Personal Reminiscences of the Apostle Paul
by Fred G. Zaspel
Good morning. I suppose before I get off into talking I should introduce myself. My name is Saul, although I am more commonly known by my Roman name, Paul. In fact, you probably know me as Paul, the apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now I'm here this morning to tell you some things about myself -- actually, I want to tell you some things about what God has done in my life. I don't generally talk about myself much. In fact, I make it a point not to. But here I make an exception. I love to testify of God's grace to me and how He saved me. I'll take any opportunity to do that.
Now I want to make it clear from the outset that I am the very least likely one anyone would have expected to be known as an apostle of Jesus Christ. In fact, if you had told me this years ago, I probably would not have laughed; I would have been insulted at such an outrageous idea. Nothing would have seemed more ridiculous and more repugnant to me than that.
I'll explain. I mentioned that Paul is my Roman name. I am a Roman citizen. I was born in the city of Tarsus, an ancient city, the capital of the united Roman province of Syria-Cilicia. Tarsus is a very prosperous city and a major center of communication and trade and of learning and philosophy and culture. Very much a world city.
My family was rather well to do, and because of my family's standing we had obtained Roman citizenship. That was a rare honor for a provincial, and it did not come easily; but it was a high privilege. And since my father before me was a Roman citizen, then of course I was born such.
Now don't make too much of that. Roman citizenship was an important privilege. But that is not what was most important to me. What was most important to me was the fact that I am a son of Israel. First and foremost, this is how I saw myself. You see, not all of the Jews of the dispersion had been taken in by the worldly tendencies of the Greek culture around us. Many families remained faithfully loyal to the traditions of our fathers, and mine was one such family. Our national and religious heritage meant everything to us.
When I was very young my family moved to Jerusalem, and there I was taught in the synagogue in the ways of God according to our traditions. I soon began a long course of study under the renowned Rabbi Gamaliel, grandson of the famous Hillel, and whose piety and wisdom and grasp of the Scriptures distinguished him as perhaps the finest teacher in all of Judaism. And I studied under him with real delight, and took in with passionate desire all the learning I could about God's law.
No, I don't mind saying, I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews. Our religion and traditions were matters of no small importance to us. I am both a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee. And I became a Pharisee rather young -- such was my zeal in the things of God. It is a part of my religion and a part of my very family heritage to give the most devout attention to the law of God. For us God's law was the guidebook for all of life, and we had studied it in its minutest detail. We were altogether serious about that body of teaching which God had left us, and which had been handed down to us by the fathers. It was the very center of our thinking and of our efforts in religion. It laid out for us in plainest terms what it meant to be holy, and my first and greatest goal in life was to achieve precisely that holiness. And all who knew me knew well that I was very serious about it, and that I had advanced in it beyond my contemporaries. Before the law, I was blameless. My life was shaped by its precepts, and my study and grasp of its teachings were almost unequalled.
I cannot express to you in strong enough terms just how serious I was about all this. God's law was my life. And by all of my efforts in and for that law I knew that I would obtain God's smile. Those pagan Gentiles out there don't even have His law. And of our own people many do not take it seriously. But I did. And I can say this without fear of contradiction. Everyone who knew me knew that it was so. And God knew it was so, and I knew that He was pleased. And that gave me great personal delight and satisfaction.
Now it is because of all this that I say that I was the least likely one to become a Christian, let alone a Christian apostle. I never met Jesus personally in those days when He was here in Jerusalem. I wasn't in Jerusalem at the time; I was back in Tarsus. But when I returned I did hear about him. And what I heard was a bit mixed. On the one hand I had heard of his great piety and faithfulness to the Law of Moses; no one was able to convict him of any sin, although plenty of his opponents tried! But it troubled me how that he seemed to have had such an unconcerned disregard for the traditions of our fathers. For example, one Sabbath as they walked along, Jesus' disciples were plucking grain and eating it. When he was called into question about it all, He proceeded to make claims such that He enjoyed special privilege -- "David's greater son, Lord of the Sabbath" he called himself.
And there was more of that. He seemed to place himself above Moses. He would quote a precept of Moses' law, and then say "But I say unto you...." and what would follow was his own interpretation, or extension, or application of that law. And he would teach with such authority, such a sense of sovereign freedom, and then he would even stress that it was this, His teaching, which would form the basis of men's judgment in the last day. His law, He claimed, was that to which Moses' law pointed. His law fulfilled Moses' law, he said -- as though Moses' law were somehow lacking. "I am the one of whom Moses wrote," he would say. Of all the audacity!
And there were certain other peculiarities about Him. The company He kept, it just wasn't what a truly sincere man of religion would have. He seemed to prefer the company of sinners. He would seek them out and spend time talking to them, even dining with them in their houses. And he would talk almost as though God preferred sinners --as though He had special favors reserved for them that He would not give to those of us who had so carefully observed His law. He talked as though righteousness could be attained apart from the law altogether. As though the very worst of sinners could be freely accepted into fellowship with God more readily than a man of religion. That, I knew, was not just wrong -- it was blasphemous and stupid. How could a man be righteous who did not keep the law? But that's not all. He would do other things which were just as preposterous. When the sick were brought to him and He would heal them. You know, it was terribly bothersome to me how he could have done that. He even raised the dead. Made the blind to see -- all, he said, by the power of God. But it was what He would say when He did it and the prerogatives that he would claim for Himself that really disturbed me. When he would heal the sick, he would often say things like, "Your sins are forgiven you." Why, of all the gall! Who can forgive sin, but God only? Who did He think He was? I thought.
There was entirely too much of all this kind of thing to take the man seriously. And on that last day of his life, when he stood before Caiaphas, our high priest, he all but said, "I am the Messiah." What He did say was that He was the one who would come on the clouds of heaven. Why, no wonder the high priest tore his clothes and cried "Blasphemy"!
Well, whatever good things might be said of Him, it was clear that He was a deceiver of the people and a blasphemer. And too many people were beginning to listen to Him. Such a person just cannot be tolerated. And so it was with a holy determination that our leaders arrested Him and turned him over to the Roman authorities to be crucified. And it was to their great relief and satisfaction to see it carried through and to be done forever with this false teacher and trouble maker.
And for a couple of days it seemed to have worked. All those who had followed Jesus had disappeared. Even his disciples were no where to be found; they were all hiding somewhere.
But then, on the third day, all of a sudden a rumor went racing through the city like wild fire -- "Jesus is alive!" Some had gone to His tomb and found it empty. The Roman squad of soldiers who had been guarding the tomb were back trying to find some way to explain what had happened. And reports were coming in that certain people had actually seen Jesus, and talked with him at some length and eaten with Him. Now of course it frustrated our leaders to no end. And what they wanted more than anything was to somehow disprove this ridiculous claim. It was not terribly long after this that I returned to Jerusalem, and when I heard the tale I of course wouldn't believe it either.
But there was so much that frustrated me -- all of us. I mean, Where was the body? How could we explain the empty tomb? Clearly the disciples couldn't have removed the stone that had sealed the tomb's entrance. Nor could they have overcome the Roman guards. And they were too frightened and too disillusioned to try! But if we could only produce the body -- run it through the streets of Jerusalem -- we could prove once and for all that Jesus was indeed dead, and we could put all this fervor about him to rest -- again. But we couldn't. Nor could we offer anything of convincing evidence that the story was a hoax. All we could say, was that this kind of thing just doesn't happen. And because it doesn't, it didn't.
One thing was certain though. The disciples believed it. At least they seemed to! This band of men who only days before were too frightened to show themselves in public, were now calling for listeners everywhere, and they announced with bold and passionate certainty that Jesus was alive.
And they began to link all this with the Scriptures. "David said to God," they would preach, "You will not leave your servant in the grave, you will not allow Him to see corruption. Now listen," they would ask, "of whom was David speaking? His body is in the grave still today. We all know that; we can go out and visit his tomb. Of whom then did our great king and prophet David speak when he said all this? Whose body would not see corruption?" Then they would invite their listeners to visit the tomb where Jesus' body had been laid. They would boldly challenge them to find a better interpretation of David's words. "If David did not speak of Jesus, then of whom did he speak?" they would ask. And then they would press the matter. If this Jesus is the one of whom David spoke, then He is the Messiah. And if He is the living Messiah, then you must trust Him or endure his wrath in judgment on those who refuse him!
