Learning From The Accounts Of Paul’s Conversion
The events which occurred when Paul met the Lord on his way to Damascus are described three times in the book of Acts. First there was the brief historical sketch by Luke in Acts 9. Then Paul himself described his experience to a group of angry Jews in Acts 22. And then he repeated his story to Festus and Agrippa in Acts 26. In his letters Paul also referred briefly to his conversion.
By comparing these different accounts, the events surrounding Paul’s conversion can be reconstructed: Paul was on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians; about midday, he was suddenly surrounded by a very bright light; blinded, he fell to the ground; he saw the resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus; the Lord spoke to him, and Paul spoke back.
This extraordinary encounter marked Paul’s conversion. Before his conversion, he persecuted Christians with a clear conscience, as he thought these acts of persecution were actually pleasing to God (Acts 23:1). The Lord values a clear conscience, but a clear conscience and our best efforts are not enough.
Interestingly, neither the Lord nor Ananias, when he came to Paul, asked him to “repeat after me a prayer of faith.” He was not asked to raise his hand, sign a card or say a “prayer of faith.” While every conversion story is different, all of them have in common some form of encounter with the Savior. We become aware of our sin, we begin to understand why Jesus died on that cross, we are attracted to Him, we regret and repent, we call out for forgiveness, we invite Him into our heart, we surrender and submit to His Lordship.
Have you had your encounter with the Lord Jesus? After his conversion, Paul was told to wait for further instructions. The Lord also has plans for our life and He prepares good works for us to do (Eph. 2:8-10). We have to wait for Him to reveal them to us.
The following three days of darkness gave Paul time to think, fast and pray – a time to seek God and to consider the practical implications of his conversion. His name change from Saul to Paul was not connected to his conversion. Saul was his Hebrew birth-name, and Paul (or Paulus) his Roman name. Luke, the writer of Acts, began to use the name Paul in Acts 13:9; it was more appropriate as the events he narrated moved into a more Gentile environment.
Paul was not traveling alone, but with a team that would help him locate and capture Christians in Damascus and take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. What exactly did these companions see and hear? At first reading the conversion accounts seem to present a contradiction. In Acts 9:7 we are told that his companions heard the voice but saw no one. In Acts 22:9 we read that they saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one speaking to Paul. Why do the words Jesus spoke to Paul differ in the three conversion narratives?
Comparing the three narratives in Acts, it is evident that the companions noticed that something extraordinary took place. Paul and his companions saw a bright light and they all fell to the ground. Paul, however, also saw the Lord Jesus. His companions did not.
One explanation is that Paul looked into the bright light and saw the Lord Jesus there. His companions saw the light but hid from it. They did not look into it. This could explain why Paul, after the experience, discovered he was blind while his companions were not.
Another explanation is that an encounter with the resurrected Lord required an act of God. Only after Elisha’s prayer did his servant “see” something of the spiritual world (2 Ki. 6:17). Only after “their eyes were opened” did the two disciples on the road to Emmaus recognize their resurrected Lord (Lk. 24:31). Similarly, Paul and his companions saw the light, but the Lord chose to reveal himself only to Paul and not to his companions. Paul’s subsequent blindness was the Lord’s way of making the previously self-confident Paul temporarily weak and dependent on others.
Did Paul’s companions hear a voice? If yes, whose? If not, what did they hear? One explanation is that in all conversations there are at least two voices. In Acts 9:7 we are told that Paul’s companions heard “the voice” but it does not say whose voice. Some suggest that as Paul conversed with the Lord, only Paul heard the the Lord’s voice, and his stunned companions only heard Paul’s voice but did not see anyone. Acts 22:9 specifically states that the companions did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to Paul. They heard the voice of Paul but not the voice of the Lord.
Perhaps a more natural explanation surfaces as we notice that the Greek word which is translated “voice” is also used to refer to “sound” or “noise.” For example, Paul said that different musical instruments have their distinct “voice,” or distinct “sound” (1 Cor. 14:7-8). The wind has a “voice,” meaning a “sound” (Jn. 3:8). A moving millstone has a “voice,” as it produces a “sound” or “noise” (Rev. 18:22). With these alternative meanings in mind, the two texts fit more naturally together. When the Lord spoke aloud to Paul, the companions heard the “sound” of the Lord’s voice but did not hear the “voice” of the Lord. This was an unexpected and confusing situation similar to that experienced when the Father spoke from heaven: “The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him” (Jn. 12:29). Taking into account these different meanings of the word, some English Bibles, such as the New International Version, translate Acts 22:9 as “My companions saw the light but they did not understand the voice of Him who was speaking to me.”
