The Conversion of Saint Paul, Part 1

1 Corinthians 15:3-8 This week’s lessons help us to prepare for Easter by showing how Paul’s conversion provides proof for the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ
The Man from Tarsus

Gilbert West and Lord Lyttleton were two cynical young students who lived in the eighteenth century. They set out to disprove Christianity. They agreed that the two strongest evidences for Christianity were the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the conversion of Saint Paul. So Lyttleton offered to disprove the conversion of Paul to Christianity, and West offered to disprove the resurrection. When they met again sometime after they had begun their two projects, both were shamefaced. West said, “As I have investigated the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, I have come to believe that there is something to it, and I am going to write my book from that perspective.”

Lyttleton said, “The same thing has happened to me. I have come to see that there was something to the conversion of Saint Paul, and I am going to write my book from that perspective.” So they did. Lyttleton’s book was entitled Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of Saint Paul, and it concluded that Saul of Tarsus was converted by a genuine appearance of the resurrected Christ, because there are no circumstances or motives that could have led him to make that profession otherwise. West’s book was called Observations on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was published in 1747 and bore on its flyleaf the admonition: “Blame not before thou hast examined the truth.”1

What is striking about these books is that they both deal with Christ’s resurrection. For this was no less important in the conversion of Paul than it was in the conversions of the other early disciples. In fact, it is even more significant in Paul’s case, for he by the nature of the circumstances was least inclined to believe in this miracle.

Unlike the other early adherents to Christianity, Paul was an enemy of Christ and his religion. Moreover, he was an intelligent and highly educated enemy. By his own testimony Paul was a pure-blooded Hebrew, having been born of two Jewish parents (Phil. 3:5), and to that had been added a careful and zealous Jewish upbringing. Paul went to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel, the best known scholar of his day (Acts 22:3), and he had then become a member of the sect of the Pharisees, who were known for their strict adherence to the law. Paul was acquainted with the thought of the wider Graeco-Roman world in which he grew up. He had been raised in Tarsus, a city in what we today call Turkey. He knew the literature of that world, for his writings show at least some acquaintance with Aratus, Epimenides, and Menander. His letters reveal a mind that is precise, logical, tough, and persistent.

What must a man of this upbringing have thought of Christianity? He would have thought that it was wrong, of course—damnably wrong. It would have seemed to him to be opposed to Jewish monotheism. But there would have been more to his opposition than this. He would have thought Christianity deceitful as well as wrong, malicious and not merely mistaken.

The reason for this is that when Paul came to Jerusalem about A.D. 34, the controversy that had surrounded the birth and early preaching of Christianity had been going on for some time. The apostles had been preaching the gospel that Paul later confessed and defended in his own writings, namely, “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time” (1 Cor. 15:3-6). When he came to Jerusalem Paul would not have believed this, of course, but he could not have failed to know of it, particularly since he later developed a fixed determination to stamp this false religion out.

1 Lord Lyttleton on the Conversion of St. Paul and Gilbert West on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (New York: American Tract Society, 1929).

Study Questions
  1. What do we know about Paul’s background?
  2. How did this background prepare him to be an ideal “exterminator” of Christianity?
  3. How did Paul’s background later prove useful after his conversion?
  4. What must Paul have thought about Christianity, and why?
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