02 Life and Ministry of Apostle Paul
2nd of series “Life and Ministry of Paul” (Paul's Former Way of Life) – Sunday, December 2, 2018
Gary Miller, Pastor, Christ Community Church, Weatherford, Oklahoma
Occasionally we may hear about, perhaps have even become acquainted with someone individually who we have known only during the time when after they trusted Jesus Christ as their Savior and became a Christian and perhaps have even had a positive influence in our lives. Now we may not know much about their past, what they were like before they came to know Christ, and as a result we might think that because of what we know of them now or have known of them, that they were always the kind of pleasant and nice individual that we have known of them since they became a Christian. We might be surprised and amazed if we were to find out that in some of the past of some people there has lurked a dark side. There have been behavior and actions that we might have never thought could have been possible with someone whom we have known and have viewed in such a positive way.
It’s that kind of scenario that I want to use this morning to introduce the theme that we’re going to be looking at this morning from the life of a New Testament character whom we know as the apostle Paul, whom we began looking at last week. He is the inspired author of 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament. He was a man who made a marked impact upon the lives of countless people during 30-plus years of his ministry in the mid part of the first century, and yet it is amazing that on several occasions in his letters he is open and transparent to where he describes himself as being the chief or “the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15-16). And one of the reasons as he tells his spiritual son Timothy much later in life is because he was once “a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man” (1 Timothy 1:13). This is the man who wrote 13 of the books of the New Testament that we read, that we glean such great theology and information from that is practical, that has made a difference in our lives. This is what he was like before he came to know Jesus Christ as his Savior.
Last Sunday we looked at together at only a few details about his background – that he was born a Jew in the city of Tarsus, which was up the road in the northeastern corner, we might say, of the Mediterranean Sea, that he had become grounded in the traditions of Judaism from his early boyhood years all the way to his young adult life. But the first actual account in which we find that he is there present, we find that is given in the book of Acts, we find that he is portrayed actually as more of a terrorist – yes, I said terrorist, than a man who is deeply devoted to his religion. Again, this is the same man who wrote letters like Romans and Ephesians and Philippians and so on. It kind of gives us pause when we think of it in that way. He would later also say about himself that he was unfit or did not even deserve to be called an apostle because, as he put it, “I persecuted the church of God”, in 1st Corinthians 15 (v. 9). He reminded his readers in Galatians 1 (v. 23), “You have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism,” and then he singles out one of the things that was characteristic of him, “how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.” In fact, there were some of his readers who had actually come to know him both before and also after, and as he put it later in that chapter, Galatians 1, verses 22 and 23, that these people had remembered that he had been the man who had “formerly persecuted us,” but he is “now preaching the faith that he once tried to destroy.” That’s the apostle Paul before he came to know Jesus Christ in a personal way.
This morning we’re going to take a look at some of the information that is given to us in the book of Acts that tells us about his former way of life.
When the church began on that never-to-be-forgotten morning in Jerusalem, when the Spirit of God was poured forth on a gathering of Christ followers as recorded in the 2nd chapter of the book of Acts, things began to change rapidly among the Jewish people. The small band of men whom Jesus had called and chosen unto Himself to be with Him for the period of time that He ministered during His life, He also spoke to them His final words before He left into heaven as recorded in Acts chapter 1, and He told them that they were to be His witnesses and to take His gospel to the ends of the earth. And so as the early chapters of Acts unfold, these men were doing just that – they were fervently, they were boldly proclaiming the good news, and many people were being converted, hundreds. In fact, on the first day in Acts 2 there were 3000 people who received His word.
