Saul of Tarsus, who later became the apostle Paul, was originally a zealous persecutor of the early Christian church. His dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus was a pivotal point not only in his life, but also in the history of Christianity.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Paul converted to Christianity after having a revelatory vision of Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, causing him to go from persecuting Christians to becoming Christianity’s most influential early missionary and theologian.
In this comprehensive article, we will examine the circumstances leading up to Paul’s conversion, the details of his transformative vision of Christ, and the monumental impact his conversion had on the spread of Christianity in the critical early years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Paul’s Background before His Conversion
Before his conversion, Paul (then known as Saul) was an ardent persecutor of the early Christian church. As a devout Jew, he likely saw the claims of Jesus’ messiahship and divinity as blasphemous and sought to protect Judaism by suppressing the growth of Christianity.
Paul’s Zeal for Judaism and Persecution of Christians
Paul was born in Tarsus and raised as a Pharisee, one of the most devout Jewish sects at the time (https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/pharisees/). He studied under the respected Rabban Gamaliel in Jerusalem, where he became an expert in Jewish law (Acts 22:3).
Paul was zealous for the traditions of his ancestors (Galatians 1:14) and believed wholeheartedly that Christianity was a dangerous heresy that must be stopped. He began persecuting the church and supported the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:58, 8:1-3).
Paul himself admitted that he “was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” and “violently persecuted the church of God” (Galatians 1:13-14).
The Growth of Early Christianity
Despite persecution, Christianity continued to grow in Jerusalem and beyond. On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached to thousands in Jerusalem and 3,000 were converted (Acts 2:41). Even after Stephen’s martyrdom, the church continued to multiply under the leadership of James, Peter, John and others (Acts 6:7).
Many priests became believers (Acts 6:7) and Christianity spread to Samaria and Gentile regions like Antioch (Acts 8, 11). The movement’s rapid expansion, even under persecution, likely concerned Paul deeply.
He saw Christianity’s growth as a threat to Judaism and fervently believed it must be stopped. Little did he know, he would soon become Christianity’s most influential advocate.
The Damascus Road Conversion
Paul’s Vision of Jesus
The story of Paul’s conversion is found in Acts 9:1-19. Paul, originally named Saul, was an ardent persecutor of early Christians. As he was traveling to Damascus to continue his persecution efforts, a bright light suddenly flashed around him and he fell to the ground.
He then heard a voice saying “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). When Saul asked who was speaking, the voice replied “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). Saul was blinded by the experience.
The men traveling with him led him to Damascus where he fasted and prayed for three days. Saul had clearly encountered the resurrected Jesus in a miraculous way which led to his dramatic conversion.
This experience was utterly life-changing for Saul. He had been completely convinced that Jesus’ followers were promoting dangerous heresy. But his direct experience with the risen Jesus convinced him that Jesus truly was the Messiah and Son of God.
As a result, Saul became a dedicated disciple of Christ, changing his name to Paul. The persecutor now became an evangelist, utterly devoted to spreading the gospel throughout the Roman Empire.
Paul’s vision has proved foundational to Christianity. It provided evidence of Jesus’ resurrection in confirmation of the gospel message. Paul was so convinced by this personal revelation of Jesus that he endured immense suffering to share the gospel for the rest of his life.
His letters to early churches have become an indispensable part of the New Testament. The church owes a great debt to Paul’s supernatural conversion on the road to Damascus.
Paul is Blinded and Healed by Ananias in Damascus
After his dramatic encounter with Jesus on the road, Saul was left blinded by the brilliant heavenly light. The men traveling with him led the now helpless Saul into Damascus. For three days, Saul fasted from food and drink and prayed (Acts 9:9).
While Saul was praying, the Lord gave a vision to a disciple in Damascus named Ananias, telling him to go lay hands on Saul to restore his sight (Acts 9:12).
Ananias was understandably afraid since Saul was known for imprisoning Christians. But the Lord reassured Ananias that Saul was praying and had been appointed to take the gospel to pagans, kings, and the people of Israel (Acts 9:15).
So Ananias found Saul, laid hands on him, and told him the Lord had sent him to restore his sight and fill him with the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17).
At once, scales fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He then arose and was baptized. After taking some food, Saul immediately began proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues, declaring “He is the Son of God!” (Acts 9:20). The persecutor had become an advocate overnight!
Saul’s companions led Saul during those three days of blindness. But after his sight was miraculously restored, Saul was now equipped and ready to lead others to salvation in Jesus the Messiah.
|Before Damascus Road
|After Damascus Road
|Saul persecuted Christians
|Paul proclaimed Christ
Paul’s dramatic 180 degree turnaround on the Damascus road represents one of the most radical conversions ever. His whole worldview and way of life were utterly transformed after seeing the risen Christ.
And through this conversion, Christianity gained one of its most influential and important early leaders.
The Significance of Paul’s Conversion for Christianity
From Persecutor to Devoted Follower of Christ
Paul, originally named Saul, was an ardent persecutor of early Christians. As a Pharisee, he viewed the new Jesus movement as a threat to Judaism. However, his dramatic encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus transformed him from foe to follower practically overnight.
Blinded by the light of Christ, Paul emerged with a new mission – to preach the gospel.
Paul’s sudden 180-degree shift from persecuting Christians to becoming Christianity’s most important early missionary is striking. His zealous promotion of the faith contributed to its rapid spread across the Roman Empire.
This unlikely convert became instrumental in bringing Jesus’ message beyond Judaism to the Gentile world.
Paul’s Missionary Journeys Established Early Churches
During his three extensive missionary journeys throughout modern-day Turkey and Greece, which spanned nearly 10 years, Paul established prominent Gentile churches in key urban centers. These included the churches at Antioch, Ephesus, Philippi, Corinth and Thessalonica.
Paul lived and worked with residents of these cities – at one point even supporting himself as a tentmaker – while encouraging both Jews and Gentiles to embrace Jesus.
These fledgling congregations that Paul founded would grow into some of the most vital centers of early Christianity. They connected communities across geographical boundaries and helped increase Christianity’s foothold amidst the dominant culture of the Roman Empire.
Paul’s Letters Shape Christian Theology
As founder of several far-flung churches, Paul often wrote letters to answer questions, address controversies, and offer encouragement. Thirteen letters traditionally attributed to Paul remain in the New Testament.
These epistles to early churches discuss theology, ethics, and practical guidance on how to live according to Christ’s teachings.
Concepts Paul introduced like justification by faith, life in the Spirit, and the centrality of love became touchstones. His thoughts on church order, spiritual gifts, and Christ’s second coming also established pillars of Christian belief.
Even 2000 years later, Paul’s writings profoundly influence Christian doctrine, practice, and interpretation of Jesus’ message.
Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus was a radical turning point for both his life and the early Christian church. As Christianity’s most zealous early persecutor, he was determined to crush the fledgling movement.
Yet his revelatory encounter with the risen Jesus transformed him into Christianity’s foremost missionary and theologian.
The account of Paul’s transformative vision on the Damascus road serves as a compelling display of the life-changing power of faith in Christ. His indelible influence as the early church’s pre-eminent missionary and author of much of the New Testament continues to shape Christianity to this day.