The Feast of Paul’s Conversion

The Feast of Paul’s Conversion is January 25th. My own celebration of this feast is a little early, but the divine hours prayer manual is not set to specific dates. The readings for today focus on Paul, and the morning reading was Acts 26, which documents his conversion.

In reading it this morning there were a number of details that stood out afresh in light of reading NT Wright’s book What Saint Paul Really Said. Yes, with Wright’s presentation of context and examination of Paul’s words in light of it, I felt like I had a new sense of, well, what Paul really did say. I’m not saying that I’ve transcended tradition and the limits of my current perspective, but I have a sense that Paul’s words make more sense and make him a bit more real in his context.

You could analyze many parts of this passage, including Paul’s fascinating introduction where he states that he is on trial for his hope of in the Resurrection. You may find some other parts worth looking at more closely, and I welcome that, but I wanted to share a few observations of selected portions.

9 “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. 11 And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.

According to NT Wright, the goal of Saul and the Pharisees was calling Israel back to covenant faithfulness. They obeyed the law within the context of the covenant, not out of a works-based conception of going to heaven. The Jews of Paul’s time were waiting for God to renew Israel, end the exile, and bring in the Messianic Golden Age.

So the problem that faced the Pharisees was the apostate group of Christians who were departing from the covenant and thereby ignoring the law. This created grounds for violent action, in fact any means possible to bring the wayward Christians back to the covenant and Torah observance that characterizes those connected to God through the covenant.

15 And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17 delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles–to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes, so 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.’

This section is so good that it’s worth getting up for a refill of my tea.

OK, now I’m set. This is the moment where Jesus essentially blows apart Paul’s Second Temple Jewish theological system. Jesus first of all appropriates Paul as his witness and servant who will testify concerning what he has seen and will see from Jesus. I’ve always missed that subtle part. Jesus is going to appear to Paul again in the future. He says, “the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you“. In other words, Paul is receiving a direct line of sorts with the Messiah. One wonders if this reminded the Jews and Gentile god-fearers of Moses or another OT prophet who had such visions and encounters with the living God.

And the part that is even more interesting is that Jesus simultaneously sends Paul into the teeth of his enemies and promises him protection. He doesn’t promise failure such as in Isaiah 6, which is encouraging, but there is a hint of perile if he will be in need of deliverance. And remember, Paul is in court, standing trial with the very people from whom Jesus promised deliverance. How would that have hit them?

Another part of Jesus’ message is a simple summary of the Gospel. Opening eyes, turn from darkness and Satan to light and God, receiving forgiveness of sins, and a place among the elect who are sanctified by faith: all of these are parts of the Gospel that Jesus preached. Paul isn’t making this up, it has a lot of continuity with Jesus. What shines through with particular clarity is the “Christus Victor” concept of salvation: God saving his people from darkness and evil.

In addition, it should also be noted that at the time of Jesus’ first revelation to Paul, the church was largely Jewish with precious few Gentiles. The people who were known as the elect were the Jewish people for the longest time. Since the appearing of Jesus to Paul, the concept of election had expanded to all Gentiles through faith, the very same thing that began the covenant with Abraham.

19 “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. 21 For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. 22 To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: 23 that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”

We once again have another summary of the Gospel: “that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” This bears curious resemblance to the message of Jesus and John the Baptist. And don’t miss the Jewish emphasis on turning to God, and for a Jew in Paul’s day faith was a key part of that. You could not turn to God without entering into a covenant relationship, and faith was the key. But Paul, like other Jews of his day, never separates faith from deeds and makes it clear that he preached the linking of repentance and obedience. How can people expect to be part of God’s covenant people if they will not live in obedience? If we have a hard time with this, we need to refresh ourselves with the cycles of the OT. Covenant, disobedience, punishment, repentance, renewal, restoration of covenant, and then more disobedience.

Though it’s hard to grasp fully here, we have a glimpse of Paul’s theological shift. The promises of restoration and renewal have now come in the person of Jesus, bringing salvation to both Jew and Gentile. The prophets and Moses spoke of Christ’s suffering, resurrection, and proclamation. Somehow Paul reinterprets the OT through Jesus. I don’t quite have a handle on all of this, but I don’t see what else Paul could be up to here. And once again we have the Gospel: The Christ comes to suffer, rises in order to conquer death (Israel and humanity’s true enemy), and then gives the promised renewal to all humanity. The restoration is happening now through the work of Jesus through the Spirit.