Summary: The man possibly least likely of all men to become a Christian, transformed in an instant with a new Theology and an unchanging message.
1 Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, 2 and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; 4 and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” 5 And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, 6 but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.”
If there was ever a man born who could be labeled least likely to become a Christian, it was Saul of Tarsus. Now someone might object to that and bring up some infamous names from history like Adolf Hitler or Al Capone or Osama Bin Laden. You might even say, since those people and many others never did become Christians, doesn’t that make them, by default, less likely than Paul who did become a Christian?
No. Whatever can be said about any other evil man in history, Saul of Tarsus, an intelligent and highly educated Jew, knew what he was doing and thought what he was doing was not only lawful but holy and just, and he deliberately tried single-handedly to crush the infant church by intimidation, persecution and murder.
Today I want to follow the steps of Paul from the Bible’s earliest introduction of him, through his conversion and into his ministry, and let his story point us again and again to the cross of Christ.
SAUL THE AVENGER
The amazing, transforming power of the cross is nowhere manifest more poignantly than in the life of Saul of Tarsus. Here was a man whose life had centered in his religion so completely that he could later write about himself that he was a Hebrew of Hebrews and according to the righteousness that comes from the keeping of the Law, blameless (Phil 3:5-6) .
In the first chapter of his letter to the Galatians he was able to say that in his former life, that is, as a Jew, he had been ‘advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions.’
Now folks, this is not a man who is going to be easily persuaded to change his thinking about things. Here was a young man on the fast track to success and wide acclaim as a leader of Jews. I would not be afraid to speculate that if Paul had never become a Christian we would have read about him elsewhere as a great historical figure of his day. We would have seen his name listed with the great teachers like Gamaliel, who was indeed Paul’s teacher.
Chances are the orthodox Jews of today’s Rabbinical schools would be studying the works of Saul of Tarsus, great thinker of the first century.
But Saul wasn’t an armchair quarterback. Saul was out there in the thick of things living his religion, like many Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses today who put most of us Christians to shame with their zeal. They may be wrong but they are very sincerely wrong! And vocal about it!
The very first Biblical mention of Saul is that he is standing by to witness as his fellow Jews are bashing Stephen’s brains out with stones and even watching their cloaks for them so they can free up their arms for better aim and more crushing blows.
You know, Saul didn’t just drop out of a tree somewhere. We’re going to look at a passage in just a moment where he tells the Council of elders in the Temple that although he was born in Tarsus he was brought up in Jerusalem. So even though the Holy Spirit chose to introduce him to the narrative at this point, I can’t help wonder if he was one of those at the mock trials of Jesus. He was, after all, a Pharisee of Pharisees.
Was he at the cross? Was he one of the ones wagging his head and sticking out his tongue and saying, “He saved others, He cannot save Himself”?
Well we don’t know; we can’t know. But considering the portrait painted of him in Luke’s narrative and Paul’s own defenses I would find it hard to believe that during such momentous times he was sipping lattes in a corner at Starbuck’s and reading the Jerusalem Post.
But he was here, anyway; at the stoning of Stephen. That’s in Acts 7:58, and three verses later Luke writes, “And Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death”.