I have been a Christian since I was about 4 years old. I have grown up in a Christian home and have read my Bible quite a bit throughout the last 22 years. As I have grown and matured in my faith Paul has become one of my favorite characters within the Bible. I have always been so impacted by the way that he lived his life as a complete sacrifice for the Lord. My prayer throughout my study of Paul has always been that God would cause my life to reflect that same sacrifice and dedication. As I have continued to learn more about Paul, his theology and the reasoning behind his extreme transformation, I have seen that this life of dedication came from his simple and yet complexly powerful revelation of who Jesus was and what He had accomplished by dying on the cross and being raised from the dead. Of all the things to talk about when it comes to Paul, I cannot get away from the fact that everything he taught and lived for stemmed from the one moment where Christ was revealed to him.
The objective of this paper is to show why Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus was so powerful that it took Paul from persecuting those who followed Jesus to calling himself a slave of Christ Jesus himself. Paul’s life took a complete 180 degree turn after his vision of Jesus and I want to examine what Jesus revealed to him that was so impacting. I will start by showing how Paul’s background and upbringing hugely influenced his life and then was even used in a powerful way after meeting Jesus. I will show how the revelation that Paul received gave him no other option than to dedicate his life to the spreading of the gospel to all who would believe. First, I will explore who Paul was before he was confronted with the risen Lord.
A closer look at Scripture reveals a great deal about Paul’s upbringing:
Acts 21:39 – Paul is a Jew and also a citizen of Tarsus, which he describes as “no obscure city”.
Acts 22:28 – Paul was a Roman citizen. Though it was possible for people to purchase this citizenship for a large sum of money, Paul distinguishes that he did not have to purchase his Roman citizenship but had been born into it.
Acts 22:3 – Paul states that while he was born in Tarsus, he was brought up in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel.
Acts 26:4-5 shows us that this upbringing was among the Pharisees, which he characterizes as the strictest party of the Jewish religion. Gamaliel, if it was the same Gamaliel mentioned in Acts 5:34 was the most prestigious rabbi of his time.
This was no small education that Paul had received. This is communicated even further in the book of Philippians. In Phil. 3:5-6 Paul gives more insight into the history of his education as a Jew. Not only does he show that he was born into the tribe of Benjamin, but he was a Pharisee. The Pharisees were known as the “straitest sect” of the Jewish religion. Paul describes himself as the best of the best when it came to being a Jew. Each of these characteristics mentioned of Paul would have been significant in the Jewish religion. I will talk about why in a bit, but let’s first look at where Paul came from.
Tarsus, as Paul described it was “no obscure city”. Tarsus in fact, was the leading city of Fertile Plain of East Cilicia. It was a very prosperous place and having become a Roman province, enjoyed many privileges of being such, one of which was the exemption from imperial taxation. Those who were citizens of Tarsus were very dedicated to the study of culture, philosophy, liberal arts and education and learning as a whole. Though the students were mostly local and often left Tarsus to further their education, the entire city applied itself to education and could have been characterized as a “university city”. The prosperity of Tarsus was mainly due to the fact that it was located on the Fertile Plain. Tarsus was well known for its linen woven from flax that grew there and also from a substance called cilicium which was made from goat’s hair. We see in Acts 18:3 that Paul was a tentmaker. According to F.F. Bruce, tradesmen in Tarsus were excluded from citizenship because there had been a law put into place by Athenodorus that stated that 500 drachmae was required in order to obtain citizenship within Tarsus. If it is true that Paul was a citizen of Tarsus, as claimed in Acts 21:39, then it would also be safe to say that Paul came from a wealthy family, because they had enough money to buy their citizenship. But not only did Paul claim to be a citizen of Tarsus, he also claimed Roman citizenship, which he was born into and did not purchase (Acts 22:28). Roman citizenship was beneficial in many ways but most importantly it meant that a person was not able to be bound or to be put into prison without first having a trial and neither were they permitted to be scourged or whipped. Also, a Roman citizen had the right to appeal to Caesar. All of this is important in order to understand Paul’s status within society, but I believe his Jewish upbringing was most important to look at.
