The Conversion of Saint Paul
Paul was born in Tarsus, a port city in the southeastern part of Turkey. He was from a Jewish family, who traced their roots back to the tribe of Benjamin. This Jewish community had been sent to Tarsus during the Diaspora . Pompey had made Tarsus the capital of the province of Cilicia. Mark Anthony gave the people of Tarsus freedom, immunity, and the right to become Roman citizens, which accounts for Paul's reference to, and pride in, his Roman citizenship. He invoked his rights as a Roman citizen many times during his ministry to get out of some serious scrapes with the Jews.
Paul was originally named Saul, after the first king of the Jews. But the Jews in Tarsus had assimilated so greatly with the Romans that he was probably given the Roman equivalent of Saul, which is Paul, at birth. He was called Paul in public, and Saul among Jewish gatherings. It was not unusual for Jews who had integrated into foreign cultures to take on a Hebrew name, and an ethnic name. He grew up under two cultures, that of his Hebrew ancestors, and the Greco-Roman customs of his adopted country. He was greatly influenced by the Greek background; Greek was a second language to him; he studied Greek philosophers.
Nothing is certain as to when he came to Jerusalem. His whole family moved there when he was a young man. The year 30 A.D. is as good a barometer as it gets. Scripture scholars claim there was little possibility that he ever saw Jesus during His lifetime. There are others who believe that, while he may never have spoken to the Lord, he may have seen Him before His death. Remember, they really frequented the same circles. They were at different ends of the spectrum, but they were both religious men.
Paul was a Pharisee. He studied under Gamaliel for three or four years. This would have been during the time of Jesus' ministry, 30 to 33 AD. Jesus became very prominent after the arrest and murder of John the Baptist, probably about a year or so into His ministry. The temple area of Jerusalem was always abuzz with rumors about this new Prophet. The personality of Paul was that of a zealot, a nosy body, who had to know everything that was going on, all the time. Also, he was a defender of the Jewish law, which he believed Jesus was breaking. Paul would have agreed with those who considered Jesus a blasphemer and lawbreaker, who should be dealt with accordingly.
We don't mean to imply for a minute that Paul was ever a vindictive person. He was a passionate person. The Lord can work with people like Paul. His passion was for God. He had committed himself to the service of God. He truly believed he was doing the Lord's will in stamping out these blasphemers (Christians) . The same firebrand fervor he employed in defending God against the Christians, was put to use in proclaiming our Lord Jesus Christ, after Paul's conversion. It's so exciting to see God in action! He chooses His people so carefully. We believe, Paul was part of the Divine Plan from before the beginning of time . He was groomed so well for his part in Salvation history. The area of the world in which he was born, his knowledge of the Greek and Roman languages and cultures, his schooling in Jerusalem, all of this was necessary for his role in proclaiming the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire. We can't help but see the Lord's Hand in Paul's development.
All of the above is just to give us a feeling for this man specially chosen by God. We have to see him as a very human, very touchable role model. He had all the shortcomings of man: ambition, impulsiveness, pride, anger, bullheadedness and a sharp tongue. However, when used for the glory of God, they were turned into selflessness, determination, durability, suffering, poverty, fearlessness, humiliation and persecution besides. He could get extremely hot in defense of his converts, and the next moment, he could be as tender as a lamb. He ran the gamut of emotions, and offered all to his God. You have to know who this "Great Lion of God" was, and what made him tick.
The first mention of Paul in the Gospel is as the young man who piled coats of those who stoned St. Stephen to death . After the stoning of Stephen, the Christians scattered all over the area. Saul became the dread of the Christians as he received permission to hunt them down and crush the movement. He began in Jerusalem, tracking down Christians, going into house after house, dragging men and women out and throwing them into jail . His reputation spread throughout Judea and Syria, very quickly. His very name brought fear to Christians.
Saul was not a vindictive or vengeful person, but he had a mission. He contended, he was ridding the Hebrew community of a plague that threatened its very existence. And as we mentioned before, he was very ambitious. Once given a job, he went at it tooth and nail. He believed, the Lord had called him to do this. It was towards this end that Paul went to Damascus. He was on a roll! He had begun a momentum, which could not stop until all these offenders who had adopted this "new way," had been stamped out. It was about this time Jesus decided that He and Saul should have a talk. This confrontation took place on the road to Damascus.
