And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:…
The festival of the Conversion of St. Paul falls aptly near the end of the Epiphany season, for it was brought about by a manifestation of Christ, and that vouchsafed to one who, though himself a Jew, was chosen to "be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles." The manifestation on the road to Damascus was of Christ glorified. St. Paul alludes to this distinction in the Epistle to the Galatians (Galatians 1:1). The apostle, like the original twelve, was called by Christ Himself; but it was his special and solitary honour to have been "commissioned by the risen and glorified Lord." There are three manifestations of Christ in glory, or rather three to whom these epiphanies were vouchsafed — St. Stephen, St. Paul, and St. John. Over and above their special purposes in relation to the persons to whom our Lord appeared, these unveilings of Christ, since the "cloud received Him out of our sight," help us to realise the continuity of His work in heaven. St. Paul was drawing near to Damascus. It was about noon. The city may be seen from afar. The desert is passed. The eye feasts itself upon the green avenues through which the ancient capital is approached. In the distance may be descried the faint outline of its white buildings standing out against the azure sky. Saul catches already the murmurs of "the rivers of Damascus," and the ripple of the rivulets which glisten and sparkle and leap amongst the tangled brushwood. The perfume from the Syrian gardens, in which shrub, and fruit, and flower, are intermingled in wild profusion, which refresh the weary traveller, have little charm for him. He is "breathing out" slaughter. His mind is filled with the thought of how many disciples of Christ he may lay violent hands upon, and bring "bound unto Jerusalem." There is, however, another image which will rise up before his memory. There is the face of a young man, his eyes uplifted towards heaven. Saul hears again his dying prayer, and the thuds of the stones which are falling around him; he cannot shake off the remembrance — the courage and the forgivingness of the youthful martyr — "Thy martyr Stephen" (Acts 22:20), what was it sustained him? When — "suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? And he said, Who art Thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest." The Church usually celebrates the martyrdom of the saints, the end rather than the beginning of their spiritual course. But, as she marks in her Calendar the conception and nativity of our Lord's mother, and the birth of St. John the Baptist, so she keeps a festival to commemorate the conversion of St. Paul. It is the great turning point in Saul's history, a change somewhat out of the range of the ordinary operations of grace. We call it in our collect a "wonderful" conversion. Let us inquire into the cause of Saul's conversion, and secondly, note what is marvellous about it.
I. The narrative of St. Paul's conversion is three times told in the Acts of the Apostles, besides the apostle's allusions to it in several Epistles. From all we gather that THE GREAT CHANGE IN SAUL'S CONVICTIONS WAS BROUGHT ABOUT BY A VISION. It was the result of grace, though two factors, as we shall presently see, combined to produce it. Grace may come to us from without or from within. Grace in both these ways moved the soul of Saul of Tarsus. God appeals to us both through outward objects, and by His voice within. By the preaching of the gospel, by the working of miracles, by the events of Divine Providence, by the influence and power of good example, He can speak to us. He spoke to Saul in a vision. There are those who deny, or at least doubt, the supernatural character of the event. Saul "fell to the earth," they say; but this might have taken place through natural causes. The whole might have been the result of a thunderstorm, a sunstroke, a fit, or simply might have arisen from mental hallucination. But Saul's companions in travel also heard the "voice," though they saw not the Form, nor caught the words. They "saw indeed the light, and were afraid." The light "above the brightness" of the midday sun, St. Paul says, when standing before Agrippa, not only encircled himself, but "them which journeyed with" him, and all fell to the earth together. It was at noon when all in Eastern climes is hushed and still, and beneath a cloudless sky, that this happened. All Saul's prepossessions, all Saul's interests from an earthly point of view, his reputation and his honour, are against the change which at that moment was wrought. St. Paul is no visionary, but a man of masculine mind and clear judgment. Intellect appears to predominate over the imaginative faculty in the apostle, if we may judge from his Epistles. God speaks sometimes in visions to His saints. These visions are of different kinds; some addressed to the mind, others to the imagination, some to the eye of sense. St. Paul's was of the last kind, like the burning bush which Moses saw, and from the midst of which the voice