Paul’s Testimony to the New Civilization of Love
Transformation of Paul of Tarsus from a persecutor to follower of Jesus Christ is the most manifest testimony to the new civilization of love inaugurated in Christ Jesus by God. His transformation is the most precious and significant gift of the Holy Spirit to the Early Christianity as well as to all generations unto the end of times. From seemingly violent critic to a staunch adherent of Jesus created tremendous spiritual vibrations in the early Christian community and it has continued to be so in every age. Paul’s providential entry into Christian community impelled them to go out of their closed circle of the Jewish people and made them to outstretch their arms wide to embrace the whole humanity. It did automatically pose new challenges to them, as this spectacular and sudden change of a single person was not a private incident, but an event that provoked the reactions of an entire community of men and women. It turned out to be a provocative sign for the members, so that they had to change their own attitudes and understanding of their recently found faith in Jesus, the Messiah. The followers of Christ had to reconsider their stand towards the Gentiles, who to their view had no fear of the Lord and were leading the most heinous form of immoral life. With Paul’s advent to the community, they discovered too that these Gentiles were not excluded from, but are the unalienable part of God’s new economy of salvation in Christ Jesus. This change of mentality in the Christian community was rooted in the radical transformation, which took place in the very life of Paul with his unique encounter with Jesus of Nazareth on the road of Damascus. Paul’s vision and attitude towards God, man and the world changed with this encounter and with his change, he also transformed all those who he encountered in his life thereafter. But Paul had a past which was not so laudable, as he was the persecutor of Jesus whose follower he became. Let us look into his past and the motivations that led Paul to be a persecutor of the Christians.
1. Persecution Drive of Saul, the Pharisee
1.1. Testimonies on Paul’s Persecution
Testimonies of Paul in his letters: It is a historical and undeniable that Paul of Tarsus persecuted the followers of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem and in the neighbouring regions. Paul himself admits it in his letters and is equally attested by the Acts of the Apostles. In his letters he had the courage and humility to admit it. He wrote with candid confession to the communities in Galatia: “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and w as try to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Gal 1:14-15). To his very beloved brethren in Philippi he wrote about his inglorious past as the persecutor: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more; circumcised on the eight day, a member of the people of Israel, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil 3:5-6). While he claims that he had also the vision of the Risen Lord, he admits: “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I have persecuted the Church of God” (1Cor. 5:9). With heart-rending repentance and heart-felt gratitude, Paul wrote in the last days of his life to Timothy: “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1Tim 1:12-14). Words of Paul’s letters do not need any further comment!
Testimony of Luke: The witness of the Acts of the Apostles about Paul who persecuted the Christians is equally important and shocking. Luke mentions in the Acts of the Apostles that Paul was present at the time when the deacon Stephen was stoned to death. To our bewilderment, it was at his feet that the killers of Stephen laid their coats, so that they may not be ritually impure through contact with the blood from the macerated body of the victim. Luke concedes with reluctantly, but firmly that:”and Saul (Paul) approved of their killing him (Stephen)” (Acts 8:1). He continues to narrate the persecution drive of Saul in the following chapter as a matter of history: “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belong to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2). Later, Luke puts in the mouth of Paul himself his past ugly history of a persecutor, while he narrates his conversion story. When Paul arrested in the temple at Jerusalem, he spoke to his Jewish people and the confession: “I persecuted the Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment” (Acts 22: 4-5). Paul narrates his conversion story to King Agrippa and his wife Bernice in the presence of Felix, the Roman Governor, while he is in prison at Caesarea. In this defence sermon, Paul narrates: “Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And this is what I did in Jerusalem. With the authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities. While this in mind I was travelling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests” (Acts 26:9-12).
1.2. Motives for Persecution
Environmental motives: There are scholars of Paul who attribute Paul’s violent reactions to the Christians to his Jewish upbringing in a volatile and fanatic cultural and social environment. On account of the disgrace Jewish religion suffered at the hands of foreign nations and their cultural patterns, the zealous youth like Paul overreacted to any kind of threat to their religion and traditions. This motive may be partially true, but it does not explain the whole story of persecution within the Jewish environment itself. There are other experts of Paul, who explain his discredited behaviour to the early Christians due to Paul’s personal problems. He might have been a person of violent temperament or a sadist who took pleasure by inflicting pain upon others or even suffered frustration in life on account of his failure to lead a righteous life according to the dictates of the Law and traditions of the fathers. These seem to be sweeping opinions without sufficient proofs and do a great injustice to the great personality of Paul.