Ablaze with the power of the Spirit the apostles were setting Jerusalem on fire through their preaching in a spiritual way. Not only Jews living in that city, but when Jewish pilgrims visited from around the regions were coming into town, they were hearing this gospel and they were embracing Christ literally by the hundreds and by the thousands. That of course did not set very well with the Jewish leaders. They became incensed, and when we get to chapter 4 they are jailing men like Peter and John. And then in chapter 5 they’re arresting and jailing all of the apostles which probably included Peter and John again. Peter and John went through that a second time. In fact if you go through that passage in Acts 5 you read about how during the night while they were sitting there in the clink, an angel of the Lord open the doors and brought them out and he told them, “I want you go back to the Temple and I want you to keep on proclaiming the message of this new life.” And at daybreak that’s what they were doing. The news got back to the Jewish leaders, which were the high priest (he was the supreme leader) along with the Jewish Council or the Sanhedrin, as you find it named or identified, which was a body of 70 Jewish leaders, who were already in session. And they got word that those apostles that had been put in jail the evening before, they’re back out on the street and they’re preaching. And so they ordered that they be brought back in so that they could question them some more. And they first of all reminded them that they had been previously ordered not to preach in this name of Jesus. They also expressed their displeasure that the apostles were trying to pin on them the blame for the murder of Jesus Christ, not only on the high priest but also on the fellow Jewish council members. Well, they didn’t like that and so they questioned them further, and this gave opportunity for Peter and the other apostles to testify about Christ, which aroused the anger of those nobles even further so that some of them were even ready to execute them right there on the spot. And if it had not been for the calm reasoning influence of one of those individuals by the name of Gamaliel, it might have gone into a free-for-all and that might’ve happened. Gamaliel, by the way, was likely the same individual whom Paul had previously sat before and learned under, something that we noted when we looked at the introductory part of his life last week. Well, after giving these apostles a flogging and threatening them not to speak in the name of Jesus anymore – yeah, right! – they were let go.
Now I’ve only given a summary version of that account. I encourage you to go back sometime and reread it because there’s a lot more details. But the thing that I find quite noteworthy is that is very possible that by this point in time Paul, still known as Saul, had risen through the Jewish ranks to the point that he very well could have been one of those 70 members who watch these proceedings, who listened to the message that Peter gave, who saw everything that happened. He heard the claim that God had raised Christ from the dead which probably didn’t set well with Paul as well. In fact it probably provoked his ire to the point that he even expressed his assent with some of the others to inflict harm on those believers. We can conclude that because much later on in the book of Acts the 26 chapter there was an occasion in which Paul had the opportunity to testify before a regional king whose name was Agrippa. And during that testimony Paul said, went back and shared about how this all it happened, how he had persecuted the church. And on one occasion he said, “On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death,” notice – “I cast my vote against them.” (Acts 26:10) This by the way, is where we get the idea that we can conclude that Paul very likely was one of those members of that Sanhedrin and or that Jewish Council.
Now if this fury was what was already showing up with Saul on this occasion, then we might say that he was well on his way to becoming a man on a mission, which shows up even more when we get to the next chapters. And I’d like to focus upon them for the next few moments.
In those chapters, 6 and 7, Saul would encounter one of those disciples in particular. He would end up not becoming fond of him at all. We’ve heard his name before – Stephen. Stephen enters the scene during a situation of need in the early period of the church. The apostles, the small band of Christ followers whom Christ had chosen, were becoming so overwhelmed with the rapid growth of the church, many people coming to Christ, that they were not able to dedicate themselves to the priorities that they believed were part of their role, which was the ministry of the Word of God. So in order to remedy the situation they proposed that the group, the body, select among themselves 7 men full of God and full of His Holy Spirit, who could be able to assist and to serve in that role. And Stephen was one of those chosen. I wish we had more information of what happened after it tells us that he was chosen, because somehow we get from there to where Stephen is used in another greater way. But however it happened, one of the things that’s interesting is that it tells us that because of that selection, because of those individuals selected to serve in those roles so that the apostles could give themselves to the ministry of the Word, the results, the outcome was that “the Word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly and a large number of priests (were becoming) obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). Priests, mind you, those were some of the Jewish religious leaders. They weren’t the Sanhedrin but they were individuals who would have served under them in some capacity in the temple area. They probably would have been considered to be turncoats or individuals who were rebellious against the Jewish cause.
