Paul's Conversion

INTRODUCTION: This is the first in a series of studies that will consider passages THAT DESCRIBE the apostle Paul's conversion to new life in Christ. It will begin with the first mention of Saul in the book of Acts at the stoning of Stephen, then continue with his conversion at Damascus. After his conversion the narrative will follow his experiences at Damascus and Jerusalem before he began his first missionary journey from Antioch with Barnabas. In this study words that are enclosed in {} have been inserted by this author.

NOTE: Scripture passages are from the Bible in Basic English (BBE).


A - PAUL VEHEMENTLY OPPOSED CHRISTIANITY

Acts 7 "51 You whose hearts are hard and whose ears are shut to me; you are ever working against the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets was not cruelly attacked by your fathers? and they put to death those who gave them the news of the coming of the Upright One; whom you have now given up and put to death; 53 You, to whom the law was given as it was ordered by angels, and who have not kept it. 54 Hearing these things, they were cut to the heart and moved with wrath against him. 55 But he was full of the Holy Spirit, and looking up to heaven, he saw the glory of God and Jesus at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, Now I see heaven open, and the Son of man at the right hand of God. 57 But with loud cries, and stopping their ears, they made an attack on him all together, 58 Driving him out of the town and stoning him: and the witnesses put their clothing at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And Stephen, while he was being stoned, made prayer to God, saying, Lord Jesus, take my spirit. 60 And going down on his knees, he said in a loud voice, Lord, do not make them responsible for this sin. And when he had said this, he went to his rest. 8:1 And Saul gave approval to his death. Now at that time a violent attack was started against the church in Jerusalem; and all but the Apostles went away into all parts of Judaea and Samaria. 2 And God-fearing men put Stephen's body in its last resting-place, making great weeping over him. 3 But Saul was burning with hate against the church, going into every house and taking men and women and putting them in prison. 4 But those who had gone in flight went everywhere preaching the word."

COMMENTS: Stephen outlined the rejection of the Jews of their promised Messiah. After he pointed out to them that their ancesters killed many of the prophets who foretold of the coming of Christ, they murdered Stephen and he became the first one to die for defending the name of Jesus Christ. Saul (Paul) is introduced as a young man who believes it was a just cause to put to death those who claim the name of Jesus as the Christ, considering that to be blasphemy. His zeal was such that after he witnessed Stephen being martyred, he personally became one who persecuted both men and women in Jerusalem who believed in Christ. By contrast, those Christians who fled to other places went preaching the word even though they were aware that it had brought about dangerous persecution in Jerusalem. We don't have a time frame for how long Saul carried out his attacks on the Christians in Jerusalem before he made preparations to go to other cities for the same purpose.


B - PAUL WAS CONVERTED ON THE WAY TO DAMASCUS

Acts 9 "1 But Saul, still burning with desire to put to death the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, 2 And made a request for letters from him to the Synagogues of Damascus, so that if there were any of the Way there, men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 And while he was journeying, he came near Damascus; and suddenly he saw a light from heaven shining round him; 4 And he went down on the earth, and a voice said to him, Saul, Saul, why are you attacking me so cruelly? 5 And he said, Who are you, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus, whom you are attacking: 6 But get up, and go into the town, and it will be made clear to you what you have to do. 7 And the men who were with him were not able to say anything; hearing the voice, but seeing no one. 8 And Saul got up from the earth, and when his eyes were open, he saw nothing; and he was guided by the hand into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was not able to see, and he took no food or drink."

COMMENTS: Paul's zeal against the Christians was such that he went to the high priest, and made a request for letters from him to the Synagogues of Damascus, so he would have authority to take Jewish men and women as prisoners back to Jerusalem. It is important to realize that the strict Jews believed that belief in other gods, or disrespect to the Lord in any obvious way was a very serious matter for any Jew. That is why Paul's zeal was to try to purge all of the synagogues in Damascus of anyone considered as a blasphemer by believing in a man who claimed to be God. This consequence for blasphemers among the Jews was based on the writings of Moses. Leviticus 24 "16 And he who says evil against the name of the Lord will certainly be put to death; he will be stoned by all the people; the man who is not of your nation and one who is an Israelite by birth, whoever says evil {blasphemes} against the holy Name is to be put to death."