Zeal for the traditions of the fathers: From his writings, we understand that Paul to the core of his being, he was a very righteous and pious individual Jew. He did everything according to his conviction regarding his faith and in accordance with the consciousness of righteous person. In his own confession of being a persecutor of the Christians, Paul claims that he persecuted on the one hand because of his zeal for the traditions of the fathers (Gal 1:15; Phil 3:6) and on the other, “because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1Tim 1:14). Being a Pharisee, Paul was not only a firm believer in the written, but also in the oral law. Therefore, he adhered to the Torah in its literal sense and to all the traditions of the fathers handed down to them from one generation to the other. Paul considered himself a Jew who practised the law in this full sense and made it the greatest pursuit of his life. It meant that not only he practised them meticulously, but also desired fervently that his fellow men and women did the same. Anything that goes against the traditions and laws of the Judaic faith was considered serious violence and dealt with severity. Mentally framed in that way from his childhood and youth, Paul could not have tolerated any laxity in this regard or considered benevolently anyone who showed any kind of disrespect towards his much emotionally cherished religion.
Therefore, we may assume at first sight that Paul persecuted the Christians as he perceived them to be against his Judaic religion and of its declared tenets of faith in general. Though this general conclusion is sufficient to understand Paul’s motive to react violently to the persons who followed the Way, yet we have to discover the real cause of his behaviour in order to do justice to him. In his conscience he was doing a righteous thing and rendering a service to God, when he tried to eradicate this sect of the Christians from their Judaic religion. However, it is relevant that we discover the precise provocation that sparkled violence in this religious and pious person like Paul. It must have been none other than the Christians’ proclamation that Jesus Crucified is the Messiah and Son of God. This was a provocative challenge to the very Scriptures, on which the whole Judaic religion was founded.
1.3. Scriptural Motive for Persecution
Crucifixion in the light of the Law: Reading and meditating upon the Pauline letters, we reach the conclusion that the fundamental motive for Paul to persecute the Christians was Scriptural, the Written Law. We read in the letter of Paul to the Galatians a short text which confirms our assumption. Quoting from the book of Deuteronomy, Paul affirms: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Gal 3:13). This is a partial quote of Deut. 21:22-23, where the full text reads as follows: “Someone is convicted of a crime punishable b death and is executed, and you hand him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for any one hung on a tree is under God’s curse”. In the history of Jewish interpretation of this text, it was first applied to all those committed suicide. Later it was applied to those who were hanged as death penalty on account of the crime committed by them. But by the time of the Romans, who introduced crucifixion as a form of death penalty to the Jews, this law was applied to all those were crucified due to any criminal act.
Jesus Crucified viewed as a criminal and a curse: The one who was crucified was considered a criminal person by the Jewish population. The fact that Paul is applying this last part of the law to Jesus Christ, he means to say that to his Jewish mind too Jesus was a criminal, who was cursed by God. As any educated Jew, especially a trained Pharisee and Rabbi, Paul was aware of this Law of Moses. He was convinced that Jesus crucified on the cross was a criminal cursed by God. As the Christians claimed Paul could never accept Jesus as the Messiah or Son of God, whom the people of Israel expected so eagerly. Paul assumed that the God of the covenant who gave them the Law and the Revelation could never allow this foolishness to happen. God could never intervene miraculously on this accursed criminal and raise him from the dead and be proclaimed the Messiah, as the Christians propagated. He could never accept the crucified man from the Galilean village of Nazareth be the long awaited Liberator who make the people of Israel free from the slavery of Romans.
