When I was at university, the Christian Union ran a series of meetings entitled ‘Mine Was No Road To Damascus.’ In these meetings, students and staff members gave their testimonies, talking about how they had become Christians. Some, who had been brought up in Christian families, felt rather inadequate doing this, as they felt that they had very little to tell: theirs was not the radical about-turn experienced by Paul (or those whose conversions from alcoholism or drug addiction made for dramatic news.)
Conversions can be sudden and dramatic, like Paul’s, but they can also be gradual and apparently ordinary. Some people can pinpoint the precise moment they gave their life to the Lord (I became a Christian on 27th October 1983 at the age of seventeen, and can vividly remember the battle that had gone on within me for days leading up to this as I wrestled with God); others can’t remember a time when God was not part of their lives. I don’t think the outward appearance of our encounters with God really matters, but I do think it’s essential that our lives are turned around by God. Without a conversion experience, we are dead in our transgressions and sins (Eph 2:1); we need to experience God’s mercy and love for ourselves and be radically changed as a result (Eph 2:3-6). As John Stott puts it, ‘We too can (and must) experience a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, surrender to Him in penitence and faith, and receive His summons to service.’
The hallmarks of conversion can be seen in Acts 9 and it’s worth considering these aspects of all encounters with Jesus:
God is working and is in sovereign control. He is the One who encounters us! Saul was not looking to meet Jesus, but Jesus knew the precise time to reveal Himself to Saul. We need to be convinced of the fact that God is wanting to meet with those who don’t yet know Him and be aware of God’s active role in evangelism.
We can’t be saved if we don’t recognise our own sin. Saul had thought he was doing by God’s will in persecuting the church and had to realise his own sinfulness before he could be saved. His three days of fasting and blindness vividly symbolise the fact we have to come to the end of ourselves and our own resources and ability to save ourselves before real change can occur. For many people, this becomes the stumbling-block, the wrestling-point. Salvation means a handing over of control to God.
Once saved, our spiritual sight is restored and we perceive life in an entirely different dimension! Jonathan Edwards’ hymn captures this beautifully:
“Heaven above is softer blue,
Earth around is sweeter green;
Something lives in every hue
Christless eyes have never seen:
Birds with gladder songs o’erflow,
Flow’rs with deeper beauties shine,
Since I know, as now I know,
I am His, and He is mine.” (“Loved With Everlasting Love”)
An encounter with Jesus will result in changed priorities and purposes. Saul described himself as ‘circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.’ (Phil 3:5-6) That was his life summary before encountering Christ. Afterwards, his purpose was defined by God: ‘This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.’ (Acts 9:15) He repeatedly taught others that our faith means radical and lasting change: ‘I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.’ (Eph 4:17) He urged Christians to examine themselves to see whether they were in the faith. (2 Cor 13:5) We cannot encounter Jesus and remain the same.