Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ 5He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’Acts 9:1–6
This is a powerful scene that sets the stage for Saul’s transformation from one who is relentless in persecuting Jewish followers of “the Way” to a follower of Jesus himself. Just earlier, Saul had given his approval of Steven’s stoning (8:1) and directly gone “from house to house” dragging men and women from their homes and putting them in prison (8:3). But, before we get to Acts 9:1–6, the author has also spent some time narrating how the Spirit has been moving among the Gentiles, appearing both to the Samarians and to the Ethiopian eunuch.
It is critical, then, to understand this passage—ostensibly focused on Saul—as one that is embedded in this larger framework of the Spirit’s working, a movement that expands the circles of God’s enveloping love beyond Israel. It is true, of course, that Saul is presented as an authoritative, powerful, and intimidating figure, threatening the existence of the Way. He is even more threatening because of how he operates from the conviction of his beliefs regarding what is true; as Willie James Jennings writes, “No one is more dangerous than one with the power to take life and who already has mind and sight set on those who are a threat to a safe future.” (Acts, 90) Violence is justified, in Saul’s mind, because of how Jewish followers of the Way are “diaspora betrayers of the faith who are a clear and present danger to Israel.” (91) From this calculus, murder and imprisonment are necessary for protecting the integrity of faith.
The story of Saul’s encounter as it begins in Acts 9:1–6, has been dramatized in any number of evangelical church retreats, in the arts, and sermons. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the “road to Damascus” experience described here has served as the template for many personal testimonies, but also has been stretched to illustrate any event that causes a dramatic shift in life direction, a “180-degree turn.” The scene itself is filled with striking elements—a light flashing from heaven, the encounter of a voice, Saul falling to the ground; and, in the verses immediately following, Saul is temporarily unable to see. Amid his determination to carry out his goal, he is stopped in his tracks. There is no other way but to listen.
How should we interpret this encounter? The editors of the NRSV translation have one suggestion with the title for this chapter (not part of the Greek text of Luke)—“The Conversion of Saul.” Is it a scene where God’s power meets and then overwhelms human power, God’s right against Saul’s wrong? We might be tempted to see in this meeting an ethical model that we should emulate, if not literally, epistemologically. To frame this encounter as a conversion already implies a substitution or replacement of one system of belief for another. With this, there is a before and after, unsaved and saved, Jew and Christian. As a result, we might too quickly transform Saul into the Paul who is the great missionary of Christ to the Gentiles. We might be tempted to tap into the power of Christian exceptionalism.
Luke does not present Saul’s story in this way. When Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” the Greek word, kyrios, may mean “Lord” as in worshiping a divine presence, or a respectful “sir.” For Christians familiar with this story, we may be tempted to read Saul as recognizing Jesus as the particular Christ in this moment. However, it is more likely that Saul, while recognizing that he is in the presence of greatness, does not know exactly to whom he is speaking.
In contrast to our usual assumptions of the divine, Jesus replies not as the king of Kings, but as the one who is suffering, who identifies with the very ones that Saul is persecuting. Jesus challenges Saul to see the presence of the Spirit among the followers of the Way. Divine revelation does point to the truth of who Jesus is—the Christ who came for Israel—but also this truth does not conform neatly to our epistemic boundaries. For those who are acting from a place of religious conviction, it can be challenging to see God in the faces of the oppressed or those who we oppose, to comprehend deeply that the God of Israel is a God whose love extends beyond Israel.
A quote attributed to Bonaventure, the 13th century Italian theologian, described God as “the One whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” (The Soul’s Journey, 5.8) This description of God suggests a kind of divine disruption that is more expansion rather than conversion, an embrace that ripples in increasing concentric circles rather than closes inwardly. In these verses, as is elsewhere in Acts, the story highlights God’s dynamic and surprising spirit, shifting our understanding of who God loves. From this angle Saul’s story is no more extraordinary than the stories of others in Acts whose lives are similarly turned upside down.
This is not to say that this encounter between Saul and Jesus is not extraordinary or important. It is. But the transformation is not only about pushing Saul to see the God of Israel in Jesus, to assert the truth of who Jesus is. It is, as we read throughout Acts, about how this epistemological truth has moral and ethical implications, disrupting the naturalized ways in how we relate to each other as consequences of history, religion, or culture. We do not only see Jesus where we expect him, but also in those who are oppressed, who we oppress, and oppose.