I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord's people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities. (Acts 26:9-11)This is part of what Paul said standing in court before the Roman authorities. He tells the court that he tried to get the followers of Jesus to denounce Jesus. To publicly turn away from him and his resurrection. Some did, but some didn't, and he goes on to say that he had those who wouldn't denounce Jesus, killed. "I tried to make them give up their faith" but they wouldn't even under the threat of death.
Perhaps for Paul watching these believers die over and over again, unwilling to say Jesus was not the Messiah, was one of the things that sat uneasy with his intellect and reason. It didn't make sense, why wouldn't they just give up on this guy and save their own lives.
So many of these followers could not give in even in the face of death. They knew Jesus. They saw his miracles. They saw his empty tomb and perhaps even were among those who saw him after he came out of the tomb. They knew he had to be God's son. They knew in their minds and hearts. Their lives had been changed. Their feelings of guilt were gone. They acted different. They were different people. How could they turn away from their God? Maybe for Paul seeing this over and over again as he tried to compel and even beat these followers into giving up on Jesus as the Messiah, he began to wonder if Jesus was the Messiah. Then Jesus spoke directly to Paul and his mad, violent, upside down world was turned around. His obsession was gone. He completely understood now why. He knew Jesus. Everything changed.
Here is how Paul describes this encounter as he stands before King Agrippa.
"On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.'
"Then I asked, 'Who are you, Lord?'
"'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,' the Lord replied. 'Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.' (Acts 26:12-18)
The partial image above in this post is from an etching in a book published in 1660 titled The Martyrs Mirror. Jan Luiken (1649-1712) made the etchings in the Martyrs Mirror. Note the man standing off in the background. This is Saul also known as Paul.