In history there are men who stand out like mountaintops because of how they shook the world. Saul of Tarsus was one of those men. Born a Jew with Roman citizenship Saul was ideally fit for God’s plan to bring the message of salvation from the Jewish world to the Gentile world. His education was 1st rank, having been trained as a Pharisee by none other than Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), the most respected Jewish scholar of the day. His religious zeal as a young Pharisee was unmatched (Gal. 1:14; Php. 3:4-6).
Yet while leading the campaign to destroy Christianity (Acts 26:9-11; Gal. 1:13) and on a trajectory for leading the Pharisees into the next generation, God had other plans in mind for Saul of Tarsus. From before his birth (Gal. 1:15) God appointed that road leading into Damascus to be the fork in the road of Saul’s life – to change him forever. The man who persecuted Jesus Christ would now preach Him. The man Saul from Tarsus became the man we are all more familiar with – Paul the Apostle.
Saul’s conversion to Christ is a demonstration for us that no one is beyond the powerful reach of God. Who in your life are you tempted to think, “There is no way he will ever come to Christ”, or, “She is too far gone to ever be saved”? WHo of you here thinks yourself to be out of God’s reach and beyond hope? Saul himself challenges these thoughts when he said in 1 Timothy 1:13-16:
“Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on Him and receive eternal life.”
So with Saul’s story we begin.
- The Church Hunter (1-2)
When we first meet Saul of Tarsus he is seen as the Church Hunter, the man who hunts down Christians. Verses 1 and 2 say, “……….”
Scripture introduces Saul to us when Stephen is stoned in Acts 7. There we see Saul as the authority behind Stephen’s execution. The Church of Jesus Christ had just begun on earth and the Apostles were preaching the Gospel that Jesus was raised from the dead and could forgive sins. Jews were coming over from Judaism by the thousands and putting their faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Savior. The result was that the Jewish rage which fell on Jesus began to fall on His followers. And Saul was leading the way in this rampage to crush the name of the Nazarene.
In Acts 22, years after his conversion, and when himself on trial for being a Christian, Saul explained his role in persecuting the church during his former life, “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.” He often reminded people of who he used to be, as he said in Galatians 1:13, “For you have heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the Church of God and tried to destroy it.” He would do this to magnify the 180 degree turn Christ did in his life to show people the power of God. He used to destroy the church, like in Acts 8:3 it says, “But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.”
The word “destroy”, as in “destroying the church” literally means to ravage like a wild beast. What a perfect description of Saul the Church Hunter. Like a crocodile tears and twists its prey to pieces; like a lion tearing flesh off its victim, so was Saul drunk with fury towards Christians. He was a man possessed by hatred, like a pitbull biting and violently thrashing back and forth, Saul wanted to tear the church to pieces.
Saul was acting out his spiritual heritage: he was continuing in a long line of religious zealots who ragefully persecuted God’s servants. His spiritual ancestors were not the people of God, but, rather the persecutors of the people of God. History is littered with their holy blood. Hebrews 11 recounts some of this heritage of persecution, “…Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated – the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”
And just as often persecution comes from within the house of God as it does outside. There are of course the Hamans, Nebuchadnezzars, Philistines, Hitlers, North Korea’s and Iran’s. But there are also the Pharisees, the Roman Catholic Church – even the Reformers Luther and Calvin and Zwingli who executed Christians for rejecting infant baptism and held to adult believer’s baptism. Jesus told the Pharisees in Matthew 23:29-36, “…”
Application: Expect persecution. Expect it socially. Intellectually. Economically. Politically. And even as Saul demonstrates – religiously. Persecution? Expect it. “In fact everyone who wants to live a godly life in Jesus Christ will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12). “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” (John 15:19). (See also 1 Peter 4:1-4). What’s the point here? Expect persecution in all forms to come your way.
Let me go further: Don’t just expect persecution – embrace it. This may sound strange to you, but it shouldn’t: The Bible teaches us to look at persecution as a privilege. Acts 5:41, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” Or Philippians 1:29, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him”.
So how do we respond to what we see in culture – a growing animosity towards the Bible and Christianity? What are we to think while watching our cultural capital as Christians disappear? We expect it because it is the nature of this world we live in (Acts 2:40; Php. 2:15). But we also embrace it, not fooling ourselves that we can construct a Christian society through socio-political change. We embrace it knowing that suffering for Christ is a promise and a privilege that will have a huge payoff – “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18).
- The Hunter Becomes the Hunted (3-9)
In the next chapter we see that the Hunter Becomes the Hunted. Verses 3-9 say, “….”
Watching the road to Damascus He finally saw His prey approaching. Papers in hand, police escort, and a fierce look upon his face, the time had come. And at just the right moment it happened. Bursting upon him in divine light and knocking him down with nothing more than a word, Jesus Christ finally confronted the man bent on destroying Him.
But Jesus did not “have it out” with Saul. Jesus confronted Saul’s personal and principal fault: attacking Jesus. Jesus’ words are worth noticing: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Jesus didn’t say, “Why do you persecute my people?” He said, “Why do you persecute Me, Saul?”
This highlights an important lesson: persecuting Christians is the same thing as persecuting Christ. How? Because of our union with Him. First Corinthians 6:15 says, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ Himself?” When we become believers we become united to Christ. He is called our Head and we are called His Body in the Bible. Ephesians 1:23 says “God placed all things under His feet and appointed Him to be head over everything for the Church, which is His body”.
Our unity with Jesus is so fixed that any assault against us for our faith is counted as an assault against Jesus Himself. Like an embassy on foreign soil is US property and any attack against it is an attack against the USA, Christians are little embassies in this world, and any attack against them is treated as an attack against the Lord in heaven Himself. When Christians are hated, mocked and slandered Christ is hated, mocked and slandered. This hatred of Christians is only because of people’s hatred of Jesus in the first place, “If the world hates you keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18; c.f. 17:14). People who hate Jesus Christ will hate his followers – as Saul did.
Application: When people ridicule or villainize you for your faith in Jesus Christ, they are actually guilty of ridiculing and villainizing Jesus Christ Himself. You are participating in the sufferings of Christ and are being brought into a deeper fellowship with Him (Php. 3:10; 2 Cor. 1:5; 1 Pet. 4:13). Do not shrink back or be embarrassed about Him. David said in Psalm 69:9, speaking to God, “Zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.” To insult God they insult the people of God, and insulting the people of God is insulting God.
I have another application that is unique but I think very related: How do we talk about each other as Christians? If I speak evil of another Christian do I realize that I am speaking evil of Jesus Christ? Do I want to be guilty of that? It puts a whole new light on the respect we give each other as fellow members of Christ’s Body.
All in one moment Saul’s whole world flipped upside down. His entire outlook reversed. The course of his life instantly altered. The enemy of God became the servant of God. One of our songs today is “Step by Step” and it says, “And I will follow you all of my days”. Paul was chasing Jesus Christ to persecute Him, but, now, He became a follower of Jesus and chased the lost to preach to them.
Saul hated Jesus, but, Jesus loved him and had mercy on him. Christians this is why we don’t hate our enemies. Jesus loves them – the guy who scoffs at the Bible, the girl who mocks Christians, the person who thinks believing in fairy tales is for kids, the guy who says Christians are a threat to science, culture and progress. Everyone – even the boss who fires the Christian for his convictions, or the fines government officials level for “illegal” religious convictions, or even the guy who beats up a Christians are all to be loved for the sake of Christ. Realize there is no other context for being like Christ in His sufferings than when we are suffering for Him. At what other times can we say with our Savior, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”?