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. (Galatians 1:13-14 NIV)
This may go without saying, but it is important that we not equate Judaism with Paul’s persecution of the church. Not all Jews persecuted the church. In fact, the first church was distinctly Jewish. Jesus was Jewish. His family was Jewish. His apostles were Jewish. The first three thousand believers baptized into Jesus on the Day of Pentecost were Jewish.
Yet, in Jesus’ day, the Jewish Sanhedrin and other prominent leaders were clearly against Him. Their hatred wasn’t racist, since He was thoroughly Jewish, descended on His human side from the line of King David. Rather, it was theological and political. Theologically, Jesus wasn’t the kind of Messiah the leadership had been expecting. They assumed He would come to overthrow their Roman oppressors and join them in condemning the unrighteous. Instead, He warmed up to sinners and tax-collectors and criticized them for their hypocrisy. No, Jesus wasn’t anything like what they expected. Politically, Jesus was a threat to the system of self-righteous bullying some of the Jewish leaders had spent their life constructing and upholding. The crowds were chasing after Him, and they were losing their credibility one miracle and parable at a time.
This is why, following the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the birth of the church, Paul found people ready to embrace his zeal. He was one of the brightest of the young Pharisees, and what better way for a budding Sanhedrin leader to show his abilities than to persecute the church?
I am thinking today of how multiple pieces of an evil influence can come together at a point and time, and line up to bring pain into other’s lives. Why? Because people who are determined to hurt others seem to have special radar that brings them together, and once they become kindred in spirit, they set out on their path of destruction. Bullies, persecutors and antagonists rarely come together to do good although they will may claim they are merely trying to set things right. And in their madness, they sometimes proceed with a blind zeal that loses any sense of compassion for those they are hurting.
This was Paul, or perhaps I should say “Saul” as he was called before his conversion. He found a star to attach his career to in the Sanhedrin, and they found a vehicle for their hatred. And the rampage that ensued was merciless.
I have always sensed Paul took these walks down memory lane so his Jewish brothers would understand he knew what it was like to be in their sandals. He “got” the logic behind their tirades, and was willing to admit how he too had lost his perspective. I don’t know how much effect these kinds of discourses had on enemies of the cross, but they certainly made some stop and reflect on their actions.
Reflection is a good thing. We can easily lose perspective and find ourselves working against the very things God is trying to do through us and around us. Zeal is a good thing too. We just need to remember it is not inherently good.
Dear God, help me be zealous about the right things. In Jesus’ name, Amen.