Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

Part III: The Conversion of Saul

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"I persecuted the Church of God."i It was a fact that never left the mind of the great Apostle till the day of his martyrdom. It recurs over and over in his letters to the churches: "I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man."ii He "made havoc of the church", entering into the sanctuaries of domestic life, "entering into every house";iii and those he thus tore from their homes he "committed to prison".iv And as a sign of the great aggravation of his cruelty, the women were as terribly maltreated as the men: "I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women."v And what was worse than scourging or death, he made every effort to make them "blaspheme" that holy name by which they were

The fact that Saul had not been satisfied with searching just the synagogues, but also got authority for inquisitorial visit from house to house shows the relentlessness of the persecutors zeal to uncover every stone for the complete purging of the Holy City of the Christian presence. So thorough was his search, and so deadly were its effects, that the news even reached the Christians of Damascus that Saul "devastated all in Jerusalem that call on His name".vii This great persecution, with which Saul was associated, from the notices in Scripture, did not spend itself in just a few months. In Jerusalem it was wholly successful.viii There were no more preachings in Solomons Porch; no more throngs gathered in the streets to wait the passing shadow of St. Peter or St. John. If Christians met, they met in mournful secrecy and diminished numbers. This was no half-hearted or merely political attempt to eradicate Christianity, as were those of the later Caesars of Rome. The iron resolve of the Pharisee made him a far more deadly persecutor than those Roman sovereigns.

His work in Jerusalem was over. Now he would turn his attention to new sites where he would continue his work of cleansing Judaism of the malignant growth. Damascus, he had heard, was now the worst nest of the hateful sect. When the Jewish state won independence under the Hasmoneans, it had powerful patrons in Rome, who demanded that the countries surrounding Judea should give it all the rights and privileges of a sovereign state, including the power of extraditionthe legal right to apprehend fugitives who had fled to foreign countries and to judge them according Jewish laws. Thus a letter delivered by a Roman ambassador to Ptolemy VIII of Egypt in 142 B.C. states: "If any pestilent men have fled to you from their country [Judea], hand them over to Simon the high priest, that he may punish them according to their law" (1 Macc 15:21).ix It was precisely this order that Saul took advantage of when he procured from the high priest "letters to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem".x

Armed with a warrant and assistants from the high priest, Saul started for his journey of about 150 miles; such a journey traversed by horses and mules would take the average traveler no less than a week. Thus, as they would make their way along the difficult and wearisome road, Saul would be doomed to a week of necessary reflection. Until now, Saul had been caught up in a flurry of activity; the hot disputes in the Cilician Synagogue, the ceaseless inquisition, the constant trials, the presiding over scourgings, imprisonments, and stonings, left him no time or energy to face the difficult question, or to face the secret misgivings that the whole ordeal might be one great mistake. He could not admit the possibility that men like St. Stephen and St. Peter were right, and himself and the Sanhedrin were mistaken; or that the Messiah could be a Nazarene who was crucified as a common thief; or that after seeking Him for so many generations, He had finally come and Israel was found sleeping. He could not and would not admit the possibility that the majority of what he had learned the past 30 years was little more than a mass of worthless cobwebs, and that the righteousness he had striven so hard to achieve was as filthy rags.

For the first time perhaps since he had encountered St. Stephen he had the uninterrupted leisure to face the whole "Nazarene" question calmly and seriously; he was "forced to go up before the dark tribunal of his conscience, and set himself before himself". He had loved and defended the religion of his fathers with such undying passion; yet what had the righteousness of the Law done for him? He had lived, so far, as he could, "blameless" regarding the commandments; but what inward joy had he derived from them?what enlightenment?what deliverance from the law of death that was in his members? His sins of pride and passion and frailtywould not a jealous God avenge them? Was there any deliverance at all from this ceaseless trouble of a nature dissatisfied with itself, or from the Laws inevitable curse of death?

And would the needed deliverance be secured by the coming of the Messiah? True, his coming would be a victory for the nation at large. But would it be for the individual soul also (a thought never mentioned by any of the priests or Pharisees)peace of conscience, justification, release from servitude, strength in present weakness, forgiveness of sins? At that point it would have flashed across his mind that these Nazarenes, whom he had been hunting and slaying, said that it would. For them the Messiah had come, and certainly they had found peace. It was true that their Messiah was despised, abused, and rejected; but was this not the very description of the servant of Jehovah in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah?

And so, again and again, he would realize with a sense of remorse that all his life he had been yearning for, he had been gliding into, the very doctrines he was persecuting to the death. Whether heresy or not, could he be right in stamping out a faith so pure, so ennobling? Could the Mosaic Law cast such a divine illumination as he had seen from the face of St. Stephen? Did the Judaism of his day instill such an undisturbed serenity, such a warm devotion in the hearts of its believers, even in the face of death? The beatitudes which he had heard them speak of, the miracles of healing compassion which so many attested, the parables so full of divine illuminationoh, who was this who inspired simple fisherman with a wisdom which transcended that of a Hillel or Gamaliel? It was a pity that a Faith so strong and so near to all his deepest aspirations had to be exterminated. But if ever haunting doubts such as these thrust themsevles upon Sauls mind, he would vehemently sweep them out in self-righteous contempt and reassure himself of the urgency in eliminating the glamorous but false heresy which had deluded so many minds. He had no choice; he must quiet the emotional pains associated with his work and to press on toward Damascus.xi

It is said to be the oldest city in the world, and it bursts as a vision of paradise to the eye of the traveler surrounded by a sea of desert. As one approaches the city; Mount Hermon stands as a gleaming monument with the chain of antilabanus. Thanks to the "golden Abana" and the winding Pharar rivers, which flow on either side of the ridge, the wilderness blossoms like a rose. But the beauty which has often been compared to a Paradise of God was of little interest to the fiery Persecutor; as the domes and turrets of the city came into view all that rose into that active mind was the picture of all the loose members of the dangerous sect seized and bound.

It was to be, however, that all his aims, his zeal, his turbulent rage, indeed, the totality of the learning and religious education of his past, at once evaporated with the advent of the light that suddenly shone around him from heaven.xii It will be evident to the one who has experienced the glare of a noon-day sun in an eastern country how terrible "a light brighter than the sun" must have been. All fell to the ground in terror (Acts 26:14) or stood in amazement (9:7). But while the rest were stupefied and confused, a clear light broke in suddenly on the soul of one who was prostrate on the ground. He saw what they could not see. He heard what they could not understand. To them what were just a blinding light and indistinct voice were to Saul a terrifyingly clear image and words: it was Jesus whom he was persecuting.xiii

Here is St. Pauls own account of the incident given from the steps of Antonia: "Now it happened, as I journeyed and came near Damascus, at about noon, suddenly a great light from heaven shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? So I answered, Who are you, Lord? And He said to me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting. And those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me. So I said, What shall I do, Lord? And the Lord said to me, Arise and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all things which are appointed for you to do."xiv

There is a precious irony in the words of St. Lukes narrative, "It is hard for you to kick against the goads." The goad is a prick or sharp-ended pole used in southern Europe and eastern nations by farmers driving cattle. Our Lord is telling Saul, that as the ox rebels in vain against the goad of its master, and as kicking back does nothing but increases its painso Sauls resistance to His urgings are worse than futile. And what could those goads have been except (as we described above) the stings of his conscience? There were no conceivable outward goads pricking him, no outward difficulties in executing his plan of persecution. They were the stings of uncertainty, of constant misgivings, which should have told him long before that he was advancing in the wrong path. He says, in a sense, "Do you not realize that I am the pursuer and you the pursued?"xv

"Jesus of Nazareth!" why did the glorified speaker choose the name of His humiliation on earth? Why, as St. Chrysostom asks, did He not say, "I am the Son of God; the Word that was from the beginning; He who sits at the right hand of the Father; He who sits in the form of God; He who stretched out the heavens...He Who was preexistent and was begotten?" Why did He not use any of these fearful titles, but, "I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting"from the earthly city, from the earthly home? It was because His persecutor did not know Him. He did not know that Jesus was begotten of the Father; but that He was from Nazareth he knew. Had He said, "I am the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the Almighty," Saul would have said, "This is not He whom I am persecuting; this is not the crucified." But that he may know that the bright and glorious One appearing to him in the vision had taken flesh, was crucified, and was now being persecuted by Saul, He says, "I am Jesus of Nazareth".xvi

And as the Voice from the unapproachable light struck him almost to death with remorse for the awful truth that had been just revealed to him"Arise and go into the city," it continued, "and you will be told what you must do" (9:6). "Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank" (vv. 8,9).

No one can tell what passed through the mind of Saul during those three long days of darkness. He neither ate nor drank nor spoke to anyone, but only sat and pondered all the implications of what he had just witnessed. All the prophecies he had memorized from the Scriptures doubtless rose to memory, along with their now clear fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth. Those faint Messianic allusions; those indistinct references to certain cities as Bethlehem or Zebulon and Naphtali; the piercing of hands; the bearing affliction for the nation; all these suddenly came to light and flooded with meaning. And the memory of St. Stephenhow could he forget a face so bright and a testimony so faithful; and it was the truth! All the sad pictures of believers suffering, martyrs dying, families being torn apartall because of his religious rageslowly appeared as a grave procession before his writhing conscience. Oh, the agony of grievous error! He had done it in ignorance, yes; but he had done it nonetheless. What was maybe most difficult of all: his entire religious past; all that he cherished in the teachings and traditions of his fathers; all the years he had labored to attain the righteousness that was of the Lawwas all torn up by the roots. In those three days he experienced nothing less than a death and resurrection of everything he knew about life and God.

We may here add the thoughtful and eloquent words of Canon Farrar:

"Saul rose another man; he had fallen in death, he rose in life; he had fallen in the midst of things temporal, he rose in awful consciousness of things eternal; he had fallen a proud and intolerant persecuting Jew, he rose a humble a broken-hearted penitent Christian. In that moment, a new element had been added to his being. Henceforthto use his own deep and dominant expressionhe was "in Christ." God had found him; Jesus had spoken to him, and in one flash had changed him from a raging Pharisee into a true disciplefrom the murderer of the saints into the Apostle of the Gentiles. It was a new birth, a new creation. As we read the story of it, if we have one touch of reverence within our souls, shall we not take off our shoes from off our feet, for the place whereon we stand is holy ground?"xvii (p.112).

Those accompanying him led him to the house of Judas, in that long street which leads through the city and is still called Straight; and there he met another man who had seen a vision, a Christian, who was to finalize the miracle which transformed the Persecutor of the Church to the Apostle of Jesus Christ. He who was formerly an instrument in the destruction of the Church abroad was now "a chosen vessel to bear my name before Gentiles, kings, and the people of Israel"; and he who caused numerous souls to suffer for the name of Christ must now be shown "how many things he must suffer for My names sake".

Before we end these reflections on St. Pauls conversion, we must note with an 18th century writer that "the conversion and apostleship of St. Paul alone, duly considered, is of itself a demonstration sufficient to prove Christianity a divine revelation".xviii The very fact that the same man who had just been persecuting Christianity with such a violent hatred, whose contempt for their teaching was so severe that he had resolved to kill or imprison every follower of the way until it was utterly eradicatedthat such a one should all at once turn around and become a loyal disciple of the crucified Messiahis surely one of the greatest proofs of the Resurrection.

And because the conversion is such a striking credit to the inherent strength of Christianity, St. Paul has been denounced time and again, by antagonists ancient and modern, as an imposter who was driven by selfish motives. There is an idle Jewish tale, for example, that Saul became a Jew in order to marry the high priests daughter; and when the scheme fell through, he turned against Judaism out of spite. But how can we consider him a selfish imposter who, by casting off his Judaism had (by earthly standards) nothing to gain but everything to lose? Was he attracted by the ostentation of advanced learning? He had thrown aside all he had learned from the academy at Jerusalem and from the scholarly Gamaliel to take up the teaching of fishermen who had never been educated in letters. Was it the love of power that caused him to change? He abdicated in a moment all the authority and honors he had garnered through his positions in the Sanhedrin and University to take up a much lower position, which earned him reviling and calumny, and he was "made the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things".xix Was it love of wealth? Whatever may have been his worldly possessions at the time, he joined himself to those who were certainly poor, and barely sustained his material existence by the labor of his own hands.xx

Thus, for every one that reads the conversion and life of St. Paul with a reverent spirit, his example will remain an inspiring and eternal monument to the grace of God. Saul was apprehended by Christ at the height of his zeal and in the midst of his fury. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, "Christ, as a good physician, healed Saul when his fever was at its worst".xxi Most of all, we should learn the encouragement given to all sinners to repent, regardless of how far in the darkness they have strayed. For there was no person further from the light than Saul in his days as a persecutor; there was none who did as much destruction to the Church of God; there was no one more opposed to the right path to salvation than he; and God brought this all to his attention by three last days of total darkness. Yet God had mercy on him: for he desired the truth, and he desired righteousness. As we learn from his own words: "For this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for life everlasting" (I Tim 1:16).

i 1 Cor 15:9.
ii 1 Tim 1:13.
iii Acts 8:3.
iv Acts 26:10.
v Acts 12:4.
vi Acts 26:11.
vii Acts 9:21.
viii Farrar 99.
ix Bruce 72.
x Acts 9:1.
xi The turbulent stirrings of Saul’s mind on the way to Damascus are enlarged upon very fully by Canon Farrar.
xii Acts 9:3.
xiii Conybeare & Howson 74.
xiv Acts 22:6-10.
xv Farrar 102.
xvi Ibid. 111.
xvii Ibid. 112.
xviii Lord Lyttelton, Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of St. Paul.
xix I Cor 4:13.
xx Acts 20:34.
xxi Conybeare & Howson 82.

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