As I have already noted above, Paul makes claims to his Jewish upbringing in Philippians 3:4-6 where he states:
“though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless. “[ESV]
From these verses we see that Paul was not only born a Jew but was of the tribe of Benjamin. This was obviously something significant because Paul also mentions it in Rom. 11:1. When Israel split into the northern and southern kingdoms, the tribe of Benjamin found itself in the southern kingdom of Judah. It was during this time that tribal identity was often lost, but there were the few that dedicated themselves to making sure that did not happen. These people became known as “the children of Benjamin”. This is probably the group that Paul descended from. Another thing that we see from these verses is that Paul was a “Hebrew of Hebrews”. Paul distinguishes himself clearly as a Hebrew and, from looking at Acts 6:1, it is shown that there was a distinction made during that time between Hellenists and Hebrews. Both were Jews, however Hellenized Jews were those who had been assimilated into Greek culture, spoke Greek , and even attended synagogues where Scriptures had been interpreted into Greek. Paul felt it was important to note that he was not a Hellenist because he had grown up around Hellenized Jews. Paul’s purpose in mentioning this was to show that he had the purest upbringing of Jewish culture and religion.
If all of that was not enough, he was also a Pharisee. Pharisees were known for their strict adherence to the Jewish Law. The name Pharisee actually came from the Hebrew word “parash” which means to separate. They had most likely come from the Hasidim who had fought along with the Maccabees in the revolt against Antiochus IV when he had tried to “Hellenize” the Jews. Out of this revolt came two groups of devout Jews, the Essenes and the Pharisees. The Essenes lived completely separate while the Pharisees remained active within the Jewish people, only separating themselves by their dedication to keeping the Jewish law in its entirety. They were most well-known for their strict adherence to the law in the areas of tithe and ritual purity since these areas had become less important to many other Jews. The Pharisees were very strict when it came to interpreting the law and knowing what it said on all matters (Acts 26:3).
The question that comes to mind is, “If all of this devotion to the study of the Word of God [being the OT Law] is true, then how could Paul’s mindset have been so contrary to that of God’s before meeting Christ on the road to Damascus?” For the answer it is necessary to look at the gospels and what Jesus had said to the Pharisees, and about them, before moving on with Paul:
Matt 23:13-15- “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.” [ESV]
Matt 23:23-24 – “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” [ESV]
Matt 23:25-26 –“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” [ESV]
Matt 23:27-28 – “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”[ESV]
Luke 11:43-44 – “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. 44 Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”[ESV]
It is clear from these passages that Jesus was more concerned about the condition of a person’s heart than their appearing to be perfect.
On the outside the Pharisees appeared to have it all together but they were following the Law for all the wrong reasons. In Galatians 3:19, Paul comes to the conclusion that the purpose of the law was actually to highlight sin, thus showing man their need for a Savior. But how did Paul come to that conclusion when his life was so marked by the influence of the Pharisees and he had become as zealous as any of them, if not more, in his striving for religious perfection? In order to determine this, the events of Paul’s life leading up to his experience on the road to Damascus must be examined.
Beginning in Acts 6, there was a group of men, namely scribes and Pharisees, who had become outraged at the things that Stephen had been speaking. Stephen had been preaching that Jesus was in fact the Righteous One, the Messiah, and they had betrayed and murdered him (Acts 7:52). Paul [then called Saul] had been amongst those who were outraged by this teaching and he gave approval of Stephen’s execution by stoning (Acts 7:58-8:1). It was after this that Saul zealously persecuted the Christian church for what they were teaching about Jesus. It says that he was “ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” So what was Paul really upset about? Why was it so unacceptable for Jesus to be the Righteous One; the One who was to come; the Messiah? The Pharisees too were expecting a Messiah to come, but it was not going to be someone who was crucified. How could it have been when Deut. 21:23 clearly stated that a man hung on a tree was cursed by God? The Pharisaic understanding of how the Messiah would come and what he was coming to do was completely different than how Christ came and what he actually did.
The NT reveals what the expectation was of the Messiah’s coming and what they thought it meant for the nation of Israel. After the time of Daniel, “the Messiah” was a title that referred to a king that was prophesied to come. But, as the Jews continued to struggle against political rulers, the Messiah was also thought to be a political and military ruler who would come and establish his kingdom for the people. They believed that the Christ was going to come performing signs and wonders, but also that he would rescue his people and deliver them from their enemies, after which he would set up a kingdom and rule forever (John 7:31; John 12:34). Psalm 2 speaks of this Messianic King being “God’s son” and shows that God will give him rule over the nations. So for Paul, his expectation was of a physical kingdom that was going to be set up, where the Messiah would rule and reign forever. I can imagine then that there was a definite need for concern in Paul’s mind when Jesus was crucified on a cross yet people proclaimed He was the Messiah. It was completely contradictory to what the Scripture told him was going to happen when the Messiah came, not to mention that Jesus must have been cursed by God in order to have died that way. Paul saw the movement of people proclaiming Jesus as Messiah to be an extreme threat for the nation of Israel as he considered them to be “led astray”. He saw no other option than to put a stop to it in a permanent way. Thus it comes to Saul the Persecutor, who was determined to completely wipe out this belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.