Most of the leaders of the Jews believed that Jesus was a blasphemer as indicated by several passages of scripture, and therefore those who were his followers would be considered as blasphemers. Matthew 9 "2 And they took to him a man stretched on a bed who had no power of moving; and Jesus, seeing their faith, said to the man who was ill, Son, take heart; you have forgiveness for your sins. 3 And some of the scribes said among themselves, This man has no respect for God {blasphemed}." Since they believed that only God could forgive sin, they took the statement of Jesus as a claim to be God, and that would clearly be blasphemy if it is not true.

John 8 "58 Jesus said to them, Truly I say to you, Before Abraham came into being, I am. 59 So they took up stones to send at him: but Jesus got secretly out of their way and went out of the Temple." John 10 "30 I and my Father are one. 31 Then the Jews took up stones again to send at him. 32 Jesus said to them in answer, I have let you see a number of good works from the Father; for which of those works are you stoning me? 33 This was their answer: We are not stoning you for a good work but for evil words {blasphemy}; because being a man you make yourself God." In both of these passages it was clear to the Jews that Jesus was claiming to be eternal God.

Therefore, Saul thought that he was serving God as he was on his way to Damascus, but the blinding bright light and the voice addressing him drove him to the ground. When Saul asked who spoke to him, it must have been quite a shock to hear "I am Jesus, whom you are attacking: 6 But get up, and go into the town, and it will be made clear to you what you have to do." The men who were with Saul were unable to speak as they heard the voice, but saw no one. Saul apparently was blinded by the glory of the Lord, but the men with him could still see, and they led him by the hand into Damascus. During the three days that Saul could not see, he took no food or drink, perhaps as a fast while he prayed about his completely unexpected encounter with one he had dthought to be a fake. He certainly must have felt rather helpless as a blind man not knowing what would be the coming events in his life.


C - THE LORD USED ANANIAS AS A MESSENGER TO PAUL

Acts 9 "10 Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, Ananias! and he said, Here I am, Lord. 11 And the Lord said to him, Get up, and go to the street which is named Straight, and make search at the house of Judas for one named Saul of Tarsus: for he is at prayer; 12 And he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hands on him, so that he may be able to see. 13 But Ananias said, Lord, I have had accounts of this man from a number of people, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem: 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to make prisoners all who give worship to your name. 15 But the Lord said, Go without fear: for he is a special vessel for me, to give to the Gentiles and kings and to the children of Israel the knowledge of my name: 16 For I will make clear to him what troubles he will have to undergo for me. 17 And Ananias went out and came to the house, and putting his hands on him, said, Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, whom you saw when you were on your journey, has sent me, so that you may be able to see, and be full of the Holy Spirit. 18 And straight away it seemed as if a veil was taken from his eyes, and he was able to see; and he got up, and had baptism; 19 And when he had taken food his strength came back. And for some days he kept with the disciples who were in Damascus."

COMMENTS: There were a number of disciples of Christ in Damascus, and the Lord chose Ananias as a messenger to Saul. This man's name is of Hebrew origin, and there are two other men with this name in scripture: Ananias with his wife Sapphira in Acts chapter 5, and the high priest in Acts chapters 23 and 24. This Ananias of Damascus was very honest about his fear of Saul as he spoke withthe the Lord in the vision. The Lord had also prepared Saul as he was in prayer, to expect a man named Ananias to come to him and place his hands on him so he would regain his eyesight. Ananias showed his faith as he was obedient to the command of the Lord and followed his instructions. Immediately with the placing on of the hands of Ananias, Saul was able to see again. He was baptized and then regained strength as he took some food. For an unspecified time he kept with the disciples at Damascus.


C - PAUL'S LIFE WAS THREATENED BECAUSE HE PREACHED JESUS AS THE CHRIST

Acts 9 "20 And straight away, in the Synagogues, he was preaching Jesus as the Son of God. 21 And all those hearing him were full of wonder and said, Is not this the man who in Jerusalem was attacking all the worshippers of this name? and he had come here so that he might take them as prisoners before the chief priests. 22 But Saul went on increasing in power, and the Jews in Damascus were not able to give answers to the arguments by which he made it clear that Jesus was the Christ. 23 Then, after some days, the Jews made an agreement together to put him to death: 24 But Saul got knowledge of their design. And they kept watch day and night on the roads out of the town, so that they might put him to death: 25 But his disciples took him by night and let him down from the wall in a basket."

