From man of hatred to man of love
He viewed the Christian faith with an implacable and ruthlessly determined opposition. He attacked Christians with merciless hatred, exploiting every opportunity to persecute them, with a viciousness which witnesses likened to that of a wild animal. He would go from house to house, identifying any who were followers of Christ, and drag them off in chains till they were duly punished, even put to death. To him, these Christians were a menace to be removed, their blasphemous beliefs an offence which justified their suffering.
I refer not to some modern adherent to an extreme and twisted Islamist agenda, as is represented by the so-called Islamic State, although the portrait is strikingly similar. The individual described was none other than Saul of Tarsus, who we know better, under his Roman name, as the Apostle Paul. It is all too easy to forget that, prior to his conversion, Paul was the leader of a brutal persecution of believers. His conversion was one of the key events in the early Church, an event so significant that the Book of Acts provides no fewer than three accounts of how the chief persecutor of the Church became its greatest missionary teacher.
There was a time when Paul devoted himself to the destruction of the Church with a brutal and sadistic cruelty. He made no distinction between men and women, but dragged both from their homes and imprisoned them (Acts 8:1-3). We are told that he not only approved of the illegal lynching of Stephen, but actively sought the deaths of others, admitting that he persecuted believers, Ďto their deathí (Acts 22:4; 26:10)
Paulís motivation for his wild assault on the Church was religious. Paul was a monotheistic Jew, tenaciously holding the view that there was only one God, Jehovah. Yet these Christians claimed that Jesus was God. Paul would have regarded that as polytheism, the belief in many gods. If Jesus is God and Jehovah is God, there must be at least two gods. Christianity was therefore to be rejected as a polytheistic profanity (incidentally, a claim made today by some Islamic critics of Christianity).
Moreover, Paul would have regarded Christianity as a deception. Why? Because it made such extraordinary claims for Jesus. Christians claimed that Jesus was the Son of God, a fact they regarded as proven by His resurrection from the dead. Paul viewed all this as nonsense, and was convinced that Jesus was neither God, nor had He been raised from the dead. In Paulís mind, to make such claims for Christ was to engage in a deception. To make matters worse, people from his own Jewish community were being deceived when persuaded by this nonsense. Paul would see the Christian faith as an assault upon the truth and a damnable deceit that ought to be stamped out, as a matter of religious duty. Hence, we find him in Acts chapter 9, at the scene of his conversion, on the way to Damascus to destroy this false religion, as he saw it, and actually carrying extradition papers for any Christians he might root out. He was on a crusade to defend the truth against infidels.
Paulís violent assault on Christians was something he regarded as both a religious calling, and a matter of religious obligation. He was convinced that, by crushing the Christian faith, he was doing Godís work. Sound familiar?
It is all too easy to forget that the man who was inspired to write so fluently and memorably about love (Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 1 Corinthians 13:5-7) was the same man of whom it was said that he Ďwas still breathing out murderous threats against the Lordís disciplesí (Acts 9:1) and who admitted in his own words:
On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lordís people 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. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities. (Acts 26:10-11)
The transformation is remarkable. To borrow the language of John Calvin, the cruel wolf is not only turned into a sheep, but becomes a shepherd. Such is the power of the Gospel. It is the same Gospel we have today, a Gospel which has no less power to transform human lives and expunge hatred with love.
In days when there is so much concern over regarding the violence that springs from religiously-motivated extremism, it is worth bearing in mind that Christians have to hand, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the proven means of altering twisted worldviews and exorcising poisonous and violent mind-sets.
As I write this, it has been announced that our government, so exercised over the rise of Islamic extremism in our own land, is introducing special measures. Perhaps some of these measures may do some good. That remains to be seen, and there will no doubt be a vigorous debate regarding the balance between individual freedom of speech versus the protection of the public good. Nonetheless, we have our own remedy, and as the Church, a clear privilege, opportunity and responsibility to prayerfully promote the Gospel.