Paul's Conversion

Traditional Physical Description and Conversion Summary

From Luke's record of Acts and Paul's own writings, we have been able to reasonably establish a picture of Paul's earlier life. Some have asked if there is anything written which describes how Paul (and for that matter, Jesus) looked. A late 2nd century apocryphal writing described Paul as:
  • Small in stature
  • Bald head
  • Crooked legs
  • Strong body
  • Eyebrows meeting
  • Nose crooked
  • Very friendly
We don't know whether this is correct. However, this could fit the traditional description of many people. The cover of Paul the Apostle gives an interpretation of Paul. For Christians however, the important thing about this man is he became the most outstanding Christian preacher and theologian of all time.

There are three accounts of the conversion:

The accounts are slightly different but are essentially the same. The differences will be discussed later. All accounts have the setting of persecution. Paul led the activities to oppress the believers of Christ. The "straw that broke the camel's back" was the trial and stoning of Stephen (Acts 11:19; 8:1-3). Even though Paul was on his way now of all out persecution, he could not forget Stephen's cry to God asking God not to lay blame on the people for what they were doing (stoning).

Paul would actually enter the houses of believers, take them for beatings, and imprison them (Acts 22:4; 22:19; 26:9-11; Phil 3:6; 1 Tim 1:13). However, it also stopped instantly upon the conversion (Acts 9:31). Paul could not have done much of his activities if he were not supported by influential persons, the Sanhedrin. The synagogues were the places concerned with the discipline of blasphemy (Acts 8:3; 9:1; 22:4; 22:19; 26:10-11). The discipline could go from beatings to death. Paul was enraged with the "blasphemy" of the believers. He even cursed Jesus for all His activities and belief. Before the stoning, the Sanhedrin had been wrestling with the ideals of the man Jesus's followers, especially Stephen (Acts 4:1-21; 5:17-42). The brilliance of Stephen's presentations and arguments caused much controversy. Although not documented, it is suspected Paul and Stephen argued face to face many times in the synagogue. Even Gamaliel experienced frustration (Acts 5:33-40). But the anger of the people and Sanhedrin reached its peak at the final arguments of Stephen (Acts 7:51-60).

One major fact with which Paul wrestled was a crucified Messiah was a contradiction of terms. A man from a tree is cursed (Deut 21:23). Also, Stephen's speech convinced all that Jesus' followers would forsake both the law and the Temple. No Jew could tolerate that.


The Road to Damascus


Making plans for increased persecution involved going to Damascus. This was a distance (approximately 135 miles from Jerusalem) but would be worth the effort. Paul had not only the blessing of the Sanhedrin but received letters from the Sanhedrin introducing him to the priests and religious leaders of Damascus and telling them the purpose of Paul's visit (Acts 9:1-2; 22:5; 26:12). None of the Jews of influence would reject his goals in this journey. He was to "collect" the Christ believers for punishment. Some part of this trip was for his pride. It was hurt when some fled to Damascus from Judea to escape Paul. But he was also interested in those who lived in Damascus. The Sanhedrin's authority was recognized even outside Jerusalem. Also, Rome generally let the Sanhedrin govern themselves on religious matters (up to but not including death). Permission had to be obtained from Rome for an execution.

Josephus reports there were a large number of Jews in Damascus. He said there were 18,000 Jews massacred there in 66 A.D. (Jewish War 2.20.2). Paul and his traveling companions were walking, most likely with no horse or donkey; so it would have taken many days (with horse or donkey was 3-4 days). No one knows how he traveled, with whom he traveled, where he stayed at night, the roads he traveled, or where he rested. If we follow the traditions of the day, he would have traveled in the cooler parts of the day. He would have rested during the mid-day in the shades of trees. At night, he probably stayed with fellow Jews. His companions could have been either: a group of persons going to Damascus together for companionship and safety, or a group of persons lead by Paul and chosen by Paul and the Sanhedrin to travel together.

