The first time we see Saul–later Paul–in scripture he is helping to facilitate the stoning of Stephen by watching everyone’s cloaks (Acts 7:57). From there, his zeal for Judaism led him to attack the church.
“On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” – Acts 8:1-3
Years later after his conversion, Paul wrote about his identity before he met Christ.
“If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” – Philippians 3:4-6
Saul was a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and a “Pharisee”. He was confident in his self-righteousness and extremely zealous. His zeal went so far as killing fellow Hebrews that had accepted Christ. Saul certainly would not have associated with Samaritans or any gentiles.
Samaritans were a mix of the Israelites left behind after the Assyrians destroyed the northern Kingdom and the people that the Assyrians brought in to settle the land they had just conquered. Because of their intermarriage, the Jews did not consider them to be part of God’s people and great enmity developed between them. Gentiles were seen even lower than Samaritans. From John MacArthur,
The Jews viewed Gentiles as unclean, and that had great ramifications. For example, milk that was drawn from a cow by Gentile hands was not allowed to be consumed by Jews. Bread and oil prepared by a Gentile could be sold to a stranger, but could never be used by a Jew. No Jew would ever eat with a Gentile. If a Gentile was ever invited to a Jewish house, he couldn’t be left in the room lest he defile all the food in the room. If cooking utensils were bought from a Gentile, they had to be purified by fire and water.
Part of what made Jesus and His followers so offensive to the Jews is His attitude of inclusion towards Samaritans and eventually gentiles–though that was not yet fully grasped. Jesus started breaking down those walls using the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and in his meeting with the woman at the well and His ministry among the Samaritans (John 4:1-42). While we often focus on his meeting with the woman at the well, we sometimes neglect the enormity of the last few verses of the story.
“Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers.
They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” – John 4:39-42
Jesus stayed in this Samaritan town for two days ministering to and teaching them. No good Jew of the time would have done anything close to this. Jesus and later His followers would have been seen as perverting Judaism and mingling with those they should be separate from to remain “clean”.
Later, shortly before the ascension, Jesus said to His disciples,
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19-20
“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
Jesus is instructing them that salvation is for all people of all nations. It will start in Jerusalem and Judea and then go on to Samaria and the rest of the world. This was very different from the Judaism of the Pharisees and religious elite of the day, offensive even.
Saul, as a “good” Hebrew of the time would have been close to being racist, especially since the Pharisees of that day often missed the heart of the law in trying to follow the letter.
This is what makes the story of his salvation and subsequent ministry all the more striking.
Acts chapter nine records Saul’s miraculous conversion. As he is on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christians there, Jesus meets him.
“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’
‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked.
‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” – Acts 9:3-6
Because of the great light, Saul was blind and had to be led into the city. A disciple of Jesus named Ananias was told by the Lord in a vision to go to Saul and heal him. Ananias responded to the Lord saying that Saul was in Damascus for the purpose of persecuting Christians.
“But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” – Acts 9:15
Ananias obeys and Saul is healed and baptized. Saul’s transformation was immediate and profound.
“Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” – Acts 9:19b-22
Saul later changes his name to Paul and plants numerous churches throughout the Gentile world. Timothy, who I have mentioned before and who was half-Jewish and half-Greek, becomes one of his closest–if not the closest–companions and brothers in Christ with him in his ministry, even calling him his son (1 Timothy 1:18). Paul also rebukes Peter when Peter withdraws from eating with the Gentiles due to peer pressure (Galatians 2:11-19) and becomes the chief opponent of the Judaizers who were seeking to impose the law on the Gentiles.
It is no accident that Paul, when he was still named Saul was a “Jew of Jews” and later after experiencing that salvation found in the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes the apostle to the Gentiles. The Lord planned for it to be so, “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings”.
Here is a man who is basically a nationalist Hebrew on the warpath against Christians who encounters Christ and becomes the greatest advocate for non-Jews in the Church. Christ so radically changed his life that he was vigorously defending the exact type of people he would never have come close to associating with before. That is the power of the gospel. That is the radical transformation that we all need. Those Saul once hated to the point of killing, Paul now loved to the point of dying. The Lord chose Saul, the least likely person imaginable, to be a missionary to the Gentile world to display the power and transformation of the gospel. Who better to stand against Judaizers and those who would look to bar or limit Gentile inclusion than a man with Paul’s background that had been transformed?
Christ reconciles us with God and with each other in such a radical way that all glory has to go to him because the change is too great to effect or explain in any other way. The beauty of the transformation of the gospel should lead us to worship every time we think of it as well as a desire to live it out and share it with the world. May our lives be changed as radically as Paul’s and may we make Jesus known to the world.