On the last day of the journey of the caravan, Mount Hermon was dropping behind. Its peaks, still under snow, rose from brown foothills white with wild flowers, but the mountain no longer looked particularly high because they were too close under it too see the summit, and the Damascus plain itself is over 2,000 feet. Far ahead, below a bare craggy hill, lay the green of the oasis, encouraging them to plod on to journey’s end rather than stop, as on other days, before noon.
Paul and his party walked, while one man led their donkeys roped together a little way to the rear. The road had emptied of country people making for market. Now and again they saw sheep or goats guarded by a small boy swinging his sling, behind a rough plow, guiding his ox by a long goad or wand tipped with iron.
The sky was clear blue. Paul’s memory is emphatic that there was no thunderstorm or violent wind, as some suggest who seek a natural explanation for what happened. He was not near a nervous breakdown or about to suffer an epileptic fit; not even especially in a hurry.
“Suddenly about midday a great light flashed from the sky all around me … a light more brilliant than the sun, shining all around me and my traveling companions.”
Paul and the other travelers all fell to the ground. They were appalled by this phenomenon, not just a flash but light, terrifying and inexplicable. The companions seem to have stumbled to their feet. Paul remained prostrate. For him only, the light grew in intensity. He heard a voice, at once calm and authoritative, say in Aramaic: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?”
He looked up. Within the center of the light which blinded him from his surroundings he faced a man of about his own age. Paul could not believe what he heard or saw. All his convictions, intellect and training, his reputation, his self-respect, demanded that Jesus should not be alive again. He played for time and replied, “Who are You, Lord?” He used a mode of address which might simply mean “Your honor.”
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goad.”
Then Paul knew. In a second that seemed an eternity he saw the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet, saw the face and knew that he had seen the Lord, that He was alive, as Stephen and the others had said, and that He loved not only those whom Paul had persecuted but Paul: “It is hard for you to kick against the goad.” Not one word of reproach.
Paul had never admitted to himself that he had felt pricks of a goad as he raged against Stephen and his disciples. But now, instantaneously, he was shatteringly aware that he had been fighting Jesus. And fighting himself, his conscience, his powerlessness, the darkness and chaos in his soul. God hovered over this chaos and brought him, to the moment of new creation. It wanted only his “Yes.”
He was trembling and in no state to weigh the pros and cons of changing sides. He only knew that he had heard a voice and had seen the Lord, and that nothing mattered but to find and obey His will.
“What shall I do Lord?”
He used the same ascription as before, but all the obedience and worship and love in heaven and earth went into that one word, “Lord.” At that moment he knew he was utterly forgiven, utterly loved. In his own words: God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shined in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
“Rise to your feet,” he heard, “and stand upright and go into Damascus, and you will be told there what you are to do.” He had trusted. Now he had to obey – a humbling and almost trivial first order.
When at last he stood, he was blind. He put out his hand and groped until his companions, who had been frightened even more by hearing Paul answer the inaudible, began to lead him. The riding and baggage animals had caught up and the little caravan walked toward Damascus in awed silence.
Paul moved blindly into the unknown, yet he was not in darkness but in light: “I could not see because of the brightness of that light.” Though blue sky and the road’s yellow dust and the green of the nearing oasis were all snuffed out, they were not missed. Light suffused his blinded eyes, his mind. And as he walked, obeying that first command from his new Master, he made the first great discovery: Jesus remained beside him, not in the form of a crucified, risen body, someone invisible yet there.
They passed the stench of the caravanserai, quiet still in the early afternoon, and went under the city gate into the broad, colonnaded Via Recta, the Street called Straight, which bisected the city. This too was comparatively still, for the shops and booths had not opened after the midday sleep, and private homes were shuttered against the sun. They reached the house of a Damascene named Judas, probably a substantial Jewish merchant, a suitable host for a representative of the Sanhedrin: the synagogue elders must have been expecting Paul, for even the Nazarenes knew he was on his way to persecute. Both sides lost sight of him. the escort delivered him and disappeared. He made no request of Judas but to be taken to the guest chamber – refusing even a meal – and left alone.
Time became meaningless. Paul heard the evening trumpet, next morning’s cockcrow, the rumble of carts on the paving, shopkeepers shouting their wares, the distant murmur of bargainers, and the occasional bray of an ass. Then the stillness of midday. Paul lay on his bed, wide awake except for an hour or two of sleep, or knelt long at the bedside and then lay down again. He did not want human company, only to be alone with the Lord Jesus, as he now called Him. He soon forgot hunger and thirst His entire personality was in mutation. He was being turned inside out as he let Jesus light the recesses of his soul.
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He could only reply now in the words of David’s Psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy loving-kindness: according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies, blot out my transgressions … Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned.”
He had imagined he served God. He supposed himself climbing into God’s favor. He had set up his standards of goodness and compared himself with others and seen that he was good. But now, in contrast with Jesus, whose Spirit had invaded him, he knew his purity was a counterfeit of the inexpressibly Pure, the good deeds a parody of Goodness. He had been mentally and spiritually hostile to God, though honoring Him by mouth; he had been busy with evil, though punctilious in religious rites; he had been altogether estranged, fit for nothing but to crawl away as far as he could from the blinding light that was God.
Yet Jesus had grasped hold of him. Paul would afterward cite this a s one of the cast-iron proofs of he Resurrection, however much men might scoff or call him a liar. God, incredibly, had raised the shattered body of Jesus from the grave so that He was alive and had confronted Paul, not to crush and destroy, not to revenge the blood of the persecuted but to rescue the persecutor and overwhelm him with love and forgiveness.
Paul knew from the bottom of his heart that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior of the world. This was not a conclusion of cold logic, though that must come. It went beyond intellect. He knew, because he knew Jesus.
And in knowing Jesus, he understood what had happened at the cross.
Paul in his pride and wisdom had rejected Jesus because no man could be hanged on a tree unless cursed. As he now faced his sin, he saw by irresistible intuition that Jesus indeed had carried a curse on the cross, but not His own; it was Paul’s and everyman’s.
Each hour that passed in blindness at the house of Judas, each day for the rest of his life would unfold a little more of the breadth and length and height and depth, but the heart of the Good news was sure, now and forever: the love of Christ, “the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Paul could instantly be treated as a man who had never sinned, be welcomed with love and trust.
The more he looked with blinded eyes at the light, the more distinct grew the fact disclosed in that instant of time on the Damascus Road: forgiveness was Christ Himself. It could not be earned; no human merit could outweigh human sin; but in having Christ, Paul had all.