Two Observations About the Early Life of Paul
These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.
There are a couple of aspects of the life of the Apostle Paul that I want to look at today. The Bible isn’t written as a 20th or 21st century novel, and it doesn’t have the subtle, or not so subtle details about the backgrounds of the characters. That’s not to say that there aren’t hidden gems, subtle things that help us to understand the men and women of the Bible.
Of the two things I want to look at concerning Paul, one is very subtle and well hidden, but I think it is unequivocal. The other one is speculation, but I think it is plausible. They can both be introduced with the same passage, Acts chapter 9 verses 3 to 6:
And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.
The phrase I want to concentrate on is “it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” This tells us something very interesting. Paul must have been feeling, at the very least, uncertainty about what he was doing. But I think it goes further than that. To me, it sounds like kicking against the pricks is a difficult thing to do. You know you are making a mistake. You know what you are doing is wrong, but you still do it anyway.
I think when he set out along the road to Damascus Paul was already a believer, but he didn’t want to be, and his persecution of the early Church was a kind of over-compensation, like empty vessels making the most sound, or the lady that doth protest too much. The pricks he was kicking against were in his own conscience. They certainly weren’t from the world around him, which supported his actions.
That’s the background to the two points. Both of them concern the influences on Paul that helped his conscience to grow. The first, the unequivocal one, involves his education. In Acts 22, verse 3, Paul described himself in this way:
I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.
Paul learned at the feet of Gamaliel. We only encounter Gamaliel on one other occasion in the New Testament. Again that’s in Acts, this time chapter 5 verses 34 to 39. Peter and the Apostles were on trial before the Sanhedrin:
Then stood there up one in the council, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people, and commanded to put the apostles forth a little space; And said unto them, Ye men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what ye intend to do as touching these men. For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nought. After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed. And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.
Now, there are various ways of looking at this passage, but however you look at it Gamaliel is prepared to give the Apostles the benefit of the doubt, and he may even be in agreement with them. However, you look at it Gamaliel is prepared to accept something new.
As well as being well read and educated, Gamaliel was obviously a very wise man. We can’t really go any further than that. But this was the man who had been at the head of Paul’s education. It’s likely – more than likely, really – that Paul was educated with this liberal, open attitude. Somebody educated by Gamaliel wouldn’t have been able to dismiss Jesus’ claims without considering them in the light of scripture.
Lets have a quick summary of the first point then. Paul was educated to have an open mind by a man who effectively defended the Apostles when they were before the Sanhedrin. The seed of his belief in Christ was planted by his education, both in content and character.
I’m going to move onto my second point now, which I admit is speculation. Interesting speculation, but speculation none the less. I’d be interested to know what the rest of you think of this. It occurred to me late one night during the Conference, and it isn’t very fleshed out yet.
Paul didn’t just suddenly appear in Israel after the Crucifixion. He was a well educated, well respected Jew. Even if he travelled a lot, as his persecution of the early Church shows, he felt very strongly about Christ-related matters. He would surely have made the effort to meet Christ at some point.
You’ve guessed it: for my second point I’m going to suggest an occasion when Paul met Christ. There are several possible occasions, and I’m sure we’ve all heard the suggestion that the Ruler in Luke 18 was Paul. That’s not the one I’m going to suggest. It’s in Mark 14 verses 51 and 52. Christ has just been arrested.
And there followed him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on him: And he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked.
On its own, that little story is quite puzzling. Who was this man?
It makes sense, though, if you assume that this man was Paul. Just because it makes sense doesn’t mean it is true of course, but I think this theory has a lot going for it.
I can imagine Paul, or Saul as he was then, visiting Christ at Gethsemane. Maybe he heard rumours that Christ was to be arrested that night. Maybe he was just visiting this troublesome but intriguing preacher at night, just as Nicodemus did.
Lets suppose for a moment that the young man was Saul, and they met and spoke, perhaps for the first time, perhaps this was one of many meetings they had. Whether they met once or many times, you can believe that a man such as Saul, steeped in Scripture, receptive and open, would not need much prompting to believe.
Even if this particular incident isn’t Saul meeting Christ, I believe they must have met at some stage before Christ’s arrest. That adds an interesting dimension to the events on the Road to Damascus
Saul heard a voice saying unto him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”
This wasn’t just an unknown voice from heaven. It was the voice of a man who he had spoken with. A man who had had a profound impact on his life.
And he said, Who art thou, Lord?
This is an understandable reaction, isn’t it? To hear the voice of somebody who was dead – or at the very least had been executed – is likely to provoke the same reaction in all of us.
And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
Whatever difficulties that Saul faced, whatever part of his mind made him persecute those he knew he belonged with, must have evaporated the instant he heard these words. The confirmation that it was the voice he thought he knew, the recognition that he faced internal turmoil, these words completed the process that had begun at the feet of Gamaliel and had continued in Jerusalem at the feet of Christ.
There will come a time, brothers and sisters, when we will have the experience of hearing the voice of Christ ourselves. One day we will be called from the world, probably quite unexpectedly. It may be the voice of a resurrected loved one that will call us. It may be a voice of someone we don’t know.
And Christ will have returned.
Whatever joy Paul felt when he heard Christ on Damascus, will be nothing compared to what we will feel on that day, when we hear the voice of Christ. The knowledge of his return will be more beautiful than anything we will have experienced up until that point.
We are here this morning to remember the promise of his return. All we have to do is share this bread and this wine. A simple ceremony, looking forward to the greatest event in history.
Before we share the bread an wine, we will have a reading from Luke 22, verses 14 to 20:
And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the twelve apostles with him. And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: For I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come. And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.