From a young age, John Newton, the author of the popular Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” spent his life in the sea. As a sailor, he lived a life of rebellion and wickedness. He worked on slave ships, capturing slaves for sale to the plantations of the New World. He even became the captain of his own slave ship.
After a series of events, which included a near-death experience by drowning, he gave his life to Christ. He went on to become a great preacher and leader of the Church of his day. History is full of such examples of people who led a life of sin and yet were changed by Christ.
However, one example stands apart from the rest. In fact, this person called himself the “worst” [1 Tim 1:15] of sinners. He persecuted many Christians and even cast his vote in favor of putting them to death. It is safe to say that he was the most feared religious terrorist of his day.
Yet, through God’s great mercy, he was transformed into a missionary for the same faith he sought to destroy! More than half of the New Testament letters came through his inspired pen. His impact on the spread of the gospel is unsurpassed till date. It would be safe to say that next to the Lord Jesus Christ, he is the most famous individual in Christianity.
Let me introduce to you this terrorist who was turned into a missionary—Saul of Tarsus, also known as the Apostle Paul. As we survey his life, we can learn some practical truths that would impact our own lives. However, let us first get an understanding about his pre-Christian years from his own words as found in Acts 22:3-11.
I. Early Life and Education [Acts 22:3-4].
Paul was born in the city of Tarsus, located in modern-day Turkey. In Paul’s day, Tarsus was a very prestigious port city [Acts 21:39], famous for its university and political standing. Tarsus had a population of about half a million people of various cultures. Living under such conditions, Paul learned Greek in addition to Hebrew. All of this early training would enable him to effectively reach out to non-Jewish people with the gospel in his later years.
Paul’s father was a Pharisee [Acts 23:6]. We do not have any information about his mother, but we are told that he had a sister [Acts 23:16]. We are not told clearly if Paul ever married or not. Some say that given the role that Paul played in the synagogue, he would have married and by the time he became a Christian, his wife died. The language of 1 Corinthians 7:8 could indicate that Paul was a widower. However, we cannot be certain of this fact.
Paul was a tentmaker [i.e. making tents from animal skins] by profession—perhaps a trade learned from his father. Since Paul was a Jew and yet a Roman citizen [Acts 22:27-28], he would have had a three-fold name, since all Romans had a three-fold name [e.g. Gaius Julius Caesar]. The first two were common to the family and the last was the personal name. In Paul’s case, we do not know the first two names. His personal name was Paullus [Latin] from which we get Paul [Greek]. However, every Jew would also have a Jewish name. Paul’s Jewish name was Saul, perhaps named after Saul the first king of Israel who like Paul also belonged to the tribe of Benjamin [Rom 11:1].
Paul had a solid training in the religion of Judaism at home as well as later in Jerusalem under the great Jewish teacher, Gamaliel. According to his own words, he “advancing in Judaism beyond many of [his] own age… and was extremely zealous for the traditions of [his] fathers”[Gal 1:14]. To Paul, his religion was at the center of everything.
II. Persecution of the Church [Acts 22:4–5a].
After his early years with Gamaliel, we are not given much information about Paul. The next time we encounter him, he appears as a persecutor of the Church. He was present during the death of Stephen, the first Christian to die as a witness for Christ [Acts 7:54-8:3]. Not only was he holding the coats of those who were stoning Stephen, but “approved of their killing him” [Acts 8:1]. Paul was not an innocent bystander in the killing of Stephen—he was an integral part. To Paul, this was just the beginning act of his goal of eliminating all Christians.
From this point on, Paul went about with one motive: “destroy the church” [Acts 8:3]. The word, “destroy” was used to describe a wild boar wrecking a vineyard or a wild animal tearing a body. Paul was attacking the Christians with the ferocity similar to a wild animal attacking its prey. It did not matter to him if they were men or women [Acts 8:3]—all suffered equally under his persecution.
The dangerous part of it all was that Paul was doing all of this in the name of God. In reality, Paul was nothing, but a religious terrorist! Paul himself testified of his persecution of the Church on more than one occasion. In Acts 26:10-11, we read his words, “10… I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11 Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.”
Paul’s obsession was to wipe Christianity from the face of the earth. Jerusalem and the surrounding cities faced his persecutions. Now it was time to do the cleansing in far-away cities.
III. On the Road to Damascus [Acts 22:5b-11].
Having obtained letters from the Jewish leaders to bring back Christians as prisoners, Paul proceeded to the city of Damascus [Acts 22:5b]. Damascus is located 140 miles from Jerusalem in Syria. It was about a seven-day travel in those days and people usually traveled during the cool of the morning or in the evening to avoid the hot sun. The very fact that Paul was on the road at noon [Acts 22:6] indicates his hurry to get to Damascus.
As he was nearing Damascus, about noon, “a bright light from heaven flashed around” him and he “fell to the ground and heard a voice” saying to him, “saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” His response, “Who are you, Lord?” to which the reply was, “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting” [Acts 22:6-8].
Imagine the shock—down on the ground and confronted by the Lord Jesus Christ himself! All that Stephen and other Christians said all along about Jesus Christ was true! He was working against God!
Paul’s companions saw the light, but could not comprehend the voice of Christ [Acts 22:9]. Down on the ground, Paul was made a new creature in Christ. Humility comes before salvation. And the first cry of the redeemed heart, “What shall I do, Lord?” [Acts 22:10a]. To Paul, the lordship of Christ over his life was never an issue to be debated—it was a fact. After all, how can one become a Christian without submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ? [Mk 8:34-38; Rom 10:9].
And Christ’s response—Go to Damascus where further instructions will be given to you [Acts 22:10b]. Having been blinded by the light, he was led into Damascus by his companions [Acts 22:11]. Paul planned to go to Damascus like a lion after its prey, but in reality, was led into Damascus as a meek lamb! He was blind, but in reality, only now he could see. His spiritual eyes were opened. Paul could sing along with John Newton the words of the hymn Amazing Grace, “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see!”
Paul’s conversion reveals three truths for our application.
1. NONE IS TOO BAD TO BE SAVED. In 1 Timothy 1:15-16, Paul says that even though he was the “worst” of sinners, yet he received “mercy” in order that “Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” Here was a man who worked so actively against Christ and his followers and yet he found mercy.
Are you thinking that you are too bad to be saved? Remember, there is no sinner or sin that is so bad that the blood of Jesus cannot forgive! Call out to Jesus in true repentance and faith—He will save you! Jesus himself gives this promise: “whoever comes to me I will never drive away” [John 6:37].
If you have received this mercy, then proclaim the gospel with assurance—Christ saves all kinds of sinners. Perhaps, you feel someone close to you does not seem to respond to the gospel invitation—despite repeated pleas. Dear friend: Do not give up. Keep on praying for his or her salvation.
Stephen did not give up even when he was being stoned to death. The early Church leader, Augustine said that the church owes Stephen much, for it was perhaps his prayer that resulted in the conversion of Paul. George Mueller, a great man of God from years past prayed for three friends of his for over 50 years. 2 came to Christ just before his death and the third came to Christ one year after his death. Don’t ever give up on the God of the Bible who has the power to save people—Indeed, “with God all things are possible” [Matt 19:26].
2. GOOD WORKS AND OUTWARD MORALITY CANNOT SAVE ANYBODY. Paul, as a religious Jew was convinced that his religious works and outward morality were sufficient to earn him acceptance from God. However, when he came to his senses, he realized that God’s standard of perfect righteousness can never be achieved by human efforts—for all have sinned against this holy and perfect God [Phil 3:3-9].
If you are trusting in your good works and outward morality to get to heaven, here is news for you: God’s standard requires 100% perfection—that means not even a single sin! And remember, in God’s sight, sin is not just the deed, but also the thought. Jesus clearly said that not only is murder a sin—but hating someone in the heart is equivalent to murder [Matt 5:21-22]. He also said clearly that not only is adultery a sin—but lusting after someone in the heart is equivalent to adultery [Matt 5:27-28].
Until you see these truths clearly, you will only see yourself as a person to be adored rather than to be abhorred. Friend, good works are not the cause of a good standing with God. Rather, good works are the result of a good standing with God through Christ.
3. YOU CANNOT FIGHT AGAINST GOD AND WIN. In another account of his conversion story, Paul related additional words from Jesus that he heard on the road to Damascus, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads” [Acts 26:14]. Goads were sharp sticks that were used to prod oxen. If the oxen resisted and kicked back in resistance, the sharp edge of the goad would only hurt the oxen. Hence, kicking against the goads was a way of saying that one cannot fight against God’s will and ultimately win. God taught Paul this truth in a clear manner.
In the same way, if you are fighting against God—you will lose ultimately. Perhaps, you are resisting the need to turn to Christ alone for your salvation. You are only hurting yourself in the process. Perhaps, you are a Christian and are unwilling to yield to God’s will in some area of life. Maybe it is a sin that you are stubbornly holding on to or you are unwilling to do something good he wants you to do. Whatever be the case, you cannot fight against God and win. You are only hurting yourself and very likely others in this process. Stop fighting and yield to God’s prodding.
The Terrorist became a Missionary. The Persecutor became the Preacher! That is what God does. He is in the business of breaking hard hearts and turning them into soft and pliable ones—to do his will. The same Paul who once killed Christians would later go on to say, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” [Phil 1:21]. May that be our attitude as well!