Skip to content

Saul of Tarsus Acts 9:1-5



Readings: Acts 9:1-5, Galatians 1:11-17 

In this study, I want to do no more than to introduce you to a man of huge influence in the church, the Apostle Paul,  ‘Saul of Tarsus’ – and only on the understanding that it will be the briefest and most cursory of introductions – after all, volumes have been written about this man!  So we shall look at a brief background, make a theological point, and apply it, and then perhaps conclude with looking at a couple of descriptions of the church in the passage.


1 Who was Saul?

Since most of the Book of Acts seems to centre on the man we know as the Apostle Paul, it would be worthwhile at this stage to try to get a little insight into the man’s background…


A Jewish Scholar studying the Hebrew Writings


  • His early life.  Saul was born in Tarsus, a substantial town in the province of Cilicia, in the south of what is now, modern Turkey.  His family were of the tribe of Benjamin, Jewish people – there is no information on how they came to be residents in Asia Minor, – but they had gained Roman citizenship, which suggests they had been settled there for a good while. They would have been a fairly well-off and influential family though, for they could afford to send the young Saul off to university at Jerusalem.  His meteoric rise to the heights of Judaism would have demonstrated his pedigree too.  Galatians 1:14 And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.   
  • His education.  Saul studied under the famous Rabbi Gamaliel, in Jerusalem.  This was important.  Gamaliel was the grandson of another great Jewish teacher, the Rabbi Hillel, and followed his grandparent in that he held a more lenient interpretation in his application of the Law, for example, on divorce.  Gamaliel was a Pharisee, and from him Paul would have learned history, the Hebrew Scriptures, theology – and gained the qualifications that allowed him to preach in the Synagogues all over the Roman Empire.  Thus, through Saul of Tarsus, Gamaliel became – unwittingly – an influence in the spread of Christianity!   
  • His personal appearance.  Paul was no male model!  His appearance was far from impressive.  1 Corinthians 2:3 I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling.  2 Corinthians 10:10 “For his letters,” they say, “are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.”  Someone pictured him as a small baldy, bow-legged man, with a hooked nose, runny eyes,  eyebrows that met in the middle and a stammer!  But despite his appearance, he was so well loved by the church that he could say of the Galatian Christians, Galatians 4:13-15 You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first. 14 And my trial which was in my flesh you did not despise or reject, but you received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. 15 What then was the blessing you enjoyed? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me. 
  • His change of name.  Saul of Tarsus became Paul, the name by which we know him best.  There’s nothing unusual about that – lots of people do it.  Paul considered himself as the missionary to the Gentiles (just as Peter was the Apostle to the Jews), and Paul is the Greek form of the word Saul, just as Sinead is the Gaelic form of Jane, Janet, Janette…. Saul/Paul explains his underlying motives for this in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; 20 and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law;  To the Gentiles – he became a Gentile, took the Gentile form of his name, to be able to reach them for Christ.
  • His purpose in Damascus.  Now, back to the passage we have read.  Using his prominence in Judaism, and his position on the Council, Saul had gone to the Sanhedrin with a plan.  He had observed that many of the Christians had fled to Samaria, after the great tribulation of the days following the death of Stephen, and now he wanted to follow them, to make sure that they didn’t escape.  He would go as far as Damascus, in Syria, where there were Jewish synagogues, and if he found any Christians he would have them arrested and punished.  To that end he obtained ‘letters’ from the Sanhedrin, – letters of introduction and identification to the local Jewish leaders, arrest warrants for the Christians.

So, that’s a brief background to Saul – but there is another story, another early history of Saul, a more hidden history – what was going on beneath the fiery exterior!   


2 Resisting the Irresistible. 

You’ll hear radio presenters talking about a ‘backstory.’  One dictionary defines this as ‘a set of events invented for a book, film, or play that have taken place before it begins.’ There is a ‘backstory’ to Saul’s life – one that is happening in the heavenly realms, and which is impacting his heart and conscience.  There is something interesting going on behind the facade of deep religious fanaticism and hatred.   

