Friday, 10 October 2014

WHAT GOD SAYS AGAIN...AND AGAIN




“In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. And 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 is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.  But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you,  delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you  to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’

                                                                                                (Acts 26:12-18 ESV)

          Why three accounts of the Damascus Road conversion?


Our Wednesday night bible studies continue in the Book of Acts.

This week saw us dealing with Paul's account of his conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 26: 12-18). Luke has already furnished us with versions of this same event in chapters nine and twenty-two, making this one of those relatively rare events which the Holy Spirit has provided to us on no less than three occasions.

  A notable Old Testament example of the same is the siege of Jerusalem under Sennacherib (2 Kin 18:13-37; 2 Chr 32:1-22; Isa 36:1-37:38), and of course it is seen most obviously in the Synoptic Gospels where diligent study of the parallel accounts found there always yields great rewards.

 We may often wonder why such repetition should occur in the Bible at all, and I am sure we are sometimes tempted to move on quickly past a story that we think we are already familiar with. But that would certainly be a mistake in this present instance, since there is information found here that is not divulged in either of those two earlier accounts.


For instance, here only do we learn that in that fateful encounter upon the road to Damascus, Jesus spoke to Saul of Tarsus in the Hebrew language (v 14).

Now why should this be thought significant?

Well, because it helps us to clear up what is often alleged to be a contradiction between the first and second accounts, one that is especially apparent to those using a King James Bible. 

And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man” (Acts 9:7 KJV).

And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me” (Acts 22:9 KJV).

The accusation made is that Luke has contradicted himself in the re-telling of the Damascene event. In the first, Paul’s companions are stated to have heard the voice of Jesus, whilst in the second he seems to suggest that they did not hear the voice.

 Firstly, we ought to note how the objection rates the biblical writer with zero competence in story-telling. The assumption is that between chapters nine and twenty-two Luke simply forgot that he had originally described Paul’s companions as having heard a voice. That would represent fairly shoddy workmanship in even an uninspired writer! 

 Yet this low opinion of the Bible's human writers is very typical of modern sceptical thinking, despite the fact that research has shown Luke to be a historian of a high calibre. 

So what is the solution to this alleged error? Well, quite simply, it is a translational issue.

The root Greek verb employed in both  passages has much the same semantic range as our English word “hear.” It can mean simply to detect a noise (in this case a voice) or else to hear with understanding.

 If someone speaks to you across a noisy room, you perhaps will hear the sound of their voice, but fail to pick up the actual words spoken. We may well then respond, “I cannot hear you!”  Now everybody would understand that you are here employing the second meaning of “hear.” We do not mean that we failed to detect the sound of a voice but rather that we failed to identify the words spoken, hence we heard, but we did not hear with understanding.   

The apparent contradiction in the passages above is easily dealt with once we are armed with the information that Jesus is here speaking in Hebrew.  Since Paul was heading to Damascus it is not unreasonable to surmise that his companions were Diaspora Jews. Perhaps these had come to Jerusalem from Damascus in order to elicit the assistance of the Jewish leadership in eradicating the Christian sect from their city. Thus Paul was returning with them armed with letters to carry out the instructions of the Sanhedrin (Acts 9:1-2).

 Neither the Hebrew language nor its linguistic cousin Aramaic were well-known amongst 1st Century Diaspora Jews who mostly spoke Greek.  So whilst Luke in chapter nine describes the men as hearing a voice (i.e. it was audible to them), in the second account he makes clear that the words spoken were not actually understood by them. But it is only in the third account that we learn that this is because the voice spoke in a language that they did not know!

 You will notice that I have used the King James Version above in order to show the problem, for modern translations such as the ESV have tidied things up for us by translating the second occurrence of the word as “understand” rather than "hear" which is perfectly legitimate linguistically. Indeed, Gleason Archer in his excellent Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan p382) states that the differing Greek case used in chapter 22 actually requires this translational change.

 The important point is that it is only in this third telling of the conversion story, with the revelation that the voice was speaking in Hebrew, that we gain enough information to fully piece it all together; thus proving once again that all scripture is profitable, even those bits that may seem at first glance to be merely repetitive!


 That was an issue in this passage that I was already familiar with. But what really caught my eye on this occasion was the the words that Christ actually speaks to Saul. For here in this final account we are provided with a much fuller version of the discourse than on the former occasions.

And the words spoken to the soon-to-be apostle are truly remarkable,

“…delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’

A common criticism that is made of the Christian faith in our day is that the message preached by Jesus in the four gospels is incapable of being reconciled with the “Gospel of Jesus Christ” as enunciated by the Apostle Paul.

 Essentially a form of Red Letterism, the accusation is that Paul performed so much of a rework of Jesus’ original theology that in essence he founded a new religion of his very own. So it is that many critics say that it is Paul, not Jesus, who is the founder of Christianity as we know it.

We have briefly dealt with some elements of this alleged disconnect between Jesus and Paul previously here and here

 But as we studied this passage in church this week my heart suddenly leapt at the words of Jesus here, for they seem to represent a condensed version of Paul’s own Gospel message! Here are some of the indispensable facets of Pauline soteriology such as forgiveness of sins, justification by faith & sanctification in Christ, all encompassed within a single compact statement.

  We can be certain that these were the words that were still ringing in the apostle’s ears, the thoughts that were still thumping in his heart, as he retreated into the Arabian desert to spend time alone with His newly-discovered Saviour.

And so naturally this is the theology that would later spring out of the Pauline epistles. Compare Jesus' words above, for instance with those of 2 Corinthians chapter four,

"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.  For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (2 Cor 4:4-6)
 Do these words not reflect the glory of that sight and of those words spoken on the Damascus road? I do not doubt that as he wrote Paul was recalling that dramatic day on the desert road. 

 So once again we see that the critics' accusations prove groundless, for what is evident here is that the soteriology expounded by the apostle in his epistles is really only the detailed outworking of the very vision he had received on the day of his conversion!

 Of course the sceptics could always counter that we only have Luke’s word in Acts as verification that Jesus ever actually made such a statement to the apostle on the Damascus road, and that since Luke was a companion of Paul, then he could simply have been cooperating with the apostle in the work of revisionism.

 But this would be to impugn the worst possible motives to two individuals who throughout the New Testament are shown to be men of the highest moral calibre.  The detractors can offer no compelling case for why Paul should so cynically rework Jesus’ message into one of his own tastes, or why Luke should conspire with him in it.

 Why should we accept that such revisionism took place simply because certain modish theories require that it be so? Let them produce their evidence!

 In fact the sceptics are at a loss to provide any reason whatsoever why a young and devout Pharisee, steeped in monotheistic Judaism and excelling in academic achievement, should so suddenly renounce all of his privileges in that religion in order to join an unpopular ragbag sect which he had previously detested.

 Or why, having done so, he should then rework that sect’s theology for purposes unknown. What benefit could he possibly obtain from such actions?  What motive could explain the immense personal sacrifice involved? 

 No, there is no rational explanation for the existence of the apostle Paul except that he really did encounter the risen Christ that day on the road to the Syrian capital, and was so wholly enraptured both by the Saviour Himself, and by the beautiful vision of salvation presented to him there, that it changed the direction of his life forever. 

This is by far the most plausble explanation of the transformation wrought in this remarkable individual and the only one that fits the facts.  

It is an amazing story and one well worth the telling for a third time.