COMMENTS: Saul was now on the exact opposite side of the issue about Jesus as he presented proof from scripture so clearly that Jesus is the Christ, that the Jews could not counteract his words. The Jews were amazed that the man who had set out to take prisoners of the worshippers of this name, now joined in the way they followed. The Jews who still rejected Christ made plans to kill Saul, but his friends helped him to avoid the gates that were guarded, by letting him down over the city wall in a basket and his escape was successful. the Lord had told Ananias that Paul was a special vessel for the Lord, to give to the Gentiles and kings and to the children of Israel the knowledge of his name: For he would make clear to Paul what troubles he would have to undergo for the Lord. So Damascus marked the beginning for Paul preaching Christ before the Jews, and finding severe trouble as a result. It is not clear from this passage how much direct communications the Lord had with Saul, or for how long, so other passages may be helpful for more information.


D - PAUL PROVIDES ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND ABOUT CONVERSION AT DAMASCUS

2 Corinthians 11 "32 In Damascus, the ruler under Aretas the king kept watch over the town of the people of Damascus, in order to take me: 33 And being let down in a basket from the wall through a window, I got free from his hands. 12:1 As it is necessary for me to take glory to myself, though it is not a good thing, I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I have knowledge of a man in Christ, fourteen years back (if he was in the body, or out of the body, I am not able to say, but God only), who was taken up to the third heaven. 3 And I have knowledge of such a man (if he was in the body, or out of the body, I am not able to say, but God only), 4 How he was taken up into Paradise, and words came to his ears which may not be said, and which man is not able to say. 5 On account of such a one I will have glory: for myself I will take no glory, but only in my feeble body. 6 For if I had a desire to take credit to myself, it would not be foolish, for I would be saying what is true: but I will not, for fear that I might seem to any man more than he sees me to be, or has word from me that I am. 7 And because the revelations were so very great, in order that I might not be overmuch lifted up, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, one sent from Satan to give me pain. 8 And about this thing I made request to the Lord three times that it might be taken away from me. 9 And he said to me, My grace is enough for you, for my power is made complete in what is feeble. Most gladly, then, will I take pride in my feeble body, so that the power of Christ may be on me. 10 So I take pleasure in being feeble, in unkind words, in needs, in cruel attacks, in troubles, on account of Christ: for when I am feeble, then am I strong."

COMMENTS: The above passage is being cited to provide some additional information not directly given in the Acts passages. In the latter stages of his ministry to various congregations, Paul was concerned that the Corinthians particularly were being carried away from the true gospel of Christ by false teachers. 2 Corinthians 11 "3 But I have a fear, that in some way, as Eve was tricked by the deceit of the snake, your minds may be turned away from their simple and holy love for Christ. 4 For if anyone comes preaching another Jesus from the one whose preachers we are, or if you have got a different spirit, or a different sort of good news from those which came to you, how well you put up with these things." For that reason he then began in his letter to describe his background as a strict Jew, and his authority from Christ to be an apostle. Without using too much of that lengthy passage, by beginning at chapter 11 and verse 32, we learn that even the officials at Damascus were part of the plot to kill Paul, a detail not given in the Acts passage in part C above.

Immediately after describing his escape from Damascus, Paul states, "As it is necessary for me to take glory to myself, though it is not a good thing, I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord." As Paul writes of "visions and revelations" he does not make it clear that he is the man of reference, but some passages seem to point to that conclusion. In verses 5 and 6 above, Paul seems to speak in such a way that it could be another person, but then indicates that if he spoke about himself it would be true. But he does not want any man to see him or hear his words and not believe that matcheds the man that he was describing. If the revelations had been from another man, they should not have caused Paul to be greatly esteemed, but he wrote, "And because the revelations were so very great, in order that I might not be overmuch lifted up, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, one sent from Satan to give me pain." Saul knew very well that he was a weak vessel for the Lord, but also had delight in that fact because the Lord told him "my grace is enough for you, for my power is made complete in what is feeble." Paul then writes what is now an often quoted passage by Christians. "Most gladly, then, will I take pride in my feeble body, so that the power of Christ may be on me. So I take pleasure in being feeble, in unkind words, in needs, in cruel attacks, in troubles, on account of Christ: for when I am feeble, then am I strong."


