Obedience to the Heavenly Vision (Acts 26: 9-20; Philippians 3: 3-14)
by T.V. Philip
T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. The following appeared in The Kingdom of God is Like This, by T.V. Philip, jointly published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Christava Sahitya Samithy (CSS), Cross Junction, M.C. Road, Tiruvalla-689 101, Kerela, India. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Acts 26: 9-20; Philippians 3: 3-14
The story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is told by Luke in three places in the Acts of the Apostles -- in chapters nine, twenty two and twenty six. Philippians chapter three is a piece of Paul’s autobiography where he tells what the encounter with the crucified and risen Christ meant in his life.
In Acts twenty six, Paul, a prisoner awaiting to be sent to Rome for trial looks back on his life and ministry and tells King Agrippa, "And so, King Agrippa, I did not disobey the heavenly vision". The heavenly vision on the road to Damascus influenced his whole life and ministry. Throughout Paul’s life, this heavenly vision remained with him, guiding him, sustaining him and strengthening him. It remained with him as a permanent and dynamic force in his life. He faced a lot of difficulties and trials in his ministry. He had been beaten, imprisoned, ship wrecked, hungry and thirsty and gone without sleep. But in the midst of all these, he could say, "When I am weak, then am I strong" (2 Cor. 12:10).
The vision of God and his call are not temporary things or passing phenomena in the life of a Christian. In the first place, the vision of the crucified and risen Christ brought about a crisis of faith for Paul. It shook the very foundation of his religious life. Paul’s conversion was not the conversion of a penitent sinner. He was not like Martin Luther who failed to please God even by the strict observance of the monastic rules. In later life Martin Luther said that if ever a monk could go to heaven by his monkery, he would have been there twenty five years ago.
Paul was a religious man, a proud Pharisee, who was proud of his Jewish background, proud in the membership of the people of God. He was circumcised on the eighth day, Israelite by the tribe of Benjamin, born and bred a Hebrew. In attitude to the law he was a Pharisee, in zeal for his religion he was persecutor of the Christian church, in righteousness of the law faultless. He loved his nation, he loved his race. He sincerely believed that the way of salvation for the whole world is in and through Israel, the elect of God, the covenanted community. Hence he defended the Jewish law and Jewish religion. He persecuted the Christians, not because they were bad people, but because they claimed that Christians were the true people of God, the election and covenant belonged to them and not to the Jews. Who would tolerate such a blasphemy? Paul burned with zeal for his religion. He sincerely believed that to persecute Christians is to do the will of God. Paul says:
I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem; I not only shut up many of the saints in prison by authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme; and in raging fury against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities. (Acts. 26: 9-11)
Thus Paul was journeying to Damascus to persecute the Christians. Then came the shattering experience on the way. He heard a voice saying, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Paul asked, "Tell me Lord, who are you?" "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting" came the reply. It shattered the very ground on which he stood. His belief that the clue to God’s dealing with his creation was the Jewish nation, crumbled to pieces. There was another way, faith in Jesus.
Religion and religious enthusiasm need not be always good. We live in a time when religions have become great problems, a real threat to peace and community. Paul was a religious enthusiast. So was Moses in his early days. In his zeal for his race, he went and killed an Egyptian. This was so with the Zealots of the time of Jesus. This is so with the sectarianism of our time. My country, my race. my language and my denomination have become an obsession with many of us. We often mistake loyalty to God with religious fanaticism.
The vision of Christ crucified and risen liberated Paul from his religion. From that day he wrote off all his religious assets for the sake of Christ. He was one who had believed in the unique place of Israel in salvation history. It was only in and through Israel that God would deal with other nations. His encounter with the risen Lord had opened his eyes to the fact that the salvation of Israel, as well as the salvation of the whole world, was to be appropriated through faith in Christ. Before the cross of Christ, both the Jew and the Gentile were equal and nobody could make any special claim for salvation: Jesus the Messiah was not the Messiah of the Jews alone who had come to deliver them from the hands of the Romans, but he was the savior of all people, including the Romans.
It was an unbelievable discovery. Paul saw the cross of Jesus Christ as the place where the salvation of both the Jew and the Gentile took place. Later he could write that there was neither Jew nor Gentile, neither free or bond, neither male nor female in Jesus Christ. On his cross he had broken down the middle wall of partition between peoples and nations.
