How Saul Became Paul

It’s pretty common for people to see the apostle Paul as some kind of superhero of the faith. After all, his travels were epic, his trials were extensive, and his teachings were (and are!) extraordinary. As we do with imaginary superheroes, most of us know Paul’s origin story; his conversion is told three times in Acts alone after all! But did you know that Saul had some big help in becoming Paul?

Before I go any further, let me point out that “Paul” is simply the Greek name that Saul, a Jewish man by birth and upbringing, used as he travelled through the Greek-speaking world. I have many friends who were given a Chinese name at birth but later chose an English name to use when interacting with English-only speakers. I suspect that’s what “Paul” was like to Saul. However, there is a definite turning point in Luke’s record of Saul’s life when he no longer references him as “Saul” but exclusively as “Paul” (Acts 13:9). Let’s consider what led up to that point.

Saul of Tarsus is introduced in the Biblical text as someone who was present at the stoning of Stephen and agreed with it (Acts 7:58; 8:1). In fact, following that tragic event, Saul went on a personal crusade against Christians, wreaking havoc upon the church (Acts 8:3; 9:1). He then saw both the real and proverbial light when he saw Jesus on the road to Damascus and was later encouraged by Ananias to be baptized for the remission of his sins (Acts 9:1-6; 22:12-16).

Luke’s account of Saul’s first steps in Christ omits some of the details later included in Saul’s own letter to the Galatians (Galatians 1:15-22). Combining the two, we see a picture of a man who with the Lord’s help became an itinerant preacher before he ever went to Jerusalem. However, when he made that first trip to Jerusalem, he had a problem: the Christians there “were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26).

One man though believed Saul’s story exactly as he told it. His name was Joses, but you probably know him by his nickname: Barnabas. At great risk given Saul’s background, Barnabas both trusted Saul and vouched for him, allowing Saul to move freely among the disciples (Acts 9:27-28). Saul was able to speak “boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus,” but not at length; his church family sent him to his hometown in Tarsus after his life was threatened (Acts 9:29-30). Though Saul evidently attempted to do more itinerant preaching work at that point, he would eventually wind up remaining in Tarsus where he would be found later (Galatians 1:21; Acts 11:25).

Though the Lord had told Saul that he would become a minister to the Gentile world before he was even converted (Acts 26:16-18), his success and impact in those early years was limited. People were happy he was a preacher (Galatians 1:23-24), but they didn’t even know what he looked like (Galatians 1:22). The inspired pen records nothing of the people he converted or the churches he planted in those first few years of his Christian walk.

Enter Barnabas again. Barnabas had been commissioned by the church at Jerusalem to do mission work amongst the newly formed congregation at Antioch (Acts 11:19-24). After a while, Barnabas realized the work was too great for him to do alone, and so he sought out Saul in Tarsus and asked him to join him in this great mission effort (11:25-26). From that time forward, the text records, “Barnabas and Saul… Barnabas and Saul… Barnabas and Saul” over and over (11:30; 12:25; 13:1, 2, 7). That is, until in Luke’s account when Saul finally became Paul (13:9). From that point forward, with the exception of that time when the Lycaonians mistakenly thought Barnabas was Zeus, it was “Paul and Barnabas” (13:43, 46, 50; 15:2). Paul became the superhero of the faith we know today, and Barnabas faded into obscurity.

Paul was indeed a great Christian man. But standing in between Saul the new convert and Paul the apostle to the Greco-Roman world was Barnabas. As you reflect on those around you, ask yourself: Is there anyone who needs someone to trust them and vouch for them? Is there anyone who needs to be invited to become a part of an important work? Is there anyone who needs to increase in notoriety even as you decrease (cf. John 3:30)? If so, you could be the catalyst that helps to turn a Saul into a Paul.
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org