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 belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.
He is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.
The introduction to today’s service of Daily Prayer describes Paul as an ‘anti-Christian zealot’ who was converted to become an ‘apostle of Christ’. To understand how profound a change this represents we need to reflect upon what the words ‘zealot’ and ‘apostle’ are describing.
The name ‘zealot’ was given to a group of Jews whose whole philosophy of life was driven by fanatical religious nationalism. The fanaticism of the zealots led them into open violent conflict with all whom they considered to be enemies of Jewish law and teaching. The zealots thrived between c.200BC and c.73AD. They were a ruthless ideological fighting force, motivated solely by religious conviction. This pen-picture of the zealots gives some idea of how extreme Saul’s conversion into Paul really was.
There is no evidence of Paul being one of the zealots but his breathing of threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord bear the hallmarks of those fanatics. Such determination could only be shaken by a dramatic demonstration of what God really had planned for him, and that is exactly what happened. On the road from Jerusalem to Damascus he was confronted by and called by the risen and ascended Jesus. The zealous persecutor was called to set aside his murderous fanaticism and allow himself to be led into discipleship.
Of course, discipleship was not the end of the story for Paul. As we considered a few days ago, disciples are believers and followers. Just as Jesus called his disciples to become apostles, so he was calling Paul to take his belief into the wider world. Jesus was calling Paul to take the first steps on a journey that would lead to him becoming one of the most influential apostles – ever!
As we reflect upon and celebrate the conversion of Paul we are also being called. We are being called to reflect upon our own apostleship. In the special prayer for today we say: grant that we who celebrate [Paul’s] wonderful conversion may follow him in bearing witness to your truth. Paul’s life, up to the point of his conversion, could not have been more hostile to faith in Jesus Christ. Then came the moment of conversion. Despite the mythology around Paul’s conversion, the follow-up to his Damascus Road experience was not immediate. His journey into apostleship took time to mature and flourish.
So, how long has your discipleship been maturing? How long have you been hesitating to take the journey from discipleship into apostleship? Listen carefully, perhaps God is answering your prayer right now. Perhaps God is empowering and equipping you to bear witness to his truth right now. Bon voyage!