Reports of "foxhole religion" and deathbed conversions leave us uneasy. And having just read about Saul's conversion, we might be wondering about him. How do we know his and others' experiences are genuine?
For several days Saul is "in the company of" Damascus disciples, probably both refugees from Jerusalem and Damascus Christians. His reception by the community and his desire to share in fellowship with them are certainly signs of a genuine conversion. "True conversion always issues in church membership" (Stott 1990:178).
Yet Saul does not bask exclusively in the church's fellowship for long. Immediately he embarks on a mission of powerful Christ-centered preaching in the synagogues. Just as instantaneous as his healing is his fulfillment of his calling (vv. 15, 18). Filled with the Spirit, without training or a probationary period, he proclaims on numerous occasions (Haenchen 1971:331; not began to as NIV) that Jesus is the Son of God. The historical Jesus is central to his proclamation (v. 27; 17:7, 18; 19:13; 20:21; 28:23, 31). Saul consistently argues for Jesus' messiahship and boldly declares that he is the only source of salvation (17:3; 18:5; 19:4; 13:23; 16:31).
Only here and at Acts 13:33 (quoting Psalm 2:7) does Saul proclaim Jesus the Son of God. Within a messianic and monotheistic framework (2 Sam 7:14-16; Ps 2:7) this title is like "Son of Man" (compare Acts 7:56). For Jews, "Son of God" both conceals and reveals who Jesus is. For them it may be nothing more than a messianic title (compare 4QFlor 1:10-11; 1 Enoch 105:2; 4 Ezra 7:28-29). Yet when understood literally it implies participation in the divine nature, having a unique relationship and fellowship with God the Father (Lk 22:69/Ps 110:1; Dan 7:13; Lk 22:70). Saul, who has just seen Jesus in all his glory as the risen and exalted Lord, makes this the theme of his first sermons (9:3-5; compare Rom 1:1-4; Gal 1:16).
All who hear Saul are beside themselves with "astonishment" (see comment at Acts 2:7). The radical conversion of one who raised havoc against Christians is clearly a miracle. Saul's activity had been as humanly devastating to God's people as the sacking of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 10.135; compare Gal 1:13, 23; Menoud [1978a] sees it as only spiritual harm). What a turnabout that he should now be declaring that same Jesus to be the very Son of God!
As Saul grows more and more powerful spiritually (Williams 1985:160; Longenecker 1981:376 thinks this also includes his apologetic skills), his apologetic for Jesus as the Messiah produces bafflement among non-Christian Jews (Acts 6:10). His method is to set details of Jesus' life and the Old Testament messianic prophecies side by side in order to prove that Jesus is indeed the Christ (9:22; compare 17:3; 18:5; 26:23). What moral courage it takes for Saul to speak the gospel to the very persons who had been asked to help in his anti-Christian crusade! What more powerful evidence could be needed to persuade Theophilus--and us--that the conversion is genuine?
After time in Arabia (Gal 1:17; in New Testament times the region east of Palestine) Saul returns to Damascus, takes up his witness in the synagogues and faces a plot against his life. In collusion with forces of the governor under Nabatean King Aretas IV, the Jews seek to ambush Saul when he leaves the city (see 2 Cor 11:32-33). Saul escapes with the help of his followers, converts under his ministry (mathetai; all other uses are of "followers, disciples, of Christ"; see Metzger 1971:366). They locate a house built in the city wall, with a window facing out (2 Cor 11:33). At night they put Paul in a large hamper, possibly of rope ("a large woven or network bag or basket suitable for hay, straw . . . or for bales of wood," Lake and Cadbury 1979:106) and lower him through the window (compare Josh 2:15). He flees to Jerusalem, where he again takes up his witness for Christ in the Hellenistic Jewish synagogues.
George Bernard Shaw once said that the biggest compliment you can pay an author is to burn his books. Luke would add, the biggest compliment to a preacher is to conspire to silence him (compare Lk 22:2; Acts 2:23; 5:33, 36; 10:39; 13:28; 23:15, 21, 27; 25:3). Paul's persistent stand in persecution was a strong proof of a genuine conversion and fruitful life and ministry.
Saul arrives at Jerusalem a true outsider. His old compatriots, non-Christian Jews, are now his adversaries. His old enemies, the Christians, are not yet his "brothers." He may be staying with his sister while he tries to make contact and associate with the disciples. The church is afraid. So notorious are this persecutor's past deeds that even after several years they continue to place a cloud over the reports of his conversion.
