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!