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The Road to Damascus: Learning to Love the Enemy Within

Paul sees Jesus on the Road to Damascus

Hatred is not something that you can see -- sure, the effects of hatred can be seen: vitriol, vandalism, violence – but hatred itself is something that is only actually ever felt by the one who is filled with it, and never by the so-called “recipient” of it. That is to say, hatred exists solely on an internal basis, and thus its full essence is practically invisible. And because of hatred’s concealed nature, we don’t rightfully blame it for all of the trouble it actually causes the hater. The internal effects of hatred come in the form of anger, stress, and disease. Think about that last one for a moment; the word “disease” is just that, “dis” “ease,” which is to say, a severe uneasiness that exists inside one’s being. Along this line of thought, it is not difficult to understand hatred as a severe uneasiness. In other words, hatred is literally a sickness, a disease. Unfortunately, however, in our current medical system, we often overlook the cause of disease and simply look for a “treatment.” Perhaps this is why hatred is not treated the way it should be.

Ever the healer, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).

Jesus preached to love our enemies and pray for them, because he understood that to harbor hate within us for someone else, does way more harm to us than it ever could to our enemies. Hatred will eventually eat you up and devour your very soul.

What is more, as bad as hatred is to the one who harbors it, so, too, is how good the power of loving one’s enemy is for the one who decides to. Not only will you free yourself of the heavy burden that anger and hatred have on you, but you will also find that it is at that moment of releasing your hatred, and embracing love, that your enemy loses all of their power to hurt you.

In fact, it is this power of loving one’s enemy that is responsible for the formation of nearly half of the New Testament. That is to say, it was a hate-filled enemy of Christ whose name is attributed to thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. A man without whom, the Christian faith would be considerably different. In other words, Jesus practiced as he preached; he found love for his enemy and thus his enemy was healed of his hatred and in turn found love for Christ as well.

Let us explore the conversion of Saul of Tarsus (who later became known as Paul the Apostle) and see how when hatred is transformed into love (on the inside) it can manifest itself into world changing ways (on the outside).


As I already mentioned, Paul is responsible for writing nearly half of the New Testament. Paul wrote the most in terms of quantity of books, however, his missionary companion, Luke, was the most prolific writer of the New Testament. The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are respectively part one and two of the same piece of writing. The first part is about the life of Jesus Christ, and the second part is about the church that his followers formed in his name. We are told that Peter was responsible for converting other Jewish men to a life of Christ, while the responsibility of converting the Gentile world would fall to another…

Enter Saul of Tarsus…

Before his arrival on the proverbial scene, however, let us step back for a moment. Let us imagine we are in the world of the first century Roman Empire. The Jewish people were once again under the rule of another oppressive regime. It was the repeating pattern of their up-and-down history of victory and oppression as described in their ancient scrolls. At times like these, in the valley so to speak, many would turn to scripture in the hopes that they would once again find favor with the Lord, and that He would finally send the long-promised Messiah to come and re-establish their kingdom – “a city on a hill,” as it were. In other words, for most Jewish people at that time, something had to give – they could not live like this any longer – and many believed that scripture suggested that they would not have to.

You can imagine the conversations that must have taken place among the Jewish leaders circa 30 A.D., after they kept getting reports of some miracle worker from Nazareth:

“He is just another one of those fringe lunatics,” one chief priest would say dismissively.

“Yea,” another chief priest would add in agreement, “People are always claiming they have found the Messiah. I mean, it’s not as though he’s from the line of King David.”

“Actually he is,” a scribe would chime in subversively.

“Yea, but its not like the prophets are heralding him,” the first chief priest would retort.

“Actually, that man by the river in the camel hair garment, John the Baptizer, said that this man is the one that he has been waiting for.”

“Well, who is he anyway? Elijah? Give me a break!”

Saul of Tarsus was of this same skeptical mindset. He was a devout Jewish man, rising in the ranks, and had enough of all of this Messiah talk. To him, the followers of Jesus were ill-informed fishermen and peasants who didn’t understand the scriptures well enough to identify the Messiah even if he were to come.