E - PAUL IN ARABIA BEFORE GOING TO JERUSALEM

Galatians 1 "11 Because I say to you, my brothers, that the good news of which I was the preacher is not man's. 12 For I did not get it from man, and I was not given teaching in it, but it came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For news has come to you of my way of life in the past in the Jews' religion, how I was cruel without measure to the church of God, and did great damage to it: 14 And I went farther in the Jews' religion than a number of my generation among my countrymen, having a more burning interest in the beliefs handed down from my fathers. 15 But when it was the good pleasure of God, by whom I was marked out even from my mother's body, through his grace, 16 To give the revelation of his Son in me, so that I might give the news of him to the Gentiles; then I did not take the opinion of flesh and blood, 17 And I went not up to Jerusalem to those who were Apostles before me; but I went away into Arabia, and again I came back to Damascus. 18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Cephas, and was there with him fifteen days. 19 But of the other Apostles I saw only James, the Lord's brother."

COMMENTS: In Paul's letter to the Galatians he clearly states that the gospel he taught he did not get from man, and he was not given teaching in that gospel. It came to Paul through revelation of Jesus Christ, when it was the good pleasure of God through his grace To give the revelation of his Son in him. Paul wrote that he did not take the opinion of flesh and blood, and he did not go up to Jerusalem to those who were Apostles before him; but he went away into Arabia, and again came back to Damascus. In the Galatians passage, Paul does not mention how the Jews at Damascus, and then the Jews at jerusalem threatened his life. He does say he did not take the opinion of flesh and blood, so it seems he did not learn from the disciples at Damascus before he started to preach. He went away into Arabia, and then returned to Damascus. So it is possible that Paul was in Arabia for a significant time before he preached Christ at Damascus and then had to escape with his life. When Paul writes that after three years he went to Jerusalem, that could be the total time from his first arrival there as a persecutor, his time then in Arabia, and then until his escape over the wall as a preacher of the gospel of Christ.


F - BARNABAS SPOKE FOR PAUL AT JERUSALEM

Acts 9 "26 And when he came to Jerusalem, he made an attempt to be joined to the disciples, but they were all in fear of him, not taking him for a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him to the Apostles and gave them an account of how he had seen the Lord on the road, and had given hearing to his words, and how at Damascus he had been preaching in the name of Jesus without fear. 28 And he was with them, going in and out at Jerusalem, 29 Preaching in the name of the Lord without fear; and he had discussions with the Greek Jews; but they were working for his death. 30 And when the brothers had knowledge of it, they took him to Caesarea and sent him to Tarsus. 31 And so the church through all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was made strong; and, living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, was increased greatly."

COMMENTS: Without specific details of how Barnabas and Saul came together, we do know that most disciples feared Saul. Barnabas apparently learned from Saul of his conversion account and that he had fearlessly preached Christ at Damascus. Barnabas represented him before the apostles with this information. There is no record that Saul spoke for himself before the apostles, though that seems likely as he was accepted by them at that time. Saul preached Christ Jesus and had discussions with Greeks Jews at Jerusalem until it was learned that they were planning to kill him. The text suggests that Saul accepted the advice of other disciples, as it records that they took him to Caesarea and sent him from there to Tarsus (his home city). There is no detail of Saul's activities while he was at Tarsus.


G - PETER WITNESSES TO GENTILES AND BARNABAS BRINGS SAUL FROM TARSUS

Acts 11 "15 And, while I was talking to them, the Holy Spirit came on them, as on us at first. 16 And the words of the Lord came into my mind, how he said, The baptism of John was with water, but you will have baptism with the Holy Spirit. 17 If then God gave them, when they had faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the same as he gave to us, who was I to go against God? 18 And hearing these things they said nothing more, but gave glory to God, saying, Then to the Gentiles as to us has God given a change of heart, so that they may have life. 19 Then those who had gone away at the time of the trouble about Stephen, went as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus, preaching to the Jews only. 20 But some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, when they came to Antioch, gave the good news about the Lord Jesus to the Greeks. 21 And the power of the Lord was with them, and a great number had faith and were turned to the Lord. 22 And news of them came to the ears of the church at Jerusalem: and they sent Barnabas as far as Antioch: 23 Who, when he came and saw the grace of God, was glad; and he made clear to them the need of keeping near the Lord with all the strength of their hearts: 24 For he was a good man and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith: and a great number were joined to the Lord. 25 Then he went on to Tarsus, looking for Saul; 26 And when he had come across him, he took him to Antioch. And they were with the church there for a year, teaching the people; and the disciples were first given the name of Christians in Antioch."

