The second thing Paul talks about is his conversion, when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Paul had been consumed by zeal for his religion. It had blinded him to what he was actually doing. But when Jesus appeared to him, he suddenly understood. God had stopped him short. Before this he had thought he was doing God’s work. But when Jesus suddenly appeared to him, he learned that in persecuting Christians he had been persecuting the very Son of God, opposing what He was doing in the world.
From a purely human point of view it is remarkable that Paul was converted at all. Lord Lyttleton, in his classic study of the Apostle Paul’s conversion, approached the story as a lawyer investigating the possible options. His case went like this: 1) Paul had nothing to gain by his conversion; 2) Paul had everything to lose by his conversion; therefore 3) the conversion must be genuine and the story must be a true one and not be made up.1
What advantage was there to Paul to become identified with the sect of the despised Nazarene? Paul had wealth, education, and status. His future was in Judaism. Humanly speaking, there was nothing for him to gain by becoming a Christian. And not only was there nothing to be gained by his conversion; he also had everything to lose, because, if he made the switch, all his friends would turn against him. He would be an outcast. More than that, his life would be in danger. He would be hounded from place to place; he would be persecuted.
So how was Paul converted? What explains it? The only possible answer is that Paul was converted because the Lord Jesus Christ—the real Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory and not a myth created by the early Christians—appeared to him on the Damascus road.
Jesus spoke. “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?”
Paul recognized that this was a theophany, an appearance of God. “Who are you, Lord?” he asked.
It was Jesus who answered. “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.”
When Paul heard that he stopped in his tracks and, already knowing a great deal of what the answer implied, asked humbly, “Lord, what will you have me do?”
That brings us to the third part of Paul’s testimony. When Paul asked what he was to do, Jesus replied that he was to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. He takes a while to tell this, because he must have sensed that for his hearers this would be the difficult part of his speech. He tells of going into Damascus, of the visit of Ananias, of receiving his sight again, of his subsequent journey to Jerusalem. But at last he gets to the point of his commission, saying, “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles’” (v. 21).
That is where the speech stops, but not because Paul himself would have stopped there. It stops at that point because when Paul mentioned the word “Gentiles,” those who had been listening relatively quietly up to this point suddenly burst into the loudest possible turmoil, yelling, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!” (v. 22). The noise was so loud that there was no possibility of carrying the address further. So the commander simply ordered the soldiers to bring Paul inside and prepare for an interrogation.
The commander did not understand what was happening. But he must have been impressed when Paul, who a moment earlier had spoken to him in fluent Greek, suddenly addressed the crowd in Aramaic. Besides, he did so with such rhetorical skill that he immediately succeeded in quieting the people down. The commander, being Greek and a Roman officer, probably did not understand Aramaic very well, but Paul’s rhetorical abilities and initial success must have impressed him. Unfortunately, just when he thought things were under control, suddenly everybody burst out screaming. “What in the world has this man said?” he must have wondered. “What has he done?”
The only thing Paul had done was say: “Gentiles.”
1Lord Lyttleton, The Conversion of St. Paul and Gilbert West, The Resurrection of Jesus Christ (New York: American Tract Society, 1929).