It’s shorthand for any dramatic conversion. People have often said to me that they’re Christians but they’re still waiting for their “Damascus Road Experience.”
But they will have to wait for Christ’s return for anything like what Paul experienced. You see the Damascus Road was not just the conversion of a man, it was the creation of an Apostle. And Apostles needed to have met the risen Christ – both the 11 and Paul himself acknowledge that (Acts 1:21-22; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11). Therefore something extraordinary was needed to turn Saul of Tarsus into Paul the Apostle. The risen Christ had to personally appear. But He didn’t have to appear to a man like Saul! This conversion would model the sheer grace of the Lord.
For a start, Saul was a Pharisee. He describes his past like this:
Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; (Philippians 3:5)
When Jesus chose the original twelve he chose a tax-collector, Matthew. He also chose a Zealot, Simon. These two were hated and feared members of the establishment and anti-establishment respectively. Nonetheless, there was place in Christ’s kingdom for all manner of publicans and sinners. Yet all the while the Pharisees remained firmly on the outside, muttering (Luke 15:1-2).
Now Christ steps in with compelling force and claims a Pharisee for His own. And not just any Pharisee – the chief persecutor of the early church. Saul oversaw the killing of Stephen in Acts 7 and was known to believers everywhere as “he that destroyed” Christians. (Acts 9:21)
So how was Saul prepared for this religious experience? Was he particularly soft-hearted and receptive to the grace of Jesus that day? No. The grace of Jesus is not attracted to soft-heartedness, the grace of Jesus creates soft-heartedness where before there was stony opposition. Here is the context of Saul’s conversion:
1And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, 2And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. 3And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: 4And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? 5And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
Saul is not ready for Jesus. Saul is breathing out slaughter against Christ and His people. And notice how personally Jesus takes it. According to Jesus, Saul has been persecuting Himself. The risen Christ is not above and beyond the struggles of this world. He feels His people’s suffering keenly. He is the Head and His body is hurting – therefore Christ Himself is hurting.
Persecuted Christians need to know that. Christ feels this pain and knows how to confront the perpetrators, in His own time and in His own way. But be prepared for Christ to approach the wrong-doers with mercy. This is how He comes to Saul. He even pities his enemy: ”It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” “Pricks” are the sharp goads at the end of a shepherd’s crook. Sheep going astray harm themselves on the sharpened points and then harm themselves further by kicking against them. That has been Saul’s life. Brought up in the Scriptures, confronted by Christ on every page yet twisting and turning from Him at every opportunity. Conversion for Saul means the end of that kind of suffering. But it will mean a very different kind of suffering from now on.
You see he is blinded by his vision and healed by a Christian called Ananias. Ananias is told by the Lord:
[Paul] is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake. (Acts 9:15-16)
Saul is converted from one kind of suffering – a swimming against the stream of his existence – to another kind of suffering – a swimming against the stream of the world. We can go with the world’s flow and run up against the Lord, or we can walk with the Lord and go against the world’s flow. Paul is summoned to live for Christ’s name’s sake.
And here is the effect. Jesus says to him:
But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me. (Acts 26:15-18)
This is exactly what happens. Paul goes on to live one of the most influential lives the world has ever seen. He writes half of the New Testament and plants churches all around the eastern half of the Mediterranean. Thus the church’s greatest enemy is converted to its greatest asset. That’s what the grace of God does – turns calamity into even greater blessing. And it does so not because of any goodness in us, but despite our deepest evil. You see the witness of Paul to the grace of Jesus is not diminished by his terrible past, but magnified by it. This murderous blasphemer is able to say:
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. (1 Timothy 1:15)
The conversion of Paul is not meant to make us despair – as though we could never experience such a change. The conversion of Paul gives us hope. The grace of Jesus extends even to His greatest enemies. It most definitely extends to me.