Saul of Tarsus: Chosen for a Special Need
September 1987

“Saul of Tarsus: Chosen for a Special Need,” Ensign, Sept. 1987, 60

New Testament

Saul of Tarsus:

Chosen for a Special Need

From the record we have of Saul’s life, it is evident that the Lord’s awareness of a person’s capabilities and potential plays a major part in whom the Lord selects to be his servants. In his early years as a staunch persecutor of the Church, Saul certainly showed little promise of becoming one of the Lord’s great men and an Apostle of Jesus Christ.

Neither Saul himself nor those who knew him, both among the Christians and the non-Christians, would likely have guessed that he would ever be a principal, widely known advocate of the faith he had once sought to destroy. Even Ananias, a leader in the Church at Damascus, hesitated and questioned the Lord’s request that he go to the street called Straight, at the house of one named Judas, to lay his hands on Saul of Tarsus and heal him of his blindness.

Ananias had received this command directly in a vision from the Lord, but he could hardly believe the Lord meant what he said. He protested, saying:

“Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem:

“And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name.”

Of course, the Lord already knew this, but he also knew something about Saul that Ananias did not:

“But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel:

“For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” (Acts 9:10–16.)

The Lord knew Saul had the potential for much good and called him, not as a reward for his mortal deeds, but because of what he would yet do if pointed in the right direction. Doubtless, much of the reason for his call lay in the premortal life, when the Lord chose his great leaders. The Prophet Joseph Smith said that “every man who has a calling to minister to the inhabitants of the world was ordained to that very purpose in the Grand Council of heaven before this world was.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, comp., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1979, p. 365.)

Abraham gave us a glimpse of this when he wrote: “The Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;

“And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers.” (Abr. 3:22–23.)

President Joseph F. Smith also saw that the Lord not only chose his leaders before their births but prepared them:

“Even before they were born, they, with many others, received their first lessons in the world of spirits and were prepared to come forth in the due time of the Lord to labor in his vineyard for the salvation of the souls of men.” (D&C 138:56.)

The Lord knew Saul’s heart and preparation, while most others saw only a Pharisee who was persecuting the Christian church. Note from the Lord’s explanation to Ananias that Saul was (1) a chosen vessel, (2) he would bear the name of Christ (3) before the gentiles, (4) unto kings, and (5) to the children of Israel.

By examining the conditions in which the Church was placed, we can see more clearly why the Lord particularly needed Saul for that time and setting. During the period immediately following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the Church consisted almost entirely of Jewish members and a small number of gentiles who had joined the Jewish religion before becoming members of the Church. Such gentiles were called proselytes.

Jesus himself had limited his ministry chiefly to Israelites, with a brief activity among the Samaritans. Indeed, he said, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24), and he had specifically told the Apostles as he sent them on missions:

“Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not:

“But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt. 10:5–6.)

After his resurrection, the Lord told the Twelve to go into “all the world” and “teach all nations.” (Mark 16:15; Matt. 28:19.) But they were not to do it all at once. The extension and expansion of the Church was to be gradual and orderly. This was commanded of the Lord in Acts 1:4–8. Here the resurrected Lord instructed the Twelve about their responsibilities in proselyting and in building the kingdom:

“[Jesus Christ], being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me.

“For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence. …

“But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”

Notice the sequence: Don’t go anywhere until you receive the Holy Ghost. And after you receive it, you shall be witnesses both in Jerusalem and Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.

The book of Acts is, in reality, a record of how the Church responded to the Lord’s directive. Acts, chapters 2–7, [Acts 2–7] tell of the preaching of Peter, John, others of the Twelve, and early leaders to the Jews in Jerusalem; chapter 8 [Acts 8] tells of the extension of the gospel to Samaria; and chapters 9–28 [Acts 9–28] tell of Saul’s conversion and the extension of the gospel to the nations of the gentiles throughout Galatia (modern Turkey), Greece, and Italy. Acts shows the implementation of the Savior’s instructions in Acts 1:4–8 about how to take the gospel to the nations of the earth.

Before the Church could actively carry the gospel to all the world, however, it had to leap cultural and traditional hurdles. Jewish members of the Church found it difficult to recognize that the law of Moses, with its ritual and ceremony, was superseded by the fulness of the gospel and that circumcision, animal sacrifice, and certain dietary laws were no longer binding. We find, for instance, that some of the Jewish church members criticized Peter for baptizing Cornelius and also for going into his house. (Acts 11:1–3.)

Peter’s response was to rehearse the sequence of events concerning the angel and the vision that directed him to take the gospel to the gentiles. (Acts 11:4–18.) Even after Peter’s remarkable revelation, some of the Jewish Christians still would not preach the gospel to the gentiles “but unto the Jews only.” (Acts 11:19.) The gentiles were ready to hear the gospel, but many of the Jewish Christians wouldn’t accept the idea.

At this juncture we see the mission of Saul (whom we will hereafter call Paul) begin to unfold. A person was needed who could bear the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to the gentiles in non-Jewish lands, who could withstand the criticism of his own countrymen (even in the Church), and who had the knowledge and training to teach both Jews and gentiles of all social levels throughout the Roman empire what the gospel of Jesus Christ really is and what man’s responsibility is concerning it. There were many who could do some of these, but Paul could do them all magnificently well.

Paul was born of Jewish Pharisee parents in Tarsus, a gentile city. His parents sent him to Jerusalem as a youth to become a rabbi. He was well acquainted with Jewish and gentile customs and beliefs. His father was a citizen of the Roman empire; how he acquired this is not known, but Paul inherited this citizenship from his father, which was a great aid to preaching in Roman areas. (See Acts 16:37–39; Acts 22:25–30.)

