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by Jacob Ninan
There is no doubt now that Paul was one of the greatest Christians who ever lived and that he was probably the man who was most used by God in his time. Yet, like most servants of God even in the later times, he was not recognised as such in those days, but opposed and persecuted practically all the days of his public ministry of the gospel.
While we now have the advantage of hindsight concerning Paul, in his own day he was a controversial figure, very little understood by even other apostles. This is not really surprising if we understand the pioneering position that Paul had in the establishment of the church and the setting down of its doctrines. He was breaking new grounds, and they were as new to Paul himself as to the others. It was especially difficult for those who had been seeped in the tradition of the Jews to see that there was something better than their traditions, rituals and doctrines. The mistakes that Paul made in the process of his own learning only served to give much fuel to those who were ready to burn him.
The greatest secret of Paul's life was his sincerity. He always chose to live out to the full what he believed. Even as a Jew, Paul chose to be a Pharisee which group was known for their strict observation of the law (Acts 26:5). That was his way of seeking to be whole-hearted in following God. His zeal for the Lord ultimately led to his persecution of what he believed was a heretic sect known as Christians (v.6). But his zeal was so sincere that the moment he saw his mistake, he turned right around and asked Jesus whom he had been persecuting what he should do (Acts 22:8,10). In this way he kept his conscience blameless before God and men (Acts 23:1). He did what his conscience told him, and when he received better understanding that showed him that what he had been doing earlier was wrong, he changed his ways right away.
It was this sincere heart which God saw that made Him take hold of this persecutor of the church and turn him into a mighty apostle (1Ti.1:12,13). It was a love for God and His name that drove Paul (2Co.5:14). At one time this love drove him to persecute the church. Later on, after he had received from the Lord a truer and more enlightened love, he gave his whole life to serving the Lord and his church.
In contrast we see what drove the opponents of the church. At first glance it might appear that they were also being zealous for the Lord. Certainly it must have looked like that to many of their contemporaries because it was the religious leaders and scholars whom they had respected till then who headed the opposition. But it was not love for God or His kingdom at all, but only a desire to protect their power, position and empire that moved these people (Jn.11:48).
They did not listen to their conscience. The religious leaders who crucified Jesus were not disturbed by the fact that they were putting an innocent Man to death, but they were very keen not to defile themselves by entering a gentile place before the Passover (Jn.18:28), letting dead bodies on the cross on the Sabbath day (Jn.19:31), or using the money for His blood for the temple treasury (Mt.27:6). These were the same people who opposed Peter and the other apostles, because their life and work made these opponents aware of the blood of Jesus on their hands (Acts 5:28). They were not willing to face the fact that Jesus whom they had crucified had come back to life or that these untrained apostles who had once hidden themselves in cowardice had become bold and powerful (Acts 4:13-17).
They went on to oppose Paul and his work when God's power was manifestly working through him to bring many to salvation in different parts of the world, even though they had been warned that they might be opposing God Himself (Acts 5:39). They could not rejoice in that people were turning in large numbers to the Lord, or that wicked people were being transformed into saints. All that concerned them was that their empire was being threatened.
People who opposed Jesus could find nothing really to accuse Him with. So they resorted to twisting His words. While Jesus had said about the temple of His body that if they destroyed it He would raise it up in three days (Jn.2:19), His accusers misquoted Him as saying that He would destroy their temple and build another one in three days (Mk.14:58). They did not hesitate to bring false accusations against Paul too, saying that he stirred up dissension wherever he went, that he was a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes, and that he had defiled the temple (Acts 24:5,6).
Paul used to be a Pharisee and never a Nazarene which was a different group among the Jews. This was something that was clear to the chief priest and others. But they let their lawyer use such accusations against Paul because their intention was not to speak the truth but only to bring down Paul and stop his work.
Paul had not defiled the temple. In fact, he had gone there to perform a Jewish ritual when the Jews stirred up the people against him (Acts 21:26,27). It was not Paul who was causing dissensions but the Jews who followed him to other places and tried to disrupt his meetings.
The Jews became so mad with Paul that some of them took a vow not to eat or drink till they had put him to death (Acts 23:14).
To a casual mind it might look as if these Jews were standing for what they believed was right, just as Paul did when he was persecuting the church. The difference was in the heart, which cannot be understood except by those who have spiritual insight (1Co.2:14). Paul did everything out of his love for the Lord and people, and for the glory of God. He was not seeking anything for himself. His opponents were seeking to preserve their position and power and were willing to compromise their conscience even to the extent of telling lies and persecuting and killing innocent people. It was not that Paul never made a mistake or did no sin. He not only made mistakes of judgment several times, such as circumcising Timothy, shaving his head and taking part in the Jewish ritual of purification, etc., but he also lost his temper with the high priest who treated him unjustly. In the earlier part of his life he did not know how to get along with Barnabas who was totally different from him in his approach. But it is significant that God stood with him in spite of all his imperfections (See Acts 23:3,11), because God looks at the heart much more than at words and actions (1Sa.16:9).
Jesus tells us to judge with righteous judgment and not according to appearance (Jn.7:24). To judge righteously is to look at things the way God looks at things, and that is to look at the heart. It is not a matter of collecting as much evidence as possible and weighing them in a balance, because we can never know anything fully or perfectly. As human beings we are very much limited in our mental abilities, and in most cases there are other sides to things than we cannot see. But when we become spiritually minded, we can sense a person's heart and his attitudes, whether he is right or wrong, even if we cannot understand his actions or his motives.
We should also be able to see whom God supports and uses for His work (Acts 15:8). He gives grace to whom He considers to be humble (1Pe.5:5). He honours those who honour Him (1Sa.2:30), so that people who have discernment develop a respect for them, and many times even unbelievers cannot help recognising the grace of God over them (Acts 6:10). On the other hand, those who refuse to face up to the truth which their conscience tells them will be deceived. God Himself will allow such to be deceived (2Th.2:10,11). They will look at the outward things and catch on to faults and imperfections in others which God Himself overlooks. They behave as if they themselves are without fault when they dare to take up stones to throw at God's saints (Jn.8:7). May we humble ourselves before God and ask Him to open the eyes of our understanding so that we may see things His way and come to experience the wonderful things He has kept in store for us (Ep.1:18).
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