Saul of Tarsus and the Resurrection

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It is not people, but God who chooses his instruments and tools in building the church. And he chose one very unlikely candidate, as we shall soon see.

Introduction to Saul
Saul was reared in a devout Jewish family of Tarsus which belonged to the strict party of the Pharisees. Today, we might say, "a strict Orthodox Jew" or "fundamentalist Jew." The family was of the tribe of Benjamin, and Saul was named after the first King of Israel. The family was apparently both wealthy and prominent. Saul would have felt honored to receive formal religious training from Gamaliel, the most famous and respected Rabbi of his time. Saul’s sister and nephew are mentioned in Acts 23:16. We can assume that the Apostle received a sizable inheritance which sustained him in his later years. During his imprisonment in Caesarea, Governor Felix sent for him often in hopes of receiving a bribe for is release (Acts 24:25-26).

Having grown up in the important city of Tarsus in Cilicia, Saul would have become familiar with the ways of the Gentiles. Saul was fluent in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. Few Jews could claim Roman citizenship by birth, as he did. This guaranteed him a position of honor in all parts of the far-reaching Roman kingdom.

He was very familiar with the Torah (books of Moses) and Jewish traditions (oral law), which were held to be of equal importance. We don’t know when or how long Saul studied under Gamaliel, but this must have partly coincided with the public ministry of Jesus. He claimed to have been brought up in Jerusalem (Acts 21:3). It is even possible that Saul heard Jesus teach at some time.

Paul did not claim to have been a “disciple” of Gamaliel, but rather a student. A disciple would have been one whose intent was obtaining smicha, meaning that the student would accept the teacher’s philosophy without question. If Paul had received this kind of recognition from the Jews, he certainly would have mentioned it just as he mentioned his Roman citizenship and belonging to the Pharisees.

Saul's Position
Acts 26:4-5 My manner of life from my youth, which was at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews; Which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.

Paul’s claim that he was known to all the Jews in Jerusalem is a startling statement which shows that he not only studied in Jerusalem, but had become a person of some prominence. This is further underscored by the fact that he sat in on council meetings and obtained authorization from the High Priest to persecute Christians.

Philippians 3:4-6 Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.

Galatians 1:13-14 For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers.

Stephen’s death took place about five years after the crucifixion of Christ and Saul was probably born just a few years after Jesus. An ancient tradition gives his birth at 2 AD. Luke says Saul was a “young man” when Stephen was stoned, probably under 30 years of age. He was already associated with the Sanhedrin, which is similar to our Supreme Court. He would have been too young to be a full-fledged member, but Acts 22:20 says that he gave his consent to stone Stephen and held the clothing of senior members who did the dirty work. They didn't want to get their ornate robes soiled! A Serious Threat to the Delicate Balance of Power

Saul had listened intently to the debates of the differing parties and apparently became convinced that the tolerant stance shown by Gamaliel and his Hillite school (Acts 5:34-40) had proven ineffective in stopping the fast growing sect. He was convinced that the Christian movement posed too serious a threat to be tolerated. He decided that this was no time for eloquent speeches, but rather for prompt and affirmative action!

Saul requested and received authorization from the High Priest Annas, who was a Sadducee, to arrest both men and women who espoused the Christian faith. In order to expedite his venture, soldiers were dispatched to accompany him. This too sheds light on Saul’s standing among leading Jews.

It would be appropriate at this point to describe the political landscape among leading Jews of the period. The Sadducees held a majority among the High Priests, but the Pharisees were most popular among the people. The latter were divided into two major groups, the moderate school of Hillel, which was under the leadership of Gamaliel, and the Shammite school, which interpreted the Torah and Oral Law legalistically. Smaller movements such as the Essenes, Zealots and Herodians added to the divisiveness.

The Shammite Pharisees were politically more closely aligned with the Sadducees than to fellow Pharisees of the Hillite school. The Jewish rebellion against Rome, which took place in 68-70 AD, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, was led by “Zealots” of the Shammite school together with prominent members of the Sadducees. Hillite Pharisees displayed a willingness to make concessions to the Romans in hopes of regaining power they had lost to the Sadducees.

