Studies in the Book of Acts
The conversion of Paul (Acts 9)
Persecution threatened in other cities (9:1-2)
Luke’s account now switches to describe the conversion of Paul, who will dominate the rest of Acts. While making Paul the focus of his interest, Luke never loses sight of the fact that the Holy Spirit, and hence God, is the true center of his story.
However important Paul turns out to be, he is not Luke’s main character. He is but one of the human characters who enact the larger drama of God’s fidelity to his promises. Luke’s concern therefore is for the more properly religious dimensions of the event: how this unexpected turnabout was caused by the direct intervention of the risen Jesus in history, and how the “conversion” of Paul was in reality the call of a prophet. [Johnson, 167.]
Luke begins his description of Paul’s conversion in chapter 9 by continuing the story of his persecution of the church. “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples,” says Luke of Paul’s campaign of persecution against the church in Jerusalem (9:1).
Paul even travels to other towns, Damascus in particular, in order to round up Christians. As he later tells King Agrippa, “I even hunted them down in foreign cities” (26:11). To Paul, stamping out the Christians is a necessary part of doing God’s will. They are teaching a blasphemous heresy that threatens the people of God (the Jews) and the sanctity of the law and temple. It is surely God’s will that such people should be silenced.
Paul can justify his actions against the church by looking to the heroes of Israel’s history. Phinehas killed an Israelite man and Midianite woman who were defying the law of God (Numbers 25:6-15). Elijah killed the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:40). Mattathias, the father of the Maccabees, used violence to root out the enemies of God and apostates among the people (1 Maccabees 2:1-28, 42-48).
Thus it is that Paul sets out toward Damascus with the zeal of an avenging prophet. He has letters from the high priest with authority to extradite any Christians he finds in the synagogues of Damascus. Paul will capture them and return them to Jerusalem for trial and punishment (9:2). Most likely those being hunted down are the Hellenistic Christians who fled Jerusalem, not those who lived permanently in Damascus. So far as we know, the high priest has no direct authority over the latter, since they are not in his immediate jurisdiction.
Later, Paul explains that the entire council signed the order of extradition he was given (22:5). Luke is pointing out that the Jewish leaders continue to be in the forefront of trying to eradicate the new sect of Jesus believers. Some questions have arisen over exactly what powers of extradition the letters from the high priest gave Paul. Two centuries earlier, Rome had decreed that Jews who fled to Egypt could be extradited to Jerusalem (1 Maccabees 15:15-24). They were then to be punished according to Jewish law.
Whether this authority to extradite exists in the time of Paul is not known. It’s possible the high priest still holds the power of extradition from the Roman authorities. If not, the Sanhedrin may be relying on its clout with local synagogues to cooperate in this matter. The political situation in Judea is unstable, with the Roman governor not wanting to intervene in “Jewish matters.” Thus, the council may hope to punish as many Christians as possible without the advance knowledge or intervention of the Roman authority.
“The way” (9:2)
In his account, Luke refers to the threatened Christian community as “the Way” (9:2). It seems to be a name by which the church identifies itself. Luke uses the term several times in Acts (19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). The name recalls the words of Jesus when he said, “I am the way” (John 14:6). The Qumran community also refers to its mode of life as “the way.” To them “the way” points to the community’s strict obedience to the Law of Moses. However, the Christians stress faith in the salvation brought by Jesus, who was “the Way.”
It’s easy to see why the word “way” or “road” is a Christian metaphor for “manner of life.” It has to do with the believers’ understanding that a person needs to walk in the path of God’s salvation, in obedience and faith to him. Opponents, of course, think that the church is walking the wrong path. Outsiders refer to the church not as “the Way” but as “the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5, 14; 28:22).
Interestingly, the church does not seem to refer to itself as “Christian” very often. The term was coined at Syrian Antioch (11:26), by outsiders, and the name appears only twice more in the New Testament (Acts 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). “Christian” is at first an outsider name for the disciples, not one the community uses for itself.
On the road to Damascus (9:3)
When Luke turns to Paul’s conversion experience, he places him on the highway, near Damascus. Paul has traveled about 150 miles (242 kilometers) from Jerusalem. Damascus is one of the cities of the Decapolis, which is a league of self-governing cities in eastern Syria and the area east of the Jordan river (Matthew 4:25; Mark 7:31). Damascus is a thriving commercial center, part of the Roman province of Syria since 64 B.C. The city has a large Nabatean Arab population, a fact that might figure later into this part of Paul’s life. (The Nabatean kingdom stretched from the desert southward to the Red Sea, and its capital was Petra.) Damascus also has a large Jewish population. Josephus says that 10,500 Jews were killed in the city when the Jewish-Roman war broke out in A.D. 66. [Wars 2:561; 7:368.]
