Today we commemorate one man’s journey from violent persecutor to zealous missionary. Saul, born at Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia, was both a Roman citizen and a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin. In his own words, he admits, “for you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” Galatians 1:13-14
His presence as a young man at the stoning of Stephen indicates Saul was born near the advent of the Christian era. A well-educated man, Saul, renamed Paul at his subsequent conversion, sat at the feet of the great scholar, Gamaliel. He acquired in-depth knowledge of exegesis (the critical study of a text), was trained in the practice of debate and versed in ancestral law. A Pharisee passionate in his beliefs, Saul returned to Tarsus, where his religious zeal developed into religious fanaticism, his specific target, the fledgling Christian Church. He was a man well-armed with legalistic righteousness and a fierce determination to annihilate the followers of Jesus.
Saul, who never met the Lord Jesus before His crucifixion, instead encountered the Risen Christ while traveling to Damascus. Appearing in a blaze of glorious light, Jesus asked, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
To which Paul replied, “Who are you, sir?”
The Lord answered, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Acts 9:4-5 He then sent Saul on to Damascus to await further instructions. Saul was emotionally shaken and stricken blind. His companions took him by the hand and led him along the Damascus Road. Profoundly affected by his encounter with Jesus, he did not eat or drink anything for three days and remained without sight. A man named Ananias received divine instruction to visit Saul and to lay hands on him. He prayed for Saul’s vision to be restored and that the Holy Spirit fill his heart. Immediately, Saul’s sight was restored.
The spiritual significance of the Damascus Road experience changed Saul’s life forever. As ardently as he once believed in the supremacy of ancestral law, he now preached fellowship with the risen Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation. At his conversion, his name was no longer Saul but Paul. He consulted with Peter and began his missionary journeys, called by Jesus, to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles. Saint Paul spent the remainder of his life as a missionary, established local churches, and recorded their accomplishments and failures in a series of letters. Those letters continue today to shape and inspire the church of the risen Christ.
Paul gave up all he was, and all he knew for Christ. In his own words, “What is more, I consider everything loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for whose sake I have lost all things.” —Philippians 3:8