Their preaching was courageous, and it was convincing. Thousands believed them. Even some from among us Pharisees, and some from the priests also. But although their preaching was convincing to so many, I knew that it was wrong. It had to be. How in the name of reason could a crucified criminal be the Messiah? Why the very idea is preposterous and impossible. And this observation alone settled the matter for me.
In fact, it was a matter of plain Biblical statement. Our law was clear. It stated in Deuteronomy (21:23) that anyone who was hanged so was cursed of God. "Cursed is every one who hangs on a tree," Moses said. To be crucified as Jesus was, was sure and certain proof that He was cursed of God. Whatever other questions may remain, this much is clear. And this was the sword in my hand. I argued this way everywhere I could get a hearing, "Jesus is accursed! Scripture itself plainly says so."
My revered teacher Gamaliel called for restraint and moderation in dealing with this heresy, but I saw things more clearly than that. Zealous Pharisee that I was, I set out with a holy determination in the name of God to stamp out this ridiculous and blasphemous heresy. I would speak in the synagogues, and have read aloud in everyone's hearing the Biblical account of Phinehas ben Eleazar from the days of the Exodus. It is recorded in the book of Numbers (ch.25) how the people of Israel played the harlot and went after the women of Moab and began to offer sacrifices to their gods. And God's anger was aroused against our nation because of it, and God commanded Moses that this awful blight be stamped out; the leaders of this wickedness must all be put to death so to avert God's anger against the nation. And so it was done. And when one of the leaders had the audacity to take his Midianitess girlfriend into his tent, faithful Phinehas went in with a javelin and with one blow ran it through them both, so that they died. And God commended Phinehas as an example of godly zeal for His law. And Israel was again blessed.
Then I would ask my hearers, "Who today is committing this spiritual adultery? This so called "Way" is the way of wickedness. This Jesus of Nazareth died for his apostasy. Did not heaven abandon him to the Gentiles after he abrogated the Torah and proclaimed the destruction of the Temple? Was he not hanged on a tree? Do not the Scriptures say, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree?"
And then I would continue, "In these days of apostasy, it is not enough to display personal abhorrence for forsaking the Torah. Like Phinehas of old, we must follow the path of zeal. God will not intervene to save us from Rome when we refuse to lift a finger in the cause of righteousness. Phinehas did not hold back from executing the wicked; how can we possibly do less than purge the land and the nation from this corruption?"
And I challenged them to take the courage of true men of God, and do whatever necessary to rid our land of these awful perverters of the law.
As a result of my preaching, many of my fellow countrymen were emboldened for God and rose up against the people of the Way with a renewed zeal. It all came to a head when Stephen, a prominent servant among the Christians, began to preach and perform various kinds of miracles of healing. There were enough of us Cilicians in Jerusalem to have our own synagogue, which was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen. From among these people arose a group of faithful men who went to dispute with Stephen, but somehow they were not able to resist his wisdom and his grasp of Scripture. So they went secretly and spread rumors about Stephen, saying that he spoke blasphemy against Moses & against God & against the Temple & against the Law.
So he was hauled in before us of the Sanhedrin, the ruling religious body of Judaism. And in answer to the charges against him, he preached a long sermon which reviewed in some detail the history of our nation. He emphasized the rejection of Joseph by his brethren, our people's opposition to Moses, their God-ordained leader, and our nation's repeated refusal and persecution of the prophets of God. And he pointed out that our people have a history of rejecting God's messengers. And so also, he said, with Jesus. He, the Just One, the One of Whom the prophets all spoke, we had murdered.
Those were words which cut us deeply, right to the heart, and we began to sneer and demand justice. And when he looked heavenward and claimed to see Jesus standing at the right hand of God, we all screamed and stopped our ears. We would hear no more of this. And we took him outside the city, and guarding the coats of those who threw the stones I watched in approving consent while he was put to death. And although he died more graciously than any man I had ever seen --praying aloud forgiveness for us, his accusers and executioners-- I was satisfied that justice had been served. We had done what was necessary to the preserving of our purity.
