesians and the Colossians and the others too which make up more than a quarter of the New Testament.
Paul never got tired of telling the story of how he met the Risen Jesus Christ on the Road to Damascus and it is certainly worth us thinking about that story again this morning. Paul has arrived in Jerusalem and been arrested in the Temple, but he still gets an opportunity to speak to the crowd. And he gives his testimony, his “before and after” story, which gives us an example of one way in which we can share our Christian faith with our friends.
The Bible is full of “before and after” stories – the difference God can make in people’s lives. Think of the people Jesus met: Blind Bartimaeus, the Man born blind, the Woman of Samaria, the Man possessed by a Legion of demons, Lazarus who was dead and Jesus brought back to life, And Nicodemus to whom Jesus said, “You must be born again.” So many examples of the transforming power of God – power to save from the guttermost to the uttermost. The power of Jesus Christ, who transformed the lives of all kinds of people. Turning ordinary fishermen like Peter and Andrew and James and John into the leaders of the Early Church. Wayward women like Mary Magdalene and that Woman caught in sin to whom Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you, Go and sin no more.” Professional thieves (sorry, tax collectors) like Matthew and Zaccheus. Prodigals who were throwing their lives away, returning home and being transformed into children of God! “My Son was lost but now is found – was dead but now is alive again! Sinners transformed into saints. Atheists into missionaries. Before and after stories. But few more remarkable than Paul’s.
He starts his story with what his life was like BEFORE he was a Christian
ACTS 22 3 ‘I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. 4 I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 5 as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
Paul later described himself as “the chief of sinners.” And that wasn’t exaggerating. In his former life Saul of Tarsus was the greatest enemy of the early Christians, persecuting them, having them imprisoned and even executed. But Paul goes on to explain HOW his life changed. Quite simply, he met Jesus.
6 ‘About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?”
8 ‘ “Who are you, Lord?” I asked.
‘ “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 9 My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.
That encounter changed Paul’s life completely. Well, meeting Jesus would do that! Paul was persecuting Christians because he believed they were lying about Jesus rising from the dead. And in that moment Paul discovered how wrong he was. Jesus was alive! And the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the single most important event in human history. The resurrection proves to the whole world that Jesus is really the Son of God. The resurrection shows us that Jesus’s death on the cross is an acceptable sacrifice for sin, so our sins can be forgiven when we put our trust in Jesus. The resurrection demonstrates that Jesus Christ really is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
So meeting the Risen Jesus really turned Paul’s life upside-down. Or we should say, turned Paul’s upside down life the right way up. And the Risen Jesus can turn our messed up lives the right way up, if we will let him. Paul goes on to explain how his life changed AFTER he met Jesus.
12 ‘A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. 13 He stood beside me and said, “Brother Saul, receive your sight!” And at that very moment I was able to see him.
14 ‘Then he said: “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. 15 You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”
That would be Paul’s mission. 15 You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. And so it was. In fact, Paul later says that that commission to spread the gospel came from Jesus himself. In Acts 26, Paul gives his testimony again, this time to King Agrippa. His full name was Herod Agrippa the Second, and like the four generations of Herods before him Agrippa was King of the Jews. Talking to Agrippa, Paul gives more details of what the Risen Jesus said to him on the Damascus Road.
ACTS 26 15 ‘Then I asked, “Who are you, Lord?” ‘“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the Lord replied. 16 “Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
Meeting Jesus on the Damascus Road didn’t only change Paul’s beliefs about Jesus. It gave him his commission to be apostle to the Gentiles. And Paul obeyed that call.
ACTS 26 19 ‘So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. 20 First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds. 21 That is why some Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me.
BEFORE – HOW – AFTER. The transforming power of God. The church’s greatest opponent becomes its greatest missionary and teacher. And that encounter affected Paul’s life in a third important way. We read about that in his letter to the Galatians.
Galatians 1:11 I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
Paul is saying that the gospel he preached came directly from his vision of the Risen Christ on the Damascus Road. This matters because of two objections we hear to the gospel today.
Some people, especially Moslems, say that the gospel Christians have preached through the centuries and still proclaim today is not the gospel which Jesus preached but instead it was invented by Paul. But that objection is empty – because Paul’s gospel CAME FROM GOD. It came from meeting the Risen Jesus.
Then some people say that God didn’t write the Bible. In the New Testament we only read the beliefs and ideas of early church. That is partially true. But Christians believe that the Holy Spirit was inspiring everything the writers of the New Testament recorded of what Jesus said and did. And when it comes to Paul’s gospel as well, that did come DIRECTLY from the mouth of God in that vision of Risen Christ. We don’t know how much of Paul’s other teaching also came from his encounter of the Risen Christ, or from any of his other experiences of visions and revelations, but I guess, quite a lot!
So meeting Jesus on the Damascus road changed Paul’s life. It gave him his commission as apostle to the Gentiles and it gave him the gospel he preached boldly and in the face of fierce opposition for the rest of his life. When we think about the Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road there are two truths we need to hold in tension:
Paul’s Damascus Road Experience was UNIQUE
Paul was the only person to be converted going along Damascus Road round around 35 AD by seeing a vision of Risen Christ! Even on that road on that day it was only Paul who saw Jesus and heard his voice. We call this HISTORICAL PECULIARITY. These things only happened to Paul. Paul was the only person in history who met ONLY the Risen Jesus Christ. All the other apostles, who were the other historically significant eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, had also been with Jesus during his earthly ministry. Paul had not. Only Paul was commissioned by Jesus to be Apostle to the Gentiles. Only Paul received the gospel he preached directly from the Risen Christ.
So Paul’s experience was unique! It would be a mistake to expect that pattern of dramatic conversion to happen to every new Christian! Some Christians grow up in a Christian home. They can’t remember a time when they didn’t believe in Jesus. Others come to faith gradually over a long period of time. Some have a more dramatic “conversion experience”. Let me make very clear. There are no 1st class and 2nd class conversions. A Damascus Road experience is not more real or spiritual that a pilgrimage of faith where a person comes to put their trust in Jesus over a period of time. NOT ALL CHRISTIANS will have a dramatic conversion in the way that Paul did! In a number of ways Paul’s experience was unique. But there is a second truth to hold in tension with the first.
Paul’s Damascus Road Experience was TYPICAL
It does gives us a type, a pattern, a paradigm of the difference which Jesus makes to a person’s life. Paul’s Damascus Road experience is indeed a demonstration of the transforming power of Christ. Sinner to saint. Opponent of Christ turned into missionary! And each one of us will have our stories of the difference Jesus makes in our lives. And we should be as bold and persistent as Paul in seizing every opportunity to talk about Jesus whenever we can! Dwight L. Moody had it right when he said, “The Bible wasn’t given for our information but for our transformation.” How has Jesus changed your life? What’s your “before and after story”? What difference has Jesus made in your life.
Paul said that the gospel he preached was given to him on the Damascus Road by the risen Jesus. You may not have spotted what that good news about Jesus was. It’s completely obvious really. The gospel Paul preached and that God gives us to preach is simply this. Jesus is risen from the dead! Jesus is alive. That was Paul’s message at Pisidian Antioch.
13 30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and for many days he was seen by those who had travelled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.
32 ‘We tell you the good news: what God promised our ancestors 33 he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. ….
34 God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay. ….
38 ‘Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39 Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin.
The resurrection is the heart of the gospel. God raised Jesus from the dead. And this is at the very centre of what Christians believe. We heard Paul warning the Areopagus in Athens that Judgement Day is coming/
31 For (God) has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.’
And throughout the rest of the Book of Acts Paul’s message remains the same. Jesus is alive!
In Jerusalem Paul got to address the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. Acts 23 6 … ‘My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.’
In his defence before King Agrippa in Acts 26 Paul said this.
ACTS 26 8 Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
22 But God has helped me to this very day; so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—23 that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles.’
Jesus is alive! Paul took every opportunity to talk about the time he met Jesus and we should talk to people about the difference Jesus has made to our lives. We should explain that Jesus is risen from the dead. We can talk about the evidence for the empty tomb. We can point to the resurrection appearances and all the people who saw that Jesus was alive. We can talk about the spectacular rise of the early church and the difference the Risen Christ has made in the lives of Christians through history and even today. There is so much evidence that Jesus is alive. The resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith. It proves that the claims Jesus made about Himself were true. The resurrection gives us good reasons to believe that God exists and the Bible is true. The resurrection points to the uniqueness of Christ and the uniqueness of the Christian faith. And the resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us the grounds of a genuine hope of eternal life. Because He lives we will live also! This is the Good News Christians have been given to share. Didn’t he used to be dead? Jesus is alive!