Persecutor of Believers
There is nothing in the initial appearances of Paul in Scripture which would suggest in the slightest that he was going to be the greatest ambassador of Jesus Christ the church has ever had. Rather, the early mentions of Paul in Scripture introduce us to a vicious persecutor of the followers of Jesus Christ. The very first of these early mentions of Paul in Scripture not only does not give any hint as to his coming great zeal for Christ, but it also does not give any hint as to his coming great world fame, for the first mention of Paul in Scripture is but a footnote which has him doing nothing more than guarding the garments of those stoning Stephen (Acts 7:58). No greatness there. But Paul was not the type to remain a footnote—be his behavior good or bad! Soon he will be the most prominent character in the rest of the book of Acts. And as we have noted, this early prominence is not as an ardent ambassador for Christ but as an ardent antagonist of Christ’s followers.
In this study of Paul as a persecutor, we will consider the background of the persecutor and the brutality of the persecutor.
A. THE BACKGROUND OF THE PERSECUTOR
Who was this violent persecutor of Christ’s followers? His cruelty suggests he was perhaps some Roman filled with hatred for the Jews, or he was some vagabond criminal off the street who, with mob mentality, delighted in being in riots and in treating others with capricious cruelness, or he was, as later thought by a high ranking Roman military man, a notorious "egyptian" who caused uproars in society and was a leader of four thousand murderers (Acts 21:38). All of these descriptions would fit his actions, but Paul was not any of these. He was not a non-religious, atheistic, God-hating man like Nazis and Communists of our age who have no mercy but are filled with cruelty toward mankind. Paul was surprisingly a far different man. We will discover in examining his race, his region, his raising, and his religion that he was of noble extract, of excellent upbringing, well educated, and extremely religious and God-fearing—things which we normally do not associate with a rampaging, blood-shedding, hate-filled person.
1. His Race
Paul was "a Jew" (Acts 22:3). And he was a full-blooded Jew no less, for he was "an Hebrew of Hebrews" (Philippians 3:5) "i.e. from Hebrew parents and ancestry on both sides" (Alford). Unlike Timothy, whose mother was a Jew but his father a Greek (Acts 16:3), Paul was totally Jewish. As a full-fledged Jew, Paul could trace his ancestry without difficulty; and so he reported that he was "of the tribe of Benjamin" (Philippians 3:5) which helps us understand where he got the name of "Saul." this name would be in honor of the first king of Israel who came from the tribe of Benjamin (1 Samuel 9:1,2) and was the only king to come from this tribe. Being of loyal Jewish parents, he was "circumcised the eighth day" (Philippians 3:5) in accordance with God’s instructions to Abraham (Genesis 17:12) and later reaffirmed in the law (Leviticus 12:3). "At his circumcision he probably received a double name, that of Saul for his family, and that of Paul [Acts 13:9] for the world of trade and municipal life" (F. B. Meyer).
Yes, Paul was of noble stock, not the usual stock that is associated with the vicious cruelty he exhibited in persecuting God’s people. but as Scripture plainly teaches (note John 1:13), it is not our human heritage that begets good behavior; it is our heavenly heritage obtained through the new birth that produces genuine godly behavior in man. royal blood, statesmen’s blood, Jewish blood, or any other highly respected blood of man does not make one godly. Only the blood of Jesus Christ can do that—a truth that is diametrically opposed to much of the current philosophies of our day.
2. His Region
Though a pure-blooded Jew, the place Paul called home was not a city in Israel as would be expected. Rather, it was Tarsus, a city located ten miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea in the south east central region of the Roman province of Cilicia. The province of Cilicia was located in the northwest end of the Mediterranean Sea. Though Tarsus was located ten miles inland from the sea, it was, by virtue of the Cydnus River, a seaport town; for the river was navigable from the Mediterranean.
Tarsus, as Paul said, was "no mean city" (Acts 21:39). It was a very important and significant city. It was a city that was a "thriving emporium of trade, and a focus of intellectual and religious activity" (F. B. Meyer). Some estimate its population reached as high as half a million (E. M. Blaiklock) in its glory days. Tarsus was also a city in good favor with the rulers in Rome. In the civil wars of Rome, it took Caesar’s side which resulted in it becoming a "free city," that is, a city which had the privilege of self-government. Favor with Rome also resulted in Roman citizenship for those in Tarsus. This helps explain why Paul could claim legitimately to be a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25–28). He was a "free born" (Acts 22:28) citizen which meant he was born of parents who were already citizens of Rome—Paul’s parents gaining Roman citizenship by virtue of their Tarsus’ residence.
But for all of Tarsus’ greatness, its lasting fame and recognition comes from the fact that Apostle Paul is associated with the city. This is a significant reminder of what is really lasting and important in the long run.
3. His Raising
We especially note two important items about his excellent raising. They are his education and his vocation.