COMMENTS: The NARATIVE IN Acts leaves Saul and returns to events with the apostle Peter, and in chapter 10Peter becomes the first described in the scripture to accept Gentiles into the body of Christ. Acts 10 "1 Now there was a certain man in Caesarea, named Cornelius, the captain of the Italian band of the army; 2 A serious-minded man, fearing God with all his family; he gave much money to the poor, and made prayer to God at all times." After Peter had been directed by the Lord to go to this man's house, he shared the gospel and witnessed the manifestation of the Holy Spirit upon them. When he returned to Jerusalem there was serious debate about uncircumcised Gentiles receiving Christ. After that was settled among the apostles, the way was open for Barnabas to be sent to verify the Gentile conversions at Antioch that became known to those at Jerusalem. After Barnabas confirmed the new believers at Antioch, he traveled to Tarsus and brought Saul back to Antioch with him. They remained there for a year teaching the disciples. Up to this time, the scripture only indicates that Saul preached Christ to Jews (which could have included Gentiles converted to Judaism), and the threats on his life came from Jews who rejected Christ.


H - SAUL BECAME KNOWN AS PAUL AS HE PREACHED MORE TO GENTILES

Acts 13 "1 Now there were at Antioch, in the church there, prophets and teachers, Barnabas, and Symeon who was named Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, a relation of Herod the king, and Saul. 2 And while they were doing the Lord's work, and going without food, the Holy Spirit said, Let Barnabas and Saul be given to me for the special work for which they have been marked out by me. 3 Then, after prayer and going without food {FASTING} they put their hands on them, and sent them away. 4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia; and from there they went by ship to Cyprus. 5 And at Salamis they were preaching the word of God in the Synagogues of the Jews: and John was with them, helping them. 6 And when they had gone through all the island to Paphos, they came across a certain wonder-worker and false prophet, a Jew whose name was Bar-Jesus; 7 Who was with the ruler, Sergius Paulus, an able man. This man sent for Barnabas and Saul, desiring to have knowledge of the word of God. 8 But Elymas, the wonder-worker (for that is the sense of his name), put himself against them, with the purpose of turning the ruler from the faith. 9 But Saul, whose other name is Paul, being full of the Holy Spirit, looking hard at him, said, 10 O you, who are full of false tricks and evil ways, a son of the Evil One, hating all righteousness, will you for ever be turning people from the right ways of the Lord? 11 And now, see, the hand of the Lord is on you, and you will be blind and not able to see the sun for a time. And straight away a dark mist came down on him; and he went about looking for a guide. 12 Then the ruler, when he saw what was done, had faith, being full of wonder at the teaching of the Lord."

COMMENTS: When Saul and Barnabas began their missionary journey together, they first preached Christ to Jews in synagogues. As they worked their way across the island of Cypress they were called for by the ruler of the island that he might hear about their message. It was at this time that the scripture first made reference to the name Saul also as Paul. The name Saul is of Hebrew origin, and that name was well known among Benjamites because of the first king of Israel. Saul of Tarsus was a Benjamite as was that first king. The name Paul is of Latin origin, and its meaning of "small or little" is in contrast to that of Saul which means " desired." the scripture does not reveal how or why the name Paul became the identifying name of this apostle from Tarsus, but the diminished meaning certainly suits the humility he had before the living God.


--- REFLECTIONS IN PRAYER ---

Lord I am thankful for this record of the conversion of a man who was very well educated in the scriptures of the Jews, and was a bloodline descendent of Israel. The beginning of his story is a dramatic illustration of those who place their trust in following religious traditions as a personal achievement to merit favor with God. There was great zeal demonstrated as he believed he was working to maintain the purity of the faith and practice of his forefathers. When his pride was broken by his confrontation and intervention by the Lord in his life, he then directed that same level of zeal into the propagation of the gospel message of new life in Christ by grace and faith. Pride was replaced by understanding in the heart, humility before God, and a true concern for others that they first accept the message and then remain in the faith, even if that meant facing personal suffering to continue always serving the Lord and the church.

Though I do not have a background similar to that of Paul, as I lacked early education in the word, you brought me to yourself at a time when I had the opportunity to allow your Spirit to direct me to significant changes in the pattern of my life. My study of the word was then greatly assisted by faith in the author of scripture, the Holy Spirit who helps all Christians to more clearly see that which is spiritually discerned. Help me now Lord to use the remainder of my life for the cause of Christ with the same attitude of humility that Paul had, realizing that your strength is made perfect through my weakness. May all glory and praise always go to Christ Jesus, my Savior and Lord! Amen.

Published 27 February 2013