As a pious and righteous Jew according to the Law of Moses and traditions of the fathers, Paul looked at this new group of his fellow men ridiculous. He held that they belittled and mocked the word of God revealed in the books of the Law. To proclaim a criminal the Son of God was a blasphemy against Yahweh, the Only One God. As a Jew, Paul believed that the Word of God could never err. Hence a sound and practicing Jew could never accept such a ridiculous claim of the Christians that Jesus crucified by the Romans on the cross be the Messiah and God’s Son. If the faith proclamation of the Christians is allowed to spread among the people, it would shake the very foundation of Judaic religion. No Jew of Paul’s time desired that their religion crumble down to its foundation. So it was the duty of every Jew to resist this faith and root out its weeds from among people. To do so was equal to glorifying and honouring God.
It was also inconceivable for the Jews that the Messiah was the subject of God’s curse. Hence, for Paul Jesus of Nazareth could never be the expected Messiah. Such logic of a Jewish mind could never escape our attention, when we think of Paul as the persecutor. Hence we may concede to Paul the benefit of understanding the word of God in a literal way and following it with fervour, though in a crude manner.
2. Transformation in view of a Mission
2.1. Conversion as Revelation of God
Revelation of God’s Son in the Crucified: However, we may pose a justifiable question. Does it mean the word of God was wrong in the case of Jesus? Not at all! Paul answers this question in the light of his own conversion. He assures and confirms that the word of God in the Scriptures is always correct, true and genuine and that it can never go wrong or passes away even if the heaven and earth do. He underlines that his understanding and interpretation of God’s word changed through the insight given by God. God Himself gave him this new understanding of God’s word and to interpret anew in the light of the Christ Event. In Gal 1:15, Paul writes: “But when God… was pleased to reveal his Son to me…” (Gal 1:15-16). In the light of this revelation Paul re-reads what is written in Deut. 22:22-23). Paul applies it to the person of Jesus, who was crucified by the Romans and found its fulfilment in him, so that Paul calls Jesus the “accursed one of God”. His enlightened vision of the crucified Lord is expressed in this short phrase in Gal 3:13: “by becoming curse for us”. What Paul underlines is this: Jesus was really put to death as a criminal on the cross in fulfilment of the Scriptures and did become indeed the curse of God. It was not any punishment for his criminal acts and sins. But it was “for us (peri hemon)”. It is for the sake of the whole human race that Jesus Christ was crucified. He did become anathema for us, for the sake of others, to release us from the curse of the law. He was made sinner like us and counted among the sinners. Jesus brought fulfilment the word of God. Jesus was innocent by nature and essence, but became the Redeemer and Saviour of the whole world through the ignonimous death on the cross. It is intuition that opens up for Paul the way to accept Christianity as the fulfilment of the Old Testament promises. With this supreme revelation, Paul became submissive to Jesus Christ and his Spirit, which is the Law written within the hearts of the believers (2Cor 3:3). Paul became the staunch adherent of Jesus the Lord.
2.2. Transformed Vision of the Crucified Jesus
Most probably Paul did not meet Jesus of Nazareth, while Jesus lived in Palestine. Even though Paul writes that “we once knew Christ according to the flesh” (2Cor 5:16), yet this admission only shows that he once thought about Christ in a way of which he is now ashamed. Like Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, Paul, the Pharisee might have made some assumptions about Jesus of Nazareth. Josephus tells us of Jesus (1) that he had been a teacher to whom wonders were ascribed; (2) that he had been crucified by the Romans under Pontius Pilate on charges laid by the Jewish authorities; and (3) that his growing number of followers thought of him as the Messiah (Antiquities of the Jews 18.63-4). As Paul was involved with the Jewish authorities in the eradication of this group of Christians from the Jewish population, he might have based his hatred for them on the basis that Crucified Jesus was a criminal accursed by God.
On the road to Damascus Paul this negative impressions of Jesus is transformed. He saw the figure of Christ in glory. That is to say, the Risen and Glorified Lord (1Cor 9:1; Acts 9:17). He fell in adoration. As St. Augustine mentions, it is possible that Paul’s bodily eyes had been blinded by the light, he saw Christ in a spiritual vision (Enarratio in Ps 67:28 – PL 36, 835). Paul’s experience was similar to that of Peter, James and John at the transfiguration of Jesus (Mt. 17:6), but Paul did not know the person who appeared to him. Hence he had to ask this question: “Who are you, Lord?” The glorious figure which appeared to him gave his identity: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”. Paul at once recognized that it was the Crucified one, whom he had rejected and whose followers he persecuted. Now he is standing before him in power and glory. He knew with his inner eye that it was the Risen Lord, “Jesus the first born from the dead” (Col 1:18). The much awaited new aeon has dawned upon his life. Paul has a new vision of Jesus.
