Acts 5:29–32; 8:1–3
We must not forget that as we study the life of the man they called Paul. We must also brace ourselves for some rather gruesome surprises. The first pen portrait of Paul (whom we first meet as Saul of Tarsus) is both brutal and bloody. If an artist were to render it with brush and oils, not one of us would want it hung framed in our living room. The man looks more like a terrorist than a devout follower of Judaism. To our horror, the blood of the first martyr splattered across Saul’s clothes while he stood nodding in agreement, an accomplice to a vicious crime.
Throughout our lives we’ve naturally adopted a Christianized mental image of the apostle Paul. After all, he’s the one who gave us both letters to the Corinthians. He wrote Romans, the Magna Carta of the Christian life. He penned that liberating letter to the Galatians exhorting them and us to live in the freedom God’s grace provides. And he wrote the Prison Epistles and the Pastoral Letters so full of wisdom, so rich with relevance. Based on all that, you’d think the man loved the Savior from birth. Not even close.
He hated the name of Jesus. So much so, he became a self-avowed, violent aggressor, persecuting and killing Christians in allegiance to the God of heaven. Shocking though it may seem, we must never forget the pit from which he came. The better we understand the darkness of his past, the more we will understand his deep gratitude for grace.
The first portrait of Paul’s life painted in Holy Scripture is not of a little baby being lovingly cradled in his mother’s arms. Nor does it depict a Jewish lad leaping and bounding with neighborhood buddies through the narrow streets of Tarsus. The original portrait is not even of a brilliant, young law student sitting faithfully at the feet of Gamaliel. Those images would only mislead us into thinking he enjoyed a storybook past. Instead, we first meet him as simply a “young man named Saul,” party to Stephen’s brutal murder, standing “in hearty agreement with putting him to death” (Acts 7:58; 8:1).
That’s the realistic Saul we need to see in order to truly appreciate the glorious truths of the New Testament letters he wrote. No wonder he later came to be known as the “apostle of grace.”