The delicate political equilibrium in Jerusalem was threatening to disintegrate. All Jewish leaders were well aware that a strong messianic (Christian) movement would have a catastrophic effect on this constellation of power.

The time lapse between Gamaliel’s “edict of toleration” in Acts 5 and the stoning of Stephen in chapter 7 is probably less than a year, but the Christian movement was growing rapidly. “About three thousand souls” were added at Pentecost (Acts 2:41). A few verses later, we read that the Christians enjoyed the goodwill “of all the people” and that the Lord “added to the church daily.” Acts 4:4 gives the number of believing men at 5,000, and in Acts 5:14 “multitudes of both men and women” were being converted. In chapter six, we read of a multiplication of disciples, and verse 11 states that a great many priests had become Christians!

Every alarm bell and whistle must have been sounding in the council meetings of the Sanhedrin. We can imagine the heated debates about what to do. In Acts four and five, it was the High Priests and Sadducees who were most distraught. They may have felt compelled to listen to Gamaliel’s advice in chapter five, but after realizing that warnings and a show of tolerance were of none effect, the climate would have swung in favor of the Shammite Pharisees and Sadducees.

The Stoning of Stephen
In Acts 9:1-2, we find the Christian church in Jerusalem in a state of disarray. Many Christians have been arrested or persecuted. Others are in hiding or have fled to surrounding areas and even into Asia Minor (now Turkey). The Apostle Paul describes his activities vividly in Acts 26:10-11: Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities.

Saul had not only received permission to persecute Christians in Damascus, but he was active in Jerusalem and other cities as well. He was present in the council and gave his consenting vote when it was determined to stone Stephen. In a prayer, Paul said, Lord, they know that I imprisoned and beat in every synagogue them that believed on thee: And when the blood of thy martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him (Acts 22:19-20).

Paul wrote to the Philippians (3:6) that he was considered “blameless” according to the law of the Pharisees. He wrote to the Galatian Church that he persecuted the church beyond measure and “wasted” it and then declares, I profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers (Galatians 1:13-14). In plain language, the violent activities of Saul against the Christians enhanced his position and status among the religious leaders of Israel.

The execution of Stephen by stoning would normally have been contrary to Hillite principles, but it is quite apparent that Saul of Tarsus did not share these views in regards to the Christians. If he did, he departed from that stance when he began his rampage against the followers of Jesus.

As uncontested leader of the Hillite school and proponent of tolerance, Gamaliel would normally have been disappointed that his gifted and intelligent student, Saul, had shifted allegiance to the harsher interpretations of the Shammite school and the Sadducees. On the other hand, it is quite possible that Gamaliel himself was beginning to question the wisdom of showing tolerance to the Christians. The Bible tells us that the Sanhedrin was of “one accord” in the decision to stone Stephen. It would have been unusual if Gamaliel had not been present and part of this decision (Acts 7:54-60).

At this point, I want to insert an interesting thought. Stephen was one of seven deacons selected in Acts 6 to meet the physical needs of needy believers such as widows and orphans. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word (Acts 6:3-4).

Shortly afterwards, we find two of these seven men, Stephen and Philip, preaching the gospel. After Stephen was brutally murdered, Philip continued preaching and many were converted under his ministry (Acts 8:6-8). One might ask why Stephen and Philip were preaching, since they had been chosen to meet physical needs of the people so that Peter, James, John and other apostles could “give themselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” When an Ethiopian eunuch needed someone to explain the scriptures to him, God sent Philip rather than one of the Apostles.

It is not people, but God who chooses his instruments and tools in building the church. And he chose one very unlikely candidate, as we shall soon see.

