Paul, before his conversion, witnessing the stoning of Stephen
This is a series that looks into the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul. Today, we will examine “Paul the Persecutor.”
Paul of Tarsus was a pattern-setter for all times. His ministry impacted the entire world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. This former Christian- persecuting-Pharisee turned apostle turned the world upside down. His apostleship was unequaled, even by the twelve. Having wrote over half of the New Testament, his ministry is still alive today as believers everywhere study his writings, which were divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit.
2 Timothy 3:16-17
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.
To understand Paul’s ministry and apostleship it is necessary to understand Paul the man. To do this, Paul’s background and religious history must be examined. Therefore, this section will be devoted to Paul’s personal history prior to his conversion. This will be of great value in understanding how God, in His sovereignty, used Paul’s history to shape his future as an apostle.
Paul the Persecutor
Paul, whose Jewish name was Saul, was of pure Jewish descent, of the tribe of Benjamin. He was a Hebrew of the Hebrews as he stated in Philippians chapter three:
Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
Paul was a Pharisee, as was his father (Acts 23:6). Pharisees were separatists, which is the meaning of the word “Pharisee.” Their origin came about during the period of time between the Old Testament and the New Testament, commonly referred to as the “silent years.” The silence is in reference to Scripture. During this period two religious parties developed from the ranks of the priests and scribes. The Sadducean party arose from the order of priests and the Pharisees from the scribes. While the Sadducees were concerned primarily with social position, the Pharisees dedicated themselves to legalistic views. Ceremonial law was the passion of every Pharisee. It was under this influence that Paul was brought up.
Jesus denounced the hypocritical practices of the Pharisees in His ministry. Their religion was an outward show, but inside, their hearts were far from God. When questioned by the Pharisees about not keeping the tradition of the elders, Jesus responded with complete denunciation (Mark 7:6-9, 13). Jesus preached a sermon against Phariseeism in Matthew chapter 23. Below is a list of names that our Lord referred to them as, in just one sermon!
- Hypocrites (w. 13, 14, 15, etc.)
- Child of Hell (v. 15)
- Blind Guides (v. 16)
- Fools (v. 17)
- Whited Sepulchres (v. 27)
- Serpents (v. 33)
- Vipers (v. 33)
Remember, these were the religious leaders of the day. Pharisees were very proud of their outward observance of the law, but Jesus could see straight through their feigned piety. Though Jesus denounced the Pharisees as a sect, this is not to say that every Pharisee intentionally rejected God. Surely there were some who were sincerely trying to serve God, however sincerely wrong they were. It is of this category that Paul fit into.
Being raised in Tarsus of Cilicia, Paul went to Jerusalem at the age of about 13 to further his studies. There he studied at the feet of Gamaliel, a distinguished and prominent teacher of the law (Acts 22:3). From his youth, Paul was zealous with the things of God. His spiritual blindness prevented him from seeing the reality of his true spiritual state. He sought to please God with an outward observance of God’s law.
Paul’s introduction to New Testament readers is in connection with Stephen’s stoning in Acts 7:58: And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. At this time Paul was probably about thirty years of age. Paul supervised the first martyr of the Christian Church. Jesus warned the disciples that there would be those who persecuted them as doing service to God:
They shall. put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever kills you will think that he does God service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me.
Because they have not known the Father, nor me: this was Paul’s predicament. He was advancing up the religious ladder by persecuting the thing that most threatened the existence of their elite religious sect: Christianity. As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison (Acts 8:3). After his conversion, Paul made these statements in regards to his persecution of the Church:
And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.
I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities.
Tomorrow, we will look at Paul’s conversion and the impact it had on the early church.