My conversion to Christ was pretty tame. Hand raised. Walk to the front with a dozen others. Prayed over. Pretty tame, even for a ten-year-old.
Paul’s conversion was anything but–as he soon will tell us.
But, first, remember he’d been in the temple completing a purification rite with four other Jews. Rumors were flying: he rejected Moses, banned circumcision, forsook customs. Asian Jews spotted him. Immediately, they grabbed him, shouting for others to help. The crowd became a mob madly trying to kill him. Roman soldiers showed up, pulling him from the mob, dragging him up to their fortress. At the top of the stairway, Paul asks to address the crowd at the bottom. The tribune assents. Paul makes his defense: it’s his conversion story.
I THOUGHT I WAS RIGHT
“’Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.’ When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet. Then Paul said: ‘I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of the Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished’” (Acts 22:1-5).
Paul asks the Jews to hear his defense. They fall silent when Paul speaks their native language. He tells how he was raised in Jerusalem, thoroughly trained under Rabbi Gamaliel (a Pharisee doctor of the law and recognized leader of the Sanhedrin), and so fervent for God he had “followers of the Way” imprisoned. He had even been authorized by the Council to arrest “these people” in Syria and bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. He thought he was right.
So did I: raised in a Christian home, regularly attended church, basically obeyed my parents, believed in God, even believed in Jesus. But I never “received” him, never said “yes” to his “Follow me.” I thought I was okay.
THE LORD JESUS APPEARED TO ME
“’About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not hear the voice of him who was speaking to me. ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked. ‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me. “A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him. Then he said: ‘The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name’ “ (Acts 22:6-16).
It was near Damascus, Syria, about noon, on the way to arrest “followers of the Way”, when “suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed (periasypapto—lightning-like)”. It knocked him to the ground. A voice called his name and asked, “Why do you persecute me?” Paul, trembling, asked who was asking. The answer was astounding: “I am Jesus of Nazareth”. Crucified Jesus of Nazareth. Alive.
Humbled, fearful Paul asked what he should do. Jesus told him to get up and go into Damascus. “There you will be told all you have been assigned to do.”
Paul was blinded. The proud persecutor had to be led by the hand like a child into the city. His fellow persecutors were left in the dark: they saw the light but heard no voice.
Paul tells how, in the city, a devout and respected man named Ananias visited him. He commanded Paul (still called Saul) to receive his sight. “At that very moment I was able to see him.” Ananias then explained Paul had been chosen to see and hear “the Righteous One” and to be his witness to all. So: “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”
The preacher invited whoever wanted to receive Jesus to raise their hand, An urging rose in me. Not because of the speaker; nothing special about him. The invitation was the same one I’d heard dozens of times before. And I knew what would come next: “Stand up and come to the front for prayer”. I was a shy kid. Standing up among a few hundred Sunday school students and adults was, well, terrifying. But now that didn’t matter. My heart was compelling me. Looking back, I believe Jesus was calling. No blinding light. No knock to the ground. Just a pull–by Jesus.
THE LORD SENT ME TO THE GENTILES
“When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking. ‘Quick!’ he said to me. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ ‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’ Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles’. The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, ‘Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!'” (Acts 22:17-22).
Paul returns to Jerusalem. He goes to the temple to pray. There he falls into a trance–(Greek, ekstasia) in which he sees the Lord speaking: “Quick! Leave Jerusalem immediately because they will not accept your testimony about me.” He argues that the Jews’ knowledge of his zealous past persecution will only make his testimony now more credible. But the Lord said again: “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” “Gentiles”. The spark re-ignites the riot. The mob shouts, “Get rid of him!” the mob shouts. He doesn’t deserve to live!”
Paul’s defense is over. The Roman tribune orders him brought inside. What now would happen to his mission to the Gentiles?
I paced our apartment’s kitchen. I hated my sales job, wasn’t any good at it, didn’t want to go. For three years I’d bounced from job to job. I felt trapped. Suddenly, I felt an urging to study to become a pastor. It was the same compulsion I felt to raise my hand ten years earlier. I came to believe the Lord had trapped me, until my only escape was “yes” to a mission.
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Paul’s defense/conversion story raises a probing question: If I was arrested for spreading the gospel to Muslims, say, what would my defense be? Hire a lawyer? Plead ignorance? Blame my church? Or, would I tell how Jesus came into my life and changed me and wants me to spread his good news to everyone?
In other words, would Jesus be so real in my life that I “blamed” him?