One might argue that the person most responsible for the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman empire in the first century was Saul of Tarsus, also known as the Apostle Paul. And aside from Jesus, Paul intrigues me more than any other character in Scripture.
He started out as the unlikeliest of candidates. Not only did he oppose Christianity, he fiercely fought for its demise. In his words, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man” (1 Timothy 1:13).
Upon hearing that the flames of Christianity had ignited a movement in the city of Damascus, Paul, “breathing threats and murder” (Acts 9:1), set out to extinguish the spread as quickly as possible. It was on the road to Damascus that Jesus intervened.
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” (Acts 9:3–5).
What do you imagine that Paul saw?
Luke, the author of the book of Acts, never tells us, and neither does Paul. At least three years passed before Paul took center stage. Then, determining that his ministry focus targeted Gentiles, he set out for the mission field.
Whatever Paul saw in that light from heaven lit a fire in him that consumed his whole life. He exchanged prestige and honor for persecution and torture. Consider his catalog of suffering.
I have…worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move (2 Corinthians 11:23–26).
Even one flogging would send any one of us to trauma therapy for the rest of our days, yet Paul endured it over and over again. Note especially this phrase: “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.”
This punishment hails from the Jewish law recounted in Deuteronomy.
When people have a dispute, they are to take it to court, and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty. If the guilty person deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make them lie down and have them flogged in his presence with the number of lashes the crime deserves, but the judge must not impose more than forty lashes (Deuteronomy 25:1–3).
Jewish authorities only assigned thirty-nine lashes so that they would not accidentally break the law. What does this race-specific punishment mean?
It tells us that Paul kept going after the hearts of his people.
The skin barely healed from one flogging before he stuck his back out all over again. From one town to the next. Seeking always the Gentiles but never dismissing the Jews. Never deterred by their hostility. Always determined to risk his very life in case one soul might believe. His passion burned through his pen in his letter to the Romans.
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart, for I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel (Rom 9:2 –3).
Paul’s passion highlights my apathy. I might shy away from sharing my faith to avoid awkwardness, but Paul had no time for that. He had seen a vision of Jesus that had knocked him off his horse. It knocked scales loose from his eyes. It knocked the foolishness of the world out of him and the reality of Christ into him.
What could we, as the church, accomplish if we asked God for a fraction of Paul’s passion?
Heavenly Father, forgive us for our complacency. Remove our idols of comfort—light a fire in our soul for your glory. Drive us to your word so that we can share Paul’s vision of Christ. We love you and pray this in the magnificent name of Jesus. Amen.
This article was originally published on Rebecca Carrell’s website here.