If you were writing a letter to a friend, trying to convince him or her that some very supernatural events were real, what would you do? I think that a probable course of action is to link it to something in reality to make it more believable and understandable. You might also link it to the religion of your friend so that it fits into their worldview. When Luke tells about Paul’s (the text still refers to him as Saul at that point) vision of Jesus (Acts 9) this is precisely what he does.
The Apostle Paul seemed to constantly be fighting an uphill battle in regard to his apostolic authority. He writes in multiple letters about this topic because some doubted his authority, teaching, and even his motives. One way for him to link his authority to Jesus, to the prophets, and to God was the retelling of his commission. How did Paul use this true story to speak to the faithful? Let’s dig in.
Paul’s commissioning story appears as narrative in Acts 9, which is quoted below, but I think it’s also useful to note that he used his story to appeal to both Jew and Gentile. To the Jews it was in Acts 22 when he spoke before a crowd of them in Jerusalem. To the Gentiles when he wrote to the Galatian church (Gal. 1:13-17). But why does this conversion story add to his authority? The typical answer has been: because he received a revelation directly from Jesus himself. That is true, but there’s more to it than that. Why did he frame his story differently those two times? Let’s find out.
3As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6“Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
7The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.
This telling of the story is from the narrative version that Luke gives us. Since there are 3 versions of his commission, I think the appropriate question is to ask: why would he tell it like this? Why include certain details and leave others out? There are important details to remember from Luke’s telling of the story: a vision of a man (Jesus), bright shining light, a voice, someone was speechless, and the men traveling with the main character do not see the vision.
Now let’s take a look at where I believe this story comes from originally in the text. Once you see the connection between the two, it’s obvious that Luke was trying to build upon a previous encounter in the Tanakh.
5 I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of the finest gold around his waist. 6 His body was like chrysolite, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude. 7 I, Daniel, was the only one who saw the vision; the men with me did not see it, but such terror overwhelmed them that they fled and hid themselves….15 While he was saying this to me, I bowed with my face toward the ground and was speechless. 8 So I was left alone, gazing at this great vision; I had no strength left, my face turned deathly pale and I was helpless.
–Daniel 10:5-7, 15
Notice any of the same details? A vision of a man, a bright light (“face like lightning”), and a voice, someone (Daniel) was speechless, and the companions with the main character do not see the vision.
The details recorded in Luke’s telling were not incidental but were selected with purpose. Luke is linking one of the most supernatural encounters in the entire Tanakh to Jesus and at the same time linking the legitimacy of Daniel as a prophet to Paul. By knowing our Bibles so well that we can see this connection, we learn a wealth of things we had perhaps not seen before.
Who was the “man” in Daniel’s vision? I believe Luke is making the case that it was Jesus. This would mean Jesus not only existed before approx. 1 A.D., but also that he played a part in the Hebrew Bible! In John 1, the writer makes the case that Jesus existed before creation and that all things were created through him. As the living word, this is similar to the Jewish understanding (notice I said “similar”) where the world was created for the sake of the Torah (the Word) and using the Torah as a “blueprint” of sorts (Genesis Rabbah 1:1). So why is there no description of Jesus in Luke’s telling of the vision? I believe it’s more than just “Paul was blinded so he couldn’t see.” I think there is no description because Daniel already described him! Re-reading Paul’s vision with Daniel’s description in mind is very compelling, enthralling, and incredible. Paul receives the call of the prophets.
My friend Brian pointed out to me that Daniel 10:8 sounds very much like Jesus on the cross, which I think helps bring out the similarities even more. And there are many more similarities to be found.
When you read these two passages together, what is it you see that you had never seen before?
Peace to you,
P.S. There is more to discuss on this topic, but it will have to be a different post. We have looked at Luke’s account and why he wrote what he did but I also want to look at Paul’s own account of it in his own words to both Jewish and Gentile audiences.