I have often read the Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke. Luke at one time served as a missionary companion Paul. This put Luke into a good position to write about Paul’s experience, because likely he heard firsthand from Paul of his famous conversion experience.
In Acts chapter 9, Luke records the experience. Saul (as he was known before his conversion) was journeying on the road to Damascus. There shined round about him a light from heaven, and he conversed with the Lord Jesus Christ. The experience left him blind, and he was led to a disciple named Ananias in Damascus. Ananias also received a vision, and was prepared for and expecting Paul’s arrival. Ananias blessed Paul using the authority of the priesthood of God, and Paul’s sight was restored. Luke next describes that Paul started defending the Church and the gospel of Jesus Christ in Damascus, and then journeyed straight on to Jerusalem, where he met the apostles and begin his missionary work.
It all happened in succession, one event after another, in just a part of one chapter of the Holy Scriptures.
At least, that is what I always thought.
Recently I saw something in Paul’s epistle to the Galations that makes me wonder if that sequence of events is exactly right?
In Galations Chapter 1, Paul is concerned that the people are quickly turning away from the truths and polluting their religion with false ideas of men (verses 6-9). This may be an interesting topic to consider; for Saul before the conversion was concerned with changing or relaxing the Jewish laws in any way.
He reminds them of his own conversion experience, of which he has already shared with them before (verse 13). Then he emphasizes that he learned the gospel by revelation from God.
After the experience, “immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood” (verse 16).
“Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles;” he says, still under the ‘immediately’ description of time, “but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus” (verse 17, italics added for emphasis by me).
Next, Paul gives us a time reference. “Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother” (verses 18 – 19, italics added for emphasis by me).
Now, with those phrases I emphasized, let me piece together what I am seeing:
Saul had been taught his entire life at the feet of Jewish leaders and learned men. His entire life and purpose had been devoted to learning the Jewish law. Saul was so fiercely loyal to this that he arranged to have the Christians imprisoned and Stephen killed for preaching against the law (Acts 8:1-3). Saul was a man who felt his entire life purpose was for defending the law against any other ideas that would pollute the truths he had grown up with.
Then one day, out of the blue sky, the Lord Jesus Christ – in Saul’s mind enemy number 1 – appeared to him. It was such an abrupt occurrence, and Saul was left confused, daized, and shell-shocked. Everything he knew was instantly proven wrong; his life’s purpose and footing was like having a rug yanked out from under him.
Jesus even told him he was receiving a new name. In Abraham and Jacob’s situation of old, it was symbolic of putting off an old life and starting a new life. Paul understood the Jewish scriptures and knew what this symbolism must mean to him, and it probably felt like another slap in the face telling him he had been wrong about everything.
Paul was taken to Damasus and healed by by a disciple of Christ in the name and authority of Jesus. This solidified to Paul the truth, and also established that he had been so wrong.
What was Paul to do? He was such a devoted, determined, and head strong man.
He took some time out. He went to Arabia. He spent up to three years studying and learning everything again. He reconciled his life of learning the Jewish law with his new life and belief.
It didn’t happen overnight for Paul. It took a long time.
Then he “returned to Damascus,” where he defended the faith as Luke described. After that, he went to Jerusalem, as Luke described.
It is instructive to see who Paul spent time with in Jerusalem. He visited with two key people: Peter, the apostle and eye-witness of the Lord; and James, the half-brother who had special insights knowing Jesus as He grew up. I can’t think of (and apparently Paul couldn’t either) two better men to ask questions of and clear up any misunderstandings about the life and teachings of the Lord.
So what does this mean?
First, the scriptures are still true. Luke had it right, but he left out a detail. No harm done – lots of details have been left out of the Holy Writ (see John 21:25). It gives us the challenge to read more carefully and to listen for the Spirit to teach us what is missing.
Next, it gives me a better understanding that Paul a real human being – one who had weakness, and who struggled through his conversion like the rest of us must do also. He had a couple of major miracles occur in his life, but those miracles didn’t change him overnight. He still had to struggle with his past, and come to terms with his new life. He had to develop faith through the same was we do – prayer, study, communion with the Holy Ghost, etc. He had to search for a new balance in his life, between what he had been taught by the world and what he was being taught by the Holy Spirit. We all do. Paul’s experience with salvation was not cheap. A vision from God did not mean that he received a magical shortcut to gain all of those things. I imagine that in those three years, his soul was tormented with anguish, and that he spent much time in repentance, prayer, and study as he worked to reconcile himself with his Lord.
Paul’s example gives me hope for changing and becoming better in my life too.
And the rest of Paul’s life fell into that pattern. He had to deal with the fallout of his Jewish friends who felt he was betraying them, while righting the wrongs and earning the trust of brothers and sisters in Christ.
Paul would later tell the Corinthian saints that no trial or temptation comes to you which is not common to man. God is faithful, and provides a way through all of these. (see 1 Corinthians 10:13)
In all of this, I freely admit that I could be wrong about this. I have no special proof that what I am describing is how it actually happened. The pieces seem to fit together so well, and the lessons work for me, that I’ll go with this version of events for now.
That is, until I am taught something else new later.