A come-to-Jesus moment (part 1)

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about another of our mutual friends. For the sake of privacy, let’s just call them John and Mary. John had been puzzled about how Mary reacted to something he had said. In his mind, she was being unnecessarily sensitive, even paranoid. So I told John a story having to do with Mary’s background — and suddenly, for John, everything made sense. You could see it in his face: the open-mouthed, wide-eyed expression that says, “Oh! I get it now.” His demeanor, and his attitude toward Mary, shifted in just a matter of moments.

It was a conversion of sorts, what some would call a “come-to-Jesus moment” without Jesus, an epiphany without God (at least directly).

But that kind of conversion is not without its parallels in religious conversions, where one new idea, grasped and believed, can change the entire orientation of a person’s life.

Thus far in the book of Acts, we’ve seen only brief glimpses of the young Saul of Tarsus. Luke introduced him into the story near the end of chapter 7, as the young man who willingly kept watch over the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen to death. At the beginning of chapter 8, he is described as “ravaging the church” (vs. 3, NRSV) by throwing believers into prison. 

At the beginning of chapter 9, Saul is still a zealous, fearsome enemy of the church. Not content to wreak havoc in Jerusalem, he wanted to round up the believers who had fled the city. He asked Caiaphas for extradition letters that would authorize him to arrest believers even in faraway Damascus, where he knew there was a large population of Jews. He would find his prey there, tie them up, and drag them back to Jerusalem to face trial. Thus Saul assembled a posse, and set out for Damascus.

As Saul and his companions approached the city, they were ambushed:

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:3-6)

This episode is so important to Luke that it appears three times in the book of Acts, in various forms and contexts. Here, in Acts 9, we have Luke’s direct account. In Acts 22:6-11, Paul (formerly Saul) himself tells the story to the Jerusalem mob that wants to lynch him. In Acts 26:12-18, he tells a longer version of the story to King Agrippa (Herod Agrippa II), including many details not found in the other accounts (some scholars suggest that Luke may have been present when Paul told his story to Agrippa). 

Much has been made of the apparent differences between the three versions, and we’ll come back to them when we reach chapters 22 and 26. For now, without going into all the details, suffice it to say that:

  • all three accounts are to some extent reconstructions by Luke, since none of the original dialogue would have been in Greek;
  • none of the accounts would tell everything that happened;
  • if Luke thought there were any substantial contradictions between them, he probably would have smoothed these out.

On that basis, it’s reasonable to suppose the following regarding what happened out on the Damascus road:

  • Saul saw (cf. 8:17, 27) and heard Jesus, and was blinded and struck to the ground by his glory (cf. 2 Cor 4:6);
  • His companions saw a light, but did not see Jesus directly;
  • They heard a voice but did not understand it.

But what can we say about Saul’s come-to-Jesus moment? What changed? 

That’s the subject of our next post.