“Conversion”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 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. (Galatians 1.13-14)
This isn’t the only time Paul alludes to his personal history in order to make a point. In this instance, his immediate purpose in bringing this up is to emphasize that, despite having lived in Jerusalem for some time just as the church was first established and starting to grow, no one could reasonably argue that Paul was influenced on doctrinal matters by the apostles or other leaders in the Jerusalem church—at the time, he was actively seeking to put them to death! This is in service of a greater point about where he did get his gospel, and why the Galatian Christians should never have strayed away from what he taught them at first; but it also raises a side point, and one that is more obviously important to us, today.
And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1.22-24)
What a turnaround! In another letter, Paul draws attention to the drastic change that was evident in his life as a result of meeting Jesus, saying, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Php 3.7). It’s a clear testament to Jesus’ power, and it deserves a closer look.
We don’t know many details about Paul’s early life, only that he was born in Tarsus on the southern coast of Asia Minor (Ac 22.3), and that he was born a Roman citizen (v28). At some point he was sent off to Jerusalem for his education, under the direction of the most prestigious teacher alive at the time, Gamaliel (v3). Reasoning from these points, we can surmise that Paul’s family was reasonably well-off, or at least well-connected, which generally amounts to the same thing. Between his circumstances, his obvious talent, and his hard work, he was the rising star among the Pharisees, with a bright future—from their perspective!
Another point requires some effort to see, but once found, is illuminating! In the early chapters of Acts, we’re given the details of several private conversations within the Jewish council (Ac 4.15-17, 5.21-26, 5.35-39, and 6.11-15). After that point, we no longer read of the council’s internal deliberations—in fact, we rarely read of the council at all! It’s not as if they gave up on persecuting the church and decided to pursue peace and harmony instead! So why doesn’t Luke tell us about their ongoing schemes? Why is it, that he can tell us everything that went on behind closed doors among the council in Jerusalem, right up until Paul became a Christian? Ah. That sounds like the answer, doesn’t it? To be clear, there are examples in the Bible of private conversations reported, in detail, by people who had no earthly means of learning their contents—on one occasion, it’s the primary driver of the story, when an astute Syrian tells his king, “Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedroom” (2Ki 6.12). But in this case, the sudden change is suspect, and it suggests that Luke got the information about these conversations, not directly from the Holy Spirit, but from Paul, who witnessed them himself! Either he was a member of the council already, or was trusted enough to be allowed in, as a helper to someone else, likely Gamaliel.
Paul had everything he wanted in this life: the approval of religious authorities, a position of increasing power and prestige, and an excellent forecast for his advancement among his people. And what did he have to do, in order to get it all? He had to ignore part of God’s word—the part about Jesus being God’s Son, the Christ. He wasn’t ignoring all of God’s word; on the contrary, the Scriptures were his focus! And where the Scriptures were concerned, he ruthlessly imposed his viewpoint on the people around him, raining terror and death on Israelites who disagreed. Because he refused to accept God’s Son, he became an enemy of God, while professing to be his servant.
But he turned! Did he need just a little tweak, a slight adjustment in his worldview? No, he changed his answer on the most important, fundamental question that faces each one of us: who is Jesus of Nazareth? Although he got many things right beforehand, none of that counted for anything, until he acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, and turned completely around.
We tend to refer to chapter 9 of Acts as Paul’s “conversion story,” and although the word, conversion, does not appear in most of the modern Bible translations, it’s an excellent description of what Paul underwent. He didn’t just switch sides in a conflict—plenty of people have done that, with good or evil motives. He didn’t switch to a better-paying job—money never entered the equation at all. He didn’t seize an opportunity for more power and prestige—he already had those, and gave them up! He didn’t abandon a difficult path in favor of an easier one—he was relentlessly persecuted, mistreated, and eventually killed as a direct result of this conversion! But converted he was! He was completely transformed. His heart changed; his mind changed; his behavior changed. While his body stayed the same, in spirit the old Paul was dead and gone, crucified with Christ. Instead, Christ now lived in him (Ga 2.20). Does he live in you? Have you been converted?