Christ · Culture · Death

The Story of Saul of Tarsus who Became the Apostle Paul

Romans 1:1

“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle,
separated unto the gospel of God.”

A Remarkable Man

He was one of the most remarkable men to have walked on planet earth. Brilliant of mind, slow of speech, physically unattractive, his influence upon human history is without question. And yet, not many would ever have heard of him had he not had a crisis of conscience one day that led to a dramatic conversion experience.

Bloody Hands

According to Acts 9, Paul, initially known as Saul of Tarsus, was part of a religious persecution of the Church in Jerusalem. He had already consented to the death of the Christian named Stephen, the implication being that Saul was in a position of leadership to stop the stoning of this saint. But Saul did not allow Stephen to live, for he was angry and thirsty for blood. Saul felt threatened by the dynamics of the message of the gospel that proclaimed that the Messiah had come, and that His name was Jesus. For Saul, and many others, that was impossible! Jesus was an impostor. Jesus had been crucified. Jesus had been condemned for crimes against the state.

Good people would not have killed the “Messiah” if He had really been sent from God. Surely Christ was not the Chosen One of Israel, for He claimed to be the Son of God. He had also blasphemed by claiming to be very God of very God. Then He claimed that He could forgive sins because He was the Savior of the world! In addition, Jesus taught of a spiritual kingdom within the hearts of men, thereby destroying the political hopes and dreams of the nationalists. Now His followers were teaching that the Law of Moses was no longer effective, and that the sacrifices should cease.

Attempted Spiritual Genocide

All of this disruption was just too much for the people of Palestine. Neither Saul nor the other Jewish leaders could handle the moral, social, financial, and religious revolution that was going on. This Christian movement had to be destroyed, and Saul was deemed the proper instrument suited for its demise. His qualifications were impeccable.

Creating the Soul of Saul of Tarsus

Saul was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, for he was of the purest Hebrew blood. He had been “circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Philippians 3:5). Despite the fact that Saul was born in the Gentile city of Tarsus in Cilicea (Acts 21:39), his devout Jewish parents made sure he preserved and honored his cultural and racial identity.

Saul was, like his father, a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). He was not only racially a Jew, but also religiously a conservative Jew.

Saul was a proficient Jew. Tarsus was celebrated as a school of Greek literature. Here, Saul acquired that knowledge of Greek authors and philosophy, which would later qualify him to challenge their thinking by quoting their own authors: Aratus (Acts 17:18-28), Menander (1 Corinthians 15:33), and Epimendies (Titus 1:12). In addition to a Greek education, Saul’s main education was in the race of his people, for he sat at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).

Saul was a hardworking Jew. As a young man he had learned the Cilician trade of making tents of goat’s haircloth (Acts 18:3). Jewish custom required that each child learn a trade regardless of how wealthy the parents might be. To add to his advantages of having both a Jewish and Greek cultural upbringing, Saul possessed Roman citizenship from birth, which brought immediate and important privileges in certain circumstances (Acts 22:28).

All of these natural elements helped to create in the soul of Saul a spirit of religious self-righteousness, worldly sophistication, and an unbridled zeal that led him to violently oppose any threat to his heritage. The growing Christian community possessed just such a threat, and so it was that Saul made havoc of the Church. He ravaged the Church as a wild beast, by storming into the houses where worship services were being held, and hauling men and women off to prison (Acts 8:3). Later, with many tears and much sorrow, Saul would confess that he did these horrible things in unbelief (1 Timothy 1:12-16). Though God had mercy upon him, Saul was still at fault for his crimes against Christ and His church, for Saul might have known the truth if he had sought for it. Saul did not seek the truth in Christ, and remained dead in trespasses and sin.

Only a supernatural act of sovereign grace could subdue the wild beast that rode Saul’s will. Such grace did come to Saul when the resurrected Christ arrested him as he was seeking to arrest others. Of this great event, there are three accounts: one by Luke (Acts 9), and the others by Saul (Acts 22; Acts 16).

