Chief of Sinners
From Gospel Translations
There was Saul . . . a Jewish blue-blood from the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee. There was Saul . . . a brilliant student with the best of academic credentials. There was Saul . . . young but already a leader recognized by the Sanhedrin. He was in the vanguard leading the opposition against the heretical sect of uneducated and uncultured Galileans who had followed the pseudo-messiah from Nazareth. There was Saul . . . strong and decisive. He understood that, in the battle for truth, blood sometimes had to be shed. There was Saul . . . his moral and religious reputation impeccable, faultless in righteousness. There was Saul . . . young, intellectual, well-educated, well-connected, truthful, trustworthy, and powerful. There was Saul . . . proudly leading a force from the Sanhedrin with authority to arrest the Jesus heretics in Damascus.
In a moment, all of that changed. There was a blinding light, brighter than the sun. The proud Saul found himself lying on the dusty road, unable to stand because of the weight of the light. Then there was a voice that addressed him personally: “‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’” Saul was clueless. What was happening? Who was speaking to him? “‘Who are You, Lord?’” “‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’” At that moment, Saul’s world came unhinged. His powerfully structured life fell around him like a skyscraper brought down by well-placed explosives. Three words — “‘I am Jesus’” — shattered his past existence and his well-planned future. The proud hunter had become a helpless prey.
But that was only the beginning. Saul, the boaster of a faultless moral goodness, became Paul, the greatest of sinners. The words would have been repulsive to the old Saul; he never would have thought them, much less uttered them. But they poured out of Paul’s unpretentious heart: “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells. . . . For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. . . . O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:18–19, 24).
To Saul, a crucified Messiah was an oxymoron. No Messiah would submit to such a shameful death. But Paul would write, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . . For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 1:18; 2:2).
To Saul, the Gentiles were uncircumcised, unclean, unworthy of being a part of God’s chosen people, and strangers to God’s covenant with Israel (Eph. 2:11–12). Paul would suffer hardship and even become a prisoner to tell the beloved Gentiles the Gospel. Sometimes the providence of God is amusing. He chose to send the ultimate Jew, who considered Gentiles polluted aliens, to take His Gospel to the Gentiles.
Saul seemed destined to be a man of power, wealth, authority, influence, and erudition. What a comedown! He was let down over the walls of Damascus in a basket at night, running for his life. For 14 years he lived a seemingly insignificant life before Barnabas brought him to Antioch to assist in the teaching there. He was stoned and left for dead outside some out-of-the-way town named Lystra. He was beaten at least eight times. He spent years in jails. The intellectuals at Athens laughed at him.
What does the arrogant Saul, who became the humble Paul, say to us? He says to us that following Christ is synonymous with being humble. There is no room for pride before God. We don’t have anything unless God gives it to us. “For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:7). We cannot boast in our salvation. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). There can be no thinking that we are holier than other Christians around us. “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” (Phil. 2:3). There can be no pride in the minister as he preaches. “My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4).
We so often fall into the world’s way of thinking about power. We think, “When I am powerful in this world, then that means I will make God powerful in this world by my position.” It is God who makes us powerful in the world, not we who make Him powerful. And how does He make us powerful in the world? “And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9–10). God’s power is best seen when we are feeble and know it.
There was one place that Paul did boast. He was proud of Jesus Christ. He counted all the beatings, all the jail time, all the suffering for Christ a wonderful privilege. He just could not believe that he had been given the immeasurable honor of suffering with Jesus Christ. He would respond to the humiliation of suffering the way the disciples responded in Acts 5:41: “So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.” The old Saul just would not have understood.