No, Saul the Persecutor Did Not Become Paul the Apostle

No, Saul the Persecutor Did Not Become Paul the Apostle

When I was a kid, I watched my fair share of Christian children’s programs. There were the classics like “Veggie Tales” and “Bibleman,” but I also watched some of the more obscure entries into the cultural lexicon of evangelicalism in the 1990s.

One that I had almost forgotten about was “Present Time,” a show in which a boy and his friends are given a time machine used to bring characters from the Bible into the present. It only ran for three episodes, but for some reason one of them stands out in my mind. It was titled “The Fiery Stranger” and featured none other than Paul of Tarsus. 

At the beginning of the episode, the children decide to bring back the famed apostle from the year AD 40. But they quickly discover that they have brought him to the present too early in his life. They have summoned not the Apostle Paul, but Saul of Tarsus, pharisaical persecutor of the church. 

As soon as Saul discovers that the children are a part of Christian church, he goes on a maniacal rampage to burn it down. After Saul sets fire to the church building, causing significant damage to its interior, the children scramble to send him back to the past. 

The children later bring Saul back to the present. This time, he is blinded and spiritually transformed. He goes back to the church he torched and preaches a message of the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ while wearing sunglasses and holding a walking cane. 

At this point, the children bring Ananias of Damascus to the present to take Saul home so that he can fulfill his calling as an apostle. 

While I could quibble about the details of Paul’s characterization in this 1990s children’s drama, by and large, this framing of Paul’s story is common in the church: Saul the Persecutor encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, where he was headed to persecute Christians. (Most scholars believe this event took place between AD 37 and AD 40.) The Lord knocked Saul down, blinded him, and asked, “Why are you persecuting me?”

Three days after the blinded Saul entered Damascus—and with the guidance of Ananias—he regained his sight and stepped into his calling as Paul the Apostle, messenger of Jesus. 

But that isn’t exactly how the story goes in Acts. All the major components are there, apart from one detail. Even after Saul converted to Christianity, he continued to go by Saul, which was his Hebrew name. 

In fact, he continued to be referred to as Saul for roughly the next 11 years. During this time, he earned the trust of the other apostles and the Christian community, received direct revelation from Jesus, and began to teach and preach. Eventually, Saul and his friend Barnabas, who had been an influential figure in his early faith, were sent out on a missionary journey. 

“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ And after fasting and praying, they laid their hands on them and sent them off,” says Acts 13:2-3. 

Two things are noteworthy in this passage. The first is that Saul is still referred to by his Hebrew name. The second is that Barnabas is listed before Saul, which indicates that even over a decade after Saul’s conversion, Barnabas was still considered the more prominent of the two. 

But then something interesting happened during the missionary team’s first encounter with a non-believer. And as Saul preached the gospel to this man, this is how he is described: “Saul, who was also called Paul, [was] filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:9). For the first time in the biblical text, Saul is referred to as Paul.

Saul always had two names: his Hebrew name and his Greek name—Paul. But there was no reason to start going by his Greek name upon his conversion. It was only after this pivotal missionary moment that two things happened. Saul henceforth is exclusively referred to as Paul, and he is always listed first among his companions. His name changed not because of his conversion but because of his mission. 

And while Paul and his team spent much of their time reasoning with Jewish people in the synagogues, when they reported what had happened in their travels upon their return, they marveled that God “had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). 

This heart for non-Jewish people is remarkable for someone like Saul of Tarsus. As he later described in his letter to the Philippians, he was “a Hebrew among Hebrews; as to the law; a Pharisee…as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6). In other words, no one was more stridently Jewish than Saul. 

And yet it was this same man who became a leading voice advocating for greater inclusion of non-Jewish people into the body of the church at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. It was this same man who wrote a scathing letter to the Galatians for giving non-Jewish Christians the impression that they had to be circumcised before they could be accepted in the church. 

This man, who had for his entire life believed thoroughly in the supremacy of his own people over every other nation in the world, had now grown so concerned for the lives of non-Jews that he began going by a name in their language. Later, he would write to the Romans that he was an “apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13).

It would have been incredible enough if God had taken Saul from being persecutor of the church to not only a member within it but also a prominent leader of it. But God didn’t stop there. He took a man who was so fiercely dedicated to his national and ethnic identity that he was literally willing to put to death anyone who sullied or profaned it and transformed him into a man who literally started going by a different name so that he could build relationships with people outside that nation.  

Paul set aside what was previously most valuable to him in order to reach people whom he previously hated. As Paul said himself, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). 

So Saul the Persecutor did not become Paul the Apostle. Saul the Persecutor became Saul the Jewish Christian. And Saul the Jewish Christian became Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles. He was transformed in an instant at his conversion. But he continued to be shaped and transformed by his calling to proclaim the name of Jesus to the ends of the earth. 

May the same be said of us. May the monikers we are known by not only signify the salvation we have been given but also the unique way in which God is continuing to shape us into the people he always intended us to be—people whom our former selves would not recognize.

May we love the people we once hated, sacrifice for the people to whom we once believed we were superior.