“Saul was ashamed of his past, so he changed his name to Paul because Jesus gave him a new beginning.”
When it comes to the Apostle Paul’s name-change, this is the explanation I’ve heard many times. God did give Paul a new identity in Christ, but that didn’t wipe out or erase who he was before. Instead, we see many ways that Paul’s entire life prepared him for his ministry as an Apostle. Likewise, when someone becomes a Christian today, their life history doesn’t get erased and wiped away. Instead, God uses that to fuel their devotion to Christ and to equip them in ministry towards others.
Here’s why Saul’s name changes to Paul throughout the book of Acts and what we can learn from it today.
Saul/Paul Lived in a Hellenized World
The Apostle Paul was from Tarsus, which is in Southern Turkey. It was an important city with an active harbor which made it prominent on the trading route along the Mediterranean Sea. In the generation (or two?) before Paul would’ve been born, Tarsus became the capital city over that region of the Roman world and many Jews began to receive Roman citizenship. It is likely that Paul was from a well-to-do Jewish family who became Roman citizens, which he later invokes in Acts 22 when he was arrested and treated poorly.
As a Jewish man who was a Roman citizen, he would have both a Jewish name (Saul) and a Roman/Greek name (Paul). He did not have a name change, but simply went by a different name depending on his audience.
“When in Rome…”
Throughout the gospels, when he is ministering among the Jewish community he is referred to as Saul. As soon as his ministry shifts to the Gentiles he is consistently referred to as Paul. Again, this isn’t a change in name, but an adaptation where he simply goes by his Jewish name among the Jews and his Greek name among the Gentiles.
Paul’s motivation in this is captured well in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 where he writes,
“19 Although I am free from all and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law — though I myself am not under the law — to win those under the law. 21 To those who are without the law, like one without the law — though I am not without God’s law but under the law of Christ — to win those without the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. 23 Now I do all this because of the gospel, so that I may share in the blessings.”
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (CSB)
The gospel transforms our identities. Paul was proud of his Jewish identity. That much is clear in a thousand ways throughout his writings… but he laid it aside for the sake of ministry to the Gentiles.
To be sure, the following questions should be asked with discernment. We don’t need to keep re-creating Christianity and there is something beautiful about Christian tradition. Perhaps we’ve always done it a certain way because it’s truly the best and most biblical way to do things, but maybe not. In our pursuit of reaching the lost with the gospel, we must be wise to become “all things to all people” without changing the gospel.
- Who is God calling you to reach with the gospel?
- How must you adapt your preferences in order that the call of the gospel would be heard and received?
- What aspects of your “Christian culture” are you called to lay aside in order to effectively bring the gospel to those God is calling you towards?
- How will these “adaptations” allow the message of the gospel to continue to be faithfully proclaimed?
- In what ways will these changes make it more difficult for different aspects of the gospel to be received?