Saul of Tarsus (better known as the apostle Paul) was a ring-leading religious terrorist, “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1) and bent on destroying the nascent Christian church. An important part of Paul goes missing when we glide by his earlier incarnation as Saul of Tarsus – the Jewish zealot with blood on his hands – and only know him as the great apostle.
Today, we have plenty of reference points for the kind of man Saul was. If the Internet had been available then, he undoubtedly would have posted videos of himself online delivering threatening terrorist messages with a balaclava covering his face. But Paul’s cruel past is a vital clue to understanding him and to grasping the full impact of his letter to first-century churches.
As a devout Pharisee, Saul was fiercely committed to maintaining Israel’s distinctiveness and privilege as the chosen people of God – a status that excluded people from other nations. Already the Abrahamic covenant and Jewish circumcision had become symbols of national identity and exclusion instead of a calling to bless the nations. God’s law was understood to draw an indelible boundary line between Israel and other nations. “An inevitable corollary was that the other nations, the Gentiles, were outside the scope of God’s full favor, and unacceptable to him because of their lawlessness.”1 Saul, who later employs the word “zeal” to describe his persecution of the church, is identifying his “wholehearted commitment to safeguard the privileges and prerogatives of Israel…. From any abuse or curtailment.”
Clearly, in Saul’s mind, this commitment even warranted a “willingness to use force if necessary to maintain Israel’s set-apartness from the other nations.” So when Jewish Christians began welcoming Gentiles into their midst, Saul detected an alarming trend that “broke down the protective barrier of the law and undermined Jewish set-apartness.” The breach must be stopped. So intense was his “zeal” for the Lord and the law that he stood at the forefront of efforts to wipe out this dangerous corrupting new movement. He knew what he was doing and in his heart-of-hearts believed he was serving God.
Saul witnessed and gave his resolute approval to the brutal stoning execution of Stephen. Like a Taliban enforcer and with smoldering religious fervor, he relentlessly hunted down Christians. “Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison” (Acts 8:1-3). His reputation as a terrorist who targeted Christians seems to have been widespread. Every Christian who faced the prospect of meeting him instantly recoiled in fear. No one knows, but it is doubtful that any believer would have entertained the wildly insane hope, much less prayed, that the Gospel could ever transform a man like Saul. Christians were understandably terrified and tried to avoid him at all cost.
Saul proposed a strategy (which the high priest approved) for a terrorist campaign to expand his search-and-destroy activity into Syria. His goal was to work through local synagogues to track down and arrest any Christians – male or female – and haul them back to Jerusalem for trial. Indeed, it was while he was en route to carry out his violent mission in Damascus, the Syrian capital, that the Gospel stopped him in his tracks. A blinding “light from heaven flashed around him,” and he heard the voice of Jesus asking, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:3-5).
It is ironic that the man so profoundly revolted and angered by the inclusion of Gentiles and who was leading the charge to wipe out this new “corrupting” movement is suddenly blinded and dependent on Christians and their willingness to accept and even protect him. There was enormous distrust among them at first, and for good reason: “They were all afraid of him, not believing he really was a disciple” (Acts 9:26).
Paul’s powerful conversion story had a profound impact on Cannon Andrew White, Vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad, who has witnessed and still is witnessing the appalling suffering of believers in Iraq and in Jordan refugee camps. He’s heard horrific firsthand stories of brutal executions that have taken the lives of so many of his flock – even of children who affirmed their love of “Yeshua” (Jesus) and refused to embrace Islam. In a Facebook post, he openly admitted, “At first I found it too hard to pray for the salvation of ISIS. They are just so evil. Then I realized they are just the kind of people that Jesus came to save. Pray for their salvation. Pray that Al Bagdadi [ISIS leader and mastermind] may see Jesus on his way to Damascus just like St. Paul. Pray for their salvation.”
Redemptive stories – like that of Saul of Tarsus – give us a greater sense of the power of the Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus is bigger than we imagine and has a surprisingly long reach. Without a doubt it has the power to draw hopelessly lost men to Jesus. That Gospel gives the church a message that restores men to their creation calling and invests them with a new identity, purpose and sense of belonging.
Taken from “Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World” by Carolyn Custis James. Copyright © 2015. Used by permission of Zondervan.
Carolyn Custis James travels extensively as a popular speaker for women’s conferences, churches, colleges, seminaries and other Christian organizations. Her many books include “Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women” and “Lost Women of the Bible.”
1. Dunn and Suggate, “The Justice of God.”