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Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Road from Damascus

My father-in-law, Harry Williams, was a strong man of faith. He loved the Lord with all his heart, soul and strength. A good day for him included hours of paging through Scripture and marking up phrases that really spoke to him.

One of his unfulfilled bucket dreams was to write a book titled The Road from Damascus. He always thought too much emphasis was placed on the road to Damascus, which hosted the apostle Saul/Paul's conversion, rather than the events which sprang from it. I am neither a Bible scholar nor a great thinker. Nevertheless, the following is my clumsy attempt to highlight some of Saul/Paul's post-conversion activities as a posthumous gift to Pop, and perhaps bring a smile (and maybe a tear) to the faces of his progeny, who remember him as a man whose dearest possession was his salvation.

One of the things I find most interesting about Saul/Paul is that, after he became a believer, he spent three years getting to know God. My assumption is he realized he would have less than a warm reception by the early Christians, whom he had spent huge amounts of time persecuting prior to his conversion. This thinking is validated by the reaction of the Jews he preached to immediately after receiving the Holy Spirit: "'Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?'" (Acts 9:21). They were quite understandably afraid and suspicious of Saul/Paul's motives. During this time of "lone wolfing" evangelism, God must have enhanced his early education as a Pharisee, and spoken His truth to him in prayer. Only after three years did he dare approach the core church in Jerusalem, and even then it took the sponsorship of Barnabas to gain him an audience with the disciples.

Another thing that resonates with me about Paul (I'll refer to him henceforth by the name he adopted after his encounter with Christ, thus distancing himself from his former life as the murderous Saul) is that he had a temper. Acts 15 records that he and Barnabas had a falling out over whether or not to take the latter's cousin, John Mark, with them on a missionary journey after being previously deserted by him. Paul chose to proceed instead with Silas, while Barnabas remained loyal to his cousin. Interestingly, Paul reconsidered his hasty decision later, as shown by his statement in 2 Timothy 4:11: "Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry." Perhaps the older Paul realized he was not so very different from Mark, in that both had to prove themselves to their brethren after committing some arguably unforgivable actions.

In Galatians 2:11, Paul recounts another heated confrontation, this time with the apostle Peter. Clearly, Paul struggled in the area of patience, especially as it concerned the gospel. Ironically, though, he labels himself "the chief sinner" in 1 Timothy 1:15. In Acts 22, he holds nothing back in describing his pre-conversion activities: "I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women,  as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished... So I said, 'Lord, they know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believe on You. And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.'" (Acts 22:4-5, 19-20; see also Acts 26: 9-11). Paul's personality seemed to contain a hearty dose of self-assurance, tempered by a large helping of remorse. This combination could benefit many modern-day believers, whose recollections of their unregenerate sinfulness too often seem overshadowed by post-conversion self-righteousness.

The aspect of Paul's ministry with which I most identify is his way of witnessing. Rather than tracing Biblical history and quoting heavily from Scripture as Stephen and Peter did in their notable sermons, Paul often relied on his personal testimony to sway his audience. This method is encouraging to timid witnesses like me, who sometimes fear we have to be seminary graduates before we can adequately deliver the gospel. Paul, who was well-trained in Biblical studies, chose rather to personalize what God had done in his life, not only when training young believers like the Corinthians, but also when going up against "big guns" like Roman Governor Felix and Jewish King Agrippa.  While Paul's vast knowledge of Scripture comes through loud and clear in his epistles, he also understood the power of simple, heartfelt declaration of God's work in his life.

I think Pop was right. In researching these few brief points about Paul's life and ministry, I see how easy it would be to fill tomes on this apostle's contributions following his encounter with Christ. Thank you, Harry Williams, for providing the inspiration for this article.

Harry Williams holding his oldest grandchild, Kendra, with his wife, Betty, by his side.