Yesterday we concluded by looking at the first two striking things that Paul would have noted concerning Stephen’s death. The third thing about Stephen’s death was the way he died—not cursing or pleading for life, as some might have done, but peacefully and in an atmosphere of prayer. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then, as he fell to the earth he cried, in obvious imitation of his master, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59, 60). Could Saul have died like that? Like many religious people, Saul’s faith enabled him to kill others for it. But would it help him to die peacefully? Stephen’s death would have made even the stoutest persecutor think deeply.
Still, Paul did not stop his persecutions. Not until he was himself stopped by Jesus on the way to Damascus. Paul was going to Damascus because the sect that he was trying to eradicate had spread there. Indeed, it was worse than this, though Paul may not have known about it at the time. The chapter before the one that recounts Paul’s conversion tells how the gospel had spread to Samaria and how Philip had shared Christ with an Ethiopian who was returning to his own country and who undoubtedly himself spread the gospel there. But what Paul knew about was Damascus. Damascus lay one hundred and forty miles north of Jerusalem. So “breathing out murderous threats” against the Christians, Paul “went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1, 2).
As he was approaching Damascus toward the end of his journey, suddenly a bright light shown from heaven, and Jesus stopped him with a word: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Paul replied.
The Lord answered, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (vv. 4-6).
This was the most important and profoundly shattering experience of Paul’s life. And it utterly transformed him. As a Jew steeped in the Old Testament, Paul would not have been totally shaken by a theophany or a voice of God from heaven. After all, God had spoken to Moses and to other Old Testament personalities in this way. The shocking thing about this theophany was that the One speaking identified himself as “Jesus.” This meant that Jesus was in the place of God or was God. Moreover, he identified himself with the Christians Paul was persecuting. In persecuting them, Paul was persecuting Jesus. So the Christians were right all along, and he was in error. Jesus was risen, and the Christians were right to follow him.
In his treatment of these themes, Lyttleton, whom I mentioned at the start, argued that in order to make the claims about his conversion that he does, Paul would have had to be: 1) either an imposter, who said what he knew to be false; 2) an enthusiast, whose imagination overwhelmed his mind; 3) a person deceived by the fraud of others; or 4) a person converted to Jesus Christ in exactly the way he says he was converted. If this latter is true, then Christianity must be “a Divine Revelation.”