The Greatest of All Conversions

Following the Pentecost event the followers of Jesus, “except for the apostles,” scattered to share the Good News of the Gospel, to preach the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen (Acts 8:4). Severe persecution had begun against the church in Jerusalem, and that is where the apostles stayed, while the other believers went to all of the villages in Judea and Samaria “proclaiming the word”  (i.e. preaching). Yes, preaching was a lay responsibility during the young church’s infancy. There were no ordained ministers at that time. Their hearts were simply overflowing with such great joy that they could not keep the good news to themselves. They had to share it!

Of course, it was also in obedience to Christ, who had commanded them to do so prior to His final departure, when He ascended into heaven (Matthew 28:19 and Acts 1:8-9). Their Lord had commissioned them to be His witnesses “to the end of the earth,”  but they had to begin in Judea and Samaria. However, in the fullness of time, through the missionary efforts of the apostles, the Gospel would be preached beyond the boundaries of Judaism, especially after Saul of Tarsus was converted and became the Apostle Paul, who was destined to become the first one to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles in the Greek speaking world.

I can understand why the Apostle Paul tells us in his Corinthian correspondence that when he visited Greece for the first time, to proclaim the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen, it was “in fear and with much trembling” (I Corinthians 2:3). He knew the Greeks took great pride in their reputation as one of the great intellectual centers of the world (at that time, one of three, the other two being Alexandria and Tarsus). The ancient Greeks, like so many of the most highly educated Americans today, exalted human reason and considered the pursuit of knowledge (i.e. advanced understanding) the greatest of all human endeavors.

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Many of the Athenians, and even some in Corinth, were so proud of their ability to speak in a sophisticated and philosophical way that they demanded of any non-Greek seeking an audience that he also must be able to speak with the tongue of human eloquence. Furthermore, he must be academically qualified and sufficiently prepared to debate with their Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, including not only philosophy and politics, but theology and ethics.The Greeks had a pantheon of many gods and goddesses (little “g”), and it was known that their gods sinned in grand style according to the moral law of the Jews. At that time Christianity was seen as a new Jewish sect that they knew very little about, however, they knew the Jews believed in only one true god – “a god with no name.” Therefore, the philosophers in Athens had surely assumed “Saul of Tarsus,” as he was known at that time, had come there to make his own god known to them, to denounce their belief in so many gods, and to encourage them to even renounce the existence of a plurality of gods in their mythology, including Athena, the goddess of wisdom and the city god of Athens.

Saul’s reputation as a Jewish scholar, and highly respected intellectual in his own right had preceded him. It was also common knowledge that he had been a leading persecutor of those who were being called “Christians,” but had himself become a convert and was now being called “Paul.” It had been reported that he was proclaiming the leader of this new religious movement, one who had been crucified in Jerusalem as a false prophet and criminal, to be the Son of God. Therefore, many were curious and eager to hear what “this babbler” had to say, for those Athenians enjoyed spending their time “…in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:18 and 21). So, let us attempt to recreate the missionary journey that took Paul to Greece.

Here comes Paul, first to Athens and then to Corinth, (I Cor. 2:2, 15:1-9) – his speech and message were “not with eloquence” or with “plausible words of wisdom” (I Cor. 1:17, 2:4), so that their faith “might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God” (I Cor. 2:5). So over against the accumulated wisdom of the Greeks there was the wisdom of the Gospel, which was “foolishness to those who are perishing” (both then and now), but “to those who are being saved it is the power of God” (I Cor. 1:18). Following His conversion, when the resurrected Lord appeared to Him on the Damascus road (Acts 9), Saul was not going to be proclaiming belief in a new god, but from that moment on after the Risen Christ was made known to him, not only as the Jesus he had been persecuting (Acts 9:4-5), but as the “Lord” who had come to make his own God more fully known, he was wholly Christ’s, until the day of his martyrdom.

However, in the beginning he was naturally confounded and confused. There were so many unanswered questions. What did this mean? Why had this happened to him? What was God’s purpose in all of this? He had also been blinded by a light from heaven, like the blinding power of the sun during that life transforming encounter with the resurrected Jesus, the glorified Christ. His traveling companions were not left sightless, but were left “speechless,” for they too had heard the voice from heaven, but had seen no one (vs. 7). However, they must have seen the bright and blinding light that had “flashed around” Saul (vs. 3), and thus knew this was some supernatural event they were witnessing. Luke, the faithful historian of the Early Church, also tells us in the Acts of the Apostles what followed the conversion of Saul, how he was led by the Spirit of God to the house of another convert in Damascus, where there had been a number of conversions; how he had been sent there by the high priest in Jerusalem to investigate and identify these Jewish converts to this new movement being called “The Way,” that “he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:2).

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You can read the rest of the story for yourself, how Saul was feared by those in Damascus who had become followers of Jesus, for they knew his reputation and had heard “how much evil he had done to the saints in Jerusalem” (Acts 9:10-19). Is it any wonder that they were suspicious, and other Jews were amazed when he “began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogue, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’; and that all who heard him were shocked and had great difficulty believing this was the same man who had been the most notorious and feared enemy of all those ‘who invoked this name’ (i.e. the name of Jesus)”? I have no hesitation in calling the conversion of Saul of Tarsus the greatest conversion in the history of Christ’s Church, for he is the one who was destined to become the greatest evangelist in the apostolic age, the first missionary of Christ’s Church who took the Gospel beyond the narrow boundaries of Judaism to the Greek speaking world, where there were altars to so many mythological gods and goddesses (Acts 17:16), including one altar to “an unknown god” in Athens.

That one altar gave Paul the opening he needed, to tell them he was not proclaiming some new god in Greece, but had come to make known to them the one true and living God to whom they had already built an altar; they did not know him, and he had come to make him known (Acts 17:22-23). For so many in our own time the true and living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is still the “unknown god” in a world where there are so many lesser gods, who are really no gods at all. Perhaps some of you reading this are in this group, but would like to know more. If so, just continue reading the rest of the story from this point on in the Acts of the Apostles, especially the letters of Paul, who also, along with Luke wrote more books of the New Testament than any of the other inspired authors, including the “eye-witnesses”  to the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. This is just one more reason for calling the conversion of Saul the greatest of all conversions.

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