Education. Unlike the first apostles who were unlettered men (Acts 4:13), Paul was a well educated person. As we noted briefly above, Tarsus, his home town, provided many opportunities for education. Tarsus was "described . . . by Strabo as a seat of science equal or superior to Alexandria and Athens . . . [Thus] Paul’s advantages or opportunities of early education were among the best afforded in the Roman Empire . . . and . . . explain the frequent indications, in his writings and discourses, of familiarity with classical literature" (J. A. Alexander). When Paul was older, he was sent to Jerusalem and "brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect [strict] manner of the law of the fathers" (Acts 22:3). This, in the Jews’ eyes, would be education supreme. Gamaliel "was called by his contemporaries the Beauty of the Law, and is still remembered among the Jews as the Great Rabbi" (Stalker); and the Talmud says of him, "When he died the honor of the Torah (law) ceased, and purity and piety became extinct" (A. C. Gaebelein). The great respect the Jews had for Gamaliel is seen in Acts 5:34 where it is stated that he was "had in reputation among all the people." So Paul was indeed given an extensive education. His secular education was obtained in Tarsus—one of the world’s best learning centers in his day, and his religious education was obtained in Jerusalem under Gamaliel—the best religious education obtainable in those days as far as the Jews were concerned.
but as great as Paul’s education was in both Tarsus and Jerusalem, it, like so much education today, failed miserably in giving him the right answers to the most important questions of all in life. Instead of pointing him to Christ, it drove him away from Christ. Instead of encouraging him to honor Christ, it encouraged him to hate Christ. No wonder Paul would later on put this education, along with other things highly esteemed by the world, in the category of "dung" (Philippians 3:8). Yet in spite of this truth, we have many professing believers who spend much time and money to attend colleges and universities to become learned in that which alienates men from Christ, while they neglect the study of the Word of God. How desperately professing Christendom today needs to get their priorities and values straightened out on the matter of education.
Vocation. The training of the intellect was not done at the expense of practicality, for Paul was also trained in a practical trade of tentmaking (Acts 18:3). An old Jewish proverb says, "He that teacheth not [his son] a trade is as though he taught his son to be a thief." Stalker says, "It was a rule among the Jews that every boy, whatever might be the profession he was to follow, should learn a trade, as a resource in time of need. This was a rule with wisdom in it; for it gave employment to the young at an age when too much leisure is dangerous, and acquainted the wealthy and the learned in some degree with the feelings of those who have to earn their bread with the sweat of their brow." Idleness and laziness were not countenanced by good Israelites. Work was honorable. Such a philosophy needs reviving in our welfare, take-it-easy, short work-week, couch-potato age.
The trade Paul was taught helped sustain him during his missionary work. Like all too many missionaries (and pastors and other Christian workers), Paul did not have much material income. Hence he resorted to tentmaking at times to provide for his daily needs. Tentmaking would be especially suitable to him during his missionary travels. Many other trades would not have been very adaptable to this ministry, but tentmaking was. For, as F. B. Meyer says, "This handicraft . . . was highly suitable to the exigencies of a wandering life. Other trades would require a settled workshop and expensive apparatus; but his was a simple industry, capable of being pursued anywhere, and needing the smallest possible apparatus and tools."
That Paul had to resort to tentmaking to supply his meager daily fare will ever be a stain on many people of his time. What a condemnation it is to these people that the greatest apostle of them all was so unsupported by them that he had to resort to tentmaking to supply his own personal needs. But the folk of Paul’s time are not the only ones to be condemned here. Multitudes in every age have treated pastors and missionaries and other Christian workers in the same manner as Paul was treated. They have so under-supported the servants of God that these servants have had to work extra jobs in order to make ends meet. It will be to the everlasting shame of the stingy, miserly church members that though they have nice incomes and live very comfortably, they feel no guilt at starving the servants of God while demanding they work longer hours than anyone else and produce with excellence at all times.
4. His Religion
Unlike many young men in every age, Paul’s early life was not characterized by disinterest and hardness against religion. He was no atheist nor even just a casual religious person. Rather, he was wrapped up in the religion of Judaism. He himself testified that he "profited [advanced] in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers" (Galatians 1:14). Hence, "All the observances of the law and the traditions of the elders were conscientiously followed by him" (Gaebelein). He did not live a profligate life stained by immoral escapades. "Whatever struggles with passion may have raged in his own breast, his conduct was always pure" (Stalker).
Paul’s religious zeal received much encouragement from his home, for his father was a Pharisee (Acts 23:6) which Paul also later became (Ibid., Philippians 3:5). His training under Gamaliel would only intensify his zeal in Judaism. Because of Paul’s testimony that he "gave my voice against them" (Acts 26:10, "voice" meaning vote in this verse), some believe Paul advanced so much in his religion and in his acceptance by his religious peers that he became a member of the Sanhedrin. Whether a member of the Sanhedrin or not, Paul was certainly in close and respected association with them; for he could request and obtain authority from them to pursue his persecution of believers into other countries (Acts 9:2).
Being from Tarsus, Paul would be a member of the Cilician synagogue in Jerusalem. When the dispersed Jews came back to Jerusalem, they organized synagogues according to their former cities and countries. Hence, we read in Scripture of the synagogues in Jerusalem "of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them in Cilicia [Paul’s country] and of Asia" (Acts 6:9). Being of the synagogue of Cilicia brought Paul into contact with Stephen, and this led to the first mention of Paul in Scripture when Scripture reports him guarding the garments of those who stoned Stephen (Acts 7:58). No one in the crowd gathered outside the city at Stephen’s stoning that day could have ever imagined that the man guarding the garments of the stoners would become a greater advocate of the Gospel of Christ than the man being stoned. But such is the power of God which is able through Christ Jesus to transform the souls of men from darkness to light.