Now in Acts 8 it shows that Paul was “ravaging the church” and from Acts 9:1-2 we see that Paul, “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” had gone to the high priest in order to obtain warrants of arrest for those who were followers of Christ in Damascus that he might bring them to Jerusalem to be imprisoned. And it was on this road to Damascus that Paul met the risen Lord.
Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened.
For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” [ESV]
In the flash of a moment, everything changed for Paul.
Not only did he stop his persecution of the Christians, but he immediately began proclaiming Jesus as well. This is an extreme transformation. As a Pharisee who had grown up in a wealthy family of very devout Jews, Paul had it all. He had studied at the feet of the most prestigious Pharisee; he was leading the way for battle against this blasphemous movement of Christians; and he had climbed to the top of the ladder both politically and religiously. He was striving for religious perfection and he was well on his way to attaining it, until he met Jesus. In that moment, Paul received a revelation that was so profound for him that he was willing to leave all of his “accomplishments” behind and live a life completely dedicated to the One whom he had persecuted. So what exactly did this encounter mean to Paul and why did it show him that Jesus was indeed the Messiah?
Paul was now face to face with the resurrected Jesus. It was not resurrection that Paul as a Pharisee would have had a problem with. In the OT, it is shown in many places that there was an understanding of life after death for those who were found righteous before God. (Ps. 49:15; Job 19:25-26; Isaiah 26:19; Hosea 13:14). There was a hope amongst the people of Israel that the righteous would meet God after death. But, Jesus’ appearing to Paul in His resurrected form changed everything for Paul. As I said before, the idea of resurrection was not something completely off base according to the Pharisees, because within the resurrection of the righteous there was an understanding that the time for God to fulfill His promises was upon them (Isaiah 26:19; Hosea 6:3; Daniel 12:2; Ezek. 37:9). But how could this be if Jesus was cursed by God? Paul was now faced with the reality of the resurrection which pointed Paul to Jesus’ true righteousness. The time for God to fulfill what was said in the OT was now! Jesus had appeared in his resurrected form and in the same way that Yahweh had appeared to those in the OT. Now what Paul was seeing was that Jesus was not only the Messiah but he was the cosmic Lord of the Universe as well. When Jesus told Paul that it was Him that Paul had been persecuting, this would have meant that those who believed in Him were now identified with Him. If that was true, then what Jesus had accomplished on the cross had changed everything. It had brought about the long expected day of salvation. As Herman Ridderbos says, “It is the ‘appearing of our Savior’ that is the proof of the great turning point of the times. For this reason the whole content of the mystery that has now been revealed can be qualified and summarized in the one word – Christ”. What Stephen had been proclaiming was true! The way Paul had been looking at the Messianic King was completely wrong. Not only that, but now everything he read in the OT had to be looked at through a different lens. Talk about a humbling experience!
For Paul, when the risen Christ appeared to him and said what he did, he realized that there was a paradigm shift. Suddenly there was a realization of what Jesus had really accomplished on that cross by taking our transgressions and how he was truly establishing His kingdom. It was not a physical kingdom as he and so many had thought, but a spiritual one and the rescue for the people of God was a spiritual rescue as well. He realized that it was always meant to be a resurrected Messiah that would fulfill the promises of God. Everything was falling into place now in a new way. It was like someone had given him a key to this massive filing cabinet where everything he had read in the OT now was put into the right place and was organized in a way that made complete sense. He had never looked at it this way before. And the way that God had chosen to go about showing Paul this was perfect in every detail. When God blinded him physically, it showed that he had been spiritually blind and that God was revealing spiritual truth, restoring his sight. This spiritual sight and understanding was something that all of his study and dedication to the Law did not give him. God was showing Paul that He is the one who reveals truth and that it is revealed at exactly the right time. Paul had thought he was on the right track. Reading through the NT I see more clearly how all things fell into place for Paul and that he was now able to look at the OT Scriptures through a completely new perspective of the resurrection.
