He was purpose driven from the time he was a child
With a little exaggeration, Saul of Tarsus was born running. He writes, ‘I was given a thorough Jewish training from my earliest childhood’, Acts 26. 4 NLT. As a young man he did not drift through life. He was one of those individuals who knew exactly what he was doing and he was doing it with all his heart and with all his strength. He was purpose driven from the time he was a child. Halfway through his life Saul of Tarsus realized he was in the wrong race! To put it mildly, it was a momentous, traumatic experience.
Saul was born into a Jewish family in the city of Tarsus, located in Cilicia, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Saul would call himself a citizen of no mean city’, Acts 21. 39. Even so, he would not study in the schools of Tarsus for whatever ‘race’ in life they offered never caught his imagination. From Saul’s childhood there was only one ‘race’ of any real significance. He saw it exemplified in the lives of his parents. They were hard-working people and they were also deeply religious and practised what they believed. Within the warmth of that Jewish family Saul would be brought up as a Jew believing in the God who revealed His thoughts in the Jewish sacred writings. His parents began the process right after birth. It was a liferace he wholeheartedly embraced as he grew up. But it was the wrong race!
What things were gain to me
The values by which Saul lived during the first half of his life were considered by him at that time as real, solid, permanent gains. Years later he writes about, ‘What things were gain to me’, v. 7. As he matured, he steadily formed his life around those gains. The list of gains begins by highlighting the sovereignty of God and the goodness of his parents. He places circumcision at the top of the list, stating that he was circumcised the eighth day’, v. 5 I suggest that a Jewish couple in the Greek city of Tarsus, far from their homeland, believed they were obeying God and doing the right thing. The baby boy in Tarsus, without knowing what was happening, was off to a good start.
By birth, Saul was also of the ‘stock of Israel’, v. 5. that is, of the race of Israel. Eventually, Saul would move widely in the Greek-speaking world. Known as Paul, he spread the gospel tirelessly. He was a brave, courageous man – a Benjamite! Saul was also ‘a Hebrew of the Hebrews’, v. 15. Although born outside of Palestine, Saul’s father, a Pharisee, made sure his son was brought up and educated in the Hebrew language The term ‘Hebrew’ would also cover Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew. Many Jews no longer spoke Hebrew and that was one of the principal reasons why Jewish scholars translated their sacred writings into the Greek language about one hundred and fifty years before the Lord Jesus was born.
Saul traced his ancestry back beyond Tarsus to Israel. On the solid foundation of his youth he prepared for the race of his life by making some major personal decisions. His life would be dedicated to the study of his religion. He would be, in his own words, ‘concerning the law, a Pharisee’, v. 15 He was following proudly in his father’s footsteps. To the council members in Jerusalem, Paul stated, ‘Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee’, Acts 23. 6.
Saul went even farther than keeping all the laws, for as to his personal religious life he could say he was concerning the righteousness which is in the law, ‘blameless’, v. 6. To the Christians in Galatia he claims to have ‘advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers’, Gal. 1. 14. He also states, ‘concerning zeal, persecuting the church’. The zeal he refers to is zeal for God. Luke writes that he was ‘breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord’, Acts 9. 1. Before the mob in Jerusalem he acknowledged that he ‘persecuted this way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women’, Acts 22. 4.
The martyrdom of Stephen
This man was not only one of the greatest leaders of the early Christian movement, but he was also an outstanding individual in his pre- Christian life and, undoubtedly, destined for great things in the Jewish community. The martyrdom of Stephen put Saul on the map! Stephen’s arguments were so forceful that his opponents were at a loss logically to contradict his brilliant exposition. They would silence him permanently, without due process; by cruelly stoning him. Scholars suggest that Saul seems to have presided over the stoning; that it was done with his consent. The men took the initiative and they ‘laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul’, Acts 7. 58. Some wonder if his part in the stoning of Stephen may possibly have opened the door for a seat in the Sanhedrin. Saul was on the way up and he is running with passion but he is in the wrong race!
The death of Stephen appears to be the door through which Saul moved with shocking violence to eliminate the Christian community. During this period of his life, two things are shocking. First, Saul persecuted Christians to the death. He was fighting for all that he believed, for all that he valued. This would be a struggle to the death and Saul was not ready to give up. If anyone was going to lose, it would be the followers of the Way, that is, of the Christian faith. If Stephen was right and Jesus was in the supreme glory as Lord, Saul was lost. He had nothing.
Persecuting the church
First, Saul was not one of those Pharisees who conspicuously put on daily an act of religiosity and who were so forcefully condemned by the Lord Jesus as ‘hypocrites’. Saul’s religious faith was his only life. If the life he had so carefully created and to which he was wholeheartedly committed was wrong, he would be totally destroyed. And when someone is in a corner with no possible escape he fights back with everything at his disposal, even the death of those he considers his enemies. Second, Saul persecuted women, not only men, who were of the Way. Imagine the many families trying to flee for their lives and not always succeeding. We think of communities destroyed as the victims of a violent storm of persecution inspired and led by Saul of Tarsus. This may well be the reason why years later, looking back on that dark night of his life, he referred to himself as chief of sinners, Gal. 1. 13; 1 Tim. 1. 15.
Not content with the havoc he caused in and around Jerusalem, Saul set his sights on areas farther away, even beyond the borders of his own nation. This up and coming young man would be well known to the High Priest. No indication is given that he had difficulty obtaining an audience with this religious leader or that his request was not granted immediately. The papers were drawn up without delay and Saul was on his way, leaving behind in the Jerusalem area a devastated Christian church.
This young man was at the peak of his achievements. He was successful and was probably the envy of many of his peers, for he was definitely in the lead. That Saul was in the wrong race is related to his superficial reading of the scriptures. As a result, he was convinced that the coming Messiah, the Servant of the Lord, would arrive in power and glory and He would not suffer. It was generally believed that any reference to suffering in the ancient scriptures referred to Israel, the collective servant of the Lord. This erroneous reading put Saul in the wrong race.
The glory of the risen Messiah, Jesus, stopped Saul in his tracks
For Saul, the moment of truth was at hand. When he left Jerusalem for Damascus he had no idea his life, in every sense, would be changed drastically and permanently. It was the glory of the risen Messiah, Jesus, that stopped Saul in his tracks. This was followed by three days of blindness in which he finally understood the message of the gospel. After the visit from Ananias and a few days of rest, Saul began in different areas to powerfully preach that Jesus was the Messiah, totally confounding the religious leaders who plotted to kill him, Acts 9. 23, 29. How things had changed! Saul, who had plotted the destruction of so many Christians, is now, as a Christian, the object of the same fury and hatred.
The radical dimensions of Saul’s reevaluation of his life are truly awesome. His encounter with the living, glorified Jesus turned his life completely upside down. He writes, ‘What things were gain to me, these I have counted loss’, Phil. 3. 7. He understood that the things that he thought were to his advantage before God were actually destroying him! He realized he was in the wrong race and now he entered a new race, the only race with any meaning, and for the rest of his life he would be running joyfully toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God. Perhaps we should now ask ourselves the question. Could it be that some of us are in the wrong race? Augustine said, ‘Christ is not valued at all unless He is valued above all’.
To be continued
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