Did you ever wonder why Saul changed his name to Paul?
I often forget that there even was a name change until something reminds me; I’m so used to thinking of Paul the Apostle and author of about half the New Testament. The name change isn’t even made a big deal of in scripture (not like God renaming Abram to Abraham). We just find out about it in a parenthetical note in Acts 13:9 and he’s called Paul from then on.
One of the likely explanations for this name change is that he had two names. Saul is a Hebrew name, and he would have gone by that since we know how proud he was of his Jewish heritage. He was also a Roman citizen, though, and Paul could have been his Roman name. It would make sense for him to switch the name he used when he became the Apostle to the Gentiles (GotQuestions.org). That’s a perfectly reasonable answer and a very likely explanation. I wonder, though, if the name meanings might have played a role in Paul’s decision as well.
Saul, “Asked For”
There’s one other famous Saul in the Bible. Saul the son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, was Israel’s first king. His name means “asked for” or “prayed for” (BehindTheName.com). It comes from the Hebrew word sha’al , which means “to ask” (Brown, Driver, Briggs dictionary entry on H7592). It’s actually the word used when Israel asked for a king and received Saul as their answer (1 Sam. 8:10; 12:17-19).
We don’t know if Saul/Paul’s parents named him after King Saul, but people must have noticed the connection. Saul/Paul was even from the same tribe as King Saul. He was trained by a respected rabbi and, as a Pharisee, would have been intimately familiar with the Old Testament (Acts 22:2-3; Phil. 3:4-6). He’d have had the whole Torah memorized and very likely the rest of the Old Testament as well (including the story of King Saul).
In the Old Testament, God hand-picked Saul to be the first king. At that time, Saul was a humble man. He protested the prophet Samuel’s special notice of him, saying, “Am I not a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? And my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then do you speak to me like this?” (1 Sam. 9:21, WEB). When Israel came together to anoint him as king, Saul hid (1 Sam. 10:20-24). But his attitude changed over the years. He started acting presumptuously, taking it upon himself to make decisions contrary to God’s commands and acting as if he was in the right.
Then Samuel said to Saul, “Wait a minute! Let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.” Saul said to him, “Tell me.” Samuel said, “Is it not true that when you were insignificant in your own eyes, you became head of the tribes of Israel? … Why haven’t you obeyed the Lord?” …
Then Samuel said,1 Samuel 15:16-17, 19, 22-23, NET
“Does the Lord take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as he does in obedience?
Certainly, obedience is better than sacrifice;
paying attention is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and presumption is like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the Lord’s orders,
he has rejected you from being king.”
You can also translate the phrase “insignificant in your own eyes” as “little in your own sight.” I think that’s the key part here. When Saul was humble, he was also obedient. When he lost that perspective, then he started to disobey God and thinking he knew best. When Samuel confronted him, he protested, “But I have obeyed Yahweh’s voice” even with clear evidence to the contrary (1 Sam. 15:20, WEB). When he finally admitted he’d done wrong, he says, “I have sinned; yet please honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel” (1 Sam. 15:30, WEB). It seems clear his priorities were on doing what was right in his own eyes and gaining honor before the people he led rather than on following God.
From Little to Big, and Big to Little
What about the Saul who we now know as Paul? He was absolutely sure he was following God’s plan when he persecuted those new Christians. When confronted about it, he could have said, “But I have obeyed the Lord” and worried about holding onto the honors he got as a respected Pharisee. But he had a very different response than King Saul. Here’s how Paul describes his conversion to King Agrippa:
“according to the strictest party of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee. And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors, a promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain as they earnestly serve God night and day. Concerning this hope the Jews are accusing me, Your Majesty! Why do you people think it is unbelievable that God raises the dead? Of course, I myself was convinced that it was necessary to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus the Nazarene. And that is what I did in Jerusalem: Not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons by the authority I received from the chief priests, but I also cast my vote against them when they were sentenced to death. I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to force them to blaspheme. Because I was so furiously enraged at them, I went to persecute them even in foreign cities.
“While doing this very thing, as I was going to Damascus with authority and complete power from the chief priests, about noon along the road, Your Majesty, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining everywhere around me and those traveling with me. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? You are hurting yourself by kicking against the goads.’ So I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord replied, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet, for I have appeared to you for this reason, to designate you in advance as a servant and witness to the things you have seen and to the things in which I will appear to you. …
“Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but I declared to those in Damascus first, and then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds consistent with repentance. … so I stand testifying to both small and great, saying nothing except what the prophets and Moses said was going to happen: that the Christ was to suffer and be the first to rise from the dead, to proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”Acts 26: 5-16, 19-20, 22-23, NET
Here’s the big difference between the two Sauls. Both thought they were doing the right thing. But when King Saul was told about his mistake, he protested and defended himself and worried about how people saw him. When Jesus showed up and told Saul he was persecuting the Messiah, Saul/Paul “was not disobedient to the heavenly vision” and immediately course-corrected. King Saul went from “little in his own eyes” to arrogant, while Paul went from arrogant to humble and obedient.
The name Paul comes “From the Roman family name Paulus, which meant ‘small’ or ‘humble’ in Latin” (BehindTheName.com). This perfectly describes Saul/Paul after his conversion. He had always wanted to do God’s will, and when he found out he and God disagreed on what that should look like, he immediately and humbly changed to align with God’s will.
If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more: I was circumcised on the eighth day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. I lived according to the law as a Pharisee. In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!—that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already attained this—that is, I have not already been perfected—but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.Philippians 3:4-14, NET
This is one of my favorite passages from Paul’s letters. He has such a focused perspective on walking with Jesus and the value of his calling. Paul thought he was hot stuff once, but no more. He’s so humble he won’t even say he’s guaranteed a spot in the resurrection. He could boast about things if he wanted. “Am I not an apostle?” Paul reminds the Corinthians. “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1, NET). But instead, he focuses on how he can best serve Jesus and the church.
For since I am free from all I can make myself a slave to all, in order to gain even more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew to gain the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) to gain those under the law. To those free from the law I became like one free from the law (though I am not free from God’s law but under the law of Christ) to gain those free from the law. To the weak I became weak in order to gain the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some.
I do all these things because of the gospel, so that I can be a participant in it.
Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.
So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified.1 Corinthians 9:19-27, NET
Sorry about putting so many big long quotes in this post, but I think for this especially it helps to get Paul’s perspective in his own words. And it’s also good for us. After the passage I quoted in Philippians, Paul adds, “Be imitators of me, brothers and sisters, and watch carefully those who are living this way, just as you have us as an example” (Phil. 3:17, NET). We can learn from Paul’s example. We should be similarly humble, focused, and teachable. We should also examine ourselves and make sure we’re not making assumptions about what God wants us to do that don’t actually line up with His will and His word.
If you’re reading this the weekend it posts, we’re less than two weeks away from Passover. At this time of year, Paul warns us, “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Cor. 11:27-28, NET). Self-examination is something we should do year-round (2 Cor. 13:5-6), but it’s particularly important now as we focus on making sure we’re coming before God in a worthy way.
Featured image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay
Song Recommendation: “The Change Inside Of Me” by MercyMe