After the brutal death of Jesus, it was quite dangerous to be a follower of Christ. His followers should have gone into hiding for safety’s sake, but many felt that it was their mission to spread the word of Jesus, so they publicly preached his name in spite of the deadly opposition.

It is at this point where we are first introduced to Saul of Tarsus. He had made it his personal mission to stop these followers of Christ at every turn. As Paul described it, “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9).

In the Book of Acts, we read that the disciple Stephen was preaching to a Jewish crowd. Stephen scripturally shamed them for their misunderstanding of God’s word:

“Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, ‘Behold I see the heavens opened, the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And he knelt down and cried a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this he fell asleep. And Saul was consenting to his death” (Acts 7:54-60, 8:1).

What a powerful and tragic way to be introduced to Saul. Here we have the disciple Stephen, who is such a model example of the way of Christ that he even went so far as to pray for his enemies as they were killing him; and on the other side of things, you have Saul, a man so hateful that this group of murderers laid their garments at his feet as a sign of respect. Scripture continues with this juxtaposition of Stephen and Saul in order to further highlight the vast difference between their moral characters. For it is written, “Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him. But Saul laid waste the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” (Acts 8:2-3). Luke’s writing is showing us how the good in Stephen (which was great) was equal measure to the evil and hatred in Saul.

The question must be asked then: if the evil and hatred in Saul was so great, how could this man be the one, second only to Jesus, in terms of his effect on the creation of the foundation of Christianity?

The one word answer is: revelation.

Revelation is from the Latin revelare – which is broken down into re which means “again” (expressing reversal) and velum, which means “veil.” In other words, a revelation can be thought of as “pulling back the veil,” so to speak. It is the revealing of something that was previously hidden or out of view.

The first writing of the New Testament chronologically was Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It was composed around 50 A.D. (less than twenty years after the death of Christ). In the first chapter of this “book” of the New Testament, Paul explains where he gets his authority to preach, and why a man who was the evil Saul of Tarsus, the enemy of Christ, should now be taken seriously as a voice who speaks with God’s authority:

“For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it…but when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace was pleased to reveal his Son in me in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:11-13, 15-16).

This is how Paul describes his conversion in his own words. It was a divine “revelation of Jesus Christ,” where God was “pleased to reveal his Son in” him.

Some translations use the words “to him” instead of “in him” in the above line. I believe that this mistranslation stems from a misunderstanding of Paul’s conversion as described in the Book of Acts. Let me explain.

Paul’s letters are not all that auto-biographical in nature, meaning he does not talk much about the details of his life. The Book of Acts, on the other hand, paints a vivid picture of the life of Paul. The problem, however, is that the little that Paul does tell us about himself, presents us with a slightly different understanding of who he is, than most apprehend from his portrayal in the Book of Acts.

This brings us back to the misuse of the word “to” for “in” when Paul writes, that God revealed his Son “to/in” him.

When we read of Paul’s conversion in the Book of Acts, and apply what he just told us in his own words in the first ever recorded piece of writing in the New Testament, our understanding of what really happened on the Road to Damascus becomes clearer.

In Acts, Luke writes of the conversion as follows:

“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what to do.’ The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:1-9).

Acts is telling us that Paul was continuing his oppressive tactics of imprisoning followers of Christ, when suddenly he saw a light from heaven and heard the voice of Christ. The experience left him blinded and frozen in fear and regret for three days. On the surface, it is not hard to see why translators would read Paul’s words in Galatians as if he is saying that the Son of God was revealed “to” him. After all, that is essentially how the above Acts passage reads.

Nevertheless, scripture is always about something a bit deeper, more mysterious; or as Paul puts it, “We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God decreed before the ages for our glorification” (1 Cor. 2:7).

What I am trying to say is that it makes a lot more sense to prioritize the words of the direct witness to an event, over the words of the one who is telling you what the witness told them.