That this is the first mention of Paul in Scripture indicates that Paul doubtless was not in Jerusalem during the ministry of Christ. After his training by Gamaliel, he obviously returned to Tarsus. But shortly after Pentecost, he must have come back to Jerusalem, the city any Jew with the religious passions which Paul had would want to be in. Had Paul been in Jerusalem earlier, it is hard to imagine him not being mentioned in Scripture; for it was Paul’s nature to be where the action was. No other writer and notably Luke, who was later associated so closely with Paul, mentions him being in Jerusalem during the ministry of Christ or during Pentecost. And Paul himself likewise never mentions being in Jerusalem at those times—an impossible oversight in his writings had he been there.
The fact that Paul was extremely zealous religiously but at the same time was wholly against Jesus Christ really emphasizes the truth that a Christless religion is not the answer to man’s needs. The world has not lacked for religion. But precious little of it has been Christ exalting; and, thus, precious little of it has supplied the greatest need of man’s soul. You can be very religious and yet be as lost as the most non-religious person in the world if your religion leaves out Jesus Christ as the only Redeemer of mankind. In judging any religion, the first test is to see what it does with Jesus Christ.
B. THE BRUTALITY OF THE PERSECUTOR
The terrible brutality of Paul in his persecuting of Christians is seldom properly recognized. Some, however, such as Matthew Henry who rightly describes Paul as a "fiery furious persecutor," do seem to grasp something of Paul’s terrible evil. But few do. Hence, Canon Farrar is right when he says, "The part which he played . . . in the horrid work of persecution has, I fear, been always underrated."
There are several reasons why the great evil of Paul’s persecuting actions are not duly recognized. One reason is that this part of Paul’s life is hurried over by many in an effort to ignore as much as possible of this uncomfortable part of Paul’s life. Those hurrying over this part of Paul’s life unwisely think there is little value in a thorough study of Paul’s persecuting conduct. Another reason the great evil of Paul’s persecution conduct is not duly recognized is that this part of Paul’s life is watered down by some of his admirers in an effort to keep their hero from being too tainted. These folk will unwisely accuse those engaged in a study of Paul’s persecution activities of trying to degrade Paul. The main reason, however, that the great evil of Paul’s persecution conduct is underrated is that few ever consider more than a verse or two at a time about his persecution. Considering only a verse or two at one time makes his persecution conduct bad enough. But if we want to begin to see the full scope of his evil—and, hence, learn the many great lessons God would have us learn from the accounts of Paul’s attack upon the church—we need to bring together at one time as many passages as possible about his persecuting work and then study the words and phrases used in these passages to describe his persecuting action. This we will endeavor to do here as we bring together twenty-six verses dealing with Paul’s persecution of the church.
In examining these many passages of Scripture of Paul’s persecuting work, we cannot help but be astounded and shocked at Paul’s cruelty. It is hard to believe that this indeed was the man we revere as the greatest apostle of them all. His record was so bloody and so barbaric that one finds it very hard to believe what he reads in these passages about Paul even though the reading is from the infallible and inerrant Word of God. In persecuting the Christians, Paul acted just as brutal as the Nazis, Communists, and other vile people and nations in their barbaric treatment of others. His actions even give the Antichrist a run for his money. No wonder the saints were hesitant to receive him into their midst after his conversion. In fact, it is a marvel that he was ever received by believers.
In this examination of the brutality of Paul’s persecution of the church from these twenty-six verses, we will catalogue his persecuting conduct into twenty-one different actions. We will list these various actions in the order in which they are first mentioned in Scripture—some actions are mentioned a number of times in Scripture. The twenty-one actions we will examine are assisting, consenting, destroying, intruding, dragging, disrespecting, imprisoning, threatening, killing, traveling, binding, persecuting, abounding, punishing, beating, opposing, voting, torturing, raging, blaspheming, and injuring.
They "cast him [Stephen] out of the city, and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul" (Acts 7:58). The very first mention of Paul in Scripture shows him assisting in the brutal killing of Stephen. It was not a very auspicious introduction for the man who was going to become the greatest apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul did not help throw the stones at this stoning. That doubtless would come later. His duty at Stephen’s stoning was simply to guard the stoners’ garments from the pilfering of the crowd that had gathered for the stoning.
Paul is mentioned as a "young" man here, but that does not mean Paul was a mere teen. The word can be used for one up to his thirties. Compared to the witnesses who were members of the Sanhedrin, Paul would be considered young even if he was near or at thirty; just as would a preacher of Paul’s age be considered young when with a number of veteran pastors. "Young" would reflect more the fact that he was not of the age of the elders on the council, namely, the Sanhedrin, which officiated at this stoning of Stephen.
Interestingly, but for a good reason, the stoners were called "witnesses" in this text. The reason is that they had "witnessed" Stephen’s sermon, a sermon they considered heretical. They, thus, applied the law about false religion as stated in Deuteronomy 17 to the case. And the law not only stated that one following a false religion should be stoned; but it also stated that "the hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death" (Deuteronomy 17:7).
