“Who art Thou, Lord?” Those were Paul’s words, spoken somewhere on a lonely, desert road outside the city of Damascus. But he must have had some idea already to whom he was speaking. The light shining about him was so bright, the noon day sun was hidden from his view. Yet even in this blinding light, before he lost his vision, he evidently saw the form of a man (Acts 9:7, 8, 17; I Cor. 15:8). He heard a voice calling his name, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” (Acts 9:4). The Lord would remove any remaining question in his mind as to Who was addressing him with the words, “I am Jesus Whom thou persecutest.” Perhaps, in those few moments on the road to Damascus, amidst all the wonder and glory of this encounter, his life was laid out before him in his mind.
Paul was born in the capital city of Tarsus, in the Roman province of Cilicia, situated in Syria (Acts 22:3). Paul described Tarsus as “no mean city” (Acts 21:39). According to Xenophon, it was “a large and prosperous city” (Anabasis 1:2:23) and Josephus adds of Cilicia, that “the noblest city they have, and a metropolis also, is Tarsus” (Ant. 1:6:1). Under Augustus Caesar, the city was made free and was allowed to govern itself by it’s own magistrates and did not have a Roman garrison in it as long as it served Rome. Though the city was free, that did not necessarily mean all of it’s citizens were free. So, while Paul calls himself a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37; 22:25) and free-born (Acts 22:28), that was not merely from being a citizen of Tarsus. In some way, apparently, Paul’s family–either his father or some earlier ancestor–had obtained Roman citizenship and Paul reaped the benefits of that heritage.
Tarsus was a crossroads of culture. A little north of Tarsus was the Cilician Gates which “historically. . . forms part of a route that linked Anatolia with the Mediterranean coast” (wikipedia). “It was a city so cosmopolitan that none could walk the streets without coming into contact with the ends of the earth. It was a city with such a history that none could live in it without some sense of greatness. It was a city with such a desire for knowledge, such a respect for scholarship, and such an intellectual ferment of thought that no thinking young man could entirely escape the contagion of the thronging ideas which crowded the air” (Barclay, The Mind of Saint Paul).
Tarsus was a university city. There, one had access to one of the great education systems in the ancient world, rivaling Athens and Alexandria. As it was a center of culture, it was also a great city of commerce. One of the goods which was exported was goats hair, called cilicium, which was used in making, among other things, tent coverings, sailcloth and leggings. When the goat’s hair was woven into a fabric, it was porous when dry, allowing air to move through it, but when wet it closed and formed a nearly waterproof covering, perfect for tents. Undoubtedly, Paul learned his trade from his father because of his life in Tarsus (Acts 18:3).
But while Paul was born in this Gentile city, he was thoroughly Jewish. Paul stated that his manner of life from his youth was at the first among his own nation at Jerusalem (Acts 26:4). He may possibly have spent the first decade of his life being educated in Tarsus, but, at least, by the age of twelve or thirteen, he would have journeyed to Jerusalem and there received a more exacting, rigorous Jewish education. We know that Paul’s father was a Pharisee of the tribe of Benjamin, as was Paul, himself (Acts 23:6; Phil. 3:5). He studied at the feet of the famous and highly respected Gamaliel in Jerusalem and was taught according to the perfect manner of the law and was zealous toward God (Acts 22:3). He profited in the Jew’s religion above many of his own equals being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of his fathers (Gal. 1:14).
Paul’s zeal in his youth for the traditions of his fathers translated into a fiery hatred of the Lord and His disciples as an adult. The first time the New Testament specifically mentions Saul is when he is seen holding the coats of those who were stoning Stephen and taking pleasure in the same (Acts 7:58; 8:1). Luke records next that Saul, himself, made havoc of the church, entering into every suspected Christian house and dragging out those who professed Christ and shut them up in prison (Acts 8:1). Saul “wasted” the Lord’s church (Gal. 1:13). He pursued Christians even to strange cities, being exceedingly mad against them, and beat them even in their synagogues (Acts 26:10,11; 22:19). Every moment he was planning the slaughter of Christians, every breathe was a threat against the disciples (Acts 9:1).
Now back to Damascus.
Perhaps, as the Lord spoke to him on this desert road, saying “I am Jesus Whom thou persecutest,” his mind raced back to see the bloody face and broken body of Stephen. Maybe he saw the face of each crying mother and each heartbroken wife as he dragged their loved ones away and beat them mercilessly. Maybe he thought of the members of his own family who were obedient to Christ even before he was and who were well thought of among the apostles (Rom. 16:7). Maybe he thought of his own blinding hatred which compelled him to injure, beat and kill those whom he believed heretic, those who dared to profess the name of Jesus Christ.
On this road, Jesus gently called his name, “Saul, Saul,” just as he had Martha (Luke 10:41) and Simon Peter (Luke 22:31). It must have startled this young man and he dropped to the ground (Acts 22:7). “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (Acts 9:5). Saul’s actions were only resulting in more pain for himself, as if he were kicking against a pointed spike. Humbly, Saul asked, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” Despite his actions, Saul was always a good man at heart, conscientiously seeking to do what he thought the Lord would have him to do (Acts 23:1). But now he was conquered, his ignorance enlightened and his unbelief dismantled (cf. I Tim. 1:13). He opened his eyes but he could see nothing, for he was blinded by the light (Acts 22:11). But for the first time in his life, he could really see.
Eric L. Padgett