Summary: Saul the zealot becomes Paul the apostle
What does the word ‘zeal’ mean to you? Do you picture some running around fanatically shouting and calling our attention to some-thing very important that needs our focus immediately? Do you have a picture in mind of Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders charging up San Juan hill in Cuba during the Spanish American War? What does the word mean to you?
There have been a number of people described as zealous in both the Old and New Testaments. An early one was Phinehas. It is recorded in Numbers 25 that he was zealous for the Lord and pierced a Israelite man who had married a Midianite woman because this marriage corrupted Israel’s faith. There is the zealous Elijah, calling down fire from heaven on pagan soldiers and prophets of Baal and anyone else that presented a threat to Israel’s faith.
You don’t read much about the zeal of Mattathias, the Maccabean warrior, who was led to kill a fellow Jew and countless Syrian soldiers in order to defend the faith of their ancestors, as recorded in 1 Maccabees 2. All three of these men could have served as Paul’s boyhood heroes. Like his role models, Paul was fanatical for the faith of his fathers, the faith of Judaism.
Paul uses the Greek word zelotes in verse 14; from this word we get our word ‘zealot.’ It could simply mean ‘loyalist’ but also has the sense of fanatic. A fan is someone who roots for his team; a fanatic is someone who will do almost anything to make sure his team wins.
Paul, when we first meet him in Acts 7, is a fanatical zealot for Judaism as it was practiced in the first century. Saul was so zealous for Jehovah that he would be willing to use violence in order to defend Judaism. He believed that Christians threatened what was most holy in Israel, and was will to defend his faith to the death - whether his own death or the death of those he considered to heretics.
Can I add a side note? God doesn’t need us to defend him. Have you ever read anywhere in the Bible where God was so weak that he had to have human intervention in order to save him? I haven’t. God is quite strong enough and big enough to defend himself and his name without my help at all. If fact, if it ever got to the point where God needed me to come to his aid, I don’t believe I would still believe that God was omnipotent - all powerful.
Paul the pre-Christian
“For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”.” (1:13-14)
Before his conversion, Paul would have viewed the Christian proclamation that Jesus was Lord as a fatal heresy that challenged the fundamental belief in one God. Furthermore, according to Deuteronomy 21:22, the preaching of a crucified Messiah would bring a curse to the land. Paul was willing to do anything, including murder, to remove this blasphemous blight from Jerusalem.
Paul points out his Jewishness, presenting his credentials so that he could do two things: 1) some had said he was ‘soft’ on the law. In other words, he didn’t really believe everything that the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, taught about man’s relationship to God and man’s obedience to the commandments of God.
Because he was considered ‘soft’ on the law, (2) he was failing miserably in his life as an orthodox Jew and thus had joined the Jesus movement hoping for more success. Both charges were false. Only an act of God could explain the seismic shift in Paul’s theology and proclamation, and that seismic shift happened to Saul on the road to Damascus in Acts 9.
Do you remember when you accepted Christ as your savior? Was it an emotional experience? Was there a big change in your life and lifestyle? What did the Lord do to get your attention? I expect the Lord did nothing as drastic as robbing you of one of your senses for three days, and then restoring that sense to you as he did to Paul.
We all have a pre-Christian testimony - we all have something to share about our life before we accepted Christ as our savior. You may have been a child, a teenager, a young adult, and adult. You may have been living at home, going to school, serving in the military. You may have been a little sinner, a big sinner, or a real big sinner!
At whatever stage in your life, the Lord came to you and offered you the opportunity to have your sins forgiven. And you accepted - maybe not the first time but the second time, or third time, you were asked. And you experienced that new birth that only some-one who has had their sins forgiven and cleansed can experience. You once were lost, but now have been found.