The brutal, bloody killing of Stephen and Stephen’s gallant behavior during the stoning did not quell Paul’s hatred of Christianity. Later it doubtless became one of those "pricks" (Acts 9:5) that pricked his conscience as is attested by his mention of the stoning some years after the event (Acts 22:20). But rather than the brutal, bloody experience cooling his hatred of Christians, it only inspired him to be more aggressive. From that moment on, Paul ceased to be an assistant—he became the ringleader in persecuting the saints. Like some animals who once they experience the taste of blood, their thirst for blood increases, so it was with Paul. Stephen’s death pleased him (which we will see next), and his appetite to crush other believers became insatiable.
Sin begets sin; one sin encourages another sin and makes it easier to sin more. Remember these truths when temptation knocks on your door. Yielding to a temptation makes it easier to yield to future temptations. Evil snowballs if not stopped by the grace of God. Paul got quite a persecution snowball going before in the grace of God, he met Jesus Christ.
"And Saul was consenting unto his [Stephen’s] death" (Acts 8:1, Acts 22:20). To consent to the brutal stoning of Stephen, one must have a very hard heart, a heart that is filled with exceedingly great hatred for Christianity. Such was Paul’s heart before his conversion. The word translated "consenting" in these two texts emphasizes this hardness of Paul’s heart. The word meaning involves "to take pleasure with others in anything, to approve of" (Vine). Paul’s consenting to Stephen’s death was not just a tacit approval, but with pleasure he approved! He was glad when Stephen finally died, for it shut up the voice of a great apologist of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul hated the Gospel and those who embraced and propagated it. Therefore, he delighted in the killing of those who embraced and proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No wonder his persecution actions were so brutal.
What we delight in dictates our actions and reveals our hearts. A number of professing Christians betray their professed affection for Jesus Christ by their delights, for they delight much in many things of the world which are certainly not in accordance with Christ. Like Paul, they will approve with pleasure evil conduct because the love of Christ does not dwell in their hearts. The increasing acceptance of lower standards regarding morals and music and money (gambling) are examples of actions by professing Christians which reveal a serious lack of love for Jesus Christ in their hearts.
"As for Saul, he made havoc of the church" (Acts 8:3). The word translated "havoc" only appears this once in the New Testament. It means to thoroughly destroy, to ravage, to devastate. A graphic illustration of the meaning of the word is found in the Septuagint where the word is used in Psalm 80:13 to describe the destruction of a vineyard by a wild boar. We read it in the English, "The boar out of the forest doth waste it."
The destroying actions of Paul are also spoken of in Acts 9:21 ("Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name"), Galatians 1:13 ("I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it"), and Galatians 1:23 ("preacheth the faith which once he destroyed"). A different Greek word is used in these texts than in Acts 8:3, but the same thought and meaning are present, so we also include these verses under this heading.
In Paul’s destructive persecution conduct, he is said to have brought destruction to three things. He brought destruction to the "church" (Acts 8:3, Galatians 1:13), to "them"—i.e. the believer (Acts 9:21), and to the "faith" (Galatians 1:23). Regarding the "church," his brutal conduct caused churches to be destroyed when their members were killed, imprisoned, or forced to flee to other cities. Regarding the believers, his murderous conduct resulted in many of "them" being mercilessly slain. And regarding the "faith," his cruel attacks caused the weak believers to denounce their faith in order to save themselves from further physical torture or from being slain. What a terrible brutal record of destruction Paul had in persecuting the followers of Jesus Christ.
Herschel Ford gave us a good practical exhortation from this text when he said, "We read that Saul ‘made havoc of the church’ (Acts 8:3). This is a tragic thing to do, but in this modern age we still have those who do the same thing . . . Some members are not content to see the church going well, and people happily serving God, so they try to hurt the church. God will take care of them—I do not want to be in their shoes." Many pastors are well acquainted with the problem of havoc-makers in their churches, for so many churches are cursed with a number in their midst who do indeed create havoc in the church by their dissident attitudes and actions. These members, like Paul, continually (the word "havoc" in Acts 8:3 is in the imperfect tense which means it was continuing action) cause havoc in the church. Churches need to wise up to this problem and vote these havoc-causing members off the rolls.
"Saul . . . entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison" (Acts 8:3). In his violent hatred of believers, Paul intruded, that is, he literally forced himself into home after home to find Christians to cruelly drag them off to prison. The brutal belligerence of Paul’s persecution efforts would stop at no one’s door. Heartless, he broke up many homes with caprice which produced untold sorrow and harm as a result. Paul’s actions in searching for Christians were similar to the actions of German soldiers in World War II who went house to house searching for Jews or Jewish sympathizers. Years later after his conversion, Paul was still going house to house. But in a far different manner and for a far different reason! Speaking to the Ephesian elders in farewell instructions to them, Paul said he had in Ephesus gone "from house to house, testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:20,21).
The evil of Paul, in breaking up homes, reminds us that where Christ is rejected the home will not be respected. The greater the rejection of Christ, the greater the lack of respect for the home. Breaking up homes by persecution, as was done by Paul, is not the only way the rejection of Christ evilly affects the home. But the increasing rejection of Christ in our land today is also evident in such evil things as the increasing attack on family values, the increasing popularity of day care centers, the increasing rise and respect of single-parenting, the increasing promotion and protection of abortion, the increasing practice and acceptance of homosexuality, and the increasing rise and justification of divorce.
