The man known to us today as the apostle Paul was alive during the lifetime and the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. During that time, he was known as Saul of Tarsus. Saul is first introduced to readers of the Bible in the book of Acts (7:58), which immediately follows the four Gospel accounts of Jesus life on earth.
When Saul is introduced in the Bible, he is in the city of Jerusalem, the same city where Jesus had been just recently crucified. The text calls Saul a “young man” at that time, and it also indicates that Saul was a personal witness of the killing of the first Christian to be put to death for faith in Jesus Christ. Immediately following that execution, Saul set about trying to destroy the church, going house to house and dragging out both men and women to have them imprisoned for their identification with Jesus. (Acts 8:3)
But it’s not as though Saul came in on the story of Jesus at a late date and hopped blindly on the anti-Christian bandwagon. By his own admission, he stated that he was raised in the very city where Jesus taught and was crucified and buried. (Acts 22:3) Jerusalem wasn’t that huge. Saul knew very well about Jesus.
The person who recorded what I have written thus far today was a doctor from the city of Troas (in modern day Turkey) by the name of Luke. (Acts 16:10) Luke claimed that he had followed carefully all of the events pertaining to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ from the beginning and to have written an orderly account so that people could know with certainty what had happened. (Luke 1:1-4)
So what did Saul himself have to say about Luke’s accusations? Did Saul agree that he had treated the first generation of Christians harshly? And if Saul had indeed persecuted Christians for their faith, what made Saul switch sides on the issue of faith in Jesus?
Saul of Tarsus wrote a letter to the Christians of Galatia in Asia Minor which stated,
For you have heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how I was savagely persecuting the church of God and trying to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my nation, and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. (Galatians 13-14)
Now, in case you are wondering how certain we can be that the Saul of Tarsus described by Dr. Luke in the book of Acts is the same person who wrote that letter to the Galatians, let me answer. Very certain! It is the one book of the New Testament over which almost no one has any dispute about authorship–even non-Christian scholars.
In a letter Saul later wrote to the Christians at Philippi in Macedonia, he said this about himself,
I was circumcised on the eighth day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. I lived according to the law as a Pharisee [a strict, practicing Jew]. In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. (Philippians 3:5-6)
So, if Saul of Tarsus wanted fame or power, he was already on the path to it by doing exactly what he had been doing before becoming a Christian. He was educated by the most famous Jewish teacher of the day and was, also, personally known by the High Priest of the Jewish faith, as well as the Jewish ruling council. (Acts 22:4-5)
If Jesus Weren’t Resurrected, What Would Paul Have Gained?
According to everything that Saul of Tarsus believed, the only thing he could gain by renouncing the Jewish faith and turning to belief in Jesus Christ was eternal damnation!
What would it take to make you change your fervent, established religious beliefs–beliefs so strong that they led Saul to persecute Christians to the point of death (Acts 22:4), beliefs so faithfully followed that they established him in the highest echelons of his society?
Saul later wrote of those beliefs and practices,
But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! (Philippians 3:7-8)
Happily lose all things and count them as dung? What a turnabout! Saul, now known as Paul, staked everything, absolutely everything, including his very life’s breath on the truth of the resurrection and deity of the same Jesus whom he used to hate so vehemently! People don’t do such things for flimsy reasons.
The answer to Paul’s turnaround is not complicated. In Paul’s own words, as recorded in that virtually uncontested letter that he wrote to the Galatians, we are told,
Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. For I did not receive it or learn it from any human source; instead I received it by a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11-12)
Paul saw and heard the resurrected Jesus, and he was never the same again. So convinced was Paul of the authenticity of his experience (which, by the way, those traveling with him also heard [Acts 9:7]), that he would, through the course of the rest of his lifetime, endure:
- being beaten with whips on five occasions (2 Corinthians 11:24)
- being beaten with rods on three occasions (2 Corinthians 11:25)
- being left for dead by stoning (2 Corinthians 11:25)
- being shipwrecked on three occasions (2 Corinthians 11:25)
- enduring hard work (2 Corinthians 11:27)
- going without food (2 Corinthians 11:27)
- going without enough clothing (2 Corinthians 11:27)
- being imprisoned in Philippi, in Jersusalem, in Caesarea, and in Rome.
Paul believed on the basis of personal experience of the bodily resurrected Jesus Christ. He persuaded others that, compared to the eternal glory in Jesus’ presence that he was counting on, all of those sufferings were but momentary, light afflictions.
Paul didn’t live hundreds of years after Jesus. he wasn’t Christian because “he was raised in a Christian country.” He wasn’t Christian because “that’s what his parents taught him.” He personally knew the “before, during, and after” of Christianity’s birth. It wasn’t hearsay to him.
A personal, transformative encounter with the bodily resurrected Jesus of Nazareth convinced him of the Truth about the Creator, Savior God.