It would be an outrageous understatement to say that when he saw the exalted Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus, Saul’s perspective changed. Of course, it did. But we must take some time to unpack just how it changed and what aspects of it were transformed. First, when Saul saw the resurrected and ascended Jesus on his heavenly throne, he realized that resurrection had come—God had initiated his salvation program. And remember, for Paul resurrection was not merely a spiritual reality. It was holistic, involving political, economic, and social aspects of life, and even the transformation of the cosmos (God had defeated Sin, Death, and the powers that rule the present evil age).
Second, Saul realized that God had begun his resurrection agenda with the crucified Jesus—the crucified Jesus. We’re so used to this that we have difficulty realizing how shockingly scandalous it is. In the midst of a Jewish culture craving revenge, fantasizing about violent retaliation against their oppressors, God accomplishes salvation through Jesus’ death on the most potent political symbol of imperial domination and shameful political defeat. Jesus dies on a cross along with political agitators, violent criminals, and others that Rome simply wants to be rid of. Far from being cursed by the God of Israel, this Jesus has been vindicated, shown to be in the right, revealed to be God’s chief agent of salvation, resurrected, exalted, and installed as Cosmic Lord, ruler of all things in the heavens and on the earth. God does not accomplish his saving purposes through power, domination, or coercion, but through self-giving love, servant-hood, and giving himself fully for the life of the world and the flourishing of his enemies. That is, God saves only by his grace, and not based on works of righteousness.
Third, because of this, Saul now realizes that God’s politics must be shaped by the cross. If the Lord, whom God has installed as ruler of all things, triumphs by means of the cross, then all those loyal to him must be cruciform—that is, oriented by and shaped by the cross. If the ruler is cruciform, then the body politic—the polis of Jesus—must have its political, economic, and social life holistically determined by the cross, and not by power; not by coercion; not by violence. For Saul this was a breathtakingly radical reversal, indeed, so profound we can hardly grasp it.
A fourth transformation of Saul’s political vision—resurrection doesn’t work like Saul had anticipated. He expected one singular end-time event—the Day of the Lord. This was to be the day when God would judge the wicked, save his people, raise the righteous dead, transform creation, and bring in the fullness of the Kingdom—God’s new creation political order.
But Saul comes to understand this mystery—that God has begun his work of salvation, but will complete it over time. Christ is the first-fruits and God will raise from the dead all those who are loyal to Jesus in another future end-time event—the day of Christ. In the meantime, however, God is building his church—his alternative body politic—the polis of Jesus set among the poleis of the world.
Fifth, Saul undergoes a radical reversal regarding Israel’s relationship to the nations. Saul certainly had the same prejudices as his fellow Jews toward non-Jews. He had little doubt that the God of Israel was going to return to rescue Israel and blast the nations off the map for their idolatry and their status as God’s enemies. For Saul to hear, then, from Ananias in Acts 9 that he was to bear the name of Jesus “before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel,” it must have come as quite a shock.
Saul now sees that God doesn’t hate the nations (i.e., the gentiles) nor does he long for their destruction. The God of Israel loves the nations and Jesus died so that they might truly live. And God is no longer reaching the nations of the world through the nation of Israel, but is building a new people—a new body politic, a new polis, drawn together of all the nations, Jew and non-Jew, of those who follow Jesus. In fact, as God builds his new body politic, he is drawing in people from all ethnicities so that the singular defining identity marker is “Jesus-follower,” and not Jew, or non-Jew, Greek, Scythian, European, Italian, Irish, white-American, African-American, Hispanic, Arab, Michigander. All are united in the one new polis of Jesus in which all other identities are subjugated to our membership in the body of Christ.
Saul of Tarsus, therefore, had a radical political conversion. His conversion wasn’t merely “spiritual,” involving a profound change of heart. Saul came to see that God had installed a new ruler of all things, seen and unseen, things in heaven and things on earth—the Lord Jesus Christ. Saul’s conversion, then, is a thoroughly political one, and his politics are transformed thoroughly.