“you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.”
– Galatians 1:13
The first thing we learn about Paul in the Scriptures, is that his pre-conversion name is Saul as he is named after the Old Testament king. Saul is a religious terrorist. He oversees the murder of the early church leader Stephen in Acts 7. While dying, Stephen echoes Jesus from the cross and prays that his murderers would be forgiven by God. Stephen then saw Heaven open, and Jesus get off His throne to cheer for Stephen as our Lord sees forgiveness as the great Kingdom victory. Acts 8:1-3 says, “And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”
Acts 9:1 says, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…” continued his religious terrorizing. Then, Jesus came down from Heaven to deal with Saul personally. The religious terrorist was knocked to the ground, blinded, humbled, and confronted by Jesus Christ. Jesus answered Stephen’s prayer, which goes to show that when we forgive someone and pray for them you never know what Jesus Christ might do next in their life.
Saul was converted, and for the rest of his life looked back at his early life with repentant remorse whenever he shared his testimony. In Acts 22:4 Paul confesses, “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women…” In Acts 26:10-11 he says, “I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.” In Galatians 1:13, he says, “you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.” In Philippians 3:6 Paul says, “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church”. Lastly, in 1 Corinthians 15:9 he says, “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
In light of his personal experience, it makes sense why Paul is so emphatic on preaching and teaching certain doctrines with passion. As a former self-righteous lost religious zealot, he knows all too well the danger of legalism and man-made traditions which is why he attacks them as enemies of the gospel of grace. As someone who was in no way seeking or choosing Jesus, the doctrine of election makes perfect sense in light of his own salvation testimony. As someone who lived a rigid religious life without the Holy Spirit, his constant emphasis on the need for life in the Spirit is the obvious need for everyone to him. Jesus coming down from Heaven on a mission to convert Paul helps explain his passion to be a ministry traveling constantly to preach Jesus to others as a missionary. Lastly, the forgiveness and grace that Paul received from Christ, Stephen, and other Christians explains his devotion to preaching the gospel of forgiveness and grace of God through Jesus Christ.
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