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The Christadelphian | May 2012

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial Standing
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Sunday morning “Confession and contrition” | Cyril Tennant
  • A clear conscience | David Caudery
  • The message to the seven churches 5 – To Thyatira | James Andrews
  • Book review: A good Bible atlas (The One-Stop Bible Atlas) | Andrew E. Walker
  • “Sing forth the honour of His Name” Ten years of worship from the 2002 hymn book | John Botten
  • Why Saul became Paul Part 1 | Michael Edgecombe
  • Questions Jesus asks “Whence shall we buy bread?” | Paul Aston
  • The character of God 3 – Omniscient | Mark Buckler
  • The Psalm of Zacharias | Trevor A. Pritchard
  • Bible echoes – a moral dimension | Peter Forbes
  • Signs of the times “A burdensome stone”
  • Israel and their land Holocaust remembrance
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

Why Saul became Paul

Part 1

WHEN Luke wrote Acts, Saul had been Paul for a long time – nearly fifteen years. And given that Luke first appears during Paul’s second missionary journey, as Paul is in Troas, poised on the edge of his mission to Greece (Acts 16:10), he had probably known him as Paul all his life.

Why, therefore, does Luke refer to him as Saul from the moment when we are first introduced to him as a young man passionately, violently, opposed to the heretical sect of the Nazarenes (7:58) to that curious moment when Saul, accompanying Barnabas on a missionary journey to Cyprus, steps forward to blast Bar-Jesus, his fellow Jew? (13:9). Why does he never again refer to him as Saul, but only ever as Paul? And why does Paul never again use the Hebrew name he was given at birth except in his accounts of what happened on the road to Damascus? (22:7,13; 26:14; cp. also 13:21). And why the name Paul, anyway?

Changing your name is a very big thing. It could be seen by Paul’s family as a renunciation of his upbringing. It would certainly be seen by his fellow-Jews as a rejection of his heritage. And the name change occurs very abruptly, in the middle of a verse, without forewarning or explanation: “Saul, who is also called Paul.” The Greek is still more terse: “Saul, who also Paul.” As we shall show, however, the abrupt change of name is not simply a curiosity of the record but a deliberate act at a highly significant turning point for Paul.

From Cyprus to Antioch

It appears that the Gospel first came to Cyprus when “the persecution that arose about Stephen” scattered the members of the Jerusalem Ecclesia far and wide. That ecclesia included many Jews who had come from other countries: Joseph Barnabas, “a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus,” and a landholder there (4:36); Mnason, also a Cypriot Jew and “a disciple from the beginning” (21:16); and many others.

When the Jerusalem Ecclesia was torn apart by Saul, many of these expatriates travelled north to Phoenicia and Antioch, and west across the sea to Cyprus, but still they preached the Gospel “unto the Jews only” (11:19). Even though Philip had stretched the Gospel’s Jewish envelope in taking the Gospel to Samaritans and African proselytes, and Peter had split it wide open in taking the Gospel to the Italian Cornelius and his household, the growth of the ecclesia was still constrained by the Jewish pot in which it was growing.

Some, however, from Cyprus and from Cyrene in northern Africa, coming to Antioch, began to extend the Gospel to “Hellenists”, or Greek-speaking Jews (11:20). These preachers included Lucius of Cyrene (13:1), and perhaps also Simeon Niger – his nickname may indicate that he was a black African.

Hellenist Jews had been part of the ecclesia in Jerusalem, but there were marked differences in language and culture between them and the Judaean Jews of Jerusalem, and the friction generated some early heat (6:1). Nevertheless, Jews they were, and their commitment to the Torah, the temple and the distinctive marks of Jewishness was as intense as that of their cousins in Palestine.

The explosive growth of the Gospel among the Hellenist Jews in Antioch came to the attention of the Jerusalem Ecclesia. Barnabas was sent north to see what was happening. “The grace of God” was abundantly evident. He was gladdened by what he saw, and “exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose” (11:23, ESV). To the “great number” who had already turned to the Lord were added “much people” (verses 21,24).

Barnabas needed help, and he thought immediately of Saul. Barnabas had remained in Jerusalem even during Saul’s fierce persecution, and he was still there when Saul returned, three years later, now a convert to the faith he had once resolved to destroy. He was the first person in Jerusalem to believe Saul’s account of his conversion in Damascus, and sponsored him, overcoming the fears of the apostles that this was some new and devious plan of persecution.

