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Why Foreign Missions? 20m Paul’s Conversion and Calling: A Performance of the Gospel

Why Foreign Missions? 20m Paul’s Conversion and Calling: A Performance of the Gospel

In this section, Paul’s conversion and calling in mission will be considered in both Acts and Paul’s letters.  Paul experiences a dramatic conversion that illustrates to him the sort of conversion that both Jews and Gentiles need to experience.  His conversion and calling entail an encounter with the risen Jesus Christ, and in this encounter Paul also experiences the Gospel.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ is revealed to him and, at the same time, he is called to a ministry of this Gospel to the Gentiles.  In seeing the risen Christ, he becomes a witness to the Gospel.  As a witness, he engages in the mission of revealing what he sees and will see regarding Jesus (cf. Acts 26.16).  One might say, therefore, that Paul's conversion and calling are a performance of the Gospel.

Conversion or Call?

Arthur Darby Nock pointed out some time ago that the Graeco-Roman world did not think of conversion in terms of beliefs, since pagan religions were syncretistic.  Rather, any notion of conversion would have more to do with a change of one’s way of life.  Indeed, the message of philosophers such as Cynics or Stoics was precisely that: people should change their behaviour.[1]  Clearly, Judaism and Christianity opposed syncretistic religion and therefore understood conversion as both a change of beliefs and a change of behaviour.  We might further state that both Judaism and Christianity understood conversion as a change of devotion and worship, since pagans needed to give up not only their beliefs about gods but anything to do with idolatry.  Conversion also meant a change with respect to powers controlling life, whether internal passions driving people on in their sinful pursuits or demonic powers.  Finally, conversion meant a change in one’s relation to God, including the experience of a ‘new creation’ and transformed life and one’s eternal destiny.

While Paul as a Jew would have thought that pagans needed this sort of conversion, he would not have thought that Jews needed it.  This line of thought led Krister Stendahl to suggest that Paul would have understood his experience on the Damascus Road and becoming a Christian not as a conversion.  Paul, he averred, did not convert from one religion to another but gained a new understanding of his calling in life.  This was not a soul-searching of his conscience, as was Martin Luther's conversion experience.  Instead, Paul was neither struggling to earn his salvation through good works before a just God nor struggling over guilt incurred through his persecution of believers.  Paul’s experience was rather a calling, modelled by Paul after the Old Testament prophetic callings of Isaiah and Jeremiah.[2]

The significance of this argument, as James Dunn sees it, is as follows.  Paul's calling is not directly tied to his only at that time coming to a theology of justification by faith or an emphasis on the grace of God.  Paul would have had this theology from his Jewish background.  Rather, '...the Damascus road confrontation brought home to him how much his people's and his own preoccupation with maintaining their set-apartness from the nations had become a perversion of that original call and promise and choice, and so a subversion of the fundamental character of that call and promise and choice as an act of free grace.  It was that basic insight (revelation) and the call (to the Gentiles) bound up with it that he sought to implement.’[3]  For Dunn, then, what is significant for Paul in his calling is his new perspective on the limits of God's grace: it was not limited to Israel but was extended way beyond the Jews to the Gentiles.

Such thinking, I would suggest, arises when scholars read their agendas into texts and when there is a need for clarification in scholarship of the categories.  While Paul did not search for forgiveness of sins that plagued his conscience and walk down to the altar to receive Jesus, he did see his life before conversion as sinful and what happened to him as receiving God’s grace.  While Paul did not lack an understanding of God as gracious and forgiving and may not have believed in works righteousness, he did not accept that God’s grace came through God’s working of his own righteousness among a sin-ridden people (both Jews and Gentiles) or that this righteousness came in Jesus, God’s redeemer from Zion (cf. Is. 59.20), instead of the Law.  While Paul’s new calling entailed a mission that included Jews and Gentiles in a new community, the Church, he also came to see that Jews and Gentiles were equally guilty before God for their sins and equally needed the righteousness of God apart from the Law in Jesus Christ.  This is, therefore, far more than a calling.

