By Professor Dan Lioy
SATS’ Senior Research Manager
The Lord’s mission of reaching the lost through Paul (Saul) began with his conversion from Christian-hater to devout disciple. The account, which forms a significant part of the apostle’s life and legacy, is described in three places in Acts (9:1–19; 22:2–21; 26:9–18). The basic narrative is the same in each case, but there are slight differences in the details in each telling of the account.
After persecuting the believers in Jerusalem, Saul decided to go after those Christians who had fled the city, to bring them back to face trial before the Sanhedrin and possible execution (9:1–2; 22:4–5; 26:9–11). On the road near Damascus (9:3), about noon one day (22:6), a light far brighter than the sun (26:13) blazed around Saul and his companions, who all fell to the ground (v. 14).
Saul heard the voice of Jesus repeat the Pharisee’s name and ask why he was maltreating the Savior (9:4). Saul’s traveling companions were witnesses that something had happened. Yet, even though they could hear Jesus’ voice and see the light of His presence, they did not comprehend what was happening (v. 7; see 22:9).
Since the message was not directed to these men, it makes sense why only Saul understood the words. He recognized this voice as coming from God. Yet, as far as Saul knew, he had never persecuted the Creator. That is why Saul, presuming he was bringing God’s enemies to justice, asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ (9:5). The reply came back that it was Jesus, whom Saul had been oppressing.
Saul must have been dumfounded to learn that Jesus of Nazareth was not a dead blasphemer but the risen, living Lord. This would require a complete change of Saul’s beliefs—and indeed, of his entire life. Saul must have been in shock, with a dawning sense of horror at what he had done. Hope also emerged, for Jesus told Saul to arise and go into Damascus, where he would receive instructions (v. 6).
During that episode, the Savior directed a disciple named Ananias to minister to Paul. At first, though, Ananias balked at the prospect of having anything to do with someone who had vigorously persecuted Jesus’ followers. Thankfully, the Messiah did not let the protests of Ananias continue indefinitely. He was to obey the Savior without hesitation.
The Lord revealed to Ananias that Paul would be His chosen instrument (or tool) to herald His name to Gentile kings and their subjects as well as to the people of Israel (v. 15). Here we discover that this once proud Pharisee would minister to all nations, including ethnic Israel (Rom 1:16–17).
Before his encounter with the risen Messiah, Paul had vigorously persecuted the church. Now, as a follower of Jesus, Paul would learn from personal experience what it meant to suffer for the sake of the Redeemer’s name (Acts 9:16). Despite such a prospect, we should note that toward the end of the apostle’s life, he affirmed the following as his life and legacy: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’ (2 Tim 4:7).
The Lord’s reply to Ananias, which is recorded in Acts 9:16, foretold a dramatic and complete turnaround for Paul. Jesus’ former enemy was to become a chief ally—not just a neutral observer in the spiritual war. The erstwhile defender of the Mosaic Law and the Jewish nation would take the message of grace to all sorts of people. Also, instead of having influence with the secular and religious authorities, he would suffer at their hands for the name of the Lord.
By bringing the good news of God’s saving righteousness to all people, Paul, as the Savior’s chosen instrument, played a crucial role in advancing the spread of the gospel. Many who were spiritually lost became part of God’s family by trusting in Messiah for salvation. Having done so, they were liberated from the power of sin and restored to peace with God.
Paul understood that the advent of the Messiah inaugurated a new era in redemptive history, bringing salvation to Jews and Gentiles alike (Pss 22:22–31; 72:1–20; Isa 11:1–10; 49:6; 55:3–5). Indeed, through faith in the Lord Jesus, Gentiles become ‘children of Abraham’ (Gal 3:7). There is no place here for Torah observance to become right with God (vv. 8–14). The believers’ reception of the Holy Spirit demonstrates that the promise to Abraham is being fulfilled, since the Spirit is part of the blessing to come through Abraham (Isa 44:3; Gal 3:14).
Paul regarded Jesus as the corporate head of God’s people, just as Adam was the head of all humanity (Rom 5:12–19). Jesus, as the singular seed of Abraham (Gal 3:16), is the representative and head of all those who by faith belong to the redeemed people of God.
Paul portrayed Abraham as the paradigmatic believer. One reason is that God declared the patriarch to be righteous before he was circumcised (Rom. 4:9–12). Consequently, he is the spiritual progenitor of both Jewish and Gentile believers. Moreover, through faith in the Messiah, they become part of the new people of God (Eph 2:11–22). This remains true regardless of their ethnic background, socio-economic class, and gender (Gal. 3:26–29).
In Romans 9–11, Paul taught that God’s saving promises made to ethnic Israel would be fulfilled. Put another way, the Creator would remain faithful to His covenantal promises to His chosen people. More specifically, the promises made to Israel are not merely applied to Gentiles. Paul envisioned the promises to Israel as fulfilled in the Church, whose head is the Lord Jesus (Rom 2:29; 4:12; 9:5–8; Gal 3:7, 9; 6:16; Phil 3:3).
In sum, Paul’s mission to include Gentiles in the divine, redemptive promises was theologically grounded and defensible. Furthermore, the apostle’s evangelistic outreach to lost Gentiles was the divinely sanctioned means by which ethnic Israel would be saved.