Three times in the book of Acts, Paul’s experience of his encounter with the living Christ is told. In Acts 9, Luke reports the story. In Acts 22, Luke has Paul recount his experience to an unruly temple crowd. And in Acts 26, Paul retells his experience to Festus and King Agrippa. Paul’s own brief account of his encounter with Christ is found in Galatians 1:13–17.
Paul explains this experience as a revelation— “God was pleased . . . to reveal his Son to me”—and as a calling through grace “to proclaim Christ among the Gentiles.” Paul says that after this encounter he did not “confer with any human being,” nor did he go up to Jerusalem to get the endorsement of the Twelve (“those who were already apostles before me”), but went, at once, to Arabia, and then afterward to Damascus where he began proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah. We don’t know how long he stayed in solitude in Arabia, where he was apparently sorting things out.
Paul underwent a major transformation as a result of this experience. Scholars of Paul, while noting that he was a very complex man and, like all transformational spiritual leaders, was marked by both contradictions and theological and spiritual growth as he served Christ and engaged in mission, nevertheless, remind us that he was forever changed by his dramatic experience of Christ on the Damascus Road. Paul based his authority as an apostle on this experience. Paul’s experience of the living Christ took preeminence over every external authority, including the Scriptures. In fact, Paul reinterpreted the Scriptures in light of his mystical experience of Christ.
Paul, however, still valued his religious tradition. He always considered himself to be a Jewish follower of the Messiah. He would never have claimed to be a Christian in the way that the word is used today by most Christians. We know that he valued the traditions of Jesus passed down orally, because he tells the Corinthians that he passed on to them the tradition regarding Jesus’ death and resurrection that he “had received” (see 1 Cor. 15:3-11). Yet, in that very passage, he grounds his own apostleship, not on the tradition he had received, but his own personal experience of the living Christ, who appeared to him as “last of all [the apostles], as to one untimely born.”
The lesson we can learn is this: Paul’s experience of the living Christ always took priority and precedence over his tradition and every external authority, even the Bible itself. Healthy and transformative spirituality will always value experience over tradition and the sacred texts. The tradition and the sacred texts are important, but our actual experience of the Divine is more important.
As Christians, our experience of the living Christ, who is able by his grace to transform our prejudices, jealousies, resentments, and hate into forgiveness, love, and reconciliation, is always more important than what the preachers and dogmatists tell us the Bible says.