Summary: I want my audience to be amazed at the way God transformed the life of Paul and to look for that in the people around them and themselves
You won’t be hearing about it on AP reports, or the network or cable news – not even on FOX. We just don’t get many reports about what it’s like to be a Christian in the Mid-East, surrounded by people who aren’t. And while we hear about Muslim leaders and their zeal and hatred against the West, I want to tell you about a well-educated guy whose hatred isn’t against just the West, but especially against Christians. Beyond his contemporaries, he’s consumed by his religious convictions. In fact, he’s so driven by them, he’s one of the radicals who actually want us dead. This guy exudes hatred for Christians. Aside from organized kidnapping of people known to be Christians, he also has organized beatings and tortures of them designed to terrorize, and specifically to try to get them to renounce Christ. It doesn’t matter if they’re men or women. It doesn’t matter if they’re his countrymen or not. It’s his consuming passion to hate Christians. The superiors in his religion approve. In fact, they provide means to help him travel and hunt down Christians. Once they’re captured, he always votes for their death. No one is sure just how many Christians have died because of him, or how much has been suffered by the Church because of him, but one thing’s for sure: Christians in the Middle East know about him and they know his name.
And now there’s news that he has changed; not just that he has become nicer, but that he has become one of the people he has been trying to destroy all along. Do you suppose, if he were to offer to come lead a ladies’ retreat here or to apply for our children’s ministry position we might hesitate – at least a little? Would you go to hear him preach? Would you trust him at a special gathering? If he really was changed, you might. But is he, or isn’t he?
You and I have had to wrestle with thoughts like that before, and we will again. We’re not the first. The guy I’ve just been describing to you is actually another case of name change in the Bible – the last one we’re going to consider in this series. His name is Saul. He’s not an Iranian Muslim terrorist. He’s actually a Jewish Pharisee from the city of Tarsus in Cilicia, and raised in Jerusalem. We’re not exactly sure that his name was really changed – only that in Acts 13:9, out of the blue, it says Saul was also called Paul, and then, from that time forward, he’s always known as Paul. So, whether God changed his name or not, for our practical purposes, He did, because that’s his name to us from then on. Paul.
This morning, I want to look at this man, a “forever changed” person, as an example and reminder to us of the way God changes people – even people who are on an absolute crash-course for hell. Why do we need to see that or even think about it? I’m glad you asked that. Stay tuned!
We’re introduced to Saul of Tarsus in Acts 7 where the first person ever to die for his devotion to Jesus is being pummeled to death with rocks. Saul isn’t throwing rocks, but there’s a man there, less than 40 years old, cheering on the murder, and guarding the coats of everyone who’s doing it. 8:1 tells us that Saul was there, giving his approval. It all seems to ignite a flame inside him – a flame of religious zeal and indignation against Christians. A great persecution is launched against the Church, and Saul is on the leading edge of it. How dare they oppose the Law! How dare they turn from the traditions of the Fathers! How dare they assemble themselves and encourage others to follow this Nazarene cult leader! So…
Acts 8:3 Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.
Acts 9:1-2 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.
Those reports…are mild. The more detailed descriptions come from the mouth of Paul himself:
Acts 22:4-5 "…I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison…went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
Acts 22:19 "Lord, I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you.”
Acts 26:9-11 "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…I put many of the saints 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. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.