The Conversion of St. Paul
Saul was committed to the
destruction of the Christian Church.
He was convinced that their doctrine was false and that Jesus of
Nazareth had been a false teacher.
How could a man who was crucified on a cross be the Son of God?
Why would God permit His holy Son to suffer such shame?
It was unthinkable. God
rewarded the righteous and God punished sinners.
Jesus could not be Godís Son.
God could not punish the righteous and there was no doubt that
Jesus had suffered punishment at the hands of God.
Saul was sure that the Christian
religion was a false religion. And
Saul was a very well educated man.
He knew the Holy Scriptures as few men of his generation did.
He had been taught by Gamaliel, one of the most respected rabbis
of his time. Saul knew the
Law of Moses inside and out. He
was a Pharisee who excelled in doing those things that set him apart
from ordinary men. By all
appearances he was a pious, upright, and righteous man.
It galled and angered him that disciples of a man like Jesus
would turn the world upside down with their heretical teaching. He regarded persecuting the church as a holy service offered
up to God. Should he not
oppose those who opposed the truth?
Saul persecuted the church out
of deeply felt religious convictions.
It was his religion that led him to breathe threats of violence
and murder against the disciples of Jesus.
There is a popular notion that, in matters of religion, one size
fits all and that one faith is essentially the same as every other
faith. This is not true. Terrorists who murder innocent civilians are religiously
who endow hospitals are also religiously motivated.
Clearly, there are different motivations at work.
What motivated Saul to hate
Christians and Christianity was what they taught. It conflicted with Saulís most strongly held religious
convictions. The Christians
worshipped a God who became a man.
The idea of a man becoming a god is far more popular.
The Mormon religion, for example, is founded on this principle:
ďAs man is, so God once was; as God is, so man may become.Ē Mormons believe that a man can become a god by doing godly
things. On the surface
Mormonism appears to be a rather bizarre religion with its golden
tablets, magic spectacles, and fanciful history of non-existent ancient
American peoples. But it is
actually as American as apple pie.
So is every other religion of the flesh.
The religion of the flesh is the religion of human potential. Itís
the spiritual version of the ďLittle Engine that Could.Ē Itís that ďcan doĒ religion of human spirituality.
It is the religion of human achievement and human pride in that
achievement. It is the
religion of works-righteousness. Those
who hold to this religion believe that the essence of religion is
obeying the right rules in the right way so that by so doing you will
Disciples of this religion have
no use for a crucified and risen Savior.
Jesus was crucified on account of our sins. The suffering of Jesus on the cross teaches us something we
donít take to very well. We
will reject it unless God changes our hearts.
Who can readily and willingly admit that he deserves to suffer
what Jesus suffered? And
yet the gospel of Christ makes no sense at all unless all of us, bar
none, deserve to be punished as Jesus was punished.
The crucifixion of Jesus is an
offense to our pride. It is
a scandal to those who believe that the road to God is paved by their
own good deeds. The
crucifixion of Jesus teaches us a fundamental truth about ourselves and
about God. Concerning ourselves, it teaches us that we all deserve what
Jesus suffered. That is the
sharpest blow to our pride. It
is an affront to how we view ourselves.
Concerning God, the crucifixion of Jesus is also an offense to
our natural way of looking at things.
God is transcendent, holy, pure, and perfectly righteous.
How could this God, who by His very nature as God must be above
and beyond the sin of this world, not only become a human being, but
humbly take upon Himself the sin of the entire human race, suffering its
full penalty, and dying the death of a sinner?
How could the holy God enter into fellowship with sinners?
He not only welcomes sinners to Himself; He even bears the entire
ugly and loathsome burden of their sins.
This was and is and will always
be an offense to the proud. Those
who trust in their own flesh and blood cannot tolerate the crucifixion
of the Lord Jesus Christ. This
is why St. Paul hated Christians, Christianity, and Christ.
His persecution of Christís
disciples was a persecution of Christ.
To His church Jesus says, ďBehold, I am with you always, to the
end of the age.Ē He means
it. Wherever Christís
body is, there is Christ. Christ
is the head of the church. The
head and the body cannot be severed.
Saul was fighting a battle he could not possibly have won.
He was fighting against God.
His own teacher, Gamaliel, had counseled against persecuting the
Christians. He said:
This is what Saul was doing.
