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Official Website of the
Catholic Diocese of Little Rock
Published: June 21, 2008
This is the first column in a 13-part series
By Clifford M. Yeary
Associate Director, Little Rock Scripture Study
Paul, also known as Saul of Tarsus, had been a firebrand of faith long before he became the outspoken apostle to the Gentiles. Based on Luke’s record in Acts and from Paul’s own letters, we know he was a loyal student of Jewish Scripture and tradition. He had trained as a Pharisee under the great Rabbi Gamaliel, a legendary light in first century, Palestinian Judaism (Acts 22:3).
But where Gamaliel showed tolerance toward the fledgling movement proclaiming the risen Jesus (see Acts 5:34-39), Saul could not tolerate any of his fellow Jews asserting a crucified outlaw was the promised Messiah (Galatians 1:13-14). What threat did those Jews who proclaimed Jesus as the risen Messiah pose to Saul? Noted Catholic biblical scholar Jerome Murphy-O’Conner tells us Saul understood the coming of the Messiah and resurrection of the dead to be two separate events.
The Messiah was to come before the dead were raised, and his coming would result in the liberation of Israel from all its enemies. The presence and teaching of the Messiah would replace the Law as the path to salvation and through him, even the Gentiles would become followers of the one, true God. If the followers of Jesus were claiming him to be the Messiah, then they must inevitably believe that his teachings have greater authority than Moses and the Law. Nothing could be more dangerous for a Jew to believe than that the Messiah had come, when it seemed so obvious to Saul he had not. In Acts, we read that Saul’s opposition to Jesus’ followers seemingly knew no limits (Acts 8:1-3).
There was a Greek-speaking Jew named Stephen, whom 12 of the most prominent of Jesus’ followers had made a deacon in the Jesus movement. Stephen would have seemed particularly dangerous in Saul’s thinking. He not only publicly proclaimed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, he boldly engaged Jewish religious leaders in debate regarding Jesus and his resurrection (Acts 6:8 – 7:60).
In order to prevent Stephen’s alarming preaching from attracting even more followers, Saul lent eager support to those who would silence Stephen with a deadly barrage of stones (Acts 7:58; 8:1). Stephen’s death, though, did nothing to silence the many others who believed in Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 8:3-4). Their message was spreading everywhere. Even in Damascus there were Jews teaching that Jesus was the Messiah.
Many Jews were doing more than listening; they were being baptized into the movement. Saul could not allow the cult to continue unchecked. He set out for Damascus to purge its synagogues of the menace (Acts 9:1-2). The road to Damascus, however, took Saul in an utterly new direction, one that would eventually lead to his own martyrdom as a disciple of the very same Jesus.
What really happened on that road to Damascus? Luke describes flashes of light, a thunderous noise and a “voice,” but there is no mention of Saul falling off a horse (Acts 9:1-8; 22:6-11; 26:9-18). In all probability, he had been walking to Damascus. Paul, as he is known to all in his writings, does not describe the circumstances surrounding the event but leaves no doubt as to its effect.
Paul was confronted with the presence of the risen Christ in such a manner that he would henceforth dare to call himself an eyewitness to the resurrection on the same level as the original apostles (1 Corinthians 15:3-10). The experience not only transformed Paul’s understanding of God’s faithfulness to the covenant with Israel, it announced itself as an irrevocable call on his life (Galatians 1:15-17).
From now on, Paul would live for only one purpose, to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord of heaven and earth (Philippians 2:5-11). As Paul’s understanding grew, he would teach that Jesus, risen from the dead, was not only the Jewish Messiah, he was the savior of the human race, a single race no longer divided between Jews and Gentiles. All were now one in Christ (Galatians 3:26-29).
Ironically, as powerful as his conversion was, it only confirmed his earlier belief concerning the distinction between the Messiah and the Law as the basis for God’s covenant with humankind. Paul would continue to believe that once the Messiah appeared, not even the Law of Moses would be able to supplement the promise of salvation to be found by those of any race or nation who embraced the Messiah in faith. Only now, Paul was filled with the certainty of faith that the Messiah had come, and his name is Jesus.
This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic June 21, 2008. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.