Paul says that the Son was revealed “in” him, not “to” him. Thus, we must re-read the conversion story in Acts with this understanding applied to it. When it says a light flashed about him, it is another way of saying that Paul, “saw the light” so to speak. Like he said, he had a “revelation.” And to hear the words of Christ as Luke says that Paul did, is simply another way of saying that he understood and/or apprehended the Word of God.

I began this post by showing how hatred only exists internally, and it is only its effects that can be seen. In other words, one’s internal nature becomes their external world. This point is very important to understand as we continue.

In Acts, after the Son is revealed “to/in” Paul, we read that he was blinded. This is symbolically significant because his blindness represents his misunderstanding of Jesus as the messiah – in other words, Paul just couldn’t see how it all fit together, but then suddenly with the help of the Lord shining the proverbial light on things, he was no longer in the dark, as it were.

We read that after the Son is revealed “to/in” Paul on the road to Damascus, blinding him, he is led into the city where he sits in this darkness for three days. Acts continues:

“Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘Rise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold he is praying, and he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel… So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 9:10-17).

There is a lot to unpack here. Two important points must be made about this passage in reference to our current discussion. The first is the fact that the Lord appeared to Ananias in “a vision,” through which he spoke to him. This is quite telling. For a “vision” has to do with internal sight, and speaking usually refers to something that is audible, and thus external. These two concepts seem to be at odds. One happens within us and one happens outside of us. You will realize, however, they are not at odds, when you understand Ananias’s conversation (for lack of a better term) with God, as what it really is: a kind of divine insight -- With an emphasis on each syllable of the word – “in” meaning internal, and “sight” referring back to Ananias’s “vision.” Insight is by definition a deep understanding into a particular subject. In other words, Ananias’s conversation with God is really just a deep understanding (that came from within) of what he had to do – he had to help this former enemy of Christ “see,” which is to say he had to shine the light of the Lord on Paul's inner darkness.

The second part of the passage that we must discuss, is the fact that as Ananias is struggling against the Lord about what he has been called on to do, the Lord tells him that Saul has been “praying,” which is to say, having his own conversation with God (similar to Ananias’s own vision), and that Paul has “seen” Ananias already doing the thing which he is just now being called on by the Lord to do, suggesting that it is somehow destined, and therefore futile for Ananias to resist.

Another way to look at this, however, is that Paul who has now had the Son revealed in him, is using his thoughts to manifest his reality. For like Jesus said in the Gospel of Mark, “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will” (Mark 11:24). This is exactly what Paul did. In his mind, during prayer, he saw that he was given his sight back. And then, that was exactly what happened. How did this happen? Paul now believed in the power of the Lord.

The point that I am trying to get across with all of this -- Paul saying that his conversion came from a revelation of Jesus in him, Ananias having a vision of the Lord, and the power of Paul’s internal world manifesting itself externally -- is all the same. The story of Paul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus is not about Jesus as a man walking up to Paul and talking to him, but rather it is an appearance of the Lord that was seen within. The key word, as I said, is the word “revelation,” for this word is symbolic of the meaning of the entire passage. The word revelation quite literally shows us what is happening to Paul on the road, for God (known as “El” in Hebrew) is literally in the middle of the word: rev-EL-ation. And that is precisely the point: the appearance of God to Paul on the Road to Damascus occurred within him.

What is interesting to note is that there are three times when the Road to Damascus story is detailed in the Book of Acts, the first is the one I quoted (above) in chapter 9, giving us a third person account of Paul’s conversion. There are, however, two other accounts of the conversion. In each of these two, Paul is telling his side of what happened. These are, of course, not Paul’s words directly, but rather the words that Luke is saying that Paul said about the event. Many of the details among the three accounts in Acts are the same, but one major detail is not. And the difference in these renderings is striking, since it must be asked: why would the same writer write an account of the same story and make the details different?

