From Saul to Paul: A Conversion Story

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From Saul to Paul

Saul: Enemy of the Church

Paul has an amazing testimony, and it’s broken up into two very different parts. The part he is most famous for is where He is Paul, the great missionary and theologian of the Christian church. But he wasn’t always the Apostle Paul – for the beginning of his life he was Saul, persecutor of the church.

Saul was an incredibly intelligent scholar and up-and-coming leader in the Jewish community. No one matched his passion for studying and obeying God’s Law. He was trained by the best minds, trusted with important assignments, and relished in his position of power and influence – all of which he directed at this new group that was being formed in the name of the blasphemer and crucified criminal, Jesus of Nazareth.

He hated these people, and loved hurting them – he wanted to destroy them. He stood by, watching them stone the deacon Stephen, and then got more involved as he formed squads of people to go door to door, dragging off men and women who claimed the name of Jesus, throwing them into prison. He would publically beat them in their own homes and synagogues, screaming at them to renounce the name of Jesus or be arrested and tried. And when it came time for their trial, he would stand up with the rest of the chief priests and vote to have them killed. Such was his hatred for them that when the followers of Jesus fled Jerusalem in fear of him, he gathered up his temple soldiers and pursued them into the cities beyond, so he could beat them, arrest them, and drag them back to Jerusalem for trial. (Acts 8:3; 22:4-5; 26:10-11)

I watched the movie American Sniper last night and there are a lot of scenes of where the Marines are deployed to go door-to-door trying to find soldiers, insurgence, terrorists, and information about where the leaders of Al Qaeda were. It’s an incredibly violent movie, and I was struck especially by the sudden brutality of those encounters. The people in that area of the city were warned to leave, but many stayed behind – most to fight, but some because they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) leave.

Tanks roll down the road while soldiers go house-to-house, kicking in the door, guns drawn, throwing anyone inside to the floor, screaming at them for information. The emotional trauma this causes to everyone involved is incredible. The overwhelming feeling I get from what I’ve read from the soldiers accounts, documentaries, and movies like this one, is that the soldiers don’t want to be there – they don’t want to be doing that – but they know they must.

Saul wasn’t like that. He loved it. He lived for it. He turned his amazing mind to trying to track down Jews who claimed to be believers in Jesus as the Messiah. He made it his life’s work to crush, humiliate, and defeat them. He wanted them all dead.

This still happens today, by the way, more often than we think. On June 15, 2014, in Kenya, a group of 50 Muslim militants walked into hotels and other public buildings with their guns drawn, chanted “Allahu Akbar!” and then killed anyone who couldn’t recite verses from the Koran. Then they went door to door asking people what their religion was, and if they said “Christian” they shot them dead and moved on to the next. The same thing happened in Libya.

Just 3 weeks ago in Egypt, 15 masked gunmen went door to door at a residential complex at 2:30 in the morning with a list of Christians who were in the building. They would check IDs, grab the Christians, drag them away, kill some and hold others hostage.

In March, 48 Christians living in Benghazi were tortured by having acid burn off the tattoos of crosses that some Christians have taken to putting on their wrists.

A few days before Christmas , a group of Muslim gunmen walked into the home of a Christian doctor, killed him and his wife and dragged off their 13 year old daughter – dumping her body in the desert two days later. It was learned later that they were targeted because the 13 year old girl refused to wear an Islamic veil. (Click here for the stories.)

When you picture the Apostle Paul in your mind, read about his journeys in the book of Acts and his letters to the church, you must remember that He wasn’t always Paul – at one time He was Saul, enemy of Jesus, persecutor, torturer and murderer of Christians. He was the one smashing in doors, dragging away fathers, killing families, torturing anyone who claimed to follow Jesus Christ.

Saul’s Conversion

It was on one of his trips to hunt down escaping believers that Saul was stopped by Jesus. We read about it in Acts 9:1-9:

“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”

Saul was struck blind and dumb. For three days he just sat there – not eating, not drinking, not seeing anything – trapped in the dark with his thoughts. That must have been agony. Can you imagine what this revelation did to him? It changed everything he thought he knew. It broke him to the very core of his being. Can you imagine, as he looked back on all he had done, what he must have felt?

