The book of Acts, authored by Luke, details the events after Christ’s ascension into Heaven and the men and women who helped shape the early church. Peter who became a leader and continued spreading the gospel. Stephen who is traditionally thought to be the first martyr of Christianity. Philip who performed miracles in Samaria and baptizing an Ethiopian man. One man who helped the early church more than any other man, Saul of Tarsus, who became known as the Apostle Paul after one of the greatest conversions to be recorded in the Bible. Acts 7:58-28:31 detailed his life as Saul, his conversion and his mission trips to travel to every region he could, preaching the message of Christ and establishing churches. He continued to teach from inside a prison cell, letters to the churches he established and his companions which became the books Romans through Philemon.
When Saul of Tarsus is first introduced by Luke, he is hated, persecuting the early Christians. The first mentioned of Saul of Tarsus is in Acts 7:58, 60 at the stoning death of Stephen. He gave his approval as Stephen died (Acts 7:60). Luke details Saul’s conversion in Acts 9: 1-19, Saul made murderous threats against the disciples and made his way to Damascus to gather men and women who belonged to the Way (early Christians) to arrest them (verse 2). While on the road, a flash of light from heaven surrounded him, as he fell to the ground, a great voice spoke “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (verses 3-4). It is Jesus who tells Saul to make his way into the city and wait there. When Saul gets up from the ground, he is unable to see. He, with the help of his companions, makes his way to Damascus. For three days, he was blind, unable to eat or drink (verses 8-9). In the city, Ananias, a disciple, was given a vision from Jesus to seek Saul to restore his sight (verses 10-12) but Ananias is hesitant because he has heard stories about Saul of Tarsus. But Jesus reassures him that Saul will be his instrument to spread his message to the Gentiles and the people of Israel (verses 15-16). Ananias obeys, finds Saul and restores his sight. Saul was baptized and began to regain his strength (verses 17-19). The lessons in Saul’s conversion is that people can be changed by Jesus, even today. Saul was convinced he was persecuting heretics when he was persecuting Jesus himself as believers are the body of Christ on earth. Despite his fears, Ananias obeys Jesus and finds Saul, greets him lovingly, calling his Brother Saul (Acts 9: 17). It is not always easy to show love to other, especially when we are afraid of them or doubt their motives. However, we must show lovingly acceptance to other believers, for even the hardest hearts can be softened by the power of Jesus Christ.
Soon after his conversion, Saul began to preach in the synagogues (Acts 9:20). He grew more and more powerful in his conviction. People were skeptical about Saul but soon were convinced as his changed life was evident (Acts 9:22). It is important to know what the Bible teaches and how to defend your faith, but your words need to be backed up with the actions in your life. This can be difficult to do. In the song, What if I stumble? by DC Talk (1995), a quote from American author, Brennan Manning (1934-2013) was used. He says “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today are Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. This is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” Unfortunately, there are many Christians who acts as if they are perfect and judges of the world and become blind to their own faults that the world still sees. These are the Christians that the non-believers sees and says, “Well if that’s being Christian, then why bother?” Walking with Christ is not easy. We are still human with human weaknesses and we will stumble every now and then as our human side takes over. However, we need to strive to emulate Jesus as best we can. If we are humble, admit our mistakes, we can show non-Christians that being a follower of Christ isn’t about being perfect, that we aren’t the judges of the world. We are to show Jesus’s love and bring his message to the world. Saul is one of the great examples of how a life can be changed by Christ and being his message to the world. He admits his weaknesses and even delights in them as he writes in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 that his weaknesses keeps him humble and God’s power is displayed in our weaknesses. Strive to be humble and show the world that we can be strengthen by Jesus despite our weaknesses, despite our faults, and despite our failings.
By the time he begins his mission trips, Saul begins to use the name Paul. Some have thought that he changed his name to further signify his conversion. However, the names are interchangeable as he is Jewish as well as Roman through his father. The custom was two names to reflect both heritages. He seems to change to the name Paul as he travels around through Greece and what is today called Asia minor, preaching the message of Jesus to Gentiles. My thought is that he did so to be more approachable than going by his Jewish name would. The book of Acts details three mission trips. During his first mission trip, he travels with Barnabas where he encounters a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet called Bar-Jesus (Acts 13:1-7). They traveled throughout the area, boldly preaching the message of Jesus (Acts 13-14). During his second, Paul begins to traveling with Silas (Acts 15:40) where they traveled through Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:41). Timothy (Acts 16:1-5) and Luke (Acts 16:10 the change in pronouns) join Paul and Silas on their mission trip. During this trip, Paul and Silas were imprisoned for “advocating customs unlawful” for Romans to practice (Acts 16:21). During their imprisonment, there was a great earthquake which freed their shackles. It convinced the jailer of the power of God (Acts 16:25-30). After his third mission trip, while in Jerusalem, Paul is arrested by Roman troops (Acts 22) when a group of Jews stirred up the crowd and accused Paul of defiling the temple by inviting Gentiles in (Acts 21:28). Eventually he is sent to Rome, where he is placed under house arrest, allowed visitors and boldly preached the message of Jesus (Acts 28:30-31). Tradition holds that Paul was released after two years and sets off on a fourth mission trip. However, there is no Biblical account of this, only mentions by Paul in letters to the various churches. During his mission trips, Paul displayed a boldness and fierce intensity. He carried the mission to spread the gospel to the rest of the world as commanded by Jesus (Acts 1:8).
In conclusion, while the book of Acts isn’t just an account of Paul but the early church, you can’t deny the impact he had on the early church as he helped spread the message beyond the Jewish communities. He has become known as the apostle to the Gentiles. Of the 27 books in the New Testament, Paul has been the attributed author to 14 of them although some scholars now question if he truly authored some of them. God used all parts of Paul, his background, his citizenship and even his mistakes to spread the gospel to all people. A man who once approved of the murder of one of God’s people became the loudest voice for him. If God can use a man like Paul, he can use anyone of us to further his message. All we need to do is be sensitive to his leading and direction.