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
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

The Waiter Who left His Station to Preach a Powerful Sermon

Stephen was a deacon in the early church who was selected to wait on tables in Acts 6. I’m sure he must have been a pretty good waiter, the kind of server who made sure the food was evenly distributed and all; but apparently he had other skills. Acts 6:8 says of his selection, “They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” As it turned out, he was a pretty good preacher, too…

Not Just Your Average Waiter

In an earlier post I mentioned that Stephen used the phrase “the Son of Man” in his sermon in Acts 7:56: “Look”, he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Stephen was one of seven men with Greek names chosen to be a waiter at meals for the early church. He was not an Apostle (one who saw Jesus in the flesh), but he did miraculous things (Acts 6:8) and contended with the wisdom of the Spirit (6:10).

With all of those gifts and attributes, I imagine Stephen might have been expected to rise to prominence in the early church, perhaps as a leader or preacher. He had good character and was obviously prepared to lead. Instead, Luke tells us that when an argument broke out about portions being given to the Greek widows at the covered dish supper, the church chose seven men “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3) to wait on tables and hand out the food.

Giving Away What You Cannot Keep

For a guy chosen to be a mere waiter, Stephen had a fairly comprehensive knowledge of both Jewish history and the Scriptures, and preached a pretty effective sermon before the Sanhedrin in Acts 7. He had to know that his preaching would stir up a hornet’s nest, but he was bold and fearless.

waiter

(His actions remind me of Jim Elliot, a missionary who was killed in 1956 while reaching out to the Auca Indians… Jim said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Like Stephen, Jim was a bold preacher whose faith put him in harm’s way.) Stephen, who just moments before was a waiter, preached such a powerful sermon that the authorities decided to shut him down. The Sanhedrin condemned him and dragged him out to be stoned, and he became the first martyr in Jerusalem. (And oh yeah, his stoning was approved by a guy named Saul. He probably heard that sermon. Maybe it even produced unexpected fruit in his life just a little ways down the road…)

Prepared for the Unexpected

Here are a couple of important things about Stephen: he was prepared for this moment long before this moment happened. He was well-versed in God’s word and gave a ready answer to those who opposed him. He preached a powerful sermon, giving comprehensive context about who Jesus was and how he fit into Hebrew history. In the face of death he continued to proclaim his beliefs; he even died while forgiving those who were casting stones to kill him.

So how do we normal folks apply Stephen’s experience in our lives? He makes a pretty strong argument that seeing Jesus “in the flesh” is not necessary to have faith or to experience life-changing belief in Jesus. We can do that too. Also, we should realize that it’s not what we DO or how we serve that gives us value. You can be a waitress or a salesman or a sanitary engineer, but if you know Jesus and God’s word, you can contend with wisdom. You can live a changed life. It may be a truism, but someone whose Bible is falling apart usually has a life that isn’t… A daily walk with God is the best preparation for the big moments in life. So, when your moment comes, be ready!

The Powerful Waiter

Stephen was a man who seemed a lot like me and you;
He served, and waited tables, and he probably bused them, too!
He did his job, just serving bread, or bringing food to eat–
And Stephen probably thought his life was pretty much complete;!
He must have studied Scriptures when he wasn’t waiting tables,
Since when he started preaching, it is clear that he was able!
He must have had a walk with God that happened every day,
Since when his moment came he knew exactly what to say!
So even if you’re doing hair, or slinging some spaghetti,
Just have a daily walk with God that’s regular and steady,
And when your moment comes to serve –like Stephen– you’ll be ready!

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