  • BEFORE BIRTH, GOD HAD CHOSEN HIM! Galatians 1:14-15 And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace,  While Saul was busy becoming the best ever Jew in the whole world, while he was gaining influence and fame in Judaism, even while he was hating and persecuting the church, God was bringing his purpose to pass in Saul’s life.  He had already been chosen, before he was even born. 
  • HE HAD WATCHED STEPHEN DIE!  Had witnessed the manner of his death.  Acts 7:59-8:1 And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.  Now Saul was consenting to his death.  What impression had that death made?  A man persecuted to death for no reason other than telling the truth, dying a Christian death, a Christ-like death, willing to forgive those who were lifting the stones and pelting them down upon him.  A martyr, and example, a witness for Christ, and a powerful impression on the watching Pharisee.  I wonder how many have come to Christ, following the death of someone they knew, as they watched a loved one lie on a death bed, awaiting with patience and faith, for the Lord to come and take them home? 
  • HAD TRIED TO SHAKE OFF THE SENSE OF CONVICTION AND CONSCIENCE.  On that road, when he met the risen Christ, Jesus scolded him for his proud resistance to the Holy Spirit’s convicting power….  Acts 9:5 Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.  He did it by 
    • His outward hatred of the Christian faith.  It’s common, perhaps far more common than we think, for people who are under deep conviction of sin to assuage their wretched conscience and strive against the Holy Spirit’s work by a form or anti-Christian bravado, where they will mock the Savour, rant and rail against the church, rave about hypocrites, engage in spurious atheistic arguments, go out of their way to blaspheme the name of God and Christ – all as a front, because inwardly they are being drawn to the truth that they are sinners who need the Saviour.  Was Paul like that? 
    • Extra religious zeal!  This is another ploy often used by those who are being convicted of their sins, and who are ‘kicking against the goads.’    They will try to deflect their conscience by feeding it with a hearty dose of fervour for a false religion – Saul did this to a very great extent indeed.  He instigated the Great Tribulation after Stephen’s death, and now…. ‘Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.’ 
  • HAD JOURNEYED FOR A WEEK ALONG THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS.  Now this is an interesting aspect to the Holy Spirit’s dealing with Saul.  His journey to Damascus was a week on foot, that was the common method of travel for ordinary people.  To travel on a chariot like the Ethiopian Eunuch would have been the privilege of very few people; high ranking members of society.  Some wealthy businessmen would have travelled on a donkey, But Saul walked.  After all Acts 9:4 tells us that Saul “fell to the ground,” As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. 4 Then he fell to the ground not that he fell off a donkey or other beast.  Later, when blinded by the light, they didn’t put him on a beast and carry him to Damascus, which would seem logical if a horse had been available, – they ‘led him by the hand.’   So it was a long hot, tedious walk, and with only the temple Guard for company, it would have been a very lonely walk indeed, for a Pharisee would not have been permitted to enter into conversation with such people.  Plenty of time for contemplation, plenty of time to think, time to be still in his mind and time for the Holy Spirit’s convicting power to work…

All the time, while Saul was persecuting the church, God was gradually drawing him to himself for salvation in Christ.  These promptings and movings are referred to here as ‘goads.’  (‘Pricks in AV). Saul would have known that goads are used to drive stubborn animals – he would have seen mule cart drivers, and men ploughing with oxen, using long sticks with sharp goad on the end, to persuade a stubborn, strong willed beast to turn.  It is this that God is doing with us – stubborn, rebellious sinners.  It is hard to kick against God’s goads.   The reformers suggested that it was impossible!  They called it IRRESISTIBLE GRACE  – or in the Confessions, THE EFFECTUAL CALL. 

SAVOY DECLARATION 10: 1. All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased in his appointed and accepted time effectually to call by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good; and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace. 

God does this with all of us, those who are His, and whom he brings into his kingdom.  Remember that because we are so deeply sinful and rebellious against God, there is nothing within us to make us desire God, or seek him; even if we were able to come to him, and approach him in in our sins, which is impossible.   We would always turn away from God, it is our natural sinful reaction to his invitation to come to him and be saved.  We would be just like Saul of Tarsus, totally antagonistic to the claims of Christ on our lives.  But in the background, God, in his sovereign grace is directing events in our lives, to bring us to the place where we will become aware of our sins and trust in Christ as Saviour.  We are rarely  – never – aware of this while it is happening – it is only later, when we look back that we see the gracious hand of God, protecting us, guiding us, bringing us graciously to faith in Christ.  Look back over your own life from time to time and recognise how the Lord has led you.


3 The Persecuted People. 

Who were these people that Saul hated so much that he wanted to kill them?  Luke gives them various names throughout his book, but here we find two descriptions:- 

  • The DISCIPLES OF THE LORD! Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.  Christians are those who are sitting at the feet of Christ, learning from him, remembering his invitation to come to him and find rest for their souls.  Matthew 11:29-30 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”  The Pharisees, like Saul, put great legal burdens upon the people, – burdens they could never bear.  Jesus lifts our burdens, and carries all our legal responsibilities under the law for us, bore those burdens to the cross, nailed them to the tree.  Robert Murray McCheyne penned these wonderful words, When free grace awoke me, by light from on high, Then legal fears shook me, I trembled to die; No refuge, no safety in self could I see— Jehovah Tsidkenu my Saviour must be.  My terrors all vanished before the sweet name; My guilty fears banished, with boldness I came To drink at the fountain, life giving and free— Jehovah Tsidkenu is all things to me. 
  • The people of the WAY!  asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.  Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life’ and the early Christians were walking in that way.  And these is no other way to heaven, except through Christ.

So, we have introduced Saul the persecutor of the church, who is now setting out on his journey to Damascus to bring more pain and death to Christians.  I wonder what will happen along the way?  

© BobMcEvoy January 2020

From → Acts, Bible Study

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: