The conversion of Saul (also known as the apostle Paul) is one of the most dramatic events in the New Testament. And it set off a chain of events that would forever change the course of history. Saul—persecutor of the early church—would dramatically become an influential figure in the gospel’s spread.
Who was Saul? Why was he so vehemently against the church? What changed his trajectory? Did he leave behind “Saul” to become “Paul”? Let’s dig into Scripture to see what we can discover.
Saul’s early history
In a letter written to the Philippian church, Paul gives us some background into his life. He tells us that he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless” (Philippians 3:5–6).
Here we learn more than the fact that Saul was Jewish; we discover that he took his faith very seriously. This passage is written from the perspective of a changed man, looking back at a previous life.
Did he really consider himself faultless? Hardly. But from the perspective of a first-century Hebrew, he was righteous. He followed the law from birth (circumcised on the eighth day), and he had risen to a place of respect among his people (a Pharisee).
When we first meet Saul in the Book of Acts, he is oppressing the church. And as we see in Philippians, he sees his mistreatment as a sign of zeal for Judaism.
Saul persecutor of the church
Luke introduces us to Saul in connection to the first Christian martyr. Stephen had been brought before the Sanhedrin in response to his ministry. While there, Stephen explained how the Old Testament was fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus. After accusing them of being responsible for Jesus’ death, the Sanhedrin became enraged.
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
And Saul approved of their killing him (Acts 7:54–8:1a).
Luke is very intentional about how he introduces Saul. This man will be a massive figure in the story Luke is telling (not to mention in the future of the church), and he wants his audience to understand what kind of man Saul is.
He tells us that the crowd put their coats at Saul’s feet. Stoning someone was a strenuous activity, and Saul facilitated Stephen’s stoning by allowing the coats to be placed at his feet. So he’s basically giving his blessing on what’s happening. And in case there is any question on where Saul stood, Luke explicitly tells us that Saul approved of the killing of this Christian.
The conversion of Saul
The killing of Stephen was like the cork being pulled out of the bottle. Once this tension erupted into violence, everything changed. Stephen’s martyrdom kicked off what Luke calls “a great persecution” of the church. This persecution was being spearheaded by Saul, who wanted nothing less than the destruction of the church.
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison (Acts 8:1–3).
During one of his crusades against the church, Saul has a surprising encounter.
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say 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 (Acts 9:1–9).
On his way to Damascus, Saul is met by Jesus. In a (literal) blinding flash, the Lord appears to Saul and asks why this man is persecuting Him. It’s essential to notice that by going after the church, Saul is persecuting Jesus. That, as the head of the church (Colossians 1:18), Jesus can’t be separated from His church.
We’re not told what Saul’s initial reaction is to this experience. He asks who is speaking to him, then receives instructions to head into the city. And for three days, he was blind and didn’t eat.
Ananias and Saul and street called Straight
Luke then takes us to a man in Damascus named Ananias, who helps Saul’s transition and conversion.
In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.
The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength (Acts 9:10–19a).
The Lord asks Ananias to place his hands on Saul so that he might regain his sight and be filled with the Spirit. Warily, Ananias responds with what he’s heard about this man who has been attacking the Lord’s church. Jesus responds by assuring Ananias that He has chosen Saul to carry His message to the Gentiles, and, in the process, he will suffer much in the Lord’s name.
Saul begins preaching in the synagogues
Saul hardly wastes any time. After several days of regaining his strength and fellowshipping with the believers in and around Damascus, he heads to the synagogue.
Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.
After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall (Acts 9:19b–25).
The Jews are astonished that one of their number has gone from seeking to destroy the church to testifying about Jesus. As Saul’s influence grows, a conspiracy arises to kill him. Saul’s new followers help to smuggle him outside of Damascus so that he may escape.
Saul heads to Jerusalem
In Jerusalem, Saul is well known as a persecutor of the church. So naturally, the believers there are very wary of false conversion stories meant to entrap them.
When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.
So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews, but they tried to kill him. When the believers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers (Acts 9:26-31).
Luke tells us that Saul is taken to the apostles. In Galatians, Paul tells us that he only saw Peter and James (Jesus’ brother). He ended up staying with Peter for 15 days. It’s also interesting that Paul tells us that three years had passed from when he was first converted until this moment (Galatians 1:18–20). So it might look like everything is happening in quick succession, but a lot of time is passing.
Saul finds himself embroiled in another plan to have him killed in Jerusalem. So, once again, the believers have to sneak him out and send him elsewhere.
Luke informs us that this is a period of peace and strengthening in the church.
So when does Saul become Paul?
People often assume the name change from Saul to Paul was a product of his conversion. After all, Jesus changed Peter’s name from Cephas, right? Didn’t he do the same to Saul? Actually, no.
It wasn’t uncommon to be known by a couple of names. Especially in an area where so many different people with different languages lived in such proximity. In Acts 13:9, Luke tells us that he was “Saul, who was also called Paul …””
Saul was a name that would have been associated with his Jewish life. Paul was the Romanized version of the same name. As we watch the transition from the use of Saul to Paul in Acts (and in how Paul identifies himself), we’re actually watching Paul’s identity change from a stalwart of the Hebrew faith to a spokesman to the Gentiles. So in that regard, Jesus did change Paul’s name by changing his role and purpose in life.
Discover more about Paul the evangelist
Paul’s conversion really did change everything. To discover how, one only needs to dive into Paul’s missionary work and see how the gospel began to spread outside of Israel to the rest of the world.
To learn more, read The Missionary Journeys of Paul.