WHY WAS SAUL OF TARSUS’ NAME CHANGED TO PAUL?
by Shawn Brasseaux
Up until Acts 13:9 in the Bible, we read about a character named “Saul, of Tarsus.” Thereafter, Scripture knows him only as “Paul.” Why this change?
Saul of Tarsus first appears in Acts 7:58. He is a “young man,” someone who is influential in the stoning of God’s prophet Stephen. Saul is also leading Israel’s rebellion against Jesus’ little flock of believers in early Acts (Acts 8:1-4; Acts 22:1-5; Acts 26:9-11; 1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13-14; 1 Timothy 1:13). From other Scriptures, we learn that Saul is a Jew by blood and religion (Acts 22:3; Romans 9:3-4; 2 Corinthians 11:22; Galatians 1:14-15; Philippians 3:5). He is a Roman by birth and citizenship (Acts 16:37-38; Acts 22:25-29). Saul was born in Tarsus, Cilicia, some 300 miles (483 kilometers) north of Jerusalem, but he grew up in Jerusalem under the tutelage of the well-known rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Saul of Tarsus was a scholar in the Mosaic Law, a religious leader of Israel, a Pharisee (Galatians 1:13-15; Philippians 3:5-6). He was known as “Rabbi Shaul.”
Interestingly, the Apostle Paul never refers to himself as “Saul” in any of his epistles of Romans through Philemon. He always called himself “Paul.” The name “Saul” (in relation to the Apostle Paul) appears in the King James Bible 22 times (only in Acts) whereas the name “Paul” appears 157 times in the King James Bible. More often than not, he is known as “Paul” in God’s Holy Word. Why?
To appreciate why the Bible transitions from the name “Saul” to “Paul,” we need to look at where “Paul” first appears in Scripture. As stated earlier, that is Acts 13:9. We will begin reading in verse 6: “ And when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Barjesus:  Which was with the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus, a prudent man; who called for Barnabas and Saul, and desired to hear the word of God.  But Elymas the sorcerer (for so is his name by interpretation) withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith.  Then Saul, (who also is called Paul,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him.  And said, O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord?  And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand.  Then the deputy, when he saw what was done, believed, being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord.”
Here, Saul is on his first apostolic journey. God is using him to reach the pagan world with the message of His grace, everything that a holy God has done for the sinner through Jesus Christ’s finished crosswork. As Saul and Barnabas are going through the isle to Paphos, they encounter a false prophet and Jew named “Barjesus” or “Elymas.” Barjesus/Elymas is operating under Satan’s control. A Gentile ruler of the area, “Sergius Paulus,” wants to hear God’s Word from Barnabas and Saul. Barjesus/Elymas attempts to prevent Barnabas and Saul from reaching this Gentile with the message of God’s grace. The Holy Ghost takes over Saul and speaks to Barjesus/Elymas through him: “O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season” (verses 10-11).
This most fascinating miracle is Paul’s first miracle recorded in Scripture. It is not merely a historical event, but a communication of doctrine, doctrine that Sergius Paul saw and believed (verse 12). What was the doctrine this miracle conveyed? As Jews are hindering and forbidding Paul from reaching the Gentiles with God’s Word (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16), so this unbelieving Jew is preventing Paul from preaching salvation to a Gentile ruler so that he might have eternal life. Just as Israel falls into a temporary blindness while salvation goes to the Gentiles (Romans 11:25), so Barjesus/Elymas is physically blinded for a time (Acts 13:11). Romans 11:25-27 explains: “ For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.  And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob:  For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins.”
Some etymology will now further explain the matter. The name “Saul” is Hebrew whereas “Paul” is a Roman name. “Saul” in Hebrew, Shaul, means, “asked, desired, wished.” “Paul” in Greek is Paulos, meaning “little,” and is closely related to pauo, which means, “to pause, stop, desist, cease.” God is communicating through the miracle of Acts 13:1-12 that He has paused Israel’s prophetic program and He has begun our mystery program. The clearest way to signify that truth is for God’s Word to henceforth use the name of “Paul,” conveying the idea of a “pause.” So, from Acts 13:9 onward, he is no longer called “Saul.” He is thereafter called “Paul.” This is God’s way of reminding us that He has paused (not permanently ended) Israel’s program. It is this pause that delayed Christ’s coming back in wrath to destroy His enemies (see 2 Peter 3:1-9, and especially verses 15-16 with reference to “Paul”).
Again, “pause” is important to keep in mind, since Israel’s program is not permanently suspended. Like Elymas/Barjesus, she is temporarily blinded (refer again to Romans 11:25-27). Israel’s prophetic program is only suspended for a time, a season, until God finishes forming the Church the Body of Christ. We have not replaced Israel as the “covenant theologians” claim. We the Church the Body of Christ are not the continuation of the Old Testament community as they teach. We are not an extension of the nation Israel. We are a “new creature,” the “one new man” (2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:15). We are a brand-new entity, the Church the Body of Christ. Our mystery program is unrelated to Israel’s prophetic program. Those two programs will never combine: we have no relation whatsoever to end-time prophecy.
Since Paul’s apostleship and message involve God’s transition from dealing with Israel (Jew) only to dealing with all nations (Gentiles), it is appropriate for Him to use a man who has both a Jewish nature and Roman (Gentile) nature. That is to say, Paul, a Roman and a Jew, is the perfect reflection of the Church the Body of Christ being made up of both believing Jews and believing Gentiles (Romans 9:24; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 2:11-22; Ephesians 3:6).
For the most part of his ministry, and in all of his epistles, Paul is not known by his Jewish name (Saul) but rather by his Gentile name (Paul). After all, his ministry is “the apostleship of the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13). In all actuality, God no longer saw him as a Jew, for Israel had fallen back in Acts chapter 7: any lost Jew was technically a Gentile from Acts chapter 7 onward. It was fitting for God to refer to him using his Gentile name, Paul, for He had now begun to reach the Gentiles with the Gospel of Grace. Again, Paul was a perfect illustration of the Church the Body of Christ, which was composed of believing Jews and believing Gentiles, saved by grace, saved apart from Israel’s prophetic program and kingdom hope.
Just goes to show us how supernatural the Bible is, how it stresses the most amazing doctrines by using something so common as a person’s name. The King James Bible is truly a marvelous Book, without comparison, and worthy of our utmost trust!
» Do we study only Paul’s epistles?
» What is “the Dispensation of Grace?”
» Did Peter and Paul preach the same Gospel?