The Conversion of Saul of Tarsus
In his popular volume, Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History, first published in 1912, Adolf Deissmann (who did so much to demonstrate the nature of Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament) once said that the true historical investigator must rescue “the paper Paul of our western libraries.” He spoke of the “Germanized, dogmatized, modernized, stilted Paul.” And one might add, the “denominationalized” Paul. False images must be stripped away from the historic Paul, the “actual Paul of ancient days” (1957, 4).
Paul is a pivotal character of history. From a relative first-century obscurity, to a modern international figure, no one, aside from Jesus Christ himself, has been so influential. An absence of some acquaintance with the name “Paul,” tells more about one’s self than ought to be known.
Exactly when Paul began his bloody mission of savagery against the church of Christ is unknown with any degree of precision. The fear of him was significant, and those beyond the borders of Palestine trembled at the mention of the name of this “wolf” who stalked “the fold of the Lamb” (Acts 9:13,26; cf. 26:11).
Saul of Tarsus first appears in the biblical record as a witness to the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr to the cause of Christ—even “consenting” to his death (Acts 7:58; 9:1). Henceforth his persecution of Christians, as portrayed in the book of Acts via his own testimony, was relentless—though he thought sincerely he was doing Jehovah’s will (23:1; 26:9). Pursuing the saints even unto foreign cities (26:11), he beat, imprisoned, and had them put to death (22:19). Later he would write that “beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and made havoc of it” (Galatians 1:13). The horrible memories of these vicious attacks would linger with the sensitive apostle for the balance of his earthly days (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:9; Ephesians 3:8; 1 Timothy 1:15).
That frenzied ambition to exterminate Christianity from the face of the earth was to radically change, however. And the record of how that occurred is as amazing as it is inspiring.
According to Luke’s historical record (Acts 9:1ff), Saul, armed with arrest warrants for those of the Christian Way, departed from Jerusalem en route to ancient Damascus, some 140 miles to the north. As he drew near that city, a light brighter than the noonday sun suddenly engulfed him. A voice inquired: “Saul, Saul, why do you continue to persecute me?” The double use of his name suggests a reproof (cf. Matthew 23:37; Luke 10:41; 22:31). Saul responded: “Who are you, Lord?” The title “Lord” was employed at this point as a mere term of respect, for he knew not who had addressed him.
The voice was identified as Jesus of Nazareth! The stunned persecutor was instructed to enter Damascus where he would be informed as to what he “must do.” Blinded as a consequence of this miraculous vision in which Christ actually appeared to him (9:17; 1 Corinthians 15:8), Saul was led into the city.
For three agonizing days he fasted and prayed. Finally, Ananias, a messenger selected by God, arrived. He restored Saul’s sight and commanded him to “arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). After certain days passed, the former persecutor began to proclaim among his fellow Jews that Jesus “is the Son of God” (see Acts 9:19-22).
The Conversion Motive
Saul’s dramatic transformation has perplexed infidelity for many centuries. It requires some reasonable explanation.
Lord George Lyttelton (1708-1773) was an Oxford educated scholar who also served with great distinction in the British Parliament. Initially he was highly skeptical of Christianity. He determined he would do a critical examination and expose’ of Luke’s record of Paul’s “conversion experience.” He believed he could establish that Paul’s radical transformation was grounded in base motives of self-interest. He knew there had to be some rational justification for such a major alteration of Saul’s life.
After carefully researching the matter in a thoroughly scholarly fashion, he reversed his skeptical view, having concluded that Paul’s conversion was genuine. There was no reasonable explanation for the radical turnaround, other than the fact that Paul actually had seen the resurrected Christ on the Damascus road. The Christian movement was founded, he therefore concluded, upon the truth that Jesus of Nazareth in fact was raised bodily from the dead.
In 1747 Lyttelton published his book, Observations of the Conversion of St. Paul, in which he argued for the truth of the Christian system. This book, incidentally, is still in print after 200 years—a rare phenomenon in publishing. Lyttelton concluded:
- The apostle was not an imposter who deliberately advocated that which he knew to be false; indeed, why would he suffer so much persecution for what he knew to be a lie?
- He was not an enthusiast who was given to “an overheated imagination”; he was a disciplined logical scholar of the first magnitude.
- He was not deceived by the fraud of others for he claimed his revelation to be independent of the other apostles. Even his critics acknowledged his rugged independence.
And so, as McClintock & Strong suggested, this argument itself constitutes “a demonstration sufficient to prove Christianity to be a divine revelation” (1969, 592). Thus, for honest people, the apostle Paul stands as an imperishable monument to the inherent power of the good news regarding Christ.
Why Three Accounts?
