After the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Church quickly spreads throughout Judaism. Steadily, the number of believers increased and devoted themselves to the life of Jesus. Jerusalem was the site of Pentecost and the first converts, but God desired for the whole world to enter into His life. It wouldn’t be long before Christianity was brought to not only the Jews, but the Gentile nations as well. 

Even though many Jews in Jerusalem believed in Jesus and became disciples under the guidance of the Apostles, there were also many who Jews who viewed the new followers of the resurrected Jesus with not only suspicion, but hatred. These were the Jewish temple leaders who accused Jesus of blasphemy and had turned Him over to the Romans to be crucified. They began to persecute followers of ‘the way’ ( the followers of Jesus do not get the name ‘christian’ until a little later in Antioch) by imprisoning them and even putting some to death. A Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, was a zealous persecutor of Christians. He stood as witness as St. Stephen the deacon, the first Christian martyr, was stoned. From the day of that first stoning, persecution of Christians abounded in Jerusalem, with Saul at its head. He would enter house after house, dragging off men and women to prison who were suspected or known followers of Jesus. 

Because of this, many Christians left Jerusalem. Saul, not satisfied with His work in Jerusalem, desired to eradicate the threat of Christianity completely. He obtained permission from the High Priest to go to Damascus, arrest Christians, and bring them back to Jerusalem. At this point, God intervened. On the road to Damascus, a bright light shone, knocking Saul to the ground. A voice came from heaven calling to Saul: Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? Saul replies, Who are you, Lord? The answer, I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up, go into the city, and you will be told what to do (Acts 9:4-7). Saul rose blind. The men who were with Him were speechless for they had heard the voice, but had seen no one. They led Saul into Damascus.

Saul fasted in the city for three days. God appeared to Ananias, a Christain in Damascus, and directed Him to baptize Saul and lay his hands on him. Saul accepted Baptism, received the Holy Spirit, and ate to regain his strength. He immediately began preaching Jesus as the resurrected Messiah in the Damascus synagogues. Quickly, he made enemies with the persecutors of Christianity, his former allies. They desired to kill him, but Saul escaped back to Jerusalem where he desired to meet with the Apostles. They were scared of him and suspected treachery, but Barnabas believed him and brought him to the Apostles where Paul gave his testimony. Then Saul went out preaching Jesus to Jerusalem much to the ire of the Jewish temple leaders. Saul again was under the threat of death so the Christians sent Him to Tarsus, his home town, where he learned the Christian way of life and changed his name to Paul. 

The first thing that we can learn about the conversion of Paul is that Jesus identifies with his believers. When Saul asks the Lord who he is accused of persecuting, Jesus says, I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. He does not say, I am Jesus, the leader of the ones you are persecuting. Rather, He plainly states that He is the one who is being persecuted. This is the foundation of Paul’s ecclesiology, found in his letters, that states that the Church is the Body of Christ with Jesus as the head. If someone persecutes a Christian, they persecute Jesus. 

Second, we see the name change of Saul to Paul. This is a common practice found in the early Church starting when Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter. The name change of a Christian is a sign that a Christian has become a new person in Christ. There are few greater examples of this than in St. Paul who as Saul was a prosecutor and murderer, but changes to the man who gives us the most famous exposition of love in a letter to the Corinthians. 

Next, Paul shows us the importance of not being lukewarm. In Revelation 3, Jesus states, I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. Paul does change greatly from cold to hot in his love for Jesus, but could never be accused of being lukewarm. Paul as Saul had zeal for God, it was just misplaced. However, Jesus was able to redirect that zeal for His kingdom. Because of free will, Jesus can work with zeal, but He cannot force us out of apathy. He can only encourage us to act in greater love. So we must learn from Saul to always strive to do what we think is right to the best of our ability, and humbly trust that God will redirect it if needed. 

Finally, the blood of St. Stephen cannot be understated in the conversion of St. Paul. Tertulllian tells us that the ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.’ In his dying breath, Stephen prayed for his persecutors, the chiefmost being Saul. Stephen’s blood and prayers cried out to God for Saul, and Saul who heard Stephen’s witness, would become God’s witness to the gentiles. 

In the story of Paul, God shows His great love and mercy for His children, even if they are professing to be His enemy. God calls Paul to be His witness, and Paul does so without hesitation. As a result, many came to believe in Jesus through him.