The centerpoints on Paul’s mind–before and after Damascus

Before or after the encounter with the Lord on the road to Damascus, Paul’s obsession–theological and personal–centered on just a few things:

  • The Law: the ritual of the law, the observance of the law;
  • The sociological function of the law: how the recipients of the law were set apart from those who did not receive the law;
  • the wall separating those with the law and those without the law;
  • the role of the Temple as the center of Jewish religion;
  • the definition of the Gentiles as polluted by their pagan rites;
  • the Gentiles as profane by living outside the law;
  • Jewish provincialism, Jewish protection of their boundaries,, Jewish purity.

These few markers drew Paul’s attention and served as focal points for his theology–both before and after meeting the Lord.

Before the encounter these defined his faith. After his calling these same issues represented the focal points that Paul saw as holding the Gospel back from the nations. He addresses these throughout his ministry, but chiefly in the Epistle to the Romans.

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Three days and blind

For three days Paul reflected and reviewed. Of that much we may be sure. Without venturing too close to speculation it is reasonable to assert four things that were on the image of his mind.

First, he could be certain that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Second, Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ of God. Third, Jesus knew Paul, knew he was the foremost persecutor of His people. And fourth, Paul knew that Jesus forgave him.

All of a sudden the foundations of Paul’s understanding of God’s covenant were shaken. Until these three days Paul’s covenant was based on a ritual observation of the law, Temple sacrifices, circumcision, and reminders of God’s special calling of the Jews.

This special calling meant that the genealogy of Abraham, Moses, and Elijah set out the elect people of God. They were God’s chosen, and around them was a wall protecting them from intrusion and confirming the Jewish superiority, Palestinian Jewish exclusiveness.

These four revelations, even in their sketchiest elaboration, pushed aside these foundation stones of the covenant and strongly indicated a different perspective.

Even in embryonic articulation the covenant  began to take on a different shape. The resurrected Jesus was the very Son of God. He died for the propitiation for sin, just as Isaiah described His death in chapter 53. The Messiah of God came to offer forgiveness and reconciliation with the Father.

Furthermore there seemed no restriction on the sector of people receiving forgiveness. Paul, the chief of sinners, found himself the object of the grace of the cross. As that was astounding to him, that cracked the door for other surprises.

All this left many things without  the prior conclusions in his mind. The logic he was now pondering was taking him in new territory. The open questions and answers, the unclear conclusions, and the unfamiliar territory laid the groundwork for the further elucidation the Lord would bring at the end of these three days.

 

 

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In the house on the street called Straight

This will explore the externals only. We will visit the internal journey next, but for now we merely look in on the house of Judas and record what we see.

First we note the man is blind. Later the account reads that something like scales fell from his eyes. It is clear that Paul does not see anything. This man of strength of muscle as well as strength of conviction. He is blind.

Second, he eats nothing. For three days. One gets the image that he is deeply engrossed in silence. The scene does not convey chit chat, nor even conversation. A man alone, deeply engrossed in his internal surroundings.

What does he have as the bases of meditation? That much we know. here was that light, that light shining down from heaven with the intensity that could only have originated from heaven.

Then the words he heard. He reviews over and over the words he heard from Jesus. “I am Jesus.”

What does that mean? What are the consequences of truth that flow out of that declaration? Something only vaguely grasped, something about God’s Messiah, about the resurrection of Jesus.

And, “Wait, you will be told what to do.” Something else is coming. This is not just a divine lesson in truth and reality. This revelation is connected to a mission. But what mission? Surely connected to the revelation of the light, of the Messiah, Jesus.

If we had been there to observe and report, we would not have had much else to see or hear.

But inside his head… We dare to go there as far as we can and to follow his thoughts, follow the threads already present, threads that will anticipate what is to come.

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Paused…

…for recovering energy after two weeks of fatigue from “maintenance” chemo. This is clearly a case where the disease–lymphoma–has not been nearly as bad as the treatment. But then, there is some very good news in that…

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Paul hears his Lord

Well we could wish that none of us hears those first words from Jesus Christ that Paul heard: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

Then his question: “Who are you, Lord?” As if in the middle of a search and approaching the discovery but needing the final and full revelation.

