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Turning Sauls into Pauls

A third of the way through the Book of Acts, a man named Saul takes over the narrative. Like Israel’s King Saul, this Saul is from the tribe of Benjamin. Like King Saul, this Saul persecutes a David: Jesus. Jesus proves greater than his ancestor. The first David eluded Saul long enough to become king. Jesus conquers his adversary and enlists him as an apostolic ambassador.

Acts 9 records Saul’s dramatic conversion. Carrying letters that authorize him to arrest Christians in Damascus, he is himself arrested on the way by a blinding light. Saul falls to the ground like a dead man and becomes so helpless his friends have to guide him by the hand. He’s reduced to nothing, shattered by his encounter with Jesus. For three days, Saul sees nothing, eats nothing, drinks nothing. Then he’s baptized, receives his sight, and breaks his fast. On the third day, he begins to live in the resurrection life of the Jesus he once persecuted. The one who “breathed” murderous threats is made new by the breath of the Spirit.

The incident is also Saul’s commission as a witness, martyr, and apostle. Acts as a whole is a book of succession, showing how the ascended Jesus chooses his successors and conforms them to his own dying and living. Peter preaches in the power of the Spirit, heals, testifies to the Sanhedrin, is beaten, and rejoices that he can suffer for Jesus. Later he’s arrested and imprisoned; released by an angel, he shows himself to the disciples who think he’s a ghost, and then departs (Acts 12). Every moment of Peter’s life recapitulates an episode in the life of Jesus.

Saul, too, is conformed to Jesus by being twinned to the Christlike Stephen. Saul first appears in Acts alongside Stephen’s murderers (Acts 7:58). Then he begins to ravage the church, dragging off men and women like a wild animal (Acts 8:1–4). After he encounters Jesus, he becomes another Stephen. Chosen to be a suffering witness, Saul contends with Jews to convince them Jesus is the Messiah and swiftly becomes the target of a murder plot. As Paul, he’s accused of opposing the law and the temple (Acts 21:28), the same false accusations lodged against Stephen (Acts 6:11). Saul the martyr-maker becomes Paul the martyr. The hunter becomes prey. Coming to the light of Jesus, he shines a light to the gentiles (cf. Acts 26:17–18, 33).

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