Today we learn more about the life and background of the apostle Paul, the author of Galatians, prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus. Our verses are from Galatians 1:13-14 where Paul writes:
“For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”
Looking at Paul’s life through other Scripture, we find out more about what he writes above, his life when he was known as Saul.
Paul says in Acts 22:3 that he was a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia. According to my Nelson Study Bible notes, Tarsus was about 300 miles north of Jerusalem and about 10 miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea. Tarsus was a well-known university city, surpassed in educational opportunities only by Athens and Alexandria.
Paul continues in Acts 22:3 saying that he was brought up in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of their fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God. According to my Nelson Study Bible notes, “Gamaliel was a highly respected Pharisee, the grandson of the famous Rabbi Hillel, a brilliant spiritual leader. Gamaliel was given the honored title of ‘Rabban,’ meaning ‘Our Teacher.’ It is said in the Mishna — the commentary on the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament — that when Gamaliel died, ‘the glory of the Torah ceased, and purity and sanctity died also.'” Paul was taught the Law of Moses by the greatest Jewish teacher of his day.
So we see a little bit about his background and learning – the best training, in a university city with great educational opportunities. He was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless (Phil. 3:4b-6).
As we just read, Saul would go on to become a persecutor of the church.
Acts 8:3: “As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.”
Acts 9:1-2: “Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way [followers of Christ], whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
Paul testifies in Acts 22:4-5: “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished.”
Paul testifies in Acts 26:9-11: “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.”
Saul stood by and approved of the execution of Stephen (Acts 8:1).
Acts 22:19-20: “… in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.”
So we can better understand Galatians 1:13 when Paul writes that he persecuted he church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it.
Though our focus is on Paul right now, it’s worth imagining for a moment what life must have been like for the early church suffering under such intense persecution from the religious authorities – who were able to do this freely without recourse, to imprison, harm, and punish the Christians, even to death.
I don’t know if we can comprehend the level of suffering and persecution that Christians at that time experienced who held to their faith. Our instinct is to think we shouldn’t suffer for our faith, but the Bible tells us it is to be expected. Suffering for our faith should not surprise us; it is more the rule than the exception for true followers of Christ who identify with Christ in His suffering. It should not be a cause for doubt if we suffer for our faith, but a sign that we are truly following Christ and that what has been seen and told us does indeed happen. There are many in the world today suffering greatly for the name of Christ.
That is a topic worthy of further study, but today, we focus on Paul and his background and where he was before he met Christ on that road to Damascus. We’ll look at that tomorrow.
PRAYER: Father, we pray for those who suffer for Your name today, that you would guard and keep them, encourage and uphold them, strengthen and protect them. We pray that we would be compassionate towards our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who are persecuted and pray for them and remember them. We pray that you would use their suffering to turn many hearts to Yourself. Thank You for making a way for us to know you through Jesus. We pray we would love and honor You in obedience and trust. Thank you for the life of Saul who became Paul and what we are going to see through his life and the incredible work You did in it. Thank You for Your Word. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.