As a result Christians in general came under greater and greater pressure. Men, women, it didn't matter. I arrested, chained, and imprisoned as many of them as I could. And I was glad to see that as a result of all this they began to leave the holy city in droves. That was good for Jerusalem.
But I soon discovered that it was not good for the regions around us. These Christians wouldn't keep quiet, and their heresy was spreading all around us.
So I determined that we must follow them, find them, and bring them to justice no matter where they went. Now Judea was of course a subject of Rome, but we had enjoyed some strong connections, and as a result we had the privilege to extradite our criminals from the regions around us. So I went to the high priest with my plan. This disease, I said, is spreading. If you will give me the papers I will take them to Damascus and serve them, and arrest these blasphemers and bring them back for justice.
He readily consented, and I was on my way to Damascus when my plans were cut short. Now mind you, I was still breathing out threats and murders against the disciples of the Lord; I was determined to carry out this mission as a service to God. But as we approached Damascus, suddenly a brilliant light from heaven, brighter than the noonday sun, shone all around me, such that I immediately fell to the ground. I was terrified. And then a voice spoke to me from heaven, a voice I'd never heard before and a voice I'll never forget. And it said, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" Now I was both confused and terrified -- "Who are you, Lord?" I said, answering my own question.
But when he answered I trembled with horrified astonishment: "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." I lay there helpless, lost in a maze of questions and wondering terror. I looked and saw in His face the light of the glory of God. It was Jesus, Jesus the Lord. And he was alive.
You cannot imagine how I felt. I lay there as one beaten and left for dead. Inwardly I was crushed, shattered. Everything I so fervently believed was immediately turned on its head. The God whom I had thought to be serving so faithfully, I was opposing. Jesus was alive. And if He was alive, God had obviously vindicated Him in resurrection.
And in one horrifying moment I came to realize that He was the Christ, the One of Whom Moses wrote. Stephen was right. Jesus was God the Son, come among us. And we had crucified Him, our Messiah. I was broken, completely devastated.
And as Jesus spoke to me, I came to the further realization that all that I had heard about Him was true, gloriously true. Yes, He was cursed of God, and this was the glory of the gospel of grace which the Christians preached and which I so opposed. He was cursed of God, but He was cursed as one joined to his people. The judgment He bore was indeed the judgment of God for sin, but it was God's punishment against our sin which He willingly took. He was made a curse --for us!
Then I began to see, and understand why he acted as He did when He was among us. Sinners as sinners may indeed have the favor of God, for He had come to bear their sin for them, so that they by faith may be found in Him. Because of Jesus' death for sin, God could after all acquit the guilty, for in Christ their punishment was fully meted out. It was as though a vail had been lifted from my eyes, and in an awful moment of glorious enlightenment I saw that I could obtain righteous apart from my tireless efforts in the law. Indeed, all my efforts in keeping the law, they did not help at all --they had made me all the worse! For because of all that, I felt that I had earned my own standing before God. I imagined that somehow mortal sinners could become good enough to earn God's smile. And all that self deception only had taken me further from Him. O, I had a zeal for the law, but it was not according to knowledge. In my proud, self sufficient heart I thought that I could be righteous enough to merit God's favor. But then I saw that next to God my righteousness was but dung, and there on the Damascus road I learned to consider it such. If I would have God's smile, I must have Jesus.
And have Him I would. Before I had judged Him a heretic and a criminal, but that was a fleshly judgment. Now He was the very greatest and highest desire of my heart. In that awful yet wonderful moment, I fell in love with Him, and I wanted more than anything else to know Him.
