Paul the Persecuter

The Worst of Sinners to the Best of Saints

Paul never forgot the depths of sin and the heights of God’s grace in his life.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

People whose conversion took place after they were grown up are accustomed to looking back on their pre-salvation days with sorrow and shame and wishing that an obliterating hand might blot the record out of existence. Undoubtedly, Paul often reflected on this dark time and was haunted by those lost years. He would consider himself not worthy to be called an apostle because he had persecuted the church of God.

But God’s purposes are very deep, even in those who do know Him the LORD may be sowing seeds that will only ripen and bear fruit long after their godless career is over. Paul would never have been the man he became or have done the work he did, if in the years preceding his conversion, he had not gone through a course of preparation designed to fit him for his subsequent career.

Paul’s preeminent contribution to the world has been his presentation of the good news of the free grace of God as he himself experienced it. He preached grace as religion and holiness as gratitude. He insisted that the gospel of free grace did not annul the essential law of God, but rather established it. He preached the wrath and judgment of God but saw love as a more potent incentive to doing the will of God than legal regulations and fear of judgment could ever be.

Christianity had enjoyed a time of tolerance and acceptance, until Stephen preached his sermon (Acts 7) that rebuked the Sanhedrin and Jews for their rejection of Christ. This sermon was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He concluded with this biting indictment:

You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it (Acts 7:51-53)

The cross was a curse and therefore the crucified Jesus was accursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:23). To the Jew, a curse was not merely a mental condition; it was a deadly poison that affected the atmosphere about it. An executed criminal who was hanged on a tree suffered a special curse and shockingly defiled the air and ground on which his shadow fell. In addition, these converts claimed that the Temple and its sacrifices were superseded by the sacrificial death of Jesus and that therefore the Ceremonial Law could be disregarded (subject of another curse, Deuteronomy 27:26).

To Saul, a Pharisee of Pharisees, Stephen was a blasphemer. To claim that this crucified Jesus of Nazareth is the Righteous One of Jewish prophecy was an outrage too monstrous to reckon.

Saul, like the others covered his ears and yelling at the top of his voice, helped drag Stephen out of the city. The witnesses laid their clothes at Saul’s feet and he gave his approval to the stoning of Stephen to death. On that day, a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem and Saul became the chief persecutor.

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2).

Saul’s actions were not worthy of a pupil of so tolerant a teacher as Gamaliel, whose words in Acts 5:34-39 are certainly an example of moderation in the midst of frenzy. One cannot be certain of Saul’s motives. Was he trying to preserve his authority and prominence as a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin? Undoubtedly, he viewed “the Way” (the first name of Christianity) as heretical and threatening Judaism. Whatever his reasons, the Lord asked him to evaluate his motive on the road to Damascus.

In A.D. 34, Saul the persecutor encountered the living Christ on his 150-mile trip from Jerusalem to Damascus. As he neared Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.

He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:4-6).

All that Saul believed about Jesus that fanned his hatred and inflamed his antagonism had been snuffed out—physical blindness mirrored the spiritual darkness of his mind and heart. The flash of light typified the grace of God, which changed his life forever! His citizenship moved to heaven (Philippians 3:20). Now he was a member of God’s household and his mission was to bring foreigners and aliens into it as fellow-citizens (Ephesians 2:19).

The three accounts of his conversion, given in Acts 9, 22 and 26, show that three things were apparent to Paul. First, his life and activities in Judaism lay under the rebuke of God. Second, he could not escape the conclusion that the Jesus whom he was persecuting was alive, exalted, and all He claimed to be. Third, it was unmistakably clear that he had been appointed by Jesus Christ to be an apostle.

In the third account, Jesus tells Paul, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” This is a Greek idiom for opposition to deity. Here we learn also that Paul was commissioned on the Damascus Road. For Jesus also had said to him:

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 of me and what I will show you. 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 26:16-18).

How ironic! The one who would give light to the blind was now blind and had to be led to Damascus. There a reluctant disciple, Ananias, is told by the Lord to confirm that this persecutor has been chosen to be His apostle to the Jews and Gentiles.

Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name (Acts 9:15-16).

Saul received his sight, he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he was baptized. By the Grace of God, the sinner is a saint. Now the persecutor is the preacher, who will turn the world upside down.

Before the appearance of Saint Paul on the scene, Jewish prejudice had been partially broken down, the universal character of Christianity had been in some measure realized. Peter had used the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19). On Pentecost, three thousand Jews responded to his message and they were baptized (Acts 2). Then Peter preached to the Gentiles, Cornelius and his household, and they were converted and admitted into the church with water baptism (Acts 10).

It is unlikely that the original apostles were large-minded enough to grasp the idea of the perfect equality of Jew and Gentile in Christ and apply it without flinching in all its practical consequences. It would take the cosmopolitan Paul trained under Gamaliel to build a church of one people out of the Diaspora Jews, God-fearing Gentiles and pagans.

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