Luke informs us in the Acts that Paul immediately accepted Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God, because he began to proclaim Jesus with these titles in Damascus (Acts 9: 9:20-22). No doubt Paul had already known that Jesus during his trial before Caiaphas claimed himself to be the Messiah and Son of God. When had the vision of the glorified Jesus, he knew that the Lord had vindicated that claim for ever. Whenever Paul addresses Jesus with the title, “Lord”, he underlines Jesus’ superiority over the angelic and demonic powers (Phil 2:6-11). This was the result of his Damascus vision, where he did not see any angel or supernatural figure, but a light. For Paul, this divine light is the Son of God, who is superior to all supernatural powers in heaven.
Paul received a new and deep insight about the death of Jesus on the cross from this encounter with Jesus. He understood that Jesus’ death on the cross was the means of our salvation. No other New Testament writer lays as much emphasis on this doctrine as does Paul. It was not revealed to him explicitly in the Damascus vision, but it is easy to see how the vision leads him to recognize Christ’s death as a sacrifice. Before his conversion, he shared the view that the Cross was the final proof that Jesus cannot be the Messiah (Deut 21:22-23; Mt 27:41-42), but after this revelation, it became crystal clear to him that Jesus was the fulfilment of all the Scriptural promises and that Jesus Christ was the gift of love to the entire humanity irrespective of their origin as Jews or Gentiles. But now that the vision revealed that the same Jesus, far from being accursed of God, was the Son of God, who reigned in glory with the Father in heaven.
This knowledge compelled Paul to find another interpretation for the mystery of Jesus’ crucifixion. If Jesus is the Son of God, his death on the cross should have a greater significance for the history of salvation in the plan of God. Paul has the far reaching insight that Jesus’ death on the Cross in expiation for the sins of all human beings. He is the redeemer of all men and women. He discovered that the death of Jesus was the revelation of the love and justice of God. God proved his love for us by letting his Son to die on the cross. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5: 6). Paul must surely have asked why God in his love allowed His Son to die for us. His answer in Romans appears to be that God wished to display, not only his mercy or his saving justice, but also his retributive justice. God is just in the very act of pardoning the sinner who believes in Christ, but does it on the merits of Jesus Christ His Son who merited it through his death on the cross (Rom 3: 21-26)
3. Conversion as Experience of Transformation
3.1. Transformation in Christ
Paul conversion to Christ was an inner and personal transformation in Christ. This is brought to focus in all his letters, but is manifested with singular enthusiasm in one of Paul’s statements in his letter to Philippians.
“Christ made me His own” (Phil 3:12b): Among the letters of Paul, letter to the Philippians outstands in its glimpses into the inner life of Paul and to his intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. In one of his self-revelatory statements to his beloved Christians at Philippi, Paul opens up the depth of his relationship with Jesus Christ: “Christ has made me his own, but I do not consider that I have made him my own” (Phil 1:3:12b-13a). This simple but deep emotionally soaked statement bears witness to the inner transformation that took place in Paul’s life on his encounter with Jesus on the way to Damascus. Let us have closer study of the above text. First of all, let us be aware that the Greek term which Paul uses for “ to make his own” is katalambano, which means to take possession of or seize someone or something with force using strength and violence, even against the will of the one possessed or seized. Applying this literal sense of the word to the encounter of Paul with Jesus on the road to Damascus, it was almost a violent and forcible seizure. Jesus of Nazareth was stronger than all attacking and defending weapons of the Pharisee Paul. The sudden seizure by Christ caught him unguarded and Paul had to surrender to Jesus unconditionally.