Beverley Gaventa offered three distinct ways to discuss the topic: alteration, conversion, and transformation:
(1) alteration: a gradual change of life that emerges from one’s past;
(2) conversion: a sudden change of life, a rejection of the past and following an entirely new direction;
(3) transformation: a cognitive change of life that reconceives the past.[4]

If we accept Gaventa’s definitions, then Paul’s ‘conversion’ was really a ‘transformation,’ a cognitive change of life that reconceives the past.  However, it was more than that.  There are shades of truth in saying that what he experienced was an alteration, conversion, and transformation.  It was certainly, however, even more than that.  In the book of Acts, Paul’s conversion involves a acted parable: a change from blindness to sight.  For all his learning under Gamaliel and his zealousness for the Law, he was as blind as the Gentiles and needed the light of Christ, brighter than the midday sun, to enlighten him.  Paul describes himself in one of his letters as the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1.13-15).  He did not have a greater righteousness than the Gentiles for all his Jewish understanding and practice of Judaism; instead, his persecution of the Church—of Jesus himself—made him the chief of sinners.  Moreover, those Jews rejecting Jesus, says Paul, are accursed and cut off from Christ (Rom. 9.2), they have not fulfilled the Law or submitted to God’s righteousness and need prayer for salvation (Rom. 9.31-10.3).  In a word, they are in as bad a situation as the Gentiles who are outside of Christ.  They key, then, is to receive Jesus, who brings an end to the Law precisely because he brings the righteousness of God in his own person (Rom. 3.21-26; 9.30-10.4).  All this change Paul himself experiences in his own conversion: a change from sin to righteousness, from an inadequate devotion to devotion to Jesus, from impending doom to the hope of eternal life, from a blindness to enlightenment, from a path apart from and opposing Christ Jesus to a path established by Christ Jesus, from opposition to the communities committed to Jesus to a mission of extending the Church throughout the world.  What Paul sees and experiences in his own conversion is what he shows and offers to Jews and Gentiles alike in his missionary work.  In a word, he is converted, and he is commissioned to preach conversion to others.

Paul's Conversion in Acts 9, 22, 26

Paul’s conversion is recounted three times in the book of Acts.  The following table brings out the points made in this important story for Luke’s narration of the early Church’s story.  Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road was cognitive, experiential, miraculous, dramatic, transformative, Spiritual, and an example of conversion for others, whether Jews or Gentiles.  It was, at the same time, a unique calling to be an apostle to the Gentiles, paralleling, to some extent, the calling of Jeremiah the prophet.  His unique seeing of Jesus made him a witness to the resurrection of Jesus.

Paul's Persecution of the Church

Paul's Revelation

Paul's Calling

Paul's Conversion

Acts 9.1-19
High priest's letters to Damascus Synagogues to arrest people of the Way and take them to Jerusalem

Light from heaven near Damascus, fell to ground, voice saying, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"  Who are you?  "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting."
"Rise, enter the city, you will be told what to do."
Paul blinded for 3 days; ate and drank nothing.

 Ananias sent to Judas' house on Straight St.--Paul had seen vision of him laying hands on him and praying for his sight.  Ananias protests.  "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles (ethnoi) and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." 
[Cf. Jer. 1.10--"ethnoi and kings"; Jer. 1.19--"suffer"]

Ananias goes to heal and fill Paul with Holy Spirit.  Something like scales fall from his eyes.  He is baptized and filled with Holy Spirit.

Acts 22.2-21
High priest and whole council of elders gave Paul letters to the brethren in Damascus to arrest people of the Way and take them to Jerusalem.

Light from heaven near Damascus about noon; fell to ground; voice saying, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’

Those with Paul saw light but heard no voice.

Paul blinded.

Rise, go to Damascus and you will be told what to do.

Ananias comes, says, 'Brother Saul, regain your sight!’  And he says, ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice;  15 for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard.’
[Cf. Jer. 1.11, 13--"see"]

"And now, why do you wait?  Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name."

Acts 26.9-18
Authority and commission of chief priests to persecute Jesus' followers in Damascus.

Acts 26:14-15   14 When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.'  15 I asked, 'Who are you, Lord?' The Lord answered, 'I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.

Acts 26:16-18  16 But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you.  17 I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles-- to whom I am sending you  18 to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'
As ch. 22, cf. Jer. 1.11, 13--"see"
Isaiah 49.6: servant, a light for the Gentiles

Conclusion applied not to Paul but to those Jews and Gentiles to whom he preached: repent, turn to God, prove repentance by deeds (v. 20).

Paul is a Jew who has these ideas: zealous for God (22), resurrection (26).  He who persecuted will suffer.

Christology: Jesus is risen; Jesus is Lord.
Ecclesiology:  the Church is Jesus' body.

Salvation: Turning from darkness to light, rescued from the power of Satan, forgiveness of sins, and sanctified by faith in Jesus.
Mission: Testimony of things Paul sees and will see concerning Jesus that the Jews and Gentiles (vv. 18 and 23) might also see (turn from darkness to light).

Conversion: what happens to Paul is not only new vision and new calling but also new life: sins forgiven, miracle of blindness and regaining sight, filled with the Holy Spirit, calling on Jesus' name.  Both Jews and Gentiles need this.

Seyoon Kim has attempted to find the seed of much of Pauline theology in Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road.[5]  This somewhat speculative exercise offered a needed challenge to views that downplay what happened to Paul.  Indeed, this was more than a calling to ministry but also a conversion, and it was literally ‘eye-opening’ for Paul experientially and theologically.  It involved a new understanding of Jesus, a new understanding of mission (not persecuting the church but extending it), a new focus on witnessing to the fact that Jesus was the Son of God (Acts 9.20), risen from the dead, a new understanding of the people of God as the Church, and a new understanding that all are sinners and need God’s righteousness in Jesus.

Paul's Conversion According to Paul

The four categories used in the chart for the Acts material might also be used for the material from Paul's letters which speak of his calling and conversion.  The following table examines what several of Paul’s letters tell us about Paul’s conversion and calling.  Conclusions to this appear in the final part of the table.

Paul's Persecution of the Church

Paul's Revelation

Paul's Calling

Paul's Conversion

Galatians 1:13-14  13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.  14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.

Galatians 1:12  for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
Galatians 1:16b-17a  I did not confer with any human being,  17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me….

Galatians 1:15-16   15 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased  16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles
Cf. Jer. 1.4: before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.

Galatians 1:23  they only heard it said, "The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy."


Romans 1:5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name,
Romans 15:15c-16  the grace given me by God  16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

1 Corinthians
1 Corinthians 15:8-9   8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.  9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

1 Corinthians 9:1c Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?

1 Corinthians 3:10   According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation,
1 Corinthians 4:1-2 1 Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries.  2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.
1 Cor. 9.1d: Are you not my work in the Lord?
1 Corinthians 9:16-17  16 If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!  17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission.
1 Corinthians 9:19-21   19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.  20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law.  21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law.

1 Corinthians 15:10  But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them-- though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

2 Corinthians
[2 Cor. 4.8-11; 6.4-10; 11.22-33: Paul suffers in his calling and has reason to boast as a Jew, but nothing counts except God's power made perfect in weakness.]

[Paul preaches Jesus Christ as Lord, 2 Cor. 4.5; note imagery of light in 4.4-6.]

2 Corinthians 5:18-21  18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;  19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 4:4-8   In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  5 For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake.  6 For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.  8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;

Ephesians 3:8a Although I am the very least of all the saints….
Ephesians 3:13  I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory.

Ephesians 3:3-5  3 and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words,  4 a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ5 In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:
Ephesians 1:9-10   9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ,  10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Ephesians 3:7-10  7 Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God's grace that was given me by the working of his power.  8 Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ,  9 and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things;  10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
Cf. Jer. 1.10: See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.

Philippians 3:3-6  3 For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh--  4 even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more:  5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;  6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Philippians 3:12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

Philippians 3:7-11   7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.  8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ  9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.  10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,  11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

1 Timothy 1:13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief,…
1 Timothy 1:15  The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- of whom I am the foremost.

