Many Are Called But Only Few Chosen: Paul’s Conversion On the Road to Damascus

Matthew 22:14 tells us that “many are called, but few are chosen.” But what does it mean to be “chosen” and does that imply predestination? I am of the opinion that being “chosen” does not negate free will, but can indicate a level of pressure that can be just short of unbearable.

Before he became “Paul,” this writer of two-thirds of the New Testament was known as Saul who, while on the road to Damascus, had a Divine encounter—in which he was quite literally “called” to serve Christ—but which left him physically blind (Acts 9:3-8, Acts 22:6-11). Saul’s traveling companions led him to Damascus where he fasted for three days. The Holy Spirit then spoke to Ananias telling him “arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying  [a]nd in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight” (Acts 9:11-12 NKJV). Ananias was reluctant because of Saul’s reputation for persecuting Christians, but God instructed Ananias to go anyway “for he [Saul/Paul] is a chosen vessel of mine” (Acts 9:14 NKJV). Ananias prays for Saul whose sight is restored whereupon Saul receives Christ and is baptized (Acts 9:17-18). However, what the story does not explicitly state was how limited Saul’s options had become.

By many accounts, Saul was in line to become the next high priest of Israel. Saul spoke at least five languages and he was a natural-born Roman citizen who could therefore act more boldly than his fellow non-citizen Jews. Saul studied under the preeminent Gamaliel and he was a therefore expert in Jewish law (Acts 5:34, Acts 22:3). But Saul’s expertise in the law also spelled disaster for his life ambition because Saul knew that he could not be blind and serve as a temple priest (Leviticus 21:16-23). Saul was thus faced with the same prospect regardless of his choice. If he rejected Christ’s calling and remained blind, Saul could not become high priest. But if Saul accepted Christ’s calling and had his sight restore, he still could not become high priest. But even if being high priest had not been his ultimate destiny, without his sight he could not continue his studies of Jewish law nor participate in policy decisions at the Sanhedrin, nor teach others the way that Gamaliel had taught him.  And he also could not do these things with his sight restored if he accepted Christ’s calling. No matter what Saul chose, it was clear to him that his life had gone off the rails and would change completely, but if Saul chose to accept his calling, at least then he could use his exceptional foundation to advance the Gospel. But during Saul’s days of fasting and prayer, God revealed to him “how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16 NIV). Despite this foreknowledge, Saul still chose to follow Christ. Some might say that Saul chose to go with his best option, but others could just as easily say that Saul chose the least painful path. What is certain is that an inordinate amount of pressure was brought to bear upon Saul. He still had free will to chose not to accept God’s calling but it was clear either way that life as he knew it was over. In this way, being “chosen” did not override Saul’s free will, but it did put so much pressure upon him that it would be futile to reject the calling which he received.

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