Secondly, let us compare the experience of Paul to that of Prophet Jeremiah. At a certain critical moment in his life, Jeremiah made a heart-rending prayer to Yahweh. This prayer is a bitter complaint and best compliment to the great love of Yahweh: “O Lord, you seduce me, and I allowed myself to be seduced” (Jer. 20: 7). Jeremiah is referring to his vocation and mission. He compares himself to a young girl who was violated by the lover. The lover was stronger than the girl and forced into her. She had to submit to him. For Jeremiah, it is the force of the divine love, which seduced him to a ministry which he did not life and, even though unwilling, he submitted to it. Jesus’ conquest of the Pharisee Paul was in the same manner. This outpouring of Jesus’ love towards him is well expressed in Paul’s own words in Rom 5:5: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit”. This outflow of the God’s love through the Spirit is to likened to the day of Pentecost in which the Holy Spirit hovered upon the disciples in the form of flames of fire (Acts 2:1-4). It was nothing other than love which made Paul to surrender to Jesus Crucified and to be possessed by Jesus. Hence Paul could confidently question: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ” (Rom 8:35).
Thirdly, this owning of Paul by Jesus is to be interpreted in the light of the Covenant which God made to His people. The theology of the covenant insists that it is God who takes the initiative and the people cooperate with Him. In the same vein, it is Jesus who took initiative to call Paul and transform from persecutor to his follower. This is founded on the covenantal relationship which has its origin in the divine love. “For love of Christ urges us on, we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died” (2Cor 5:14). The deep and intimate transformation that took place in him is explained by Paul by his famous doctrine on the justification of man by faith and not by works (Rom 3:21-26) and by his teachings on the Christians’ adoption as children of God by the pouring of the Holy Spirit into their hearts (Rom 8: 14-17; Gal 4: 1-7).
3.2. Paul’s Transformation into a new being
After his conversion, Paul is transformed into a new being. He became master over himself. Before his encounter with Jesus, Paul had struggled to overcome his tendencies to evil, but now had found a new spirit which energized him (Rom 7:7). He became capable of controlling his evil yearning and found by experience that he was himself declared justified before God in Christ Jesus. With all his zeal for the law, he had failed to do what the law demanded of him, because his flesh was weak. But once God had revealed His Son in glory, he could overcome the evil within him with the power of the Spirit. We could point out among many others three elements that helped Paul to live a transformed life and manifest it in his behaviour.
First of all, knowledge of God’s love revealed in the cross of Christ must have reduced his fascination for the evil. The love of God poured out into his heart must have strengthened his will to obey the inspirations of the Spirit and overcome the pangs of flesh, manifested inordinate passions and emotions. He must have felt no more sold to sin and tossed between uncontrolled and unbalanced emotions. His nobler desires could take always upper hand in his pattern of life and behaviour (Rom 7: 22-23). Dominated by the Spirit of God, he could write from experience: “for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, will live” (Rom 8:13). He must have felt that he is being loved and cherished by the Divine Love!
Secondly, transformed by encounter with Jesus, Paul might have experienced a new sense of dignity and nobility. He knew inwardly that he was now a child of God through adoption like God’s own Son Jesus Christ: “For you did not receive a sprit o slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father’” (Rom 8:15). He was obliged to behave according to that nobility. The pattern of life and behaviour must be becoming the dignity and nobility of the child of God (Gal 4:7). Any behaviour or emotion below this dignity must have been belittling to him.
Thirdly, Paul was granted a glimpse of the glory which is in store for those who share in the glory of Jesus Christ. He had the insight that his existence on this earth is carrying this glory within his body. Paul refers to this, when he writes: “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” 92Cor 4: 7). He knew that the Christian faith and style of life is a guarantee for a sound and healthy living (1Tim 1:8-10). Once the Christian faith and its doctrine is assimilated and made part of the habitual thought process of man, it would pave the way for good and just life. Faith itself will justify man before God, but hope and love will induce him to do good works. The fact is that the gospel once believed by him became the source of hope and of love; both hope and love were powers which strengthened Paul to persevere in obedience to God’s will.
Fourthly, the most important discovery in this transforming revelation of Jesus Christ to Paul is that he is entrusted with a mission: to take the gospel to the Gentiles (Gal 1:16). This gave an urgency and purposefulness to his whole life. He felt that he was filling a major role in the ministry of the church and achieving something marvellous in view of God’s plan in Jesus Christ. Paul was convinced that grace was given to him by God “to be minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15: 16). Ever since his conversion, his highest aspiration was to render glory to God through his priestly ministry to the Gentiles.