"Saul . . . haling men and women committed them to prison" (Acts 8:3). Here we focus on the word "haling" (in the first edition of the kjv it was written "hailing"). Haling "is an old English form of hauling, i.e. violently pulling, dragging" (Alexander). A. T. Robertson similarly says it is "dragging forcibly." When Paul found Christians in the homes, he would forcibly drag them out of their houses to the magistrates to be committed to prison. There would, of course, often be much protesting verbally and physically by Christians to Paul’s entering their houses and breaking up their homes with wantonness. But Paul, doubtless often with a number of cohorts, would overcome that opposition by brutally forcing the Christians down the streets to be imprisoned or even put to death.
Being forcibly dragged down a street for standing for that which is good is not unique to Paul’s day. It was done by the Germans in their hatred of Jews and Jewish sympathizers, it has been done frequently by Communists in their brutal crushing of political opposition and of Christianity in their countries, and it is often done in our land to those who protest the brutal murdering of babies via abortion. What a pathetic sight to see Paul dragging Christians down the street to be punished; and in like manner, what a pathetic sight to see anti-abortionists dragged down the street because they are trying to stop murder. With such sick, murderous attitudes prevailing in our land, the day is going to soon be upon us when people will be dragged down the street to be punished, imprisoned, or put to death because they follow Christ.
Paul persecuted both "men and women" (Acts 8:3). Three times the fact is mentioned that he gave no respect to the weaker sex (the other two times are Acts 9:2 and 22:4). There is a principle here that needs more emphasis today. The principle is this: the treatment of women is related to the treatment of Christ. Where Christ is respected, women will be respected. But where Christ is rejected, women will lose that respect. In heathen lands where Christ is unknown and idolatry prevails, women are slaves. In our land which is increasingly rejecting Christ, this loss of respect for women is increasing. This loss of respect comes, however, in a very subtle package. It comes under the guise of equal rights. Women are more and more being treated as equals with men. The feminists think this is wonderful and that it is liberating the women. But how deceived they are. Women being drafted for war, women standing side by side with men in dirty and dangerous work, and women being subjected to the same hardships as men is not progress for women! Equal rights say the woman can open the door herself, seat herself, and not expect a host of other courtesies from men. That is not progress for women either! But the more Christ is rejected, the more will women lose their favored distinction. Paul hated Christ. No wonder he made no difference between men and women.
"Committed them to prison" (Acts 8:3, see also 22:4, 22:19, 26:10). At least four times in Scripture, we are told plainly that Paul put followers of Jesus Christ in prison. Criminals need to be put in prison, not those who follow Jesus Christ, however. Paul’s actions belonged in prison; the believers’ actions did not! Paul was the criminal in his persecution conduct, not the believers in their faith in Christ.
Paul was just like many cruel nations in every age who cannot tolerate Christians. Put them in prison was his philosophy. Hard to believe that the greatest apostle of them all was at one time zealously and violently putting many Christians in prison.
What Christians experienced from Paul is something we fear may not be very far off for believers in our fair land. The clouds of hostility towards our faith in Christ are gathering more and more and becoming blacker and blacker in our society. Will you have the strength of faith to not recant though you are faced with prison if you do not deny your faith in Jesus Christ? There is no question that our so called fundamental churches are today filled with multitudes who will recant before they will go to prison or suffer much of any other kind of punishment. Their faith is so flimsy and suspect in good times that they recant on church attendance for ball games and other things which ought never to have priority over worship. such will quickly give up their faith if prison bars stare them in the face.
"Saul, yet breathing out threatenings . . . against the disciples of the Lord" (Acts 9:1). Threatening here means what you think it means—the declared intention to hurt someone if they do not give in to your demands. Paul played the part of a bully. Especially could he do this to women whom, as we noted earlier, he gave no respect to in this persecution brutality. He would threaten the Christians with prison or beatings or even death if they did not recant their faith in Jesus Christ. Threatening here is not a nice deed. It was a cruel act. It would instill tremendous fear in people as they would hear from friends and neighbors the threats made to other Christians.
Threats were an early practice of the enemies of the church. Peter and John were the first to experience threats from the enemy. The Sanhedrin, in private counsel concerning what to do with Peter and John, said, "Let us straitly threaten them, that they speak henceforth to no man in this name" (Acts 4:17). Threatenings tend to cower the one threatened. Peter and John, therefore, give us the answer as to what to do when we are threatened for our faith. They prayed, "Lord, behold their threatenings; and grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word" (Acts 4:29). If your faith results in your being threatened regarding the loss of friends or a job or some other loss, remember what the Word of God shows us to do in these situations—pray for more boldness to live your faith. Do not cower before threats, but instead pray for more boldness.
"Saul . . . breathing out . . . slaughter against the disciples of the Lord" (Acts 9:1). "Slaughter!" What a ghastly word. It is murder. It is gruesome killing. Stephen’s stoning would demonstrate this awful death—a body brutally battered and bloodied until it ceased to live. Only strong stomachs could endure the sight of many of these killings. It was not a quick rifle shot that can often leave little trace of entry into or damage to the body. No, the kind of killings Paul was involved with were just plain gruesome. Stones would so bash in a head that it could become unrecognizable. Nothing but bloody gore was the remains of many a saint who experienced the vicious stoning of Christ-haters.