The Lord’s reply: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”

How awful. Oh for a different path of life that could have avoided hearing those words–those damning, those excoriating words that would burn in his soul from that day until his martyrdom. “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”

But then the next question of Paul allows us a glimpse of his honor and integrity. Even here within seconds of the revelation of Jesus to him he asks the question that everyone ever since this encounter must ask, “Lord, what do you want me to do?”

At this point we must be careful. Yes, he has met the Lord, and yes, he has accepted that revelation of Jesus. After that, however, what Jesus tells Paul deliberately withholds any instruction other than, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

That’s all. Nothing about the nations, nothing about suffering for His name, nothing other than go into the city and wait.

There we turn next, to the home of Judas, to the three days before the arrival of Ananias.

Before turning to Paul in the home of Judas, blind and fasting, waiting, there is another scene. This one is dripping with irony, fascination, awe, and imagination’s richest efforts.

The scene is Paul, the hothead persecutor, the one whose arrival struck fear into Jew and Christian alike, the leading and raging man obsessed with ethnic cleansing of Christians–the long-awaited and long-feared arrival of  this man. The picture we have is not what was expected. Blinded, broken, humbled, cast down, stumbling, with his entourage in shambles, several of them handing Paul forward step by unsteady step to the house of Judas on the street called Straight. How the mighty are fallen, but how the Lord will use those whose weakness reminds them of His strength.

 

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Supporting cast––those off-stage

The two we just looked at––Ananias and Judas––get mentioned by name since they were part of the story. There were others as well, others who were not named and were part of the story, but we don’t know how.

I’m referring to the Christian Jews who knew Paul was coming “breathing threats”, and to the other Jews who made room for this hotheaded persecutor.

Both groups, I suspect, were wary of him. The believers knew their lives were threatened by him. Some may have cowered and hid, others might have boldly and publicly shown their faith. The Jews would have known that he was one of them, but this man needed a wide berth. No telling how he might have acted out his rage and hatred.

The narrative again leaves us with more questions than information. One wonders, for example, how the two groups got along. How isolated were the Christians, or how well accepted by the Jews. All were, after all, in a city where Jews–Christian or not–were in the minority.

Then if we move forward and look backwards to the groups, what was the impact of the events around Paul? He preached in the synagogue. Did any Jews get persuaded?

And the believers–how was Paul accepted by them? Did Ananias carry enough clout to persuade them that this new life was real? Was there hesitation in bringing all the members of a family to the worship gatherings for fear that this might be a ruse to gather more Christians?

The narrative is silent. The sole benefit for this exploration of questions is to turn them to ourselves and ask how we respond to mighty works of God, how we invite others in, how we discern the presence of God’s Spirit, how we draw near those believers of whom others are ashamed or embarrassed.

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Supporting Cast––Ananias and Judas

The tantalizing thing is––these people played significant roles in these critical days of Paul’s life; yet we know so little about them!

Take Ananias. God picked him to be His messenger. Ananias was the one who conveyed Christ’s commission to Paul and was the one who through laying on of hands restored Paul’s sight. That man would forever be associated with Paul’s encounter with the Lord.

But what do we know about this man? How much of a leader was he in the Damascene church? Was he bold and therefore selected to approach the former persecutor of the church, or was he simply a faithful man in the background but willing to do any bidding of the Lord? Whichever, his obedience echoes the Virgin Mary, who said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to your word.”

We can only conjecture what Ananias might have told his grandchildren years later.

Then there is Judas. “Go to the house of Judas on the street called Straight.” Again, a man intricately connected with this extraordinary time in Paul’s life, and again, a man who lies in shadows.

Why Judas? What singled out his place as the home where Paul would be led and where he would stay until he was “told what to do?” Was Judas one of the Christians in Damascus or one of the Jews with whom Paul had planned to stay? Or was his home simply a large hostel? Was Judas known to Paul beforehand? It is possible he was a relative; after all the man who warned Paul of the plot to kill him was a nephew. And just what was Judas told by the companions of Paul when they settled him there?

Oh to know these answers! What a time that was. So much played out for all eternity. But what we do know is what is essential for the eternal truths.

 

 

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