From Persecutor to Radical Christ Follower: The Backdrop to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians

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From Persecutor to Radical Christ Follower:  The Backdrop to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians

 

The story of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, in this quarter’s Sabbath school lesson, begins with its author. To learn about this main character, the reader must turn to other materials in the New Testament to discover who Paul is and what motivates his reaction to the situation that arose in the church in Galatia. Acts 7 introduces a malevolent character, a pernicious person, and zealous God follower, a young man named Saul (Acts 7:58). The story begins with Saul’s involvement with another servant of God, a man named Stephen, chosen by the apostles, full of the Holy Spirit, and wisdom. After he was chosen, Stephen and six others received the laying on of hands (Acts 6: 3, 5-6). Stephen appears to have stood out among the new converts performing great signs and wonders, being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:8, 10). Because of his testimony for Jesus Christ, Stephen was brought before the council of the High Priest. A sequence of events transpired that bears the hallmark of another’s trial and execution—a road paved by Christ. Millions have trod this road. That is why Jesus said, ‘Remember the word that I said to you. “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.’ (John 15:20a)

 

But unlike his Master, Stephen did not keep silent before His accusers. Rather, he made an impassioned speech. He is not defending himself, but Christ. Keep in mind that Stephen is full of the Holy Spirit, wisdom and power. His speech is recorded in Acts 7. Ending his address to the Sanhedrin council, Stephen announces, “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?” (Acts 7:52) Profound words indeed—God followers as persecutors? What kind of a religion is this? To God’s people, the chosen race, the royal priesthood, he says, “Who haven’t you persecuted?” And then the final blow to this mind blowing, gut wrenching, exposé is complete. Stephen hits the nail on the head when he proclaims: “And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it” (Acts 7:52b, 53). What shocking words, what a revelation cutting to the heart of their identity! Doesn’t he know that these men need respect?

 

Imagine that? The council of the High Priest is accused of failing to keep the law. Sounds comical. What a joke. It would be, if it weren’t so tragic. Followers of the one, true God are labeled as persecutors—of the prophets, and the Son of God. What was their response? “They cast him out of the city and they stoned him” (Acts 7:58). Paul, standing by, consents to his death. A fitting response from a bully—a persecutor. We see this today: children, minors killing their friends out of spite, hate, or just plain jealousy, or the malicious bullying, “trolling” that happens online. These religious leaders were just carrying through with their method of operation for dealing with “problems.” But when problems are rooted in relationships with people, it takes more than just killing someone or shutting them up to deal with the issue. In fact, bullying, and persecution go hand-in-hand. Being inhumane leads to the desecration of humanity and of society as a whole. Humans have value. They are not expendable like a wrapping that is thrown away as trash once the candy bar has been eaten. No, people need to exist, to be free, to express themselves. No matter where people are from or what they have to say, people are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). To extend this thought to the Christian church, if a man, or a woman full of God’s Spirit proclaims faith in Jesus Christ, like Stephen, they shouldn’t have to die, be bullied into silence or submission, as a result.

 

But what is God’s point of view? Is persecution the way to engage in evangelism, mission, or dare I say, church? And I haven’t even mentioned confronting forms of persecution in society, or the world at large. Looking at the life of Saul, who later became Paul, raises these issues and more. So let’s go back to the beginning of this article—a young man, named Saul who persecuted the early Christians. The lesson this quarter depends heavily on understanding the role of law, grace, inclusivity/exclusivity and boundaries, bodily harm (circumcision), authority, unity, salvation and, above all, TRUTH. It is necessary however to understand the character of Saul, who he was, and who he became as Paul the great missionary, church planter, and devoted follower of Jesus Christ, as a backdrop to the issues discussed in his letter to the Galatians.

 

 

From Saul the Persecutor to Paul the Radical Follower of Jesus Christ

 

We do not know much about Saul’s life prior to meeting Christ. But we can learn from his own testimony regarding his life and the transformation he experienced. In Acts 22, we find Paul addressing a mob in Jerusalem who violently tried to lynch him. Accusers argued that Paul said things against the Jewish people and the law. They claimed that he defiled the temple by bringing Greeks into it. Paul addresses the mob saying,

“I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today” (Acts 22:3).

