Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

Two Thoughts on Damascus Road Experiences

Two Thoughts on Damascus Road Experiences

I recently had a lengthy conversation with someone who’d been attending our church for a few weeks. She shared her struggle to believe, because of various experiences both inside and outside the church. There were also intellectual and moral obstacles to the Christian faith. And one of these was the lack of an unmistakable, ecstatic encounter with God, something that is commonly referred to as a “Damascus road experience.”

This phrase refers to Saul’s spectacular conversion. We meet him in Acts 7:58, where he seems to receive homage at the stoning of Stephen. In the next chapter of Luke’s account we’re told that “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3). But then in Acts 9 he’s struck blind and addressed personally by the risen Lord Jesus. After three days, God sends Saul to Ananias, who explains what has happened to Saul. He says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17). Then the metaphorical scales fell off Saul’s eyes and he got baptised.

Why Aren’t There More Damascus Road Experiences?

Most of us read this account in Acts and think: ‘No wonder Saul turned his life around. I mean, if Jesus confronted me like that while travelling the N2 between Cape Town and Durban I’d also give my life to making him known, probably.’ What happened to Saul on the road to Damascus was remarkable; it was spectacular. And the woman I mentioned above was voicing something nearly all of us have wondered. Why doesn’t Jesus appear to us today, shining so brightly that we’re blinded by his presence? Why doesn’t God’s voice thunder from the heavens, making himself known and our response a foregone conclusion? Shouldn’t there be more Damascus road like experiences?

I want to offer two answers to those questions. The first considers Jesus’ own ministry, in the Gospels. The second will consider the remainder of Acts.

1. The Miraculous Can Sow Discontentment

Firstly, the Gospels are filled with spectacular miracles and momentous signs. However, alongside those we often discover warnings about what humans tend to do with them. We seek them over the God who is behind them. This is why Jesus repeatedly cautions the crowd against seeking signs and miracles (Matthew 12:38-39; Mark 8:11-12; Luke 11:29; 23:8). For, in some sense, the crowds’ pursuit of the miraculous prevented them from seeing the Christ.

Concerning dramatic conversion experiences and visceral encounters with God, people quickly mistake these extraordinary works of God for the ordinary—which in some ways anticipates my second point, from Acts, below. By this I mean the miraculous past can make for discontent in the present. This is what we see in Jesus’ lifetime; having witnessed the unmistakable power of the divine, the crowds were unable to wholly give themselves to Jesus, unless he continued to provide them with more miracles. The people actually grew frustrated with Jesus, when he taught at length. So too today, in many churches, there is a chasing after the spectacular and discontentment with the ordinary means of grace.

If I’m honest, the Christian life can be mundane and humdrum. It’s tempting to believe that if my lounge lit up with an angelic choir every morning, instead of me plodding my way through prayer and Bible reading, my faith would be expansive and electric. But in my better moments I know that isn’t true. Let’s not forget the time Jesus healed 10 lepers for only one to return and praise God (Luke 17:11-19).

2. Gospel Proclamation Doesn’t Depend on the Powerful

Secondly, Acts isn’t a sequence of Damascus Road experiences. In the chapter immediately preceding Saul’s conversion, for example, a man is converted through hearing a passage from Isaiah explained (Acts 8:26-40). There’s also Lydia, whom the apostles simply sat alongside and spoke to when “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:13-14). Neither of these conversions are exceptional, if you ignore the fact that both of them narrate God raising the spiritually dead.

More famously perhaps, than the eunuch or Lydia, is Paul’s visit to the Areopagus, where he makes an apologetic case for the Christian faith (Acts 17:22-34). In the same chapter we read about Paul proclaiming the word of God in Berea (Acts 17:13), and reasoning with devout Jews in Athens (Acts 17:17). Earlier in that chapter we’re told that this was Paul’s custom: “on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2). In fact, the Greek word translated “reasoned” (διαλέγομαι) occurs 10 times between Acts 17 and 24. Remarkably, then, the apostle with arguably the most spectacular conversion experience carried out a fairly ordinary preaching ministry.

I think one of the reasons there’s so much plain pastoring and ordinary preaching in Acts is to guard against the notion that God depends on powerful, impressive men and women. He doesn’t. But the miraculous functions in a magnetic way, causing God’s chosen and imperfect tools to become the attraction or centre. Of course, a similar danger exists concerning guru-like Bible teachers—but that’s an issue for another day. Perhaps the book of Acts tells so many stories of preaching unaccompanied by miracles to remind us that God doesn’t need them. Nor do we.

Don’t Let the Works of God Distract From the Work of God

Acts narrates both miraculous and mundane ministry—never suggesting that proclamation depends on the former. In fact, much of the early church’s growth occurred in pretty ordinary ways. Tied to that, we saw from the Gospels that miracles can distract people from God, even causing people to grow discontent with him. Why aren’t there more Damascus road experiences? Probably because we’re suck fickle creatures, finding even in God’s more spectacular works cause to turn away from God to other things (Romans 1:21).

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