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I was discussing the story of Acts in one of the classes at the Theopolis Institute and the question was raised whether Saul of Tarsus is related in any way to the character of King Saul. Should we see a typological connection between these two figures? It would seem that there would be a promising connection between them, and so I am going to lay out a few thoughts here and invite any thoughts or reflections that you might have that would develop them.
If you look at the story of the book of Acts, you will notice that Saul is referred to as “Saul” until chapter 13, after which point he is generally referred to as “Paul.” He is referred to as “Saul” not just by the narrator, but also by Christ and by God as he sends him out with Barnabas, so this seems to be his name.
Many have suggested that his name is changed by God when he becomes an apostle. I don’t think that’s the case. But it seems to me that the narrator is doing something by calling him “Saul,” since his name is also Paul. He could have called him “Paul” throughout, but the fact that he begins by calling him “Saul” and then switches to calling him “Paul” later on in the story suggests that there might be a reason for doing so.
I think the reason is that he wants us to see some sort of parallel between the Old Testament Saul and the New Testament Saul. If we look through the Old Testament, we see that King Saul is in many ways a paradigmatic persecutor. He is the one who fights against the true king. He is the king of Israel, but he opposes David, the rightful successor. He tries to kill him with his spear. He tries to put him in harm’s way, fighting the Philistines. He tries to pursue him to Naioth and other places like that. He is implacable in his pursuit of and his opposition to David. And yet God arrests him in his steps at various points, and there are very strange twists in that story.
As we look through the story of Saul of Tarsus, we will notice a similar pattern. Saul begins as a zealous persecutor of the church, breathing out murderous threats, seeking to take the disciples into prison and bring them before the high priest and eventually put them to death.
There is a similarity between these two characters, and within the book of Acts this is presented not just as persecuting the individual disciples but as persecuting Christ himself: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Not just “my disciples,” but “Why do you persecute me?” The greater David is asking Saul of Tarsus why he is pursuing him, why he is persecuting him, what he has done to deserve his opposition.
In 1 Samuel 20, we find David asking Jonathan a similar question about Saul: “Then David fled from Naioth in Ramah and came and said before Jonathan, ‘What have I done? What is my guilt? And what is my sin before your father, that he seeks my life?’” (1 Sam. 20:1). “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
In the previous chapter, there is also an interesting incident that might remind us of Saul’s conversion or his illumination on the road to Damascus. King Saul goes to pursue David to Naioth in Ramah, and the Spirit of God comes upon him and he prophesies until he comes to Naioth in Ramah. “And he too stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay naked all that day and all that night. Thus it is said, ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’” (1 Sam. 19:18–24).
It is a remarkable event. It might recall some of the things that are described in connection with Saul’s conversion event on the road to Damascus. There is an interruption of his course of persecution and pursuit, and there is a period of waiting, all day and all night in the story of King Saul and a number of days for Saul of Tarsus before Ananias comes and baptizes him in the story of Acts.
These parallels—a potential conversion event in what happens to King Saul when the Spirit comes upon him and he prophesies and the question that David asks Jonathan (“Why is your father persecuting me?”)—recall the event on the road to Damascus. But whereas King Saul arrests his pursuit of David only for a time and it doesn’t really amount to anything in the end, the arresting of Saul of Tarsus leads to a complete change.
From that point on, his character is completely transformed. He becomes the key apostle, even though he was the least of the apostles on account of his persecution of the church. King Saul says that he was from the least tribe, from the least family of that tribe in Israel, and yet God raised him up to be king. And there is something similar in the story of Saul of Tarsus: He is the least qualified, the least worthy to be an apostle, but God raises him in many ways to be the greatest of the apostles or a leader among the apostles.
Another thing to notice about these parallels is that David, as he is pursued by Saul, is let down through a window by Michal and escapes. A similar thing happens to Saul after his conversion: He is let down through a gap in the wall of Damascus in a basket and escapes when they are guarding the gates.
That pursuit of Saul might remind us of the pursuit of David and his escape from King Saul. But there is a switch of the characters. This king who pursued the lion of the tribe of Judah is now changed to one who is converted and is now a true servant of the king and takes on the character of the king. He too is trying to escape as King David did, no longer the persecutor but the one who is being pursued.
What else can we see when his name changes in the narration in chapter 13? Shortly after this name change, he delivers a sermon in which he talks to the men of Israel and recounts the history: “All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’ Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised” (Acts 13:20–23).
Again, there seems to be a connection here. Saul is the king who is removed in order that David, from whom comes the Messiah, will come on the scene. So that framework of Saul being replaced by David is at play within the book of Acts. That might help us to understand why, in that same passage, there is a switch from “Saul” to “Paul.” That switch of name draws our mind back to that replacement, that changing of the character of Saul.
Now Saul stands also for the persecuting Jewish leaders, the ones who are seeking to take the life of the early church, who oppose Christ and seek to destroy his people. Likewise, in the story of King Saul, he is the paradigmatic persecutor, the one who seeks to destroy David.
Putting all these things together, I think we have a characterization of Saul of Tarsus that does not just present him as a random person bearing a message, but as someone who might have significance typologically in a wider framework of redemptive history.
And there are many other ways that we might think about that, particularly as we look through Galatians. We might think about the connections between Saul and the character of Jonah or the character of Jeremiah, called when he was still in the womb. These characters are connected typologically in some way to the apostle Paul.
Exploring these themes, we also see God’s concern with the tribes. The story of the tribes does not end. There is a relationship between the tribe of Benjamin and the tribe of Judah that is fraught with significance.
As we think about those stories, there may be other things that come to mind. Saul of Tarsus is of the tribe of Benjamin and he is pursuing the Lion of the tribe of Judah. That’s what we see in the book of 1 Samuel as well.
Saul is a Benjamite, the first king who is associated with the tribe of Benjamin. Benjamin is associated with the beginnings of kingship in the story of Genesis, particularly chapters 35 and 36. There are hints of an initial connection between Benjamin and the kingship there. But then, later on, in chapters 38 and 49, in various ways there are connections between the tribe of Judah and the kingship.
The relationships between the two tribes are important. To bring Benjamin down to Egypt in the first place, Judah vouches for him and will stand for him. Judah intercedes for Benjamin later on in Genesis when Benjamin is threatened as a result of his possession of the silver cup.
That relationship is developed further in the relationship between Saul and David in 1 Samuel, of course, but we also see it in places like the book of Esther, as Esther and Mordecai the Benjamites intercede for and protect the Jews, the Judeans, the people of Judah, the people who are associated particularly with that tribe. And so in the New Testament, we have another relationship between a Benjamite and a person of Judah, Jesus the Messiah, the true descendant and heir of David.