The moment of encounter (9:3)
Acts 9 gives us the first of three accounts of Paul’s conversion. The story is also told as part of Paul’s speech before a Jerusalem crowd (22:5-16) and his testimony before Agrippa and Festus (26:12-18). This is one of the most significant events in the early church’s history, and it’s not surprising that Luke gives us three versions of it. Paul himself writes of the importance of his encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road: “God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me” (Galatians 1:15-16).
The three accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts show some minor variations, mostly in what each adds or omits from the basic story. We’ll refer to a few of these differences (which don’t affect the main story) as we make our way through the account here in chapter 9, and also when we discuss chapters 22 and 26. [A comparison of these three accounts is posted at harmony.]
The disagreement in detail between the three versions…is less significant than what the repetition tells us about Luke’s perception of the event. The turning of a Pharisaic persecutor into the apostle of the Gentiles is a paradox so profound that it requires multiple retellings, with each version bringing out some further nuance of significance. [Johnson, 166.]
As Luke’s story begins, Paul is nearing Damascus when a light suddenly flashes around him. The shock causes him to fall to the ground. That’s when he hears a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (9:4). The men traveling with him, perhaps temple police, stand speechless, as “they heard the sound [Greek, phone] but did not see anyone” (9:7). Luke doesn’t indicate whether Paul’s companions saw the light, but they did not see Christ manifested (9:7).
In the other accounts later in Acts, we find that the bright light flashed, not at night, but at high noon. To Paul it is brighter than the sun, which makes it all the more surprising (26:13). In Acts 22, Paul says the men with him see the light, which chapter 9 doesn’t mention. In this later account, Paul says that the men do not hear the sound, presumably meaning that they do not “understand the voice,” as the NIV puts it (22:9). The Greek word phone can mean either “sound” or “speech.” What apparently happens in this case is that the whole group hears a sound but only Paul understands it as spoken words. Similarly, the group sees the light but only Paul perceives the risen Jesus.
“Why do you persecute me?”
The voice addresses Paul in Aramaic, something we learn from Paul’s account of the event given before Agrippa (26:14). (Is it because this is the language Jesus spoke, or the one Paul spoke as a first language?) “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” the voice asks (9:4). The double name is used for emphasis, and is found in other stories of divine calling, including Abraham’s, Jacob’s and Moses’ (Genesis 22:11; 46:2; Exodus 3:4).
Paul is confused. He doesn’t see himself as persecuting God. Paul thinks he is doing God a service, defending his way against the apostate Christians. Saul then asks, “Who are you, Lord?” Saul doesn’t yet know it is Jesus. He seems to understand his vision as a revelation from God. As the account shows, Paul is open to God’s self-revelation, even though he is unaware of his purpose.
The figure standing before Paul shocks him greatly when he answers, “I am Jesus” (9:5). It is not directly stated in this verse that Paul actually sees the risen Christ, but only that he hears his voice. But it is confirmed soon afterwards, when Luke introduces Ananias (9:17) and Barnabas (9:27) into the account. Ananias refers to “Jesus, who appeared to you” (9:17). It’s clearly stated in the versions of this event Paul gives to Agrippa (26:16) and a Jewish crowd (22:14) that he sees Christ.
When the risen Christ tells Paul he has been persecuting him, he is making an important point. Paul is not rejecting human beings, but by his actions, he is rejecting Christ himself (Luke 10:16). In persecuting the church Paul is persecuting the body of which Jesus is the head. [Romans 12:4, 5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-17; Ephesians 5:30; Colossians 1:18.] Christ and his church are one, and he has a tangible presence on earth through his believers. Paul learns that these Nazarenes — these followers of Jesus whom he despises — are not confused heretics. They, rather than he and the Sanhedrin, are the people of God, and Paul is the one who is confused.
Saul could not escape the fact that the Jesus whose followers he had been persecuting was alive, exalted, and in some manner to be associated with God the Father, whom Israel worshiped. He, therefore, had to revise his whole estimate of the life, teaching, and death of the Nazarene because God had beyond any question vindicated him. Thus he came to agree with the Christians that Jesus’ death on the cross, rather than discrediting him as an imposter, fulfilled prophecy and was really God’s provision for man’s sin and that Jesus’ resurrection confirmed him as being the nation’s Messiah and mankind’s Lord. [Longenecker, 371.]
This Messiah, the glorified Christ, has now appeared to Paul himself. Paul later stresses the importance of this revelation. He sees the risen and glorified Christ, and this is as real as Christ’s appearances to his disciples after the resurrection. [1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8-9; Galatians 1:11-12, 15-17.] It is a proof of Paul’s apostleship and of his witness to Christ and the gospel.