There’s a period that children go through when they are about three or four when practically every other word is ‘Why?’ – Why is the sky blue? Why is the dog sick? Why do I have to go to bed? An article in The Independent (3/12/17) claims that curious children ask 73 questions a day! That’s some going!
I have only one question today – why did God choose Saul of Tarsus?
Scholars tell us that the book of Acts was written by Luke as supporting evidence for Saul’s trial in Rome, which explains the focus on the man, but not why God chose him. Acts 9:1-31 describes Saul’s miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus and his subsequent works to promote the message of Jesus to the Gentiles. As nothing in the Bible is accidental, and all of it God-breathed, there has to be a really significant reason that Saul features so vividly, other than simply for legal reasons!
Why, when Jesus had hand-picked, loved, nurtured, lived with, built up, encouraged and trained his disciples, through whom, at the last count, the number of believers had grown to over five thousand, did God need to bring Saul of Tarsus into the picture? Jesus had left behind a team of followers, ready, willing and equipped with the power of the Holy Spirit to preach the Good News throughout the world, which is what they did. The initial salvation of three thousand on the day of Pentecost was the start of the spread of Christianity (then called The Way) as Jews from ‘every nation under heaven’ (Acts 2:5), were present when the Holy Spirit descended and many went on to take the message back to their native countries. So yet again I ask, why did God choose Saul? Why did he reach outside the core that Jesus had cultivated and the fruit they had borne to find someone new to take the message of the risen Christ to the Gentiles?
Saul could not have been more of a contrast to Jesus’ disciples. Coming from the affluent town of Tarsus (in modern day Turkey), a cultural and intellectual centre which had previously been capital over the Roman province of Cilicia, he was an educated man and a scholar of the Scriptures. He was a Roman citizen of Jewish parentage and a Pharisee from the line of Benjamin who had studied under the respected Rabbi Gamaliel, mentioned in Acts 5:38-39. It is very likely that Saul had been a member of the Sanhedrin who signed Stephen’s death warrant and he was certainly present as that first Christian martyr was stoned to death (Acts 7:58). Saul was a zealot and, not satisfied with persecuting men and women in Jerusalem, sought permission to travel 130 miles to Damascus, to hunt down followers of The Way. He was a truly unpleasant, misguided and violent man. When we are introduced to him in this chapter, he is ‘still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord’ (Acts 9:1)
So why did God choose Saul? My solution is this: God wanted to demonstrate the meaning of the New Covenant. While Jesus was on earth, we saw him heal the sick and the demon-possessed. He showed compassion for the poor and weak and mercy for the unrighteous, but He was firm with the hard-hearted and many times denounced their prideful, unloving behaviour. However, on the cross, as He died, He asked God to forgive those complicit in His death and in so doing, established the New Covenant of forgiveness of sins and restored relationship with God for all who turn to Him.
Through the story of Saul, we witness the depth of God’s transforming love. Nowhere else in the Bible is there an illustration of someone so wicked becoming so changed. There are plenty of Old Testament characters who start well and finish badly or start badly and remain that way. Jacob comes to mind as someone who improved over time – he lied and cheated in his early days yet went on to father the twelve tribes of Israel; and Moses, who murdered an Egyptian, led the Israelites as far as the Promised Land. Both were used to great effect in God’s plan, but neither exhibited the raw brutality we see in Saul. There are many flawed New Testament characters on whom Jesus showers love and mercy, the most notorious of whom was probably Levi, the once dishonest and greedy tax collector who became a disciple, but there isn’t anyone else in the Bible who displays savage and murderous tendencies then goes on to be set free like Saul and serve God in love and humility.
So, by selecting Saul as his ‘chosen instrument’, God reveals to us how powerful His love is in overcoming all forms of evil, how profound His forgiveness for things we have done and how far His grace and mercy stretch over our lives today and forever. No-one is ever too bad to be loved, forgiven and blessed. The challenge to us today is to follow God’s lead – to love those who hate us, forgive those who hurt us and extend grace and mercy to all around us. Who knows but that someone we love, forgive or bless today may well become a faithful servant of Jesus tomorrow?