Some would say Paul was used by God more than anyone else in the New Testament except Jesus. They are probably right. Paul was a man of deep commitment and fierce intellect. But so was Saul. His personality didn’t change when God changed his name. In fact, God was cultivating that personality in him all along.
The first time we meet Saul in Acts (7:58-8:1), he is facilitating the stoning of Stephen. Luke describes him as a young man there. (My study notes say he was probably in his 20s.) He had already excelled in religious studies under Gamaliel, who was respected by all the people (Acts 5:34) as one of the preeminent scholars of his day.
Later, Paul described those years like this,
I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison. –Acts 22:3-4
He was zealous and on the fast-track to Pharisee leadership.
Perhaps Saul had been
looking for some way to
prove his commitment to God.
After Stephen’s stoning, Paul saw a chance to really defend his faith, and he took it. I think he sincerely wanted to do the right thing. Perhaps he had been looking for some way to prove his commitment or to distinguish himself from the other young men in his study group. He had been zealous with no active outlet for his zeal, and when The Way started growing, he saw his chance. He could prove himself by working harder than anyone to extinguish this upstart little religious rebellion before it had a chance to root and grow. Reminds me of a certain American revolutionary…
“I wish there was a war
so we could prove
that we’re worth more
than anyone bargained for.” –Hamilton
Our Personality is God’s Intentional Creation
God created Saul with that zealous streak: a zealotry that made him think throwing people in prison was a good idea but later helped him endure his own repeated imprisonment.
God gave Saul that fierce intellect: an intellect that made him stand out in Gamaliel’s class but later helped him stand up to all the philosophers in the Areopagus (Acts 17:18-34).
Are there difficult carry-overs from your pre-Christian life? Personality traits you kinda wish God would remove or at least temper? Maybe it’s not you but instead that stubborn streak in your child…your neighbor’s ridiculously passionate commitment to a sports team…that brain capacity which makes faith harder for you than for others. In every case, God created all those characteristics on purpose. They just need to be funneled into his service. I shouldn’t say “just.” It’s a bigger leap for some than for others.
Our Impossibility is God’s Opportunity
Saul’s zeal was wrapped up in the Law, and it was a huge step for him to transfer it to Jesus. In fact, the only way it could happen was for Jesus to quite literally appear in front of him and tell him to change. No human could have ever persuaded Saul to change his life course, and the movement didn’t have years to wait while he struggled with the Holy Spirit. The only option, I’m convinced, was for Jesus to put the heavenly spotlight on him and speak from inside the glare (Acts 9:3-6).
God knows how to use our “difficult”
character traits for His glory.
As they watched Stephen get stoned, I’m sure not even one disciple ever thought Saul would make a good Christ-follower. But God knew how to use those “difficult” character traits for His glory. God is always going to do what needs to be done to accomplish His purposes. We don’t have to take charge or worry about doing for Him.
Even Stephen’s stoning was part of God’s plan. And as Jesus stood in Heaven to honor this first one to die for Him, He must have felt much like he did after Lazarus’ death (John 11:33-36) when he wept for the pain that had to be while rejoicing for the purposes it accomplished. Because the impossible task of spreading The Way across the known world was not hindered by Stephen’s death. Instead, his sacrifice made the spread possible…even probable…because Saul was there.
Our Terrible Situation is God’s Plan
Saul’s presence at the stoning was also part of God’s plan. Saul had to witness this horrific situation so he would feel compelled to persecute believers, directly contributing to the diaspora.
Compare these verses:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. –Acts 1:8
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. –Acts 8:1
Judea and Samaria.
Do you see it? Saul’s persecution of Christians drove them to obey Jesus’ final pre-ascension command. We call it the Great Commission. (It’s also fun that 8:1 reflects 1:8.) Whether they liked it or not, Jerusalem’s followers of The Way carried their new-found faith into the surrounding areas.
Saul is like Pharaoh.
Paul is like Moses.
God used Saul to advance the Gospel before his conversion just as much as He used Paul after his conversion. Saul is like Pharaoh, whose heart God purposefully hardened (e.g. Exodus 9:12). Paul is like Moses, who spoke for God and led His people into freedom. Through both Pharaoh and Moses, God made his Name known among all the nations of that time. Through the one man, Saul who became Paul, God expanded His territory throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.
God made Saul the way he was on purpose. The same personality traits that made him such a threat to believers also made him an unstoppable advocate for the faith. He can do the same with us. My #personalitytraits are #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)
Do you have a personality trait that seems incongruous with typical Christianity? How have you seen God use it for His glory? Or maybe you’re still waiting to see how He’ll work that particular miracle. Let us know so we can celebrate with you and/or pray for you. The comment section is open for you.