Have you ever wished to see God?
Moses did. He had the unenviable task of leading a stubborn and idolatrous people to the land God promised. When they made and worshiped a Golden Calf, Moses had to plead with God not to destroy them, then had to plead with God to continue with them on the journey. When God agreed, Moses made another, bolder request: he wanted to see God’s glory (Exod 33:18).
In response, however, the Lord warned him that “you can’t see my face because no one can see me and live” (vs. 20). Indeed, the prophet Isaiah, mourning the death of King Uzziah, had a vision of God in the temple, and it nearly undid him (Isa 6:5).
But that doesn’t mean that people of faith have ever stopped wanting to see God.
N. T. Wright is one of the scholars who sees possible parallels between Saul’s experience on the Damascus road and a vision of God’s glory as described in Ezekiel 1. Artists have tried to render Ezekiel’s imagery: a strange spectacle of fire and lightning, of four creatures, each with four wings and four faces, each accompanied by a wheel rimmed with eyes.
If I had a dream like that, I’d probably wake up in a sweat.
Above the creatures, Ezekiel saw a dome, and above the dome
there appeared something like lapis lazuli in the form of a throne. Above the form of the throne there was a form that looked like a human being. Above what looked like his waist, I saw something like gleaming amber, something like fire enclosing it all around. Below what looked like his waist, I saw something that appeared to be fire. Its brightness shone all around. Just as a rainbow lights up a cloud on a rainy day, so its brightness shone all around. This was how the form of the Lord’s glory appeared. When I saw it, I fell on my face. I heard the sound of someone speaking. (Ezek 1:26-28)
It’s likely that the prophet had no words to describe adequately what he saw. But according to Wright, some first-century Jews meditated deeply on Ezekiel 1, hoping to catch just a glimpse of the prophet’s vision. Wright imagines Saul meditating in that way on the journey from Jerusalem to Damascus, trying to see the throne and the figure above it, the fire, the rainbow brightness, the divine glory…
…and then being knocked flat by a glorious vision of the risen Jesus.
We cannot, of course, know what Paul was thinking when Jesus appeared. But such speculation is meant to express something important about Saul: for all his threats against the church, he honestly wanted to see God.
We may be used to reading the gospels in black-and-white terms, thinking of Jesus and his disciples as the good guys, and the Pharisees as the bad guys. Saul was a Pharisee and a virulent persecutor of the church. Must be a bad guy. God’s going to have to completely flip him around to be able to use him. Right?
It’s not that simple. Indeed, one might say ironically that in his zeal to persecute Christians, Saul was a better Pharisee than most. Jesus routinely criticized the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. That didn’t mean that the Pharisees merely pretended to be holier than thou. They were holier, if holiness meant mere external conformity to the Law. The problem was that for all their punctilious religious observance, their hearts were actually far from God.
Saul was no hypocrite. His zeal was genuine, and he was zealous for God. His problem was that he was both mistaken and stubborn: he did not, he would not believe that the carpenter from Galilee, executed in shame as an enemy of the Roman state, could possibly be his or anyone else’s Messiah.
In other words, it was nothing that a direct conversation with a risen and blindingly bright Jesus couldn’t fix.
And once that had happened, Saul’s world was turned upside down.