Saul’s Conversion
Damascus was the principle city of Syria, about 150 miles north of Jerusalem. There were numerous Jews in Damascus, and those who had become Christians seemed to enjoy a good reputation among them. Although Ananias was a Christian, he was held in high esteem by the Jews of the city (Acts 22:12). Perhaps this is why Saul planned to extradite the Christians to Jerusalem. The High Priest, which had given him authority and delegated temple guards to accompany him, would see to their certain punishment. Stephen’s death and other persecutions of Saul were well known to the Christians in Damascus. They had received information about Saul’s crusade to Damascus and were in fear and trembling at what awaited them (Acts 9:13).

“High Noon”
Just as Saul and the soldiers accompanying him were about to enter Damascus and proceed with their treacherous mission, God stepped into the picture as only he can. A brilliant light from heaven caused the noonday sun to pale and struck Saul to the ground!

God created man with a free will, and he doesn’t force anyone into his kingdom. But God looks on the heart and when he sees someone who takes his faith seriously and who earnestly seeks to serve God, all those false teachings and traditions that tend to blind people to the truth cannot hinder his light from penetrating that darkness.

God may have been working in Saul’s heart even before his personal encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. Stephen’s bold message and his countenance while being stoned must have made a deep impression on the young man. As already mentioned, Saul may possibly have had some exposure to Christian teaching, and he may even have heard Jesus speak at some time.

Saul met the God he thought he was serving face to face and was struck blind for three days. Everyone in his party saw the bright light and fell to the earth, but only Saul understood the voice. If there was any shadow of a doubt, who was responsible for this dramatic experience, the voice from heaven erased that doubt. I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecuteth (Acts 22:8).

Jesus himself spoke to Saul. There is a seeming contradiction between Acts 9:7 and 22:9. Did the accompanying soldiers hear the voice or didn’t they? Two possible explanations are given. Some contend that the men heard Saul’s voice, but not the Lord speaking. A more likely explanation is that they heard a voice or sound but they didn’t understand or recognize what was said or that it was Jesus speaking. Acts 9 uses the Greek phonos= to hear sound, whereas Acts 22 uses the Greek phonen= to hear with understanding. It may have sounded like thunder or as an unintelligible voice to the others, but Saul understood clearly what Jesus was saying to him.

Saul stayed three days with a man named Judas, who lived in a street named “Straight.” He neither ate nor drank anything during those three days, but he fasted and prayed. He had been spiritually blind and now he was also physically blind. In his miserable condition, he might well have considered the plight of the disobedient prophet Jonah, whom God had punished in a similar fashion. Jonah was in total darkness for three days and nights until the fish regurgitated him onto a beach. As was the case with Jonah, Saul’s life would be dramatically changed and the world would take notice!

Saul was not yet converted when the foundation of the church was laid at Pentecost. The strange occurrences that were reported of the Christians was only hearsay, but now, he was experiencing God’s powerful working firsthand. And in God’s omniscient plan, his fearful “lamb,” Ananias, was going to have the honor of sharing the gospel with the “big bad wolf,” Saul, leading him to Christ and baptizing him. He would also be instrumental in restoring Saul’s eyesight.

About Wolves and Lambs
Before I continue with the story of Saul’s conversion, I want to share a few thoughts from Luke, chapter ten.

In Luke 10, Jesus sent out seventy disciples to do missionary work and told them, “Behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves!” Considering other passages that speak of wolves, this is an amazing statement!

Jesus warned his followers about wolves in Matthew 7:15: Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. In John 10, Jesus said that a hired shepherd sees the wolf coming and flees. The wolf snatches his meal and the other sheep are scattered. Paul warned the church in Acts 20:29, For I know this, that after my departure, great wolves will enter in among you, and they won’t spare the flock!

The havoc wolves wreak among sheep can hardly be considered collateral damage. It is outright homicide! Wolves kill lambs for a living, yet Jesus sent his disciples as “lambs among wolves!”

Sheep are kept in flocks and wolves travel in packs, but “the good shepherd” sent his lambs out two by two into a pack of wolves! Talk about unequal matches!

