3.8 Acts -- The Conversion of Saul
One of the great surprises of early Christian history is that the greatest persecutor of believers became its most famous apostle. And this was not by any human process of reasoning, or study of the Scriptures. Even less was it the product of some psychological trauma, as Freud opined:
"Paul, a Roman Jew from Tarsus, seized upon this feeling of guilt and correctly traced it back to the primeval source. This he called original sin; it was a crime against God that could be expiated only through death....'It is because we killed God the Father than we are so unhappy.' It is quite clear to us now why he could grasp this truth in no other form but in the delusional guise of the glad tidings: 'We have been delivered from all guilt since one of us laid down his life to expiate our guilt'. . . Original sin and salvation through sacrificial death became the basis of the new religion founded by Paul" (Moses and Monotheism, pp. 138-139, 213-214).
Yes, the modern psychiatrist finds glad tidings "delusional," and the Communist deems faith "the opium of the people" (Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right). They are the prophets of the "flatlanders," people who inhabit a two-dimensional world devoid of spirit, love, meaning, redemption. They have succeeded Saul as the modern-day persecutors of believers. But for them there is no road to Damascus.
Saul was fully convinced of the rightness of his beliefs, and of the necessity of protecting the Law and the Temple from all innovators and compromisers. He would have gone on stamping out every vestige of Christianity if he had not been stopped by a divine thunderbolt:
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"(Acts 9:4)
The voice identified himself as Jesus. Saul had three days of sitting blind in Damascus to contemplate this revelation. Then Ananias came and prayed for him (reluctantly), and his sight was restored. When God told Ananias to go to Saul, He told him,
"Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name" (Acts 9:15-16).
There are a lot of great questions that arise at this point:
-- why didn't God choose one of his tested and tried disciples to evangelize the Gentiles? After all, they had had a three-year training course in Jesus' purpose and methods
-- why did God pick an arch-enemy of the Gospel to be its main spokesman outside Israel?
-- the disciples chose a replacement for Judas Iscariot, a man named Matthias (Acts 1:26). But maybe God's choice to replace Judas was Saul, because he was of a kindred spirit -- they both persecuted Christ.
And yet, this is what we have seen throughout the Old Testament: the exceptions go to the head of the class. God specialized in picking unqualified people for His service. Some were Jews (Moses, Gideon, Samson, David), others were foreigners (Rahab, Jael, Ruth, Naaman). Paul was another in this line of unlikely instruments. His record of violently opposing Christianity gave him a tie-in with the Gentiles: Paul was educated and committed, but he got it all wrong -- just like the Gentile philosophers. Paul wrote about these Gentiles:
"their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened" (Ro 1:21).
Just like Paul himself. So, unlike the other disciples, Paul was able to go speak to the Gentiles as one who had profoundly failed God ("I am the chief of sinners!"). His own salvation was purely a matter of the miraculous intervention of God. And this grace was what he offered to those who had no knowledge of God.
Paul's conversion was also a bold declaration of God's purpose, that it was His time to reach the nations. He would no longer confine His revelation and favor to Abraham's descendants. Now the net was to be cast wide, to the limits of the known world.