Saul was a young man who burned with zeal for Israel’s God, in the tradition of Phineas and Elijah. On the road to Damascus, he had an experience that is often called a conversion experience. However, Paul would not have seen it this way.
Before the experience, Saul believed that when he was arresting and beating up the followers of the Way, he was acting consistently with Israel’s story and defending Israel’s God.
After the experience, Saul had not exchanged his old narrative for a new one. Rather, he experienced something that meant that everything that he had previously believed about Israel’s story had to be radically revised in the light of new evidence.
In the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, something had happened that meant that the world was now a different place. The crucified Jesus appeared to him. Everything he believed about God, God’s people and God’s future – the three pillars of Jewish belief – needed to be rethought.
Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden because they listened to the snake and stopped living out their vocation. They were exiled from the garden.
In Abraham, God launched a rescue mission. Israel was God’s rescue plan. However, Israel also failed in her vocation and was exiled in Babylon. The rescue mission needed rescuing.
Jewish people in Saul’s day lived with the realisation that although they had returned to the promised land and the holy city, yet they were still in exile.
Exile was the result of Israel’s idolatry. Israel needed forgiveness.
This was what Isaiah promised: Comfort, O comfort my people … (Isa 40.1) Hope! The prophets promised restoration. God will return to Zion. A new temple. (Isa 40.4-5; 52.8; Ezek 43.1-5; Exod 40.34-38). Heaven and earth will at last be brought together. This is the mysticism that lies in Ezekiel’s strange vision of God. It may be that this was what Saul was meditating upon as the travelled to Damascus.
Saul’s transformation, was not the formation of a new kind of religion. Rather, Israel’s God had at last done what he always promised he would do.
Straight Street in Damascus is part of an ancient Roman road, now called Bab Sharqi, crossing the old city from west to east. The Jewish quarter lies on its southern side.
Saul was taken to a house in the old quarter where he waited, blind, for three days.
Not eating. Not drinking. Praying.
As he prayed he saw a vision of a man named Ananias coming to lay hands on him to regain his sight.
Ananias also had a vision. The Lord commanded him to go to Judas’ house on Straight Street to look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. Ananias had some reservations. He knew of this Saul of Tarsus. He knew he was coming to Damascus to wreak havoc on the followers of Jesus as he had done in Jerusalem. Nonetheless, he was to go.
Ananias arrived on the third day. Jesus had told him three things: Saul was praying (pretty normal for a righteous Jew); he was God’s ‘chosen vessel’ to carry the good news to the nations and kings and the children of Israel; he would suffer for Jesus’ sake.
‘Brother Saul’. Ananias recognised Saul as part of a ‘fictive kinship group’—Jesus followers formed a new kind of family. Jesus sent Ananias so that Saul would see again and receive the Holy Spirit. When he laid hands upon him, something like scales fell from his eyes. He got up, received baptism and ate some food.
Luke compresses his narrative. It sounds like all of this happened at once, but we need not assume that Saul received his sight and the next day was in the synagogue preaching Jesus. More likely prior to his baptism, Ananias or one of the fugitives from the Jerusalem church, instructed Paul in the basic catechesis – the foundational beliefs about Jesus the messiah.
He hints at this in 1 Corinthians 15. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve…
Baptism for new believers on many occasions in Acts occurred soon after they came to believe in the crucified Jesus as the risen Lord. Christian baptism signals the beginning of a new life under a new king, looking back to Jesus’ baptism and further back to Israel crossing the Red Sea. Dying and rising with Jesus. Old life gone. Rise with Jesus. Baptism marks out Messiah’s people.
Saul also received the Holy Spirit.
The dawn of the Age to Come
Gordon Fee argues that two things convinced Saul of Tarsus that the world had turned and the long-awaited age to come had arrived: resurrection and the gift of the Spirit.
Saul saw a vision of the resurrected Jesus. As a Pharisee, believed in resurrection. But resurrection belonged to the age to come when God returned to set things right. When this happened, God’s spirit would also be poured out upon everyone.
Resurrection and the presence of the Holy Spirit are the key signs of the arrival of the age to come. The startling realisation for Saul, was that these two events occurred, but the present evil age appeared to be rolling on as normal.
In NT times, most Jewish people held to a two-age view of the future. The technical term for beliefs about the future is eschatology (Gk eschatos = ‘last’; logos = ‘the study of’).
Jewish people believed that they were still stuck in Exile. Even though they had been back living in the promised land since the days of Nehemiah and Ezra, they were ruled over by pagan Romans. The present age was evil – a time of sin, sickness, suffering and death.
The ancient prophets—Isaiah, Amos, Joel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel—foretold a coming age when God would return to Zion. Messiah, the promised son of David would defeat Israel’s enemies, establish peace (‘shalom’ – a much bigger idea than the absence of conflict) and righteousness. This is the age to come. The righteous dead will be raised back to life; God’s spirit will be poured out on everyone.
The writers of the NT all share the same eschatological viewpoint, a modification of the standard Jewish two-age viewpoint. There are two ages: this present evil age (Gal 1.2) and the age to come.
The startling change in their viewpoint is that the age to come has broken into this present evil age with the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, who is both:
- Messiah—the long-awaited son of David; and
- Lord—God himself returning to Zion in the person of Jesus.
The tricky thing to navigate is that the arrival of the age to come did not bring this present age to an end. Evil still lurks. Wicked men still rule. The righteous suffer. Sin, sickness and suffering afflict the people of God and everyone else.
The difference is we, who have given allegiance to Jesus the Messiah, no longer belong to this present evil age. We have tasted the powers of the age to come (Heb 6.5). We live in this present evil age, but we belong to the age to come. We get to bring the presence of the Holy Spirit and the powers of age to come into the lives of those around us.
We live ‘between the times’, in the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ under the gracious rule of a wise and generous king, who fills us with this Spirit, listens to our prayers and intercedes for us at the right hand of the living God.
Live like you belong to the age to come.