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 from heaven 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 you are to do.”

Acts 9:1-6

If there is one single person who can be credited with bringing the most people to Christ, it would probably be Saint Paul. The majority of the New Testament consists of his Epistles to the early churches. He helped to establish these churches. He helped to sustain them. We are still reading his words in our churches today. His teachings on love, (I Corinthians 13) the Fruit of the Spirit, (Galatians 5) Marriage (Ephesians 5), and so many other things that are timeless, well-known and extremely impactful.

Saint Paul, in those early years of Christianity, would have been considered the least likely candidate to become what he eventually became. He was directly involved in the rounding up, imprisoning and murder of early Christians. He was present for the stoning of St. Stephen. He was well known and feared as a persecutor of Christians.

He sought out and received permission from the high priest to go to Damascus and round up Christians, bringing them in chains all the way to Jerusalem.  As he journeyed to Damascus, a light from heaven flashed before him. It was so powerful that he fell to the ground. It was so powerful in fact, that his first words were actually words of faith, “Who are You, Lord?” (Acts 9:5) Saint Paul was Jewish. He was very educated. He had standing in the synagogue. He would obviously have known the Ten Commandments, one of which is to not commit murder, and yet in his zealousness, he was doing exactly what the commandments forbid. Yet, somewhere beneath his murderous rage, he still had an understanding of God, enough so that when he saw the extraordinary bright light, he knew it had to be from the Lord.

The response was life-changing. Saint Paul heard the voice of Jesus Christ, which had not been heard since the Ascension. And Jesus gave St. Paul very brief instructions. First, He left no doubt Who was speaking, in saying “I am Jesus, Whom you are persecuting.” (1:5) He then said “Rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (1:6) Many Christians have a “Damascus experience,” a moment that changes their life, when they are “converted” to Christ and from that moment on live for Him. In the Orthodox Church, where we baptize babies, we don’t make it a prerequisite for one to be “converted” to the faith. Babies enter into the life of the church before they have any rational understanding of faith. This is neither a criticism nor a cry to change how we practice our faith. It is only to say that just because one is baptized does not mean they are converted. It is incumbent that people have one (and sometimes more than one) conversion experience, an occasion where they completely give over their souls to the Lord.

Saint Paul was changed with this encounter. There was no arguing with Jesus. He got up and went to walk to the city, except that when he got up to walk, he could not see. The light had blinded him. For three days he was blind, and ate and drank nothing. In other words, he fasted completely. After three days, the Lord came in a vision to a disciple named Ananias who lived in Damascus, telling him to go and minister to Saul. Ananias was understandably afraid. He said to the 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.” (Acts 9:13-14) The response of the Lord must be shocking to Ananias, as 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.” (9:15)

Here, the faith of Ananias played a role in the story. Not only did he faithfully go and minister to a man he feared, he also didn’t question God any further about God’s choice of Saul to be His chosen vessel. He could have easily said to the Lord, “Why him, and not me?” When Ananias visited Saul, he laid his hands on him and Saul received his sight again. Then Ananias baptized him.

The impact of this experience was immediate for Saul. We read in Acts 9:19-22:

For several days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And in the synagogues immediately he proclaimed Jesus, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed, and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called in this name? And he has come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests.” But Saul increased all the more in strength and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

Saul would have his name changed to Paul. He would go on multiple missionary trips, establishing churches throughout Greece and Turkey, as well as in Rome, where he would later be imprisoned and martyred. Saint Paul did a lot of writing to these early churches. He also suffered greatly, despite his great faith. He is today considered the greatest of the Apostles, even though he was once their most notorious persecutor.

Saint Paul is further an example that it is not how we start that matters, but how we finish. He also allowed himself to be changed by his “Damascus experience.” Most of us are unlikely to have an experience as intense as the one Saint Paul had on the road to Damascus. However, there will be moments in every life, I believe, where God will make a direct call to each of us. There will be “conversion” moments in each life. The question is are we open to them and what happens when God shines His light on us? Do we go along obediently and faithfully as St. Paul did? Do we allow the experience to change us in the way it changed him? Or are we closed off to change, or have we had the light shine on us and ignored it? We are not all called to make the commitment that St. Paul made in his life. We aren’t expected to go on missionary trips to foreign countries (though some of us will), or establish churches (though some of us will), or be martyred for the faith (though some people might), or write letters that will be preserved thousands of years from now (though someone might). We are expected to do something to further the Gospel in some way, to make some lasting impact in sharing the Gospel with others. This begins with living it out in our own lives. And this begins with our own “Damascus experience,” a moment (or moments) when we are converted to making Jesus Christ the center of our lives.

Have mercy on me, O God. Have mercy on me.
I confess to You, O Savior: I have sinned, I have sinned against You. But in Your compassion absolve and forgive me.
(Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, Ode Three, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)

“Damascus experiences” come in ways large and small throughout life. When you experience one, allow it to change you.


Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! Fr. Stavros has produced multiple books, you can view here: https://amzn.to/3nVPY5M


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