A Christian Hater and Persecutor Decides to Follow Jesus

As you investigate the resurrection of Jesus you come to see that there are a number of widely accepted facts that require an explanation. Some of these “minimal facts”, as Dr. Gary Habermas refers to them, are that Jesus was crucified, after his death his followers claimed to have seen him alive again and they were willing to die for this claim, and Jesus’ tomb was empty. These facts need an explanation.

Another fact that is accepted by the majority of New Testament scholars, both Christian and non-Christian, involves the unlikely and sudden conversion of Saul of Tarsus.

The Conversion on the Way to Damascus by Caravaggio

Saul of Tarsus was a zealous Pharisee. In the book of Acts we see him approving the stoning death of Stephen and hunting down Christians so they can be imprisoned and punished. Saul hates Christians and believes he is accomplishing God’s will by persecuting them (Acts 8).

Later in Acts, the whole focus of the book shifts and focuses on Saul, except now he is one of Christianity greatest proponents. He will make several journeys all around the Mediterranean preaching that Jesus rose from the dead and is the promised Messiah. He will plant churches and train new church leaders. He will ultimately be martyred in Rome for his belief in Jesus. Of course, by this part of the books of acts, we know him as the apostle Paul.

What could have happened to turn Saul, a zealous church persecutor, into Paul, devoted missionary of the Gospel?

Paul himself provides an explanation several times in different letters to the churches in Corinth, Galatia, and Philippi:

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. – 1 Corinthians 15:8-9

I did not receive [the Gospel] from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 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. But when he who had set me apart before I was born,[d] and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to[e] me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles. – Galatians 1:12-16

As to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – Philippians 3:6-9

Paul acknowledges that he had formerly persecuted the church but now unashamedly follows Jesus. Luke, writing in Acts, gives us another account of Paul’s conversion.

He writes in Acts 8:3 that “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” Luke continues Saul’s story in chapter 9,

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. – Acts 9:1-9

God sends Ananias to restore Saul’s sight and Saul is baptized and immediately begins preaching in the synagogues about Jesus and people are shocked. Luke reports that the people were asking “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” (Acts 1:21) And after several days, the man who had been hunting Christians is now a hunted man. The Jewish leaders are seeking to kill him and Saul flees Damascus, escaping through the city wall in a basket.

The story of Paul’s incredible 180 degree conversion spreads across the region and even those who do not know Paul personally know of his conversion. Paul tells the Galatians that although he was personally unknown to the churches in Judea “they only were hearing it said, ‘He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’” (Galatians 1:23)

So, why did Paul suddenly change from persecuting the followers of Jesus to becoming one of them? Paul and Luke both claim it was through an encounter with the risen Jesus. This is remarkable. Paul believed Jesus was dead and hated his followers and then he claims that Jesus appears to him alive. What’s more, he is willing to die for this claim. Many early writers such as Polycarp, Clement of Rome, and Tertullian mention that Paul was martyred in Rome for his faith.

As we look back 2000 years at these events, what is the best explanation? For over 2000 years, many Christians have believed the best explanation is that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to Paul, just as he claimed. This is the explanation that also fits best with all the other “minimal facts”.

Paul, who once ravaged the churches, suddenly became their best defender after and encounter with the risen Jesus.

 


 

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