This Sunday our text at Dunblane Free Church is Acts chapter 9 – Saul’s encounter with the risen and exalted Jesus. As I began to think about the text, I was reflecting on the fact that the common observation about Paul’s Damascus Road experience is the warning that Saul’s experience should not be considered normative. However, it struck me that whilst there is obvious truth in this, such concerns overlook an important point – there are elements in Paul’s conversion that are the marks of all true Christian conversions. Or put another way, there are aspects of Saul’s encounter which are normative for all of God’s people.
No sooner had I reflected on this when a friend brought to my attention a book in our church library. The book is J Douglas MacMillan’s ‘Wrestling with God’.
MacMillan is dealing with Jacob’s encounter with God at Peniel, but his observation is obviously and equally applicable to the Damascus Road narrative.
This passage provides us with a marvellous instance of an encounter with God, and finds its focus in the theme of a power that transforms. That power is the saving power of God in the life of man. It is this power that makes the gospel the most significant thing in the world. . . While we will not encounter God in the dramatic way that Jacob did, and must not look for such physical experiences, we can nevertheless, encounter the same God and enjoy the same blessing and come under the same power as Jacob. The details and the circumstances are not likely to be repeated, but behind the details and events of Peniel we can trace the moral and spiritual lessons… There are enduring, unchanging and spiritual principles in God’s saving, gracious dealings with his own people.
I think MacMillan’s comments are helpful in that they help us to avoid the pitfalls of mysticism (expecting physical or external manifestations) yet they also safeguard us from nominalism because it roots spiritual life in an authentic encounter with the living God.