Written Word

Paul’s Conversion – Part 1

Saul of Tarsus (as the Apostle Paul was known before his conversion) seemed the most unlikely person to embrace the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet he did. And his conversion testifies that there is no one beyond the reach of God’s love, mercy and grace. There are no ‘hopeless cases’; there is no one God cannot save.

Scripture provides several snapshots of the life of this man, revealing his violent opposition to the message that God had reconciled the world unto himself through a crucified Christ and that one could be saved only through Jesus. Saul did not hold the view that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere. Neither did he favour the notion ‘live and let live’. He was a strong defender of the Jewish law.

The young church soon found that persecution was to become their daily companion. The first Christian martyr was Stephen. He proclaimed the good news about Jesus: “When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him… they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” (Acts 7:54-58) Saul would later recall: “And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.” (Acts 22:20) Stephen died because he proclaimed the gospel.

At Saul’s instigation, a wave of persecution against the church broke out. “And Saul was there, giving approval to his [Stephen’s] death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 8:1-3) Luke records his fanaticism: “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 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.” (Acts 9:1-2)

Saul’s behaviour sprang from his strong conviction that Jesus was not the promised Messiah and that these disciples were leading people away from God and, therefore, deserved to die. We all find ourselves in disagreement with others on a wide range of issues, but we don’t set about killing those whose views are different than ours. On this particular issue, tolerance was not in Saul’s vocabulary. It was not his intention simply to scare the disciples of Jesus. He recalls how intensely he “persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.” (Galatians 1:13) This was the action of a man who hated those who believed that the Messiah had come, and who completely rejected the apostles’ teaching about the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. Saul was sincere, but completely misguided.