30th April, 2000

Paul - Persecutor Turned Preacher

"The Apostle Who Changed the World"
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Acts 24:1-21

In the world of Christian studies, the 1990's were dominated the debate over the person and significance of Jesus. The debate of the decade commencing AD 2000 will be on the Apostle Paul. Paul has always been is the forefront of Christian scholarship, and theologians like Albert Schweitzer, Rudolf Bultmann, Ernst Kasemann, and Ed. P Sanders have been pivotal in turning the debate throughout the whole twentieth century.

There is new evidence about Paul come to light in recent times, not from the trowels of archaeologists, but from the research of papyrologists and historians of Judaism. These scholars have thrown new light on our interpretation of Paul and on many passages of Scripture which help us understand this great witness to Jesus Christ. Paul's letters were said by the first Christians to be very powerful. They tell of the final week in the life of Jesus - His Last Supper, His betrayal, His death by crucifixion, His resurrection, and His coming again. All key elements of the gospel are in Paul's writings. Paul's expression of the Gospel was confirmed by the four Gospel writers later wrote their accounts of the life of Jesus. All we know about Jesus before the fall of Jerusalem, we owe to Paul. Paul was always a controversial figure among both Jews and Christians. Both groups wanted to get rid of him. He wrote: 2 Cor 11:26 "I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers."

Scholars assess Paul as one of the most influential men of the last two millennia, and A.N.Wilson, a British author, even claims - wrongly - Paul as the founder of Christianity. Paul had three identities: he was a Christian, a Jew and a Roman citizen. He was conversant with the Greek culture of his day and cultures of the Mediterranean world. He travelled widely in all social circles causing controversy wherever he went. He was multi-lingual and knew Greek philosophy and poetry. His theological training was as a Pharisee within Judaism (as was his father before him) and his zealousness for that faith was extreme. He was utterly scrupulous in his commitment to Judaism and proud of his heritage.

The new insights into Paul have to do with understanding his life before meeting the risen Christ. He was a member of a zealous, small group of fanatics within Judaism who were determined to stamp out Christianity as an aberration of true Judaism. His zeal consumed him. He wrote in his earliest known letter: Galatians 1:13-16 "For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles."

In the passage of Scripture before us, Paul says: Acts 24:9-11 "I was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem.

On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them."

We have an example of such a committed Jew. On 4th November 1995. Yigal Amir, a law student in Tel Aviv shot dead the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He was not studying law as a solicitor or barrister, but studying the Law of Moses, the Torah. In this murder, some senior Rabbis in Israel and USA supported him. They believed Mr Rabin was a traitor to Israel for selling out to the Palestinians by trading Israel's most precious commodity, their land promised to Abraham, in exchange for peace. The Torah said all the land belonged to Israel, so Rabin was a traitor. Hence he had to be killed. The zeal of the law consumed Amir. That is precisely how Saul of Tarsus acted against the early Christians, persecuting them, intending to drag men, women and children in chains into prison. When Stephen and others imprisoned believers were being murdered for believing this new way of Jesus, Saul approved their murder. He was the persecutor of the Christian faith. His reading of the Torah led him to believe God wanted him to bring the nation back to God, using force to convince them. Saul was that zealous for his nation and for God's Law. That is what we have not understood before. It would take a massive intervention of God to turn him round. That happened while Saul was on his way to Damascus to imprison Christians. The Risen Jesus, appeared to Saul, and stopped him in his tracks.

Everything now turned on that Damascus Road encounter. The history of the Christian church is the story of twice born people. Christianity differs from every other religion in that its members are people who have been converted. Conversion is being turned about in mind, feeling and behaviour. Psychologist William James said: "To be converted is a process gradual or sudden by which a self, hitherto divided and consciously wrong becomes unified and consciously right, superior and happy in consequence of its firm hold upon religious experience." "Varieties of Religious Experience." p180. The New Testament records their stories. Jesus preached conversion: "The right time has come and the Kingdom of God is near! Turn away from your sins and believe the Good News." Mark 1:14-15 Jesus said: "I am telling you the truth; no-one can see the Kingdom of God unless He is born again...No one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit." John 3:3,5

From the first preaching of the Good News of Jesus Christ crucified for our sins but raised from the death to make us right with God, people were converted. At Pentecost when Peter preached, 3000 people were convicted of sin, repented, believed and trusted in Jesus Christ as Messiah, and obeyed Him in baptism. From then on, the New Testament records the conversion of individuals: the Ethiopian converted on the Gaza Road; Saul converted on the Damascus Road; Cornelius converted in the seaside town of Caesarea; Lydia converted by the River Gangites in Greece and the jailer converted in his own prison in Philippi. Each of these people heard the Gospel of Jesus, felt God's Spirit within, and each responded in trust by believing and being baptised.

