Who was this guy Paul?
Second to Jesus, Saul who we mostly know as Paul is surely the most remarkable human being that ever lived. That is such a huge statement, I realize, but the more I learn of him, the more convinced I am of the truth of that statement. The great captain of the young Christian faith that had been birthed on the dusty roads of Palestine was a powerful champion for the Gospel.
So . . . what was so great about him? Consider his early life--born to a strict Pharisee father, Saul was trained as a "Hebrew of the Hebrews;" born in Tarsus, a city that teemed with commerce and wealth. (Tarsus is in southern Turkey, along the Mediterranean Ocean) Watching the ways of Roman soldiers, as well as businessmen who came and went through his city influenced young Saul. Since all Jewish men were expected to learn a trade, Saul learned the trade of tent making, one of the principal trades of Tarsus. However, it became clear early on that Saul's keen mind and serious disposition suited him well for training as a rabbi. The 'college' (yeshiva) to train young men for the ministry was in Jerusalem, so about age 13, Saul travelled to Jerusalem (2200+ miles by land), and began his studies under Rabbi Gamaliel. Saul was very well versed in Old Testament Scriptures, because of his rigorous study with Gamaliel, and was an articulate communicator, evidenced by his writing.
So, he’s one righteous, intelligent Jew—how did he come to know Christ? Here is the account in Acts chapter Nine: “Then Saul, still breathing out murderous threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" "Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything…”
The details in this dramatic passage in Acts 9 are particularly interesting, and reveal just how committed Saul was to preserving Judaism. Paul loved the sacred scriptures, and was convinced that the followers of "The Way" posed a great threat. It became a matter of duty to God to smash down the movement wherever it popped up. He secured permission to go all the way to Damascus to apprehend these Jesus believers--a distance of about 150 miles, a journey of at least five or six days. (Do not lose sight of the fact that the new believers had only just spread out from Jerusalem due to the intense persecution they were under following the stoning of Stephen.)
Saul went in hot pursuit of them, and undertook the arduous, difficult journey to Damascus. It was on the Damascus road that Saul had an encounter with Jesus Christ that he could not deny--one unbelievably, radical conversion experience! Why would God pursue him this way? Well, take a look at Saul's background, which perfectly suited him to steer Christianity as it spread throughout the Mediterranean lands--
So unusual, so undeniable this visit from Jesus . . . Saul was probably riding on a donkey, when a bright light surrounded him--okay, how bright would it have had to be, since it was already midday?! Really bright! 'Knocked to the ground, he hears the question from Jesus, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? He thinks to himself, 'Can this possibly be? His disciples said they saw him again after He was crucified, but I didn't believe them!' And then, I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 'Yeah, so what do you want from me?' Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do. As Saul stands up, he realizes he has literally been blinded--not just by the bright light.
Think of it--Saul's physical sight taken so he could be alone with himself and Jesus' appearance to realize he had been in great error in his view of Jesus. His eyes have been opened spiritually, but in the process, he is blinded physically. Who could have possibly predicted that Saul would return to Jerusalem wholeheartedly devoted to the cause, which he had sought to destroy? 'Go back into town, and you will then be given next steps...' Saul obeyed.
Blind Saul returned to Jerusalem--truly dependent on his men to guide him--he, who has always been totally in control, was in darkness for three days. From then on, he would be totally dependent and joyfully submissive to the same Jesus he had so strongly reviled. Has there ever been such a conversion?!
And, if God could change the proud, hyper-religious, self-righteous heart
of Saul, he can change anyone. Do you believe that? Who have you given up on? Don't stop praying for those you know whose hearts are far from God, my friends; in fact, you might be so bold as to ask God to step into their path, just as he did with Saul. After a personal encounter with Jesus, one is never the same!