According to Scripture, Jesus appeared to Paul about noon (Acts 22:6; 26:13). Because the Law did not permit walking long distances (~3000-3600 ft., little over ½ mile) on the Sabboth, it would appear they would have started the trip to try to finish by the Sabboth (Friday evening). They may have been pushing themselves in their traveling on Friday so they could make Damascus by sundown for the Sabboth.

All accounts say a light from heaven brighter than the sun shone about him (Acts 9:3; 22:6; 26:13). Paul then fell to the ground with his companions (Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14). Then Jesus spoke in Aramaic (Acts 26): "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" (Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14). Now two of the accounts, Acts 9 and 26, refer to Jesus as saying it is hard for Paul to "kick against the pricks". In some Bible versions, it is also written, "kick against the goad".

This is a statement for further examination. First to understand this statement, an understanding of the word "goad" is necessary. All of us have heard the statement "goad him on" or "goad her to action". This means to push or probe or incite. It turns out the goad is actually a strong stick about 8 feet long. It had a point at the end. It was used to prod or stick animals to keep them moving. The oxen were prodded when pulling the plow, etc. Of course the animals did not like to be stuck with the goad so sometimes they kicked.

It is obvious Jesus was making the point that Saul was having a problem. Apparently Paul was having a problem reacting against or forgetting (kicking) an inner problem (goad or prick). It is also possible this refers to the "pricks" from the followers of Christ. As stated earlier, Paul could not shake from memory some of the actions of the followers. Most writers tend to believe Paul was more convinced Jesus was the Messiah than he was willing to outwardly show. Therefore, the goad or prick was most likely the inner pressure to convert to a follower of Christ. The "Kicking the habit" phrase is similar to what is happening to Paul; he cannot "kick" or get rid of the inner fight or tension that Jesus the Messiah counters his previous knowledge. Remember also part of the problem is he also could not "kick" the thought of Stephen's audibly forgiving the people who were killing him before he died.

Paul responded to Jesus by asking who was speaking. Jesus identifies Himself and tells Paul he is persecuting (Acts 9:5; 22:8; 26:1). Paul asks what he should do (Acts 12:10 only). Jesus says to go to Damascus and await further instructions (Acts 9:6; 22:10).

What happened to his fellow travelers? There is a little difference in the scripture for this point. In Acts 9:7 the men were speechless. They heard a voice but saw no man. In Acts 22:9 the men saw the light and were afraid but did not hear anything. There is nothing in Acts 26. There appears to be a conflict until one examines the grammar of the original Greek. In Acts 9, they may have only heard Paul's voice. But most likely the word "voice" (in Greek, the genitive case - for grammar scholars), the object of "hearing" (hearing a voice) indicates the kind of thing you actually hear with your ears. In Acts 22 the word "voice" (in Greek, the accusative case - again, for grammar scholars) which refers to "the extent of hearing". In other words, they may have heard but not understood.

Also, in Acts 9 the men "stood" while in Acts 26 they fell down. Probably the words are correct in both. They probably fell down and then stood up. Paul remained prostrate. "Stood" could also mean they stopped and does not refer to the position of the body. Sounds rather trivial, but scholars still dwell on differences that appear to be contradictions.

It appears from the scriptures Paul actually saw Jesus in the body. The Apostles considered this a very important point which Ananias and Barnabas emphasized (Acts 9:17; 9:27; 22:14; 26:16; 1 Cor 9:1; 15:5-8).

His answering to Jesus' call was "Who art Thou, Lord" (NASB). Why would he have said Lord? There are translations that say "you" for "Thou" and "sir" for "Lord". The Greek "kyrios" could have meant a very respectful address to a human as well as God. But, it appears Paul must have had an idea who the person was to whom he was speaking. It appears he knew it was Jesus because it seems he answered quickly, with knowledge and with reverence.

One other "contradiction" is in the comparison of Paul's account on what he was to do. In one account (Acts 26:16-18), Jesus gave the commission to Paul on what he was to do. In the other two accounts (Acts 9:15-16; 22:14-15), Ananias gave Paul his commission. In all likelihood, both gave Paul the directive. Paul was probably made the message shorter for the purpose of his presentation to King Agrippa.