Conversions have occurred ever since. In 486AD, the greatest mind in a millennium, Augustine was converted from immorality and self-centredness to morality and God-centredness. Francis of Assisi was converted from hedonism to caring for others. Martin Luther was converted from a life of formalism to a life of freedom in Christ. John Wesley, in 1838 was converted from a faith that was rigid with insatiable demand, to a life of joy in the Spirit.

I think of prisoners in jail with whom I have had contact whose conversion has become nationally known. Barry Goode was imprisoned for armed hold ups, TAB robberies, safe-cracking, car stealing, compulsive gambling, prison violence and alcoholism. But he was remarkably converted and is today a Christian minister helping prisoners. Arthur Bolkas, was imprisoned for armed hold-ups during drug raids. Our television program reached him in maximum-security prison. Our letters aided his conversion. Upon release he worked for the Bible Society of Victoria. Tony Dennison in Cessnock prison watched our program every week and wrote asking for our video study series. Tony used "Discovering Jesus" to convert 70 other prisoners, one of whom, Warren Field, upon release set up Manna House for released prisoners. All of these testify to God's power in converting them. But apart from these spectacular conversions, we have played a part in the quiet conversions of hundreds of people whose lives have just as obviously turned around including two famous friends: entertainer Bobby Limb and Olympian Betty Cuthbert. It is estimated that every single day about 100,000 people are converted from their old way of life, to following Jesus.

The newest evidence for the resurrection of Christ lies within the latest convert, who has found the living Christ has changed them, empowered them, gifted them. The Apostle Paul was so zealous for what he thought was right, that he allowed himself to do what was morally wrong. He was so committed to what He though was right that he allowed that opinion to override everything else. We have not fully understood this motivation of zealousness before, and so we have not realised how complete was the 180-degree turn about in his life when he met the risen Christ. What was needed was a totally new viewpoint. A complete change of outlook. A new authority in his life. On a hot day, he found all of that on a road to Damascus when the Risen Christ called him by name and changed him completely.

Our lives are dominated by the way we have been brought up: the stories we were given as children; the racial prejudices that were passed onto us; the social environment that influenced us; the poverty of money or education that stunted us. We are very much the product of our early environment, our genetic disposition and the influence of our peers. We will just go on doing what we have been doing unless something impacts on our lives so great that we are literally turned around in our tracks. That turn-around requires divine intervention. It requires a complete conversion. A re-birth. That is what Jesus Christ can do in your life. You do not have to be on the Damascus Road. For more than a century, Jesus has changed the lives of people who have found themselves on Pitt St., Sydney. Or when they have been listening to radio in a car or in the bath or in bed. Jesus Christ has converted them there and then!

Some conversions are dramatic. Many are quiet. Some are of notable people but most are of ordinary believers. Wesley Mission has seen for nearly two hundred years people being won to Jesus Christ. Every radio sermon each Sunday night is designed to encourage people to experience conversion and to ring a counsellor. I called our television program "Turn 'Round Australia" because it is a call for our country to repent and to turn to Jesus Christ. Every week non-believers are converted. Cynics and sceptics talk about psychological pressure, emotional manipulation, spiritual acceptance and the influence of guilt, but the convert knows that a fundamental change has occurred in his or her life. The old has become new. The darkness has turned to light. The descent into death has become a way to life. God has made a new person.

Conversion is associated with repentance and belief. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. It usually follows the preaching of the Good News of Jesus resulting in repentance, belief and baptism. Conversion is total: mind, intellect, emotions, conscience, attitude, behaviour, actions - it is such a fundamental change of life that Jesus called it "being born again."

Those who are so converted are reborn from sin to salvation, from idols to God, from slavery to freedom, from guilt to grace; from injustice to justice, from crime to forgiveness, from darkness to light, from self to others, from evil to goodness, from death to life! Born again! Have you felt the pressure of God on your life? Jesus Christ lives. He comes to you. Surrender to Him! Allow yourself to be converted!

  What St Paul Really Said. T Wright Lion 1997
The Paul Quest B Witherington 111 IVP 1998
The Pre-Christian Paul. M Hengel SCM 1991
Paul. EP Sanders Oxford 1991
Discovering Paul. GK Moyes Albatros 1986

Rev Dr Gordon Moyes

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