of God was heard; so Saul saw with his eyes, and was blinded by the glory which he beheld. But grace from without is not enough. The fact that only one of the two thieves who were crucified with Christ repented will be sufficient to show that man may have the grandest opportunities and neglect them. The vision was rich, indeed, in revelation upon which St. Paul gazed — Jesus glorified — "I am Jesus of Nazareth," not only "I was." The memories of earth will not be expunged by the waters of Lethe from the soul as it passes into the eternal world. Jesus is still "Jesus of Nazareth." His history is a part of Himself. Saul, as he was persecuting the Christians, looked back to Christ, thought of Him only in reference to His mortal life in the past. Now he realises a present Christ — that which some who have been brought up as a Christian fail to do — and, moreover, learns the truth that Christ is one with His members, and that in persecuting them he was persecuting Him. It was, then, a rich external revelation of truth to Saul, but it needed inward grace that it might become victorious. The soul must be illumined also from within. The inspirations of that Spirit whose work it is to "receive of" Christ and reveal Him unto us, must be vouchsafed. And this also was granted. "It pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by His grace, to reveal His Son in me" (Galatians 1:15, 16). The cause, then, of St. Paul's conversion, as of all others, is the grace of God. But there is another factor which has ever its share in the work of conversion — the human will. God does not destroy our moral accountability. Even in the case of St. Paul, whose conversion was in many ways "wonderful," it rested with himself whether he would or would not yield to the grace which was given him. He distinctly asserts that he was "not disobedient unto the heavenly vision" (Acts 26:19). It was a moment not only of rich revelation, but also of entire self-surrender, when Saul exclaimed, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?"
II. We have considered how the grace of God, from without and from within, and the cooperation of the human will, changed Saul into Paul, the persecutor into the apostle. Now look at THE GREATNESS OF THE EVENT; IN WHAT RESPECTS IT WAS WONDERFUL. The justification of a sinner is ever a great event. St. Paul's conversion was wonderful because of the sharp antagonism between his previous and subsequent life. This antagonism is common when of a moral kind. Such a sharp contrast may be traced between the life of St. Mary Magdalene or St. Matthew, before their conversion and after. But it was the strength and violence of St. Paul's religious opinions which underwent this remarkable change. He was blinded by prejudice and passion.
1. It was wonderful, in that the grace of God overtook him in the very act of sin, as he was drawing near to Damascus, in the very acme of opposition and of violence. Souls sometimes prepare the way for God's grace by outwardly ceasing from sin. The stone of evil habit is removed from the door of that sepulchre before the voice of Christ penetrates into the realms of the dead. But St. Paul's experience is an illustration of the mission of God the Son to mankind — "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."
2. The change was "wonderful" too, in its suddenness. Conversions may be suddenly or gradually effected. St. Peter's is an instance of a spiritual evolution, the gradual development of a vocation: Paul's of a sudden and more violent change. The former is a type of what is normal; the latter, of what is wonderful or extraordinary. God turns water into wine at Cana in a moment, but this was a miracle. He brings wine regularly out of the vine by means of the natural processes of growth and culture. Nor again, must we exaggerate the suddenness of St. Paul's conversion, though we admit that it was wonderful. St. Stephen's martyrdom had made an ineffaceable impression on his mind. Revolutions do not take place in history without a long series of events which lead up to them, though they seem to burst upon the world in a moment: so with the great apostle, though sudden was the change, there were doubtless preparations of grace going before it.
3. Lastly, it was wonderful in its completeness. There is usually the gradual growth, oftentimes the fluctuations or relapses. The new life has "first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear." But in St. Paul's case, as in the miracle of Cana, which we have already alluded to as in some sense its analogue — the miracle of turning water into wine, "the good wine" surpassed the ordinary produce of the grape; so the operations of grace seemed to have been so condensed in the soul of St. Paul as to bring fruit to perfection at once. He seems not to pass through what spiritual writers describe as the stages of purgation, illumination, and union with God, but attains at once to a vigorous spiritual life and a burning love for Christ.
(W. H. Hutchings, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: