Spiritual transformation is sudden and dramatic when we first encounter Jesus. But there is also a slow process of transformation as we come to know and love the Lord more and more. The story of Saul to Paul reveals someone who was dramatically changed in an instant but who was also continually being transformed throughout his life.
The Story of Saul to Paul
At Saul’s conversion, he receives a clear commission, he is chosen by God to proclaim the name of Jesus to the Gentiles. He would be instrumental in this work, but it would be over ten years after his conversion before his role as an evangelist would really begin.
Saul in Damascus and Jerusalem
The story of Saul to Paul began on the road to Damascus but would become a lifelong journey. Immediately after Saul’s conversion he stayed in Damascus and began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. He was well known as the man who had persecuted believers in Jerusalem. The people knew his purpose in visiting Damascus was to arrest any believers in the city. They were astonished by the change! Saul baffled the Jews by proving through scripture that Jesus was the Messiah.
During this period Saul also spent time in Arabia and then later returned to Damascus. The opposition to his teaching by the Jews in Damascus had grown and they conspired to kill him. Saul heard of their plan and made a daring escape. His followers lowered him in a basket down the outside of the city wall at night. The persecutor had become the persecuted.
Saul then returned to Jerusalem, where he tried to join the disciples. The people were afraid of him because of his previous behavior. They did not believe that he had really changed. Barnabas, however, acted as an intermediary and brought Saul to the apostles and spoke for him. He related the story of Saul’s conversion and how in Damascus he had been preaching fearlessly in the name of Jesus.
Saul was then accepted by the apostles and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking about Jesus. He started debating with the Hellenistic Jews, trying to convince them of Jesus as Messiah. They were unable to accept his teaching and plotted to kill him. When the other believers heard about this, they sent Saul away, back to his hometown of Tarsus – but the story of Saul to Paul was just beginning.
"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 9:31
The Antioch Church in the Bible
While Saul was in his hometown of Tarsus, in relative obscurity, God was at work! God was preparing Saul for what was to come, and He was also bringing events together for His purposes to prevail.
The opposition to the church in Jerusalem sent the believers out, as they scattered they took the good news of the gospel with them. This fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy. The gospel would spread out from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria, then even to the ends of the earth.
The next step in God’s plan was when Peter received revelation at Cornelius’ house that the gospel was to be shared with Gentiles. This was a radical new way of thinking – the good news of Jesus is for whoever believes. The early church was being transformed in its way of thinking.
A Gentile church started to grow in Antioch. Barnabas was sent by the elders of the church in Jerusalem to report on what was happening there. He sees the need for a gospel teacher and remembers Saul. Barnabas went to Tarsus to find Saul and brought him to Antioch. Then they worked together there for over a year, encouraging and teaching new believers.
Related Post: Barnabas – Is Encouragement More Than Kind Words?
Why Did Saul Change His Name to Paul?
To try and understand why Saul changed his name to Paul, we need to look at when he changed his name.
After Saul’s conversion, his first mission trip didn’t come until over ten years later – reference Timeline of the Apostle Paul’s ministry. He had started sharing the gospel, speaking and debating in the synagogue amongst his fellow Jews, straight away. But the fulfilment of his call to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles, came in God’s perfect timing. This was after the door had been opened by Peter, and the church was ready to unite – Jew and Gentile together.
The story of Saul to Paul progresses when the Church in Antioch send Barnabas and Saul out on a mission trip. This was initiated by the Holy Spirit during a time of prayer and fasting. Barnabas’ cousin John Mark joins them and they went to the port of Seleucia and got on a boat for Cyprus. This was where Barnabas had come from and a place he would have been familiar with.
Paul in Paphos
It was in Cyprus that Saul’s missionary ministry really began. Barnabas and Saul worked their way across the island. They spoke to the Jewish people and taught in the synagogues until they reached Paphos. This was where the headquarters for the Roman rule of the province was located.
In Paphos a significant event occurred, the proconsul Sergius Paulus sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. However, one of his attendants Elymas opposed Barnabas and Saul and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith.
Elymas Bar Jesus – Who was he?
The proconsul Sergius Paulus had an attendant, a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus. The Jewish name for a sorcerer or magician was Elymas – and so Bar-Jesus was known by both names. He was in a privileged position and would not want to lose his influence over the proconsul.
Then Saul – also called Paul – filled with the Holy Spirit spoke directly to Elymas:
“You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun” Acts 13:10-11
Saul directly challenged Elymas and immediately he lost his vision and had to be led away. The proconsul who saw what had happened believed in the power of the gospel message. It appears that he was convinced by the miracle.
Saul becomes Paul
The time in Cyprus had come to an end and the group left the island crossing over to Perga on the mainland. From this point on Saul is referred to as Paul. The order of seniority is also reversed and it is no longer Barnabas and Saul on this journey, but Paul and Barnabas.
This incident at Paphos appeared to be significant for Saul. From then on he took the lead and spoke with a new authority. He was now referred to as Paul, signifying the beginning of his ministry to the Gentiles. Paul was his name as a Roman citizen, whereas Saul was his Hebrew name emphasizing his Jewish ancestry.
Maybe Saul saw something of himself in Elymas? The man that he used to be before his encounter with the risen Jesus. It could be that God’s judgement and mercy here reminded Saul of his own experience at his call and commission. When Saul was blinded by the bright light on the road to Damascus, his temporary physical blindness brought spiritual sight.
Related Post: Three Lessons From Saul’s Conversion
Saul experienced a complete change in his way of thinking as spiritual transformation began with an encounter with the risen Jesus. But the process of transformation continued throughout Paul’s life as he grew to know and to love the Lord more and more. This is the work that God does, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in our lives…
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2