“The best and the brightest.” It was a phrase used by some journalist to describe the administration of President John F. Kennedy. The same phrase could have been used to describe Saul of Tarsus; a child of the best upbringing; a student of the vaunted teacher, Gamaliel; a Roman citizen; trained in the best Jewish schools; groomed, perhaps, to even become chief priest.
And this pious man was bent on the destruction of the believers in Jesus.
In order to understand Saul of Tarsus it is important that we put him into historical context. Only a few short years had passed from the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus when a self-righteous religious zealot assisted in the systematic murder of one of Christianity’s earliest messengers, a godly man named Stephen. Luke punctuates Saul’s involvement in this murder with the chilling comment:
“Now Saul was consenting to his death.” (Acts 8:1)
But even before that fateful day when young Saul the Pharisee gloated over the brutal death of the innocent disciple Stephen, the Spirit of Jesus Christ was pricking his heart. God had designs for this bright young man, and in His sovereignty He was prepared to knock Saul off His high horse.
There can be little doubt that Saul was familiar with the Galilean man who was known as Jesus. Though Saul may have been consumed by his study of the Torah and Talmud – the Jewish holy books, there was talk of this back woods preacher and the stir He was creating throughout Israel. Numerous reports were made of so-called messiahs emerging from every corner of the land, so Saul and his classmates undoubtedly debated the authenticity of the reports of Jesus’ miracles.
He may have been one of the unnamed lawyers who confronted Jesus with questions in the Gospel accounts? Saul may have gathered with the other scribes and Pharisees at the river Jordan when John the Baptist declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Was he outraged to learn that Jesus had cleared the moneychangers and vendors of religious trinkets from the temple while snapping a whip?
It is conceivable that Saul was one of the pious Pharisees trying to console a weeping Mary and Martha at the death of their brother Lazarus. Whether he was physically present when Jesus raised the 3-day dead Lazarus from his rotting rest, it is sure that Saul heard of and pondered this indisputable miracle. This shocking development created such a sensation that the panicked religious leaders ramped up their efforts to arrest and execute the backwater mystic before he brought down the wrath of Rome on their heads.
Saul could have been in attendance at the infamous midnight trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin. Perhaps he was outside in the courtyard of Caiaphas warming himself next to the fire. Maybe he heard the servant girl accusing a gruff-looking Galilean of being a follower of this Jesus. He may have been amused at the unrefined manner in which this fisherman cursed and raved the third time he was accused.
Though he approved of the barbarous stoning of Stephen, it is entirely possible that Saul’s heart was pricked when he heard him say, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.”
We don’t know how long the Lord was at work in the heart of Saul, but we know the Holy Spirit was goading him – and Saul was kicking back hard, primarily against the disciples of Jesus. After the death of Stephen, Saul was fanatical about destroying this new sect. Saul launched a holy war against the Church, scattering the believers. He made havoc, entering homes, sending many to prison – even putting some to death. He was beginning to attain the notoriety that he had always craved. If he was going to rise to the level of prestige and power that he believed was his destiny, he would have to prove himself worthy.
When word came that these followers of Jesus had spread into Syria, Saul requested permission to go to Damascus. With great delight the High Priest granted him letters to take to the synagogues of Syria.
As Saul and his colleagues came near Damascus, suddenly they were flooded with glorious light. It was like looking into the sun from only a yard away. Saul fell to the ground and suddenly a voice emanated from within the light. The voice was both terrifying and soothing at the same time. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
Was this an angel? Or worse, could it be a messenger from Satan, trying to distract him from his holy quest? No, if it were the devil he wouldn’t feel this mix of peace and awe. Humbly Saul inquired, “Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
No. It couldn’t be Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, the backwoods preacher, the so-called messiah who was put to death by Pontius Pilate? If this was Jesus, that would mean that nearly every great leader in Israel was wrong … so very wrong. How could they have misjudged him? Unless those confusing passages of Scripture concerning a suffering savior could somehow speak of the Messiah?
Saul began to tremble.
How could he have been so wrong? But then he remembered watching the life ebbing from Stephen, and hearing those haunting words, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
This was the same Jesus that Stephen saw as he peered into heaven. This is the same Jesus that gave strength to so many of Saul’s victims. Saul began shaking uncontrollably. No longer able to bear the intensity of the light, he closed his eyes as tightly as he could.
“This must be the One – the glorious Messiah, promised from ages past.” Saul slowly lifted his head and asked, “Lord, what do you want me to do?”
Jesus replied, “Arise and go into the city…”
Saul obeyed, and in the blindness that resulted from the intense light, he was led into the city. There he was met by a disciple named Ananias, who was sent by Jesus to prophesy, “he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles….” (Acts 9:15, NKJV)
Years later, in obedience to this heavenly vision, and living out his own teaching – “I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some.” (1 Cor. 9:22b, NLT) – this former Pharisee so embraced his calling to minister the Gospel to the Gentiles that he forsook his Jewish name, Saul, and forever adopted the Greek name for which he is remembered … Paul.