Thursday, November 11, 2010

Confessions of a Former Tyrant (November 11, 2010)


Confessions of a Former Tyrant
Fifty percent of the New Testament writings were written by the apostle Paul.  His writings were essential in the development of Christian thought and doctrine.  His ministry among the earliest churches was also widespread and influential.  His life's story is perhaps lesser known, but equally compelling.

Paul, whose given-name was Saul, came from a background of intense religiosity.  He was raised as a strict Jew in first century Palestine.  He became a Pharisee, an expert on Jewish Law and its requirements in the lives of Jews.  Those who were outsiders to this religion and heritage were deemed unclean and untouchable.

To Saul, the idea of Christianity was entirely blasphemous.  To think that this man, Jesus, who died a shameful death on a Roman cross claimed to be the Son of God was a travesty and an insult.  It became his mission to put an end to the movement of Christianity.

Saul soon became the great fear of Christians in the region as he began a campaign of violent opposition, entering house after house, dragging people off to put them in prison.  In the courts, he cast his vote against Christians to send them to death, and he went so far as to ask the leaders for special permission to imprison anyone in Damascus who claimed belief in Jesus as the Messiah.  
It was in the midst of such persecution, on his way to arrest Christians, that Saul had an amazing encounter on the road to Damascus.  He stood blinded before the risen Jesus and became a Christian himself.  As the story is told in Scripture, a light flashed around him such that he fell to the ground.  There, he heard a voice saying, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"  "Who are you?" Saul replied.  And the voice called back, "I am Jesus, the one you persecute."

The change was immediate and dramatic, and indeed, as is often the case in God's work among men and women, God gave Saul a new name: Paul, which means "asked of God."  In an irony that begs the hand of God, Paul was chosen by God to bring the news of God's forgiveness and love to those outside of Jewish tradition.  

Maybe you are wondering why you should believe Paul really had an encounter with Jesus.  Maybe it makes just as much sense to claim he had a change of heart.  While this may seem likely in a world ruled by personal preference, even preference seems to fall short.  Consider what Paul went through for the sake of his faith: He was imprisoned and beaten innumerable times, often to the point of death.  Five times he was lashed with a rugged whip.  Three times he was beaten with rods; other times he was stoned.  He was shipwrecked three times, spending a night and a day in the middle of the sea.  He spent untold hours enduring the rigors of travel, in danger from robbers, spies, wild animals, and enemies who wanted his head.  He endured starvation, extreme cold, and exposure.

What could possibly have given this man the will to choose Christ, and with joy, no less?  I suggest only a real encounter with Jesus explains the behavior of one who was once a fervent persecutor only to become a fervent follower.  Paul's was an encounter so powerful that he was willing to endure such hardship, and indeed such blessing.   And this same Jesus is ready to meet you on the road wherever you find yourself today.  As Christ himself assures, "Whosoever will may come."

Stuart McAllister is Vice President of Training and Special Projects at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

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