During January, a number of notable holidays occur—New Year’s Day (January 1), Epiphany (January 6), Orthodox Christmas (January 7), Martin Luther King Jr. Day (January 15, observed the third Monday of the month), the March for Life (January 22) and Sanctity of Life Sunday (which falls this year on January 19, in commemoration of the January 22, 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion). A feast on the Church Calendar that many Christians, especially from non-liturgical backgrounds, are likely to be less familiar with occurs on January 25—the celebration of St. Paul’s conversion.
1. The details of Paul’s conversion
Most of the feasts for other saints on the church calendar commemorate the individual, but Paul is the only who has a feast day specifically set aside to commemorate his conversion. Why? Because his conversion was so unique, so profound, and had such an impact on the first century church.
Recently, on his radio program, Renewing Your Mind (which airs on WTWZ 1120 AM, The Tradition—Jackson, Mississippi), R.C. Sproul lectured on Paul’s conversion. He explained that, to put Paul’s first century education in 21st century terms, he had two doctorates by age 21. He was arguably the most educated man in all of Palestine. He used his brilliant mind to defend Jewish tradition and he was infuriated by the Nazarene sect (the Christian church), which he saw as disrupting pure Judaism. His rage was so intense that he traveled far and near seeking to imprison believers in Christ. We are first introduced to Paul in Acts 7, where he is standing by consenting to the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
On his way to Damascus, where he was traveling in hopes of apprehending more Christians, he had an encounter with Christ. At noon, he saw a brilliant, blinding light and was knocked off his horse. A voice spoke to him saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When Paul asked who was speaking, the voice said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Paul was instructed to go to the city and wait for further instructions. A few days later, God sent Ananias to baptize Paul. At that point, Paul, who had blind ever since the encounter on the Damascus road, could see again. From that point forward, Paul was as zealous to defend the cause of Christ as he had, at first, been to destroy it. He had seen and heard from the risen Christ himself and he was never the same afterwards.
2. The fruit of Paul’s conversion
The latter half of the book of Acts, written by Paul’s associate Luke, chronicles Paul’s ministry among the Jews and Gentiles, the persecution he faced in various cities and the trials and imprisonments he endured. It could be said that Paul’s life, as a follower of Christ, was never as “comfortable” as it had been before he believed. Yet he was willing to trade his comfort for something more significant.
In addition to the biographical information we have about Paul in Acts, Paul wrote 12 (13, if one counts Hebrews as a Pauline epistle, as Martin Luther did) of the 27 books of the New Testament. Paul’s letters, especially Romans, outline like no other New Testament writings the plight of human sin, and how God made Christ our sin-bearer in order for our sins to be paid in full. Paul’s insistence that we are justified (declared righteous) by God by faith in Christ, apart from works of the Law, was the impetus behind the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.
In the late 60s, Paul was beheaded in Rome during the tyrannical rule of the emperor Nero. Though his life was cut short, the writings he left behind, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, still guide the Christian church today.
3. The danger of using Paul’s conversion as a template for everyone else’s
In a private letter, C.S. Lewis once rightly warned a correspondent against the danger of making “instantaneous” conversion the model that all Christians are supposed to follow. Though Paul’s conversion was climactic, dramatic, and very easy to pin point, many people who are raised from their earliest days in Christian homes come to believe in Christ very young and may not even be able to indentify the moment when they first trusted Christ personally. Not even the rest of Christ’s apostles are recorded as having conversion experiences as emotional and dramatic as Paul’s. It has been said that though there is only way to God—Jesus Christ—there are many ways to Christ. Not everyone’s story is going to look the same.
In Mere Christianity, Lewis said that not everyone is able to identify a particular day, or even a particular year, when their heart was changed. The important thing is not so much being able to recount the precise details, as Paul was able to do, but rather to be able to know, with certainty, that one presently is trusting in Jesus Christ.
Thank God for the conversion of Paul. Thank God that he spent his life writing letters that still bless Christians today whenever they read them. May we, on January 25, remember Paul and be encouraged that God can take even those who are most opposed to Christ and make them into men like the apostle Paul. It shouldn’t surprise us that God can save people like the apostle Paul. As Rich Mullins said, if God can save us then “nothing is beyond" him.