Three other times in Scripture (Acts 22:4; 22:20; and 26:10) Paul himself speaks of being associated with the killing of Christians. His persecuting of the saints was murderous business. He did not stop with threats and beatings (we will note the beatings later) and imprisonments of believers. He often pursued them to their very death. Brutal indeed! Some of the killings Paul was involved with were like the stoning of Stephen in which he did not actually participate in the stoning or other forms of execution. But he did the arresting of Christians, the dragging of Christians to the executioners, and the voting (as we will see later) for the death of Christians. However, Paul doubtless also did his share of stoning. And some of the beatings he helped to administer in the synagogues surely eventually resulted in death for some of the saints. Much of the killing of saints, of course, was not the work of one man at a time but a group of men—such as the stonings. But no matter how it was done, Paul was guilty of murder; and he knew it.
One does not die a martyr’s death unless their faith is strong. One wonders if many in our modern churches today have that kind of faith. Many sing in the the morning service the song which says, "We will be true till death"; but they cannot even be true till the evening service. Christ was faithful unto death on our behalf. Let us so cultivate our faith that we will be strong enough to be faithful to Him even if we are faced with death for being loyal to Him.
"And Saul . . . went unto the high priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus . . . went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished . . . I persecuted them even unto strange [foreign] cities" (Acts 9:1,2; 22:5; 26:11). Paul did not limit his search for Christians to just Jerusalem. He traveled all over in an effort to find believers in order to persecute them. The persecution against the church was so intense in Jerusalem that many of the believers fled to foreign cities (Acts 8:3,4). But this did not deter Paul. He followed them to the foreign cities. Zealous indeed was Paul in persecuting the church of Jesus Christ.
After Paul’s conversion, he demonstrated the same traveling zeal by going to many foreign cities to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ. That is the spirit of the Great Commission. "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). The purpose of mission programs is to reach out into all the world with the Gospel. And we must not be lax in this endeavor, for the forces of evil are making sure they reach out into all the world—Paul’s persecution efforts illustrate that fact well.
"Bring them bound unto Jerusalem . . . hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name . . . that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests . . . binding and delivering into prisons . . . bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem to be punished" (Acts 9:2,14,21; 22:4,5). At least five times Scripture speaks of Paul binding believers. The word for "bound" (or "bind") in Acts 9:2,14 and 22:5 is a generic word which speaks of a binding of any sort—good or bad. But the word used in Acts 9:21 and 22:4 is a different word and means to put in fetters. The context tells us that the passages with the generic word for binding are indeed speaking of cruel fetters. The word used in 9:21 and 22:4 stops any watering down of the binding. Paul was not binding the believers with charity, but with chains. What cruelty. How brutal. Because a person became a follower of Jesus Christ, Paul would fetter the person like a criminal is fettered.
In all of this binding of believers, we need to be reminded for our own edification and encouragement that you do not stop the Gospel by physically binding people. Paul emphasized this fact when he wrote to Timothy. He said, "Wherein [for the cause of Christ] I suffer trouble, as an evil doer, even unto bonds; but the word of God is not bound" (2 Timothy 2:9). "The word of God is not bound" is a triumphant statement that should inspire every believer. Paul experienced what he himself had done to Christians, but he saw that binding him physically did not bind the Word of God. Let the persecutors bind every thing they can, but they will never bind God’s holy Word! And His Word will have the last word!
"And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" (Acts 9:4). This text is the first of thirteen times we find the actual word "persecute" or other forms of the word mentioned in our English Bibles regarding the action of Paul against the church. The other twelve times the word appears regarding Paul’s conduct are in Acts 9:5; 22:4,7,8; 26:11,14,15; 1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13,23; Philippians 3:6; and 1 Timothy 1:13. The word in our English translation is from the same Greek word in each of the above references.
We have used the word "persecuting" to describe the sum total of Paul’s conduct against the church. Here we examine its meaning along with the meaning of other words used in Scripture to describe Paul’s hostility against the church. In its basic meaning, the Greek word translated "persecutest" in the above texts means to put to flight, to drive away, and to pursue. It can be used in both a good and bad sense. In the context of Paul’s behavior, it means, as Thayer’s Lexicon informs us, to harass, trouble, molest, and maltreat. The word shows Paul’s zeal in his hatred of Christ’s followers, his cruelty towards them, his causing them to flee from Jerusalem, and his going after them and harassing them wherever they fled. It is a terrible indictment on a person to have such a word used about them to describe their attitudes and actions towards those who love our Lord.
Scripture says, "Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution" (2 Timothy 3:12). Not everyone who is godly will suffer persecution as intensely and brutally as many did in the early church because of Paul. but it will be present in some degree in the lives of all those who live godly. If you have not experienced persecution, you are either not what you profess to be (which is probably the case) or your day is soon to come when you will experience it in some way. You cannot live godly in this old wicked world of ours without maltreatment of some form.
"I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints" (Acts 9:13). That which compounded Paul’s guilt and multiplied the brutality of his persecution work was "how much" evil he did in this work. "Evil" describes his persecuting conduct in a general way, for it simply means that which is bad. It is translated from the Greek word kakos which is the opposite of the Greek word kalos that means good, fair, and beautiful. Note our text says it was "many" who reported this evil. "Many" as well as "how much" also emphasizes the abounding evil deeds of Paul in his persecution of Christians.
This text is not the only one to emphasize the abundance of Paul’s evil. He confesses it himself (unlike many, he does not water down his evil; true confession of sin never does). Speaking before Agrippa, Paul spoke of doing "many" things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth, of putting "many" saints in prison (Acts 26:10), of punishing the saints "oft" (Acts 26:11), and of pursuing his persecution work in "every" synagogue (Ibid.). When writing to the Galatians, he said, "beyond measure I persecuted the church of God" (Galatians 1:13). Like the Apostle Peter, his contemporary, Paul never did anything by halves be it good or bad; and his persecuting of the saints certainly bears this fact out.
Unfortunately, most people, unlike Paul and Peter, have more zeal for evil than for good. They can "do evil with both hands earnestly" (Micah 7:3) but have trouble getting one hand to do good half-heartedly let alone earnestly. They can work hours and hours of overtime for more money, knock themselves out to excel in sports, and labor incessantly for their own selfish projects; but that time, energy, and enthusiasm is no where in sight for the Lord’s work. They can spend extravagantly for vacations, cars, houses, clothes, and endless playthings; but when it comes to the Lord, they are so tight that, as the old timers used to say about tight wads and the buffalo nickel, they pinch the nickel so hard they get a cream check from it.
"I received letters . . . to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, to be punished . . . I punished them oft in every synagogue" (Acts 22:5, 26:11). The word "punished" here basically means "to take vengeance" (Robertson). It came in various forms. A. C. Hervey, in commenting upon the Acts 22:5 text, says the punishment was either "by rods or by death." Death could come from stoning or from the aftereffects of the rods. J. A. Alexander, in commenting on the Acts 26:11 text, said the punishment in the synagogues was "no doubt by scourging, which was the customary form of punishment . . . practiced in the synagogues" (note Matthew 10:17, 23:34). The form of punishment would vary depending on the location. But any form of punishment upon the saints was cruel. Hence, the brutality of Paul’s persecuting of the saints is again emphasized.
When society rejects Christ, it always ends up punishing good people but exonerating evil people. Justice is completely backward. This practice, unfortunately, is not uncommon in our day. More and more we are witnessing the absurd way in which our courts treat people. The criminal is given all sorts of rights, exemptions, mercy, and favor while the victim and the arrester are put under scrutiny and reprimanded or sued because of the way they reacted to the criminal and the crime. All of this is a commentary on the increasing Christlessness of our society.
"I . . . beat in every synagogue them that believe on thee" (Acts 22:19). While the punishing act noted above probably at times included this beating, it did not necessarily involve this beating. Therefore, we have made beating a separate heading in listing the various actions of Paul in persecuting the saints. Vine tells us that the word "beat" means "to flay." To flay is to strip off the skin. Hence, it is interesting to note that the word "beat" in this text comes from the root word from which we get our word dermatology. This type of beating could come from whipping and scourging, for the tools used to do these things would peal hunks and slices of skin off the body. Beatings would leave bodies a gory sight. Oh, how brutal Paul was in his persecuting of the saints.
Christ predicted that His followers would be beaten in the synagogues (Mark 13:9). In making that prediction, He used the same word Paul used in Acts 22:19. So not long after the prediction, the fulfillment began to come about. All that Christ promised His followers was not peaches and cream. Christ did not whitewash things. He promised eternal life to His followers, but He also told them they would experience some hard trials in this life. We hear a lot of sugar-coated Gospel today which distorts the true Gospel message by leaving out the tough times in this life. This sick Gospel promises good health and abundant prosperity in this life to the followers of Christ. Such a message will indeed appeal to many, but it will not find support in the Scriptures! This does not mean that all Christians are headed for the guillotine. But the biblical message, as we noted earlier, says that all those who live godly in Christ Jesus shall indeed suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). And we must not complain. After all, Christ suffered terribly in providing our salvation. He was beaten just as He predicted His followers would be ("smote" in Luke 22:63 is the same Greek word). And His suffering did not stop there—He paid the supreme price of death for our redemption. Away with the phony Gospel message that promises great health and personal prosperity. It is not a message that makes strong and loyal saints of Jesus Christ.
"I verily thought within myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth" (Acts 26:9). "Contrary" means to be antagonistic about someone, to be against someone. In this case, Paul was antagonistic towards Christ. He was against Christ. He, who would later become the greatest advocate of Jesus Christ the church has ever had, was at one time so greatly opposed to Christ that he vented his opposition in cruel, hateful, bloody acts.
We have a lot of professing Christians in our churches who belong in the category of "contrary" more than in any other category, for they are always opposing the work of the church. Whatever position the pastor takes, they take the opposite. Whatever the church majority votes to do, they vote against it. Then after the vote is over, they continue to speak out incessantly and conspicuously and, yes, obnoxiously against whatever the church voted to do. This bunch will one day find out that being against the work of the Lord will result in the Lord being against them. It will not be a pleasant discovery!
"And when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them" (Acts 26:10). "Voice" in this text means stone, particularly a pebble. Voting was often done in councils and groups by casting a pebble into a container of some sort. Therefore, to say that you gave your pebble for something meant you voted for something. In this case, Paul voted to put Christians to death. Some believe this meant that Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin. He may have been a member, but it was not necessary for him to be a member of the Sanhedrin to be engaged in voting of some sort for the death of Christians. Voting by other groups, be they big or small, could easily have taken place in the persecution of the believers.
