BETTER CALL PAUL
1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. 4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. 6 When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. 7 He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.
— Acts 13:1-12, ESV
“Saul” is a prominent name in the Bible, both in the Old Testament and New Testament. It is also used by the title character in the Emmy Award winning series, “Better Call Saul.” In that series, as well as in Holy Scripture, calling on Saul summons nothing but trouble.
In the Old Testament, Saul was the first king of Israel. George Washington he was not, although he did get off to a good start. But if how you finish in life matters more than how you start, Saul was a seriously sinful subject. His pride overshadowed his faith, his jealousy ruined his family, and his dabbling in witchcraft probably cost him his life. Better not call this Saul.
The New Testament Saul surfaces at the stoning of Stephen (ref. Acts 7:58). Given this taste of the first Christian martyr’s blood, Saul thirsts for more, and doesn’t stop until the God throws up a roadblock, complete with blinding light. If you are a Christian, better not call this Saul, either, at least not at any point between the Eastern Gate and the Damascus Road.
Better call Paul. This is Saul’s new name. After this episode, you won’t see Paul called Saul again, except in some flashback scenes (ref. Acts 22:7-13, 26:14). Paul becomes prominent, appearing 131 times in Acts 13-28, 161 times total in the New Testament. Next to the Lord Jesus Christ, and even surpassing Simon Peter (the principal Apostle in Acts 1-12), the Apostle Paul is the most important person in the history of New Testament Christianity.
So how did this loathsome, murderous, Christ-hating, Christian-killing, Pharisee Saul become the beloved, missionary, soul-winning, Christ-honoring, Apostle Paul? Better call Paul to find out.
Want to be saved by grace? Better call Paul!
It is ostensibly argued that the name change from Saul to Paul was purely geographical. The new Christian and last named Apostle made a move from the Jewish to the Gentile world; therefore, he needed to be called something Roman. There is certainly some truth to this, as Simon (Simeon) was better known by his Greco-Roman nickname, Peter, when he went westward.
Others suggest the name change was akin to something done in the witness protection program, although in this case it would have been the perpetrators protection program. Saul was a terrorist, tearing into the Christian population. Going by Paul would help to hide the old evidence.
Essentially, the change from Saul to Paul was reflective of the total change that the gospel of Jesus Christ makes in a recipient’s life. Saul preached salvation by works, Paul was saved by grace. Saul was self-righteous by way of the law, Paul was justified by faith. Saul had been unleashed by the Jewish authorities against Christianity, Paul was a bondservant of the Lord Jesus Christ. Refer to his writings in 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Ephesians 2:8-10.
You don’t have to change your name when you become a Christian. But virtually everything else should change, including your beliefs, your behavior, what you consider beloved. It certainly did for Saul. So, if you want to understand salvation by grace through faith in Christ, better call Paul!
Want a high view of the church? Better call Paul!
Paul’s early years as a Christian are shrouded in some secrecy. There was his conversion, his bouncing around between cities, and a mysterious journey with Jesus into Arabia for up to three years, preparing for the colossal assignment Christ had for him. We don’t know all the details.
What we do know, however, is Paul could always be found being active in the church. Ananias baptized him and introduced him to the church in Damascus. After being threatened by his old club, the Pharisees, Barnabas took Paul to the church at Jerusalem, where the other Apostles and believers were afraid of him (perhaps this planted the seed for a new name). After a short return to his old home town of Tarsus, Barnabas finds him and brings him to the church in Antioch where Paul serves as a part of a diverse plurality of pastors-teachers-elders, after which he will embark on a career as a missionary and church planter.
What we notice here is Paul’s high view and consistent participation in the church. A Christian’s first love should be Christ, above all. But his or her second love must be the church, the body of Christ, the children of God, who meet visibly on the Lord’s Day for worship and instruction then disperse for ministry and missionary service to those who will be added to the church.
There is no Paul without the influence of the church, and there would be no churches in most parts of the world without the influence of Paul. Paul and church, Christianity and responsible church membership, go hand in hand. So if you want a high view of the church, better call Paul!
Want to learn to listen to the Spirit of God? Better call Paul!
