Somehow, Saul the Persecutor Became Paul the Apostle. Why?

There was once a zealous man named Saul (from Tarsus) who hounded the young and growing Christian church at every turn. He persecuted and attacked the followers of the Way, and accused those who preached Jesus’ resurrection of blasphemy. His career as Pharisee was taking off because he was ruthless in his judgement and relentless in his pursuit. But somehow, something changed for Saul: this same man had an experience that transformed him and changed his life completely.

What Happened?

We know him now as the Apostle Paul, the same man who said in Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” How could a Pharisee of such unparalleled zeal make such a change? How could an enemy of the Church become one of its staunchest defenders? What changed him from Saul the persecutor into Paul, the Apostle? History tells us that something happened to change his life and change his name. Apparently the power lay in the Gospel, which Paul defined so well in his first letter to Corinth:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. The he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me, as to one abnormally born.” (I Corinthians 15:3-8, NIV)

Quite a Resume

Saul of Tarsus was a Hebrew scholar, educated at the feet of Gamaliel, a famous rabbi of that era. He persecuted the early church in his zeal as a Pharisee, and his Jewish credentials were impeccable. (Paul referred to himself as formerly “faultless” in the eyes of the law in Philippians 3:6). He was consenting to Stephen’s death in Acts 6, but a short time after that encountered Jesus in a vision while traveling to Damascus. (By definition an Apostle had to have seen Jesus, and this was Paul’s encounter. It changed him forever.)

Saul apostle

He embraced the reality of the resurrection and began to follow Christ with the same zeal he had previously applied to persecuting the church. He spent three years in Arabia communing with and learning somehow from Christ himself, and then taught in Damascus, strengthening the church. The Apostle Paul became perhaps the greatest Hebrew apologist for Christ the world has ever known, and his missionary efforts spread the good news all over the world.

So Why Focus on a Pharisee Who Converted?

You can doubt a lot of things about Christianity, but you really can’t argue with the historical impact of Paul. If you haven’t read his letters, they are amazing in their ability to connect the work of Christ with God’s revelation through the Old Testament. He said in Romans 8:38-39, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Saul apostle Paul

Saul’s testimony still counts as an eyewitness because he was transformed after an encounter with the risen Lord. He went from being an enemy of those who followed Jesus to a follower himself. When he encountered Jesus, he began to connect the dots, and the rest is history.

It’s really the same for all of us—a lot of things aren’t clear until we encounter Jesus. But once we put him in the proper place, there are so many things that suddenly make sense. I hope they do for you!

Unashamed

Saul abhorred the gospel, and he hated those who knew it;
If there was any way that he could stop them, he would do it.
He encountered Jesus as he traveled to Damascus;
Witnesses said, “Yes it really happened there. Just ask us!”
That was not the only testimony to that day;
Saul was transformed into Paul, and then had this to say:

“I am not ashamed at all! The Gospel gives me power,
And I am going to preach it every minute, every hour.
I will go in grace to those who used to fear and hate me,
And preach God’s endless love, from which no power can separate me!
I’ll gladly preach of healing where I used to cause such pain,
For me, for Paul to live is Christ! For me to die is gain.

To buy my latest book, Real People, Real Christmas: Thirty-one Days Discovering the Hidden Treasures of the Christmas Story, go here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1729034918/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
For Slaying Giants: Thirty Days with David, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Slaying-Giants-Thirty-Devotions-Ordinary/dp/172568327X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535814431&sr=8-1&keywords=Slaying+Giants%3A+Thirty+Days+With+David
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Reputation Follows You: When The Bravest Man in Jerusalem met the man with the Worst Reputation

Saul of Tarsus was a Jewish zealot who aimed to stamp out the Christian movement using violence and intimidation. After he encountered Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus, he had been dramatically converted to The Way, but his reputation still intimidated everybody. That’s not too surprising, since he had recently been active killing Christians and persecuting the church… Followers of Jesus avoided him with good reason. Was Saul just pretending to be a Christian so he could go undercover and infiltrate the inner circle? Had he actually become a believer? Was he still dangerous? No one really knew…

reputation

Conversion Conundrum

“And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles.” (Acts 10:26-7, KJV)  The man with the worst reputation among believers was shunned by the church, conversion or no. Was he still violent? Would he kill again?

Let’s make just a couple of observations: if we have been doing wrong, then even if we repent and change, our past actions have consequences. Saul, the self-described “Pharisee of the Pharisees”, had been out there persecuting and killing Christians. He had gained a reputation before his conversion, and the reputation did not go away just because he said things were different now. It took some time, and he had to demonstrate that his life had really changed.

Still Looking for the Perfect Church?

