The Conversion of Saul of Tarsus
Joseph D. McPherson
Date Posted dec. 4, 2009

When and where did the conversion of Saul of Tarsus really take place? Did the supernatural transformation of this man take place on the road to Damascus prior to his entering the gates of that ancient city? There are many who would answer this question in the affirmative. Others are not so sure. In any case, few would disagree with those who consider the conversion of Saul of Tarsus one of the most fascinating of New Testament accounts.

Luke, the author of the book of Acts mentions Saul three times in chapters 7 and 8 before giving us the details of his conversion in chapter 9. He is shown to be a furious opponent of Jesus Christ and His church. We are informed that when Stephen was martyred, witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul who was giving his approval to the death of this saint. Following Stephen's martyrdom we find Saul exerting enormous effort in an attempt to destroy the church, going from house-to-house in search of Christians, dragging both men and women off to prison. Wayne Keller concludes that "Beside Satan, Saul was the Lord's greatest enemy." His intention was to destroy all those that claimed to be followers of Jesus Christ.

We can see that Saul's attitude toward Christianity was diabolical. Prison and even death were instruments by which he hoped to put an end to the infant church. He was willing to travel far and wide to have men and women arrested. Saul's zeal in his persecution of the Church did not stop with the local vicinity of Jerusalem. We read that he acquired letters from the high priest with authority to arrest any Christians he might find in the synagogues of Damascus and bring them as bound prisoners back to Jerusalem. Some believe that Christians in Damascus at that time were not original residents but probably Hellenistic Christians who had fled from Jerusalem. It is thought that the high priest would have had no direct authority over the permanent residents of Damascus since they were not in his immediate jurisdiction.

Luke refers to the threatened Christian community as "the Way." It seemed to be a common name by which the church identified itself. Luke used the term several times in Acts. The name recalled the words of Jesus when he said, "I am the way" (John 14:6).

Some prefer to think that Saul was on horseback as he traveled toward Damascus. Luke doesn't tell us whether he was riding on a horse, a donkey or was just walking. We do know, however, that as he drew near to the city, an exceedingly bright light appeared out of heaven. The light was so overpowering that Saul fell to the ground. He then heard a voice calling out to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Up to this time Saul had been convinced that he was fighting God's cause. He hadn't so much as imagined himself to be persecuting God. He had rather thought of himself as one defending God against a group of religious apostates.

Saul answered the voice from heaven with a question: "Who are you Lord?" The Greek word for "Lord" in this place is kurie, used in the vocative case and often means simply "Sir" - a title of respect. Before Jesus had so much as identified himself, Saul is asking, "Who are you kurie." We can hardly say that by his addressing Jesus as kurie, or sir, that this was a confession of faith. Rather it was an expression of awe, punctuated with alarm and profound respect. We understand that within Saul's ancient culture, people used the word "Lord" not only when addressing deity, but also when speaking in an attitude of respect to a person of higher rank."

Even after the voice identifies Himself as "Jesus whom thou persecutest" it is hardly likely that the full implications of Jesus' reply should have been grasped by a dazed and shocked man and translated into full Christian commitment all in a matter of seconds. Both Charles Carter and Ralph Earle, writing in The Evangelical Bible Commentary of Acts conclude that Saul was only arrested and convicted on the Damascus road, and was not converted and renewed until ministered to by Ananias. This same view was embraced by church fathers and by Wesley, Fletcher, Clarke and Richard Watson.

There is no doubt that the voice that spoke to Saul shocked him when He answered,"I am Jesus." Jesus is a personal name, the one given Him on the day of His circumcision because it established His identity as the One who saves. When the risen Jesus told Saul he had been persecuting Him, an important point was being made. Saul had not persecuted Christ directly, but he was persecuting believers and that was the same as persecuting Christ Himself. While persecuting the church Saul was persecuting the body of which Jesus is the head. Jesus Christ and His church are one. Saul could not ignore the fact that he had been persecuting the followers of Jesus, and that Jesus was alive and in some way was identified with God the Father, whom Israel worshiped. As a result of this conclusion, he had to revise his whole thinking about the life, teaching, and death of Jesus. It is apparent that the glorified Jesus, the Messiah, had indeed appeared to Saul. The importance of this revelation is later emphasized by Paul in his writings. He had seen the risen and glorified Jesus, and this was as real as Jesus' appearances to His disciples after His resurrection.

"And he [Saul]trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do." The men traveling with Saul stood speechless. They heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul, confused and shocked, found himself blinded and had to be led into the city and house of Judas by the men who were with him. For the next three days blind Saul fasted, without a doubt meditating on the meaning of his encounter with Jesus. Commenting upon those words, "And he was three days without sight," Wesley says, "So long he seems to have been in the pangs of the new birth."

So far from considering Saul a regenerated Christian immediately following his experience on the road to Damascus, the saintly John Fletcher describes him as suffering "agony of penitential grief, when he spent three days and three nights in fasting and prayer." It was a "groaning beneath the weight of sins, and under conviction of a two-fold blindness" [Works. 1:579; 3:16].

Luke next introduces Ananias as the person through whom God would restore sight and reveal to Saul the nature of his future ministry. Ananias was a Jewish Christian believer and a resident of Damascus. Paul later called him "a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there." Ananias had a vision from the Lord in which he was told to go to the house of a man named Judas who lived on Straight Street in Damascus. There he would find Saul actively praying. In fact, the Lord had already shown Saul how his prayers were to be heard. For what the Lord was telling Ananias to do, He had already revealed to Saul in advance. In a vision, God showed Saul that a man by the name of Ananias would place his hands on him and restore his sight.

We are not surprised when it is told us how uneasy Ananias was concerning a meeting with Saul. In straightforward openness Ananias expressed his fears of this man and what he had heard from many about him. Those from whom Ananias had heard terrifying reports about Saul were very likely fugitive Christians who had fled from Jerusalem to Damascus. Ananias referred to the Christians as saints. He referred to them as "all who call on your name." He knew all about Saul's plans regarding the Christians in Damascus and his authority to arrest those Christians. He laid all of his fears concerning Saul before the Lord. The Lord responded to Ananias by giving him a glimpse of what Saul was to accomplish in future ministry. "I will show him how much he must suffer for my name." The great task of Saul was to take the gospel to the Gentiles.

With this understanding of Saul's future role, Ananias entered the house of Judas and addressed the praying man as "Brother Saul." It was common for Jewish men to greet one another with "brother" as a word of racial kinship. Ananias was simply haling Saul as a fellow Jew. Such a friendly greeting would tend to put Saul at ease--assuring him that his past would not be held against him. "It is unlikely," says one writer that, "Ananias would call one a Christian who had neither yet received the Spirit nor yet been baptized."

We recall that when Peter was beginning his sermon on the day of Pentecost he began with, "Men and brethren, let me freely speak." Although those to whom he was about to speak were yet unconverted, because they were fellow Jews he called them "brethren." We cannot therefore assume that Ananias' greeting of "Brother Saul" means that Saul's conversion was complete. The most that can be said was that he was in the process of becoming a Christian. James D. G. Dunn stresses the fact that Paul's three-day experience was a unity. In other words, his conversion, properly speaking, was a crisis experience extending over the three days from the Damascus road to his baptism.

Over in the 22nd chapter, Paul retells the whole story of his conversion. Listen to his personal testimony. "Ananias," says he, "came unto me, and stood, and said unto me, Brother Saul, receive thy sight. And the same hour I looked upon him. And he said, the God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth. For thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard. And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord."

"According to the author's use of terms," writes Dr. Robert Lyon, "this is conversion language: baptism, forgiveness of sins, calling on the name of the Lord. Here we see that the visit of Ananias to Paul represents the culmination of the latter's conversion, at which time he is filled with the Spirit, that is, he received the Spirit." Dr. Lyon continues by explaining that "What we have here then is another example of this experience of the Holy Spirit at conversion. It is Paul's initial encounter with the Spirit.

Lyon concludes, "The baptism in the Spirit, far from being the second experience and an experience subsequent to . . . being born of the Spirit, stands scripturally at the heart of conversion. . . . Perfection in love is a follow-up of that baptism in the Spirit which sets the believer on course."

Adam Clarke assures the reader that Saul became "a thorough Christian convert" only after being baptized, which symbolized washing away of sins and his calling on the name of the Lord. It is of paramount importance to recognize both water baptism and Spirit baptism as initiatory events and therefore to be scripturally understood as taking place at conversion. Water baptism is symbolic of Spirit baptism. It is not water baptism at conversion and Spirit baptism later in a second work of grace. By following carefully New Testament teaching we see they are both parts of the new birth process in a justification and regeneration experience. None beyond the day of Pentecost were considered to be Christians who had not the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9).

"There are," writes the Rev. John Fletcher, "three states through which all the children of Adam must pass before they can be real Christians." The first state is "that of an unawakened or 'natural man,' who neither loves nor fears God." The second is "that of a penitent man, or returning sinner, who, being awakened into a real concern for his salvation, fears God and the threatenings of the law, and dreads death with its consequences." The third state is "that of a man 'under grace,' or a true believer, who loves God above all persons and things, and rejoices in the expiation and pardon of his sins, which he has now received in Christ by a living faith. We see these three states exemplified in the clearest manner in the life of St. Paul."