Essay / Misc.

Impossible Converts

Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus was unique, probably because of the unique ministry he was called to.

We live in “the church age,” the age when Jesus Christ is seated at the right hand of God the Father —the martyr Stephen in his dying vision looked up and saw him there— from which he shall come to judge the living and the dead. In this meantime, it is the Holy Spirit who brings the presence of Christ to us. Why, during the reign of the Holy Spirit, in the middle of the book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit, does the ascended Jesus Christ make a direct appearance to Paul?

The Bible doesn’t exactly say, but perhaps it’s because Paul asked for it. That is to say, he was asking for it. Realllly asking for it.

This is another way in which Jesus is present and active today: He defeats his enemies. In fact, he super-defeats them. Anybody with enough strength could just destroy an opponent, but Jesus does more: he converts them to be his followers.

Humanly speaking, Saul of Tarsus was an impossible convert. He was not a neutral party who you might think of witnessing to, he was explicitly on the other team. Saul had set himself up as an enemy of Jesus Christ: “I was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them.” (Acts 26:9)

He was picking a fight with Jesus, and was on his way to Damascus to keep it up, when Jesus met him, stepped into the arena, and took him out with one shot. But of course it wasn’t physical compulsion or violence, it was something else. When Jesus showed up to teach that persecutor a lesson, he literally taught him a lesson. The encounter on the road to Damascus was a learning event, a knowledge transfer, a cognitive occurrence.

Especially here in this retelling in chapter 26, Luke lets us know a lot more of what Jesus said: five verses of red print which includes a lot of detailed information about the plan he has for Paul:

I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 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, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you 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. (Acts 26:14-18)

This impossible convert was turned around in a moment, by Jesus Christ who is in the business of making himself known to people. What is an “impossible convert,” anyway? Someone who it is impossible for me or for you to imagine as a Christian. I confess that I have trouble praying for the salvation of friends and family members who I can’t picture getting saved. You know what I mean: you’re praying for their salvation, but in your heart you just can’t really picture what they’d be like if they came to Jesus; they’d have to become a new person.

Impossible converts: no such thing. Maybe you can’t imagine them as Christians, but Jesus Christ has more imagination than you do. Keep praying. Jesus set his sites on an anti-Christian activist who was on a campaign of terrorizing the churches. He turned his heart, and changed his mind, and persuaded this impossible convert to be a Christian. How could he do that? Because he is the Lord, the greatest teacher, the one who knew Saul better than Saul knew himself.

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