Updated: Sep 4
"On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.' Then I asked, 'Who are you, Lord?' 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,' the Lord replied. 'Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me.'" --Acts 26:12-16
For the past 40 years of ministry, I have had the privilege to watch the Lord transform lots of lives, young and old. It almost never happens the same way and that makes sense given the fact that everyone of these precious lives is unique. And yet, there are certain principles at work that seem to be repeated in more than one case. We can study those principles in a rather extreme form in the life of the Apostle Paul and how he became a Christian. I have been sharing messages this summer with my church about Paul’s conversion and his subsequent missionary journeys—learning what we can of his life and ministry and then applying the spiritual lessons to our lives. (If you want to listen to any of those sermons, by the way, just type “Trier Ridge Community Church” into the search window of the free Spotify App. You can also access them at our church website, www.trierridge.org. You can even come listen in person if you are in the area, 7501 Hessen Cassel Road in Fort Wayne on Sunday mornings at 10 a.m.—I’m not finished yet.) Paul himself described his conversion three different times in the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles in chapters 9, 22 and 26. Paul added a few new details to the account in chapter 26. This third account of Paul’s encounter with Jesus is provided above. Let’s examine a few of the details of this account to see what we can learn about how the Lord will often introduce Himself to people.
The first detail that was new in this account, from the prior two summaries, was that Jesus spoke to Saul (soon to become Paul) in Aramaic, or, some versions say, Hebrew. Paul was quite proud of the fact that he spoke the Hebrew language when so many other Jews who had been dispersed all over the Middle East by a string of conquering nations now spoke only Greek. (See Philippians 3:5) It is interesting to me that, on this fateful day, at a moment of crisis, Jesus spoke the heart language that Saul could understand. Jesus spoke in words with which Saul was familiar in order to get his attention—even calling him by his Aramaic name. Over the years, in my life and in the lives of others, I have noticed that the Lord will do the same thing. When it is really important for us to hear Him, the Lord will communicate in a way that we cannot miss His message, in an intimate and personal way. The Lord will pursue us relentlessly in love and will deliver His Word to us in unmistakable fashion.
The other detail that was new in the chapter 26 account of Paul's conversion was the second line that Jesus spoke to him while he was laying on his back in the road. He told Saul/Paul that it was hard for him to kick against the goads. Saul would have known instantly what the Lord was talking about. A goad, what we would call a cattle prod, was a 6-8 foot stick, sharp on one end, blunt on the other, that a shepherd would use to direct the livestock he was herding in a specific direction. The herder would poke the livestock in the legs or the side to get them moving along the right path. Sometimes oxen or other animals might actually kick against the goad--and of course, that would hurt more.
We had a little Bichon-Frise dog named Simon for fifteen years; he died during the summer of 2015 (see the picture above--and no, I didn't put the picture of the cute dog at the beginning to get you to read this--he relates to what I am writing.) Simon once nearly required a spiked collar during obedience training because he was so rambunctious—the same principle as a goad, trying to get him going in the right direction. (Our friend Dinko Zlatarov, while visiting us once from Bulgaria, called him the "zombie dog" because of the weird, guttural noises that came out of his 15-year-old throat.) Notice that Jesus told Paul that it was hurting him to kick against the goads, plural--more than one occasion when the Lord had tried to get Saul going in the proper direction. Here is what I think the Lord meant.
Although he was born in Tarsus, a young Saul had spent time in Jerusalem under the tutelage of the Rabbi Gamaliel, learning what it meant to be a Pharisee who honored the law of Moses. It is very possible, given the chronology, that Saul actually saw and heard Jesus teaching in Jerusalem. Imagine this young man, at the back of the crowd, up on tiptoes, listening to this teacher from Nazareth who seemed to be reinterpreting the very law Saul treasured so much. He was drawn to Jesus, but what if Jesus was a false prophet? Perhaps an inner struggle began in the life of Saul over who Jesus was. Then later, we know that Saul was present, giving his approval, to the stoning of the church leader Stephen. Could it be that Saul was troubled by the peace and forgiveness Stephen displayed as he was killed by Saul's fellow Jewish leaders? Is it possible that an internal battle had been going on for years inside of Paul's heart over who Jesus really was? Could this be the goading that the Lord referenced on the road to Damascus?
Paul's response to the Lord's words on the Damascus Road are interesting. He asked "Who are you, Lord?" I guess addressing the Being who just knocked you to the ground, "Lord," makes sense, even if you don't know exactly Who he is or what just happened. It's as if Jesus is telling Saul, "I am the One who has been trying to get your attention all along and now, finally, I had to take drastic measures. It would have been easier for you if you had listened and responded sooner." We all know people who seem to be running from God. Beware of trying to rescue them from their pain, discomfort or the fruit of their foolishness. These consequences might be just what the Lord is using to get their attention. If we try to bail them out, we might be undermining the activity of the Lord in their lives. And for those of us who are followers of Christ, don't forget that sometimes the Lord will lay us flat on our backs in the middle of the road--with an experience or a trial that we just don't understand. We might even ask who the Lord is to be allowing what is going on. But let's cling, through it all, to Him as our Lord, the One whose love is certain even if His ways with us are mysterious.
Heavenly Father, thank You that You so persistently pursue us when we run away from Your love and grace! Why are we so afraid of the changes You want to make in our lives? Thank You that You speak our language and that You even use the pain and trials of our lives to draw us to Yourself. Help us to have the courage to allow You to have Your way with others who are dear to us but are running from You. We trust You with their lives and our life as well. In Jesus' Name, Amen.