This post continues an earlier post, A LIFE OF PAUL. It is a very, very rough draft of a talk I am to give to a discussion group in June, in preperation for the year of St Paul.
At some point and time, were not sure when, Paul was sent-or perhaps his family moved-to Jerusalem. According to Paul, in Acts 22:3, he was “brought up,” and “educated” in Jerusalem, suggesting that a large part of his life had been spent there. While in Jerusalem he began his training as a Rabbi under Gamaliel. Gamaliel was, and remains, one of the most important and influential teachers Rabbinic Judaism ever produced, and it’s possible that one of his greatest students, Shammai, was a fellow student with Paul. During this training Paul would have learned rabbinic methods of interpreting Scripture, arguing and debating, and theological traditions. Paul employs all of these things in varying degrees in his letters.
We first meet Paul in connection with the martyrdom of Stephen. This event is introduced at the end of chapter 6 of Acts:
- 8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, arose and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated men, who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place, and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us.” (Actes (RSV) 6)
Notice that among those who could not best Stephen in debate were men from Cilicia! And recall that Paul was from Tarsus in Cilicia. Was Paul, then, among those whom Stephen bested? Was he one of the ones who instigated false witnesses against Stephen? I think he was. Look at what is said at the end of the Stephen account:
- Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul…And Saul was consenting to his death.
According to Jewish Law, the witnesses against someone found guilty of a capital offense were required to throw the first stones. The reason for this is obvious. If they were guilty of giving false witness, and this was discovered, they would be liable to the same punishment as the falsely condemned suffered. Now, in Acts, the image of laying one’s possessions at the feet of another symbolizes that persons authority and influence. Essentially, what Luke is telling us is that Paul had a major role to play in what is transpiring. Furthermore, our translation says that he was “consenting” to the stoning; but the Greek word implies much more: he was in collusion with the stoning.
This event, Stephen’s martyrdom, begins a persecution of the Christians in Jerusalem, and most are forced to flee throughout Judea and into Samaria. At the same time, Paul begins an active persecution of the Church:
- And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
The wording of the Greek text here is quite strong. The verb used for ravaging refers to great harm, both physical and emotional. And the the verb for “dragged off” is also quite strong. One gets the impression that Paul is a very violent man. Paul himself tells us in Galatians 1:13 that he persecuted the Church beyond measure, and tried to annihilate it.
At this point, Luke breaks off his focus on Paul, and begins to focus on the movement of Christianity to Half-Jews, namely the Samaritans and to pagan prozylites to Judaism such as the Ethiopian eunuch. When we next meet Paul he has received authority to hunt out Christians in the synagogues of Syria and is heading to the capital of Damascus.
- 1 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. 4 And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; 6 but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do. 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”
Here begins the defining moment of Paul’s life. He himself speaks of it often in his letters, and it is so important for Luke’s teaching that the conversion is told three different times in Acts. Each account is slightly different, bringing out further details. According to this account Paul is still breathing threats and murder against Christians and is acting as an official representative of the Jewish leaders. At this time Paul was absolutely convinced that he was doing the right thing. In chapter 26, when he recounts his experience he says:
- 9 “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And I did so in Jerusalem; I not only shut up many of the saints in prison, by authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. 11 And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme; and in raging fury against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.” And in his letter to the Galatians he says: 13 For you heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it, 14 and progressed in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my race, since I was even more a zealot for my ancestral traditions. (Galates (NAB) 1)
But his conversion experience led Paul to see himself as he truly was. The one who-as we have just seen- tried to get Christians to blaspheme, came to recognize that he was the blasphemer; the one who tried to annihilate Christianity became its greatest propagator; the one who thought Christians were faithless sinners worthy of death came to see that he himself was an unbelieving sinner of the worst magnitude. All of this was for the sake not only of Paul alone, but for the sake of all who would here him preach; hear and read his letters; or hear of his conversion. In 1 Timothy he writes:
- 12 I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me trustworthy in appointing me to the ministry. 13 I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief.14 Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.15 This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost. 16 But for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life. (1Timothée (NAB) 1)
Paul, now blind because of his encounter with Jesus is led into Damascus where, neither eating or drinking, he waits for three days for a further revelation from Christ.
- 10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; 16 for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized,
19 and took food and was strengthened. For several days he was with the disciples at Damascus.
20 And in the synagogues immediately he proclaimed Jesus, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed, and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called on this name? And he has come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests.” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. (Actes (RSV) 9)
Here we see what Christ’s plans are for Paul. He is to be an instrument of Christ, and therefore an instrument of the Gospel. An instrument gets its power from an outside source, and throughout his letters Paul attributes the power and success of his ministry to the Triune God. The idea of instrument calls to mind Christ’s words in Luke 10:16: “He who hears you, hears me.” Likewise it calls to mind the beginning of Acts of Apostles where Luke writes: “In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all Jesus began to do and preach,” thus implying that Jesus is still at work in the Church. We also see that Paul will be shown how much he must suffer for the name of Jesus. The one who, as Ananias said, had authority from the chief priests to imprison those who called upon the name of Jesus will now himself suffer for the sake of that name. The Greek word for suffer is dei, and it is a key word for Luke, implying divine necessity. In Luke 9:22, the first passion prediction, Jesus had said “the Son of Man must suffer…,” and in speaking to the Disciples on the road to Emmaus the risen Jesus said, “Was it not necessary (dei) that the Messiah suffer…?” Paul’s life will now be lived in imitation of his new-found Lord.