The key turn in this text is the telling to the teachers of the church that Barnabas and Paul, with the help of John Mark, should be sent out as missionaries. Who told them this? It was “the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit is God, He enables people to come to God, and He indwells every born again child of God as the resident teacher and guide. Therefore, He speaks. By how does the Holy Spirit speak, and how can you determine what He is saying? Better call Paul!
Before the Holy Spirit articulated (inwardly, intuitively) what God the Father willed for these certain followers of the Son of God, notice what Paul and Barnabas and the other elders of the church were doing. They were diligently engaged in preaching and teaching the word of God, they were regularly engaging the church of God in worship, they were praying, and they were fasting. Then, they heard what “the Holy Spirit said.”
You will never hear the Spirit of God unless you are buried in the word of God, the Bible, and the two will never contradict one another. You will not hear the Spirit of God unless you are engaged regularly in the worship of God, on the Lord’s Day and other occasions. You will not hear the Spirit of God speak unless you are speaking to God in prayer. And, in some instances, answers to prayers require the extra unction of fasting, a small sacrifice to show your seriousness to God.
Jesus called the Holy Spirit “The Counselor.” Good counselors get people to come to their own conclusions, based on what they’ve read and heard. Silence usually means stay. A clear word is given when it is time to go. In this case, it was clear that God gave the word, calling Paul into the mission field, for his first trip, a vocation he would maintain for the rest of his life.
Want to be courageous in the face of the enemies of God? Better call Paul!
Now that we’ve cleared the first three verses, the next nine trace the first steps of the first missionary journey of the Apostle Paul, accompanied by Barnabas and John Mark, to Barnabas’ home island of Cyprus. What a major-historic, world-changing, Christ-honoring occasion! But not everyone is happy about it, most especially a world hostile to God, flesh ruled by false religions, and the devil himself.
If you want to be a witness for Christ, and you want to help the church to grow, then you are going to have to square off with these enemies of God and the gospel, the world, the flesh, and the devil. You are going to need courage. Better call Paul!
Paul’s goal, though he went to the Jews first, was to draw the Gentile world to God. Then only 2% of the world was Jewish (because of The Holocaust and the sexual revolution, only 0.2% of the world is Jewish today). God chose Paul to introduce the rest of the world to Jesus Christ. This he did, with the word of God and the gospel. The Word of God is a sword (ref. Hebrews 4:12) that cuts people into two groups, friends of God and enemies of the gospel.
Sergius Paulus, will prove to be a friend, as we will see in the next point. Bar-Jesus (the son of Jesus, which was and is a common name in most parts of the world) proves to be an enemy. Paul takes the enemy head on, using salty language and apostolic powers. These are battles that are sometimes lost and sometimes won (see James and Peter in the previous paragraph), but the war is worth fighting, for the souls of human beings are at stake.
Want to win souls for Christ? Better call Paul!
God’s enemies are no match for God. “Faith is the victory that overcomes the world” (John Henry Yates). Jesus is the only way of salvation (ref. John 14:6), not any fleshly means or false religion. The devil, and all “son[s] of the devil,” are defeated foes, temporarily writhing like a snake without a head.
Sergius Paulus became one of the new-named Paul’s first converts, ironic in that one’s last name was the other’s first. The gospel penetrated his intellect, moved his emotions (“astonished” literally means “shaken to his core”), and changed his will. That’s the way every soul is won, one soul at a time.
I realize that this exemplary story of Paul’s first missionary journey can be as deflating as it is defining. It is kind of like when a young Jackson Browne stood backstage at an Allman Brothers concert. Realizing that he’d never in a million years be able to play a guitar like Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, he quit, for a time. Then, he got comfortable in his own skin, honed the skills God had given him, and became a wonderful singer-songwriter.
You and I will never be the Apostle Paul. We’ll never be that smart, that bold, that gifted, that successful in ministry or missionary pursuits. We’ll most likely never get our head cut off in a Roman prison, either. But do not be afraid and do not neglect to call Paul, read Paul, and learn from Paul’s prototypical Christian witness.
Get comfortable in your own saved skin, make sure it is baptized and in the church. Listen to God, through His word and His Spirit. Be willing and courageous to tell other people about Jesus and invite them to join you at His church. And if you find you need a little extra inspiration, better call Paul!