Acts 9:1-19 (AD 31)
“I had a bit of a Damascus road experience”, has come to mean something little more than, ‘There was a big wow and I changed my mind in a good way – big time!’ The original event was rather more spectacular.
The actual Damascus road experience involved as close to a 180 degree turn as is possible. Paul was a persecutor of Christians, convinced not merely that he didn’t like them, but that they were anti-God heretics who were an existential threat to the entire Jewish race. Left unchecked, he believed, there was a danger they would bring down God’s further curse on the nation, leaving them without their still-waited-for saviour for centuries to come, continually under the heel of the Roman Empire.
So what, specifically, changed him?
Look at verses three to five. Paul heard a voice that he identified as being from heaven. He asked for confirmation of who it was, and the person identified as “Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (v.6).
We have already noticed in our travels through the gospels, that Jesus’ focus was on demonstrating and proving who he was, and then being verbally open about it. All that was so we might trust (in) him, and be saved and reconciled to God through what he did. John said that was the whole purpose of the book he wrote (John 20:30-31). Luke, in the beginning of his gospel account and this book, emphasises the need to record reliable accounts of what Jesus did, which proved who he was.
Same deal here. Once Paul understood who Jesus was, everything changed for him.
So much so that, more or less uniquely, his conversion came with a unique and highly specific calling: “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (v.15).
There it is again – the focus on Jesus’ person and identity: “my name”.
And yet again, in the next verse: “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name”.
Paul wasn’t called to take a new doctrine to the world, he was called to take Jesus to the world, to tell everyone who Jesus was on earth, and who he still was in heaven.
You and I have the same calling: we are here to tell other people who Jesus is and why that matters.
Paul wasn’t previously called Saul in the sense of changing his name. Rather, as a Jew and a Roman citizen he was likely given both names at birth, using the name Saul while he was a Pharisee. Then, after conversion, when he was conversing with Gentiles he referred to himself as Paul. It’s entirely possible that he continued to go by ‘Saul’ with his Jewish contacts.