These details provide some interesting insights. God sees and responds to those who seek to please Him with a sincere heart. The Lord Jesus has an eye, an ear and time for individuals. He is interested in and desires to work with you and me as unique persons. Although a message may be spoken to a crowd, the Lord may use it to speak directly to our hearts. From Paul’s companions we receive a warning: We can be close to where God is working, we may see and feel that something odd is happening near us, and yet not be conscious of the Lord’s presence, not be aware that the Lord is doing something.
What Words Did Paul Hear?
In each of the three conversion narratives, the conversation between the Lord Jesus and Paul was somewhat different. Remember that the Lord spoke to Paul in Hebrew. The book of Acts was written in Greek. There are different ways of translating the same idea, which would explain some of the differences in wording between the accounts. But the main differences become clear as we consider the purpose of the narrative. They have to do with emphasis. What details were told depended on the interests or needs of the audience. For example, when Paul used his conversion story to explain his change and mission before an angry Jewish crowd (Acts 22), he used Jewish terminology such as “the God of our ancestors,” and he stressed the Jewish credentials of Ananias, an important figure in the apostle’s conversion.
In sharing his conversion story with Governor Felix and King Agrippa, his purpose was more evangelistic and his presentation time was limited (Acts 26). Therefore the apostle focused on the great mission entrusted to him by the Lord Jesus. He did not distinguish here between those words spoken directly to him and those spoken via Ananias. Paul stressed that the hope that he proclaimed was no new invention. Whatever Paul considered to be of secondary impor-tance in reaching the goal, he simply omitted. Therefore he made no reference to his blindness and the miracle of restored sight. In fact, the participation of Ananias was completely excluded.
Our personal testimony is no basis for objective truth, but it can be a very powerful way to illustrate how the Lord works with us humans. Have you shared part of your conversion story with someone? Have you shared with a fellow believer what you think the Lord is doing in your life? Even our failures and mistakes can be used by God to encourage others – if we share them.
Paul And The Holy Spirit
The Lord Jesus explained the situation to Ananias and urged him to visit Paul, so that through him Paul could regain his sight, be filled with the Holy Spirit and receive an outline of God’s calling for his life (Acts 9:10-17). Although fearful, Ananias acknowledged the reality of Paul’s personal encounter with the Lord – that is, Paul’s conversion – and addressed him warmly as “Brother Saul.” Paul had probably already received the Holy Spirit. In the transition period between Judaism and Christianity we find a couple of people who appeared to receive the Spirit of God after conversion (Acts 19:2), but Paul explained that the Christian norm is that believers receive the Holy Spirit at conversion (Eph. 1:13). In fact, he affirmed quite categorically: “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” (Rom. 8:9).
There is no such thing as a Christian without the Holy Spirit. If you have trusted in the Lord Jesus, if you have been born again, you have the Holy Spirit. This is a fact, not a feeling. But, given the task which the Lord Jesus was about to entrust to Paul via Ananias, it was important that the apostle be “filled with the Holy Spirit.” This is something every Christian needs (Eph. 5:18). I need it. You need it. Do you want the Spirit of God to guide you? Do you seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit? This is a practical experience available to every believer.
Why Was Paul Baptized?
After telling Paul of his apostolic mission, Ananias added: “Now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). Was Ananias saying that Paul needed to be baptized to have his sins forgiven? A previous statement by Peter at Pentecost could also give this impression: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Perhaps the special audience at Pentecost required a special message. But later Peter made it very clear that forgiveness of sins comes by faith (not through baptism) saying: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out” (Acts 3:19). This is forgiveness without baptism. At another time, Peter explained the same to a group of Gentiles: “All the prophets testify about Him that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name” (Acts 10:43).
Some translations give the impression that in Acts 22:16 Ananias was giving Paul four same-level commands in a row. But the grammatical construction suggests the commands came in two pairs: “get up, be baptized,” and “wash your sins away, calling on His name.” This last clause has strong scriptural support. Paul later taught the same himself: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13). After the inward reality of conversion, the external symbolic act of water baptism followed. After Paul’s eyes were opened, Paul got up and was baptized, presumably by Ananias (Acts 9:18). Are you a Christian but not yet baptized? If so, your current situation is biblically abnormal. Like Paul you should also get up and be baptized.
A careful look at the Bible references to the apostle Paul’s conversion confirms that they are in harmony. Our Lord uses various ways to speak to our hearts. Sometimes, like in the story of Paul’s conversion, He chooses to break into our hectic life with supernatural and sometimes even painful force. Sometimes we also need stopping “on the road.”
Do you sense that the Lord is trying to speak to you through some event lately? The Lord Jesus desires not only to save but to change you and use you in a little corner of His universe. Do you really want to listen?
By Philip Nunn
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org