Longing for the Divine

Paul’s Encounter: Seeing God in a New Light

Paul was once an official scholar of Judaism heading to the city of Damascus to hunt down heretics, throw them into chains, and drag them off to prison. Paul was a Pharisee preoccupied with authority and accepted no compromise. In his misguided zeal, he followed a stern and rigid rightness that he believed valid under the authority of God’s undisputed sovereignty. His view of God was profoundly mistaken—at least until he experienced a life-changing event. You’ve probably heard how Paul was knocked off his horse, a blinding light shining down as he heard a voice from heaven (Acts 9:10–19; 22:6–16; 26:12–18). 

The blinding light and heavenly voice are significant details in this story. The voice is consistent with the one heard by the Israelites at Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 4:12). It recalls the divine encounter Moses had with God when he was commissioned (Exodus 3:1-10). Paul heard such a voice speaking to him, much like Elijah did long before, who also went to Damascus (1 Kings 19:8–15).

Who might Paul have expected to be speaking from heaven when this stunning light struck him down? Old Testament sources would suggest that the voice was God Himself. Indeed, God is described multiple times as emanating light. Accordingly, Paul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” A response comes, but there is a problem. Paul was a strict monotheist, imprisoning those he thought had a heretical view of the nature of God. The speaker identifies Himself as Jesus.

In his book Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, Douglas Campbell describes the significance of this encounter, which informed Paul’s later theology about God’s character. Paul was blinded by the encounter but also given new sight. Jesus came head-to-head with Paul, addressing his misconceptions about God. Paul had failed to see God clearly and was profoundly mistaken about what God was really like. When his eyes were opened, his new sight brought profound awareness and understanding. The intensity of this transformation led this devout Pharisee to pronounce an astonishing new belief, which he conveyed through an interpretation of a Jewish creedal statement of faith found in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (ESV). Paul’s statement reflects his life-altering experience in Damascus: “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6, ESV).

According to Campbell, Paul’s statement references the most treasured of all Jewish passages, using its two terms that refer to one God—“our God” and “the Lord”— to identify the Father and Jesus. Moreover, Paul attached the sacred name for God—the name that cannot be spoken out of reverence—to Jesus. Paul inserted Jesus directly into this Jewish statement about God, distinguishing between Him and His Father, although maintaining the unity of God. The depths of Paul’s thinking are astounding, as he carefully retained the profound oneness of Judaism while equating Jesus with “one God.” Paul did not add a second God or another Lord—there remained one God and one Lord but in forms that are the same yet distinct.

Most amazingly, Paul included Jesus at the very center of his new belief. So Jesus is God. If Jesus were not fully divine, then despite doing some very nice things, He could not identify the real God or clarify His character. In the new light revealed to Paul, God looked different, but this changed neither Paul’s Jewish observances nor his law keeping. The only thing that changed was his view of God, which He received through the revelation of Jesus (Galatians 1:11–17). This revelation was a paradigm-altering experience for Paul. He saw God in a new light, and as a result, everything else looked different too. Paul’s thinking incorporated Jesus’ vision of who God is. 

For Paul, the truth about God rested in the revelation of Jesus. In character, the Father is just like Jesus. He is personal, relational, and familial, radiating a deep and profound love. Paul adopted a relational way to understand God. Instead of seeing God as a big policeman in the sky eager to write violations, he saw God as just like Jesus. If we think of God in terms of relationship, God’s revelation of Himself through Jesus is transformational. Jesus tells us something true about God, and this changed Paul’s life. 

Paul leveraged a creedal statement of monotheism to reveal a most astonishing truth about God. He did not merely come to believe that Jesus was equated with the one God, as astonishing as that would have been. The profundity of his experience is that God was revealed by Jesus, who demonstrated what God looks like. God hadn’t changed, but Paul no longer viewed Him as a strict monarch in the sky. Instead, Paul viewed God in terms of revelation and relationship. Jesus’ view of God includes intimacy, indicating that God is benevolent and absolutely loving. It reshaped Paul’s thinking about God, and it should shape ours as well. 

In defending our faith in God, we must be careful to make a clear distinction between dogma and this relational view of God. Most of all, Paul’s vision of God changed from a traditional and dogmatic conception to one of exuberant joy that brought a refreshing new radiance to understanding who God is. Paul had a life-changing experience—one that breathed new life into his theology. Have you had such an encounter with Jesus? Has it changed your view of who God is?

Craig Ashton Jr.

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