A Day of Divine Encounter

According to Saul’s own narrative, he was on his journey to Damascus, with authoritative letters from the High Priest of Israel, empowering him to arrest, and bring back to Jerusalem all who were followers of The Way (Acts 7:2).

It did not matter if the people involved were men, women, or children.
It did not matter if economic hardships were created.
It did not matter if fear and terror were unleashed.
It did not matter if families were torn apart.

The only caution was not to let the Gentile governors become involved in the persecution process. The Christians were to be brought to Jerusalem! And so it was, on a particular day, at noontime, a brilliant light suddenly shone upon Saul and his company, who were committed to executing religious crimes against humanity. The light from heaven was equivalent to the explosion of a nuclear bomb, for it was brighter than the brightness of the sun itself. Saul was thrown to the earth, as were his companions (Acts 26:14).

After a few moments, some of them arose, and stood up speechless, wondering what was happening (Acts 9:7). Then they heard the sound of a voice but did not understand what they were hearing (1 Corinthians 14:2). However Saul understood, for it was the voice of the Son of God, saying in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, Why persecutest thou Me?”

Jesus had taught His followers that when they were persecuted, He would be wounded with them (Matthew 25:40), and He was. “Saul, it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (Acts 26:14). Saul was acting like an ox being driven. When the animal kicked back, it only made the goad pierce the flesh deeper (Matthew 21:44; Proverbs 8:36). So, when Saul kicked against the Church, he was ultimately hurting himself.

When he heard these words, the Bible says that Saul trembled, as a Philippian jailer would later tremble (Acts 16:30-31). And Saul said, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” In these simple words, all the facets of saving faith are manifested.

Facets of Saving Faith

First, Saul recognized the Lordship of Christ. Jesus is not only the Savior of the soul; He is the Sovereign of all life. The Biblical example of a true conversion experience records that individuals fall before Jesus and recognize Him as Lord and Savior.

Second, there was submission to the Savior. “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” asked Saul. Until now, Saul had been doing all that He wanted to do, with the result that people were afraid of him. Saul was not bringing joy or happiness into the lives of others, but hatred and hardship. Doing things his way had not made Saul, or anyone else happy.

Third, Saul on that Damascus Road, manifested tremendous faith in the Person of Christ. Saul understood it all. Jesus was alive! Jesus had come back from the dead! Jesus really was who He claimed to be!

A New Name Written Down in Glory

Somehow, time managed to pass that day, and the next. Life went on, but Saul was never the same again. He had become a Christian, and he would grow in grace, and in knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us that Saul did grow in the graces of life, to the point that he was ready to minister to the Church as an apostle. But that acceptance would not happen suddenly. Time had to pass before Paul was accepted as a true minister of Christ, with a right to speak as an apostle of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 14:37). He, who had persecuted the Church, had to prove himself.

A Definite Purpose

One of the ways that Paul began to prove Himself was by having a definite purpose in his heart, from which he never wavered. This purpose took the form of a grand principle, a specific procedure, and a godly pursuit of personal holiness. The grand principle Paul began to live by is found in Philippians 1:21, where Paul wrote, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Paul took seriously the commandment of the Lord who told His disciples to “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33).

Seeking First the Kingdom of God

To seek first the kingdom of God does not mean that everyone must become a minister, or a missionary, in the traditional sense but it does mean that every thought must be brought into captivity of how to advance the kingdom of heaven. When this grand principle is embraced, it will alter how other matters are handled in life, including time allotted for kingdom work, money invested to spreading the gospel, emotions expressed, and the pursuit of knowledge of what needs to be done toget the gospel out.

A Reason for Living

Those who have embraced a hobby can appreciate what is being said, for when a hobby is pursued with intensity, it transforms the life. When I was in the Army, I had a friend who loved to go bass fishing. Actually “love” is too mild a word for his involvement in fishing.

Sgt. Larry Datewiler woke up in the morning dreaming about how to catch bass. All the daylong he talked about catching bass.He bought a boat. He bought a trolling motor. He bought a fish depth finder. He studied the local tides, and phases of the moon. He tried hard to select the best time of the day and night to fish. I suspect that Larry purchased every lure there was for catching the eye of a bass.

