Why did Jesus call Paul ‘Saul’ during the encounter on the road to Damascus? Saul was Paul’s Jewish name. It originated in his Hebrew tradition, and he used it to identify with the religious, Hebrew world. He was born, however, in the Roman city of Tarsus and was by birth a Roman citizen. In a bilingual world (Hebrew and Greek) he used the Greek name, Paul, to identify with the rest of the Roman Empire, and because the bulk of his recorded life was lived out in that world that is how we have commonly known him.
Jesus, however, begins His address by appealing to Paul’s core identity as a man of religious culture. Paul’s spiritual equations are all built inside of his Hebrew identity, and Jesus meets Paul where he is most ready to have conversation—in the context of his religious zeal. Saul. Saul.
The subtle but important message here is that Jesus begins His conversation with us right where we are living. If we are living in a religious equation, He will begin there. If we are living in an atheistic formula, He will begin there. If we find ourselves held deep inside our cultural identity, He will begin there. Why? Because He wants to connect.
To have a real conversation with someone, we adjust our language to fit the relationship. If we speak with an elder, we adjust our language and posture to fit. If we speak with a marriage partner we adjust, if we speak with a child we adjust—because we want to connect. If we don’t want to connect with someone, we naturally refuse to adjust our language, for instance, when we refuse to use terms of respect for the elder, when we remove the terms of endearment toward our romantic partner, or when we speak "over the heads" of younger people.
Christ did not do this to Paul—He leaned way over and spoke a personal word of connection. Saul. Saul. Christ wanted to connect!
God is pursuing us! He did not just want to shock Paul into submission and amaze him with a bright light and a thunderclap. Jesus Christ desperately wants to connect with us, and that is why He can, and He will, adjust His language for us. How do you think He should speak to you?
Many religions are home to prophets, teachers and transformed beings who have touched the "divine" and brought back a system of belief for their followers. Many religions (including much of modern Christian traditions) have gods that run the universe or issue rules for living, but never personally reach out and care for a single human being. How unsatisfactory. Jesus is best understood as the living gesture of God, leaning way over to press His love for humanity right into our view. And He apparently desires to connect with us even when we don’t want to connect with Him.
Paul may have begun his connection with Jesus on the road to Damascus, but the conversation did not end there. Followers of Christ are living an ongoing connection with the divine. Some may say that their religious tradition contains supernatural encounters, but followers of Christ continuously live in a connection to the supernatural. Some belong to religions where their spiritual leaders have had divine encounters, but they themselves have not. Some visit sacred places where the divine once visited as well. I have heard countless people say, "I had a spiritual experience back in such-and-such time," and they can tell the story of the past event, but they are at a loss for words when describing their spiritual present. The true followers of Christ are easy to pick out because they are telling the story of a continuing experience with the divine.
Jesus promised this ongoing relationship when He said, simply, "Remain in me, and I will remain in you." For those of us who are not willing to settle for someone else’s experience, or someone else’s truth, Jesus Christ holds the claim and the key to a lasting connection with God. Jesus said, "I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."
So what did He mean when He said, "I am the gate," and what in the world is being saved? A gate is a point of entry or exit. "The," in His statement, implies that there is no other gate like the one He is referencing. Why? First of all, Jesus Christ represents the God first introduced in the history of Hebrew experience. This God was always asking the same question: "Will you love Me?" The ancient Hebrews didn’t hear the question clearly, and neither do we. Fear, pride, lack of trust, misconceptions of God and selfishness clogged their hearing.
Reading the Old Testament of the Bible (the first half) is like reading a soap opera script where the pursuing lover (God) and unwilling bride (the Hebrews) never quite connect. The whole Old Testament writing titled "Hosea" is dedicated to describing this romantic dilemma. They constantly proved their inability to love Him in return. By the time Jesus enters history, the Hebrews had so deluded themselves that they had no idea what He was saying when He told them, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life."
God still comes wanting to connect with us personally, but we opt for many things as a substitute and many activities as a diversion. God refuses to relate to us from a distance, however, and Christ goes on to prove that fact. He will not send us a book and be satisfied with having "readers." He will not send us some rituals and be satisfied with "practitioners." He is looking for something much deeper, much more personal, and so He visits us in an intensely personal way.
God is still asking the question, "Do you love Me?" In response to our inability to understand the question, God does something radical in the person of Jesus Christ. In the drama that shapes the understanding of history for the follower of Christ, the God who talked with Moses, spoke with David, and dealt with Jonah decided to come to earth and do away with the misconceptions about His love for us. He came in a human form of self-expression.
Being wonderfully creative, He wrote a song, a play, a poem and an epic love story—all wrapped up in the life of His Son, Jesus Christ. He is God’s "Son," because the best expression of a father’s creative power is in the life of his son. "Son," because He could represent His Father in a finite world without reducing the infinite nature of His Dad. "Son," so that when He hung, dying on the cross, it would be clear that it was a family matter, and "no" would never be an acceptable answer.
Jesus Christ lived and died and was resurrected from the dead for one purpose: to demonstrate the love God has for all of us. His selfless act of love would remove any suspicions that God did not truly love us. The life and death of Christ both ask the question, "Do you love Me?" Followers of Christ hear Him calling us to join hands with the God of pursuing love. If we reach to take His hands, however, we will find that they have nail scars from His death on the cross. What does this mean?
For His followers, the cross is far beyond a piece of religious jewelry. It is not a power icon. It is a humbling reminder. The cross tells two important stories. It first tells the story of God’s romantic pursuit of humanity and the tragic moment we rejected His advances by nailing Him to the tree. This speaks of His unconditional love. Secondly, it tells the story of a rescuing act that is powerful enough to bridge the gap between us and the God we desperately need. God pursues us across history, against all odds and against our own wishes, to pour His love out on us. God throws Himself in front of the train called "Independence" and stops our death wish in its tracks.
The cross demonstrates that God was willing to assume the lowest position of human rejection, a death reserved for the worst criminals of the state, in order to woo the hearts of the accusers themselves. No one could ever say again, "God doesn’t love me … God doesn’t care … God may be real, but I can live as I want and it will all be okay." The arresting picture of the God of Creation suffering under our own death wish has forever interrupted the flow of prophets and teachers and gurus who have come to show us the way—Jesus Christ came to be the Way.
Christ opens only one gate because according to His own life and mission, He is the gate and there is only one of Him. He invites us to connect to the pursuing God, and then He demonstrates on the cross just how passionately God pursues. Christ can’t open other gates because the gate, the invitation, the journey and the goal are all wrapped up in Him. Christ is all in all, both the question and the answer, to His followers. To consider other gates may be necessary in our research, but to walk through them is to discover a different promise, a different god and a different end result.
The ultimate goal then, the high pursuit for the followers of Christ, is to be fully united with the God of Pursuing Love. The path of reunion is the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. These Followers must not be confused with those who call themselves "Christians" and whose goal is be perfect, or to be spiritually wise, or to be right. The Followers are more interested in being connected than being perfect, and they trust Christ to make the Way. When God asks the question, "Do you love me?", are you ready to form an answer?
[Adapted from the newest Relevant Books release, Enter the Worship Circle.]