So because of all of that Stephen began to be used even in another way and that is to make an impact upon people, doing great wonders and miraculous signs, as we read about in verse 8 of chapter 6. Soon after, that drew opposition from some of the Jewish stalwarts from one of the synagogues who engaged Stephen in debate. It tells us in verse 10 that they quickly found that “they could not stand up against the wisdom or the spirit by which Stephen spoke.” And so their only recourse, at least in their minds, was to carry out a plot by which they’re going to set Stephen up and charge him that he is speaking words of blasphemy against Moses and against God. And it resulted in Stephen being seized and brought before the Sanhedrin. When the whole terrible episode ends in which Stephen is seen being stoned and taking his last breath, Paul is right there giving his assent, his approval to it all, which would also indicate that Paul had been among the 70 council members at this point.
Let’s go back for just a moment to see how this worked out with Stephen, verses 13 and 14, it tells us, “They produced false witnesses who testified, ‘This fellow (speaking of Stephen) never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.’”
There were two charges that were made against Stephen in particular, and we’ll see shortly from his response that there was some truth in them. It tells us here that they were charging him about speaking against the holy place and also against the law and that Jesus, whom he apparently had believed in, had spoken words that the temple wasn’t going to last forever. In fact, you might remember that just a few days before Jesus went to the cross, Jesus took his disciples to the Mount of Olives and before He got there they looked back at the Temple and He said to them, “This temple – there’s coming a day in which not one stone is going to be left on top of the other” (Matthew 24:1-2). Now what this means is that as Stephen made reference to that, Stephen was taking the words of Jesus very seriously. So it was true to some degree what they were saying. But it wasn’t that he was blaspheming. He was just simply repeating the essence of the teaching and the words by Jesus Christ. Furthermore, they were charging him with blasphemy against the law and the customs that Moses had handed down.
All of this, what Stephen had been doing was a direct challenge to the Jewish customs and traditions and to those Jewish council members. If what Stephen was arguing was that with Christ the new has come and therefore the old must go, guys like Saul and his fellow colleagues would have argued just the reverse – the old must stay, this new must go. And certainly there was no way they could accept at all that this Jesus from Nazareth was the one who fulfilled the Jewish expectation of Messiah, which was what Stephen and others were claiming, because to guys like Saul and to those other Jewish elites the Messiah had been crucified on the cross, and they just could not envision that could possibly happen to the Messiah who had been promised for all those many years and even centuries. This was outrageous blasphemy to them, and any who held to that view had to be dealt with severely, especially when they went even further and claimed that He came back alive from the dead and He made appearances. And then to go even further and strike out against the law of Moses and all the customs and traditions, well that was an attack on everything of value in their Judaistic beliefs and ways. One author makes this concise statement, “Here to them was a malignant growth and it called for drastic surgery.” (F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, p. 71) And that sums up pretty well their view, their mindset, their perspective which included Paul. All that had come to make Saul’s cause worthwhile as he had come to see it over so much of his life up to that time and his extensive training, that required both a rigorous defense as well as all the zeal and the energy he could put into it. If the principal threat to the interests to which he was committed came from Stephen and those associated with him, then that party needed to be suppressed.
Well, they first allowed Stephen to speak. And even though Saul and the other members were loaded for bear – by the way, that’s not the way it puts it in the text, but that’s the way we would say it today – verse 15 tells us that as they looked at Stephen there was something about him which drew their undivided attention, “They saw his face (looked) like the face of an angel.” Before words even came out of Stephen’s mouth this is what they could be able to see of him. There was something special and they could not go against that. Well, following the question by the high priest in verse 1 of chapter 7, “Are these charges against you true, Stephen?” – Stephen began his response and it goes all the way through verse 53, most of the chapter. Now I would love to be able to spend time going through his message, but really that doesn’t fit the point of what I’m trying to get to. But I’ll just sum up very quickly (and I’ve put it here on one of the slides that you can see on screen) that it consisted mainly of 4 parts to it.