People in church are often hesitant to associate with people who are not. There is a subtle brand of righteous insulation that takes place, and this was certainly the case with Saul! There are some church-goers who believe that if righteous Christians hang out with sinners, they might themselves be tainted with sin. That sort of logic creates a cultural divide between Christians and non-believers, and it smacks of some sort of presumed spiritual superiority for believers which doesn’t actually exist (It might be instructive to remember that the church would be empty if only perfect people got to join…)

As Saul discovered, having a change of heart doesn’t change the past. If you’ve ever wronged a loved one, and then asked for forgiveness, don’t be surprised if they are skeptical about your new attitude. It may be that you’ll have to show them that things really have changed. Saul was an outright enemy to believers, so when he told people about how he encountered Jesus on the Road to Damascus, his conversion didn’t seem possible to most folks. It’s not really surprising that when he tried to join the church, he was ostracized and rejected.

And besides, he had not yet written that “if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation” in Ephesians 2:8, so nobody had memorized that verse yet.

A Reputation Lingers

Can you imagine how different the world would be if Saul had never been accepted by the church? If he had walked away, bitter and resentful? Imagine the consequences! Yet as Saul stood on the outside looking in, even when everyone was afraid of him and avoiding him, there was one man who looked beyond his fearsome reputation.

Luke says this: “But Barnabas…” In the midst of paralyzing fear, it only takes one courageous person to get things moving the right direction. Saul had been guilty of horrendous things BUT Barnabas looked beyond them. This man Saul was not the kind of guy you’d want to sit next to at the covered dish supper, BUT Barnabas invited him… Saul had a terrible reputation and a checkered past, BUT Barnabas took him and brought him. Saul was not accepted into the church, BUT Barnabas brought him. Barnabas somehow saw beyond Saul’s past, and shepherded him into God’s fearful family.

Without Barnabas, who knows? Perhaps Saul would never have become Paul. Perhaps an embittered and frustrated Saul might have slunk off, rejected and hurt, and gone back to persecuting Christians. What person outside of your church family is being excluded or marginalized? Who are you loving and bringing into the kingdom?

Saul to Paul by Way of Barnabas

Greeting someone new to church may seem a little small,
Unless the guest has had a wanted poster on the wall,
For persecuting Christians– yeah, a guy by the name of Saul,
Who watched as they stoned Stephen, and was feared by one and all.

But Barnabas reached out to him, and not in trepidation,
Undaunted by Saul’s former life or current reputation.
He didn’t cater to the enemy’s intimidation,
And brought Saul right into the Apostolic delegation.
The rest is history. Saul changed his life and changed his name,
And due to Barnabas, the world has never been the same.
Paul became a missionary, saved from sin and shame,
And said, “For me to live is Christ; for me to die is gain!”
The next time someone comes to church who doesn’t quite fit in,
No matter what they look like, and no matter where they’ve been,
Remember Barnabas and Paul, and all that happened after all,
And realize that greeting someone is not small at all.

To buy my latest book, Real People, Real Christmas: Thirty-one Days Discovering the Hidden Treasures of the Christmas Story, go here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1729034918/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
For Slaying Giants: Thirty Days with David, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Slaying-Giants-Thirty-Devotions-Ordinary/dp/172568327X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535814431&sr=8-1&keywords=Slaying+Giants%3A+Thirty+Days+With+David
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Casting Lots May Not Be Enough: Things to consider next Time you have to choose an Apostle

Need to choose a Thirteenth Apostle? You can’t just go to Central Casting and ask for one. There is a lot to consider..

After Judas committed suicide, it was deemed necessary to replace him. There had been twelve almost from the beginning. Surely the disciples were aware of the number, which was significant to the Hebrew people. In Scriptural terms, it signified strength and power. There were twelve tribes, and twelve spies sent to scout the Promised Land. Elements in the Tabernacle were accordingly in lots of twelve, such as the unleavened bread, the plates and the sacrifices. It surely made sense that the disciples would restore their number to the appropriate symbolic number.

A Time-Honored Process

As they met in the upper room, the disciples followed a time-honored method, selecting likely candidates and casting lots. (Traditional Jewish wisdom held that God would reveal his will via this method, even if it seems cultural, or even a bit like flipping a coin… Even though decision makers would pray and seek God’s will, they still tended to rely upon a process that much of their society also used—kinda like modern search committees…)

“So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.”

casting

Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.” (Acts 1:23-26, NIV).

Still, A Time-Honored Process…

Churches everywhere today follow a pretty secular template to selecting people to be on staff. They review resumes, conduct interviews, and they select the candidate who seems most worthy based on the process. They differ from mere business interviews because they pray over their selection, and they certainly ask the Lord to provide them with the one whom He has called. The current model that churches follow today is actually still very similar to the one used by the Apostles. (With the exception of casting lots, which was actually considered a good indicator of God’s will in first century Jewish circles.)

I have no doubt that the disciples had good intentions and followed the best process they knew, and Matthias was a good man. But, here’s the thing: This is the LAST time Matthias is mentioned in the New Testament. I am sure he was an honorable man who had a meaningful ministry, but his name never comes up again in the records of the growth and development of the early church. He was chosen to be an APOSTLE, so his credentials were undoubtedly good. And the disciples followed the cultural formula to select him. So why am I pointing to this process?

