The book of Acts introduces us to Saul at the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7:58. Saul is described as a specially appointed leader for the purpose of rooting out the new religion that was based on Jesus Christ (Acts 8:3). Saul is the name used for him until his first missionary journey when he came into contact with the Roman authorities. He was a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-38; Acts 25:10-12) and customarily Romans had at least two names. No further names are mentioned for Saul, except for his Greek name Paul and this became the only name used to refer to him after the start of his missionary work (Acts 13:9). This was the point where God separated Barnabas and Saul for the work God called them to do (Acts 13:2). Though Saul was Roman by birth, he came from Tarsus and was of a Hebrew family, a Pharisee and highly respected among the leadership of Judaism. This allowed him to move freely among the Jews and the Romans.
For the sake of making the points of this article, I am using the name Saul to reflect what and who Paul was before God called him into His service. God loves His creation and He understands how humans have wandered in darkness and confusion ever since the Garden of Eden. He also has the power to open our minds to the understanding of truth and in His brilliance, God calls and opens the mind at just the right time (Luke 24:27, Luke 24:32). We sometimes seem to have blinders on. We look without seeing. I can recall an old lady who seemed irritated with me one Sabbath. When I asked her if there was a problem, she retorted that I and another minister had walked past her in a shopping mall without greeting her. I have absolutely no recollection of that and I would not consciously do that. Still, I also do not doubt her word. I apologized and admitted that sometimes we can look right at a person andnothing registers in our mind. I have even wrestled within myself to remember the name of a relative or wife of a friend during a conversation. It can be unnerving when we cannot recall something that is very familiar. Perhaps this is something like what happens when we are looking without seeing.
Saul was looking long and hard at the growing movement of the followers of Jesus Christ after His resurrection. He saw this as a threat to Judaism and a sect that needed to be erased. There was a moment in time when God nudged Saul into a point of comprehension that had escaped him. Up until this point, Saul was the horror story to converted people. On Saul’s trip to Damascus in pursuit of God’s people, God suddenly reached out to Saul. The King James differs from the NIV in the translation of Acts 9:5, but I like the King James Version: “I am Jesus who you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the pricks.” (New King James says “goads”). It seems there were some points in Saul’s understanding that he could not quite satisfy within himself, but he ignored that knowledge enough to persecute the people of God. What is also very clear is that God hadhad His eye on Saul for a long time – but allowed Him to hurt many followers. God is just and He will bless those who suffered or were martyred through the hand of Saul. It is also certain that Paul would never forget his actions. Though forgiven, the past still drove him. God could use the memories that Paul could not erase for the development of inner determination and strength in Saul that would make him a dynamo in His service. God is fully in charge.
2 Chronicles 16:9 informs us that God’s eyes run to and fro seeking those who would be loyal to Him. Saul was almost fanatically loyal to the wrong concept of God, and God was about to use that strength. Saul knew the Torah well and had no doubt been informed about the beliefs of the followers of Jesus Christ. During his three days of blindness and time of sincere fervent prayer to God, everything suddenly seemed to fall into place. He dreamt of Ananias coming to baptize him and restoring his sight. Right after baptism, Saul began to preach in the synagogues in Damascus that Jesus was the Son of God. Talk about an about face. Church members were still petrified of him and dubious about his conversion (Acts 9:12-21). He realized who Christ was and his knowledge of the Torah and of the acts of Christ – gave him an immediate understanding. Perhaps this sort of thing hashappened to you. I recall trying to understand a point of calculus once and after struggling with it for a couple of days, I was boarding a bus and all of a sudden the answer came to me. I had not been thinking about it consciously, but the answer was clear. It seemed Saul had a sudden clarity about something that was troubling him. He had seen the sincerity and faith of those whom he had persecuted. God chose Saul.
There is wonderment in the events that led up to the meeting on the road. The people were afraid of Saul for all the damage he had done to the church (Acts 9:13, Acts 9:21). There is no telling how many people Saul put in chains, had thrown into prison, chased from place to place, encouraged those who stoned them to death and brought them to authorities who would whip and abuse them terribly. Paul never forgot what he did (I Corinthians 15:9). He knew there were families that he had hurt and those he had delivered bound to prison (Acts 9:1-2). Paul also knew the harsh treatment they would receive. Thirst, hunger, cold and misery were always present. Paul told of the saints that he hounded and chased from the synagogues, gave over to be beaten and although he only mentions Stephen – we could wonder how many others were stoned to death or otherwise executed (Acts 22:19-20).
When God told Ananias that He would show Paul how much he would suffer for His name – could it be that God would use the suffering Saul caused? Could it be that in order for the apostles and members of the church to accept Paul as a convert and teacher, they would have to see his great devotion. Is that perhaps a reason that in his ministry Paul may have suffered from most every type of suffering that he had inflicted upon God’s people? When Paul was explaining himself to the Corinthians, it seems as though he was defending the fact that he was an apostle. He tells them that he worked harder than the other apostles, and suffered more. The words Paul used so strongly were not for boasting, they were to satisfy those who still remembered Saul. Why would Paul write about his sufferings twice in the same book to the Gentile church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 6:5-10; 2 Corinthians 11:22-29) – and years after God chose him? God was transforming Saul into Paul.
God saw, in Saul, some qualities He wanted. God would be sending him among the Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire and, as a born Roman citizen, the way was clear. He would use Paul to write about the New Covenant. Only Luke wrote a little more than Paul in the New Testament. When, however, the book of Hebrews is included in Paul’s Writings (where I believe it belongs), Paul’s writings are just a little more than those of Luke. Only Paul explained and expounded the terms of the New Covenant. What qualities did God find in Saul the persecutor? Saul was an expert on the teachings of the Torah. He had a deeper understanding than the other disciples about certain New Covenant teachings. He was gifted in several languages – Hebrew, Latin, Greek and Aramaic (at the least). He had great privileges of travel within the Roman Empire. He was a Pharisee – and thus had access and authority in the synagogues. He knew how to conduct himself among the Jews and the Gentiles. He had a burning desire to serve God – though his zeal was wrongly directed. He was unmarried and thus free to travel. He had disturbed the members of the church through his persecution – and his presence was not readily welcomed in Judea – thus Paul would serve far away from Jerusalem. He was highly educated and could write instructive letters. He was bold, outspoken, and unafraid. Saul had all the qualities that an active and powerful Apostle to the Gentiles needed. The qualities God wanted in Paul were within Saul – all that was needed was Saul’s conversion. God knew his heart – and used the qualities of Saul to bring Paul into His service. Paul did not disappoint – he changed from Saul and became Paul.
To learn more about how God can work in your life, please read the Bible study aid Transforming Your life: The Process of Conversion.