1 Timothy 1:12 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service,…
1 Timothy 1:14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

2 Timothy:
1.8c: ...But join with me in suffering for the gospel.... (Cf. V.12; 3.10-12)

1.10: but it [grace] has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

1.9: ...This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the ages began....
1.11: For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher.

2 Corinthians 3:5-6  5 ‘Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God,  6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.’
2 Corinthians 4:11-12  11 ‘For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.  12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.’
2 Corinthians 6:4-5   4 ‘… but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,  5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger….
2 Corinthians 12:9-10   9 ‘… but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.’
1 Timothy 1:16 ‘But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.’ [Paul the worst of sinners was shown grace to preach the message of grace: contrary to J. Dunn, Paul's insight into his being called was not only that God's grace could reach Gentiles; it was also an insight into the depth of God's grace which he had not previously understood.]

Galatians: Paul's Gospel is neither his own nor someone else's: it is from Jesus.

1 Corinthians: Paul has apostolic authority: he has seen the risen Lord.

Ephesians: The Gospel is a revealed mystery about how Jews and Gentiles are united in Christ.

Philippians: Paul was happy enough going the wrong way until apprehended by Christ. [His conversion was not a gradual process of rethinking his theology; it was an encounter with Jesus.]

1. Calling is a matter of grace.  It is equally a matter of required service.  Paul's calling catches him between God's grace and command.  He is an ambassador announcing and urging others to God's reconciliation through Christ.

2. Grace is planned.  What God is doing is planned from the foundations of the earth and has a future grand finale.

3. As in Acts, Paul reflects on his call in Gal. 1 with language from Jer. 1: like Jeremiah, at the time of Jewish exile, he is called as a prophet to the Gentiles/nations.

4. The Gentiles fit into this grace and plan of God.  Paul's calling is to them (cf. Gal. 2.9c).  Consequently, Paul does not want to build on another's work but to push into new regions (Rom. 15.20-22; 2 Cor. 10.14-16).

5. But Paul's mission also included the Jews (1 Cor. 9).*

*Paul’s ministry in synagogues apparently immediately put him in touch not only with Jews but also with godfearers.  Acts offers the primary evidence for this (9.20; 13.5, 14; 14.1; 17.1-2, 10, 17; 18.4, 19; 19.8).
But Paul's letters suggest that believers had been pagans, e.g., Gal. 4.8; 1 Cor. 12.2; 1 Ths. 1.9).  Hultgren: both are true, as 1 Cor. 9.20-21 demonstrate (contra E. P. Sanders, who sees this as hyperbole and denies much activity among Jews by Paul).

1. Paul's conversion in terms of deeds: he has completely changed his behavior.

2. The glory of God is known in the face of Christ; the light of the Gospel is not perceived by those in darkness; God makes His light shine in our hearts (2 Cor. 4): conversion involves a whole new understanding from a whole new vision of who Christ is.

3. Paul's conversion involves his abandoning confidence in the flesh and seeking to know only Christ. Paul's sufferings (2 Cor. 4) and straight forward preaching (1 Th. 2; 1 Cor. 2.1-5) actually help to let this Gospel treasure stand out for what it was.  [The problem with being earnest, as the Jews indeed were, was that it involved putting confidence in the flesh when in fact God's grace alone brings righteousness: Rom. 9.31-32; 10.2-4; Phl. 3.3, 6.  The Jews knew this from their own theology (Gal. 2.15); but some, whether Jews or Judaizers among the churches, sought to establish their own righteousness through the law (Gal. 5.3-5).  But boasting is excluded: one cannot keep the Law (Gal. 3.; Rom. 7.7-21), and besides, Jews and Gentiles alike are made righteous through faith (Rom. 3.27-31).]

[1] Arthur Darby Nock, Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933).
[2] Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1976), pp. 7-22.
[3] James D. G. Dunn, 'Paul and Justification by Faith,' in The Road From Damascus: The Impact of Paul's Conversion on His Life, Thought, and Ministry, ed. R. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997): p. 100 [article: pp. 85-101).
[4] Beverley Gaventa, From Darkness to Light: Aspects of Conversion in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), pp. 10-13.
[5] Seyoon Kim, The Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2007; orig. pub. 1984).