Saul and his cohorts were traveling at breakneck speed to get to Damascus. A brilliant flash of light streaked across the sky. Saul was thrown to the ground. He tried to see what had happened, but the strong beam blinded him. He heard a voice; his head turned quickly in the direction of the sound. He could make out a figure, but it was hazy. "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Who could this be, he wondered. "Who are you, sir?" The voice responded, "I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting." Jesus? How could this be Jesus? He was dead! Then Saul could see more clearly through the haze. The figure of a man became visible to him. It was Jesus! Saul could actually make out the figure of Jesus. The voice continued, "Get up and go into the city, where you will be told what to do." The figure of Jesus faded slowly, and then all went black. Saul could see nothing. He got up, groped around, completely blind, though his eyes were wide open.
The Long Hard Road to Acceptance
Saul was led by the hand, to the house of Judas in Damascus. His companions were shocked and confused by what had happened to him. Saul's mind was reeling. He asked to be alone. He refused food or drink. He had to think; he had to sort it out. Accepting the possibility that he had ever been wrong about anything was not in Saul's makeup. Now, he had to consider the likelihood that everything he had said, or thought, or done against these Christians had been a big mistake.
Jesus was alive! It was as they had all said. He had risen from the dead! Saul had seen Him! Saul's logical mind kicked in. Oh my God, he thought, that means that all He had preached was correct. He was the Messiah. He is the Messiah! It was not at all the image the Jews had accepted as the Messiah . If that was so, then everything that Saul had done was anti-Christ. The words that kept coming back at him, lashing at his soul were, "Why have you persecuted Me?" Had he persecuted Jesus? He thought He was dead. But He had risen; He was truly God. That meant that Saul was fighting God Himself. That was not his intention at all. He meant to defend God, to glorify God.
For three days, Saul stayed by himself in a dark room, not eating or drinking, just agonizing over what he had done. But Saul was a very positive person. Though he had committed the unspeakable crime, he knew there was a way to make it right. Hope came into his soul. He would go back to all those who didn't believe, and explain the truth to them. He would shout it from the rooftops if he had to. They'd have to believe, once they saw his conversion. It made a lot of sense, but that's not what happened.
The first seeds of mistrust were felt in the heart of Ananias. The Lord appeared to him, and told him to go to the house of Judas, where he would find Saul of Tarsus. Ananias was a man of great faith, filled with the Holy Spirit. He never doubted the Lord; he thought, however, he had heard the wrong name. He proceeded to tell Jesus how this Saul was persecuting all the Christians, that he was in Damascus to search out Christians and imprison them. Was this the same Saul that Jesus was speaking of? Jesus convinced Ananias that He would use Saul in a mighty way to convert the Gentiles. Ananias went off to find Saul. We're not sure he was happy; but he did as Jesus commanded. At about the same time Ananias was having a conversation with Jesus, Saul was having a vision of Ananias coming to the house of Judas.
Ananias found Saul at the house, as Jesus had told him. He looked at the blind Saul. It was difficult to conceive that this helpless, docile man was the same one who had put such fear in the hearts of Christians. He went up to Saul, gingerly laid his hands on the blind man's head, and spoke very softly, "Saul, my brother, I have been sent by the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the way here, to help you recover your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit."
Something like scales fell off Saul's eyes, and he could see. Ananias prayed over him, then took him down to the river. He submerged Saul, baptizing him. Saul took food for the first time since his encounter with Jesus. He felt his strength come back to him slowly.
He had made a commitment to the Lord, to tell the whole world how he had been wrong in persecuting the Christians. He couldn't wait to go to the synagogue and share the good news with his Jewish brothers and sisters. They warmly welcomed him as the famous Rabbi from Jerusalem. But that was before he told them about his conversion. The mood changed quickly. Their expressions turned from baited anticipation to outraged anger. Accusations like turncoat and traitor were leveled at him. As he attempted to bare his heart to his brothers, a fury raged in the synagogue. He had to get out, and fast.
Paul in the Desert
This was the beginning of a long, lonely journey for Saul, now Paul. His own people, the Jews, wanted to kill him. They hated him for having turned away from them. His new brothers, the Christians, didn't trust him. They weren't quite sure if he had really converted, or if he was employing a scheme to imprison all the Christians in Damascus. Those who had been involved in his conversion, Judas and Ananias, believed that the Lord had changed Saul. But they couldn't convince the others.
Paul went off by himself into the desert. Whether it was a conscious effort to follow in the footsteps of the Master, and John the Baptist, is not known for sure. But he took that time to empty himself of all that he had been, and allow the Lord to fill him with love and wisdom. He prayed; he fasted; he studied Sacred Scripture. He went deep within himself, to pull out all that was of the world, and replace it with the love of Jesus. Was it here that Jesus taught him about love, how nothing had any value without love? Did Jesus give him the insights here, which would touch the whole world for thousands of years to come?