The Consuming Zeal of St. Paul’s Conversion

On the path to the city called Damascus, Saint Paul’s life changed; it changed forever, and it changed dramatically. Have you ever had an event, encounter or experience that you knew would change the course of your life forever? Contemplate the answer to this question carefully. 

Most people would respond to this question in the negative. “My life has never seen something as momentous as Damascus occur.” Isn’t it interesting that when someone asks us if we ever had a life-changing experience, that we instinctively decide, no? Through impulse we respond that nothing as powerful as this could ever happen to us. We are not worthy of such a divine call and mission. We are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, we tell ourselves.

It is interesting though; I asked if something ever happened to you that changed the course of your life. I did not ask if you have had a Damascus experience where you were made blind by light and the Risen Jesus appeared to you from the sky. We all have, including myself, this understanding that in order for a radical change of life to occur something tremendously dramatic has to happen. What if we are selling ourselves short by waiting for the dramatic? What if we are blinded by what we do not want to see, because that will mean we must change our ways?

We are told that Paul is on his way to Damascus in order to bring followers of “The Way” in chains to the high priest. Jesus’ disciples claimed he was the center of the renewed Jewish faith, even of the Sacred Scriptures. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says, “As a zealous Jew, Paul held this message unacceptable, even scandalous, and he therefore felt the duty to persecute the followers of Christ even outside Jerusalem.” Paul’s zeal defined his life, however, the avenue in which he lived it out was flipped on its head on a dusty road nearly two thousand years ago. 

The word zealous comes from an ancient sect in Judaism called the zealots. They took their name for the Hebrew word for “knife” or scabbard. They were a religious sect who believed and taught that the manner in which Israel would be restored would be through war and violent revolution. Zeal, in modern terms, is equivalent to passion and drive, but in Paul’s time there was no domestication of the term. 

This group desired upheaval and they wanted it no matter the cost or bloodshed. Their deathbed mentality was to fight because violence was the only possible recipe to beat the Romans. Life or death was not important because they craved to enlist all of Israel to rise up against Rome in a holy war. Paul was not a card carrying official zealot, but he was zealous for the Jewish faith, which meant that Jesus’ followers had to go. 

Zeal for persecuting Christians turned into zeal for speaking Christ’s name after Paul’s road trip to Damascus. However, his knife turned into preaching and towards his pen. He would do anything to bring Jesus to the ears of those who had never heard of him. Zeal continued to consume him, but this time it was grounded in love and in truth. He learned that persecution and violence never won any hearts and never brought true renewal. That only a message and an authentic messenger who allowed God’s presence to be brought to others through him could accomplish change. There was, and still is, a great need for someone to preach about the One who could not be defeated, even by death. Paul, the zealous persecutor turned messenger, ended up dying for the message, like the founder of “The Way” and the savior of the world. 

In a moment in history when the masses are craving renewal and revival we must follow the zealous and virtuous path of St. Paul. Change and revival come through a worthy cause being fought for by virtuous men and women; men and women who see their mission as life or death. They choose to be zealous like Paul, but Paul after Damascus, not before it. 

The personal nature of the conversion experience on the road to Damascus cannot be over-exaggerated. Paul met someone that day. He spoke about this meeting for the rest of his days, and never once did he doubt the reality of it. Jesus showed up and greeted Paul with, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Then, God called Paul out – he singled him out for a mission that would change the course of history. 

On the day when we commemorate his conversion, let us allow ourselves to be singled out as well, and be the ones who change the course of history for the better, through our zeal.

image: Stained glass window depicting the Conversion of Saint Paul, St-Pierre-St-Paul (Jouy-sur-Morin) Reinhardhauke, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By

Thomas Griffin teaches in the Religion Department at a Catholic high school, and lives on Long Island with his wife and son. He has a master’s degree in theology and is currently a masters candidate in philosophy. Follow his latest content at EmptyTombProject.org 

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