I Am Jesus, Whom You Persecute (Acts 9:1-9)

by Kosuke Koyama

>Kosuke Koyama is John D.Rockefeller, Jr., Professor of Ecumenics and World Christianity at Union Theology Seminary in New York City.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 5, 1989, p. 347. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


An unexpected halt is a religious experience if it occasions a discontinuity in one’s identity. Discontinuity, whether spiritual or physical, presents a crisis, a moment of truth. Is not this what religion is essentially about?

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing threats to slaughter the Lord’s disciples. He had gone to the high priest and asked for letters addressed to the synagogues at Damascus, that would authorize him to arrest and take to Jerusalem any followers of the Way, men or women, that he could find.

Suddenly, while he was traveling to Damascus and just before he reached the city, there came a light from heaven all around him. He fell to the ground, and then he heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" "Who are you, Lord?" he asked, and the voice answered, "I am Jesus, and you are persecuting me. Get up now and go into the city, and you will be told what you have to do." The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless, for though they heard the voice they could see no one. Saul got up from the ground, but even with his eyes wide open he could see nothing at all and they had to lead him into Damascus by the hand. For three days he was without his sight, and took neither food nor drink (Acts 9:1-9, Jerusalem Bible).

In 1941, in the name of the sacred imperial ancestors, the Japanese emperor declared war against the United States, Great Britain and the Netherlands. On August 6, 1945, a nuclear heat-light of incredible intensity blasted over the city of Hiroshima, incinerating 70,000 people. Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allied Powers. She was "discontinued." She fell to the ground.

A mysterious tranquillity and uncluttered silence descended upon the land that had been made a wilderness by incessant firebombing. A legion of unclean spirits, including the cult of the divinity of the emperor, which had led the nation into the way of the lie, was cast out. It was a moment of nationwide exorcism. I heard a distant echo from the Book of Jeremiah: ‘I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in the land not sown" (Jer. 2:2) To be defeated was in a way a deeply religious experience. In the abrupt stop that the events of 1945 forced us to make was hidden for me the mystery of the resurrection.

Abrupt stop. How are we to speak about an abrupt stop? Can we study the process by which we come to an abrupt stop? Can we schedule one? Does it come to us from God or from the devil? From a clean spirit or an unclean spirit? Is it a moment of benediction or malediction? Will it create renewal or decay?

An unexpected halt is a religious experience if it occasions a discontinuity in one’s identity. Discontinuity, whether spiritual or physical, presents a crisis, a moment of truth. Is not this what religion is essentially about? But not every sudden stop carries the same religious significance. In an abrupt stop, we may not hear the same voice. Saul heard, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting." Japan heard, "You are defeated! Know that you are defeated!" But from where does the voice come? From the universal God or from a parochial god? Are there two kinds of "Gods"?

"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." In these few words Jesus introduced himself to Saul. Then Jesus commissioned Ananias to Saul, telling him that "at this moment he is praying." Was Saul praying to Jesus, whom he had persecuted? The word "persecuted" hints of a relationship between love and suffering. If one loves one may suffer. The more one loves others, the greater may be one’s suffering for them. "I myself will show him how much he must suffer for my name," says the Lord Jesus to Ananias. Later the apostle Paul writes, "During my stay with you, the only knowledge I claimed to have was about Jesus, and only about him as the crucified Christ" (I Cor. 2:2) Paul, now a slave of Christ, almost adopted for himself those words of Christ that came to him on the way to Damascus: "I am Paul, whom you are persecuting." He wrote to the church in Corinth: "When persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things." To the Galatians he wrote, "I carry branded on my body the scars of Jesus." His apostolic career began with the words that came to him in the vision on the road to Damascus:

"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting."

Why are these words so important? They indicate the nature of God who comes to humanity. God does not come to us "breathing threats to slaughter." God comes to us as one who is open to be wounded ("vulnerable," from the Latin vulnus, wound) Why so? Because God is love, and love is vulnerable. The profounder the love, the greater is its capacity "to be persecuted," to suffer. With unfathomable love God embraces the world that rejects God. Thus Jesus’ words of self-introduction to Paul are central to apostolic Christianity. "Blessed are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you falsely on my account."

Nailed down to the cross, how could Jesus move even one foot? But this was not an abrupt stop for Jesus, His entire life was strangely summarized by the one who mocked him: "He saved others; he cannot save himself" (Mark 15:31) By not saving himself he "got rid of the Sovereignties and the Powers, and paraded them in public, behind him in his triumphal procession" (Col. 2:15) On the cross Jesus’ self-identity was not discontinued but fulfilled. This extraordinary fulfillment shook both the Jewish Saul and the Roman centurion: "In truth this was a son of God" (Matt. 27:54)

Paul will bring the name of Christ "before gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel." Christ who "emptied himself" and was crucified (Phil. 2:7) speaks to the world through "the refuse of the world." This is the sign that Christ represents the universal God. It is this "scandalous" message that will make the "scales fall away" from our eyes.