His work: Paul was a Pharisee, possibly a member of the Sanhedrin, who was transformed by a visitation of Jesus on the road to Damascus to become a radical missionary for Christ. His character: His intensity about life was matched by his faith and love for Jesus Christ. His sorrow: The memory of his hatred of Christians and his sanctioning of their punishment, floggings, and murder. His triumph: Paul spread the gospel to the Gentiles. Key Scriptures: Acts 9; Paul's letters
A Look at the Man
But before Saul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, the thought of carrying such a distinction could not have been more abhorrent to him. Saul was a zealous Jew. His singular mission in life was to preserve the integrity and traditions of his religion, and he was ready and willing to eliminate anything that threatened it—by any means. About this he was shamelessly passionate.
Born in Tarsus, Saul was the son of parents who wanted their son to be grounded in the laws, the orthodoxy, and the traditions of Judaism. Such training was not available in Tarsus, so they took him hundreds of miles to the south to study in Jerusalem. As a young man, Saul sat at the feet of the great teacher Gamaliel.
"Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse," Gamaliel read to his student from the fifth book of the Law of Moses. "You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance." Saul believed that the law was truth, and he had known the details of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. As far as he was concerned, Jesus was cursed. In addition to his beliefs about Jesus, Saul was also apprehensive about the growing number of Christians, especially among the Jews. This pollution had to be cleansed.
A short time before Saul's journey to Damascus, Peter and a handful of disciples had been brought before the Sanhedrin, of which Saul may have been a part. They were charged with healing the sick in the temple courts and teaching people about Jesus. Furious about the disciples' endeavor, the high council listened to their defense.
"Kill these traitors," one of the Pharisees shouted. "Yes, we must destroy these heretics," shouted another.
But Gamaliel, now an old man, stood and spoke. "Leave these men alone! Let them go!"
Saul was shocked. Hadn't this same wise man etched the law into his head as a youth? Now was he telling the Sanhedrin to ignore the law?
"We've seen these movements come and go," Gamaliel continued. "If its purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, even we will not be able to stop them; we'll be fighting against God, and we will fail."
Gamaliel's speech persuaded the Sanhedrin to forgo the execution of Peter and the other disciples; yet to assuage the anger of those who pressed charges, the Sanhedrin ordered the disciples to be flogged. They hated these followers of Jesus and despised the words they spoke. And the sound of the forty lashes slicing the backs of these conspirators from an adjoining room delighted each one of the great assembly.
"Do not speak in the name of Jesus again," the disciples were ordered as they reappeared, now bloodied and bruised, before the Sanhedrin. But from the looks on these offender's faces, not a single member of the council believed that they would obey.
Saul had never seen such resolve. This made him hate them all the more.
And in just a few days, the members of the Sanhedrin, with Saul in their midst, were able to vent their rage as they took Stephen outside the city and crushed his body under a volley of stones.
Now Saul was faced with the unthinkable. The disciples had been right. Stephen had been innocent—murdered in cold blood. Jesus was the very one spoken of by the prophets. What was he to do?
Saul—later on the island of Cyprus asking to be called "Paul"—spent the remainder of his life answering that question. In fact, he went straight to the synagogue and began to preach. "Come to Jesus," Paul preached to those who had gathered. "He is the Son of God…. Repent and be saved."
The priest in Damascus sent word to Caiaphas. "Good news: Saul has arrived in Damascus. Bad news: He's talking like a lunatic."
Before his martyrdom at the hands of Nero, Paul spread his "lunacy" throughout the known world. Through his love for Jesus, his compelling preaching, and his imprisonments, the fires of revival were ignited by this crazy man—once the gospel's great adversary, now its tireless champion.
Reflect On: Philippians 1:9–11 Praise God: For his persevering grace. Offer Thanks: For the gift of his Son, the gift of faith to believe, and the gift of the Holy Spirit to fill us with himself. Confess: Your shortsightedness and your unwillingness to thank him in every circumstance. Ask God:To fill you with radical, life-changing love for him.