3.3. Transformed Vision of the Believers
His vision regarding the group of people who followed Jesus was also transformed. The question and answer which Jesus placed before him taught that the human beings that he is trying to annihilate are to be identified with this supreme Lord. The voice from heaven asked him: “why are you persecuting me? And I am Jesus whom you are persecuting”. Paul understood that the sufferings of the believers are Jesus’ own sufferings. Through their faith in Jesus, they had entered into a real sharing of life with the Risen Lord. He had the insight that when he persecuting Christ who lives in them and that the Risen Lord was strengthening them to resist the most violent persecutions. Paul grasped with intuition that Christ is the source, not only of their natural existence, but also of their supernatural life and strength. He also knew that it was he who put the new Spirit into men like Stephen, in whose stoning to death, he was a collaborator, and Ananias, who healed him of his blindness and manifested his new mission. In those words of Christ contained his later metaphor of the body of Christ for the Church, which he developed in Corinthians (1Cor 12-14). Though Paul does not use this metaphor of the body to speak of the community, yet his new understanding of the believers is well expressed in Gal 2:20: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me”. This statement is applicable to his new vision of himself and of all those who believe in Jesus Christ.
Paul also had the intuition from the moment of this revelation that all those who believed in Christ Jesus formed into the very body of Christ. As Paul fell on the ground and head the voice that he was persecuting Jesus, he must have reasoned that if Christ so deeply united to his believers’ sufferings, then the believers too need to be identified with Jesus’ sufferings. Paul could therefore conclude that all suffered and died in Jesus Christ: “One died for all, therefore all died” (2Cor 5:14). By baptism a man enters into union with Christ, becomes part of His body, shares in His merits, and is sanctified by His spirit. He will be judged as a member of Christ and therefore acquitted or justified. The Christian is not an isolated individual before God; he is a member of the body, and will be judge as such.
3.4. Impact of Paul’s Conversion in the Primitive Church
Conversion of Paul to Christianity made a tremendous impact on the primitive church. This is evident from Luke’s narration of the event and from the letters of Paul. Luke narrates about the conversion of Paul in a very dramatic way in three contexts within the Acts of the Apostles.
The first one is in the style of historical narration of the event (9: 1- 25). The narration begins with the statement that Paul was furious about the new sect and had obtained letters from the Jewish authorities to arrest all those who were adherents to the Way of Jesus. He was on a journey from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest the Jewish offenders from the synagogues of Damascus and to bring them bound to Jerusalem. As he travelling, Jesus met him on the road and revealed to him that he was Jesus whom he was persecuting. Paul became blind and to be led to Damascus by hand. God sent Ananias to Paul at Damascus and healed him of his blindness. He is also entrusted with mission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. The second narration is in the form of a sermon. Paul delivered it to the Jewish people who caused his arrest, sought from the Roman authorities his immediate trial and be given death penalty. In this sermon Paul summarized his past life as a Jew and his experience of Jesus on the way to Damascus (Acts 22: 3-21). The third narration forms part of defence discourse that Paul addressed to King Agrippa and his wife Bernice in the presence of the Roman Governor, Felix, at Caesarea, where he was imprisoned for two years. In this discourse too, Paul apologetically present his past life and also his encounter with the Risen Lord on the way to Damascus. He invites all his hearers, including the King and Queen to become followers of Jesus Christ (Acts 26: 2-26).
Repetition of the same event is a literary device, adopted by Luke in the Acts, to show its paramount importance for the growth and expansion of the early Church. This devise is employed at every turning point of the primitive community’s history. Thus we find it used in the conversion story of Cornelius, the Roman Jewish proselyte to Christianity. It is repeated twice and there is a lengthy narration of the events that took place (Acts 10:1-48; 11: 1-18). It is because the conversion of Cornelius opened the way for the Jewish proselytes of Gentile origin to be accepted in the Christian communities without any show of discrimination to them from the Jewish Christians. This was a turning point for the growth of the Church. In the same manner, the decision of Jerusalem Council is repeated twice, because its impact on the Church was very significant (Acts 15:19-21; 15: 28-29). It was through this decision that the Gentiles were received in to the Christian community on equal terms with the Jews. They were allowed to form part of the believers without being circumcised and without being immediately under the Mosaic Law. Even in a more pertinent way, Paul’s conversion made impact on the early Christianity. The author of the Acts felt that Paul’s conversion was not just one of the ordinary events to be passed on to the readers, but was an extraordinary event, whose ripples would produce vibrations for centuries to come. Hence, he inserted the story of the conversion on different contexts within the Acts. He evidently underlines that the event had so shocked and shaken the early Christians that the author could not ignore its impulses for the next generations and he brought them to lime light on different contexts.
