Who Was Saul of Tarsus?
“Can you tell me a little about how John Wayne was as a little boy in your class?”
With a confused look on her face, Mrs. Jenkins responds, “Who?”
The interviewer is slightly taken aback. “Were you not the elementary school teacher in Winterset, Iowa? And did you not teach the future Hollywood celebrity, John Wayne?”
“Oh! You mean Marion!?” Mrs. Jenkins excitedly exclaimed. “Yes, I had Marion…I mean John…in class.”
Nobody knows John Wayne by the name Marion. That seems like a thing where somebody might have gotten punched in the nose during the 1950s if they called the gritty cowboy a name like Marion. Nobody calls him Marion, except maybe Mrs. Jenkins. He hated being Marion.
That’s an entirely made-up story.
I don’t know if John Wayne even attended an elementary school. Nor do I know if his teacher was named Mrs. Jenkins. But I share that silly illustration to say that sometimes who we are before we become famous is lost upon people. That is, except the few people who knew them by their previous life and the person themselves.
The same is true of the apostle Paul. We don’t hear much about Saul of Tarsus. But he had a life before his conversion. And it’s important for us to know more about Saul before he became Paul.
Where Do We First See Saul Mentioned in Scripture?
We are first introduced to Saul in Acts 7:57-8:1.
“At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at Stephen, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul…And Saul approved of their killing him…”
The phrase “young man” tells us that at the time Saul was somewhere between the ages of twenty-four and forty. And the fact that they laid their clothes at his feet is filled with meaning. Brice Jones has done extensive research on this and has concluded: “Not only does it signal the importance of Saul as the leader of the mob, but also the ‘shed-garment motif’ is prevalent in ancient literature as a ‘gesture’ that ‘signified an impending act of violence and, many times, death.’”
Our first introduction to Saul of Tarsus is as a leader of an anti-Christian mob that is hell-bent on shutting their ears to the gospel and murdering those who are followers of Jesus.
What Do We Know about Saul's Life before His Conversion?
The New Testament gives us a few basic facts about Saul’s upbringing. He was a “Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia.” This mean that he was a Jew that was born outside of Palestine. We also learn that he was not only a devout Jew but also a Roman citizen. He held dual citizenship. And his parents likely had some means, as Paul would be brought up in Jerusalem “educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our father…” (Acts 22:3). Consider this portrait which Philip Schaff paints of Paul’s credentials:
“He could argue with the Pharisees as a son of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin, and as a disciple of the renowned Gamaliel, surnamed ‘the Glory of the Law.’ He could address the Greeks in their own beautiful tongue and with the convincing force of their logic. Clothed with the dignity and majesty of the Roman people, he could travel safely over the whole empire with the proud watchword: Civis Romanus sum.”
This made Saul a formidable opponent to Christianity. He could move in and out of cultures rather well. And he could use his influence and learning to quickly stamp out this minority group known as The Way. Saul (who became Paul) later tells us in Philippians 3:2-11 about who he was pre-conversion. It can be summed up easily — he was religiously devoted. Whatever he did, it seems he did with his whole heart.
With one set of eyes its not a horrible depiction. He was a religiously devoted man who was zealous in his beliefs. And he had the education to back it up. Think of your rising star seminary student. But as the story fills out a bit more, we see that Saul’s zeal motivated him to “destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison” (Acts 8:3). Today, we might use words like narcissist or bigot to describe Paul.
How Was Saul Persecuting the Church?
Saul was convinced that Jesus was a false teacher. He was not the long-awaited Messiah but another deceiver. This new religious sect of Jesus-followers was a threat to his deeply loved Judaism. It would have caused political difficulties. And furthermore, if his countrymen were following after this Jesus, it’s possible that they would once again draw the ire of YHWH and again suffer through painful exile.
Saul, then, used all of his power and learning in order to put an end to this up-and-coming movement. He was frequently in the office of the high priest obtaining letters to bring Christians up on charges of blasphemy. He went to Damascus to rid that city of the scourge of Jesus-followers.
It’s important to note that Saul would have been one of the ones who heard Stephen’s speech. His speech was an indictment. It would have exposed Saul’s heart, but it would have been heard as a biting accusation. Calling Saul a “stiff-necked person” for not following Jesus the Messiah would have put him in line with those of old who rejected Torah and the word of the Prophets. These are fighting words for someone of Saul’s stature. Saul of Tarsus became a mad man, but one who was convinced that his every action had the approval from the God of heaven. That’s a dangerous combination.
Listen to his confession in Acts 26:10-11,
“…On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.”
Saul would not overcome the gospel, though. The Christ of the Gospel would overcome him.
What Happened to Saul?
On the road to Damascus, on another murderous expedition, Saul was blinded by a great light and he heard the voice of the Lord Jesus. Why was Saul made blind? Ultimately, we do not know why this was the instrument Jesus chose to bring about his conversion. We can speculate a little, however. John 9:39-41 might give us a bit of a clue:
“Jesus said, ‘For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.’ Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, ‘What? Are we blind too?’ Jesus said, ‘If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.’”
I am not saying that Jesus was thinking of Saul of Tarsus here, nor that Saul would have been present when these words were spoken (though there is at least some possibility of this). Rather, I am suggesting that the principle here is why Saul needed be blinded in order to realize his spiritual need.
When Saul was persecuting the church, he assumed he was in the right, living in God’s favor. But he also would have held some of the beliefs of his contemporaries about suffering. Blindness is something that happens to sinners (see John 9:2). This would have stopped this zealous rabbi in his tracks. What was YHWH communicating to him? It would have weakened him and put him in a place of vulnerability. Then to hear the words of the Lord Jesus, calling him into a relationship, would have been utterly transformative.
In a word, he needed to be made blind in order to truly see. And this is what happened. He was radically converted. The former zealous Jewish apologist became one of the greatest evangelists for Christ. His hatred of Christ was turned into love. And from this time forward he was referred to as Paul instead of Saul.
Why Would God Choose Someone Like Saul?
The simple answer is that God chose Saul because God is merciful and gracious. Ultimately, we don’t know the specifics of why God chose to do what he did in the life of Paul. Though there are some clues given to us in Scripture.
In Galatians 1:15-16 we read that God “revealed his Son” to Paul, “in order that [he] might preach him among the Gentiles…” That means in one sense God chose Paul in order to send him. All of Paul’s training that he had first used to persecute the church, his ability to move in and out of cultures, would now be used to preach the gospel to Gentiles.
In 1 Timothy 1:16 Paul explicitly says why he received mercy, “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.” What he is saying is that God saved such a wretch like Paul, the “chief of sinners” who tried to wipe the name of Jesus off the face of the earth, so that he could be a model for everyone else. If God can save Paul, he can save me.
What tremendous love that Christ would show to a man who had once attempted to silence His name, who killed His Bride, and closed his ears to the sound of hope. Yet, while we were yet sinners Christ Jesus died for the ungodly. Saul of Tarsus, now known as Paul, is a testimony of this.
Jefferson P. Webster, ed., “The Meaning of the Phrase ‘And the Witnesses Laid down Their Cloaks’ in Acts 7:58. Review of Expository Times 123 (December 2011) by Brice C. Jonesquot,” Bibliotheca Sacra 169, no. 673–676 (2012): 246.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Manikandan-Annamalai