What a contrast this fearful band of disciples is to that fearless group that only a few years earlier boldly defied its persecutors (4:19-20, 31; 5:12-14, 29)! Opposition can take its toll. Still, one of them, Barnabas, has courage (4:36). Being a "bridge person" (11:22, 25; 15:22, 25, 35), Barnabas takes Saul to the apostles (literally as NIV, not figuratively--"take an interest in"--as Kistemaker 1990:355) and tells them of Saul's conversion, call and subsequent ministry (grammatically it could be Saul who does the telling [Marshall 1980:175], but context indicates it is Barnabas, as in NIV; Haenchen 1971:332).
Increasingly in Acts the apostles fulfill the role of guarantors of the church's message and mission (8:14-15; 11:1-17; 15:1-29). Here they receive Saul and validate his call to preach the gospel of grace to the Gentiles. Barnabas summarizes the marks of Saul's call, which are congruent with the marks of the apostleship of the Twelve: Saul has seen the risen Lord, although he did not accompany him during his earthly ministry (22:14; 1 Cor 9:1; Gal 1:12; compare Acts 1:21-22). Saul has received a commission (the Lord had spoken to him), although it was not during preascension resurrection appearances (Lk 24:46-47; Acts 1:8). Like the apostles, Saul has been filled with the Spirit and has preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus (4:8, 13, 31, 33).
In a day when we often elevate individualistic, personal, subjective experience over communal, ecclesial, corporate judgments, Saul's example shines. His call is "for real" because it stands up to the test of the apostles, those charged with guaranteeing the message and mission of Christ's church. Any contemporary claims to God's call must similarly be tested by the deposit of the apostles and prophets: the Scriptures.
Saul moves about freely, . . . speaking boldly in the name of the Lord (v. 28; compare v. 27; see comment at 4:29). In Luke's understanding and Paul's, bold speaking is both characteristic of Christian witness and the result of a supernatural filling with the Spirit (4:8, 13, 31; 9:17, 27-28; 13:46; 14:3; 18:26; Eph 6:19-20; Phil 1:20; 1 Thess 2:2).
Saul's preaching again involves apologetic to Jews. A Hellenistic Jew himself, Paul picks up where Stephen left off, disputing in the Hellenistic synagogues (Acts 6:9). The church's mission has come full circle: its chief opponent has become its chief protagonist!
As with Stephen, the Grecian Jews try to do away with Paul. "Suffering . . . is the badge of true discipleship," said twentieth-century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1963:100). The church gets wind of the plot and spirits Saul out of Jerusalem, to the seaport Caesarea and off by ship to Tarsus in Cilicia, East Asia Minor (22:3). In a vision God lets Saul know that his departure is according to divine plan (22:17-21). The church is not personally rebuffing Saul, nor self-interestedly removing him as a flash point for potential persecution (22:17-20).
The persecution and divine preservation are further evidences of the genuineness of Saul's call. Through his experience we also learn that avoidance of known trouble is not necessarily a sign of cowardice (Krodel 1986:181). If undergoing a known danger, especially a life-threatening one, will prevent a Christian missionary from fulfilling the known plan of God, then he or she should avoid it by every legitimate means possible.
Looking both backward and forward, Luke summarizes the outward condition and the inner health of the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria. In a reverse parallelism, Luke begins and ends with the qualitative and quantitative outward circumstances: peace and growth (Lk 1:79; 2:14; 19:42; Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 6:1, 7; 12:24). This is a foretaste of what heirs of the messianic kingdom will one day enjoy (Jer 3:16; 23:3; 33:6; Ezek 37:26). In between Luke notes the characteristics of inner health that make this possible: godliness and Spirit-empowered encouragement. Peace has come primarily through the conversion of the chief persecutor and through changing political realities in the Empire (Williams 1985:164), but Luke also points to the strengthening the church has experienced (compare Acts 20:32). The church's growth is due in no small part to the Christians' godliness, living in the fear of the Lord. The Holy Spirit also has a role, empowering the preaching that encouraged (paraklesis, meaning "exhortation," Schneider 1980-1982:2:41; not comfort or protection after persecution, as Haenchen 1971:333) unbelievers to come to Christ.
Is the Christian church for real? When it fits the description of Acts 9:31, the watching world has evidence that the church is authentic and its message true.