But, as Jesus said to him, ďIt is hard for you to kick against
the goads.Ē A goad was a
sharp stick used to prod oxen to walk faster.
Sometimes the oxen would kick back against the goads and get
pricked harder. This is
what Saul was doing in his fight against the church.
He was fighting Jesus, the Lord of the church.
He was fighting God. The
God whom Saul sought to serve Saul could not serve.
The righteousness that Saul sought to achieve eluded him.
The harder he tried to extirpate the Christian gospel the harder
he was fighting against the only hope he had to find peace with God. He was torturing his own soul as he fought with all his might
against his soulís salvation.
No conversion recorded is as
dramatic as St. Paulís. Jesus
appeared to him in such glory that Saul was struck blind. He remained blind until Ananias laid his hands on him three
days later. He was baptized
immediately for the forgiveness of sins and he was filled with the Holy
Spirit. It is interesting
to note that when he saw Jesus he was blinded.
He remained blind until through Christís minister, Ananias, he
received his sight. Christians
who want a dramatic conversion such as Saulís, might want to consider
that St. Paulís confidence in his own personal salvation never rested
on what he saw when he saw Jesus with his own eyes.
It rested rather in what Jesus gave to him, which he received by
faith in Jesus. Here is how Paul later described the difference between his
life without Christ and his life with Christ.
It was the difference between faith in his own flesh and faith in
Christ. He wrote to the
Saul did not know God until he
found God in the innocent suffering and death of Jesus.
The God before whom we must stand and give an account of our
lives is the Man who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died
and was buried. This is the
Man whose righteousness alone can stand before the judgment of Godís
righteousness is flawless. There
is no bad motive, no sin, no falsehood, and no deceit of any kind.
Christís righteousness is what we need and it is what God gives
to us freely by His grace.
This is what Paul learned and
this is what He preached. He
preached Christ, not as the great moral teacher, but as the Savior of
sinners. He preached Christ
to sinners like himself. St.
Paul was a saint as are all Christians.
That is to say, he was holy because he had received from Christ
the only righteousness by which sinners can become holy.
Throughout his life, however, Paul also considered himself to be
the chief of sinners. It
was not false humility for him to confess this.
He had persecuted the church of Christ.
He had persecuted Christ. He
saw himself as chief of sinners. To
Timothy he wrote:
If Saul can receive mercy from
God and be justified through faith in Christ so can any other sinners.
St. Paul was the greatest
missionary and the greatest theologian the church has ever produced.
But the church did not produce him.
God did. He did
great things through Paul. First,
He had to humble him. Saul
suffered many things for Christís sake. He suffered shipwreck, beatings and whippings, being stoned
by angry mobs, and being exposed on the open sea.
But Jesus was referring to more than these things when he said to
Ananias, ďFor I will show him how many things he must suffer for My
nameís sake.Ē He was
referring to the crucifixion of the flesh and the rising to eternal life
that God, through our baptism, works in us every day of our lives.
We, who by the grace of God share the faith that Paul preached,
know that our faith is constantly assaulted by doubts, sins, and false
teachings. When we stand on
our pride and glory in the praise of others we need to be humbled. Only
God can do it. When He does, it brings us no joy. It brings us quite a bit of pain, in fact.
Our flesh is such a liar and yet we love those lies that flatter
us and make us feel so good about ourselves.
But when God has exposed our lying flesh and crushed our pride
and laid us low, He always does so for the purpose Ė the sole purpose!
Ė of raising us up again and giving us confidence in Christ.
Looking to our baptism where we were clothed in Christ, we see
that spotless righteousness of His holy obedience.
We see the blood shed once and for all on the cross to wash away
our sins. We hear Godís
voice of absolution that sets us free. We find our true glory and worth in God.
The pain of hurt pride that comes from confronting our spiritual
poverty and our offensive sins of thought, word, and deed, is only
temporary. The joy of
knowing Christ remains forever. God
turned Saul into Paul. He
changed his heart. He
destroyed Saulís faith in his own flesh.
He created Paulís faith in the righteousness of Jesus.
This same God works within us to destroy our false faith in
ourselves. He also hears
and answers our prayers to keep us steadfast in the true faith.
heart imprint thine image, blessed Jesus, King of grace
Rev. Rolf D. Preus