Paul the Persecutor (Acts 8:1-3, Acts 9:1-2)

Imagine the following scenario. There is a small group of Christian people who come from varied areas to our three-state region and associate themselves with Tri-State Fellowship. They are excited about our strong biblical teaching emphasis and our desire to effectuate a multi-generational ministry, and they therefore throw themselves into our church with great passion. We come to truly like these folks and the energy they bring. However, at a point in time they become ardent followers of a nearby evangelist who is around for a brief season before mysteriously departing.

These passionate people return to the church and begin to teach that this itinerate minister was actually a second coming of Christ and that we are terribly foolish to have missed this truth. A few of our people are even led astray by this teaching and it begins to create a rift within the church community.

If with great conviction we believed these folks to be in error and endangering the church family, we would vehemently oppose them with every avenue of opportunity open to us. It would be the responsible and honorable thing to do, especially as leaders.

Perhaps that illustration helps us understand the intense aggressiveness of Saul in the very earliest days of the church era. The first Christians were all Jews who believed Jesus to be the Messiah, rejected by the nation. Therefore those who were opposed to this conviction saw it as a schism within Judaism … an inside threat, not one from outside. They would believe this to be thwarting the genuine work of God in bringing about the true kingdom. Paul was 100% of this opinion, and being a man of action he was aggressive in his response.

Again, it was upon the stoning of Stephen that we see the Jews (including Saul) totally lit up when hearing of this teaching on Jesus. Here is how Stephen concluded his extended remarks …

Acts 7:51 – “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”

Yep, those are fighting words that could get you pelted with stones. And Saul is introduced to the scene…

Acts 8:1 – On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

The beginning of the next chapter details some more of Saul’s activism …

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.

But no person is beyond God’s grace. And Paul is an “exhibit A” of that principle.

Some years ago I spent some time with a man who struggled terribly to believe that God could forgive him and be gracious. “You can’t begin to imagine how bad I am,” the fellow said to me as we went for a walk in the fields around the church. “I did some terrible things in Vietnam … true atrocities in villages with women and children. So I cannot imagine that there is any way that God could forgive and save a person like me. It wouldn’t be right.”  Over a period of time that man came to understand that Jesus paid the price for what he had done.

There is no way we can imagine the immensity of God’s grace. And apart from God in grace opening our minds to grasp and understand and accept it, we would continue in a lost state in our sin. God stepped into Paul’s life, and the Apostle never ceased to marvel at the extent of it all. He wrote in summary about it, saying …

1 Corinthians 15:9-11 – For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

See there … it not only God’s grace that saves us, but His grace also that works through us toward any good effect that flows from it. If Paul is “exhibit A,” then let us each be “exhibit B” as we work our way through these studies over the summer.