A Different Way

Because meanwhile, through another process, God acted to provide his own replacement for Judas. He’s not a candidate that was on any of the disciples’ radar. It was a guy named Saul of Tarsus, whose name was changed to Paul. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.

We often turn to our own ingenuity and wisdom to try to carry out God’s mission, forgetting that the one irreplaceable factor is the power of His Spirit working within us. Let’s not forget that all the processes in the world can’t hold a candle to being selected, motivated and empowered by the Living God!

Casting Call

Disciples did the interview, and got the candidates down to two,
Proceeded in they way they knew by casting lots from which they drew.
Matthias’ name became selected, so he was the one elected.
Though he was named Apostle then, we never heard from him again!
Meanwhile, God sent out a call to a Pharisee whose name was Saul:
A persecutor full of hate, a most unlikely candidate,
Who had to have a brand new start–
God changed Saul’s name, and changed his heart.

Just remember, understand that processes designed by man
Are doing things as best they can but they cannot replace God’s plan.
If you question this at all, just think of the Apostle Paul,
On whom God’s grace was once bestowed
right there on the Damascus road!
God’s choice in this was simply plain;
Instead of trying to explain,
Just read what Paul once wrote again:
“To live is Christ, to die is gain!”

To buy my latest book, Real People, Real Christmas: Thirty-one Days Discovering the Hidden Treasures of the Christmas Story, go here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1729034918/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
For Slaying Giants: Thirty Days with David, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Slaying-Giants-Thirty-Devotions-Ordinary/dp/172568327X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535814431&sr=8-1&keywords=Slaying+Giants%3A+Thirty+Days+With+David
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Importance May not be what You think: The Important Man Who Discovered Something More Important

A funny thing regarding importance happened to a man of importance on the Way to Damascus. In his own words…

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. The he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me, as to one abnormally born.” (I Corinthians 15:3-8, NIV)

importance

The “Faultless” Man Who Wasn’t

Saul of Tarsus was a Hebrew scholar, educated at the feet of Gamaliel, who was a famous rabbi of that era. Saul was a career Pharisee who spent his formative years studying the Hebrew Scriptures, teaching and spreading the message of Judaism. He persecuted the early church in his zeal as a Pharisee, and his Jewish credentials were impeccable. (Paul referred to his old self as “faultless” in the eyes of the law in Philippians 3:6). He was mentioned as the official consenting to Stephen’s death in Acts 6, a man feared by followers of the Way because of his aggressive self-righteousness.

Shortly after he endorsed Stephen’s execution, however, he encountered Jesus in a vision while traveling to Damascus. There may have been more to it, but Acts 9 records the encounter this way. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

An Eyewitness With New Vision

His vision caused him to reconsider everything. He became stricken with grief about murdering innocent people, and began to follow Jesus. It was certainly a dramatic conversion that sent shock-waves through the early church. He embraced the reality of the resurrection. As a result, he began to follow Christ with the same zeal he previously applied to persecuting believers of the Way. He became perhaps the greatest Hebrew apologist the world has ever known, and his missionary efforts spread the good news all over the earth.

At the time he wrote this passage to the Corinthians, most of the witnesses he referred to were still alive. They could still verify that what he said about Christ was true. Had his statements been false, he would have been branded as a lunatic, or worse. The Christian movement would have died along with the generation who invented it. Instead, believers with changed lives held resolutely to the Gospel in spite of suffering persecution and even martyrdom.

A World-Changing Event

That’s what Paul did, along with thousands of other believers. If you haven’t read his letters, they can be life-changing. They are amazing in their ability to connect the work of Christ with God’s revelation through the Old Testament. Read his Epistles, and you will be impressed with his logic, his knowledge, and the inspiration behind his work. He gave an impressive testimony about who Jesus was and what his teaching meant.

His testimony still counts as eyewitness because in the real world he was an enemy of those who followed Jesus until he encountered Jesus himself, and then he began to connect the dots. It’s really the same for all of us—a lot of things aren’t clear until we encounter Jesus. But once we put him in the proper place, there are so many things that suddenly make sense. Once you have received the things of first importance, give them first importance.

Conversion

Tell me, do you think it strange that everything in life can change?
On roads where countless men have trod, can one lone man encounter God?
Can a Scholar change his mind? Can the sighted see, though blind?
Will a zealot cease to kill and change his heart, and change his will?
Somehow in the darkest night a blinded man can find his sight,
Can see that love–not law–is right, and move from darkness into light.

To buy my latest book, Real People, Real Christmas: Thirty-one Days Discovering the Hidden Treasures of the Christmas Story, go here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1729034918/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
For Slaying Giants: Thirty Days with David, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Slaying-Giants-Thirty-Devotions-Ordinary/dp/172568327X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535814431&sr=8-1&keywords=Slaying+Giants%3A+Thirty+Days+With+David
To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread
For the Kindle Edition, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Bo-Jackson-ebook/dp/B01K5Z0NLA/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-2&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread