Looking at events that alter or redirect the course of history can produce a variety of responses. Sometimes these events horrify us (the Rwandan genocide or the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001), sometimes they inspire us (the first manned spacecraft that landed on the moon), and sometimes they challenge us to action (the 1960s American civil rights movement or the end of apartheid in South Africa). The last response—challenge—is particularly true in the events of our personal history. The collected events of our lives mold and shape us; they ignite the passions that fuel our pursuits, development, and growth.
Paul’s own history became both a joy and a burden to him. His passionate nature once compelled him to fear and hate followers of Christ for what he wrongly believed were noble motives. But to understand Paul the apostle, we must go back to those days when he was known as Saul, back to the ethnic and religious value system that drove his life.
A Proud Heritage
Though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
Paul’s Jewish heritage was the seedbed of his passion.
I understand that. Growing up in the southern United States, certain things were bred into my value system—hospitality, kindness, and a measured
pace to life. These values were so ingrained that they became a part of who I am. The same was true for young Saul of Tarsus. He was a product of his own place and time.
Saul’s personal heritage, his “confidence in the flesh,” grew out of his Jewish roots; he took great pride in being a law-keeping son of Abraham. He boasted of his ritual circumcision and celebrated his place in the tribe of Benjamin, the tribe that gave Israel her first king (ironically also named Saul). Though Paul was a “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” his background was not defined merely by his ethnicity. He was deeply rooted in the law of Moses—the driving force of his life. The centrality of the law in Saul’s life expressed itself in three directions:
1 An Upward Zeal. This is seen in the term Pharisee. The Pharisees were religious leaders who committed themselves to meticulous and unyielding adherence to the law. They even went beyond the law of Moses and established additional requirements as an expression of their devotion to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
2 An Outward Attack. In his passion for the law,
Saul perceived the new church of Jesus Christ not only as rejecting that law but also as a direct threat to it. So fervent was his zeal that he viciously persecuted the church. In his mind, imprisonment and even murder were justifiable means of safeguarding the legacy, traditions, and priority of the law of Moses (acts 9:1-2).
3 An Inward Perfectionism. Saul of Tarsus practiced what he preached—he walked what he talked. So strict was his adherence to his religious traditions that he described himself as “blameless,” or perfect. If anyone excelled in obedience to the law, Saul did.
This was the heritage passed on to young Saul of Tarsus, and he enthusiastically embraced it. The life these values produced consisted of equal parts scholar and activist. Saul of Tarsus was a scholar deeply immersed in the law of Moses, the Old Testament prophets, and more. He would also have been versed in and observant of the leading rabbis of his day, as well as the oral teachings of the Talmud and the Mishnah. The rigors of his studies developed the value system imprinted on Saul’s heart from his earliest days—a system birthed by synagogue attendance coupled with the traditional home training given to Jewish boys of his day. This is important because, through this training process, Saul was gaining more than mere information. He was being molded in heart and mind to the spirit of Judaism. This led to the other aspect of a life embedded in these values—activism.
A World in Motion
Saul’s activism was a natural outworking of his training. He was taught that these values were more than just guiding principles or helpful suggestions; they were absolutely essential to honoring God. There were no substitutes, no options, and no variations. A life lived for God—a life of purpose and significance—was anchored by a steely-eyed commitment to these teachings and their careful practice. It was a noble calling, but in Saul’s early adult years, it was a life under assault.
First of all, Judaism was feeling the squeeze of both political and military pressure from the occupying presence of Rome, a presence that often stood in open opposition to the values Judaism revered. The very sight of Roman soldiers on the streets of Jerusalem was both offensive and terrifying to observant Jews. Their banners bore the image of Caesar (a practice prohibited in Moses’ law, exod. 20:4-5) and were paraded through the streets, resulting in unrest and even sparking an occasional riot.
In a very different and ultimately more upsetting way, Judaism was under assault from a threat far more difficult to counter. The burgeoning Christian movement—people of “the Way” (acts 9:2)—was making inroads into synagogues and, more importantly, into the hearts of the Jews. Many were converting to faith in Christ, creating a threat to the very practice of Judaism itself.
To young Saul, it is likely that this threat went beyond the practice of Judaism. In his mind, Christians seeking to convince Jews to follow the Nazarene rabbi Jesus were not simply pulling them away from Judaism; they were a threat to their eternal well being. The activist in Saul was not merely attempting to protect Judaism from a competing faith; he was attempting to rescue faithful Jewish people from those he saw as wolves in sheep’s clothing.
These were the forces at work in Saul’s day, forces that created and molded in him a faith that was far from passive. He was actively engaged in the ceremonial practices of Judaism and fully committed to its physical defense. Yet despite the depth of his commitment to the law, Saul was about to discover that the thing he feared most was actually the very thing he desperately needed. The core of Saul’s worldview would undergo dramatic change—a change that began on a dusty road to the city of Damascus.