The first section in verses 2 through 16 focused upon the period of the early patriarchs of Israel starting with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. And in this portion Stephen in essence refuted the charge that he was blaspheming God, because God had spoken to these men in the past.
The next section is the largest one, verses 17 through 43, and it focuses upon Moses and the law, and in it he responded to the charge that had been made against him of blaspheming Moses and speaking against the law.
The third section is short, versus 44 through 50, in which he makes reference to the Temple, and he responded to that charge about Jesus destroying the Temple and the Jewish customs which did happen by the way later on, but it wasn’t that this was blasphemous because of what Jesus had said or what Stephen had believed.
And then finally in the last few verses that are given about his message, verses 51 through 53, Stephen just kind of threw caution to the wind. Stephen had not taken the Carnegie course or the read the book that was written many years ago, How to Win Friends and Influence People, when he said what he did next in which he gave the stinging indictment that these men – remember now these are the Jewish Supreme Court we might say – that they were all hardhearted hypocrites who had betrayed and murdered their Messiah.
And if up to this point they had sat there spellbound, when he got to this conclusion, not anymore. Stephen ignored their rage. It tells us that he lifted up his eyes to see heaven opened. The glory of God was displayed. He said, “I see Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” And as to what happened next listen to the way that one author whose book on the apostle Paul that I’ve had for a number of years puts it:
“Thus began the mad rush which ended with a smash corpse in a pool of blood below the rock of execution. It was no accident that the witnesses threw their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul . . . who did not even throw a stone but only watched and approved and heard Stephen call out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’ and ‘Do not hold this sin against them’.” (John Pollock, The Apostle: A Life of Paul, p. 13) After which it is recorded that Stephen “fell asleep”. By the way, that’s an expression that is only used in the New Testament regarding believers in Jesus Christ when they die, never of unbelievers. Unbelievers fall asleep but they don’t fall asleep in the sense that believers do in which they wake up in glory to a new reality.
But for the moment Saul in his warped thinking and mindset somehow believed, he really believed that all he had done in this episode was the right thing and for the right reasons. Renegade heretics – that’s how he saw them. They were trying to turn the religion, his religion that he espoused and also what he believed to be God’s religion, they were trying to turn it upside down. This new gospel of grace to Christ was absolutely incompatible with the rigorous religious system and the authorities that he had learned. He viewed this new system as an affront to the laws that God gave to Moses and the customs that had been based on them. So he had to do everything in his power to put a stop to this upstart movement.
And yet I can’t help but think that this gruesome scene in which he saw Stephen taking his last breath and all the stones that had been hurled against him would be indelibly etched in his memory. And yet he was the one who given his full approval to it all.
There’s another author who has observed – from that moment on “there marched before Saul the shadowy forms of those he had put to death,” including Stephen, “and the boldness of the men who stood for their own convictions unto death stirred within Saul a new and strange pain.” (Lyman Abbott, The Life and Letters of Paul, p. 71)
Now at this moment who would have ever thought that this violent persecutor of God’s people, the people who made up the church in this period of those first years based solely on their personal faith and trust in Christ, who would have ever thought that within just a few years he’s going to become God’s messenger to bring the gospel throughout a large part of the Roman world and to Gentiles in particular?
But at the moment that was the furthest thing from Saul’s mind. This movement needed to be, had to be stamped out one way or another, once and for all.
We read at the beginning of chapter 8 (vs. 1b-3), “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.”