The method of voting in Paul’s day is different than our day. We pull levers in voting booths or put an "x" on a ballot instead of putting a pebble into a container. There are other methods of voting, too. Some in church vote against the church by their absenteeism or by their lack of giving. These methods of voting are just as effective as a voting machine or ballot or pebble.
"I . . . compelled them [believers] to blaspheme" (Acts 26:11). The word translated "compelled" means to constrain either by persuasion, threat, entreaty or force. It does not necessarily involve cruel action. The context must be examined to determine what was involved. Examining the context in which Paul uses this word and comparing it to other texts speaking of Paul’s action in persecuting Christians, it is very evident that brutal, physical torturing was resorted to by him to get believers to recant their faith and to speak evil of Christ. Paul was no different than those cruel nations of every age who delight to torture their enemies to get confessions out of them in time of war.
The enemy of the Gospel must ever resort to tactics such as this to suppress Christianity. The Gospel, however, conquers through its message to the heart of man. Other religions and philosophies resort to cruelties to force their views upon mankind. But there is no plan in the Great Commission for torturing unbelievers into becoming believers. the Gospel message comes with the power of the Holy Spirit working in hearts to convict unbelievers through the Word of God as it is preached and taught and read. This truth also condemns the carnival of gimmicks many churches use in order to get a crowd. Employing these practices produces a lot of insincere results just as torturing does. Furthermore, the gimmick business really cheapens the character of Christianity and the services at church.
"I . . . being exceedingly mad against them" (Acts 26:11). Here is the attitude of Paul which helps explain why he dealt with believers so unmercilessly. the word "mad" means a fierce rage, to be furiously against something. Paul’s actions against the saints leaves no doubt that he was in a rage even if he had not confessed it here in this text. It was a pathetic attitude which Paul had concerning the church and Jesus Christ. There were plenty of other things in Palestine to be in a rage about with the Herods ruling the land and with corrupt religion dominating the people. But in attacking the Gospel of Christ, Paul raged against the best thing that ever came to the land.
The problem with man in regards to rage has always been having rage in the wrong places. Man gets in a rage over good things or things that do not matter; while he is very tolerant and passive regarding evil and things that do matter. Let someone get upset about evil and he is immediately branded as some sort of eccentric individual speaking entirely apart from wisdom. Society simply cannot tolerate rage against evil; but rage against good is protected ardently under the guise of free speech, rights, justice, and politics. Paul the raging persecutor was the darling of the Sanhedrin and Judaism, and he was not reprimanded for his rage by the Roman government. But when he went to enthusiastically proclaiming the Gospel, he was attacked severely by these groups. So it is today.
"Who [Paul] was before a blasphemer" (1 Timothy 1:13). Referring to his days when he persecuted the church, Paul tells us he was a blasphemer. Brutal language accompanied his brutal actions in persecuting the saints. the word "blasphemer" in our text means abusive, evil speaking. It not only can refer to blaspheming God; but it also involves reviling, calumny, and evil speaking in general. Paul, being a staunch Pharisee, would not blaspheme Almighty God. But not recognizing Jesus Christ as Incarnate God, he would not hesitate to speak vilely of Him or of Christ’s followers.
One of the good things the Gospel does to man’s behavior is improve his language, as is seen in Paul’s case. The Gospel cleans up a person’s mouth and puts character into it. This does not mean a Christian cannot use strong words in denouncing sin; but it means a Christian will not use profane, foul, and false language. We need to use strong language in denouncing sin in order to properly characterize and condemn sin. But it does not have to be impious, filthy, or deceitful.
"Who was . . . injurious" (1 Timothy 1:13). The final action we note in Paul’s persecuting the saints represents the effects of all his persecuting conduct. The word "injurious" here means to be insolent and violent. It involves injuring others by word or by deed or by both. Patrick Fairbairn says, "The word signifies a doer of violence and outrage." Vincent said one who is injurious "is one whose insolence and contempt of others breaks forth in wanton and outrageous acts." The word certainly describes well the actions of Apostle Paul in persecuting the church.
Paul left a lot of scars on Christians by both his evil words and deeds. But Paul also left a lot of scars on himself by his persecuting actions. While in the mercy of God he was saved, he learned a truth which many are still learning; and that truth is that while God saves you and forgives you your sins so you can gain eternal life in heaven, you can still in this life carry a heavy burden regarding your sinful past. Paul expressed this fact when writing the Corinthians. He said, "I . . . am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God" (1 Corinthians 15:9). God had sanctioned the apostleship, but Paul still felt unfit and unqualified because of his past sin. His past sin was ever a great burden to him. But this attitude about his sin was a mark of genuine repentance.
We have many today in our churches who do not demonstrate this attitude but still want and expect us to believe they have repented anyway. These are the church folk who fall into some deep sin, such as immorality; then after they have acknowledged their sin and said they were sorry, they expect to be instantly restored to their former respect, office, and status in church. They evidence little or no sense of unworthiness because of their sin. But if they were truly repentant, they would be much concerned about their unworthiness; and instead of insisting on being eligible for church offices, they would be most reluctant to assume such offices. This was Paul’s attitude, for he truly repented of his evil behavior. He did not water down the awfulness of his sin of persecuting the church.