“Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul approved of his execution” (Acts 7:58-8:1a).
“We must not forget that as we study the life of the man they called Paul, we must brace ourselves for some rather gruesome surprises. The first pen portrait of Paul (whom we first meet as Saul of Tarsus) is both brutal and bloody. If an artist were to render it with brush and oils, not one of us would want it hung framed in our living room. The man looks more like a terrorist than a devout follower of Judaism. To our horror, the blood of the first martyr splattered across Saul’s clothes while he stood nodding in agreement, an accomplice to a vicious crime. The better we understand the apostle Paul’s dark past, the more we grasp his gratitude for grace.” — Charles R. Swindoll
When we first meet the man who would become known as the Apostle Paul, he is identified by Luke the historian as a young man named Saul. He is complicit in the stoning and martyrdom of an early church deacon named Stephen (Acts 6:1-7). Beyond this brief statement, what else do we know of Saul’s birth and youth?
According to Acts 9:11, 21:39 and 22:1-3, Saul was Jewish born in the city of Tarsus, an important city in Cilicia. Cilicia is still located in southern Turkey, extending inland from the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea. Tarsus is also approximately 1,100 miles from Jerusalem.
Tarsus’ ancient traditions and position in the Roman Empire justified the pride with which Paul claimed to be “a citizen of no mean city” (Acts 21:39). As one historian writes, “It is probable that his (Saul’s) forefathers had been among the Jews settled at Tarsus by Antiochus Epiphanes, who, without sacrificing nationality or religion, became citizens of a community organized after the Greek model. On what occasion and for what service Roman civitas (citizenship) had been conferred on one of Paul’s ancestors we cannot say; this only we know, that before his birth his father had possessed the coveted privilege (Acts 16:16:35-40; 22:22-29).”
In writing to the Philippian Church, Paul shared some autobiographical and pre-conversion information about himself. “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:4-6).
From this brief self-description, we may glean the following facts. First, Saul was circumcised according to the Old Testament Law (Genesis 17:12). Second, he belonged to the Tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1). Perhaps, this explains his name because Israel’s King Saul also belonged to the Tribe of Benjamin (I Samuel 9:1-2). Third, he was proud of his Hebrew heritage. He maintained the Hebrew traditions and language. Fourth, he belonged to the religious group known as the Pharisees. The Pharisees were legalistic fundamentalists of Judaism. Saul may have come from a long line of Pharisees (Acts 22:3; 23:6; 26:4-5).
Saul’s/Paul’s use of the Greek language confirms that he was a Hellenistic Jew. Therefore, he was comfortable in the Greco-Roman world. It was in this world and culture that Saul also learned the trade of tent-making (Acts 18:1-3). Following his conversion and later ministry for the gospel, Paul would financially support himself by this trade (I Corinthians 9:6; I Thessalonians 2:9).
Saul would have been educated in his home, by his father. At about the age of six, he would begin attending the synagogue school. This would be for instruction in the Old Testament Scriptures and the Hebrew language. He learned from the respected Rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem. In Acts 22:3, Paul said, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day.”
Saul of Tarsus was also, in his opinion, blameless as to righteousness under the Old Testament Law. Dr. John MacArthur comments that the righteousness under the law was, “The standard of righteous living advocated by God’s law. Paul outwardly kept this, so that no one could accuse him of violation. Obviously his heart was sinful and self-righteous. He was not an OT believer, but a proud and lost legalist.”
Finally, Saul’s zeal or passion was persecuting the church of Jesus Christ. Zeal, deep and extreme devotion, was the highest, single virtue of the Jewish religion. Zeal is a combination of both love and hate. Saul loved Judaism and therefore hated anything which might be a threat to Judaism (Galatians 1:13, 23; I Corinthians 15:9; I Timothy 1:13).
Acts 6:8-10 says, “8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.”
If is very possible that Saul was among those who disputed with Stephen. He may have been those who were from Cilicia. It would explain why Saul was present at Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 7:58).
Acts 8:1b-3 says, “And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”
It would be this zealousness which would prompt Saul to pursue and persecute disciples of the Lord Jesus in Damascus, Syria intending to bring them to Jerusalem for trial and imprisonment (Acts 22:4; 26:9-11). His decision to make this trip would forever change his life and the life of the church.
Soli deo Gloria!