What seemed too much to believe, however, was that here He would have me. That he would appear to me. And instead of meting out judgment against me there on the spot, he spoke in terms of grace and forgiveness. He told me that from here on I would serve Him, and be a light to the Gentiles to tell them of Him. Up until that very moment I had been His very worst and most bitter enemy on earth. I persecuted Him. I laid waste His church, persecuting it beyond measure. I murdered His people. But I did it ignorantly, and in unbelief. And it was when I was an enemy that I was reconciled to God. Now He had made me His friend and His servant. Yes, now I am reconciled, and more --I have been given the ministry of reconciliation. He has entrusted me with the Gospel, so that others also may learn of His grace.
I say again, I am the least likely. And I confess that I am the least worthy. I am what I am by the grace of God. That day on the Damascus Road, I was the one arrested, apprehended by the Lord Jesus, and conscripted for His service. The goads with which He was now prodding me were such that I could not resist. He demanded surrender. And surrender I did, willingly and whole heartedly. And although broken and shaken and trembling beyond words to describe, I felt as though I had died and come to new life.
When finally I stood to my feet I was blinded by the light of glory which I had seen, and those who were with me had to lead me by the hand to Damascus. For three long, agonizing and wonderful days I neither ate nor drank. So much was going on in my mind. So much to rethink. So much to think through. So much wrong thinking to discover.
But then, just as Jesus had told me would happen, a man came to tell me what to do. His name was Anananias. And when he came, he laid his hands on me, my sight was restored, and he took me to meet the believers of Damascus, with whom I spent several days. They had heard about me, and they were at first hesitant to speak with me, and of course I could understand that. But how delighted they were to hear what a change God had brought about in me.
Immediately, you know what I did? I continued preaching in the synagogues, but the people who listened were amazed as they listened to my new message. No longer was it Jesus the criminal, the accursed. It was Jesus the Son of God, the Messiah, the gracious & mighty savior of sinners, in whose death was made a full payment of my sin. He Jesus, was made a curse for us; He Who knew no sin was made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.
It's embarrassing and shameful but also ironic now to see how well I had done my previous work. These people whom I had encouraged to destroy the Church were vigorously attempting to do just that. Only now, I found myself as their target. I would have been killed there in Damascus, but some of the believers helped me escape the city through the wall, letting me down in a basket.
I went back to Jerusalem, and it was the same thing all over again. It was with some considerable hesitation that I was received by the believers there. I preached in the synagogue. My fellow Jews tried to kill me. I escaped, and now I'm on my way to Tarsus, my home town, to preach there.
Somehow I don't think the opposition is over. I don't know how long I'll be allowed to continue to preach. They may kill me in Tarsus. Maybe somewhere else. Or it may be that God will give me a longer and fruitful ministry for Him. But no matter. None of these things will ever move me, neither count I my life dear to myself. It is the ministry which I have received from Christ that I count dear. My life now is but for this single purpose, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. Everywhere I go I will preach only this: Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. God has shown in me that the salvation he gives is free, in the Lord Jesus. He has proven in me that He is merciful and longsuffering. I stand as a model, a pattern to all who will believe. If God would save me, the very chief of sinners, then there is hope for anyone.
Let me say the same to you. You may have thought that in the end God would somehow weigh out your goodness as over against your sinfulness, and that hopefully on that basis you'd be acquitted. I understand that kind of thinking. I thought that way myself for thirty some years. But you must see what a fools dream that is. There is only one person who is that good, and that is the Lord Jesus Christ. And the glory of the gospel which he revealed and committed to me is that God will accept you freely, just as you are, if it is in Christ and Christ alone you are trusting.
But you see, your ambitions must change. You must seek only to be found in Him, not having your own righteousness, as though law keeping could make you good enough or as though somehow obedience could atone for sin. No. You must seek to be found in Him, not having your own righteousness, but the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only righteousness that is sufficient, and the righteousness which comes only by faith. You must in humility turn from your proud feelings of self-achievement, and embrace Him Who alone is able to save you. There is no other way.
I must go now. I thank you for your attention. I hope to speak to you again sometime; I trust that can be arranged. But if we are not given that opportunity here, then I trust that we will meet together with the living Christ in His Kingdom. And there I hope to speak with you again, and together we may recount the many ways in which God has been gracious to us through Christ Jesus our Lord. To Whom be glory for ever, and for ever. Amen.