Paul the Persecutor
PAUL: THE PERSECUTOR
Acts 7:54- 8:1-4 (ESV):
54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. 1 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. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. 4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.
Every child of God has a unique story of how they have experienced God’s amazing grace in their lives. If we take the time to organize our own story and learn to incorporate it in sharing the Gospel, God can use it mightily in helping other lost people to find salvation in Christ Jesus. Usually, our story of grace must have three essential components:
A. Your Life Before Christ – Describe your life before you came to Christ. Make sure you don’t magnify or brag too much how sinful you were. It should be enough to show A. how much you need Jesus Christ.
B. How You Came to Christ – Give some specific details about why and how you became a Christian. Make sure that through your descriptions, the one listening to you can have an idea how they can become a Christian.
C. Your Life After Coming to Christ – Describe some of the changes that Christ has made in your life. Try to emphasize the changes in your character, attitude or perspective. Make sure you give the impression that though you are far from being perfect, knowing Christ helped you experience some significant changes in your life.
How many of you have already organized your story of grace and are ready to share it whenever God opens an opportunity? One person who has done it repeatedly and effectively is the apostle Paul. There were at least three specific occasions that he
narrated his story:
He shared it to a Jewish mob who wanted him arrested and killed (Acts 22:1-21)
He shared it to King Agrippa (Acts 26:1-29)
He shared it to the Galatian church (Galatians 1:11-24)
If you take the time to read these passages and examine Paul’s personal testimony, it is quite evident that the hero in the story is not Paul, but Jesus Christ who gave him the grace and saved him from his sinful past. As I have said earlier, we need to be careful and really think through our personal testimonies. We have to make sure that it is God, Jesus Christ, who is declared a hero and not us. I believe Paul perfectly sums up his story in 1 Corinthians 15:10 (ESV): “10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
This is the reason why beginning this Sunday, we, as a church, will take the months of July and August to study the life and message of the apostle Paul in the New Testament. We have entitled this sermon series “Live Like Paul.”
If you are a serious Bible student, you will appreciate these studies for the simple reason that if there is anyone in the New Testament whom God had used tremendously to impact the Christian church, it would be the apostle Paul. God literally
gave him the privilege of writing half of the New Testament and practically shaping the theology of the early Christian churches. Yet, what is amazing is despite everything that he had accomplished, he was humble enough to recognize that everything was only because of God’s grace in his life. I hope and pray that by the end of these two summer months, you will have a greater appreciation of Paul’s life and the marvelous grace that we have received in life.
This morning, the text we have will allow us to have a glimpse of Paul’s sinful past. What makes this study so important is the fact that God would was willing to extend His love and grace to a person like Saul or Paul. The truth of the matter is that if God was able to save someone like Saul, then He can also save anyone in the world today. In order to have a better picture of his sinful past, we need to see him as the persecutor of Christ and the Christian churches. We will divide this part of his life into three categories:
I HIS RELIGIOUS TRAINING
If you go back to the text we read earlier, Luke, the author of the book of Acts, introduces Saul to us at the time when Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was murdered. Notice that in verse 58, Saul is mentioned as someone who was guarding the outer garments of the people who were stoning Stephen. Many Bible scholars suggest that this reference seems to show that Saul held an official position in the Jewish religion and he was giving his support and approval to the murder of Stephen.
I also want to emphasize the phrase “young man” in the same verse. This gives away the fact that when this happened, Saul was most likely in his late thirties or, at the most, forty years old. Yet, at that age, he has already acquired a powerful position in his religion. How did this happen? Well, if you go back to the passages where he shared his
personal testimonies, you will find how he got his religious training:
Acts 22:3 (ESV): 3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day.”
Acts 26:4-5 (ESV): 4 “My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. 5 They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee.”
Galatians 1:13-14 (ESV): 13 “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.”
The zeal that Saul demonstrated towards his Jewish faith started when he was still a child. He was born in Tarsus, the capital city of the Roman province of Cilicia (Today, this would be the southern Turkey). During Paul’s time, Tarsus was known for its wealth and great schools. It has been said that their schools were comparable to the great schools of Athens and Alexandria. But, as a Jewish boy, he was trained in their religion early on. He even had the privilege to study under the feet of Gamaliel, one of the best scholars on the Jewish Law and was highly respected by all the Jews. If you are not so familiar with him, check out Acts 5:34-40 when he intervened on behalf of Peter and John because the Sanhedrin was deliberating whether Peter and John should be killed.
Another important fact about Saul that I want to highlight is found in this statement in Galatians 1:14 – “And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” In other words, besides his great educational training, he was also quickly advancing into the ranks of leadership in Judaism because of his extraordinary zeal. The same zeal would now lead him to hate Jesus and go against everyone who followed Him because, in his mind, all of them were undermining his childhood faith.
