Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, as he often introduces himself in his epistles is undoubtedly the most influential Christian leader in Christian history. He authored 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament. By his own testimony, he worked more than all the other apostles. He didn’t take glory for that though; he is quick to point to the grace of God undergirding whoever he was and became (1Cor. 15:10).
Paul was simply a great man.
But in our celebration of Paul; perhaps we may overlook his past and which may blur our vision about what made Paul who he was. Charles R. Swindoll captures this well in his book Paul: A Man of Grace And Grit:
The first portrait of Paul’s life painted in Holy Scripture is not of a little baby being lovingly cradled in his mother’s arms. Nor does it depict a Jewish lad leaping and bounding with neighborhood buddies through the narrow streets of Tarsus. The original portrait is not even of a brilliant, young law student sitting faithfully at the feet of Gamaliel. Those images would only mislead us into thinking he enjoyed a storybook past. Instead, we first meet him as simply a “young man named Saul,” party to Stephen’s brutal murder,standing “in hearty agreement with putting him to death” (Acts 7:58; 8:1). That’s the Saul we need to see to appreciate the glorious truths of the New Testament letters he wrote. No wonder he later came to be known as the “apostle of grace.”standing “in hearty agreement with putting him to death” (Acts 7:58; 8:1).¹
Paul our man was a product of God’s grace. Before his conversion, he was Saul: a murderer and hated believers with all zeal. In fact he acknowledges this by calling himself chief of sinners and the least of the apostles because he persecuted the Church ( 1Tim. 1:15; 1 Cor.15:9). One of the most obvious places in Scripture about Paul’s past is the murder of Stephen—the first Christian martyr. Paul himself recounts the story in his defence of the Christian fait:
And when the blood of thy martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him” (Acts 22:20).
Paul here narrates how he was involved in the martyrdom of Stephen (see Acts 8) . He tells his own story. In our modern day, if you are looking for the equivalent of Saul–prior to the road to Damascus encounter, look at the most gruesome terrorist group around: Saul could be a leader of any one of them. His brutality becomes clearer when we ponder the response of the believers when they heard of Saul’s conversion. They didn’t believe it: “But all that heard him were amazed, and said; Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests?” (Acts 9:21). Even when Jesus appeared to one of the believers then–Ananias—concerning Saul, he was courageous enough to question Jesus’ instructions: “Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name.” (Acts 9:13-14).
Paul before his conversion was a terror.
And by any human reasoning, he doesn’t belong in the fold of God’s people. He unleashed terror on God’s people yet he was a chosen vessel of the Lord. Jesus told Ananias: “... he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel:” (Acts 9:15).
Paul was unstoppable, full of hatred for the believers of his day. But when he encountered the Lord Jesus on his way to Damascus; his life was changed. Though a murderer and persecutor of the church, grace transformed him.
And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.(Acts 9:3-6).
Saul the terrorist “trembling and astonished”…the rest of his life he became a disciple of the Lord and what a gift he is to the body of Christ. Though a persecutor, nonetheless, he became a product of grace. He encountered the grace of God and was transformed. God’s grace pardons. Irrespective of your history. Pardon and forgiveness of sins are available through the atoning sacrifice of Christ.
Could it be that you are stuck because of something from your past? Perhaps it has pinned you to the ground with embarrassment, shame, and fear. You’re crippled by it. The best you can do is to limp through each day, hoping for a painless end. That way of thinking is the Enemy, Satan. He loves to push your nose in the dirt, hoping to make you miss the marvelous claims of grace. Don’t allow him that power in your life today. Around you are people who have no greater claim on grace than you do, and the Lord mercifully brought them out of their pit of sin. If He could turn a Saul of Tarsus engaged in a murderous rampage into a Paul the apostle who preached and lived the message of grace, He can change your life too.²
1. Charles R. Swindoll, Paul: A Man of Grace and Grit ( Nashville: Tennessee, Thomas Nelson, 2002), Kindle edition
2. Swindoll, Paul: A Man of Grace and Grit, Kindle