Perhaps, this is to show that Paul’s understanding of what happened was different from what actually happened. However this hypothesis seems unlikely, since it is believed by many that Luke got most of the details of the conversion from Paul himself.

You may be wondering: What is the slight difference in the renderings of the story? - It is the response of the people who were with Paul when the “light from heaven flashed about him” and Jesus spoke to him. In the third person rendition we read: “The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one,” (Acts 9:7), yet when Paul tells the story he says, “Those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me” (Acts 22:9). So, in the first version the men with him, hear but don’t see, but in the second version they see but don’t hear. Which is it? And why would these two renderings say two different things if the same person wrote both versions?

Instead of looking at the difference and thinking that one of them must be wrong, let us look at the difference and think how both are in fact right. How is that possible?

For the answer to this, we must step back from the Bible for a moment and look at the study of quantum mechanics. There is a thought experiment known as Schrodinger’s Cat. This way of understanding the quantum principle of superposition illustrates a way for us to make sense of our scriptural paradox. One must imagine that there is a cat, and he is inside of a box with a vial of poison that may or may not be opened by the cat. Until one opens the box to observe the cat, the cat exists in each possible state of existence. That is to say, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead, until the observer opens the box and determines that he is one way or another. In other words all possibilities exist until we define them.

Now let us return to the different reactions of the men with Paul, who at one time heard but didn’t see, and at the other, saw but didn’t hear. If we look at this incongruence through the lens of the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment, we realize that they can exist in both states of hearing and not seeing and seeing and not hearing simultaneously until we define them one way or another. In other words, all possibilities are open to the men around Paul.

And isn’t this the point after all? Isn’t this, what Paul’s conversion is really all about? -- That anything is possible when we open ourselves up to the full power of Christ, and believe. For as Jesus teaches in the Gospel, faith even as small a mustard seed has the power to move mountains (Matthew 17:20-21). That is to say, faith can do the seemingly impossible.

So was it faith that cured Paul of his hatred, and set him on the right path?

Faith is powerful; but no, it was not faith that transformed Paul. For faith alone is useless without love. Or as Paul writes, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all the mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have no love I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:1-2).

The point is made time and again: what happens within us is what affects our external world. Whether this is hatred, the revelation of Jesus in Paul, Ananias’s vision, Paul’s prayerful manifestation for sight, or the love that gives meaning to all things, a difficult to see inner world seems to hold the key to all outer world creation. Or as it is written, “Let light shine out of darkness.”

As I pointed out earlier, a revelation happens within us and according to its root definition it is “lifting the veil” on what was once hidden. Paul makes reference to this veil explicitly: “Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their eyes, but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed” (1 Cor. 3:15).

The story of Paul's conversion on the Road to Damascus is often misunderstood as an external, material sighting of Jesus, (appearing "to" him) when in actuality, it is a "revelation of Jesus Christ" that God revealed in" him. This misapprehension of Paul's conversion is emblematic of our own journey's toward Jesus, taking scripture so literally, and not looking for its more more subtle, implicit meaning. -- WITHIN the text

That is to say, to take scripture at face value, and to not look at things more deeply, which is to say, to not look at scripture’s implicit meaning, is analogous to confusing hatred’s effects with hatred itself. Remember, violence is not hatred; it is an effect of hatred. Likewise, the men with Paul did not see or hear Jesus around Paul, what they saw and heard was the effect of his conversion. The point is, when we allow what we see in the external world to be our definition of what is actually happening internally, (or in the case of scripture, to take the surface meaning as the Truth instead of what it is being revealed to us sub-textually) we do an incredible disservice to our understanding of how the Lord actually works -- WITHIN us.

Paul sums up the multi-layered meaning of his conversion succinctly in his second letter to the Corinthians when he writes, “Even if the gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case, the god of the 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 likeness of God” (2 Cor. 4:3-4).

In other words, the story of the conversion of Paul on the Road to Damascus is one of a man who was “blinded” by hatred, until he finally saw the Lord, his enemy -- WITHIN him -- and then it was love at first "sight."


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