Saul was there for only a short period. He launched a preaching campaign into the Greek-speaking Jewish community in Jerusalem. It was not long before they were planning to assassinate him, and the ecclesia shipped him off to Tarsus (9:26-30; Galatians 1:18-21). Now, when Barnabas needed a passionate preacher, a spiritual father and a sound teacher for the growing ecclesia in Antioch, he thought of Saul, travelled to Tarsus, found him somewhere in Cilicia after some searching, and brought him back to Syria. There they laboured fruitfully together.

Some years later, in response to Agabus’ prophecy of famine, the Antioch Ecclesia sent famine relief to its brothers and sisters in Jerusalem with Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:27-30; Galatians 2:1-10). When they returned from Jerusalem, they brought with them Barnabas’ nephew, John Mark (Acts 12:25).

From Antioch to Cyprus

The mission to Cyprus was initiated by the Lord Jesus through the Spirit. As a group of five prophets and teachers worshipped and fasted, the Spirit spoke: “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them” (13:1). The call comes shortly after their return from Jerusalem. As we shall see, the timing is highly significant.

Where to start? Barnabas was clearly the leader of the mission (verses 2,7). He had land in Cyprus, and as a Levite he would have been in good standing with the Jewish community, well-connected and well known. He decided for Cyprus, and Saul accompanied him, happy to play a support role.

Barnabas also invited his nephew to join the mission party. John Mark was “their minister” (13:5) or assistant (ESV). The Greek construction is unusual, reading something like, “They had also John huperetes”. The term is often used generally of “servants”, but it did specifically translate the Hebrew chazzan, “synagogue attendant” (as in Luke 4:20). “The chazzan was the only paid synagogue official. He was responsible for the care of the buildings; for the taking out and putting away of the sacred rolls of scripture; for announcing the coming of the sabbath with the three blasts on the silver trumpet; and he was often the teacher in the synagogue school for children as well. Although he had no direct part in the religious service of the synagogue, the chazzan was by far the most important synagogue official.” [1] It would be natural for a Levite to take on such a position. This understanding of John Mark’s role has not been picked up widely by commentators, but it is interesting that Luke’s comment follows immediately on the reference to “the synagogues of the Jews” (verse 5). It makes excellent sense in the light of what follows.

Landing at Salamis on the eastern end of the island, the preachers worked their way westward from town to town, preaching only to Jews, only in the synagogues, until they reached Paphos, the provincial capital on the western end of the island. Barnabas naturally targeted the communities to whom he was connected. Saul assisted him. If our understanding of John Mark’s role is correct, he made the necessary introductions. They crossed the island from east to west – without communicating the Gospel to a single Gentile.

Sergius Paulus, a prudent man

Then something unexpected happened, quite out of the blue. The proconsul who governed the senatorial province of Cyprus was interested in things Jewish. He had a Jewish magos or sorcerer. Perhaps through him he heard about what was being preached in the synagogues of Cyprus. “Sergius Paulus, a prudent man … desired to hear the word of God” (13:7).

And here is an irony. The three other uses of the Greek sunetos, “insightful, prudent”, declare emphatically that God has deliberately hidden the Gospel from the insightful (Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21): that God has deliberately set aside the intelligence of the insightful (1 Corinthians 1:19). But there are always sovereign exceptions to God’s sovereign declarations. Rahab and the Gibeonites were saved by divine providence, even though the Law had declared, Slay all the Canaanites! Now this insightful man asks to hear what Barnabas and Saul are preaching in the synagogues. And his desire was strong. The Greek epizeteo means ‘to desire strongly, to search for’, and is used of a search, an enquiry, an earnest looking for a desired outcome. The Gospel of God sounded like something Paulus had been looking for, and he strongly desired an opportunity to hear it.

“Behold my Servant!”

This was most unexpected! The Roman authorities taking an interest in the Gospel preached in the synagogues?

But of course! The Lord Christ had said of Saul ten years earlier, “He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). His declaration draws on an old, old prophecy – about himself. The Servant prophecy of Isaiah 52-53, one of a number threaded through this section of Isaiah, says of the Servant: “So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider” (Isaiah 52:15).

So here are three groups who need to see things which they had not been told, to consider things which they had not heard. Chapter 53, which continues the prophecy, speaks of the Servant’s testimony to Israel, and his saving work: and indeed, Jesus’ ministry was confined to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”, with only occasional exceptions. Who was going to bear his name to “many nations” and “kings”? Who would placard Christ crucified among them? Of course, the answer is, “Saul”. In a later retelling of his call, Paul adds some further words from Ananias, “Thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard” (Acts 22:15). “Seen and heard”: these words also consciously echo the Servant prophecy. Through Paul’s witness, men would see and hear Christ crucified.

