The Conversion of Paul of Tarsus
The next case of conversion discussed in the book of Acts is that of the man today known as the apostle Paul. Acts chapter nine chronicles the supernatural intervention of the glorified Jesus Christ before Saul of Tarsus, who was on a quest to destroy followers of “the Way” (9.2). The apostle to the gentiles had originally been a devout Jew, a Pharisee by rabbinic training, and a persecutor of the church (Gal. 1.13-14; Acts 22.3-5).
Near the end of his ministry, Paul would later say, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy” (1 Tim. 1.15-16). These are the words of a sincere man. But he was not only sincere, he was inspired (Gal. 1.11-12). This statement, then, is genuine and authoritative.
There are three very important words in this statement to understand the conversion process: “to save” (sosai), “sinners” (harmartolous), and “received mercy” (eileeithan). The general principle is that Jesus came for the purpose of bringing salvation to sinners. But instead of using a term like salvation (though this idea is included), Paul describes the salvation process with the phrase “I received mercy” (1 Tim. 1.13, 16).
Paul did not earn his mercy, but in the conversion process he was saved by being a beneficiary of the worldwide redemptive ministry of Jesus. It is critical that we ask how this mercy was obtained. The book of Acts provides three narratives of the conversion of Paul to answer this query (Acts 9.1-19, 22.3-16, 26.9-18); let us therefore consider these inspired texts.
Luke Narrates Paul’s Conversion and Call – Acts 9.1-19
Luke, the historian, chronicles the event of when Paul’s conversion in nineteen verses. Paul persecuted the church, and despite the fact that he heard Christian preaching when he went into church services to bring back bound disciples to Jerusalem (9.2, 21; 22.5; 26.10), it did not dissuade him (9.1; 26.9). It took the supernatural intervention by the ascended and glorified Christ.
After establishing the case for the authenticity of the Christian claim through the blinding appearance of Jesus, and the Lord demonstrating to Paul that the Christian movement is divinely sanctioned, Paul was told to go into Damascus and to await further instruction (9.6). Some have thoughtfully observed a peculiarity in this passage: the resurrected Lord does not provide any specific instruction on how to be saved, i.e. how to receive mercy.
Instead, the Lord prepares Paul for instruction that will be forthcoming. In fact, this instruction will tell Paul what is necessary (Greek dei) for him to do. This lends further evidence that mercy and obedience are not mutually exclusive when speaking of receiving the benefits of the salvation offered through Jesus (4.4, 5.12-16, 6.7).
Enter a reluctant disciple named Ananias, whom the Lord prodded to go to Paul with the anticipated instruction. Paul had spent three days in repentance through his prayers and fasting (9.9), and Ananias arrived to bring the divine message. Paul’s blindness was cured, he been “filled the with Holy Spirit”, and after these events Luke chronicles, “he rose and was baptized” (9.18). After this moment, Paul’s activity as a Christian is well documented.
Paul’s Defense of his Ministry to Jews in Jerusalem – Acts 22.3-16
Upon Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem, James warns him of popularized misinformation many Jews held about him. Jerusalem Jews were misled to believe that Paul taught that Christianity meant a rejection of Moses and the Jewish faith (22.17-25). In truth, however, the Christian faith is the fulfillment of the Jewish faith (Gal. 3.15-29).
In the temple, Paul is cornered by a Jewish mob. When allowed to defend himself, he speaks of his past zeal as a devout Pharisee and how his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus changed his life (22.3-11). Paul stated that he asked the Lord, “what thing shall I do?” As in Acts 9, he is to go to Damascus and wait to be told “all that is appointed” for him to accomplish.
Paul speaks of Ananias as the Lord’s courier, who provides the content of what Paul is appointed to accomplish (22.12-13). There are two main themes here:
(1) Paul is to serve in an apostolic capacity as a revealer of God’s will (22.14-15), and
(2) in order to begin this new work Paul must submit to baptism (22.16).
Expanding the language, we are to understand Ananias’ language as follows: “get yourself baptized” and “get your sins washed off”.
This language strongly echoes Acts 2.21 and Acts 2.38-41; hence, “calling on his name” is what one does when submitting to baptism to obtain mercy – salvation through the blood of Christ (22.18).
Paul’s Case Heard before Festus and King Agrippa – Acts 26.9-29
After spending over two years under guard by Roman authorities in Palestine, Paul appeals to have his case heard before Caesar – a privilege he held as a Roman citizen (Acts 22.25-29, 26.32). Before he makes this appeal, Paul speaks before Festus and King Agrippa and provides context to his situation.
Paul explains that he has been faithful to Moses and the scriptures which prophesied of a coming messiah (26.4-8). He affirms that he was sincerely opposed to the Jesus movement (26.9-11), but this ended when he was confronted by the Lord (26.12-18). It is in this light that Paul speaks of his apostolic calling.
In response to this encounter, Paul affirms, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision” (26.19). As in the previous two passages, Paul was to go to Damascus, and there receive instruction from Ananias. What was Ananias’ instruction? He affirmed the Lord’s apostolic calling, and that Paul himself was to become a beneficiary of the salvation in Christ by being baptized.
This is the conversion process Paul was commissioned with (Acts 26.18):
To open [the Gentiles’] eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.