It took a catastrophic event to transform the heart of Christianity’s singularly most violent persecutor into its most passionate advocate. How did Paul achieve redemption in the wake of a vocation dedicated to obliterating the life work of Jesus?
St Paul is undeniably one of the most charismatic and compelling figures in all of biblical history – ranked alongside other giants of Judaic and Christian antiquity like Abraham, Moses, David, John the Baptist and Peter – and the journey of his life and faith are as turbulent and cataclysmic as the story of Jesus. His entire existence, both before and after his dramatic and radical conversion, is a lesson in the indomitable might and supreme tenderness of Jesus Christ.
The epoch in which Paul’s life is inserted into the emerging identity of Christianity was culturally and religiously explosive, fraught with political instability and set upon a global stage whose boundaries by virtue of aggressive Roman expansion and tyranny were ever shifting, creating brittle alliances, resentful loyalties and uneasy truces: a veritable melting pot of caprice, violence, hedonism and greed.
In an age of spectacular dictatorship overthrows, inconceivably gruesome executions (crucifixion was the least of the
Roman Empire ’s expressions of macabre creativity), ritualistic pagan orgies and legalized genocide, nothing short of a spectacular event would have so much as raised an eyebrow, much less captivated the ancient world.
What could be more conspicuous and histrionic than for the most zealous and influential of all Christian persecutors of the 1st Century to be converted to its greatest activist? Nothing short of a transformation of hitherto unforeseen magnitude could have succeeded in capturing the attention and collective imagination of the then known world and continue to enthrall believers, theologians and historians down through the ages.
So that is precisely how Jesus made his second entrance onto the world stage almost as spectacularly as his first – through a man name Paul, famed for his rabid persecution of Christianity, whose name went on to become synonymous with Jesus and His ministry.
Paul was primed from birth to proclaim Jesus as Lord. Paul’s privileged upbringing, education, Roman citizenship, and pharisaic high standing made him the perfect candidate to articulate with eloquence, passion and conviction the truth of Jesus Christ as the Messiah heralded by the prophets. Quite simply, he was an orator of exceptional talent who could explicate and argue the sovereign kingship and the sacred mysteries of the Most High Jesus Christ with such flawless delivery and inarguable coherency that not even the high priests and political magnates of the time could repudiate or discredit him. Often his detractors, whilst loathing him, acknowledge and conceded that his reason was sound, his case was flawless, his logic defensible and his facts indisputable – even as they denounced him. “On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. 28For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.” (Acts 18:27) A single point of difference separated Paul from his detractors – Paul believed in Jesus as the Son of God whilst his critics considered him to be a Messianic pretender whose radical legacy would fade and whose followers would swiftly dissipate following His death. In Paul, Jesus had created a campaigner whose passion for persecuting Christians was only exceeded by his tireless zeal for spreading the good news of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the Judaic prophecies of the coming Messiah.
The conversion that changed everything. Can we imagine what must have occurred in the heart, mind and soul of this vigorous, young, zealous Jew when he cried out “Who are you, Lord?”, only to be confronted with, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”? He had been so unwaveringly certain of Jesus’ fraudulence. Were he not convinced Jesus’ was a counterfeit ministry, he would not have lobbied so fervently to eradicate His believers. No, he was unshakable in his conviction that this man, prophet though he may be, was not the Son of God He claimed to be. How bone-jarring to his consciousness to discover that his every effort had not only been in vain but vilely sinful and despised by the very God he thought he was defending. How appalled his sensibilities must have been to learn that in slaying the followers of Jesus, he was in fact slaying His own Lord and Savior over and over again. Though his heart and soul were transformed within the enveloping light of Jesus, in the presence of his utterance, and the doors of revelation flung upon within him to reveal the way, the truth and the light, such a profound discovery could not have been reconciled to him without due process – time to absorb it, time to explore it, time to discern its ramifications – regardless of how readily and enthusiastically he embraced it. So what came after this magnificent and unparalleled conversion, the like of which have never been repeated in human history?
