Over the past week or so I have been reading through the Acts of the Apostles. It is a book of the history of the first generation of Christians and starts chronologically straight after Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven.
It starts in Jerusalem, the city where Jesus died, and then we follow the journeys of a group of Christians as they travel around the Mediterranean led by the Spirit of God. Paul becomes a central figure.
Now Paul, or ‘Saul’ as we are introduced to him in Acts 7, was an early persecutor of the Christians. He ordered their arrest and murder, a fact he never tries to hide, even after becoming one of the church’s most influential leaders. Saul was from a sect of religious leaders known as the Pharisees, from an ethnic minority in the Roman Empire known as the Jews. The Christians were a small sect within this group of people. Hardly a blip on the grand scheme of things, to be honest. Scattered followers here and there, but swiftly being crushed by the religious authorities. Not that they were allowed to kill people, but the Romans didn’t interfere too much with the Jewish rulers and when the local governor wasn’t in Jerusalem the religious authorities called the shots. So Saul was able to watch over the stoning of Stephen – the first martyr – and who knows how many else.
So an insignificant cult in an insular ethnic community. Christianity meant not a lot to those who weren’t a part of it or directly threatened by it. The religious leaders got upset by it, but the Romans couldn’t have cared less. As long as their pockets were being filled, the Jews can do what they like!
However, God is bigger than this. In the middle of this insignificant religious tension, Jesus himself visits Saul. Saul’s life changes from this point. He is blinded by Jesus on the road to Damascus and must go to the believers there to receive his sight again. Ironic really, after thinking he knew where he was heading he must be led to the arms of the believers to be healed – the very believers he was going to destroy!
He becomes a part of the church, he starts churches and spreads the message of Jesus. But still he is a part of an insignificant sect in a relatively small ethnic community.
Saul, or rather Paul’s former colleagues eventually conspire against him. Recognising Paul as one of their main threats they try and whip up a riot to have him killed by the Romans. It worked with Jesus, I suppose. Yet it seems God had something else planned.
After a grand tour of church – planting and teaching, Paul has returned to Jerusalem to be greeted with a riot and arrest. From here he goes and shares the message of Jesus with the high priest of the Jews, then to the local Roman governor and eventually is given an audience with the Roman emperor himself!
From insignificant strong-man of the religious, to a shackled prisoner, proclaiming Jesus to the rulers and authorities in the Roman world. Paul is a fascinating character with a story only God could have authored. He might have though himself important all those years ago holding the coats of those who murdered Stephen, yet when his life was transformed by Jesus it truly took on eternal significance.
May God show his face to you
And may he transform you by his grace
To become part of the divine drama
The redemption of all the world