Before going out on the water he would rub his body in a special lotion designed, the label said, to eliminate human odor in order to surprise the fish. I know, because Larry had me smear the smelly lotion over my arms and neck. And then, off we went. Larry taught me everything he knew about how to catch a bass. I tell you the man had a grand principle he had begun to live by, and that was to catch a bass.

Upon reflection, Sgt. Larry Datewiler may not be the best illustration of my point, because he never caught a bass that I remember. At least not when I was with him. But he never stopped trying.

 A Grand Principle to Live By

Paul began to live by a grand principle. He wanted to be like Christ, who came to advance the kingdom of God. “For to me to live is Christ,” cried Paul, and it changed what he thought about,  how he acted, and what he did with his time, talents, and treasures.

As Paul began to live by a grand principle, the Holy Spirit led him to adopt a specific procedure of how to advance the kingdom of God. Paul would become a minister to the Gentiles. Peter would focus on reaching the Jewish community, while Paul gave his energies to reaching the “uncircumcised”, to use his expression in Galatians 2:7.

The Methods of Ministry

Paul knew that he could not do everything, but he could do something. He was led to adopt a specific course of action, manifested in a variety of methods. To reach the specific community that God would have him to reach Paul wrote letters, he preached to every person, and on every occasion that was provided, he trained other faithful men, such as Timothy and Titus, and in this manner reproduced himself. While in prison Paul received visitors, and he gave pastoral counsel.

The Apostle Paul, by Rembrandt

But every activity that Paul engaged in can be traced to a grand principle, and specific procedure. He would be like the Lord Jesus, and advance the kingdom of God, and he would reach the Gentile community for Christ.

 A Personal Objective

By living according to a grand principle, and working out a specific procedure, Paul never lost sight of a personal objective, which is stated in Philippians 3:9-11 “I want to be found in Christ,” wrote Paul, “not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: 10 That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; 11 If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.”

“I want to know Christ.”
“I want to know the power of His resurrection in my life. “
“I want to know, and experience His sufferings.”
“I want to be made conformable unto the death of myself.”
“I want to have a part in the resurrection.”

Paul was a man with a purpose.

I believe it was the Methodist minister, John Wesley, who said something to the effect, “Give me one hundred men who fear no one but God and nothing but sin and I will change the world.” The church of Jesus Christ has the power to make the world over again.

 Faithful to the End

The details of the death of Paul comes to us only by way of tradition, which may, or may not, be true. Professor A. T. Robertson summarizes what is known.

“The story is that Paul was beheaded on the Ostian Road. It was customary for criminals of prominence to be executed several miles out of the city so as to avoid the crowds. We may picture the event in a possible manner. One day in late spring, or early June, the executioners came to Paul’s dungeon and led him out of the city. One is reminded of Jesus as he bore his cross along his Via Dolorosa (lit. the way of the cross).

Paul, as a condemned criminal, would be the victim of the rabble’s sport. He would have no defender. We do not know if Luke was with Paul to the very last. We may at least hope so. If he could, he would surely have walked along as near Paul as would be allowed. But no band of Christians followed with him now. He was going out of Rome on his way to the true Eternal City.

He knew Rome well, but his eyes were fixed on other things. Outside the city, the busy, merry life of the time went on. The crowds flowed into town. Some were going out. Paul was only a criminal going to be beheaded. Few, if any, of the crowds about would know, or care, anything about him. At a good place on the road, some miles out, the executioners stopped.

The block was laid down. Paul laid his head upon it. The sword, or axe, was raised. The head of the greatest preacher of the ages rolled upon the ground. Tradition says that a Roman ‘matron named Lucina buried the body of St. Paul on her own land, beside the Ostian Road.’ Be that as it may, no Christian can come to Rome, especially by the Ostian Road, without tender thoughts of Paul, the matchless servant of Jesus” (A.T. Robertson, Epochs In The Life Of Paul, pp. 316-317).

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