Jack, a friend of mine who has spoken in many universities, was surprised one day when he arrived at a campus. He discovered that the students had arranged for him to have a public discussion that night with the "university atheist". His opponent was an eloquent philosophy professor who was extremely antagonistic to Christianity. Jack was to speak first. He discussed various proofs for the resurrection of Jesus, the conversion of the apostle Paul, and then gave his personal testimony about how Christ had changed his life when he was a university student.
When it came time for the professor to speak, he was very nervous. He couldn't refute the evidence for the resurrection, or Jack's personal testimony, so he turned to the subject of the Apostle Paul's radical conversion to Christianity. He used the line of argument that "people can often be so psychologically involved in what they're combating that they end up embracing it". At this point my friend smiled gently, and responded, "You'd better be careful, sir, or you're liable to become a Christian".
One of the most influential testimonies to Christianity was when Saul of Tarsus, perhaps Christianity's most rabid antagonist, became the Apostle Paul. Saul was a Hebrew zealot, a religious leader. Being born in Tarsus gave him the opportunity to be exposed to the most advanced learning of his day. Tarsus was a university city known for its Stoic philosophers and culture. Strabo, the Greek geographer, praised Tarsus for being so interested in education and philosophy.
Paul, like his father, possessed Roman citizenship, a high privilege. He seemed to be well versed in Hellenistic culture and thought. He had great command of the Greek language and displayed dialectic skill. He quoted from less familiar poets and philosophers:
Acts 17:28 - "For in him we live and move and exist [Epimenides], as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we also are His offspring' [Aratus, Cleanthes]";
1 Corinthians 15:33 - "Do not be deceived: 'Bad company corrupts good morals' [Menander]";
Titus 1:12 - "One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, 'Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons' [Epimenides]."
Paul's education was Jewish and took place under the strict doctrines of the Pharisees. At about age fourteen, he was sent to study under Gamaliel, one of the great rabbis of the time, the grandson of Hillel. Paul asserted that he was not only a Pharisee but the son of Pharisees (Acts 23:6). He could boast: "I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions" (Galatians 1:14).
If one is to understand Paul's conversion, it is necessary to see why he was so vehemently anti-Christian: the reason was his devotion to the Jewish law, which triggered his adamant discontent with Christ and the early church.
Paul's "offence with the Christian message was not," as Jacques Dupont writes, "with the affirmation of Jesus' messiahship [but]….with the attributing to Jesus of a saving role which robbed the law of all its value in the purpose of salvation….[Paul was] violently hostile to the Christian faith because of the importance which he attached to the law as a way of salvation."
The Encyclopaedia Britannica states that the new sect of Judaism calling themselves Christians struck at the essence of Paul's Jewish training and rabbinic studies. To exterminate this sect became his passion (Galatians 1:13). So Paul began his pursuit to death of "the sect of the Nazarenes" (Acts 26:9-11). He literally "laid waste the church" (Acts 8:3). He set out for Damascus with documents authorizing him to seize the followers of Jesus and bring them back to face trial.
Then something happened to Paul. "Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and woman, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. And it came about that as he journeyed, he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?' And he said, 'Who art Thou, Lord?' And He said, 'I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but rise, and enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.' And the men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but seeing no one. And Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
"Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, 'Ananias.' And he said, 'Behold, here am I, Lord.' And the Lord said to him 'Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight' " (Acts 9:1-12).
At this point one can see why Christians feared Paul. Ananias answered: " 'Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Thy saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon Thy name.' But the Lord said to him, 'Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name's sake.' And Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, 'Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.' And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he arose and was baptized; and he took food and was strengthened" (Acts 9:13-19a). Paul said, "Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" (1 Corinthians 9:1). He compared Christ's appearance to him with Christ's postresurrection appearances among the apostles. "And last of all…He appeared to me also" (1 Corinthians 15:8).
Not only did Paul see Jesus, but he saw him in an irresistible way. He didn't proclaim the gospel out of choice but from necessity. "For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion" (1 Corinthians 9:16).
Notice that Paul's encounter with Jesus and subsequent conversion were sudden and unexpected. "A very bright light suddenly flashed from heaven all around me" (Acts 22:6). Paul had no idea who this heavenly person could be. The announcement that it was Jesus of Nazareth left him trembling and astonished
We might not know all the details, chronology, or psychology of what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus but we do know this: it radically affected every area of his life.
First, Paul's character was drastically transformed. The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes him before his conversion as an intolerant, bitter, persecuting, religious bigot - proud and temperamental. After his conversion he is pictured as patient, kind, enduring, and self-sacrificing. Kenneth Scott Latourette says: "What integrated Paul's life, however, and lifted this almost neurotic temperament out of obscurity into enduring influence was a profound and revolutionary religious experience."
Second, Paul's relationship with the followers of Jesus was transformed. "Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus" (Acts 9:19). And when Paul went to the apostles, he received the "right hand of fellowship."
Third, Paul's message was transformed. Though he still loved his Jewish heritage, he had changed from a bitter antagonist to a determined protagonist of the Christian faith. "Immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, 'He is the Son of God' " (Acts 9:20). Paul's intellectual convictions had changed. His experience compelled him to acknowledge that Jesus was the Messiah, in direct conflict with the Pharisees' messianic ideas. His new conception of Christ meant a total revolution in his thought. Jacques Dupont acutely observes that after Paul "had passionately denied that a crucified man could be the Messiah, he came to grant that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and, as a consequence, rethought all his messianic ideas."
Also he could now understand that Christ's death on the cross, which appeared to be a curse of God and a deplorable ending of someone's life, was actually God through Christ reconciling the world to himself. Paul came to understand that through the crucifixion Christ became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13) and was "made…to be sin on our behalf" (2 Corinthians 5:21). Instead of a defeat, the death of Christ was a great victory, being capped by the resurrection. The cross was no longer a "stumbling block" but the essence of God's messianic redemption. Paul's missionary preaching can be summarized as "explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead… 'This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,' " he said (Acts 17:3).
Fourth, Paul's mission was transformed. He was changed from a Gentile-hater to a missionary to Gentiles. He was changed from a Jewish zealot to an evangelist to Gentiles. As a Jew and Pharisee, Paul looked down upon the despised Gentile as someone inferior to God's chosen people. The Damascus experience changed him into a dedicated apostle, with his life's mission aimed toward helping the Gentile. Paul saw in the Christ who appeared to him the Savior for all people. Paul went from being an orthodox Pharisee whose mission was to preserve strict Judaism to being a propagator of that new radical sect called Christianity which he had so violently opposed. There was such a change in him that "all those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying 'Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this [Jesus'] name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?' " (Acts 9:21).
Historian Philip Schaff states: "The conversion of Paul marks not only a turning-point in his personal history, but also an important epoch in the history of the apostolic church, and consequently in the history of mankind. It was the most fruitful event since the miracle of Pentecost, and secured the universal victory of Christianity."
During lunch at the University of Houston, I sat down next to a student. As we discussed Christianity he made the statement that there wasn't any historical evidence for Christianity or Christ. He was a history major and I noticed that one of his books was a Roman history textbook. He acknowledged that there was a chapter dealing with the Apostle Paul and Christianity. After reading the chapter, the student found it interesting that the section on Paul started by describing the life of Saul of Tarsus and ended with a description of the life of the Apostle Paul. In the next to the last paragraph the book observed that what happened in between was not clear. After I turned to the book of Acts and explained Christ's postresurrection appearance to Paul, this student saw that it was the most logical explanation of Paul's conversion. Later he also trusted Christ as his Savior.
Elias Andrews comments: "Many have found in the radical transformation of this 'Pharisee of the Pharisees' the most convincing evidence of the truth and the power of the religion to which he was converted, as well the ultimate worth and place of the Person of Christ." Archibald MacBride, professor at the University of Aberdeen, writes of Paul: "Beside his achievements…the achievements of Alexander and Napolean pale into insignificance." Clement says that Paul "bore chains seven times; preached the gospel in the East and West; came to the limit of the West; and died a martyr under the rulers."
Paul stated again and again that the living, resurrected Jesus had transformed his life. He was so convinced of Christ's resurrection from the dead that he, too, died a martyr's death for his beliefs.
Two professors at Oxford, Gilbert West and Lord Lyttleton, were determined to destroy the basis of the Christian faith. West was going to demonstrate the fallacy of the resurrection and Lyttleton was going to prove that Saul of Tarsus had never converted to Christianity. Both men came to the opposite conclusion and became ardent followers of Jesus. Lord Lyttleton writes: "The conversion and apostleship of Saint Paul alone, duly considered, was of itself a demonstration sufficient to prove Christianity to be a Divine Revelation." He concludes that if Paul's twenty five years of suffering and service for Christ were a reality, then his conversion was true, for everything he did began with that sudden change. And if his conversion was true, Jesus Christ rose from the dead, for everything Paul was and did he attributed to the sight of the risen Christ.
- Josh McDowell, "More Than A Carpenter" Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (1977) p. 111-116.
Presented by Trinity Consulting