In the meantime, Saul was relentlessly pursuing his campaign to destroy the church.
So, who was this guy, anyway? How did he get given the kind of permissions and letters of entry necessary to pull all this off?
First of all, Saul was a long, long way from home. If you pull out a map of ancient Bible times, you can see how far. His hometown was in a region called Cilicia, which we know of today as Turkey.
The city of Saul’s birth and childhood, Tarsus, was a university town that evidently surpassed Athens and Alexandria for the quality of the education it offered.
- Tarsus was a center of political power favored by Rome, so that some citizens were given the unusual privilege of being granted Roman citizenship.
- Ideally located for trade and commerce, Tarsus had a bustling harbor and trade routes.
- Tarsus was especially known for its production of cilicium, a trademark water-resistant cloth woven from locally grown black goat hair.
Saul’s family was wealthy and influential, one of the few Jewish families to have Tarsus citizenship and one of the few Tarsus families to have Roman citizenship, which Saul inherited by birth. It is thought Saul’s family grew wealthy from the manufacture of cilicium tents which were a favorite of caravans, nomads and armies all over Asia Minor and Syria.
Saul was born during a time when birth registration had only just been instituted by Augustus (27 BC–14 AD). In 4 A.D., a Roman citizen could register the birth of his child within thirty days, before a Roman official. This was a secondary safeguard, as in previous centuries the census would register all citizens. If Saul’s father did register him, then he would have received a wooden diptych with waxed surfaces on the inside which acted both as a birth certificate and a certificate of citizenship.
“The wooden diptych was seven inches high and six inches wide, written on the waxed surfaces were the date of birth, the name of seven witnesses and the abbreviation q. p. f. c. r. e. ad k. (the letters c.r.e meant cieum romanam/num exscripsi/t) indicating the possession of Roman citizenship. The diptych could be used for life to prove citizenship and was written only in Latin.”
Saul’s family was of the tribe of Benjamin, and were known as Hebrew Jews, meaning they kept to the Torah ways, the Law of Moses, spoke Hebrew, and worshiped in a Hebrew-speaking synagogue. Wherever they could, they resisted Hellenism —the taking on of Greek customs and language that many other Jewish families not living in Judea were adopting.
Saul was sent at a young age, probably between ten and twelve, to Gamaliel’s school of religion in Jerusalem. The son of a Pharisee, Saul would also become a zealous Pharisee and be very proud of what he had achieved.
In spite of his religious upbringing and private religious education, in spite of lifelong Bible study, Saul was spiritually blind. Now on his way to Damascus with special permission from the Sanhedrin to arrest all Christians, Saul and his companions were flattened by a light from heaven so bright it was like the sun, accompanied by a thundering voice. God had arrested Saul.
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Paul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Suddenly, all of the reasons Saul had for persecuting Christians were now being proven lies. Not only was he not honoring God, he was actively persecuting God.
Saul’s companions were speechless with shock. They hadn’t understood the voice speaking to Saul. But they saw their overbearing, zealous commander completely chastened. His physical eyes had been blinded; but now his spiritual eyes had finally been opened, and he saw more clearly than he had ever seen before. Saul asked the blinding light and thunder all around him what he should do? Jesus only told him the next step, go to Judas’ house on Straight Street.
Now the proud leader had to be led by the hand, humbled and helpless, so overcome he couldn’t eat or drink for three days.
Meanwhile, God was speaking to Ananias, whose name meant “The Lord is Gracious.” He was a devout and respected Jewish leader who was also a believer in Jesus. Being in prayer, he was already prepared to hear God’s voice. God gave Ananias’ specific instructions to minister to Saul, the scourge of Christians, and Ananias responded to God with great reluctance and hesitancy. It’s understandable. Sometimes obeying God means taking risks. You and I often project into the future, and fear the consequences.
God was patient with Ananias, but there was no room for negotiation. God said: Go! And ultimately, Ananias went. You and I can learn from his reverent compliance:
- Never underestimate the value of one person being brought to a saving faith. The only reason you and I know about Ananias at all, is on account of his willing response to God resulting in the conversion of this one man, Saul, who became the apostle Paul.
- Don’t be afraid to follow what God has in mind, God always has things well in hand, the Lord is working on both sides of the equation.
Through Ananias’ wise service, Saul received the message of the gospel, experienced repentance and baptism, and the filling of the Holy Spirit. It was an immediate change. And this change was met with great astonishment. Right away, the new man, Paul, began to preach Jesus Christ as the unique Son of God, which amazed everyone and infuriated many others.
Now, Peter had already stated the two qualifications for an apostle: he had to have spent three years being trained by Jesus personally, during His ministry before He was crucified, AND he had to be an eye-witness of Jesus’ resurrection. God would now authenticate Paul’s apostleship with both of these qualifications, in an unusual way, before Paul was introduced to the rest of the apostles. We actually find out from one of Paul’s later letters that after this event, Jesus called Paul away to spend three years in Arabia and Damascus with Jesus before seeing the apostles.
When Paul did go to Jerusalem, he thought the apostles would welcome him with open arms (not so sure why he thought that. It just goes to show how unselfaware we all can be). Instead, unsurprisingly, they were afraid of him, skeptical that he could change. Finally, Barnabas “The Encourager” took up Paul’s case, and brought him to the church leaders, Peter in particular, to be validated. Paul then stayed with Peter and James, Jesus’ brother, for about two weeks.
Consecration to God’s Service
Paul was a dyed-in-the-wool Hebrew of Hebrews, a trained rabbi, steeped in the scriptures. He loved his people, and he wanted the privilege of preaching to his own countrymen. But, Jesus revealed His purpose to Paul in a vision. Paul was to leave Jerusalem immediately. Jesus instead appointed him to be the apostle to the Gentiles.
Almost as if on cue, the believers in Jerusalem sent Paul back home to Tarsus where he would stay for another seven years, preaching in the surrounding area of Syria and Cilicia. Probably it was during this time that the Galatian churches were established.
There is no heart too hard for the Lord Jesus Christ to change
- Because the Spirit of God within God’s people is resilient, persecution will in the end always work in God’s favor.
- Because the Holy Spirit reveals God wherever God is called, those who seek with true hearts will always find God.
- Because the Spirit of Christ is regenerative, the Spirit can change even the hardest heart where the seed of truth is planted.
Paul’s Conversion on the Way to Damascus | Caravaggio [Public domain]