Did God Change Saul’s Name?

When I was young, I played soccer in Wichita Falls. My coach began to call me “Nate the Great”, based off some popular detective books for children. That didn’t stick for very long, and I began to go by the name given on my birth certificate, Nathan.

All throughout my childhood, teenage, and college years, I went by Nathan (or in college, Papa Roach).

After I graduated and moved to Phoenix, I decided one day to start going by Nate. This was not a deeply thought out decision, it just kinda happened.

What that has now led to is the confusing reality that anyone who has met me in the last four years calls me Nate, but my family and wife still call me Nathan.

In the New Testament, we hear of a man named Saul (Acts 7:58). He was a Pharisee, of the tribe of Benjamin, and he was persecuting the church. First he stood idly by while Stephen was stoned, then he began a systematic persecution of the church, traveling from town to town and taking all who belonged to ‘the Way (of Jesus)’ into custody.

In Acts 9 we see his insane conversion. We see him go from a persecutor of the church to a man who would be used by God to reach the Gentiles with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I was reading this morning in Ephesians, and we see something interesting.

Paul an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. - Ephesians 1:1-2

The man who approved of the stoning of Stephen is now writing letters to the churches in Ephesus to encourage them in the gospel.

But there’s something else there.

Did you see it?

He addresses himself as Paul.

Now, most people in church understand this. They understand that the Saul we read about in Acts and the Paul we read about (also in Acts starting at 13:19) are the same person. But here’s the reality. I believe that the majority of us have a complete misunderstanding about why this name change took place (including myself for a very long time).

God did not change Saul’s name to Paul.

There is a very popular misunderstanding of what took place with Saul. So many people believe that God changed his name to signify his new life in Christ.

This isn’t heretical by any means, but it’s not true.

If anything I think it’s not nearly as cool as what actually took place.

Now, let’s acknowledge together that God has done the name change thing before. He does it a lot as a matter of fact. We see Him in conversation change Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah. We see Jesus do the same, changing Simon’s name to Peter. These things certainly happened in Scripture. That’s because in ancient cultures, names had a profound impact, significance, and meaning. Today, that’s not always the case (I’m looking at you North West).

But in the case of Saul/Paul, that’s not what happened at all (Dr. Seuss should’ve written books on Scripture).

Saul started referring to himself as Paul, in order to reach the Gentiles with his Roman name (Paul was a common surname and it may or may not have been in Paul’s family).

Do you grasp that?

God didn’t change his name.

Paul changed his name to better reach the people that he was on mission to reach.

He was by no means a perfect man. He was angry, discouraged, anxious, lonely. But he knew Christ, and that led him to give his life fully over to Christ (Philippians 1:21).

When Paul accepted the Christian faith and began his mission to the Gentiles, he identified with his listeners by using his Roman name. In all of his letters, Paul identified himself with his Roman name, linking himself with the Gentile believers to whom God had sent him with the gospel of Christ.

Life Application Bible Commentary: Ephesians

Saul’s name was a big deal. It harkened back to the days of the first king of Israel, also a dude named Saul. King Saul was a Benjaminite (of the tribe of Benjamin), just like the New Testament Saul. That means that New Testament Saul had a very significant, honorable, glorified name. And he gave it up for the people he was seeking to reach. He gave up that honorable name.

Paul is an example all throughout the book of Acts of a man who gave up his rights for others.

Like seriously, he was a Roman citizen. This means he was not supposed to get beat like he did all over the place. And yet, Paul only uses that right twice (once to avoid a flogging, once to appear before the Emperor to talk about Jesus).

In a culture like our own obsessed with rights, we can learn something from what Paul did.

To reach others, maybe you need to give up your ‘right’ to comfort.

To reach others, maybe you need to give up your ‘right’ to put your opinions about any number of things on Facebook.

To reach others, maybe you need to give up your ‘right’ to use your money for yourself.

Fill in the blanks for yourself.

Saul changed his name to reach others for Jesus.

What are you willing to do to reach others?

In His Name,

Nathan Roach