Surprise! In verse 20, we read that all seventy disciples not only returned safely but even happy and excited about their experiences. They exclaimed, “Even the devils obey us!” Jesus had to chide them a little about their exuberance. “Now, now boys; don’t get so hyper! Just be happy that your names are written in my book!” (my own paraphrase).

The Stage is Set
In Acts 9:1-2, Saul of Tarsus arrives in Damascus with his “pack of wolves” – armed soldiers. He is carrying legal authorization from the High Priest to arrest Christians and take them bound to Jerusalem.

Ananias knows nothing about Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus reported in Acts 9:3-9. In verses 10-14, this “scared lamb” receives marching orders from the “Good Shepherd” to go over to Straight Street and pay the “big bad wolf” a friendly visit! God has been preparing the heart of Saul for three days, and now he must prepare Ananias’ heart. God spoke to Saul, calling him by name (Saul means “asked of God”). God also called Ananias (“God is gracious”) by name. Ananias responded much as Samuel and Gideon had done by saying, “Behold, I am here Lord!” God appeared to both Saul and Ananias in a vision, preparing them to meet each other. Both were apparently praying when God appeared to them.

Ananias told the Lord what he had heard about Saul: Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name (Acts 9:13). The Lord then told Ananias what HE knew about Saul! He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake (Acts 9:14).

The Lambs Win!
Ananias had nothing to fear, for he was not alone. The Lamb of God defeated Satan on the cross and he had already disarmed the wolf, Saul, on the road to Damascus. Saul may have jailed a bunch of Christians and assisted in the stoning of Stephen, but he and his pack of wolves were no match for the Lambs of God.

And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized (Acts 9:17-18).

In just three day’s time, God transformed a raving wolf into a helpless new-born lamb. We find Ananias nursing his wounds, bathing him (baptism) and giving him nourishment from God’s Word. What a picture!

Baby Steps
We are not told what happened to the soldiers, but it is not difficult to imagine that they returned to Jerusalem to report to the High Priest. They would have left before Saul met Ananias and thus not have known about the meeting between these two men. They would only know that Saul had been struck blind and was rendered incapable of carrying out his task.

Saul remained in Damascus for a time and preached that Jesus was the Christ. He then went into seclusion for three years in Arabia. This could have been near Damascus or in a far corner of Syria. We only know this from Paul’s testimony in Galatians 1:13-24, and he does not tell us much about that period of time.

Saul soon became Paul, and from this time forth, he was the one being imprisoned and persecuted. Acts 23:6 But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question.

The Role that the Resurrection Played
Saul was a committed Pharisee in every way, but there came a time when he began to have doubts about his colleagues. There were numerous claims that Jesus had risen from the dead, but the Pharisees were united in the opinion that this was not possible. Saul was a deep and very logical thinker. To him, a good Pharisee could never say that resurrection was impossible. Only Sadducees made that claim. There might be a reason why someone was resurrected or why someone claiming a resurrection had to be wrong, but even though no Pharisee had ever witnessed a resurrection, it would be inappropriate to simply say that it was impossible. This was one of the core beliefs of the Pharisees. Saul must have begun investigating the claim. I personally believe that he was the one who reported many of his findings that found their way into our New Testament.

The most important passage is the so-called "resurrection chapter," I Corinthians 15. 15:3-9 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: Paul lists all those eyewitnesses of the resurrection including himself on the Damascus Road. Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? [the leaven of the Sadducees was creeping into the young church!]

15:13- 26 But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.

15:30-32 And why stand we in jeopardy every hour? I protest by your rejoicing which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? Let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die.

15:33-34 Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners. Awake to righteousness, and sin not; for some have not the knowledge of God: I speak this to your shame.

15:35-44 But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come? Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die: And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain: But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body. All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds. There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.

In 15:45-54 we have a theological discourse that stretches from Genesis to Revelation! And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.

Finally, Paul adds his "Hallelujah Chorus" in verses 55-58: O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.

Ralph V Harvey