Paul’s Experience on the Damascus Road
“[Saul] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:15–16)
“The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard.” (Acts 22:14–15)
“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 26:16–18)
The first of these accounts contains the words of Jesus to Ananias in Damascus; the second, Ananias’ words to Saul in Damascus; the third, Jesus’ words to Saul on the Damascus Road.
When we consider these accounts together, we learn two things about Saul’s call and conversion: what Jesus called Saul to do and what Jesus would do through Saul. First, we see that Saul was entrusted with bearing Jesus’ name to human beings (Acts 9:15). As such, Saul was commissioned as Jesus’ “witness” (Acts 22:15), as His “servant and witness” (Acts 26:16). What rendered him competent as Jesus’ witness was that he had both seen and heard the risen Jesus (Acts 22:15; 26:16; 1 Cor. 9:1). The sphere of Saul’s witness was not only to people in Damascus or Jerusalem. It was to “Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15; see 26:27). Saul would bear witness to all kinds of people, but he had a particular calling to bear witness to Jesus among the Gentiles.
Second, these words of commission tell us that Jesus would undertake a great work in the lives of human beings in conjunction with Saul’s bearing witness to Him. Specifically, Jesus would “open their eyes,” that is, the eyes of those people before whom Saul bore witness to Jesus. They would “turn from darkness to light” (Acts 26:18), from blindness to sight. Of course, Saul himself underwent the same experience—through Ananias: “Something like scales fell from [Saul’s] eyes, and he regained his sight” (Acts 9:18). This experience of having Jesus open one’s eyes happens, for both Paul and his hearers, in conjunction with Jesus’ word. Saul heard the word of Jesus, was struck blind, and subsequently regained his sight. In like manner, Saul’s hearers would hear the word of Jesus through Saul and be brought from blindness to sight.
Saul, then, would serve as a pattern or model of what Jesus Christ would do in the lives of men and women who hear Saul’s witness to Christ. We may safely conclude that what Jesus pledged to do in the lives of Saul’s hearers, He had already done in the life of Saul.
In Acts 26:18, we receive a glimpse of the work of Jesus Christ in the lives of Saul’s hearers and of Saul himself. Jesus, Paul says, “open[s]… eyes, so that [people] may turn from darkness to light.” One purpose of opening people’s eyes is so that they may be brought from “darkness” to “light.” In 2 Corinthians, Paul describes the beginnings of the Christian life in precisely these terms. “The god of this world,” that is, Satan, “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers.” As a result, unbelievers are kept “from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).
How does the true and living God overcome the blinding work of the “god of this world”? God “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). This illumining work dispels the Satanic blindness that once captivated these people. Paul describes this work as nothing less than a work of new creation: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Paul is quoting the creation account from Genesis 1:3. The work that Paul is describing in the life of the believer, therefore, is a work of new creation. It is a work of sovereign omnipotence. God is active; the creature is acted upon. The effect of this work, Paul stresses, is that human beings are able to perceive “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). They not only now intellectually apprehend the message, they also now relish that gospel and incline themselves to it. Specifically, they relish the Christ of that gospel and incline themselves to Him.
But Jesus’ work of opening the eyes of human beings when the gospel is preached has another effect. People who have had their eyes opened turn “from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18). To be sure, they are rescued from a state of spiritual blindness. More, however, is in view. Paul elaborates upon this reality in his epistle to the Colossians: “[The Father] has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:12–14). Paul characterizes the beginnings of the Christian life in terms of a transfer from “darkness” to “light.” Formerly, we were under the “domain of darkness.” The Father has “transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” In this kingdom dwell “the saints in light,” all of whom are heirs.4 This transfer is from one realm or kingdom (darkness) to another antithetical realm or kingdom (light). Believers are those who have been transferred from one mode of existence and brought into an entirely new mode of existence.
What characterizes the lives of those who have been sovereignly transferred into the kingdom of Christ? They are saints. That is, they are set apart from the world and for God. They are consecrated to Him and called to order the whole of their lives accordingly. They are heirs. They have “redemption,” which Paul describes here in terms of “the forgiveness of sins,” that is, the remission of “all [their] trespasses” (Col. 1:12, 14; 2:13). It is precisely these notes that Paul sounds in Acts 26:18. The work of Christ in the lives of sinners is such that they “receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in [Jesus].
We may summarize the saving work that Jesus Christ does in the lives of men and women who hear the gospel that Paul was commissioned to preach in these terms: People are brought from Satanic darkness to divine light. They are rescued from Satan’s dominion into the kingdom of Christ. They are forgiven, sanctified, and made heirs. They are enabled to believe in Jesus Christ as the risen Savior and Lord. Not only did Paul’s hearers experience these realities, but Paul himself experienced these realities at his conversion on the Damascus Road. It was Christ’s purpose that the one who would bring the gospel to the nations would have firsthand experience of the saving power of that gospel in his own life.
This excerpt is adapted from A Life and Theology of Paul by Guy Prentiss Waters.