I don’t know about you but the picture I get here from these few words is that of a wild relentless hunter who is intent on bringing misery and distress and grave suffering to the church and even more death if necessary. We get a sense of the intensity of the persecution by the fact now that all these new believers in Christ, or at least the biggest part of them, who made up the church in Jerusalem had to get out of there. And so they fled, and some apparently went all the way to areas that were over a hundred miles to the north, like to the city of Damascus. And that explains what we read about in the opening of chapter 9 where it tells us that “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” This is after some time after Stephen’s death. “He went to the high priest and (he) asked him for letters to the synagogues.” Where? “In Damascus.” Again that’s over hundred miles to the north of Jerusalem. “So that if he found any there who belonged to the Way” – that’s the descriptive title that was given to these believers – “whether (they be) men or women” (think of that) “he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.” (Acts 9:1-2)
In his crusading zeal Saul was determined that none of them get away, and if they did they had to be found and apprehended and brought back like lawless criminals. But he did not realize that in the process it was not going to be long before he would be the one who would end up being captured – captured by the very Christ he was determined to suppress and defeat.
A couple of things I’d like to conclude this message and leave with us from what we’ve seen this morning from the life of this man previous to his becoming a believer in Jesus himself.
First of all, no matter what our lives are like now, there’s a realization that all of us in some way have had a side that is not pleasant and maybe even dark, some of us more stained and soiled than others. Let’s face it, from birth, even conception the Bible tells us we are all sinful because of our inner human nature that has been passed down, that started all the way back from Adam. Romans 5:12 says that sin passed upon all people and as a result, death because all sinned. We are born into this world as sinners, even before we commit our first sin, and so we are sinful because of our nature that comes by our having received that nature from Adam, and also we are sinners, we are sinful because of choices on our part. But all the time leading up to when we turn to the Savior we were wholly depraved from within. We were groping in darkness because of spiritual blindness, or as it says in another passage – we were like sheep without a shepherd.
We’ve all sung that well known hymn, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound.” Never forget what that next phrase says – “that saved a wretch like me.” A wretch – that describes us. Let’s never forget what our lives were like outside of the work of God’s grace through Christ – that we were all among the wretched, which is what Saul was.
And the second thing I want to leave is – let us also remember that regardless of what a person has done, no matter what a person has done, no one is beyond hope. No amount or depth of sin in a person’s past can put them beyond the reach of God and His great and unsurpassed grace. And if we should ever wonder about that, all we need to do is go back and look one more time at the Pharisee who hailed from Tarsus. When the Lord saved him, He didn’t put him on probation. He made this former zealot and persecutor into a brand new creation. The shame was canceled and he no longer was chained to the deep dark pit of his past. And that’s true of all of us.
There maybe some of us who right now are thinking about some individuals whom we know, maybe a family member or a friend or someone whom we’ve been acquainted with who we say, “There’s absolutely no hope for that person – their sin is too deep.” And all we have to do is look one more time at Paul, don’t we?
And during this season when we celebrate in worship the Christ who came to be our Savior, may it move us to break out in ceaseless praise for His reaching down to each one of us with His matchless grace. May it move us also in our hearts to become burdened for, even more so for a few of those people who still remain in that state of darkness as Paul was and who need Christ to be their Savior as well.
Let’s pray that right now as we go to our great God and Father and to our Savior, His Son, Jesus Christ.
Lord, it is almost unimaginable to realize that you could take a man who was so vicious and violent, in which sin was so deep-seated and that You could turn his life around in the way that You do. In some respects we realize that Saul who became Paul was a special character. You had a particular plan to use him in the spreading out of the message of Christ throughout the Roman world of that day in the first century. But at the same time there’s not a lot of difference between what he was like and what any of us were. And I pray, Father, that that might inspire us. Right now, some of us this very moment, Lord, are thinking of a person or persons who need Jesus. And I pray that You would impress upon us through Your spirit to keep praying for them, to lift them up to You in prayer and that they might find Christ the Savior of the world, the Forgiver of their sins and the One who can impart new and abundant and eternal life. If there is another Christmas, if Jesus hasn’t come again before then, we pray that either during this season or by the next there will be some of those people who will have found the Savior as well. We pray, Lord, that You would use each one of us. Help us to remember that we too like the apostles are witnesses day by day and that the infused life of Jesus within us who is alive and working can show light as well to a dark world. And we pray this in our Savior’s matchless name. Amen.