Notice what he does, he begins his speech by identifying himself with his opponents. Paul starts with inclusivity to deal with the problem he is facing. He shares his story about how he was a persecutor, a murderer:

“I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders from whom I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished” (Acts 22:4-5).

As Paul is facing the threat of persecution, he again identifies with those who are trying to persecute him. As if he is saying, I get you; I understand what you are doing, and why you are responding to me this way. By telling his story, Paul pulls down barriers in order to create meaningful dialogue and a bridge to community with those who are out to bring him down.

 

But the story doesn’t end here. It is only the beginning. The larger context is how Saul came to Christ and fully turned his life around. Saul the persecutor became Paul the follower of Jesus. Transformed by an encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, Saul underwent a powerful, deeply personal transformation. He shares with the angry mob, how a great light from heaven came and shone around him, causing him to fall to the ground. Then he hears a voice. Jesus, speaking to him said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 22:7) Wow, persecuting Jesus. That’s what Saul was doing? Quick lesson: does God care about the persecuted and oppressed? Yes. When people persecute the “other” or even their own, Jesus takes it personally. What incredible grace is demonstrated here. Christ pours out His love on those who do not know Him, just as He poured out His life on the cross for the entire world.

 

Saul having been blinded by the light was instructed to wait in Damascus. And whom does Christ send but Ananias, who is noted as “a devout man according to the law” (Acts 22:12). God chose a devout man according to the law and full of the Holy Spirit to release Saul from his blindness. Is Christ against the law? No. Is Christ against the misuse of the law? Yes. This issue will come up again in Paul’s letter to the Galatians and we will address this further in the following weeks. Once Ananias prayed and Paul’s sight returned, he went back to Jerusalem and received a vision in which he was instructed to get out of there and share his testimony with the Gentiles. As a result of this miraculous, life-transforming experience with Jesus Christ and through the later subsequent ministry of Paul, the early Christian church grew exponentially. What a transformation took place when a young man, a proclaimed God follower, turned from zealous persecutor to radical follower of Jesus Christ.

 

 

Christians as Persecutors or, True Followers of Jesus Christ

What can we learn from Saul’s conversion? It doesn’t take much searching online, or cracking open (an honest) history book of Western civilization to find examples of Christians as persecutors and oppressors. The Crusades and Spanish Inquisition come to mind. The Christian Church has functioned in past history as a persecuting power using fire and the stake as a means for dealing with dissonance. It should be noted though that the Church has apologized in some contexts for its bad behavior. Looking at history we see that Christians have persecuted those of other faiths, such as Muslims; and Christians have even persecuted themselves. Allow me to make a qualification to this argument. Persecution can take many forms and does not always involve militia or physical torture and death. It includes the oppression of dissonant voices and minorities or ignoring the majority by a controlling few. It can result in the exclusion of persons from the group by its leaders based on race, gender, ethnicity, and other forms of identity. Let’s face it, persecutors, whatever methods they employ, are intolerant and set tight boundaries which they determine. They are always concerned with who is inside and who is outside the group.

 

But someone might ask, don’t we need boundaries and laws? Isn’t that what ultimately protects a group and preserves its identity? Let’s draw upon Paul’s experience to illustrate. Saul the persecutor became Paul the fearless advocate of Jesus Christ. His conversion experience led him to embrace the risen Christ as his Lord and the truth and values of the kingdom of God as his own. He didn’t need to go out and kill anyone who disagreed with him. He didn’t try to manipulate or control their behavior because, at its base, he recognized that believing in and following Christ is true freedom. That is why he could say in Romans 8:1, 2:

“There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.”

Paul defended Christ, not with a sword, but through letters, through tears and prayers, through powerful words that pointed to the reality of Christ and the basis of salvation as found only in Him. That is why he declares, “Nor is salvation found in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which, we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Christ, the great center, transforms His followers. He forms the identity of the group after Himself. The Church’s “business,” to use modern language, is to be true followers of Jesus Christ through faith and to proclaim Him to the world.

 

 

Application and Conclusion

Like Saul, have we consciously or unconsciously engaged in the persecution of others? Whether it is physical persecution, such as killing, physical abuse, domestic violence, sexual violence, attacks and the like; or emotional, mental or spiritual abuse, this is not part of God’s plan for lasting peace on this earth! Such actions, attitudes and behaviors misrepresent the character of God and what following Jesus Christ is all about. It is hurtful and harmful. It is horrendous for one human being to harm another person or group without regard for law or life. Silent persecution, the kind that oppresses others who may disagree with our views or practices, is no less unkind or malevolent. What do we do when we disagree? Do we purge those with whom we disagree from our midst or from the group?[1] How is the identity of the followers of Christ maintained? Through keeping their focus on Christ and making Him the center of everything they do. He is Lord. We must seek His will rather than imposing our own will and human standards on others. Didn’t Jesus have something to say about the importance of doing God’s will rather than our own?

 

In His parable of the two sons, Jesus tells the story of a man who instructs his boys to go work in his backyard. One said, “Yes Dad, I’ll go,” but did not. The other said, “No way Dad,” but then regretted it and went. Who did the Dad’s will, Jesus asks. It is simple. The one who went and worked in the backyard. Jesus tells His listeners, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you” (Matt. 21: 31). Jesus is telling the religious leaders of His day that the worst kind of sinners (tax collectors and harlots) according to their point of view, were going to get into His kingdom ahead of them! We must remember that whoever believes in Jesus Christ and does His will enters into the kingdom of God. I don’t remember reading anything about persecuting others in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). Like those who sought to manipulate and control Christ on earth, we miss God entirely if we take on the role of bully or persecutor. Furthermore, Christ is the center. He is our salvation. He guides His followers. The boundaries of the Kingdom are ever open to those who wish to follow Christ, regardless of the starting point in their walk with Him.

 

In the same manner that Saul consented to the stoning of Stephen, who was full of the Holy Spirit and proclaimed the truth about Jesus Christ, Christians today may stone and exclude those in their midst who seek to proclaim Christ. May we all be transformed by the risen Christ, as was Saul to Paul, from being a persecutor, to being a loving Christ worshipper and follower. If you are being persecuted, Christ stands for you and with you. The Church, the community of the followers of Jesus Christ must be a voice for the persecuted and the oppressed because Jesus’ message and mission is to set people free. Paul experienced this and so must we. As we will see in the letter to the Galatians starting next week, Paul has something to say to those who are seeking salvation outside of Christ in the law itself. The inclusivity of the gospel message is radical. But the path that Jesus’ trod is humility. Paul walked that path and was humbled. Nevertheless, he became a defender of the Truth. Next week we will begin to carefully delve into what is perhaps Paul’s most strongly worded letter in the epistle to the Galatians, who have been deceived regarding the truth about Jesus Christ and what He is calling His followers to be and to do.

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Notes.

[1] Christians must always take protective measures and have well-established boundaries for ministry so that people do not get hurt. There may be times when the exclusion of a person from certain ministries, or even the church is necessary for the protection of children and adults. The New Testament gives an example of where the exclusion of a person from the church based on their immoral behavior was necessary. For example, in 1 Cor. 5:1-2, Paul chides the Corinthians for being arrogant regarding a case of sexual immorality, or incest that is not even named amongst the Gentiles, a man having his father’s wife! They were puffed up about the matter. But, what they should have done, according to Paul, is mourned about the situation and put this man out of fellowship. Church discipline is necessary at times and is biblical. This does not mean however, that redemptive ministry is not possible. Appropriate persons should pursue caring relationships, whether they are male or female, to reach out and help those in need.

 

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About the author

Katrina Blue

Katrina Blue is assistant professor of Religion at Pacific Union College. Her Ph.D. from Andrews University is in Theological Studies. She wrote her dissertation on the topic of "Union with Christ in the Writings of Ellen G. White" (2015). She is passionate about spirituality and making God's truth relevant to the world.

  • Looking at the issue of persecution from an internal and multifaceted lens is eye-opening. So many of us Christians associate persecution with external forces and agents like the Pope, and fail to see what WE are doing to each other in our communities and relationships — at home, church, workplace, residences, and even online/social media.

    So many of our Christian brethren are oppressing others in their families and churches through bullying, intimidation, alienation and segregation, domestic and other abuses, and I hope this lesson exposes this underbelly that our church tends to be too silent on. This post is a pertinent and potent reminder for all to look in the mirror.

    I like this stark quote: ‘Like those who sought to manipulate and control Christ on earth, we miss God entirely if we take on the role of bully or persecutor.’ I look forward to more insights from this quarter’s Sabbath School lesson and your insights.