With these anger and hate toward the early believers, he probably did not expect to encounter a man like Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, who boldly preached Jesus despite the threats of being killed by a mob. The same saint would testify of seeing a vision of the heavens opening and Jesus “standing at the right hand of God” (v.55). By the way, this proclamation of Jesus standing at the right hand of God is really what pushed people over the edge and ultimately attacked him because for them this was absolutely a clear blasphemy. Why? This was putting Jesus equal with God. But on this account, for sure, the most powerful sight was Stephen in v.60 praying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” How many people do you know would have the heart to pray for their tormentors in their dying minutes? Many Bible scholars believe that Stephen in one way or another had also made a lasting impact on the life of Saul.
II HIS RUTHLESS TASK
As you begin to read Acts chapter 8, it would be obvious that Saul would now be emboldened to carry out the ruthless task handed to him by the Sanhedrin, the ruling Supreme Court of the Jews. Let’s examine the descriptions of Saul’s persecution in 8:3 – “But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” I believe you would have a much better picture of how Saul carried out his persecution if you read the same verse in the Message Translation. Acts 8:3 (MSG): 3“And Saul just went wild, devastating the church, entering house after house after house, dragging men and women off to jail.”
It is interesting to see that when Luke described what Saul was doing to the church, he used a very strong word, “ravaging” (ESV) or “devastating” (MSG). The Greek word used here is “elymaineto,” which only appears here in the New Testament. The word literally carries the picture of wild boars that is destroying a vineyard. But don’t stop there. He also did the following:
“Entering house after house after house” – He had no respect for the Christians private homes. He moved from one house to the next searching for believers in Christ.
“Dragging men and women off to jail” – He arrested them, dragged them out of their homes and threw them into prison to be scourged.
However, as Saul tried his very best to destroy the church, what he didn’t realize was that he actually helped the church spread even more rapidly. Notice these statements:
“They were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (8:1c) –
“Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (8:4)
So, instead of hindering the work of the Lord, Saul in a way gave the church of Jesus Christ a favor because the church started going out of Jerusalem and preaching wherever they went. Let’s revisit again what was commanded to them in Acts 1:8 before Jesus went back to heaven:
Acts 1:8 (ESV): 8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Notice, the geographical movement of the Gospel was impressed to them in this verse. It should begin in Jerusalem, then to Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth. However, when the church started growing in Jerusalem and the believers began to develop a great bond in fellowship, the believers had forgotten the spreading of the Gospel. Therefore, the persecution of the church came, so that they will be partly forced to go back to fulfilling the Great Commission.
It is always great to see what God is able to accomplish even in times when the Devil seems to be getting the upper hand, especially in the proclamation of the Gospel. Today, there are also places where persecutions of believers are predominant. But just
like what happened here in our text, according to the statistics provided by the Operation World, a missions organization, the fastest growing churches in the world are found in countries where Christians are persecuted. For example, the number one country where the Christian church is growing is in Iran - 19.6 percent a year. The second is in Afghanistan where the church is growing 16.7 percent a year.
Folks, seeing all of these truths, I hope I can remind all of us this morning that as long as the church is faithful to Jesus Christ, no one should easily dismiss it and count it out. Despite all the negative attacks and direct assaults of the Devil to the church, God is still able to accomplish His plans in the world through His church. So, when the church is going through some tough times, don’t be discouraged and abandon the church. Hang in there until God begins revealing exactly the good things that He is really trying to accomplish for and through the church.
III HIS RADICAL TESTIMONY
Lastly, going back to Saul and knowing how he has turned his efforts to destroying the church, how many believers would have thought that God would ever give him the privilege of experiencing His awesome grace? I know many of us would not give him any hope and easily count him out for salvation.
However, despite everything he has done, God would not withhold His grace from him. Ultimately, he would become a radical testimony of God’s amazing grace. In other words, you cannot study the life of Paul without appreciating the grace of God. I believe that this is exactly the very reason why Paul himself will magnify the doctrine of grace in his teachings. Listen to some of his references to it:
Romans 3:21-24 (ESV): 21“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
Romans 5:20-21 (ESV): 20“Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV): 8“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Titus 3:5-7 (ESV): 5“He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
I know I can give you only one familiar passage from Paul and you probably would already understand his message. But I wanted to give you all these passages in
order to prove the point that Paul who had his doctorate degree in the Old Testament Laws would realize that it is not the law that could get him to heaven, but only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It really doesn’t matter to God how deep you are in sin; His grace will still be deeper and sufficient to save you if you trust in Him. Again, this is what Paul meant when he said, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”
As I close, I hope none of us are still trying our best to be saved out of obedience to the law. It doesn’t work that way. Simply accept the grace that comes from the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. He is the only One who can give us eternal life! If you are already a believer, make sure that you remain grateful to God because of the grace He has given you. This deep sense of gratitude to His grace will always lead you to a greater devotion and adoration of Him. Let me remind you of the old hymn we used to sing, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Yes, it is true, our life before Christ was wretched, but just like Saul, we too have received great grace.
July 1, 2018 Dr. Jeremiah Lepasana