Other Servant prophecies speak similarly: “He shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles … the isles shall wait for his law … a light of the Gentiles; to open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house” (Isaiah 42:1-7); “Listen, O isles, unto me; and hearken, ye people, from far … It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth. Thus saith the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel, and his Holy One, to him whom man despiseth, to him whom the nation abhorreth, to a servant of rulers, Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship, because of the LORD that is faithful” (49:1-9).

A mission delayed, but never forgotten

Despite his commission, however, to this point Saul had preached largely to “the children of Israel”. What of “the Gentiles, and kings”? In fact, Saul had not lost sight of his mission, despite appearances. He had not reached out to the Gentiles in any systematic way, but he had made some individual Gentile converts. When he accompanied Barnabas to Jerusalem with the first tranche of famine relief, he had taken Titus with him, a Greek and uncircumcised, his “own son” (Titus 1:1-3), and therefore his own convert.

But his commission was very much at the forefront of his mind, and he was eager to start on it. When he was in Jerusalem, he discussed the Gospel to the Gentiles, “but privately to them which were of reputation” (Galatians 2:2). These included James – one of his last acts before his execution (Acts 12:1, “about this time”) – Peter and John. The emphasis on private consultation indicates both that Saul was anxious to press forward with his ministry, and that he recognised the very great difficulties it would present for his Jewish brothers and sisters, still devoted to the Law, and aggressively separate from the corrupt and hostile Gentile world about them. The difficulties he experienced with other brothers in Jerusalem, who demanded that he circumcise Titus, underlined the challenge he faced. But he was heartened by his discussion with the apostles themselves. They accepted his divine calling, agreed to focus on the circumcision and leave the nations to him, and asked only that he should continue collecting for the poor of Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9,10).

The Spirit’s call for Barnabas and Saul to set out on this mission, soon after their return to Antioch, would appear to have been a direct response to the understanding they had reached in Jerusalem – and yet despite this, they preached only in “the synagogues of the Jews” on Cyprus.

Another trigger was required, and the Lord provided it – an invitation, for the first time, to present the Gospel to a representative of the Emperor. It was an extraordinary opportunity, and a strong signal to Saul that he was to initiate the mission to the Gentiles without further delay. It would prove to be a critical turning-point in Saul’s ministry.

Elymas

But a big obstacle stood between the apostles and the Roman proconsul – of all people, a Jew! He was a false prophet, and with the name Bar-Jesus, a prototypical “false Christ” (cp. Matthew 24:24; Mark 13:22). He was also a sorcerer, or magos, forsaking the “right way” and following the way of Balaam, no doubt for the same reasons: fame, influence and money (2 Peter 2:15). It is ironic that the only time the Greek magos, “wise man”, is used apart from this incident is with reference to the “wise men” or magi from the east, who saw in the western sky the star heralding the birth of Christ the King of the Jews, and came to worship him (Matthew 2:1,7,16). Now another magos, this time a Jew imitating the occult eastern lore of Babylon, did his level best to turn away the Roman from the faith.

All the way across Cyprus preaching to Jews, an earnest enquiry from Sergius Paulus – and now this! To Saul, the incident was highly symbolic of Israel’s attitude to the Gospel. As the Lord had said, not content with refusing the kingdom themselves, they also took away the key of knowledge, and obstructed every person who wanted to enter (Matthew 23:13; Luke 11:52). Bar-Jesus “resisted” them, opposing and contradicting what they said. And he sought to “turn away” or “pervert” the proconsul from the faith (cp. Matthew 17:17; Luke 9:41).

Saul looks in the mirror

Saul saw in this man something of what he himself had been. Not a fraudster interested in fame and fortune rather than righteousness, it is true: for Saul had always lived in good conscience. Not a dabbler in the occult, either. But in his stubborn resistance to the faith, his willingness to say anything or do anything to defeat “the faith”, he mirrored Saul’s own blind enmity to the Nazarenes.

It seems that Saul’s experience flashed before his eyes: for in what followed there are many echoes of his own story. He had been blinded by a light “above the brightness of the sun”; his eyes were opened, but he saw nothing; he was led by the hand; he was sightless for a time only, laid up in Straight Street, [2] until “the hand of the Lord”, in the person of Ananias, was upon him, not for judgement but for healing. Then there was his commission to the Gentiles, “to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God” (Acts 26:18).

Should this renegade Jew be allowed to stand between the prudent Paulus and faith, a living representative of “the power of Satan”? Paul’s own experience, guided by the Spirit, told him what to do next.

MICHAEL EDGECOMBE

[1] This suggestion was first made by F. H. Chase in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, and drawn to my attention by W. Barclay, The Three Gospels and Acts, page 113, where the quotation is taken from.

[2] The Greek for “Straight” is euthus – as also in “right” ways of the Lord (Acts 13:10).

 

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