In Acts chapter seven we find the story of a man named Stephen, the first person who was ever put to death for having faith in Jesus. As Stephen was about to be put to death, his executioners placed their coats at the feet of a man named Saul. In the following chapter we find out a little more about this man and learn that he not only approved of Stephen’s execution but actually went from house to house to find other Christians and throw them in jail (Acts 8:1-3).
Saul of course, is better known to us today as Paul the Apostle, the man that God used to write much of the New Testament. Paul’s work really helped to shape the early church and his life has had a tremendous influence on people for 20 centuries. During his life, Paul traveled throughout much of the known world communicating the Word of God to people and today he is seen as one of the most important figures in all of church history.
But how did all this come to be? How could a man like Paul go from arresting Christians to actively supporting the faith that he once tried to destroy? Well, Paul might be the best example of the effect that a true encounter with Jesus can have on someone. Here’s how it happened…
Saul was born in the city of Tarsus, somewhere roughly around the turn of the first century A.D. Tarsus was a place of higher learning and a very important city in the region of Cilicia. Saul was Jewish by birth but he was also born as a Roman citizen. Some scholar-types believe that Saul’s father was Roman and therefore he was also given a Roman name- Paul.
The only known description of Paul’s physical appearance is found in a 2nd century document* which tells us that Saul was “…a man of little stature, thin haired upon the head, crooked in the legs, of good state of body, with eyebrows joining, and nose somewhat hooked…” Doesn’t sound too impressive, huh? Yet this was the same guy who made it his business to go from house to house, dragging out men and women and putting them in prison for their belief that Jesus was the Messiah.
To help him accomplish this, Saul asked for letters of recommendation from the High Priest which he planned to deliver to the synagogues in the town of Damascus in order to help him round up the Christians there (Acts 9:1-2). But as he was on the way, he had an encounter that affected his life; an encounter that is still affecting millions of people to this day…
“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” (Acts 9:3-6 NIV).
After this experience, we’re told that Paul continued on to Damascus, regained the eyesight that he had lost to the blinding light on the road and immediately began to tell people that Jesus was the Savior. From this point until the end of his life, Paul continued to demonstrate the effect that this meeting with Jesus had on him, one that affected every area of his life. For example, Paul was certainly very zealous (or enthusiastic) for God before his Damascus road experience but following his encounter with Jesus, this zealousness was completely redirected.
You see, Paul once believed that people had to follow the Old Testament Law to be made right with God but he now began to tell people that they could be made right with God through Jesus’ death on the cross because Jesus was the fulfillment of that Law (Acts 28:23, Romans 3:21-22).
Because of his experience on the Damascus road, Paul realized that God had placed His “stamp of approval” on Jesus’ teachings through His resurrection from the dead. This meant that Jesus really was God’s promised Savior and that salvation was available through His death on our behalf. Paul explained it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “…God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation…” (NIV).
When you read Paul’s letters to the churches (also called “epistles”) as found in the Bible, you find that he was obviously a man of high intelligence. But even though Paul was smart enough to be able to speak and understand multiple languages (Acts 21:37, 40), he was not the kind of guy to put his intelligence on display. Sometimes great intelligence may cause people to act very arrogantly but that’s not the case with Paul.
Instead, Paul demonstrated that he was a man of great humility and this is something that comes through over and over again in his letters. For example, Paul wrote to Corinthian church “…in no respect was I inferior to the most eminent apostles, even though I am a nobody” ( 2 Corinthians 12:11 NAS). To the Ephesian church he also wrote: “Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,…” (Ephesians 3:8 NIV).
* It was called The Acts of Paul and Thecla