The story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is told by Luke in three places in the Acts of the Apostles in chapters nine, twenty-two and twenty-six. In Acts twenty-six, Paul, a prisoner awaiting to be sent to Rome for trial looks back on his life and ministry and tells King Agrippa, “And so, King Agrippa, I did not disobey the heavenly vision”. The heavenly vision on the road to Damascus influenced his whole life and ministry. Throughout Paul’s life, this heavenly vision remained with him, guiding him, sustaining him and strengthening him. It remained with him as a permanent and dynamic force in his life. He faced a lot of difficulties and trials in his ministry. He had been beaten, imprisoned, ship wrecked, hungry and thirsty and gone without sleep. But in the midst of all these, he could say, “When I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

The vision of God and his call are not temporary things or passing phenomena in the life of a Christian.  The vision of the crucified and risen Christ brought about a crisis of faith for Paul. It shook the very foundation of his religious life. Paul’s conversion was not the conversion of a penitent sinner. He was not like Martin Luther who failed to please God even by the strict observance of the monastic rules. In later life Martin Luther said that if ever a monk could go to heaven by his monkery, he would have been there twenty-five years ago.

Paul was a religious man, a proud Pharisee, who was proud of his Jewish background, proud in the membership of the people of God. He was circumcised on the eighth day, Israelite by the tribe of Benjamin, born and bred a Hebrew. In attitude to the law he was a Pharisee, in zeal for his religion he was persecutor of the Christian church, in righteousness of the law faultless. He loved his nation; he loved his race. He sincerely believed that the way of salvation for the whole world is in and through Israel, the elect of God, the covenanted community. Hence, he defended the Jewish law and Jewish religion. He persecuted the Christians, not because they were bad people, but because they claimed that Christians were the true people of God, the election and covenant belonged to them and not to the Jews. Who would tolerate such a blasphemy? Paul burned with zeal for his religion.

Thus, Paul was journeying to Damascus to persecute the Christians. Then came the shattering experience on the way. He heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul asked, “Tell me Lord, who are you?” “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” came the reply. It shattered the very ground on which he stood. His belief that the clue to God’s dealing with his creation was the Jewish nation, crumbled to pieces. There was another way, faith in Jesus.

Religion and religious enthusiasm need not be always good. We live in a time when religions have become great problems, a real threat to peace and community. Paul was a religious enthusiast. So was Moses in his early days. In his zeal for his race, he went and killed an Egyptian. This was so with the Zealots of the time of Jesus. This is so with the sectarianism of our time. My country, my race. my language and my denomination have become an obsession with many of us. We often mistake loyalty to God with religious fanaticism.

The vision of Christ crucified and risen liberated Paul from his religion. From that day he wrote off all his religious assets for the sake of Christ. He was one who had believed in the unique place of Israel in salvation history. It was only in and through Israel that God would deal with other nations. His encounter with the risen Lord had opened his eyes to the fact that the salvation of Israel, as well as the salvation of the whole world, was to be appropriated through faith in Christ. Before the cross of Christ, both the Jew and the Gentile were equal and nobody could make any special claim for salvation: Jesus the Messiah was not the Messiah of the Jews alone who had come to deliver them from the hands of the Romans, but he was the saviour of all people, including the Romans. It was an unbelievable discovery. Paul saw the cross of Jesus Christ as the place where the salvation of both the Jew and the Gentile took place. Later he could write that there was neither Jew nor Gentile, neither free or bond, neither male nor female in Jesus Christ. On his cross he had broken down the middle wall of partition between peoples and nations.

The purpose of God was not to save Jews alone but to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. It was this cosmic vision of the Lordship of Christ and the election and salvation of all people in him that separated Paul from Judaism. It was a cosmic vision, an Ecumenical vision. Its horizon was the outer boundary of the universe. It was this vision which made Paul an apostle. The Lord told him: I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and bear witness … to whom I send you to open their eyes, 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. (Acts 26: 16-18).

God is letting us realize just how vulnerable we humans are in a broken world. Indeed, were it not for God’s mercies, we would experience even more deadly threats than the pandemic to our existence. The world is not what God intended it to be; it is broken, because of our sin, and we, apart from his mercies, so very vulnerable. But there can be light in the midst of darkness. Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour is the Light of this world. Christmas is the time to celebrate the incarnation of God through the birth of Jesus, God’s only Son. In him and through him, Paul received the Light. Like Paul, we can also be the agent of transformation if only we allow ourselves to receive the Light, Jesus the Christ, and fight for the darkness in and around us to pass. As Paul was called by God to proclaim this Light, let that be our conviction and affirmation too in this coming Christmas!
Rev. Dr. M. Mani Chacko
General Secretary
Bible Society of India

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