Saved from something, saved for something – The conversion of St Paul, the Apostle – Mark 16:15-18

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Most Christians consider Christ’s encounter with Paul to be a prototype of Christian conversion, generally from an immoral to a moral life. But that wasn’t Saul’s conversion at all. His was a conversion from a false notion of a holy life to a true notion. Remember that Paul was a zealous follower of God.

Born a Jew in the Roman city of Tarsus, in modern-day Turkey. He had come down to Jerusalem to study at the feet of the greatest rabbi of the age, Gamaliel. He was a member of the Sanhedrin and one of the most respected Pharisees and Doctors of the Law of his era. The Pharisees had enumerated 613 laws found within the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Saul would have studied each of these laws carefully under him.

Though he learned the trade of a tent maker, he was a man who had great religious zeal. As a young man, Paul discovered a flourishing Christian community and at once became its bitter opponent. He believed that this trouble-making new sect should be stamped out, its adherents punished. He made it his mission to try to stomp out the heretical sect that was dividing Judaism and blasphemously claiming that a carpenter from Nazareth not only was the Messiah. We are told in Acts chapter 8 that when St Stephen impugned Law and temple, Paul, who although did not a participator in the stoning of Stephen, approved of it.

Now, breathing threats of slaughter against the disciples of Jesus, Paul hurried to Damascus when the grace of God effected his conversion. Saint Paul’s entire life can be explained in terms of one experience; his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul would have been the least person we would expect to become a believer but the ways of God are not like ours. No one is useless and unusable with God. Our past is inconsequential in Christ. When we receive the new life Christ gives, we are forgiven and we totally made new in him.
Paul’s history was very grim and evil but he didn’t let that describe him. He evolved and learnt from it, instead, and was turned into an unimaginable man of Faith. Thus a blasphemer and a persecutor was made an apostle, and chosen to be one of the principal instruments of God in the conversion of the world.

It is commonly thought that God renamed Saul after his conversion and that “Saul” indicates the persecutor, while “Paul” refers to the changed, Christian man. However, in Acts 9:17, Ananias refers to him as Saul after his conversion. Later in Acts 13:2, the Holy Spirit addresses him as Saul before he sets off on his first missionary trip. In fact, he is referred to as Saul 11 times after his conversion. It is when he sets out from Jerusalem in Acts 13:13 that the gospel author Luke begins to refer to him as Paul which is in fact, the Greek version of the Hebrew name “Saul.” We must learn that the spiritual life is not a moment but a journey. Saul never ‘became’ Paul in a flash, he had to learn how to along the way.

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