The purpose of God was not to save Jews alone but to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. It was this cosmic vision of the Lordship of Christ and the election and salvation of all people in him that separated Paul from Judaism. It was a cosmic vision, an Ecumenical vision. Its horizon was the outer boundary of the universe. It was this vision which made Paul an apostle. The Lord told him:
I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and bear witness ... to whom I send you to open their eyes, 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: 16-18,)
The message is no longer that God had elected one nation among nations, as Judaism believed, nor could a culture be elevated to a religion, as in paganism. The Christian mission is preaching faith in Christ to all people.
Secondly the vision of the Damascus road was a joyous experience for Paul. He was overpowered by a reality other than himself. "Christ took hold of me," says Paul. To be possessed and known by a greater reality is a source of great joy. He in turn wanted to know and possess that great reality. I have not reached perfection," says Paul, "but I press on, hoping to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of me". (Phil. 3:12).
Jesus told two parables. The parable of the hidden treasure, and the parable of the pearl. A man saw the treasure hidden in a field, a merchant saw a pearl of great value. A joy unknown to others had taken hold of them. The man in his joy goes and sells everything and buys the field. The merchant sells everything and buys that pearl. Everything is to be sacrificed for the sake of one thing. Once he has encountered Christ, once he is overpowered by Christ, he has only one desire: to know and possess him. He writes:
Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ... that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and may share his suffering.... Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own ... but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. (Phil. 3:7-16)
A new focus has come in the life of Paul; there is a new direction in his ministry. The vision has become a vocation. This was the experience of many who have encountered Christ. "All I care is to know Christ" says Paul.
The life of Paul was an adventure of exploring the meaning of Christ for the Jews as well as for the Gentiles. His epistles reflect this. Whenever and wherever people have been gripped by the vision of Christ, they have sought to understand and interpret him for their time and situation. It is a joyous adventure which should go on in the life of a Christian, in the life of the Christian community, all the time. Our knowledge of Christ does not end with our call, but only begins.
The great motto of Origen of Alexandria was, "Be diligent in reading divine Scripture, knock, it shall open unto you". His whole life was a life of knocking, seeking to understand the meaning of the Christ event. He sincerely believed that the Christian church was in possession of the revelation of God in the Scriptures, but it needed to be explored and sought out.
Jerome speaks of Origen as the greatest teacher of the church after the apostles. He was the first great scholar, first great preacher, the first great devotional writer, the first great commentator, and the first great dogmatic theologian. He thought, he taught and he wrote prolifically. After spending most of the day with all sorts of people who attended his lectures, he spent a good part of the night in study and writing. It is said of him that he ate little and slept on the floor so that he should not sleep too much.
As we explore the meaning of Christ, we need to remember that no category of thought, no picture of Jesus, no doctrine of Christ can fully apprehend him. Jesus walks out of every doctrine we make of him. He walks out of every picture we paint of him. We cannot turn him into a static picture hanging on the wall. The person of Christ is much larger and greater than our doctrine of him.
• To the poor and the oppressed, he comes as liberator,
• To the sinners he comes as a redeemer from sin;
• To the sick he comes as healer;
• For a racially oppressed blacks in the United States, he is a black;
• For the exploited and marginalized Aborigines in Australia, he becomes as an Aborigine;
• For alienated and oppressed women in our society, he comes as a friend of Martha and Mary.
He is all of those, yet he is also more than all those. Paul speaks of the ‘unfathomable’ riches of Christ. this was his prayer:
that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and breath and height and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3: 17-19.)
Such a vision of Christ warns us against absolutizing our doctrines of Christ and limiting the ways of God to our familiar ways.
Thirdly, Paul was eager not only to know Christ, but also to share in his sufferings. There is no participation in Christ without participation in his cross, in his suffering for the world.
There is a story about three Jesuit missionaries who went to work among the American Indians. One night one of them had a vision of a cross. When told of his dream, his friends asked him how large was the cross. It was large enough to hang all of us was his reply.
To know Easter means to be implicated in the events of Good Friday.
Karl Barth once pointed out that the way the power of Christ’s resurrection works powerfully in the apostle is that he is clothed with the shame of the cross. That is our badge, that is our life -- to be clothed with the shame of the cross.