Paul is one of the best-known figures in the Bible. He was the most prolific writer of the New Testament, with 14 books (including Hebrews) authored by him under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He was specially equipped by God to perform all types of miracles to confirm that his message was sanctioned by heaven. And he was recognized as one of the most capable teachers and logicians of the early church. But the way he first became a Christian, when we closely examine it, is no different from the form by which anyone else becomes one.
The Book of Acts describes the way that Paul first became a Christian in three of its chapters – Acts 9, 22 and 26 – and two of those are in Paul’s own words. When we harmonize those three sections, we see how the Lord miraculously appeared to Paul. At that time, Paul (then known as Saul), was a Jew, and a member of its strictest segment, the Pharisees. He was on a mission to hunt down Christians so they could be punished for their supposed heresy. At the brilliance of the Lord’s appearance, Paul was struck sightless, and begged the Lord to tell him what he should do to appease Him. What happened next is important from the standpoint of showing that everyone – Paul, you, me, everyone in between – in the details, becomes accepted by Jesus as His follower in the same manner.
Read Acts 9:1-19, 22:6-16 and 26:12–18, and notice these three steps that Paul took in the process of becoming a Christian:
(1) Teaching: Consider carefully that Jesus, when He miraculously appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, did not make Paul a Christian at that moment. Prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, He had provided forgiveness to some He encountered, but no instance of that type of direct pardon is recorded after His resurrection. Also, Paul’s seeing Jesus did not make Paul a Christian. Jesus directed Paul to continue traveling to Damascus, and gave him a specific address to visit. Meanwhile, the Lord directed one of His disciples to meet Paul to teach him how to become a Christian and to disclose the role of greater service to which the Lord invited him.
This is consistent with the pattern Jesus had described for how all of humanity would be brought into a relationship with Him. Christianity is a taught religion: “And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:18-20 KJV).
(2) Penitent faith: Upon the Lord’s instructions to Paul to continue to Damascus, he complied and once there, he intensely prayed to God. What’s notable is what Paul was not doing: persecuting Christians. His desisting from oppressing Christians and his instead pleading to God to be appeased reveals the abrupt change inside of him.
The specifics of how a person shows he has a contrite, and fully trusting heart toward God will likely take different forms from person to person, but all have this demeanor in common. When Jesus explained how the apostles were to begin the cycle of leading the world to Him, He specifically included this element: “Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, 47 and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47).
(3) Baptism: In Acts 22, Ananias finds Paul praying, and it appears he had been intensely fasting and praying for about three days. But Paul’s prayers were insufficient to complete the process of his translation from outside of Christ into Him. Ananias advised him: “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord’ (Acts 22:16).
It was not possible for Paul – or any other – under the New Covenant, to pray so earnestly that the Lord will accept him on his prayer and make him His disciple. This is because Jesus has already announced the terms of admission to His kingdom, which includes a command for initiates to be immersed for that purpose: “And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).
Anyone today who desires to become Jesus’ disciple can follow the same elements that were taught in the New Testament, and then we can have peace of mind in knowing that we are just what Paul and the other first-century Christians were – Christians only.