Essay / Theology

The Conversion of St. Paul

Christmas was exactly one month ago, and now, we celebrate another birth, or should I say , a new birth: the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, once fierce persecutor of the followers of Christ, now a formidable soldier for Christ.

We can say with certainty that ignorance of St. Paul is ignorance of Christ, especially since much of the New Testament is comprised of his epistles, fourteen in all. Preacher, missionary, and theologian–these activities sum up his post-conversion life. This is a conversion that moved the world.

St. Augustine picks up on Paul’s conversion from a persecutor of Christ’s flock to its greatest apostle, with an interesting interpretation of Jacob’s blessing of Benjamin, the tribe from whence Paul would come. The following excerpt is from his sermon on Acts 9: 1-16:

We are told today in the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, how Paul the Apostle, from being the persecutor of Christians, became the messenger of Christ. For Christ smote down his persecutor to make him his Doctor of the Church. He strikes him and heals him; he is dying, and behold, he lives. The Lamb was slain by the wolves, and behold, he makes the wolves into lambs. For what happened to Paul was clearly foretold by the Prophets when Jacob the Patriarch blessed his sons: as he touched the son who was actually before him, he foresaw the son who was to come.

Now Paul, as he himself declares, was of the tribe of Benjamin. So when Jacob, blessing each of his sons in turn, came to Benjamin, he said, “Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf”. What follows? Shall it always be thus? Far from it. Jacob added, “In the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil”. This was fulfilled in Paul the Apostle, just as it was prophesied of him.

Now, by your leave, let us see how in the morning he is ravenous, and how in the evening he divides the spoil. Morning and evening, apllied to him, mean before and after his conversion. So we could put it thus: Before his conversion he was ravenous; afterwards, he divided the spoil. This is the fierce wolf: Saul went unto the high priest and desired of him letters, that if he found any of this way, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.

He went, breathing out threatenings and slaughter: this is his morning devouring the prey. Now when Stephen was stoned, he became the first martyr to lay down his life in Christ’s name; and most clearly Saul was present at that time. In fact, he was so confederate with those who were stoning that it was not enough for him to stone Stephen with his own hands. For it was as though his will moved the hands of all those who were casting the stones, while he held their clothes. He raged more fiercely by helping all of them, than by stoning with his own hands. Thus we see how in the morning he was ravenous. Now let us see how to the same degree in the evening he divided the spoil. The voice of Christ from heaven felled him to the earth, and at that decree from on high the ravenous wolf fell on his face, and he who was first smitten down was afterwards lifted up; he was first stricken, and then healed.

-St. Augustine, Sermon 278, from Nocturn II of the Monastic Breviary Matins for the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

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