He thought his passion was for God, for God’s Word, for God’s people, for God’s Temple. He thought he was right. He was the smartest person in every room he walked into. He was the most educated. He was the most passionate for the Torah. He was the most popular among the leaders in Jerusalem. He was confident to the point to arrogance that everything he knew about God was exactly right, everything he said lined up with God’s Word, and everything he did, he did, for God. And then Saul met Jesus, the Son of God.

Saul must have known the teachings of Jesus. He was a very smart man, well educated, and wanted to know his enemy. He must have studied the claims of Jesus, His sermons, His teachings, His prophecies, His disciples, His followers. He had had enough encounters with them to know what Jesus had said. Jesus said he was the Son of God, the Messiah, the Chosen One, with the authority to cleanse the temple, to raise the dead, to change the rules of the Sabbath, to fulfill the Law and interpret it perfectly. Jesus said He had the ability to die and rise on the third day – and all of his followers believed him. That was their fundamental belief. If Jesus was still in the ground, then it was all a lie – but if Jesus had risen from the dead, then that changes everything.

And Saul met Jesus. That meant it was all true, and Saul was all-wrong.

Those words must have ran through Saul’s mind a thousand times:

“‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?… I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’”

“Saul. I am Jesus. Why do you hate me? I’m the one you’ve been hunting. I’m the one you’ve judged as evil. I’m the one you’ve been trying to kill. And here I am. Alive, and with God. Why are you persecuting me, Saul?”

Keep reading in verse 10:

“Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying…’”

At some point Paul’s agonizing thoughts turned to prayer. We don’t know what he was praying, but we know that he was in the dark and was talking to God. He was struggling with the life after death of the Jesus. He was confessing his sin. It didn’t make sense, and yet, there it was.

In his studies Saul had memorized the entire Old Testament, and now verse after verse – which he thought he knew the meaning of – crashed through his mind, finding different interpretations, new meanings, and their true fulfillment in Jesus. The Holy Spirit began to teach Saul, bringing up prophecy after prophecy, and revealing to Him their proper meaning. How did he not see this before? How could He have been so wrong?

It was all true. Jesus was exactly who He claimed He was. His followers were right all along — and His mind filled with the pictures of what he had done. He remembered holding the cloaks with a big grin he had on his face as he watched Stephen, the wise and soft-hearted, deacon of the church, stoned to death. He remembered the terrified faces of the followers of Jesus – they were terrified of him. And he had loved that look in their eyes. He loved making them, forcing them, with his own fists, to renounce their faith in Jesus.

Can you imagine the humility it would take to admit he was wrong? It would be like Osama Bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the leader of ISIS), standing up in front of the UN and saying, “I’m sorry, I was wrong. I was wrong about my theology. I was wrong about Jesus. I was wrong to hunt you. I was wrong to hate you. I’m sorry. I’m going to disband my terrorist network and dedicate my life to following Jesus. Please forgive me. I’m going to go be a Christian missionary from now on.”

How do you think that would go down? Would you believe him? Would you forgive him?

Brother Saul

Let’s keep reading at verse 11:

“And the Lord said to him, ‘Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul…” (vs 11-17)

That’s an amazing title that Ananias calls Saul: “Brother”. Moments before he was saying: “Uh, are you sure, Jesus? Saul’s crazy. He’s got the authority to beat me, arrest me, drag me to Jerusalem and have me executed.”

And Jesus says: “Go, I’ve changed his heart. I’ve chosen Him. I love Him. I died for Him too, and I’ve given him a very special mission. This Jew of Jews who hated me, hated my followers, and hated everything non-Jewish, will be my missionary to the Gentiles. This man who caused so much suffering for my followers will have such a change of heart that he will be willing to suffer great things so more people will follow me. I’m changing the church’s greatest enemy into its greatest teacher and friend. Such is the power of my love.”

A Changed Man

Let’s keep reading.

“Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened. For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus.” (vs 17-19)

The falling of scales from Saul’s eyes was a reflection of the healing of the blindness and hardness of Saul’s heart. Saul was changed completely, and we see it immediately in his life. Look at how Saul has changed from this point on.

He submits to baptism in the name of Jesus, takes food and was strengthened – both physically and spiritually. He submits himself to the teaching of a bunch of disciples in Damascus. That would have been a humbling experience him, and a very confusing experience for the church.

The next Saturday Saul is standing in front of the synagogue, teaching about Jesus. They came to hear one of the greatest minds and most passionate Pharisees in Israel rail against Jesus – but here is explaining how a few days ago he had met Jesus on the road, had been completely changed, and now believed that the entirety of the scriptures points to Jesus as the Messiah.  It says that the Jews in Damascus were “confounded” but Saul was “increasing in strength.”

Their confusion soon turns to anger and they try (in an ironic twist of roles) to murder Saul, just as he had made the followers of Jesus flee Jerusalem, Saul escapes to Jerusalem, but the Apostles are a little shy about letting Saul find them. When they went out in public, they were arrested and beaten, so they hid, living under constant threat – from Saul. Only one man listens to Saul, a man named Barnabas, who brings him to the disciples and tells them his story.

The Apostles relent and begin to teach him. Consider that: One of the greatest minds, more learned in the scriptures than almost anyone in the world, sitting under the teaching of a bunch of unschooled fisherman, a Greek guy, and a former tax collector. There would be nothing more humbling for a Jewish Pharisee and Scholar. But he wasn’t that man anymore.

And they affirm Saul’s conversion. They listen to him. They learn from him. Saul preaches in public, argues with experts, and defends the name of Jesus. And then, in another act of humility, Saul is sent by the Apostles to go to his hometown of Tarsus – and there he stays for 10 years until Barnabas comes and gets him again. Tarsus’ favourite son, who left town as a brilliant young rabbi and whose name was known throughout Jerusalem and all the cities in the area – came home a follower of the despised teacher, Jesus of Nazareth and a traitor to his people. What would his father, mother, and sister think of him now?

The Power of the Gospel

Everything about Saul’s conversion was genuine and amazing and it points to the power of Jesus Christ.

Saul became Paul, a man powerfully used by God to change the world in His name. Near the end of his life, Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy,

“I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Tim 1:12-17)

That’s the power of the Gospel and something that touches my heart very deeply. Jesus dies for His enemies so He can make His enemies into his friends. For me too, and for all who understand the story of the Gospel of Jesus, we know that we were ignorant, but received mercy. We were blasphemers, but received overflowing grace. We were opponents and yet given faith and love from Christ Jesus.

“Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

He didn’t have to. He wanted to. He loved us so much that He was willing to save us. We talk about a lot of complicated things in church, but this is the foundation of everything we believe and do:

“Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

And that’s what we all are. We’re all sinners. None of us are better than anyone else. The closer we get to Jesus, the more we realize the depth of our sin, and the amazing grace and love of God to come and save us.

Paul’s life is an example. He says so himself. No one is outside the realm of God’s grace. Jesus Christ showed Saul patience and mercy, to prove that everyone who believes can have eternal life. There’s no one outside the purview of God’s grace. There was no one farther away from Salvation through Jesus than Saul – but Jesus changed His heart and saved His soul.

Yes, it took a miracle – but it always does. We all need to be turned from darkness to light. We all need to be struck with the reality of our sin. We will all be faced with the question that comes from Saul’s lips: “Who are you, Lord?” And we will all need to make an answer. Saul relented. He gave it all up for Jesus. Later he says,

“…whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ… I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Philippians 3:8)

He gave up his pride, his position, his future, his plans, everything… because Jesus was better. And following Jesus became the driving force of his entire life. No matter what anyone would say or do, nothing would steer him away from Jesus – because Jesus saved him.

I find great hope in the story of Saul becoming Paul, because it shows that there is no limit to Jesus’ love. Jesus saves people. Jesus changes people. Jesus sticks with them. Jesus has abundant patience, grace and mercy… for Saul, for me, and for you.