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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Christian journalist: The Damascus Road experience – he said, they said (Acts 9, 22, 23, 26)

Acts 9:3-4. “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell on the ground and heard a voice ask a question, ‘Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied.”

Exegesis and Application

Saul, the brilliant and faithful killer of God’s people, is on his way to Damascus in order to persecute the believers in that city. On his way, Saul has an extraordinary experience that literally drives him to the ground.  What his remarkable experience is depends on who is giving the report.  Saul would subsequently base the rest of his life on his understanding and perception of his Damascus Road experience (Gal 1:15-17), and his companions would apparently base the rest of their lives on their understanding and perception of what happened.

In Acts 9 (which is the main report), we read the familiar story that as Saul is traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus with his murderous companions, “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell on the ground and heard a voice ask a question, ‘Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?’” (vss. 3-4). This heavenly question begins a brief audible conversation between Saul and this voice that is discernable by his companions. The companions don’t hear distinct words, but they do hear sound, and they are flabbergasted by what they are seeing and hearing. They are “speechless” in their astonishment (vs. 7). They look around, they see no one, and they hear no one, just “sounds.” Meanwhile, Paul is on the ground having a conversation with an unseen person. Furthermore, this “light” which the companions see has “blinded” Saul, but not them (vss. 8-9). There is no evidence or testimony that Saul was looking into the sun or anyplace else that his companions were not looking. But only Saul is blinded. Only Saul hears distinct words. Only Saul is having this conversation with an unseen “heavenly” voice. The report concludes with Paul’s companions helping him up, and off they go to Damascus. We don’t know what happened to Paul’s companions, but they were probably among those Jews who were confused by Paul in subsequent days and were probably among those Jews who wanted to kill him later in Acts 9 as a traitor.  We do know the companions didn’t “understand” the event and were “baffled” by it.

In Acts 22, we get another Pauline account of his Damascus Road experience when Paul speaks to the hostile Jerusalem crowd (vs. 1). He tells them that the motivation for going to Damascus was to persecute, arrest, extradite and imprison the followers of Jesus in that city. He tells them that he even had letters of introduction from the Jerusalem powerbrokers to conduct such persecution among the Jewish Christians in Damascus. With respect and fairness, he tells the assembled Jews that his companions “did not hear with understanding” (“akouo”) the sound coming from the “sky” (vs. 9). It was just noise to them. This makes sense because his companions apparently were not offended by Saul talking to himself.  We know that Paul’s traveling companions caringly took Saul “by the hand” and led him to Damascus for medical help since he had been blinded by the “brilliance of the light” (vs. 11). And the companions apparently stayed with him for three days until he regained his sight (vs. 13).  Probably much to the shock of his companions, Paul then gives this strange (but now familiar) interpretation of the Damascus road trip in which he claims to talk to the crucified Jesus (vss. 14-21). When Paul returns to Jerusalem after being in Damascus, Jesus told him in “a trance” to leave Jerusalem because there are no corroborating witnesses to his unbelievable Damascus Road report (vs. 18).

In Acts 23:9 the Pharisees and Sadducees argue before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, that Paul was guilty of defiling the Temple and treason against the Jews (Acts 21:28) and in the process claims that God speaks to him. In the argument it was mentioned so what if it was a “spirit” or an “angel” who spoke to Saul on the Damascus road. With no resolution to the debate, a cadre of more than 40 was formed to kill Paul but he is preserved in prison until he escapes to Italy (Acts 27:1). The question that occupies me is, where would the Pharisees and the Sadducees get the idea that “spirits” or “angels” were talking to Paul, except from Paul’s companions on the road?

Finally, in Acts 26, Paul is before King Agrippa and is giving his account of the event. He repeats his history of persecuting the followers of Jesus wherever he found them with the “authority and commission of the chief priests.” We know what the reaction of Paul’s companions is because Festus, the procurator of Judaea, shouts to Paul after hearing this account: “I don’t care if you are a Roman citizen; you are out of your mind, Paul. Your great learning is driving you insane” (vs. 24). Paul responds that he is speaking words of “sober truth, “ but no companions who were on the road with him have a recorded corroboration of his explanation. There is silence from his ex-buddies.

So what are the differences in the Christian account and the non-Christian account:
1) Christian report: Saul hears discernable words and has an the understandable conversation
1) Non-Christian report: Saul’s companions hear only sound, no discernable words
2) Christian report: Saul hears Jesus speaking to him
2) Non-Christian report: Saul’s companions think it is either just sound, or angels or a spirit.
3) Christian report: Saul had a conversation with Jesus on the Damascus Road
3) Non-Christian report: Saul’s companions were just “speechless.”
4) Christian report: Saul is blinded by the light from heaven
4) Non-Christian report: Saul’s companions are not blinded by the same light
5) Christian report: Saul’s life was changed by the Damascus Road incident (Gal 1:15-17)
5) Non-Christian report: Saul’s companions were “baffled,” didn’t understand the incident and continued their murderous ways (9:23).
6) Christian report: Paul, alone, speaks to hostile crowds in Jerusalem.
6) Non-Christian report: Paul’s companions are nowhere to be found
7) Christian report: Paul is speaking to the crowds with the “sober truth” of Jesus
7) Non-Christian report: Paul is “insane” and “out of his mind.”

To the Christian journalists, I would suggest that this Sauline experience is the most dramatic Biblical illustration of the difference between understanding events as a Christian and understanding events as a non-Christian, because we have several reports of this event from a Christian perspective and from a non-Christian perspective. It all depends on who is illuminating the story-teller’s mind (John 16:13; 1 Cor. 2:6-16).

The metaphysical mark of a journalist who is a Christian would inform the journalist that appearances might not be the entire story. This is the most difficult professional aspect of being a journalist of faith because in the rush of the chase for news, the unseen truth and reality may not be readily apprehended by the journalist.

1) In a very real sense, the journalist may never see the full unraveling of the string of a story because there may not be time. The full unraveling is the historian’s prerogative, but just the recognition that your reporting is a snapshot of time in the framing of a story will be a great step towards the truth of the matter. Since the unseen hand of a sovereign God at work will probably not be apparent to the temporal scribe, the Christian journalist needs to be humble and contingent in the story conclusions because you seldom know what the conclusion will be. You may never really know what part that phase means in the stream of history.

2) When you think you understand the story, look for the untold side of that story and follow the rabbit trails. Don’t be satisfied with first impressions and those aspects of the story which confirm your bias and prejudice. The journalist of faith knows reality is far more complex and hidden than we can ever ascertain. Multiple accounts verify and advance the truth (Deut. 19:15; Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19; 1 John 5:7-8).

3) The believing journalist knows that reality has two vantage points for every event: a) human perspective, b) God’s perspective. It is impossible to understand the dual nature of events without God’s help. Beside the guiding principles taught in the Bible, there is the gentle guiding of the Holy Spirit leading the Christian journalist to be more competent than usual (examples: Rebekah – Genesis 25:22; David – 1 Samuel 23:2; Jeremiah – Jeremiah 21:2; Paul – 1 Thessalonians 3:11; etc).

“The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).

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