The most important impact that Paul’s conversion created in the Primitive Church was it direction towards the Gentiles. When we analyze the structures of these three narrations in the Acts, we are surprised to discover that their central theme is not so much the transformation that took place in Paul, but his call and mission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. It is repeated in each narration. In the first narration, the Lord said to Ananias: “Go, for he (Paul) is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before the Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the same of my name” (9:15-16). In the second narration, Ananias said to Paul: “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice; for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard” (22: 14-15). In the third narration, Paul speaks of the resurrection of the Gentiles: “I have a hope in God – a hope that they themselves also accept – that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and unrighteous” (26:15). These statements with regard to Paul’s mission denote that his conversion was not so much an individual and private event, but aimed at a wider range, the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles and their inclusion in God’s salvific plan.
In Paul’s own writings, he describes his conversion as God’s revelation of His Son to him. Thus he writes in Galatians: “But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace , was pleased to reveal his son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles” (1: 15-16). Paul does not narrate anywhere in his letters in a dramatic manner about his conversion, as the Acts of Apostles does. But Gal. 1:15-16 is a clear reference to his experience of conversion on his way to Damascus. In the previous verses, Paul admits that he had persecuted the followers of Christ (Gal 1: 13-14). Though he does not refer the revelation of His son was made known to him on his way to Damascus, yet he states it indirectly when he adds to the narration, “I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia and afterwards returned to Damascus” (Gal 1: 16b-17). What should strike is his reference to Damascus. The sequence of the events is as follows. He had the revelation from God regarding His son, Jesus Christ, and then he went to Arabia. He spent some time in Arabia and returned to Damascus. It means that if has to return to Damascus he had to have left Damascus, where he had the revelation of the Son of God. Hence we may conclude with certainty that Paul is referring to his Damascus conversion experience, when he wrote in the Galatians of receiving a revelation from God with regard to His Son Jesus Christ. But Paul’s insistence is not so much to his personal transformation, but to his call and mission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.
Paul’s transformation from persecutor to the follower of Jesus Christ was not intended primarily for him, but for others, more precisely for the Gentiles who were considered excluded from salvation and from the love of God. This was going to be Paul’s mission ever since his encounter with Lord on the way to Damascus. We could at this juncture compare Paul to the elder son in parable of the prodigal son narrated by Luke (Lk 15:11-32). In the parable the elder son, representative the official Judaism, does not heed to the pleas of the Father (God the Father) and refuses to enter into the house of the Father (the new covenant community of the believers in Jesus) and embrace the prodigal son (the representative of the Gentiles) who has returned to the home of the Father. Paul the Pharisee before the encounter with Jesus was the elder son who refused to accept Christianity and did not want to do anything with that community. He wanted rather to destroy and annihilate it from the face of the earth. But the encounter with the Risen Lord transformed him. Paul, the elder son and representative of the Jewish people, not only did enter the Christian community, but also went in search of his lost brothers in the Gentiles all over the world. Paul not only shared the love of the Father manifested in the Crucified and Risen Lord, but he also travelled far and wide to share the Father’s love with all his brothers. The Gentiles had left the Father’s house and were living in idolatry and immersed in all kinds of evil connected with idolatry (Rom 1:18-32). Paul’s mission was to invite all these brothers to experice the merciful and gratuitous love of Father manifested in the person of Jesus Christ on equal terms with the Jews. He preached from his own experience of transformation that all who believe in Jesus Christ will be transformed and will form a new humanity of love.
