It is a challenge for us in biblical interpretation to truly put ourselves into the sandals of Bible characters. The effort to do that – to have an understanding of what they saw and knew (or didn’t know) – pays rewards in making a text come alive.
Yesterday we talked some about what Saul/Paul was thinking and how this was motivating him to action. He certainly believed this “Jesus teaching” was damaging to the Jewish nation and hopes of a messianic kingdom of God’s blessing being established. This Jesus crowd was irrational in exalting a character who was crucified as a criminal. They had to be stopped!
But even so, it goes beyond sensibility that the violent actions being entered into by Saul/Paul could have any justification whatsoever. But here is an additional angle that perhaps was a part of his thinking. Let’s recall what might seem like an obscure story from Numbers 25. As Paul was hoping Israel was on the cusp of entering into a time of a messianic kingdom, the Israelites of Moses’ day were on the cusp of entering the Promised Land. But there was an apostate faction in the camp who had immorally aligned themselves with Canaanite peoples and gods, bringing about God’s wrath …
Numbers 25:1 – While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, 2 who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. 3 So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.
4 The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the Lord’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel.”
5 So Moses said to Israel’s judges, “Each of you must put to death those of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.”
A grandson of Aaron the priest named Phinehas heard this and took the action of actually driving a single spear through a Jewish man and a Midianite woman. And this was applauded in stopping the curse …
Numbers 25:8-9 – Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.
Might it be that Paul saw his actions as analogous to this, and thereby justified? We don’t know, but putting all of this together within the full context of that era helps us to understand Paul a bit more. And looking again further into Acts chapter 9 …
9:1 – Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.
The background to this is that the Romans granted occasional authority to the Jewish religious leadership to enforce certain matters within their system of belief. The Romans believed this helped to maintain a modicum of order within conquered ethno-religious territories. Paul had gained such authority for arrests and extradition, and he was on his way to Damascus to enforce it.
3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
I can remember all of the way back to my high school days when attempting to share the gospel with people as to what struck me as the major obstacle. If we think of salvation as being “found,” then it was necessary for the person hearing the message to believe first that they were “lost.” I have often said of evangelism that you have to get a person lost before you get them saved (meaning to get them to believe that they are lost and need a savior).
Paul did not have any sense that he was lost. Totally the opposite! He saw himself as standing strongly within the truth, privilege and blessing of being an Israelite. He needed a divine intervention!
Frankly, most people today don’t see themselves as being lost, therefore they see no need to be “found” by the gospel. But the reality of the biblical message that dates back to the very beginning of humanity is that we are terribly and totally lost. We are dead in trespasses and sins. There is no hope, no life, no spark, nothing that is capable of response. It is darkness; we are spiritually blind. And it is the grace of God in the truth of the resurrection of Christ that brings life … just as it did for Paul. And we’ll talk more about that tomorrow!
We’ve clashed before on some finer points of analyses here.
What you are saying is absolutely right on how far we are from the righteousness of God. At the risk of causing another clash let me attempt to clarify my position.
Jesus is perfect, a reflection of God the Father who is perfect. Jesus called us to be perfect too.
We can understand that God gives us power through the Holy Spirit to in some way let his life and his righteousness live in us. His righteousness is imputed to us as we believe … as we desire to live and be like him. If we disgrace him and don’t live like him we hinder our ability to evangelize. Yet our sincere love for Him and love for his truth should go a long way in helping others catch a glimpse of his righteousness and help him or her to want to share in his life.
To start a difficult analogy here … mathemeticians can get at a correct answer in a number of different ways. In a similar way certain theologians in different branches of Christianity can codify Christianity in a certain way and we fall in love with their formulas. Some talk about “total depravity” and this becomes the lens through which they look at the world. “Total depravity” might be fine — up to a point — but God can work through different people in different ways and we might start calling people “totally depraved” who God might work through. In the Old Testament King Cyrus gave a command to let the Jews go back to Jerusalem. How did he learn this? Jesus disciples were outraged and told some people to stop driving out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus told them not to do that, even though they weren’t associated with the followers of Jesus.
We know that “We love because he loved us first.” It says so in one of the letters of John. Yet Paul pointed out to some Gentiles that God has not left himself without testimony. God gave them rain and crops and joy. So God loved them. If they love others it is because in a direct way God has shown his love in their lives by his kindness to these people.
Some people learn from the kindness God shows them. They show love to others. Where we go wrong is when we start accusing these people of being totally depraved when they are in fact (albeit imperfectly) imitating the love of the Father in their lives.
It is also gets irritating when we are not reflecting the love of God in our lives and then we go around criticizing others. We need to exalt Jesus rather than run others down.
Certainly certain scriptures talk about people being sinful, but we neglect what Jesus our Lord said to Nathaniel. Did he meet Nathaniel and call him a depraved wicked and lost individual? Certainly Nathaniel did not have adequate knowledge of Jesus. But neither was Nathaniel antagonistic to righteousness and he did not need to be shamed and browbeaten into repentenance. The light of Jesus quickly captivated him … so much so that it even surprised Jesus.
Another question arises which is the nature of God. But I don’t want this comment to get too long. People often feel that God should be catering to their every need. The disciples even asked Jesus to “Give us more faith.” Jesus gave a parable to illustrate that we are “unworthy servants” even if we do all that is required of us.
Job also was spoken highly of by God in the heavenly realms … Jobs imperfections and frustrations and his foolish talk came out during an intense trial … but ultimately Job realized that he was abhorent and he detested himself.
Yet let it not be said that God was abhorring Job, he called him blameless and upright. Job’s friends in their flawed theology were ripping Job up and down. God wasn’t pleased with Job’s friends insinuating that God was furious with Job. God wasn’t furious with Job. Satan was furious with Job.
I don’t know if you can grasp what I am saying. Ultimately we are so in need of God as to be detestable. God doesn’t necessarily detest us. He loved us enough to send his son to die for us. He wasn’t simultaneously enraged and furious and loving. He hates our sin, but scripture says that he doesn’t hold such ignorance against us. Somewhere Paul wrote about God showing him grace because he acted in “ignorance and unbelief.”
God can understand why we mess up. He might be compassionate.
We are engaging in questionable theology when we make across–the–board claims that God is furious at everyone.
All these questions about God using human language to relate to us in some circumstances … the subject can be complicated. Take the example in the book of Exodus where it says something like the Lord met Moses and sought to kill him. Exodus 4:24 (most versions).
God was ultimately making some point. Zipporah intervened and circumcised his son … and threw the foreskin at Moses feet.
Whatever the situation described here … God didn’t really determine to kill Moses, but brought about a situation that He wanted. God could certainly have killed Moses in an instant. God didn’t need time. We can guess that maybe Moses didn’t want to circumcise his son, perhaps because his wife was reluctant and she gave in when she saw that Moses might be killed. Not worth speculating too much over. Just know the Bible can be complicated. When we make out God to be too angry we might not be reading scripture right. That is my point in all this.