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Conversion is the word used to describe a change, especially referring to religious beliefs. Its roots go back to the idea of ‘turning about’, and the conversion of Paul the apostle (described in Acts 9:1-19 and later in Acts 22:3-16 and Acts 26:4-16) is perhaps the most radical example of this turn-about (or ‘about face’, in French ‘volte-face’). Saul of Tarsus, as he was known then, was perhaps the most fiercely critical opponent of Christianity. We have already met him giving tacit approval to the murder of Stephen and at the start of Acts 9, he is breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples and doing his best to wreak havoc on the church, believing himself to be doing God a favour by rounding up followers of ‘the Way’ and throwing them into prison, regardless of gender (see Acts 8:3). A more unlikely candidate for conversion cannot be imagined, but this chapter reminds us that God can turn about even the most unlikely people! Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus revolutionised him and the whole world as a result.
The word ‘conversion’ itself is not mentioned in the story. What is mentioned, emphatically, is that Saul encounters Jesus as he is travelling to Damascus on his zealous mission to destroy the church. This encounter – accompanied by a blinding light and a voice from heaven which only Saul hears – forces Saul to confront the fact that his encounter with God is actually with Jesus and Jesus’s identification with His people is so great that Saul’s persecution of the church is equated with Saul’s persecution of Jesus. (Acts 9:4) This devout Pharisee, whose adherence to the Law is explained in other passages (see Phil 3:4-6), has all his ideas turned upside down by this encounter with Jesus and he is never the same again. Instead, he accepts his new mission (to be the apostle to the Gentiles, an irony of ironies!) and is welcomed into the church by a humble believer called Ananias, whose mission is to release Paul from his blindness and baptise him as a fellow believer. The adversary has become an advocate, in the words of Tom Wright.
Paul was later to become one of the greatest Christian missionaries, author of much of the New Testament and a profound influence on the church, not only in his lifetime but through to the present day. It all started, however, with this encounter with Jesus, where, as a persecutor, blasphemer and violent man, he encountered mercy, grace and glory. Later writings (e.g. 2 Cor 4:6) indicate that the blinding light he saw was never far from his thoughts; God’s light shining in the darkness was his new benchmark.