From darkness to light

One of the most celebrated films of all time is 1972’s gangster classic, The Godfather. It ranks # 2 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list, behind only Citizen Kane. It won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor, the latter going to Marlon Brando for his iconic role as don Vito Corleone.

The movie made such an impact on popular culture that I’m betting you can quote the famous line spoken in the scene pictured above. Got it? Say it with me now, with your best impersonation of Brando…

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

And when the Godfather makes an offer like that, you’d better not refuse.

What about God?

. . .

Acts 9 gives us a very brief account of Paul’s conversion, as if Luke wanted to save some of the good bits for later. In that account, the interaction between Jesus and Paul is terse. Paul is struck blind and falls to the ground. He hears the voice of Jesus: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When Paul asks who’s speaking to him, Jesus answers simply, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” (vss. 4-6, NRSV).

That’s it. If I had been Saul, lying sightless in the dust, that command would have sounded like an offer I’d better not refuse.

The version of the story we get in Acts 26, however, paints a different picture. True, Jesus still has a plan for Paul and isn’t about to take no for an answer. But there is a caring tone in Jesus’ voice, a concern that Paul not make things harder on himself than necessary. And rather than just telling Paul bluntly to go into the city to await further instructions, Jesus makes him a stunning “offer”:

I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. (Acts 26:16-18, NRSV)

Though we typically think of Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles, Jesus already knows that Paul will preach to both Jews and Gentiles, and will face opposition from both as well. He promises to rescue him, then describes the mission in terms that the well-trained Pharisee surely understood and appreciated: Paul will turn people “from darkness to light.”

The words echo those of Isaiah, words spoken by God to his righteous servant: 

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isa 42:6-7)

Later, a righteous man named Simeon would take the baby Jesus in his arms and apply similar language to him, declaring the child to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). And still later, Jesus himself would take up Isaiah’s imagery:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19; cf. Isa 61:1,2)

Saul the zealot had blindly pursued his program of persecution against Christians, until Jesus met him on the road to Damascus. Having inflicted him with literal blindness, Jesus commissioned Saul to open the eyes of others, to bring them out of darkness and into the light. The prophetic reference could not have been lost on him, and he had plenty of time to think things over as he stumbled about in Damascus. 

Think about it: when we read Isaiah’s prophecy of the Servant, we readily think of Jesus, and rightly so. But Jesus then applies that imagery to Paul, who will join Jesus in his mission of salvation. He will testify to all that he has learned from Jesus, and spread the good news of forgiveness.

To someone steeped in the Scriptures as Paul was, there could be no greater honor.

It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.