John Newton, the slave trader, who actually became a slave himself before becoming captain of his own slave ship, later confessed Christ as his personal Savior. He wrote the well-known hymn, Amazing Grace: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see. Newton was called to preach and became an evangelical influence in the Anglican Church. When he was older in speaking about Heaven, he wrote
There are three wonders about heaven to me:
• The first wonder will be the number of people who are there that I did not expect to see.
• The second wonder will be the number of people who aren’t there that I expected to see.
• The third and greatest wonder of all will be to find myself there!
If in the first century, believers died before Saul of Tarsus was converted they were surprised to later see Saul in heaven. Saul was the foremost persecutor of the believers. He was the leader of the Jerusalem Holocaust.
It would be like one of us going to heaven or even more poignantly, a believer from North Korean going to heaven and being welcomed by Kim Jong-Il. For eighth straight years, Kim Jong-Il led North Korea as the number one persecutor of Christians. 40,000 to 60,000 Christians are in political prisons.
“It is certainly not a shock that North Korea is No. 1 on the list of countries where Christians face the worst persecution,” said Carl Moeller, president and CEO of Open Doors USA. “There is no other country in the world where Christians are persecuted in such a horrible and systematic manner. Three generations of a family are often thrown into prison when one member is incarcerated.” Christians are used as guinea pigs to test chemical and biological weapons. Saul of Tarsus was the Kim Jong-Il of the first century. He wanted to eradicate all believers from the face of the earth.
The conversion of Paul is ranked with the resurrection of Christ as proof of Christianity.
George Lyttleton, an 18th century English statesman, and rejecter of Christianity sought to disprove the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road by writing a book on the subject. But his study convinced him of Saul’s supernatural conversion and led to Lyttleton’s own conversion. He wrote a book, however, not to disprove but to prove the conversion of Paul was credible entitled Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of St. Paul. In his book, he wrote, “The conversion of St. Paul alone, duly considered, was of itself a demonstration sufficient to prove Christianity to be a divine revelation.”
Paul’s conversion is given more attention than any other conversion in Scripture. Luke the historian records the Paul’s conversion three times: 9:1-31; 22:3-21; 26:12-18. William Willimon writes that “only an event of greatest importance would merit such repetition by an author whose hallmark is brevity and concision” (Acts. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox, 1988).
Critics have tried to explain away the supernaturalness of Saul of Tarsus’s conversion by claiming that Paul’s experience was an epileptic seizure, a sunstroke or Saul’s deliberate conversion to Christianity to spite the high priest’s daughter who had rejected his love. The epileptic seizure theory has gotten the most attention.
In 1987, D. Landsborough published an article in the Journal of Psychiatry in which he explained Paul’s conversion as an attack of epilepsy ending in a convulsion when Saul fell to the ground. But two other contributors to the same Journal said Landsborough’s theory failed to explain Paul’s companions hearing a voice, seeing a light, and their falling to the ground.
F. F. Bruce disagrees that any of these human explanations could have produced Saul’s “total conversion of will, intellect, and emotion which dictated the abiding purpose and direction of his subsequent life and activity” (Acts, NICNT, 183). Salvation is a supernatural experience that has no human explanation.
Paul’s conversion is in the context of other important conversions:
1. In Acts 8, an Ethiopian Black man is converted
2. In Acts 9, Paul a Jew is converted
3. In Acts 10, Cornelius the Gentile is converted
Luke is recording the spread of the Gospel from Jews to Gentiles in Acts. So the first Gentile convert was a black man in Acts 10. But he travels back to Ethiopia. Paul the Jew is mentioned next because although a Jew, he will become the church’s first missionary to the Gentiles. The first Gentile to be converted and stay in Palestine is Cornelius. Luke is stressing the universality of the Gospel. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are all precious in His sight.”
All the necessary influences of conversion are seen in Paul’s conversion. Like Saul of Tarsus there is the Christian Influence, the Holy Spirit Influence, and the Influence of the Sinner’s faith.
1. The Christian Influence “And Saul yet” (9:1) picks back up the narrative of Saul that ended in 8:3. In between 8:3 and 9:1 is the narrative of Philip’s ministry in Samaria. Before Philip’s ministry in Acts 8:4, Stephen indelibly impressed Saul of Tarsus.
A. Paul was influenced by Stephen in Acts 7.
Paul had never seen a Christian like Stephen in 6:15. Paul was accustomed to his sour faced, pharisaic co-laborers who looked like they had been baptized in pickle juice. Paul had never heard a message like Stephen’s in chapter 7. It was the gospel preached in the power of God with much conviction (7:51-52). Paul had never seen any one die like Stephen. Stephen died praying for his enemies, loving and forgiving them (7:60). Luke’s detailed information about Stephen’s appearance, words, actions, was probably from Paul’s recollection because of the impact they had on Saul as a sinner.
B. Paul was influenced by the innumerable Christians he persecuted.
In Acts 8:3, Paul dragged them from their houses off to jail. In 26:11, Paul made them blaspheme God. In 22:4, Paul was responsible for their deaths. In 9:1, 2, Paul has legal papers to go to Damascus and extradite Christians who fled his persecutions. Christians in Acts are called “The Way.” In Matthew 7, Jesus said there is a broad way on which sinners are travelling and there is a narrow way on which believers are travelling. And in John 14:6, Jesus proclaimed, “I am the Way. No man comes to the Father but by me.” In Acts 9, Saul is on his way to Damascus to persecute the way when he has a head on collision with the The Way and now he is in the Way.
C. Paul was influenced by Christian family members in Romans 16:7.
More people are won to Christ by consistent caring Christian friends and family members than any other witness. I thank God for the Christian influence of my Mom on me. She led me to church where the gospel was preached until I came to Christ.
In my next post the other two influences in Paul’s conversion will be examined.