Can you imagine the feeling? You have had an experience that you cannot explain to any other person. On top of that, YOU ARE BLIND! Paul was guided by his companions into Damascus to the house of Judas (don't have much info on him) on the "street called Straight". Can you imagine his mixed feelings. He was blind (maybe for the rest of his life, for all he knew); he now had to depend on other persons (not his style); and he was still excited. He was to remain at the house of Judas not eating or drinking for three days; he was just praying. He was awaiting the next step the Lord wanted him to take. There is documented a vision Paul had during those three days (Acts 9:12). He received a vision of a man named Ananias coming to him to give Paul back his sight.

Paul's Healing

Now Ananias was a disciple of Jesus (Acts 9:10). We don't know too much about this man. He was a respected person in the Damascus Jewish community. He was a devout man that followed the Law. He was chosen by God to administer to Paul. God came to Ananias and said to go to Paul on the street called "Straight". He would then remove Paul's blindness and baptize him. However, Ananias had heard of Paul and his oppression against the Jews. He had heard the Sanhedrin was behind Paul and his visit to Damascus. God would not hear anything about this. He said to go. This man has been selected to spread the good news of Jesus among the GENTILES. This was much different charge than Paul had ever planned to accomplish. Ananias went obediently to Paul. Paul, during those three days, probably prayed all the time and thought very hard about all he knew of Jesus and His followers. So with the knowledge and the vision of Ananias, he was probably prepared for Ananias's position in his conversion.
Ananias greeted Paul at Judas's house as "brother". Paul knew what this meant to the Jesus followers community. This was a loving greeting extending the love of the family of Jesus. Surely there was much about which they talked. However, Ananias did three basic things:
  • He "laid hands" on Paul and restored Paul's sight. The accounts state Paul's eyes were covered with something resembling "scales". This was not an ordination; it was a blessing and a touch of fellowship and healing (Acts 9:17).
  • He baptized Paul (Acts 9:18; 22:16).
  • He delivered God's charge of what Paul's job would be for the rest of his life (Acts 9:15; 22:14-15; and probably Acts 26:16-18).
Paul's Ultimate Mission

There are a few things very evident Paul would carry throughout the rest of his entire life.
  1. He was chosen by God;
  2. What he had experienced and would experience in the future was what God chose for him for his special understanding;
  3. He was to bear witness in the Lord's name;
  4. He was to witness to all people, but special emphasis was placed on Gentiles; and
  5. He would suffer.
Throughout his and Luke's writings these points exhibit themselves. We already know God chose him. We also know he was chosen and on his way to some special understanding. In addition, he has already suffered. But, his life for Christ is just starting.

There is some discussion at what point his conversion actually took place. Was it when Jesus spoke to him? Was it when Ananias touched his eyes? Was it at the baptism? The point of conversion is not as important as knowing he was converted. Maybe we are trying to put to many details on how God does "business". Some say he had a fit of epilepsy. Sure, it is possible. But we do not know of any other "fits". What about sunstroke? No. It is better to see it as put to us in the Bible. Paul had an experience that is hard to explain but was real. Conversion IS a supernatural experience. One turns an about face in his way of living and thinking. It is important to remember none of what Paul learned about being and believing a Jew is dropped. On the contrary, Jesus lived as a Jew; so, Paul with his zeal and knowledge would represent and preach of Jesus using the background from the Jewish heritage.

One final point usually brings discussion: was he an apostle? The accepted definition for an apostle was that person must have seen Jesus in body either before or after the crucifixion. If one were to just take Paul's word, we would have justification for doubt. However, his actions guided by God, his miracles, his preaching, the confirmation by Barnabas, the eye witnesses to "some sort " of appearance with the supernatural, Ananias's assistance to the miracle of Paul's conversion confirm that Paul filled the criteria. Paul was to the uncircumcised as Peter was to the circumcised (
Gal 2:7). In other words, Paul's function was to administer to the Gentiles.