Observations of life by author and poet Charles L. Chatmon
“….for God see not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” – I Samuel 16:7
What would happen if you found out that a respected member of the Church of Christ was a hard core, cold blooded killer in the past? How would you react if you heard your minister or elder had been one time, a devout racist? Such was the case with Paul, one of the most respected and dedicated apostles of early Church of Christ.
As great in the church as Paul was, he did not start out as one of the original twelve disciples. In fact, he wanted to imprison them. In his letter to Timothy in I Timothy 1:13, Paul wrote, “Even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor; Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief.” Now, if that had been us instead of Timothy, it would be hard to believe that this used to be Paul. We would ask ourselves, “Is this the same Paul who was mobbed, beaten, persecuted and put in jail because of his stand on the gospel?” The same Paul who told Christians in the book of Philippians to ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, again, I say rejoice!’?” Yes, this was the same Paul. But how did this manservant come to be you ask: Perhaps a look at Paul’s past might shed some light to that question, for it was in his past Paul saw The Light.
To begin our tale, we start with an apostle named Stephen. Stephen was a man full of wisdom and the Spirit with the task of spreading the word of God throughout Jerusalem. A few men from the Synagogue of the Freedman argued with him. Due to the understanding of both wisdom and Spirit Stephen possessed, the men tried to get others to talk bad or slander him. After he had been accused of Christ coming back to earth and destroying Jerusalem, Stephen had begun to what is commonly called “Stephen’s Defense” (Acts 7:2-53). Alas, the multitude did not accept his defense so easily. When Stephen confessed he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God in Acts 7:56, the crowd chased him in verses 57 and 58. The multitude stoned Stephen, laying down their robes at the feet of one young man, a young man named Saul –the future apostle Paul!
There was no exact description of how old Saul was but Acts 8:1 accounts, “And Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death.” Saul was influenced by the multitude, the crowd. The crowd made an impression on young Saul, the impression of hate. In the case of many oppressors, they too were influenced by what they saw or heard in their youth. Therefore, Saul being a young man watching Stephen stoned by the Roman crowd, agreed with them and felt they were justified by what they did. Acts 8:1-3 explains this clearly. After Stephen’s death, the chruch was greatly persecuted and scattered through the Samaria and Judea regions. Stephen was buried and lamented, and Saul, what about Saul? Acts 8:3 says, “But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.” Saul started off his mission on destroying the church, unaware he would be one of its greatest spokesmen.
In Acts 9, Saul was headed towards Damascus to persecute and bring back to Jerusalem those who had been converted into Christ. On the way to Damascus, he encountered a light from heaven. Falling to the ground, Saul heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul responded, “Who art Thou, Lord?” One could say Saul, such an advocate against the church, wanted to know who would stop him on the road in such an amazing fashion. However, Saul did know who stopped him. He had seen the evidence, he had seen The Light. One could also say Christ would have said to Saul to go and sin no more, but Jesus had other plans for Saul when He told him, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but rise, and enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.” It is ironic from a human standpoint that Christ would appoint or even entrust the spreading of the gospel to one of His most famous critics, a chief oppressor of the members of the early church. Christ saw something in Saul’s nature we could not or even bother to see today.
Of course, those who knew Saul didn’t take his conversion lightly. Take for example, Ananias. When the Lord spoke to him in a vision that he lay his hands on Saul so that Saul may regain his sight (Saul lost it for three days after the encounter with the Light. He also fasted.) Ananias responded with alarm, but Christ told him Saul is a “chosen instrument of Mine” and all fears were put to rest. When Saul stayed in Damascus with the disciples for several days proclaiming the gospel, even those who heard him were surprised. The crowd had heard of this Saul and of his reputation of persecution of those who would follow Christ except this was not the Saul they expected to see. The Jews, obviously frustrated by Saul’s turnaround, plotted his death. However, Saul escaped from Damascus before the Jews laid their hands on him.
In Acts 13:9, Saul’s name was changed to Paul and the rest, as one would put it, is history. What does the lesson of Saul (Paul) hold for us in our present day? The main point we should learn is that we should never underestimate the power of Christ which sadly, we often do. Saul was as hard core an oppressor as you could find. The Lord saw enormous potential in Saul and changed his bitter hatred of the gospel into a fiery force for Christ. Imagine if our society and most churches looked at the human heart the way the Lord does. Hard core gang members in the inner cities of this nation would not be termed as “too far gone or “unreachable” because we would look at their positive qualities and attributes, appealing to their spiritual hearts, the way Jesus appealed to Saul’s.
The public stature of Saul is another point I would like to make. Here was a man who was well known for what he did. He attracted quite a crowd. His every action affected many lives, from the Christians he persecuted to the multitude that followed him. After his conversion, again many lives were touched. This time, many who heard him obeyed the gospel and those who were his closest friends turned devout enemies due to his change of heart. Now the stature of the public figure doesn’t mean he is an oppressor of the physical sense, but of the spiritual and moral. How would we react if someone we detested or couldn’t stand as a public figure who encouraged hatred or division of any sort all of a sudden loudly and boldly proclaimed the gospel? How would we respond to a quick and drastic change of heart from someone from the Ku Klux Klan or a terrorist? Hard to imagine, isn’t it? Understand while we as humans (although we are Christians) see the heart one way, God sees it another way, the perfect way. And until Mankind begins to inherit God’s sight, the human race will be forever blinded, deprived of spiritual unison. In remembrance of I Samuel 16:7, “For God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” God looks at the mental heart, not the physical.
Saul’s blindness and fasting for three days after he confronted the Light may have been a time of reflection, a period of soul searching. He might have been pondering what Christ had in store for him in the days ahead. This we may never know. Perhaps when we see a hostile public figure proclaim he or she has changed their ways, we may monitor their words and question their motives, but the Lord knows their hearts. The main point is that it isn’t impossible for one to change if the Lord is in the equation. It doesn’t matter whether the person is a convicted killer, a hate sprouting prophet, a crooked politician, or even….you and me.