I’ve read the account of Paul’s conversion dozens of times, and every time I read it, I’m always struck by Paul’s/Saul’s statement, “Who are you, Lord” (Acts 9:5)? Jesus appeared to Paul, and he didn’t know who it was, so how did he have the sense to call Him Lord? In the commentary section, the Lutheran Study Bible says it’s “not an expression of faith but of respect. Up to this moment, Saul was convinced that his mission pleased God” (Engelbrecht, 1,851).
Before Jesus’ words, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me,” light inundates Paul. So, it is likely Paul assumed this voice to be God. Well, he was right; he just didn’t know this was God in Jesus Christ. Yet if my speculation that he knew this voice to be God is true, why does he ask the voice whom He is? Richard I. Pervo, renown author on the book of Acts, writes, “When confronted by an epiphany, Jews typically say, ‘Here I am lord,” or the equivalent, as will Ananias in v. 10″ (Pervo, 241). This is a sound conclusion, seeing as Paul was from Tarsus, which was in his time a city of education famous for its Stoic philosophers and culture. Paul also studied under Gamaliel, one of the greatest rabbis of his time. As a Pharisee, Paul had great reverence for the Law, so it is plausible to think Paul recognised this occurrence as divine when considering his affluence of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Yet I find this even more interesting. This Jewish response to God’s calling originates from the Hebrew prophets. When God called out to Samuel, he responded with, “Here I am,” which is one word in Hebrew, הִנֵּנִי (hineni). He responds first to Eli the priest, for he thought it was him. After Eli told Samuel it was God calling to Him, Samuel responds to God with, “Speak, for Your servant hears” (1 Samuel 3). In Isaiah’s recounting of his calling, he also responded with, “Here I am” (Isaiah 6:8). Abraham responded with the same words when God called him to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1).
He doesn’t know it yet, but Paul is being called to minister to the Gentiles. But unlike the prophets and other men before him, he responded with a question, “τίς εἶ, κύριε;”—”Who are you, Lord?” Why does he respond with a question rather than the reverent, “Here I am”? According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, before his conversion Paul was quite arrogant. So it could be his response was just a character flaw. We can’t ever know for sure.
But comparing his words with the prophets isn’t what’s important here. What’s important is the Lord’s response. Jesus speaks and acts as the God of the Old Testament spoke and acted. He gives Paul a command on where to go and doesn’t give any details. He simply says, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” (Acts 9:6). Jesus simply answers Paul’s question by identifying Himself and gives him a command to enter Damascus and wait for further instructions.
Now, consider the circumstances. Paul, the former Saul the persecutor, was heading to Damascus to kill Christians. On his way there, Jesus interrupts his journey, tells Paul he’s persecuting Him, and commands he enter Damascus to wait for further instructions. Oh, and he’s blinded by the light (insert Bruce Springsteen song). Paul’s heart was set on finding Christians and killing them, and this abruptly changes upon meeting the resurrected Jesus. Paul was confronted with the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and thus had no choice but to obey. As Paul himself later wrote, “For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16)!
Paul, formerly ignorant of God in Jesus Christ, obeys Christ out of necessity because he cannot deny the facts. We can say the same about Abraham and the prophets. Formerly ignorant of God, God calls them, gives them a command with little details, and they have no choice but to obey because they cannot deny the reality of God.
Yet what are we to take from this pattern of God’s calling? God calls each and every one of us to follow Jesus Christ. He calls us to follow Him, but He doesn’t give us many details. All we know is that we will face tribulation (John 16:33). That doesn’t leave us very much to go on. Yet we do know that no one can snatch us out of Jesus’ hands and therefore God’s hands (John 10:28-30). In His warning that we will face tribulation as His followers, He gives us the hope, “But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Paul expounds on this, saying, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:57-58).
Therefore, let us respond to God’s call to follow Christ with, “Here I am!” and pick up our cross daily and follow Him, even if it means persecution or death. While we may not know the details of this life—or even of the life to come—we do know for certain that we will be with our Lord. In spite of our tribulations and persecutions, we will have the ultimate victory through our Lord Jesus Christ over sin and death. In our calling to follow Christ, our labour will not be in vain.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Paul, Saint.”
Engelbrecht, Rev. Edward A., Rev. Dr. Paul E. Deterding, Rev. Dr. Roland Cap Ehlke, Rev. Dr. Jerald C. Joersc, Rev. Mark W. Love, Rev. Dr. Steve P. Mueller, Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray, Rev. Dr. Daniel E. Paavola, Rev. Victor H. Prange, Rev. Dr. Robert A. Sorensen, and Rev. Michael P. Walther. The Lutheran Study Bible: English Standard Version. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2016.
Pervo, Richard I. Acts: A Commentary on the Book of Acts, H.W. Attridge ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.