The Conversion of Saul of Tarsus
By Roland W. Keith
The apostle Paul’s first appearance in the scriptures occurred in Acts 7:58, where we read: “Then they cast him [Stephen] out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Not an auspicious beginning for a man whose name has become synonymous with the spread of the gospel. According to Luke’s narrative this event appears to be the catalyst for the persecution of the local church and particularly for Saul’s own assault against the church wherever he might find Christians gathered (Acts 8:1, 3).
Picking his account of Saul’s activities up again in Acts 9:1-6, Luke wrote: “But 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… Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" And he said, "Who are you, Lord?" And he said, "I am Jesus, Whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do."
In choosing Saul to be one of His apostle’s there is no doubt that God saw in him all the qualities of a great disciple, however misguided at the time, but it was also a display of God’s great ability to call even the bitterest enemies or the most mistaken individuals to Himself and save them. To that end the Lord Jesus communicated with Paul through the vision he received on the road to Damascus (Acts 9, 22; see particularly Ch. 26), and God communicated with Saul through at least one additional vision during the three days he sat blinded in the city (Acts 9:11, 12). After preparing Saul, God sent Ananias to restore his sight and bring him to salvation (Acts 9:1-18). The apostle Paul recounted this visit, in part saying, “And he [Ananias] said, 'The God of our fathers appointed you to know His will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from His mouth; for you will be a witness for Him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:14-16).
Later Paul would write, “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12). To what extent the gospel was revealed to Paul on the road to Damascus or in the city or in subsequent visions we do not know; what we do know is this— Paul’s understanding of Who Jesus was and what was required for his salvation was sufficient for him to submit to baptism in faith and obedience and have His sins forgiven and to be added to the church after his sight was restored.
Paul was a man sure of his religious heritage and commitment to God (Acts 22:3), as he told King Agrippa, “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities (Acts 26:9-11; see also 22:4). Paul’s devotion to God was all consuming, and remained so after his conversion, with one key difference— the man who struck out in a ‘raging fury’ had been humbled. He had learned that his sense of morality was not enough (Philippians 3:6; Jeremiah 10:23; Proverbs 14:12), even though he had based it on the law. He had zealousness, but not understanding (Psalm 14:2). He had also discovered that a good conscience does not justify one’s actions. Though he could rightly proclaim before the council, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day" (Acts 23:1), he could not claim that his conscience had always led him aright (Acts 26:9). Paul had learned the meaning of Jesus’ warning: “Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of My Father Who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). After encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul had been set free (John 8:32).
So complete was Paul’s transformation from persecutor to disciple he would later write, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” Philippians 3:8). For him nothing was more important than knowing Jesus (Matthew 10:37-39). In his letter to the Galatians Paul would describe his conversion with these words: “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when He who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son to me, in order that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days… Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, "He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy." And they glorified God because of me” (1:14-18, 21-24).
The great apostle had learned the full extent of the gospel (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:46-48, Romans 1:16; etc.). So humbled was he by God’s great plan that when he reviewed his own past life as a persecutor of the way he wrote, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (I Timothy 1:15). Moreover, Paul knew the importance of what God had given him to do (Romans 10:13-17). He understood that man is saved because of God’s great love for us (John 3:16), that salvation is a gift given by God’s grace to be accepted not by belief only, but in obedient faith (Romans 1:5; Ephesians 2:5, 8; Romans 5:1-2). That man must come to God in repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 5:23; 24:47; Acts 11:18; II Corinthians 7:10). That he must confess the Lord before his fellow man (Romans 10:9, 33; II Corinthians 9:13; Hebrews 1-:23). That we must call on the name of the Lord (Job 27:10; II Samuel 22:4; Psalm 55:16; Acts 22:1; Romans 10:12-14), in hope and worship, and in baptism (Acts 22:16; 2:38). He also understood that we must live for Christ after our conversion (Romans 6:1-4; James 2:17-20).
Paul understood that he or anyone else could be disqualified from their state of salvation by disobedience or turning their backs on God (II Timothy 3:8; I John 2:4; II Peter 2:20-22). The apostle understood that he had to stay the course to receive the gift of salvation (Acts 20:24; I Corinthians 9:27). All Christians must remain true to God’s commands (John 14:15; 15;10; Matthew 15:8-9), just as the apostle Paul remained true to his Lord after his conversion (II Timothy 4:6-8). He once wrote, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (I Corinthians 11:1). Indeed, let us follow his example so that we too will receive the crown of life.
Hi! I'm Roland. I began writing after retiring from the Navy in 2015. I believe that we each should strive to learn from one another, by sharing our thoughts and ideas. As a writer my goal is to help other seekers of truth to find and grow in Christ.