We know him as the Apostle Paul. The preeminent first-century church planter/missionary and prolific author God used to pen many of the New Testament letters.
We also know he was called Saul. That’s how most of us refer to him when he was the threat-breathing, murderous persecutor of the early church.
By default, most believe his name was changed once God saved him. After all, if the dramatic “Damascus Road experience” was the turning point in his identity (and it no doubt was!), a name change makes sense. But the truth is, that’s not why his name was changed. It wasn’t his conversion to Christ, but rather his call to preach Christ, that led to an additional, different name.
Let me explain.
It wasn’t until Saul and Barnabas were called by the Holy Spirit in Acts 13 and sent from the church in Antioch that Luke, the writer of Acts, begins calling him Paul (13:13). Prior to that, he was still Saul. Jesus called him Saul (Acts 9:4). Ananias called him Saul (Acts 9:17). In fact, he was known as Saul even in the fellowship of believers at Antioch (13:1-2). But once they departed and began interacting with Gentiles—people not like them who had yet to hear the gospel—Saul become more prominently known as Paul, even at times being referred to with both names (Acts 13:9)
Why? Greg Lanier explains it succinctly when he writes that “Luke could be making a thematic point by shifting from Saul to Paul around chapter 13, given the broader theme of Acts (e.g., 1:8). After all, the church’s nucleus is shifting from predominantly Jewish-centered Jerusalem to the Greek-centered ‘ends of the earth,’ such as Rome.”
In other words, God’s name being known was more important than Saul’s name being kept. It was all about the mission, not the man.
This is quite compelling, for it underscores the willingness of Saul/Paul to do whatever was necessary to preach the gospel where Christ had not been named (Rom 15:18-21), even letting go of his own name for the sake of Christ’s name! And don’t think for a minute Saul didn’t take pride in his name, heritage, and legacy. It was clearly Jewish, perhaps even given in light of Israel’s first King, Saul, who was also from the tribe of Benjamin. Philippians 3:4-6 details much of this pride as he lists his BC (i.e., before Christ) accomplishments. And my, what a pedigree! But none of it was worth keeping if it meant he would lose Christ and the mission given to him in Acts 9:15—“to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.”
What mattered to Saul—or Paul—was getting the gospel to those who had never heard. He let go of any attachment to his “real” name in order to better be able to carry the only Name. That’s how far he was willing to go in order to share the good news of Christ with those still unreached.