3.5. Insights for Transformation Today
Paul’s story of transformation invites us to make some practical conclusion, which can be put into practice with our context. First of all, we are invited to transform our lives from Exclusivists to Inclusivists: Until the entry of Paul the Christian community remained a community of the Jews and of the God-fearing Gentiles, who followed Jewish religious practices. All had the same mentality and socio, religious and cultural background. Though the God-fearers were of different nations and races, yet they accept the Jewish way of life as their common behaviour in public. They worshipped on God, obeyed the Ten Commandments and followed many of the prescriptions of the Law of Moses and traditions of the fathers with regard to food and other customs. In the early stage of Christianity there were only few Jews who formed part of the new movement, inaugurated by Jesus. The community of Christians remained a small group, unable to grow in great number, even though groups were formed in almost all the Jewish settlements in the Roman Empire. Paul opened up the way for the Gentiles to enter into the community without any restriction or condition. They were accepted without any entanglement of the laws and prescriptions of the Jewish religion. The Church was no more an exclusive club of a few people or of a race, but it was transformed into an inclusive community that was able to accommodate people of different cultures, nations and races. It has been ever so until now, so that the Church has become a universal community. In our age too, this inclusive and universalistic attitude should be cultivated in the Christians communities. All those who bear the love of God the Father within their hearts and express His love to their brothers and sisters in all circumstances form part of the body of Christ. The only delineating mark of the Christian community should be selfless love for others. Those who bear the name of Christ should be like Paul an inclusivist, who can embrace any one with love and care.
Secondly, we are invited to transform our attitudes from regionalism to universalism. The Church was spreading from Palestine and Samaria to other parts of the world. It expanded not only among the Jews in Diaspora, but also to the groups of Gentiles in the entire Roman Empire. Until Paul’s entry into the Christian community, the preaching of the apostles was mainly directed to the Jews. Even Paul, according to the Acts of the Apostles, his first attention was directed to the Jews living in Jewish settlements in the Roman Empire. But later Paul’s drive is directed towards the Gentiles and he goes to all types of people and languages. He accepted the Gentiles into the fold of the Christian communities from Greco-Roman cities, Asian towns and villages on equal terms with the Jews, so that true Christian brotherhood was formed. Both the Jews and Gentiles were living together, holding on totheir common faith in Jesus Christ and forgetting their cultural and social differences. There was the call for universal brotherhood and love.. The Church today should encourage the spirituality of communion, which underlines communion among the peoples rather than insist on their differences. We have to make conscious efforts to transform our closed attitudes of our fellow Christians to think regionally and sectarian wise. Rather than what divides them, let them consider and promote what unites them.
Thirdly, let us transform our concept o our God from a vindictive God to a Merciful Father. Paul was brought up in monotheistic faith. He believed in a God who was vindictive and punishes mercilessly the unjust. He lived the life of a slave in his attitudes towards God, who demanded from him strict and stringent observance of the laws. He lived his religion under fear and terror. But from the moment he met the Risen Lord on the way to Damascus, he discovered this God was a loving Father who gave up His own Son to save the mankind. He is merciful to all and grants salvation and mercy to everyone who accepts Jesus Christ as the Saviour. In today’s world the Church should proclaim the Merciful Father, who welcomes all into his fold. We who claim to be the members of the Christian communities should live the mercy of God by manifesting mercy to all those who stand afar of and keep themselves away from truth and salvation.
Finally, the transformation, which Paul underwent, was aimed at the salvation and welfare of others. This invites us to transform our lives not only for our own welfare, but for the benefit of others. Paul’s transformation into a new being in Christ Jesus was not for his own sake, but for millions of persons, who lived during the life of Paul and ever since until now. God does not save us alone, but as a community. Each person, with his personal sanctification and transformation, he/she is transforming the whole community. The personal transformation is not limited to the individual sphere of that person, but it emanates it radiance around and benefits others. Jesus has said that no one can hide the light that is in each follower of Jesus, it is set on the mountain, so that it may lighten all those who are around it. Paul was not the light; he received the light from the supreme Light, who is Jesus Christ. But he was kindled with the fire of Jesus’ love, so that he may kindle very many with the flames of love. Our call to transformation in Jesus Christ is a call to a definite mission in the world for others.Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Pinterest