I have recently heard arguments calling into question the miraculous events which led to the Pharisee Paul’s epiphany, which ended with him being a follower of Jesus. I’ve heard different arguments for questioning Paul over the years, but when it comes to his Damascus Road experience, there is a profound purpose for this experience happening to Paul the way that it did.
The story of Paul’s Damascus Road experience takes place in Acts 8-9. In the account, we come to a place where Paul is traveling from Caesarea to Damascus. Presumably, he would be traveling on the King’s Road, which would have been the main road through the region and had been the main thoroughfare for centuries. At that time (and still today, really), people tended to use the same ways to get places. Trade routes have remained the same for thousands of years.
Paul was on his way to Damascus (as a representative of the religious establishment of Israel) to bring curses and accusations against the followers of Jesus and to bring persecution upon them. As Paul neared Damascus, a bright light shone and either made Paul fall back and onto the ground or, if he were traveling on a horse, his horse would’ve reared up and made him fall off onto the ground. Either way, something in the road stopped him in his tracks.
What stopped Paul in his tracks? We’re told that Jesus was so bright and sunshiny that the traveling companions could hear Him but not see Him. He was standing in the road before them with an important word for Paul, which would lead him to stop his accusations and persecution going forward (among other far greater changes in the life of Paul).
So, what’s the significance of this story, outside of the obvious, you might ask?
We have to remember that directly before this event takes place in Luke’s narrative (Acts 8-9), we’re walked through the history of Israel, courtesy of Stephen’s address before the Sanhedrin. We’re told of Israel not recognizing their savior, but then coming to their senses later on. After this, we’re walked through a redemption narrative that spans almost the entirety of the 7th chapter of Acts.
Remember, as Luke is writing this book, he’s making choices about what to include and leave out. (To be sure, the Holy Spirit aided him greatly in this process.) So what’s the significance of telling this event directly after Stephen’s address on redemption and second opportunities?
Let me tell you a story of another man who was traveling along the King’s Road and would have been passing by Damascus on his way to Moab. The man had been asked to curse and persecute Israel, and struggled over whether he wanted to be a part of it or not. Eventually, he decided that he would see what he could do about persecuting Israel.
Along the road from Pethor (the probable site being about 250 miles north of Damascus) down to Moab, this man had a supernatural encounter with the Angel of the LORD. I don’t really have the time or the space here to make the argument, but many Christian scholars believe that an appearance of the Angel of the LORD is an appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ. So, in this story, we have a pre-incarnate Jesus stepping out in front of a man traveling along the King’s Road, potentially near Damascus. The story goes on to tell us that the Angel of the LORD is stopping the traveler because He wants to stop him from his intended purpose of persecuting the people of the LORD. Our protagonist seems to heed the warning, but goes on to curse the people of Israel the only way he can figure out how.
This story, of course, is the story of Balaam when he traveled to Moab and cursed the Israelites (Numbers 22-24).
In light of this, should we view it as significant that right after Luke tells us the story of Stephen, where he shows Israel’s reversals over their history, we have a similar story to that of Balaam? I believe so. Yet again, a man who was meant to persecute the people of the LORD is traveling and meets a terrifying appearance of the Angel of the LORD, who stops him from his intended purpose.
Is it possible that Luke is using Paul’s conversion as a living example of Stephen’s words in the chapters directly before? And, could we be missing it simply because we don’t know the geography of the land?
If that’s not what’s going on here, that would be a pretty big coincidence…Print This Post