top of page

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.