Paul was a Jewish Pharisee (Philippians 3:6-5). He considered himself to be extremely devout (Acts 26:5). He was very well learned and excelled in his knowledge of the Law of Moses (Galatians 1:14). His zeal for the Law drove him to enforce it to the best of his knowledge. So when a strange and blasphemous sect of Judaism started to rise in popularity during his lifetime, he set out to enforce the Law.
The blasphemous sect of Judaism that began exploding in popularity was called “the Way” (later called Christianity)—following the teachings and example of Jesus. The Jews thought that Jesus’ claims were blasphemy, and they put him to death for it (Matthew 26:65-66). It is important to remember that the Jews were completely justified by their Law in killing Jesus. Their Law commands that they kill blasphemers.
Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death.
Like any good first-century Jew, Paul wasn’t just concerned with himself following the Law of Moses; he was also concerned that those around him were too. Thus, Paul mobilized himself to travel around and seek justice according to the Law. He was a keeper of the Law and an enforcer of it as well. Paul was, for all intents and purposes, a police officer for his nation.
Death to All Christians
The first mention of Paul in the Bible occurs in Acts 7, where he is an approving witness to the stoning of a Christian named Stephen. Stephen claimed that God’s presence didn’t dwell in the Temple, which set the Jewish authorities into a fit of rage. The members of the Sanhedrin (of which Paul was understood to be a part of) dragged Stephen outside of the city and stoned him to death. The moment before he died, he fell to his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:55-60). Stephen demonstrated the heart of Jesus, enemy love, even in the last moments of his life.
The Law commanded that all blasphemers be put to death. This commandment was the justification for killing Jesus, and it was the justification for killing his followers as well. Paul knew that the Law had to be upheld, so he approved Stephen’s killing (Acts 8:1). Paul was a man of law and order. Paul went to the head of the government of his nation, the High Priest, and requested the legal authority to go and kill and imprison Christians (Acts 9:1-2). This authority was granted, and he launched a persecution campaign against all followers of the Way (Acts 8:2-3). Authority gave Paul the legal and moral right to capture and kill Christians—and he was zealous about it.
Paul says of himself that “as for zeal, persecuting the church; [and] as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” (Philippians 3:6). The book of Acts says that Paul “began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 8:3). Paul said, “For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.” (Galatians 1:13). Before Paul encountered Jesus, he was on a mission to eradicate this growing group of law-breakers known as followers of ‘the Way.’
In Comes Jesus
Paul was a zealous Jew who was extremely well learned in the Law of Moses and followed it to the letter (Galatians 1:14). Then one day, when he was on his way to round up some Christians, he was knocked off his feet as a blinding light flashed from heaven. Jesus said to Paul, “why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:3-5). From that moment on, Paul saw God and all of Scripture differently. But in what ways?
First of all, Paul no longer considered himself to be under the Law of Moses (1 Corinthians 9:20). According to Paul, Jesus is the end of the Law (Romans 10:4 ESV). He says that “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” (Galatians 5:18). According to Paul, instead of being under the law, we are under grace (Romans 6:14). He says that “the letter [of the law] kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6). Paul used to use the letter of the Law to kill Christians, but after he encountered Jesus, that all changed. Paul says we have “died to the law” and “by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.“ (Romans 7:4, 6). The Law that demanded the Christians be killed no longer had any hold on Paul; he was released from it.
Not only was Paul released from the Law, but he was very adamant that everyone experience that freedom as well. He went as far as calling those who try to maintain adherence to the Law “dogs” and “evildoers” (Philippians 3:3). He said that anyone trying to teach that anyone should follow the Old Testament is preaching “a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all” and that they are “trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1:6-7). Paul was disgusted that his adherence to the Law of Moses would rightfully cause him to persecute Christians.
Putting Down the Sword
To deny Jesus is to deny the Father, and whoever denies Jesus will be denied before the Father (1 John 2:23, Matthew 10:33 ESV). Denying God is obviously a sin and a blasphemy. Under the Law, blasphemy is punishable by death. The radical change that occurred in Paul’s understanding wasn’t only about who was right and who was wrong. It wasn’t just about who was actually committing blasphemy. If it were, Paul would have just started killing Jews instead of Christians. No, instead, the radical change that occurred in Paul’s understanding caused him to never use a hint of violence again for the remainder of his life.
The first thing that Paul did when he encountered Jesus was to put down his sword. In Paul’s mind, violence was no longer justified for any reason. Paul had encountered the Prince of Peace, a Christ who refused violence at every turn, even when under the threat of death. Paul’s Bible was no longer a valid excuse to use violence as it had been for thousands of years. For Paul, anyone who read the Old Testament without Jesus as their guide did so with a dull mind (2 Corinthians 3:14). And Paul’s new ethics would be tested almost immediately. Just as Paul had saught to kill Christians, the Jews turned on Paul and sought to kill him (Acts 9:23, 29; 23:12). But like his first kill, Stephen, Paul didn’t put up a fight or defend himself with violence.
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
1 Corinthians 11:1
Paul stopped acting like a cop. He stopped enforcing the law and started loving people. He was now under the “law of Christ,” a law of love that doesn’t need to be enforced. While once Paul exercised authority through the use of coercive violence, he came to view that as a sin against God. The system of “power over others” is inherently wicked, which is why Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you.” (Matthew 20:25-26). Having authority over other humans is an affront to Jesus, who holds all authority himself. So Paul put down his sword and picked up his cross (Matthew 16:24). We should follow his example as he followed the example of Jesus.