The ‘missing years’ – what can we discern from these? Paul is most widely known throughout the world for the spectacular events surrounding his conversion – the fall from his horse, the blinding light, the voice of Jesus, the scales that fell from his eyes to restore his sight. But many people mistaken believe that he merely got back upon his horse and began his missionary work immediately. There is in fact a period of time, somewhere around the span of a decade, between Paul’s dramatic conversion and the inception of his missionary work. Obviously such a radical conversion – even one as unquestioningly welcomed and enthusiastically accepted as Paul’s – would take time to come to terms with. Obviously strongly rooted old habits of practice, conditioned thought, prevailing attitudes, cultural traditions, personal opinions and long cherished principles would take time to dismantle, regardless of the zeal with which new values and beliefs were planted, nurtured and fertilized.
He was a tent maker and leatherworker and supported himself with the industry of his hands, which he espoused fervently as not only his but the true and just duty of every Christian to be productive, diligent workers conscientious not to burden others with the encumbrance of feeding and clothing him. He spent this time wisely and focused his energies on 3 things along: supporting himself with his trade, integrating himself into the Christian community (an endeavor not without obstacles as most knew him as Saul the Persecutor and were rightly terrified of him), and learning about the life and work of Jesus Christ through those who knew him (the Apostles) and those who followed him.
It is important to note here that Paul did not get stuck in the door jamb of two rooms – Saul the Persecutor and Paul the Redeemed Advocator. He neither languored in the despair of acknowledging a former life of brutality and callousness, nor did he barrel headlong (and uninformed, however passionate he might be) into an unprepared ministry. He recognized that his conversion was a process. His encounter with Jesus on the road to
Damascus was merely the catalyst, the beginning. He was highly intelligent and of sufficient foresight to discern that mighty steps (and many of them) needed to be taken before his ministry could begin.
So often we mistakenly fall into one of two errors when we discover Christ. Firstly we can become overcome with guilt, shame and despair when we first encounter and fully own the depth and breadth of our iniquity when we look back upon the lives we lived before we embraced Jesus, especially when we are viewing it through new eyes, through the clarity of vision bestowed by the Holy Spirit. We can make assumptions that we are irredeemable and too loathsome of character for Jesus to be able to love, forgive, and accept us. There is a very real danger (which can lead to depression and issues of anger management and antisocialism) if we condemn ourselves to the extent that we do not embrace Jesus’ all powerful and pardoning forgiveness. We must, in tandem with our Savior’s absolution, demonstrate clemency with ourselves and forgive ourselves for the sins of the past and move forward into the future with the earnest commitment to endeavor not to sin again. Paul manfully acknowledged his past – the violence, the barbarity, the malice and belligerence – but he placed his duty to His Lord ahead of any self-indulgent scorn, contempt or deprecation for himself. In placing Jesus ahead of his every impulse, desire, goal, need and even thought, he was able to close the door on that era of his life and move ahead towards the fulfillment of Jesus’ mission for him. The second error we can fall into when newly revived by our Christian conversion is to blunder blindly, uninformed and uneducated, into our own perception of what it means to commence with our personal ministry in Jesus’ name. It is the equivalent of sending a well-muscled man into a bullfight when he has never had any toreador training – he might be physically equipped for the task at hand but, entirely unskilled and untrained, his inability to rise to the challenge discredits him. We are that well-muscled man and the bull is the world waiting to devour the eager but ill-equipped Christian who tried to conquer that world without first arming themselves with the knowledge of the Gospels (and in fact the whole of the Bible). Our personal experience with Jesus must crucially and immediately be backed up with an extensive and comprehensive familiarity with and understanding of the words and works of our Savior and those of His forebears. A conscientious Christian must be able to support their faith and their convictions with documented evidence to corroborate personal experience of Jesus when confronted with a contentious and hostile world, a world that believes that to badger a Christian argumentatively to exhaustion, to the point where they throw up their hands and concede they cannot convince their aggressor of the sovereignty of Jesus (often wrongly misinterpreted as an admission that they cannot support or substantiate their claims) is to ‘win’ and thus discredit them.
In the ‘missing years’ Paul took decisive steps to educate himself, to learn all there was to know about this man Jesus Christ who was in fact the Son of God, to discern the true nature of his calling following his conversion, to learn and integrate unto himself new Christian disciplines and values, so very different from his cultural and religious upbringing, and to devote himself to prayer to come to know more intimately and truly the Risen Lord whom he served and to whom he would return. Without this his ministry would be unsupported and indefensible. Paul needed both fortification of faith and a wealth of knowledge behind him in order to weather the storms of opposition. Most importantly, he took the time necessary to arm himself with both.
