Saul of Tarsus was born somewhere around 5AD in Cilicia, which is now southern Turkey. He was educated well by a premier teacher of the day named Gamaliel. He is also called Paul. He was first a persecutor of the church, rabidly defending rabbinical Judaism. He “saw the light” while on the Damascus Road when Jesus struck him blind (from heaven) and radically changed his life. After being baptized by Ananias, he took up a new training and a new calling — missionary to the Gentiles. He is credited with writing about half of the New Testament in the form of roughly thirteen letters to the churches. Due his the poor eyesight that plagued him all his life, he had different writers to whom he dictated the letters – sometimes even adding a few words in large letters at the end (Galatians 6:11). Paul would be the one that the Holy Spirit primarily used to clarify what it means to be a follower of Jesus. He planted churches all over the Mediterranean region. According to tradition, Paul was killed for his faith in Rome in 67AD.
“What’s in name?” Shakespeare opined about names when contemplating the separation between two lovers Romeo and Juliet. Names were not the primary division of these “star-crossed lovers,” but rather a feud between the houses (families) that were represented by the names Montague and Capulet. Shakespeare is then asserting that while names matter, what they represent matters more.
Turn to Paul the Apostle. He is just one of many in the Bible to have multiple names. Most of the multiple names represent a significant change by God. In the Old Testament, Abram becomes Abraham, changing in meaning from “exalted father” to “father of a multitude.” That was an important shift in Genesis 17:5 — as Abraham will become the father of all who believe!
Fast-forward a couple thousand years to a guy named Simon. He was a fisherman whose name meant “listening.” When he met Jesus, many things in his life would change, including his name. Jesus called him, Peter in Greek or Cephas in Aramaic. The name means “Rock” and refers to his confession of Jesus as the Son of God (Matthew 16:13-20). Again, a very important name change.
But what about Paul? When we first meet him, Paul is called Saul. We might assume some dramatic name change after his conversion on the Damascus Road, not so. In fact, Paul has two names from birth. Saul is his Hebrew name, ostensibly named after the first king of Israel, which is a bit strange because he was not a good king. In his life as a Pharisee and Hebrew of Hebrews, he would have been known almost exclusively as Saul. However, he was also a Roman citizen from birth, therefore he was also given a Latin name, that being Paul. Eventually, he would come to be known almost exclusively by this name.
This is very significant, even though this was not a conversion change, nor a dramatic moment in his life . Saul made a conscious choice, as a missionary to the Gentiles to become like one of them. Paul took his identity as a called, loved and chosen son of God so seriously that he did not want anything to be a stumbling block or obstacle to Gentiles belief. Therefore, he went by the name Paul so that he would be identified with the Gentiles that he was trying to reach. That is a significant name change!
This leads us to a couple of questions for reflection. What reminds you of your identity as a called, loved and chosen child of God? What outward signs are there of your identity? What are you willing to do to remove obstacles between you and a person to whom God is calling you?