Paul spoke and wrote in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, which gave him an indispensable cultural advantage living and teaching in the Mediterranean areas. He knew the Old Testament thoroughly, having learned it not only as a child at home and in the synagogue school at Tarsus, but also at the feet of Gamaliel in Jerusalem as a rabbinical trainee.

Paul was by disposition a strong-willed individual, who, once he knew what he wanted to do, was determined in his motives and principles. This caused him, as a young man, to relentlessly persecute the early Church. But that same vigor of mind and will also helped him to be stalwart in the Church.

Paul was not an evil man, even when he was a persecutor: he was simply misguided and mistaken. He thought he was serving the God of Israel by fighting the Christians, whom he saw as a threat to the law of Moses and to the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When the Lord showed him his error, he was even more deliberate and valiant in defending the gospel than he had been in attacking it.

The Prophet Joseph Smith described Paul physically and characterized him as follows:

“He is about five feet high; very dark hair; dark complexion; dark skin; large Roman nose; sharp face; small black eyes, penetrating as eternity; round shoulders; a whining voice, except when elevated, and then it almost resembled the roaring of a lion. He was a good orator, active and diligent, always employing himself in doing good to his fellow man.” (Teachings, p. 180.)

“Though he once, according to his own word, persecuted the Church of God and wasted it, yet after embracing the faith, his labors were unceasing to spread the glorious news: and like a faithful soldier, when called to give his life in the cause which he had espoused, he laid it down, as he says, with an assurance of an eternal crown. Follow the labors of this Apostle from the time of his conversion to the time of his death, and you will have a fair sample of industry and patience in promulgating the Gospel of Christ. Derided, whipped, and stoned, the moment he escaped the hands of his persecutors he as zealously as ever proclaimed the doctrine of the Savior. And all may know that he did not embrace the faith for honor in this life, nor for the gain of earthly goods. What, then, could have induced him to undergo all this toil? It was, as he said, that he might obtain the crown of righteousness from the hand of God.” (Teachings, pp. 63–64.)

Paul was peculiarly suited for bearing testimony to kings and rulers, not only among the Jews, but especially among the gentiles. He was not a man of ordinary accomplishments and training. During his lifetime he taught the Roman deputy of Cyprus (Acts 13:6–12) and also stood before the Roman magistrates of Philippi (Acts 16:35–39). He gave his testimony and defense before the Sanhedrin, the highest court of Judaism (Acts 22:30; Acts 23:1–9), and before the Roman-appointed governors of Palestine, Felix and Festus (Acts 23:24–25:12).

Paul likewise stood before Agrippa, the Roman-appointed king of the Jews. (Acts 26.) Last, he stood before the Roman emperor himself. (See postscript following 2 Timothy.) In addition he traveled thousands of miles by land and sea and mingled with Jews and gentiles, both leaders and populace, throughout Palestine, Syria, Galatia, Cyprus, Greece, and Rome. He called himself the “apostle of the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13) and had been given that charge by the Brethren (see Gal. 2:7–9).

In addition, Paul suffered imprisonments, whippings, cold, hunger, thirst, stoning, shipwreck, and other perils. (See 2 Cor. 11:23–27.) He suffered also the loss of all physical goods (see Philip. 3:8) and eventual martyrdom (see 2 Tim. 4:6–7). Only a certain kind of disposition could tolerate such a life for a period of twenty-five or thirty years. Through all that time, he built up the Church throughout the northern Mediterranean and wrote many epistles to the branches there, some of which are preserved in our present New Testament.

From Paul more than any other, we learn of the problems of the early church of Christ, its missionary work, and the doctrines it taught. After chapter 12, he is the dominant character of the book of Acts; he also authored fourteen of the epistles in the New Testament, laying before the reader a considerable array of evidence about the organizational structure, the doctrines, and the activity of the church from the years 40–65 A.D.

His records that have come to us display a great love for the Savior. And no one of that day has given us a more extensive discussion of the mission of Jesus Christ in fulfilling the law of Moses and in being the savior of all nations and peoples. Paul is most eloquent when writing of the Savior’s grace, mercy, and love for mankind.

Paul was indeed a chosen vessel, a special man for a particular need, at a particular time and in a particular place. Yet, with all his varied talents and education, the things that made him most useful to the Lord were his total, unwavering devotion and testimony. Without these, all his other skills would have been ineffective or, as in his early years, used for the wrong purposes.

Paul was the right man in the right place at the right time. This was not a coincidence but the result of divine foreknowledge and selection—Jesus appointed him as a special witness, not only for the time of his own mortality, but also to leave an example and a written record for all future generations.

  • Robert J. Matthews, dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University, is president of the BYU Eighth Stake.

The Lord knew Saul had the potential for much good and called him, not as a reward for his mortal deeds, but because of what he would yet do if pointed in the right direction. (© Providence Lithograph.)

“Paul,” by James J. Tissot

Paul’s records that have come to us display a great love for the Savior. He is most eloquent when writing of the Savior’s grace, mercy, and love for mankind. (© Providence Lithograph.)

Paul had the knowledge and training to teach both Jews and Gentiles of all social levels throughout the Roman empire what the gospel of Jesus Christ is and what man’s responsibility is concerning it. (© Providence Lithograph.)

Paul suffered persecution throughout his missions, loss of all physical goods, and eventual martyrdom. Only a certain kind of disposition could tolerate such a life for a period of twenty-five or thirty years. (© Providence Lithograph.)