The sloughing of ‘self’. For Paul this began with the casting off of his old ‘self’ – a self dedicated to and anchored in the values of the world – success, recognition, prestige, wealth, status, influence, and specifically in his case – a reputation for demonstrating demoralizing might. This was not merely the detachment from material things and cherished attitudes, it involved a greater dimension of surrender, of abandoning his life and any aspiration, however insignificant or great, to become entirely transparent so that the man of Paul receded almost to nothing so that the person of Jesus could shine through and be made visible and effect tremendous change in the world. Paul immersed and remained in an almost prayerful state for the rest of his life following his conversion, as evidenced by Jesus’ virtually unobstructed passage through Paul back into the world via his ministry. When we doff all that we cloth ourselves in – attitudes, ideals, prejudices, opinions, resolutions, perceptions, misgivings – all of the threads that weave the ‘self’ into its unique fabric, Jesus clothes us in Him and we are ready to go out into the world for Him. So many of our reactions, attitudes and beliefs are conditioned from birth, rooted in culture and tradition, reinforced by events, surroundings and experience. Naturally a process whereby not only one set of values is exchanged for another but a new ideology of the primacy of Jesus over that of the ‘self’ is transitional, not instantaneous.
As Christians we too must give ourselves latitude and time to transition and evolve spiritually from worldly anchored beings to instruments of sacred use, in and of ourselves nothing, but fully purposed and perfected as the mouthpiece and agent of Jesus Christ our Lord.
The missions – what is the model Paul left us to go out into the world and evangelize? This model is as simple as it is written. Bring the message of Jesus to the world. It is not up to you to convince the world of His divinity and sovereignty (those things will be made known soon enough when He returns), but simply to faithfully and passionately evangelize the truth of Jesus as Lord. No one can be convinced of Jesus’ kingship – He alone can move their hearts to accept His Word. Ours is merely to bring the message – to Him falls the onus of moving hearts. Some He will find hardened beyond any measure of reconciliation to Him. Some he will find fluid, their composition changing constantly – these are the hearts of the fickle, the capricious, the irresolute. But some He will find to be like the empty globe of a lantern, a vessel designed to be filled with His light, whose wick is untouched by flame but which illuminates instantly when touched by the fire of His grace. The instructions for the original Twelve as for all future apostles was the same. ‘If people do not welcome you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave their town, as a testimony against them.’ (Luke 9:5). Essentially this means: you are the bearer of the message but do not linger long where it is not embraced. It was an instruction to simply take the message and did not yoke the messenger with the onerous task of convincing the recipient – God alone is capable of moving the hearts of
Man. It means trusting that while you are the bearer of Jesus’ message, He alone can unfurl His revelations within hearts. We must guard against getting entangled in arguing Jesus’ case and losing sight of our real mission – evangelizing the Word. No amount of persuasion is going to move a heart hardened to Christ. Ours is to present the Truth but to Him alone does it fall to stir the embers of faith.
The lessons passed down – as relevant now as then. There is no such thing as a coincidence. To suggest such is to remove God from the equation of life and its sacred progression towards Heaven. Every step of
St Paul ’s life was mapped out according to God’s grand design, that he might serve the Most High God as much in life as in death, whereby the chronicling of his life and missions might become the archetypal model for our own evangelical vocations. As human beings we have a tendency to overly complicate all things – relationships, life, love, work, responsibilities, the list is endless – but the lesson to be learned from the life of St Paul is this: no human being is irredeemable, God is patient and forgiving, we cannot waste another second anchored to the ‘self’ that chains us in bondage to the world, we have a message to deliver on behalf of Him who died that we might all known life everlasting, and last but by no means least – Heaven awaits. Paul teaches us that if we carry within us a passionate devotion to Jesus and desperate love for Him, all things that separate us from Him (materially, emotionally, spiritually and mentally) will dissolve and make clear our path to salvation and the true intent for which He designed us – to serve and worship Him on earth and to spend all of eternity reconciled with our Father in Heaven.
Eternal life is just the beginning.
All that comes before it is but a flash – a mere spark – when compared to the unending light of everlasting life, but all light requires fuel to flare into luminescence. Jesus is the tinder and the spark, our faith. Without Him, a spark flickers once and dies out. Only the kindling of His love in our hearts can ignite the eternal radiance that illuminates those destined for perpetuity in Paradise with Him and ultimately heralds the first day of eternity in the
Heaven – a day that will have no beginning and no end.