We first meet Saul of Tarsus in Dr. Luke’s historical account The Acts of the Apostles.
But they yelled at [Stephen] at the tops of their voices, blocked their ears, and made a concerted dash at him. They bundled him out of the city and stoned him. The witnesses laid their cloaks down at the feet of a young man named Saul. Now Saul was giving his consent to Stephen’s death. That very day a great persecution was started against the church in Jerusalem… Acts of the Apostles, chapter 7 vs. 58 and chapter 8 vs.1.
The young man named Saul, born sometime 9-15 years after the birth of Jesus, lived in a first century milieu of Jewish tradition and Torah, of covenants and commemorating, of prayers and psalms and, of Sabbaths and synagogues. In such an environment Saul learned early on that it was God’s people against the goyim – the rest of the world (e.g., David vs. Goliath).
The Jews looked for and prepared themselves for the return of the Messiah who would save his people from world rulers – Rome in the immediate- and bring justice and restore God’s Temple presence among his people. Zealous for God and Torah, the Jews of Saul’s day were resolute in their desire to see this happen. Some of the zealous were “using force against force” zealous, recalling the zealous acts of Judas Maccabeus against the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes 200 years before. Jewish revolutionaries wanted to force change against Roman rule. Others, like Saul, sought to live pious lives in expectation of the salvation to come. They kept their simmering violent zealousness under lid until such time as needed.
Saul studied the Torah, every jot and tittle, under the Rabbi Gamaliel. Politically, Gamaliel was not eager to push an agenda. The Rabbi was more “live and let live” towards Rome. Young Saul was more how can one go on living like this when one knows these things?
We recognize Saul’s Rabbinic training from his letters written to new churches. As mentioned above, we first meet Saul of Tarsus at the onset of persecution of the truly revolutionary – the Christian. I find it interesting to wonder about what we don’t know about Saul in those times.
Before the stoning, did Saul hear Stephen speak as he stood before the religious council? (Acts 7) Did he hear Stephen recount Israel’s history as the people of God and God’s dealing with them, a stiff-necked people? Did Saul sneer when he heard those words? Did Saul hear Stephen proclaim, “Look! I can see the heaven opened, and the son of man standing at God’s right hand!” Did Saul gnash his teeth at such a claim? Was Saul one of the men who dragged Stephen out the door to the stone pit? We know from Dr. Luke’s account that Saul was the moral vestment check at the scene of Stephen’s stoning.
Where was Saul when Jesus was crucified? I would have little doubt that Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee, had heard about the sky darkening and about the Temple curtain being rent in two. Both ominous events were sure to alarm any pious Jew.
Where was Saul when Jesus was resurrected? I have no doubt that Saul had heard the reports from all quarters of Jerusalem. This news must have been unsettling for someone who knew the Law and the Prophets and wasn’t able to see such a scenario depicted in the Torah. Even more unsettling, Jesus declared himself equal with God and Stephen claimed he saw Jesus as equal with God, standing at God’s right hand!
And, where was Saul on the day of Pentecost when God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven heard Galileans speaking words from the prophet Joel in their native tongue? (Acts 2) Such things do not go unnoticed by Rabbis.
From Acts, we know where Saul was on the day he encountered Jesus. Paul was riding a donkey on his way to Damascus. He was sent to silence the Followers of the Way forever. No Messiah, he was taught, would be crucified, die and rise again! And, certainly God would not be crucified, die and rise again!
I would consider it very likely that Saul, with a lot of time on his hands riding at 3.5 mph, thought about the events in Jerusalem. He would recall Jesus entering the city on a donkey. He would recall Jesus overturning the money-changers tables in the Temple yard and calling the Temple his Father’s house.
I ‘m sure with Saul’s’ connections that he had heard about Jesus standing before Pilate. And, about the Pharisee-swayed crowd trying to influence Pilate. Jesus had been given a thumb down by many of the same Palm Sunday crowd who waved Palm branches days before. Barabbas, a revolutionary and murderer, was given a thumb up. Jesus would be sentenced in his place. Jesus is crucified. Revolution squashed. But suddenly, there was news of the buried Jesus now walking the streets.
It is also very likely that Saul was also praying and meditating on scripture, perhaps on the visions of the prophet Ezekiel. Almost certainly Saul meditated on the Temple and the return of God’s presence to Israel. Like all “zealous” Jews, Saul was very much tuned into the Temple prophecies and eschatology. Could he have also been meditating on 2 Kings (vs. 11)?
As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.
For Saul the Damascus road event wasn’t a conversion experience as Evangelicals would describe it today. And, it wasn’t a turn from Judaism towards Christianity or from the Law towards love. Rather, it was a game-changing, name-changing encounter with a new reality input into his life. I would call this encounter and its result “a summing junction”. Saul met the living Lord on the road that day and came out of that encounter a new creation.
Saul’s zeal for God, Torah and the Temple was ‘summed up’ with the resurrected Jesus. Saul’s hopes for a Messiah to return and bring change was summed up in Jesus. Saul’s prayers for the salvation of the Lord were summed up in Jesus. The sum of charges God could bring against Paul, the Persecutor, were summed against the work of the cross. Paul came out forgiven. His record, once scarlet, was now white as snow.
This is one of many summing junctions that are recorded in Scripture. As I read again Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road I thought of Jacob. Jacob at one time was going in the opposite direction, with his life and plans, from his father’s God . At the river Jabbok Jacob encounters the angel of the Lord and Jacob puts up resistance. Jacob wrestles with the angel. In the morning the sum of his encounter is a blessing.
Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Here’s what happened to Saul when he encountered a greater resistance, as told to King Agrippa:
“While I was busy on this work [of persecution],” Paul continued, “I was traveling to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests. Around midday, while I was on the road, O King, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the light of the sun, and shining all around me and my companions on the road. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice speaking to me in Aramaic. “’Saul, Saul,’ he said, ‘why are you persecuting me? It’s hard for you this kicking against the goads.’ “’Who are you, Lord? I said. “’I am Jesus,’ said the Lord, ‘and you are persecuting me. But get up and stand on your feet. I’m going to tell you why I have appeared to you. I am going to establish you as a servant, as a witness both of the things you have already seen and of the occasions I will appear to you in the future. I will rescue you from the people, and from the nations to whom I am going to send you so that you can open their eyes to enable to turn from darkness to light, and from power of the satan to God –so that they can have forgiveness of sins, and an inheritance among those who are made holy by their faith in me.’” (Acts 26)
After each summing junction encounter with the Lord, whether Jacob’s or Saul’s, lives were forever changed. Jacob is given a new name: Israel. Saul is renamed Paul.
I wonder. Does the summing junction encounter happen at the point of a person’s most resistance to God?
Paul of earth was ‘summed’ with Jesus of heaven so that the riches of God’s love and grace would be declared to all of his creation, which meant beyond the Jews. Now, instead of avoiding the Gentiles and being at odds with them Paul was sent to minister to them.
“In the king, and through his blood, we have deliverance—that is, our sins have been forgiven—through the wealth of his grace which he lavished on us. Yes, with all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the secret of his purpose, just as he wanted it to be and set it forward in him as a blueprint for when the time was ripe. His plan was to sum up the whole cosmos in the king—yes, everything in heaven and on earth, in him”. The Apostle Paul, to the Ephesian churches, 1: 7-10
The cross is the ultimate summing junction. The Holy One of God took upon himself all of the world’s use of force against him and all of the powers of darkness. The outcome became multifaceted: Jesus gave us a new definition of power- dying to self; Jesus claimed victory over evil, Jesus’ resurrection claimed victory over death; there is a turning from darkness to light; we are forgiven our sins and are now able to forgive others. And, the Divine presence now fills temples of His creation.
While we are walking around on resurrection ground, we, like Paul, are to be witnesses of our own “summing junction”, both of the things we have already seen and of the occasions when Jesus will appear to us in the future. With a new name comes a new vocation.
A summing junction symbol: