The example of Paul is as relevant and powerful as ever! The apostle Paul’s life shows all that is possible when one wholly surrenders to the Lord. Before he was the great preacher and missionary that we’ve come to love, Saul (his pre-Christian name) was a Pharisee, and Pharisees hated Christians. Anything that was good for Christianity was deemed a threat by the Pharisees who felt more than justified in taking the attack to Christians.
Paul was not just a run-of-the-mill Pharisee. He was excellent in his craft and devoted to his cause. He believed that hurting Christians was service to God, and he wanted to serve God with excellence. Within a sea of Jews who hated Jesus, Paul stood out as more zealous than his peers (Gal. 1:14).
Here we can learn a lesson: Paul believed that devotion drives direction; the deeper one’s love for the Lord is, the more earnest and passionate the service will be. Ironically, we applaud Paul for giving his best to the Lord. He did not just want to get by in his religion. He was not content to be loosely associated with his religion. His religion was not just something that he thought about a few times a week.
Paul was on a mission to be the best possible representative of his religion. He wanted to live its tenets totally. This, of course, is the way man should respond to our great God who is worthy of the very best. One’s religion is supposed to be real, not rented. Paul’s was (and this seeming core principle will be seen in his later Christian ministry). If our religion does not change us, are we really serving the Lord? If the practice of our religion stays neatly in our comfort zone — doing what we want, how we want, when we want — aren’t we really just serving our self? Paul was a man whose religion drove him. He lost himself in the never-ending quest to be his best for God.
Yet Paul was wrong. Despite his considerable zeal, Paul was wrong in what he thought God wanted. Here’s our next lesson: it’s possible for a good man to be wrong. Paul believed that he was right; he even felt it in his heart (Acts 23:1). He was highly educated (Acts 22:3) and respected (Acts 22:20). It’s likely that his family was supportive of his accomplishments and proud of him. How could so many people be so wrong?
It happens when people think they know what God wants instead of being certain. Directing one’s own steps usually does not place one on the straight and narrow path (Jer. 10:23). When minds are closed, even the clearest truths get missed. Some knew the truth about Jesus. Even some of the Pharisees deduced that He was from God (John 3:2). However, an entire religious system worked to hide this truth from the people. Obviously, the religious leaders had no desire for the masses to follow Jesus. The most extreme case of their obstruction came when they had the nerve to say that the miracles done by Jesus — the clear sign that He was from God — were actually made possible by Beelzebub (Matt. 12:22-24).
Whether deliberately led astray or just honestly confused, people who thought they were right with God were actually wrong. Some of these were sincere, well-intending, and good. Like those on the day of judgement who will defend their righteousness (Matt. 7:21-23), they worked in vain because they did not make sure to find and follow God’s right way. An important note to consider is that God will always allow one who truly desires salvation to find that right way. Read Matthew 7:7 and rest assured that no honest soul will be blocked from finding God.
While Paul teaches us that it’s possible for a good man to still be wrong, he further teaches that it’s never too late to obey God. Paul invested so much time, effort, and energy in his Pharisee life. He was committed to this way. He was settled and established, yet he needed to change. The Lord visited Paul and made it clear that change was necessary (Acts 9:5-6). In a great example for us, Paul did better as soon as he learned better. He no longer stayed in the error that was sure to damn his soul. Amazingly, Paul was hunting Christians when he found Christ. Paul’s plan was to find and bind Christians whom he considered to be guilty of heresy (Acts 9:2). In the span of one conversation, Paul learned that he had been wrong his whole life. Rather than protest or refuse to change, this same man who always loved God and wanted to give Him the best, changed his ways and became a follower of Jesus Christ.
This was life-changing for Paul who literally turned his back on everything he believed to be right. Imagine the number of relationships suddenly ended and the number of enemies suddenly made. People who once praised Paul as a Pharisee now hated him as a Christian, and they wanted him dead. Paul did what he knew was right, and this time he was certain. Paul’s example speaks to us still. Your friends in churches of Christ are praying for you to make certain that you’re following the Lord’s right way.
Dustin preaches for the Augusta Road congregation in Greenville, SC.