The last thing his mother told him was to “be careful”. She didn’t want him to go to Damascus. Damascus wasn’t the kind of place one wanted to stay overnight. Despite her advice, Saul left, the world went black, and now he’d come through the other side. Up was down, right was left, and the mad hatter was serving tea to Jesus’ disciples in Antioch; among them Saul from Tarsus. If this was Wonderland, he wasn’t sure he wanted to stay.
We know how Saul arrived in Antioch. There was a horse, fishy scales on his eyes, and a bucket somewhere along the way. I’m not certain he believed the story of his own journey. The transition from mean guy to missionary was so radical and rapid the adjustment couldn’t have been easy. Within days of his conversion he found himself coming clean, like an addict hitting rock bottom. There were no more secrets. Saul told all the stories he knew. There were no gifts of immunity. For the first time in his life, he acknowledged his life was unmanageable. The higher power he thought the he knew wasn’t real. What was the value of living a life of guilt when you’d heard the voice of God? It was time to turn his life around. People looked at him differently now when he told when they told he’d heard God. Sure, they’d claimed to seen the risen Jesus but he was the crazy one for hearing voices.
Saul was paired with a man named Barnabas for his first preaching mission. After a time of fasting and prayer, Barnabas and Saul were sent to the island of Cyprus. Lying just off the coast of Lebanon in the eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus has always been a hub for commerce between the east and west. Jewish synagogues were well established in the major cities of the island. As became his practice for most of his ministry, Saul contacted Jewish leaders and began to preach using the network he knew best. Early on, we see the Roman authorities develop a curiosity about Saul’s message and ministry. The local Roman administration will either be outright hostile or willing to give a hearing to visiting missionaries. In Cyprus, there are “magicians” who see Saul and Barnabas as threats to their economic well being. It’s hard for them to differentiate between their work and the message of the Gospel. While trivial to our ears, this was a major problem for the early Church. This means the local religious power structures with an economic self interest would try to turn the Romans against Barnabas and Saul. This is going to be a way of life for Saul until he’s arrested and taken to Rome.
In the midst of this conflict of trying to find a way to preach to the Roman proconsul, something amazing occurs. If you blink, you’ll miss it. It’s in Acts 13:9, right after Paul has gone one on one with a “magician”. Here’s the verse, “But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit.” Did you get that? It’s the first time Saul is ever referred to as Paul! From there on out, Saul is Paul. Now why is this significant? Because you probably thought, were taught, or believed that it has something to do with Paul have a new identity after his conversion to following Jesus. Perhaps you think Jesus told him his new name was to be Paul. Wrong, wrong, wrong! It just happened. He was always known as Paul and Saul and one day, in the midst of Acts 13, for no theological or religious reason in particular reason at all, he starts using his other name.
For some reason, somebody made up a story, years ago, that most Christians believe is true; a story that’s clearly not true. To realize how untrue the story is, one only need to read the Bible. It’s a story that’s no truer than Paul’s mother telling him to be careful on his way to Damascus.
Yes, Paul changed his name. It’s not the big religious deal you’ve been led to believe. It’s the story of a simple name change to which we’ve attached deep theological significance. Are there other things we’ve taken out of context from the Bible and made into untrue truths that we keep passing down? Yes. Are these alternative facts hurting Christianity? Yes. Are we talking about the Bible without reading it (especially Jesus’ words)? Yes.
Richard Lowell Bryant