Paul never really speaks of being ‘converted,’ that is, he never applies the word to himself. However, he often speaks or writes of his transforming experience in meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus. He wrote of it at least three times in his epistles. Luke records this event another three times in Acts. He first records it as an historical event chronologically following on the heels of a very great and cruel persecution throughout Judea (Acts 8:1; 9:1-19). His second and third mentions of it occur in two of Paul’s speeches. The first of these occurred on the steps of the Antonia where Jesus was judged by Pilate. There Paul spoke with an angry Jewish mob who wanted to slay him just as he had done to Christians when he was a young man (Acts 22:1-21); and the third was before King Agrippa and Bernice (Acts 26:1-20).
Paul’s conversion is mentioned more often than that of any other individual in the Scriptures. Truly, this is a significant event. On the one hand it appears so ironic that God would choose Paul over one of the important Apostles to preach the Gospel of the risen Christ beyond confines of Judaism to the gentile nations in Asia Minor and Europe. On the other hand, what greater choice could there have been to show the unfathomable grace of God, who is so rich in mercy to those who have rebelled against him?
Paul’s conversion was completely unexpected! He had no interest in changing his behavior. He already presumed he was serving God, thinking his zealousness for the traditions of the fathers (Galatians 1:14) was enough to gain God’s favor. After all, his zeal profited him in Judaism over many other religious Jews his own age, so why wouldn’t it also gain him the favor of God? Yet, beyond the road to Damascus, as he lay waiting and praying for a word from his new Master, Paul pondered the futility of his standard of comparing himself with others (2Corinthians 10:12). He had been invaded by the Spirit of Jesus, contrasting his own counterfeit cleanliness with the inexpressibly Clean One; Paul’s good works were a distortion of the One who alone is Good.
Before his conversion Paul had been painstakingly devoted to the Jewish religious rites, yet he showed himself both mentally and spiritually hostile toward God. With his mouth Paul honored God, but at the end of the day his works alienated him from the One whom he presumed he served. As Jesus said, Paul’s worship was in vain, because his doctrine was to serve the commands by men not God (Matthew 15:8-9).
What a surprise this must have been for Paul, as he pondered his experience with Jesus in the three days he waited for Ananias to arrive with a new word from the Lord. As he considered all he had thought was profitable to him, he now realized it was all for naught and counted it loss for Christ (Philippians 3:7). As he sat in the guestroom in Damascus fasting and praying, he hungered not for what satisfied the body, but for what satisfied his soul. He reached out for the precious knowledge of Christ (Philippians 3:8), no longer seeking his own righteousness which came by serving the Law (Philippians 3:9). Rather, he reached out to apprehend the One who had apprehended him on the road to Damascus (Philippians 3:12), to know him in his power of the resurrection (Philippians 3:10), to know his righteousness which comes through faith (Philippians 3:9). Oh yes, this was all new to Paul now. For three days he was in darkness, tasting the death of the cross, but trusting in the resurrection that would bring him into the Light of Christ. The Spirit of the Lord moved over the dark depth of Paul’s spirit (Genesis 1:2) and brought forth the Lord’s newborn son (Colossians 1:13, 18).