Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Letter To Rome: Once Upon A Time, There Was A Terrorist...

   I've just made it part way through a one-day fast which I had undertaken to study the Word and seek the mind of God regarding my life. With that done, this is my first post that actually starts my journey through the book of Romans, after my introductory post of more than a week ago, "A Letter To Rome: Thinking Through The Gospel". In that, I had recollected my initial motivations behind wanting to do this. I've never done a study like this before, so this is going to be scary and exciting at the same time. So here I go...

   It was approximately the winter of 57 AD, almost twenty-five years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. In the city of Corinth, a middle-aged man picked up his pen and began to write the introductory words of a letter. Addressed to the congregation of a tiny church, in what was acclaimed as the greatest city of the mightiest empire and epitome of civilization of the known world at that time, he began with a simple introduction, describing himself for who he really was:  

"Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God" - Romans 1:1, ESV

   I believe it is worthwhile examining some of the background of the Apostle Paul, before wading any further into his letter. Who was he? What made him the man who wrote this letter? How did he suddenly get thrust into the unfolding events and narrative of Biblical history? Given that Paul finally contributed almost half of the books that comprise the New Testament, I think it makes sense to find out what I can about him.

   Paul first appears in the Acts of the Apostles, under a different name - Saul of Tarsus. The circumstances of his entrance don't seem terribly inspiring:

"Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not charge them with this sin.' And when he had said this, he fell asleep. Now Saul was consenting to his death."
- Acts 7:57-61, ESV

   I remember my reaction as a child reading my Good News Bible, when I first figured out what was going on in this passage and encountered Saul of Tarsus - I disliked him instantly. In fact, I'll be honest: I still feel ambivalent about my feelings toward Paul the Apostle. I'll try to figure out why as I go further along Romans. Hopefully, my feelings towards him will change. In any case, the case for "St. Paul" isn't going very well at this point. He essentially functioned as the approving overseer and witness of the execution of the first known martyr of the early church. In fact he admits to this himself:

"And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him."  - Acts 22:20, ESV

   Apparently, it doesn't stop there. Over the next few verses and one chapter later, I encounter the following:

"As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison...Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letter from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem." 
- Acts 8:3, 9:1-2, ESV

   And as before, Paul plainly admits to doing this in a public statement later on:

"Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities." - Acts 26:9-11, ESV

   Having grown up in the Middle East, I find myself thinking at this point in the story: If this man were alive in our day and time, he would instantly be labeled a "religious terrorist" by the rest of the watching world who didn't support his cause. That probably isn't too far from the truth. I find it interesting that Paul makes honest and open admissions to all these facts about his history in a number of his letters [1]. "Well," I think to myself, "at least the man admits his past." That's not too bad, is it? But then something happens to Saul of Tarsus:

He meets the person and power of the risen Christ Jesus.

   And what a meeting it is! While taking his persecution to Damascus, Saul is struck down by a blinding light that is described as "brighter than the midday sun", and voice that identifies itself as "Jesus, whom you are persecuting." (Acts 9:5). I took note of the instructions that Christ issues to this persecutor of His church: "...rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." (Acts 9:6). Blinded after the encounter, Saul cannot do anything else but obey.

   The story of Saul of Tarsus takes a 180-degree turn after that and is never the same again. His sight is restored by the prayer of a believer in Damascus, who is personally instructed by Christ to go and pray for his blinded persecutor. One of the most striking verses that I want to think about in a later post is one sentence in a passage that records Christ's plans for the life of this one-time terrorist:

"But the Lord said to him, 'Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." - Acts 26:9-11, ESV

   Many years later, Paul the Apostle reflected on some of those sufferings in his second letter to the church in Corinth, before writing to Rome:

" labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night ad a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness - besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches."
- 2 Corinthians 6:23-28, ESV

   What a story this is, that emerges behind the first verse of the letter to the Romans! What pearls we find, when we dig through the only infallible, limitless, authoritative, inerrant, treasure that is the Word of God! I am convinced beyond any doubt that there is nothing like it; no tradition, edict, homily or saying from the mouth or pen of rabbi, pope, cardinal, saint, bishop, priest, saint, pastor, preacher, or religious teacher will ever be able to match the depth and brilliance of the power of Scripture, no matter how clever they may be. What a testament to the transforming power of God, who could take this self-righteous, religious zealot and Pharisee who willingly approved of the executions of early believers, and turn him into the spearhead of the early missionary movement that took the Gospel to the gentiles! What an encouragement to put my faith alone in Christ alone, to save and transform me by His grace alone, for His glory alone, because Scripture alone gives me proof through the life of Saul of Tarsus, now Paul the Apostle! What a redirection of ignorant and arrogant thinking to a life of power and purpose, because of whom we have almost half of our New Testament! What a difference in the man who finally describes the contrast of his old, useless life in empty religion with his new life in Christ in the following little autobiography in his letter to the Philippians:

"...circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith."  - Acts 22:20, ESV

   I can't believe that I've only gotten through the first verse of the book of Romans, and found this much to write about! I can't even begin to imagine what might happen as I keep going forward. This is going to be awesome. Thank You, Jesus, for a morning and afternoon well spent. Now to switch gears and carry on with Tim Keller's "The Meaning of Marriage" :)

Grace and peace to you,
- The Wisdom Seeker

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:9, Galatians 1:13 & 23, Philippians 3:6, and 1 Timothy 1:13