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The Visions of Paul

A Video Supplement for
Come, Follow Me Lesson 30:
“A Minister and a Witness”




In Acts, Paul’s first vision, seen as he journeyed along the road to Damascus, is recounted several times. While broadly consistent, some details of Paul’s narration vary in the several retellings. This is typical of accounts given on multiple occasions and later recounted and compiled after perhaps other steps of transmission, as we find in Acts. Indeed, these circumstances are not entirely unlike the situation faced by Latter-day Saints, in which Joseph Smith talked about his First Vision on multiple occasions, approaching it with varying perspectives and maturity that reflected both his initial encounter with the Lord and how his understanding of that experience’s significance had changed in the process of doing the work the Lord had appointed to him. I am going to focus on the vision itself and his description of it rather than the material leading up to it or the material coming after, but by way of context, Paul is on his way to Damascus to harass and imprison Christians having received authority to do so from the chief priests. I am also not going to cover Ananias’s ministry to Paul, which comes immediately after in his narration, in this video but I will focus on the vision itself.

Reading first Acts 9:3-9, Paul’s story is told in third person by the author of Acts,

3 And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:
4 And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? [I note that falling to the earth is frequently reported when someone encounters a divine being. Jeff Lindsay shares some good insights on this point in his Interpreter articles on the significance of arising from the dust]
5 And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. [When an ox kicks the stick being used to prod it, it risks impaling and injuring itself. Even so, when we rebel against God and fight him, we risk breaking ourselves against his will.]
6 And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.
7 And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. [In this account, Paul’s companions here a voice, but see no one.]
8 And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.
9 And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.

In Acts 22, Paul is arrested in the Temple and recounts his vision, beginning at verse 6,

6 And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me.
7 And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
8 And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest. [This account appears to be the shortest on dialogue within the actual vision.]
9 And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me. [In this account they don’t hear the voice.]
10 And I said, What shall I do, Lord? And the Lord said unto me, Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do.

[One could reasonably ask whether those who were with them heard the voice or didn’t. However, the reality is that in historical narratives, one can’t always determine these types of details from a collection of accounts. This is especially true when one is dealing with accounts that are at least second hand and often probably third hand. The author of Acts is likely not with Paul when he had his vision or on the occasions that elicit these specific retellings, so he is necessarily relying on other accounts in order to construct what Paul said on these occasions. Because of this, it makes sense for us to extend charity and patience to the author, who is doing his best to let us know what happened to the best of his ability and what Paul is reported to have said. The author doesn’t seem to have attempted to make all of the details agree perfectly between the sources, probably suggesting that the sources didn’t agree when they came to him, so in this sense the author is showing himself to be reliable by not flattening the accounts into agreement.]

Finally, in Acts 26, starting at verse 12,

12 Whereupon as I went to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests,
13 At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me.
14 And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
15 And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.
16 But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; [so here Paul is actually promised subsequent appearances]
17 Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee,
18 To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.

[So here Paul includes a lengthier description of what the Lord told him. The themes of blindness and sight will of course be strengthened because Paul is struck blind for a time but will receive his sight from Ananias or from the Lord through Ananias’s ministration. Similarly, the gospel which he will minister and bring to the Gentiles will bring them out of darkness into light.]

Taken together, these accounts help bring light to our understanding of what Paul experienced when the Lord initially called him, turning him out of his ruinous course and turning him toward the covenant path.

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