Some have criticized the book of Acts for containing three accounts of the conversion of Paul. It has been alleged that this makes the New Testament record unnecessarily redundant. Further, it is charged, the varying narratives conflict with one another in the details presented. The allegations are both superficial and false.
First, there is the initial historical narrative as recorded by Luke in Acts 9. It hardly needs to be mentioned that long ago Luke passed the test of being a superb historian. Sir William Ramsay, who investigated Luke’s writings in the light of archaeological data, contended: “Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness” (1979, 81). The primary function of Acts 9 is to sketch the basic details of Saul’s conversion to Christ.
Second, Acts 22 constitutes Paul’s “defense” of his change, from opponent to proponent of Christianity, to his Hebrew kinsmen (v. 1). The narrative is designed to show that there is a connection between his Jewish background and his present religious posture. He wanted his Israelite brethren to realize that there was no conflict between Judaism and Christianity, as divinely designed. Rather, the former was intended to be preparatory to the latter (cf. Galatians 3:23-25), and thus the lesser was to give way to the greater (as argued in the book of Hebrews).
Third, the aim of Paul’s “defense” in chapter 26 was to argue that Christianity was never intended to be a political rival to Rome. Paul thus presented his case before Festus, a Roman procurator of Judea under Nero Caesar’s authority, and Agrippa II, a Jewish “king” who was the last of the bloody Herod line. Agrippa’s father executed the first apostle martyred for Christ (Acts 12:1-2). Agrippa was very familiar with Jewish affairs, hence was an ideal source of information for Festus. That the apostle’s argument was successful is demonstrated by the declaration of the unlikely confederation: “This man is doing nothing worth of death or imprisonment.” Indeed, as Agrippa commented: “This man might have been set free, if he had not appealed to Caesar” (Acts 26:30-32; cf. Blaiklock 1959, 186).
Errors Concerning Paul’s Conversion
It is a heartbreaking tragedy that many writers—with a personal theological agenda—have so misconstrued the events of Paul’s conversion.
First of all, we must insist that the accounts must be viewed as harmonious documents. To do otherwise would be a great disservice to the biblical concept of inspiration. The Bible, being the word of God, must harmonize. The Lord is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). Additionally, this fundamental principle of interpretation must be borne in mind: when two or more texts address the same theme, and one is clearer than the others in some particulars, the more obscure must yield to the lucid. With these thoughts in view, three common errors must be addressed.
- It is frequently asserted that Paul’s conversion occurred on the road to Damascus. There is not a scintilla of evidence for that theory. Saul saw Christ on the road and was convinced that he was the risen Jesus. The persecutor asked what he should do (22:10), and he was instructed to enter the city, where he would be told what he “must do” (9:6). There is nothing in any of the three records that would indicate that he received pardon on the Damascus road. In fact, we find him still in his sins at the time Ananias arrived (22:16).
- Following the Christ’s injunction, Saul entered Damascus. For three days he neither ate nor drank, and he prayed vigorously (9:9,11). It is sometimes alleged that Saul’s prayers were the means of his salvation. Again, however, this conflicts with Paul’s later testimony. The preacher sent by Jesus commanded: “And now, why do you wait? Arise, and be immersed, and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (22:16). Some have contended that the use of the term “brother” (9:17) indicates that Saul was recognized already as a Christian. Not so; “brother,” was a common form of address such as any devout Hebrew might employ to a national kinsman (cf. 2:29,37; 3:17; Romans 9:3).
- Some, appealing to 9:17b, would venture to suggest that Saul was saved by a supernatural outpouring of the Holy Spirit. There are a couple of serious problems with that view. First, it assumes what the text does not say. Second, the reference to being “filled with the Holy Spirit” was, we believe, an allusion to the Spirit’s empowerment of this man as an apostle of Christ—though some see this as a reference to the ordinary “gift of the Holy Spirit” subsequent to his baptism (2:38; cf. McGarvey 1892, 178; Coffman 1976, 187).While Ananias was a preliminary instrument in the process that would lead to Paul’s spiritual endowment, the Holy Spirit was not conveyed to the penitent Hebrew by means of Ananias’ hands.As a non-apostle, the Damascus disciple did not have such power; that acquisition was to be provided directly by the Lord Himself (Matthew 3:11; Acts 2:33; 2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11).The New Testament does not cite the precise time when Saul was filled with the power of the Spirit.The notion that the reception of Saul’s sight and the endowment of the Holy Spirit occurred at the same time is not demanded by the text under consideration (cf. Woods 1976, 62). These things aside, this theory likewise contradicts 22:16.
