In his childhood and youth, Saul learned how to “work with [his] own hands” (1 Corinthians 4:12). His trade, tent making, which he continued to practice after his conversion to Christianity, helps to explain important aspects of his apostleship. He could travel with a few leather-working tools and set up shop anywhere. It is doubtful that his family was wealthy or aristocratic, but, since he found it noteworthy that he sometimes worked with his own hands, it may be assumed that he was not a common labourer.
Until about the midpoint of his life, Saul was a member of the Pharisees, a religious party that emerged during the later Second Temple period. What little is known about Paul the Pharisee reflects the character of the Pharisaic movement. Pharisees believed in life after death, which was one of Saul’s deepest convictions. They accepted nonbiblical “traditions” as being about as important as the written Bible; Saul refers to his expertise in “traditions” (Galatians 1:14). Pharisees were very careful students of the Hebrew Bible, and Saul was able to quote extensively from the Greek translation.
By his own account, Saul was the best Jew and the best Pharisee of his generation (Philippians 3:4–6; Galatians 1:13–14), as later he claimed to be the best apostle of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:22–3; 1 Corinthians 15:9–10)—though he attributed his excellence to the grace of God.
Saul spent much of the first half of his life persecuting the nascent Christian movement, an activity to which he refers several times. Saul’s motivations are unknown, but they seem not to have been connected to his Pharisaism. It is possible that Saul believed that Jewish converts to the new movement were not sufficiently observant of the Jewish law, that Jewish converts mingled too freely with Gentile (non-Jewish) converts, thus associating themselves with idolatrous practices, or that the notion of a crucified messiah was objectionable. The young Saul certainly would have rejected the view that Jesus had been raised after his death—not because he doubted resurrection as such but because he would not have believed that God chose to favour Jesus by raising him before the time of the judgment of the world.
Whatever his reasons, Saul’s persecutions probably involved travelling from synagogue to synagogue and urging the punishment of Jews who accepted Jesus as the messiah. According to Acts, Saul began his persecutions in Jerusalem, a view at odds with his assertion that he did not know any of the Jerusalem followers of Christ until well after his own conversion (Galatians 1:4–17).
Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee in Jerusalem, after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, obtained letters from the high priest, authorizing him to arrest any followers of Jesus in the city of Damascus. He swore to wipe out the new Christian church, called “The Way”, meaning those who followed Christ. So intent was he on “opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth”. Acts 9:1 says he was “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” Here was a man who truly hated Christ and all who were associated with Him.
On the Road to Damascus, Saul and his companions were struck down by a blinding light. Saul heard a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4, NIV) When Saul asked who was speaking, the voice replied: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” One can only imagine the terror that filled Saul’s heart.
Saul was blinded. They led him into Damascus to a man named Judas, on Straight Street. For three days Saul was blind and didn’t eat or drink.
Meanwhile, Jesus appeared in a vision to a disciple in Damascus named Ananias and told him to go to Saul. Ananias was afraid because he knew Saul’s reputation as a merciless persecutor of the church.
Jesus repeated his command, explaining that Saul was his chosen instrument to deliver the gospel to the Gentiles, their kings, and the people of Israel. So Ananias found Saul at Judas’ house, praying for help. Ananias laid his hands on Saul, telling him Jesus had sent him to restore his sight and that Saul might be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He arose and was baptized into the Christian faith. Saul ate, regained his strength, and stayed with the Damascus disciples three days. After his conversion, Saul changed his name to Paul.
Paul’s conversion showed that Jesus himself wanted the gospel message to go to the Gentiles, quashing any argument from the early Jewish Christians that the gospel was only for the Jews.
Jesus did not distinguish between his church and his followers, and himself. Jesus told Saul he had been persecuting him. Anyone who persecutes Christians, or the Christian church, is persecuting Christ himself.
In one moment of fear, enlightenment, and regret, Saul understood that Jesus was the true Messiah and that he (Saul) had helped murder and imprison innocent people. Despite his previous beliefs as a Pharisee, he now knew the truth about God and was obligated to obey him. Paul’s conversion proves that God can call and transform anyone he chooses, even the most hard-hearted.
Paul possessed perfect qualifications to be an evangelist: He was versed in Jewish culture and language, his upbringing in Tarsus made him familiar with the Greek language and culture, his training in Jewish theology helped him connect the Old Testament with the gospel, and as a skilled tentmaker he could support himself.
Paul believed that his vision proved that Jesus lived in heaven, that Jesus was the Messiah and God’s Son, and that he would soon return. Moreover, Paul thought that the purpose of his revelation was his own appointment to preach among the Gentiles (Galatians 1:16). By the time of his last extant letter, Romans, he could clearly describe his own place in God’s plan. The Hebrew prophets, he wrote, had predicted that in “days to come” God would restore the tribes of Israel and that the Gentiles would then turn to worship the one true God.
Despite Paul’s intemperate outburst in 1 Corinthians—“women should be silent in the churches” (14:34–36)—women played a large part in his missionary endeavour. Chloe was an important member of the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:11), and Phoebe was a “deacon” and a “benefactor” of Paul and others (Romans 16:1–2). Romans 16 names eight other women active in the Christian movement, including Junia (“prominent among the apostles”), Mary (“who has worked very hard among you”), and Julia. Women were frequently among the major supporters of new religious movements, and Christianity was no exception.
In the surviving letters, Paul often recalls what he said during his founding visits. He preached the death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus Christ, and he proclaimed that faith in Jesus guarantees a share in his life. Writing to the Galatians, he reminded them “it was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified” (Galatians 3:1), and writing to the Corinthians he recalled that he had known nothing among them “except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). According to Paul, Jesus’ death was not a defeat but was for the believers’ benefit. In accord with ancient sacrificial theology, Jesus’ death substituted for that of others and thereby freed believers from sin and guilt (Romans 3:23–25). A second interpretation of Christ’s death appears in Galatians and Romans: those who are baptized into Christ are baptized into his death, and thus they escape the power of sin (e.g., Romans 6). In the first case, Jesus died so that the believers’ sins will be purged. In the second, he died so that the believers may die with him and consequently live with him.
Paul and other missionaries to Gentiles were subject to criticism, abuse, and punishment for drawing people away from pagan cults. Although he showed some flexibility on eating food that had been offered to an idol (1 Corinthians 10:23–30), Paul, a monotheistic Jew, was completely opposed to worship of the idol by eating and drinking in the confines of a pagan temple (1 Corinthians 10:21–22). Thus, his converts had to give up public worship of the local gods. Moreover, since Paul’s converts did not become Jewish, they were, in general opinion, nothing: neither Jew nor pagan. Religiously, they could identify only with one another, and frequently they must have wavered because of their isolation from well-established and popular activities. It was especially difficult for them to refrain from public festivities, since parades, feasts (including free red meat), theatrical performances, and athletic competitions were all connected to pagan religious traditions.
When retelling his conversion later to King Agrippa, Paul said Jesus told him, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 26:14, NIV) A goad was a sharp stick used to control oxen or cattle. Some interpret this as meaning Paul had pangs of conscience when persecuting the church. Others believe Jesus meant that it was futile to try to oppress the church.
Paul’s life-changing experience on the Damascus Road led to his baptism and instruction in the Christian faith. He became the most determined of the apostles, suffering brutal physical pain, persecution, and finally, martyrdom. He revealed his secret of enduring a lifetime of hardship for the gospel:
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13, NKJV)