Readings: Acts 22:1-22; Galatians 1: 11-24
Persecution in the early church was particularly bad during the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian towards the end of the 3rd Century AD. Not all Christians were courageous enough to face torture or death. There were those who renounced their faith and made offerings to Roman state gods or the Roman Emperor, and often burned their Christian texts.
Those who refused to submit to the Roman Empire and were found with Christian texts were often killed. This meant that the clergy were very vulnerable because they were most likely to have the Bible in some form or another. Many of those who renounced their faith and burned their books were clergy, although there were also lay people.
Later on when the church was restored (in the early 4th C) and persecution died down – it created an issue. Diocletian’s successor Constantine declared tolerance of Christianity in 313 AD (The Edict of Milan).
So what do you think happened? Those who had denounced their Christian faith carried on as priests. One of them was nominated as a bishop. People were less than thrilled about that, and a split, a schism, took place. The church was divided for a long time – hundreds of years – on this issue, and eventually other issues too.
The movement to exclude Christians who had denied their faith, particularly in North Africa, was led by the Donatists. They were one of the earlier charismatic groups – one of the interesting things they did was in confession – the Catholics heard confessions privately. The Donatists heard confession publically in front of the whole congregations. Sundays must have been interesting! (You can read about the Donatist controversy if you are interested in this period of church history.)
HOW WOULD YOU RESPOND?
How people respond to persecution or other threats such as invading conquering armies is always a challenge. What happens afterwards is the key issue. It’s no different from post-war conflicts in Europe – those who collaborated with the Nazis were not regarded as traitors.
Who knows what you and I would if our lives were on the line. Would you own Christ with a gun pointing at you?
So think about Paul then.
This time it’s not about accepting someone back into the fold who was persecuted and renounced their faith. Paul was the primary persecutor of Christians. He was the one hunting Christians down!
You can imagine how tough that was for Christians to swallow. This very committed Jewish, Pharisaical, scholarly and ruthless man, this zealous oppressor who travelled around looking for Christians to lock up, starts showing up at church, so to speak. Walking into Christian meetings. Actually on his mission trips he went around preaching in Synagogues, or in homes or at river sides – wherever he could.
It has been suggested that his role model could well have been the prophet Elijah – Saul the Pharisee would have been determined to keep Israel from idolatry. Like Elijah and the prophets of Baal!
Tom Wright says this about him: He saw himself, it seems, as a latter-day Elijah, cleansing Israel of the horrible nonsense about Jesus of Nazareth, who couldn’t have been the Messiah because he was crucified, and who certainly couldn’t be worshipped because in any case the Messiah wouldn’t be divine.
GRACE – BRILLIANT GRACE
If there is ever an example of grace, it is the conversion of Saul who becomes the Apostle Paul.
And so the text: In his defense of the Gospel, he writes this to the Galatian churches in chapter one, verse thirteen: Gal 1:13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. Gal 1:14 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. Gal 1:15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, Gal 1:16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; Gal 1:17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
What a remarkable change in this man.
His testimony is very much like that of some of the prophets. Especially verse 15: But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace…
Listen to Isaiah on this sense of being chosen by God: Isa 49:1 Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name. Isa 49:2 He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.
And also Jeremiah: Jer 1:4 The word of the LORD came to me, saying, Jer 1:5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
And so back to Galatians 1 – we read from verse 15 again: Gal 1:15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, Gal 1:16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; Gal 1:17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
God revealed his Son to Paul – and everything changed. It’s the trip to Arabia that intrigues me. These are the hidden years in Paul’s life.
And there is this angle – Mnt Sinai (also know as Mnt Horeb) was in Arabia. Moses encountered God there. Elijah encountered God there – especially when he was fleeing from Jezebel. There’s that brilliant passage there which has made its way into hymns and songs:
1Ki 19:11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 1Ki 19:12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 1Ki 19:13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 1Ki 19:14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” 1Ki 19:15 The LORD said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.
There’s this fascinating parallel between Elijah and Paul – going to the mountain of God – and being sent off to Damascus.
They each had their own issues.
Can you imagine what was going on in Paul’s head? Tom Wright also says this:
But then – and here he slips into talking about himself as an Old Testament prophet – Paul was stopped in his tracks, just as Elijah had been. Elijah, dejected and depressed, went off to Mount Sinai to meet his God afresh, to learn about the still small voice as well as the earthquake, wind and fire. Saul of Tarsus went off, probably to Sinai (he says ‘Arabia’, which is where Sinai was), most likely for a similar private wrestling with the God whom he worshipped. This God, to Saul’s horror and amazement, had now revealed his son, and had done so in order that he, Saul, an ultra-orthodox Jew, might tell the pagan nations that Israel’s God loved them just as much as he loved Israel. (Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 9). SPCK. Kindle Edition.)
GRACE – ABUNDANT GRACE, UNLIMITED PATIENCE
We were praying this week about prisoners. How ironic that we so often want people locked up for the longest time possible. You hear it on TV so often – when people are sentenced for their crimes.
Yet we have this murderer who writes so much of our New Testament.
It is Paul who says this of himself: 1Ti 1:15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 1Ti 1:16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.
I reckon that Paul wrestled about this grace in those three years in Arabia.
Tom Wright again says this: But it is a central strand of most Christian living that everybody needs, from time to time, to wrestle privately with God and his will. It is necessary, too, that Christian leaders should be seen to be telling their own story truly.
…everybody needs, from time to time, to wrestle privately with God and his will.
We all do. We need time with God – especially alone – where we seriously reflect on his grace in our lives too. And what he may be saying to us.
In Paul’s case it seems that the Gospel was revealed to Paul directly from Jesus – as we saw last week.
Who knows what He will say to us if we take the time to wrestle with his will. Or just to be in His presence. It’s part of the shift that we talked about last week as we looked at Galatians 1:3-4 – Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.
Paul understood the shift he had to make. His zeal was shifted to his new task to share the gospel with non-Jews – with gentiles like us. Galatians 1:23-4 again: They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me.
As do we!
Closer to our time Amazing Grace worked in the writer of the hymn – the slave trader, John Newton. Let’s see an extract about him and his conversion. In the movie William Wilberforce visits his old preacher Newton more than once.
(Video “Amazing Grace” – the wrestling of John Newton.)
Note: I am indebted to Tom Wright again.
Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 8-9). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
https://www.udemy.com/courses/ Here I have been influenced by Wright’s lectures “Paul and his letter to the Galatians”. This is from the course NTWRIGHT ON LINE through the Wisconsin Centre for Christian studies.