It is inevitable that throughout one’s journey through the Word he or she will come upon something penned by the Apostle Paul. Having written fourteen of the books attributed to the New Testament, this translates to a little over half of the entire body of work, or of the 27 books contained therein. The epistles attributed to Paul are as follows: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Philemon, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus. Although there has been some difference of opinion among scholars as to Hebrews having been penned by Paul, one need only look at the substance of the book, acknowledge the deep and burning love for Christ as in all his other writings, to come to the conclusion that indeed the same hand and the same heart authored this book as well, inspired by the Spirit of God.
For a man who began his journey persecuting the followers of Christ, one who breathed threats and murder against them, seeing his transformation is perhaps the greatest example ever recorded as to what the love and grace of God is able to accomplish.
Before he was known as Paul, the Apostle of Christ, he was known as Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor of the brethren. There is much to be learned from the conversion of Saul, and his transformation into Paul. Today we begin to study this transformation, as well as fill in some blanks concerning the life of this man who became arguably, the greatest hero of the faith.
It had been close to a year since Saul had consented to Stephen’s death. Although the Word does not go into specifics concerning his vote, the fact that his consent is prominently noted denotes the fact that it was important, perhaps the deciding voice in what was to be the martyrdom of Stephen.
Even if you do not commit the act personally, even if Saul never picked up a stone and hurled it at the defenseless man kneeling before him, his consent put him in league with the murderers. Whether toward good, or toward evil, when one consents to a certain act, even if he or she did not personally commit it, he is still culpable in the eyes of God.
It would seem the death of Stephen did not slow Saul down in his pursuit to eradicate the followers of Christ. He made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.
This young man, born of the tribe of Benjamin, groomed from early youth to become a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee, quickly rose among the ranks becoming the leader of the movement whose aim was nothing less than total annihilation of Christ’s followers. Merciless in his endeavor, Saul’s action contributed greatly to the scattering of the early church, which went everywhere preaching the word. Even in times of peril, the true followers of Christ know their duty, their mission, and are unaffected.
Acts 9:1-2, “Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
In order to understand the source of Saul’s zeal and motivation one must travel back to the time of his early adolescence. Born of a deeply devout and religious house, Saul’s path was chosen for him in early youth. As rabbinical tradition teaches us, the education of Jewish children who were destined for a religious pursuit began at the tender age of five.
Saul’s parents wanted him to have the best education possible, and so after completing his education in Tarsus, he was sent to Jerusalem somewhere between the age of thirteen to fifteen, to attend the most respected school of the time, to study at the feet of Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people.
Young Saul desired to consecrate himself to the office of Rabbi, in order to aid his contemporaries in keeping the traditions of their religion. Being born into a family of Pharisees, he became ever more zealous for this path through all that he learned at the feet of Gamaliel. At the time, the Pharisees were seen as the hope of Israel, as well as the hope of keeping the true religion alive.
In his desire to defend Israel, and promote his religion, Saul desired to do away with every teaching that was not the Law of God, given by Moses. Christians were seen as criminals, enemies of the Jewish people and their religion, and so were sought out, and persecuted with hatred never before seen among the religious authorities in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin, which held the religious power firmly in their grasp, used every means at their disposal in order to obliterate the followers of Christ.
In this context young Saul arose as the chief persecutor of Christ’s followers, feeling all along that by destroying those who were of the Way, he was doing a valuable service to God. In his later writing, what to some might seem as confessions, we see this very clearly.
Galatians 1:13, “For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it.”
Like a small fire that goes unchecked, eventually growing into a full-blown inferno, it would seem that after the martyrdom of Stephen, the persecution against the Christians intensified exponentially. Consenting to and supporting the plans of the Sanhedrin to do away with the followers of Christ, Saul set about his duties with great zeal and conviction. This was not a man satisfied with half measures, and his passion to rid the world of the Christian ‘heresy’ drove him on incessantly. In him was found the catalyst that served to further stoke the fires of persecution, for he was young, and of enviable intelligence, possessing a somewhat volcanic temperament. The term ‘breathing threats’ shows us clearly that he had become thirsty for Christian blood, and sought to use all the religious authority he could get to aid him in his pursuit. A wise man once said that far worse than foolishness, is diabolical intelligence, and young Saul had such intelligence in spades.
It is wise to remember that all of Saul’s actions were a result of his deep religiosity. Yes, Saul was a very religious person. Religious fanaticism blinds the minds of men to such an extent, that it can readily transform them into executioners of the brethren. Religiosity causes many a man to breathe threats of murder.
This is the preeminent reason why I do not subscribe to the idea of defending, proclaiming, or promulgating a certain denomination in lieu of defending, proclaiming and promulgating Christ. We are to be, first and foremost Disciples of Christ, who worship in spirit and truth, being defined not by our denominational credentials, but by the Spirit of Christ indwelling in us.
In his burning zeal to defend tradition and religion, Saul planned to follow and destroy the followers of Christ even beyond the borders of Israel, as he would later confess with his own lips, persecuting them even to foreign cities. It was toward this end that he requested letters from the high priest to the synagogues of Damascus. It is very likely that the high priest of the time was Caiaphas, who had also been present at the murder of Stephen. All the synagogues in the whole of the Roman Empire were under the supervision of the high priest of Jerusalem, and the synagogues of Damascus fell under this category as well.
Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world. Eliezer, Abraham’s most faithful servant was originally from Damascus. David had a military contingent stationed in Damascus, and shortly one other event would be forever tied in with the name Damascus, namely the conversion of Saul.
The Jews in Damascus had a very strong relationship with the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem, and they sent alarming news concerning the explosive growth of Christianity in their city. Learning of this, Saul planned to go to Damascus with a great show of force, and do what he did best. He had become the voice of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem the right man to carry out the ideal of the elders of Israel.
Someone once said that when foolishness is written upon parchment, it remains so forever. Although Saul changed, the letters he requested remained. It is the same with the traditions, customs, and teachings of men, which do not line up with the Word of God.
In order to mask their hatred against those who are not of like mind, men often ask for such letters from their particular synagogue, or religious denomination, covering their true intent with dogmas and ceremonies.
As those of the Way were persecuted in the days of old, by religious men, and the world alike, so too are those seeking only to serve Christ, to carry their crosses faithfully day by day, looked down upon and dismissed by both the church and the world. Though time passes, some things never change. It is still the noble hearts and the pure souls that are most frequently exposed to slander and backbiting.
With love in Christ,
Michael Boldea Jr.