An Analysis of Acts 22:16
Since this text is so pivotal to our study, special attention should be given to it. Paul recounts that at the conclusion of his instruction, Ananias commanded him: “And now, why do you tarry?Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”He urges the penitent persecutor to linger no longer; rather, he is to “arise” (probably from his prone position of prayer; cf. 9:11). It is a noteworthy observation that if baptism could be administered by the sprinkling of water, there would have been no need for Saul to arise prior to submitting to the rite. Of course the verb baptizo (to immerse) excludes sprinkling regardless.
The apostle says he was told to “be baptized.” The original form is interesting.It is a middle voice form, literally therefore: “have yourself immersed” (cf. Robertson 1930, 391). In his New Testament Greek Grammar, W. E. Vine stated that the aorist tense, together with the middle voice, suggests “a decisive and immediate” action, and that Saul personally had to make the arrangements for his immersion (1965, 132). This language is consistent with the concept that baptism is a personal decision.The instruction here given is not in accord with a practice such as infant baptism, wherein the subject is wholly passive, having nothing at all to say regarding the time or manner of his baptism.
The fact that baptism here is associated with cleansing from sin has been a real “thorn in the flesh” for theologians who deny the connection.Both Robertson (Ibid., 391) and Pohill (1992, 461) concede that the language is capable of being viewed as a proof text for the essentiality of baptism, but on strictly arbitrary grounds they reject that idea.The sacred text must not get in the way of one’s denominational bias!
Consider this bit of confusion.H.B. Hackett, a Baptist scholar, acknowledged that “wash away your sins” states “the result of the baptism, in language derived from the nature of that ordinance. It answers [corresponds] to eis aphesin hamartion [for forgiveness of sins] in 2:38, i.e., submit to the rite in order to be forgiven” (emphasis added).He then negates that by asserting that baptism is only a “sign” of “repentance and faith which are the conditions of salvation” (1879, 276).But Robert H. Stein of Bethel Theological Seminary, in addressing the question: “Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?,” affirmed the following regarding 22:16. “Washing away one’s sins is here clearly connected with baptism and the calling on Jesus’ name” (1990, 330).
The discussion of this passage in Thayer’s Greek Lexicon is interesting indeed.
For the sinner is unclean, polluted as it were by the filth of his sins. Whoever obtains remission of sins has his sins put, so to speak, out of God’s sight—is cleansed from them in the sight of God.Remission is [represented as] obtained by undergoing baptism; hence those who have gone down into the baptismal bath [... cf. Tit. 3:5; Eph. 5:26] are said . . . to have washed themselves, or . . . to have washed away their sins, i.e. to have been cleansed from their sins (1958, 65).
In submitting to immersion, one is actually by that act “calling on” the Lord’s name. Lenski observes that the aorist participle, “calling on his name,” is “either simultaneous with that of the aorist imperatives [get yourself immersed and washed] or immediately precedes it, the difference being merely formal” (1934, 909).
There is, of course, no way that mere water could “wash away” sins.The water of baptism contains no magical essence.It is not a “sacrament” by which sins are washed away by the simple utterance of certain words, as in the Roman Catholic system of things (wherein infants, aborted fetuses, and the insane are supplied the ritual—see Attwater 1961, 45).Immersion is, however, the divinely appointed means of accessing the blood of Christ (Romans 6:3-4), and to deny such is a repudiation of the plain testimony of the New Testament.
The New Testament record of the conversion of the apostle Paul is a tremendously important element of Christian history.It has a significant apologetic thrust, and is likewise wonderfully illustrative of the crucial elements of the Lord’s plan for human redemption.
- Attwater, Donald. 1961. A Catholic Dictionary. New York, NY: Macmillan.
- Blaiklock, E.M. 1959. The Acts of the Apostles – Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Coffman, James Burton. 1976. Commentary on Acts. Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing.
- Deissmann, Adolf. 1957. Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History. New York, NY: Harper & Bros.
- Hackett, H.B. 1879. A Commentary on the Original Text of the Acts of the Apostles. Andover, MA: Warren F. Draper.
- Lenski, R.C.H. 1934. The Acts of the Apostles. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.
- McClintock, John and Strong, James. 1969. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. Vol. 5. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- McGarvey, J.W. 1892. New Commentary on Acts of the Apostles. Vol. 1. Delight, AR: Gospel Light.
- Pohill, John B. 1992. Acts – The New American Commentary. Nashville, TN: Broadman.
- Ramsay, William. 1979. The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Robertson, A.T. 1930. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. 3. Nashville, TN: Broadman.
- Stein, Robert. 1990. Difficult Passages in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Thayer, J.H. 1958. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh, Scotland: T.&T. Clark.
- Vine, W.E. 1965. New Testament Greek Grammar. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Woods, Guy N. 1976. Questions and Answers. Vol. 1. Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman College.