January 25: The Conversion of Saint Paul, Apostle—Feast
5 A.D.–64/65 A.D.
Patron Saint of missionaries, evangelists, writers, public workers, ropemakers, saddlemakers, and tentmakers
Invoked against hailstorms and snakebites
Liturgical Color: White
For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God [that is] with me. Therefore, whether it be I or they, so we preach and so you believed. ~1 Corinthians 15:9–11
Paul was born a Jew in the Roman city of Tarsus, in modern-day Turkey. On the eighth day, he was circumcised and received the Hebrew name Saul. At a young age, Saul began to study the Law of Moses in Jerusalem under Gamaliel, a member of the Sanhedrin and one of the most respected Pharisees and Doctors of the Law of his era. The Pharisees had enumerated 613 laws found within the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Saul would have studied each of these laws carefully.
When Saul was in his early twenties, Jesus of Nazareth began His public ministry during which He challenged the rigid interpretations that the Pharisees taught about the Law of Moses. Jesus was crucified three years later when Saul was about twenty-five. Now a Pharisee himself, Saul was diametrically opposed to Jesus’ teachings, believing that they were in opposition to the Law of Moses that he had come to know so well through the distorted lens of the pharisaical teachings. After Jesus’ crucifixion, Saul zealously devoted himself to persecuting those who were Jesus’ followers. Even when his own teacher, Gamaliel, recommended the followers of Jesus be ignored, Saul could not hold himself back.
The earliest documented martyrdom in the Church after Jesus’ death took place with Saul’s consent, when those who stoned Saint Stephen laid their cloaks at Saul’s feet as Saul looked on. After that, Saul received a letter of permission from the high priest in Jerusalem to go beyond the city, searching from house to house to arrest those who followed Jesus, bringing them back in chains to stand trial in Jerusalem. As he took this letter of permission with him on a journey to Damascus, Saul had an experience that would not only change his life forever but also change the entire world.
“On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ He said, ‘Who are you, sir?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 9:3–5). With that, Saul was blinded and had to be led into the city of Damascus, where he stayed for three days, fasting, praying, and pondering this encounter.
In that city was a disciple of Jesus named Ananias. Ananias knew about Saul’s persecution of the Church and feared him greatly. But Jesus appeared to Ananias and told him to go to Saul, lay his hands on him, heal him, and baptize him. Jesus explained that “this man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites, and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name” (Acts 9:15–16). Ananias did as he was instructed, and Saul listened, converted, was baptized, and began a new life as an apostle of the Lord Jesus. Eventually Saul began to use his Roman name “Paul” rather than his Hebrew name “Saul.”
Our feast today not only celebrates Saint Paul, it specifically celebrates his conversion. Think about that glorious conversion. Those three days that Saul spent in Damascus after encountering Jesus on the road changed his life. During those three days, he pondered Jesus’ words, fasted, prayed, listened, thought, and changed. Facing the truth within his soul might not have been easy, but he did it. From that time on, the zeal that he had poured into persecution became zeal for the spreading of the Gospel.
The first three years after his conversion were spent in Arabia, perhaps in prayer, study, and preparation for his new mission. God used this time of solitude to bring about a deeper conversion in Saul’s heart and to form him into a powerful instrument. After three years, he returned to Damascus and then continued to travel far and wide, proclaiming Jesus as the Christ. Over the approximately twenty-seven years that followed, Paul arguably became the greatest evangelist in the history of the world. At least thirteen of the twenty-seven New Testament books are traditionally attributed to Paul, providing us with much of what we know about Jesus. His letters are not only historical in nature, they are also rich in theology, providing the most sturdy foundation for all that we believe as Christians today. Paul personally founded more than a dozen Christian communities during his missionary travels, but the members of those communities then went forth to found many more, making Paul not only a spiritual father to many early Christians but also a spiritual grandfather to countless others. He was tireless in his efforts, despite enduring much suffering:
Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure (2 Corinthians 11:25–27).
In his mid-fifties, Paul was arrested and spent years in prison. Being a Roman citizen, he appealed to Rome and was eventually sent there for trial. In Rome, he suffered martyrdom at around the age of sixty, possibly as a result of the persecutions of the Emperor Nero. Though we do not know for certain how he died, tradition states that he was beheaded with a sword.
It’s easy to see Saint Paul in the bright light of all that he accomplished. But one truth we must never forget is that he was only a man. He was a man who experienced a profound conversion and dedicated the rest of his life to the will of God. Saint Paul must be a model for each of us. As we ponder his conversion today, think about your own conversion. If you are not as zealous for God as was Saint Paul, work to change that. You are just as capable of living a radical Christian life as was Saint Paul. Allow God to fill you with zeal so that God may use you in glorious ways.
Saint Paul, you were filled with zeal throughout your life. First, you were zealous in persecuting the early Christians in an attempt to defend the Jewish interpretation of the Law of Moses. After you encountered Jesus, Whom you were persecuting, you completely changed your life and became one of the most zealous evangelists in the history of the world. Please pray for me, that I may embrace the same zeal you had and allow Jesus to convert my soul as fully as you allowed Him to convert you. Saint Paul, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Dr. Scott Hahn