Most readers of the New Testament are familiar with the life changing experience of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. His objective on this journey was to arrest followers of a “false messiah” and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial. Saul had probably been traveling for more than a week and was approaching his destination (Acts 9:3). He was no doubt weary from travel and hungry for a good meal when suddenly, about midday (Acts 22:6), “a light from heaven flashed around him” (Acts 9:3). Falling to the ground, the startled traveler heard words spoken in Aramaic (Acts 26:14), “Saul, Saul! Why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4).
Luke records that Saul’s traveling companions heard the voice, but saw no one (Acts 9:7). This was probably true for Saul as well. He probably looked around wondering, “Who is speaking to me?” As a learned Jew, Saul would not have been unfamiliar with the concept of a “voice from heaven” (Dan. 4:31). Jesus had heard a voice from heaven three times during His ministry. The rabbis tell of God speaking at various times from heaven with an audible voice. Now Saul was hearing a voice from heaven. No doubt puzzled and troubled by the blinding light, Saul responded with a question, “Who are you, Lord” (Acts 9:5). The word “Lord” could be as well translated “Sir,” as in Acts 16:30 and Matthew 21:29,30.
The heavenly voice answered Saul’s question with the words, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). What a shock this must have been for Saul of Tarsus! The voice from heaven was none other than the voice of Jesus whose followers Saul was persecuting! It was as if the resurrected Jesus was crying out from heaven on behalf of his body which was suffering on earth. In the seconds that followed, Saul must have come to a startling and life changing realization. It was as if God had switched on the light in Saul’s mind, giving him new and conclusive spiritual insight. Somewhere along the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus came to believe that the God whom he had sought so fervently to serve was Jesus whose followers he was persecuting!
Saul’s life-changing experience on the road to Damascus is usually called his “conversion.” The problem with this terminology is that Saul didn’t convert from anything. He didn’t convert from Judaism to Christianity since there was no such thing as “Christianity” at this time. Saul was Jewish. Though ignorant of the fulfillment of messianic prophecy in Jesus, he had worshipped and served the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Saul had been zealous for his ancestral faith. And he continued to live as a Jewish man after his Damascus road experience. He continued to attend the synagogue on the Sabbath. He continued to observe the Mosaic law. He continued going up to Jerusalem for the Jewish festivals. Saul of Tarsus lived and died as a Jewish man. As Marvin Wilson has pointed out, “at no point in his life did Paul leave Judaism; rather he understood his relationship to the Messiah as the full blooming of his Jewish faith.” (Our Father Abraham, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989, p. 46). Krister Stendahl adds, “Here is not that change of ‘religion’ that we commonly associate with the word conversion. Serving the one and the same God, Paul receives a new and special calling in God’s service. God’s Messiah asks him as a Jew to bring God’s message to the Gentiles” (Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976, p. 7).
Instead of using the word “conversion” to describe what took place in Saul’s life on the Damascus road, I believe it can be more correctly labeled as his “calling.” God called Saul to embrace the messiahship of Jesus and to proclaim the good news of His offer of salvation to Jews, Gentiles and the whole Roman world. The Damascus road experience didn’t convert Saul to a new religion or give him a new theology. Rather, it supplied the missing piece of the messianic puzzle which enabled him “to integrate the message of the Cross with his understanding of the Old Testament” (Timothy J. Ralston, “The Theological Significance of Paul’s Conversion,” Bibliotheca Sacra, April-June, 1990, p. 210).
Saul of Tarsus, later to be known as the Apostle Paul, became a significant player in the spread of the gospel and advance of God’s kingdom. His travels, preaching and letters to early churches are often cited when crediting him as the “founder” of Christianity. But Saul never “became a Christian.” He was Jewish. And he lived the remainder of his life as a Jewish follower of Jesus. His surprising experience on the road to Damascus was simply the catalyst which led him to the realization that the Yeshua (Jesus) was Israel’s promised messiah.
J. Carl Laney, author of “The Story of the Apostle Paul”