What was the origin of Paul’s religion? Paul’s been called “that rascal who messed everything up”, the “angry theologian”, and the “inventor of Christianity”. I believe he is none of these things, and I contend that there is a harmony between the message of Jesus and the teachings of Paul. We learn from Paul that the coming of Jesus was the climax/resolution of the story of Israel; that His sacrifice leads to forgiveness and restoration…and that gentile believers have now been scripted into Israel’s story.
Verses 11-12 Paul had no human teachers, nor was he self-taught; God schooled him via direct revelation. Paul did not invent the Gospel; it was not humanly-devised. He received it from the risen Christ, apart from other believers. He became a believer before He ever met the other apostles. The source of his learning came from Above, from the God who chose him, called him, and revealed His Son to him. The result was a dramatic, life-changing transformation.
Paul spoke by divine disclosure and authority…yet his teachings do not differ from the other apostles. He even agrees with James, who describes works as the outgrowth of genuine faith: “Faith without works is dead.” Paul insists in Ephesians that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (2:10). Paul’s point is that we’re not saved by keeping the Law of God, but since God has saved us, we want to live lawfully. We are free to live for Christ. The transforming grace of God will be evident in the lives of all who have trusted Christ, who are born from Above. We have a living faith.
Verses 13-14 Before encountering Jesus, Paul relentlessly persecuted Christians with righteous zeal. At the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, Paul held the coats of the executioners. He was no rebel or maverick, out to challenge Jewish tradition. His determined objective was to “destroy” (13) the church, a word used for sacking a city. Paul saw Christianity as a dangerous cult and threat to Israel. He regarded the church’s leaders as fanatical fishermen, nobodies who needed to be stopped. They were his arch enemies. Paul was also convinced that Jesus was an imposter, a false Messiah who was re-defining Judaism and attacking the Law. Paul was passionate in his opposition to the Gospel. There was nothing in his militant past--his pre-conversion life--that could have in any way prepared him for a positive response to the Gospel message. This informs us that there is hope for anyone, no matter how irreligious or antagonistic they are towards the Gospel.
Verses 15-16 Paul says he was “set-apart” (15), a phrase used by the Pharisees to describe themselves; they portrayed themselves as holy men, rigorously keeping the Law. And they were rigorous! When Jesus said that the average person’s righteousness should exceed that of the Pharisees, His listeners thought Jesus was setting an impossible standard. Yet what sets us apart in Christ is His doing, not ours. We may not have a dramatic conversion story, no seemingly miraculous deliverance, but there is no story of coming-to-faith that’s better than others. That’s because God does the work. The Holy Spirit draws people to the Savior. It “pleased God” to reveal Himself to Paul. We take no credit for our status or our progress in the faith. It’s all of grace.
Like John the Baptist (Luke 1), and OT prophets Isaiah (Is 49:1-6) and Jeremiah (Jer 1:4), Paul was appointed from his mother’s womb, a pre-birth calling by God’s sovereign/electing grace. In his defense, Paul reminded the church at Corinth (who questioned his authority), “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (I Cor 9:1). This is precisely why they should listen to him. Just like Paul, we are pre-loved by Christ, and we too have been given a mandate to communicate the Good News to a dying world.
Verses 17-22 After his Damascus road encounter with the risen Christ, Paul retreated to Arabia to ponder and prepare himself for his new mission in life. He did so by to spending time alone with God with few distractions. He didn’t rush into his new life; he took time to consider God’s plan for him. A few solitary hours set aside in a quiet room can be our Arabia, time when we can reflect on what God wants of us. Paul finally makes it to Damascus, his previous attempt having been interrupted by Jesus! When he gets to Jerusalem, he doesn’t seek a confirmation of his ministry from the other apostles. His visit was to get acquainted with Peter, not to get instruction from Peter. He presents himself as one commissioned from Above.
Paul’s dramatic, “about-face” conversion by direct, supernatural intervention, is unique; it doesn’t fit a typical scenario. Yet, as Eugene Peterson points out: “Every Christian story is a freedom story. Each tells how a person has been set free from the confines of small ideas, from the chains of what other people think, from the emotional cages of guilt and regret, from the prisons of the self, sin-separated from God. We are free to change.” Each believer--each of us--has a story of how we came to faith and the difference knowing Jesus has made.
Verses 23-24 The church may have been initially hesitant/cautious in welcoming a sworn enemy declaring his new allegiance; Paul’s reputation preceded him. Nonetheless, they rejoiced and accepted him and his calling. But Paul’s commission is an exception. Today clergy are normally under church authority, and their calling and giftedness are pain-stakingly verified. We’ve had Vicinage Councils here, and several years ago I wrote a guide for Vicinage Councils with scores of probing questions for clergy candidates; to ensure the people we ordain are prepared to serve, and are entering the ministry for all the right reasons.
We who have been believers for a long time need to treasure the Gospel message. Let’s not take our position in Christ for granted. We need to consider the difference knowing Jesus has made in our lives, and ponder how our lives might have been if we’d never come to faith. God has opened our eyes and ears to the truth of His word, and while our coming to faith was likely not as striking as Paul’s Damascus Road experience, every conversion is a miraculous work of God, and every believer has been commissioned to live for Jesus.