Paul’s revelation can be seen more clearly in Romans 1:3-4 as he explains that Christ is the Son of God and descended from David. As I mentioned before, Psalm 2 says that the King Messiah is “God’s son”. This is evidence that Paul is now reading his OT with a new mindset. In Romans 4:25 is says, “[Jesus] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification”. Here Paul is using two passive verbs. In Greek these are two “dia” clauses. “He was put to death dia our transgressions” and “…was raised dia our justification”. In Isaiah 53 these same verbs are used (Isaiah 53:5, 10-11). Paul is now seeing Jesus as Isaiah’s suffering servant. It is through the resurrection that the Servant makes “his offspring” “righteous”. Jesus is the one who took our transgressions upon himself and died the death that was meant for us and through his resurrection we have been justified. Christ’s example of this humble servant can be seen in Phil. 2:5-11
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. [ESV]
Jesus was the suffering servant spoken of in Isaiah. Paul is demonstrating the humility of Christ as the ultimate example for believers. This is evident when looking at the way in which Paul views himself in light of Christ’s example when he calls himself multiple times, “a servant of Christ Jesus”. Paul uses two different words for servant when he refers to himself as such in the NT. Paul uses the Greek word “duolos” frequently, which means slave. But in 1 Cor. 4:1 the Greek word used is “huperetes” which means under rower.
Slavery was widespread during that time.
They did not have any rights of their own and were permitted to do only what their masters asked of them. A slave was a thing, something to be owned and the only difference between a slave and other physical assets was that he could become free, but even then, only under certain circumstances. In Roman law the master could free their slave by paying a price for their redemption, but there were certain obligations between patron and freedman in this case. The patron was now responsible for providing for the well-being of this freedman and though the freedman now enjoyed the privileges of a free citizen of the Roman Empire, he was still bound to his master with some responsibilities. He may have worked a certain number of days of the week, month or year for his patron.
The Jewish law of a freed slave was much different than this. In the OT Law during the Year of Jubilee, which occurred in the seventh year, slaves were set free. This could happen on the terms of payment or any other term that the master saw as satisfactory. Manumission of slaves for the Jews was something that was final though, and if the master tried to reserve any rights over the slave thereafter it would make the transaction invalid.
Paul states in 1 Cor. 7:21-22 “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ.” To Paul, Christ had purchased the freedom for all by paying the full redemption price. To those who had been slaves of men, that redemption meant they were free in the eyes of God to serve Jesus as Master and for those who had been free they had now been purchased by Him and were now to serve Him with their lives. So then, when Paul refers to himself as “huperetes” which meant under rower, what was he saying?
An under rower was a military position in the Roman empire. Under rowers were those that rowed in Roman warships at the very bottom level of the ship. There were usually three levels of rowers. This lowest of rowing decks sat about a foot above the water and was reserved for those slaves that had been captured by the Romans and were put to work for their army. They were usually chained to their seats and faced a captain who sat at the head of all of them, giving them strict orders that were to be obeyed promptly. This was a warship. There was no option for delay or for not following orders. This is how Paul saw himself! This was how he wanted others to see him, and his life really did demonstrate it.
For Paul, he saw no other option for his life after that experience on the road to Damascus. Paul saw it as a commissioning. As Christ appeared in all His glory before Paul’s very eyes, the way Yahweh had appeared to those called by him in the OT, Paul knew that there was a calling on his life from God. God had chosen Paul to be an instrument used to bring the gospel to the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel and God was going to show him how much he would suffer (Acts 9:15-16). Paul’s life is marked by that reality as seen throughout his letters and life experiences in the NT. Paul saw himself as the under rower. He had been called by Yahweh! It was for this reason that Paul was able to say:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 2 Cor 11:24-28, [ESV]
And yet still be able to say after listing off his worldly accomplishments in Philippians 3:6-8:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Philip. 3:7-10 [ESV]
There was no looking back for Paul, only a daily deepening of the knowledge of the truth as he reflected on what he had studied of the OT now through a new lens. The zeal that he had had for the law was now simply transferred and strengthened for the sake of the gospel. He operated without fear in the things that the Lord asked of him. His life was marked by the humility of Christ’s example and the love Christ had expressed through his willingness to die on the cross for our transgressions. This same love flowed through Paul and caused his zeal to now drive him to love those who needed to know this truth. In that simple moment, Christ was revealed and a life was transformed. Paul’s transformation from Persecutor to Under Rower was one that changed history and I am so thankful.
What can we take away from all of this
as believers ourselves?
For one, we can take away a deeper revelation of Christ’s death and resurrection. As followers of Christ we see from Paul what it means to live a life completely dedicated to Jesus. If we are to follow in Christ’s footsteps as His disciples then our lives should reflect the same dedication to the gospel as Paul’s did. Paul was not an incredible tool because of anything he did on his own. Paul was incredible because he had received a revelation of what God had done for us through Christ and he got it. It is important that we never allow the revelation of Christ’s death and resurrection to lose its power and impact in our lives. May it never become something that we take for granted. May we as well, dedicate ourselves to being under rowers in obedience to God for His glory. Amen.