The story of Paul’s conversion is one of extreme importance in the early church. The transformation from persecutor to missionary not only shows the merit and truth of the gospel of Christ, but it also gives hope to a modern world where many Christians are being persecuted in the same region they were nearly two thousand years ago, around the time of Paul’s conversion. To gain an understanding of the importance of Paul’s conversion, we must dive deep into the background that lead him to become a persecutor of the church, the special way in which he was confronted by the risen Christ, and just how drastically his life changed in the aftermath of that confrontation, including the name change from Saul to Paul.
Acts, chapter nine starts out by telling the readers that “…Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” Other than his approval of Stephen’s stoning, this is one of the first lines mentioning him in the New Testament, the first impression we get of him. Saul was not putting Christians to death for no reason though. Rather, he was extremely committed to his own Jewish faith and was willing to go to great lengths to keep pure what he believed to be the way of the Lord. For Paul, and other Jews for that matter, it was very scandalous to claim that their savior had been crucified, hung on a tree and left to die.
According to Jewish law, those who were hung on a cross, just as Jesus was, were said to be under God’s very own curse, bringing curse to others and to the land along with them. Because of this, at first glance, it would be very hard to believe that the one who was sent to bring freedom, blessing and salvation was instead under the curse of God. For Saul to believe that the Christians were right, that Jesus was in fact the savior, he would have had to change his entire mindset. Saul had to acknowledge that God’s salvation was at work outside of the law. Jesus was in fact not outside of the law during his death on the cross, He was actually the fulfillment of it. While Saul was convinced that he was being an honorable law-abiding Jew, he had indeed missed the entire point of his faith, he had missed the Messiah.
It was probably for that very reason that the Christ whom he had denied met with him face to face in one of the most radical and abrupt conversions in the early church. Reading through Acts 9:4-6 is the only way to really feel the magnitude of this event, “He fell on the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” One very interesting and apparent aspect here is that Saul didn’t simply experience a vision or something of that likeness, the risen Christ called him out into a face to face encounter, representing a true conversion which involves a personal encounter with Jesus that leads to new and abundant life.
May you meet the God of your salvation face to face this Easter, as we celebrate the Resurrection.