We were once watching the late news on TV one evening when a televised report was made of a meeting of religious leaders in South Africa who were called together by the government. The political-oriented religious leaders who came together represented some of the largest institutional churches of the country. These were the pastors, bishops, and leading pundits of churches from which the government wanted some opinions on matters that affected the people.
From where the reporter stationed his camera for some interviews, the focus of the camera was pointed down on the herd of competing religious leaders who scrambled for front role recognition. Once the camera was positioned, the TV news reporter then stepped into the hoard of shoulder-shoving competitors in order to interview some chosen representative of the religious world for the nightly news.
This was certainly a curious sight to behold. These religious leaders were pushing and shoving one another in order to get to the reporter. It was as if all dignity was thrown aside in order that the lucky pastor or bishop could have the camera focused exclusively on him for a nationwide interview that would be broadcast on the evening news.
It was indeed an incredible sight. The pomp and self-promotion of some of the more politically oriented religious leaders of South Africa was clearly revealed. These particular leaders, and the churches they led, had allowed a century of political struggle for the right to vote in a free and fair election, to influence their behavior as supposed leaders of the people of faith of the nation. Fortunately, there are presently a host of humble church leaders who simply stayed home in order not to be a part of such self-promotion. These dedicated religious leaders desired to continue on with their dedicated ministry to help the struggling souls of their communities.
If Saul of Tarsus were here today, and at such a meeting, he too would assume that as a “Pharisee of Pharisees,” he would have been right there in the midst of all those religious leaders. That was the world in which he lived as a young Jewish leader. He had all the pomp and prestige of the religious establishment of the day behind him. He could even have ushered in his Jewish miliary police and orchestrated some order out of the chaos in order that he should be the televised religious leader who was interviewed for the “late night news of Jerusalem.”
However, many years later after Saul transformed into Paul, and after a life that was driven by the gospel of One who threw him off his horse on a Damascus road, Saul, now Paul, was ironically ushered out of a city in Asia for His faith in Jesus. In the midst of a hysterically stirred mob, he was stoned for his faith that he had once persecuted in his youth (At 14:19). Even later on his last trip to Jerusalem, he was again seized by religious fanatics who would have torn him asunder if it were not for a Roman commander who rescued him out of the hands of a mob (At 21:31,32). All this upheaval reveals the true nature of religious leaders who have no concept of the transformational nature of the gospel. However, in view of the extreme change from Saul to Paul, the transformational power of the gospel is also revealed. This is something to behold!
In view of his transformation from religious fanatic to gospel-driven servant, we now know why God called into servanthood a man like Saul of Tarsus. He had all the pomp and prestige in the religious organization of Judaism (Gl 1:13,14). He was a Pharisee of Pharisees—a renowned religious leader and exalted above all those fellow opportunists who would compete with him in religious leadership for an interview on the nightly news (Ph 3:4-6). He even had a ticket to imprison those who would speak out against the predominant religious establishment of Judaism of the day (At 9:1,2). He thus had position, pomp, and certainly, pride that carried him from one city to another persecuting those who had signed up with the humiliated “criminal” who was executed outside Jerusalem about seven or eight years before.
So what must one do to repent of being such an attention-seeking, lordship-craving religious leader as Saul? To what extent must such a person go in order to reveal in his own life that he has truly repented of a life that was so obsessively driven by fanatical religiosity? A humble response to the gospel can be the only motivation to accomplish such a feat in transforming one’s heart. It was certainly not easy for Saul to repent of his life-style of commanding a team of persecutors into the servant leader Paul who gave his life as a living sacrifice for the Jesus he had formerly persecuted (At 22:8).
However, it was not an instantaneous life-style transformation from Saul to Paul. From the day Saul met the Lord on the Damascus road, to the time Barnabas went many years later from Antioch to Tarsus in order to fetch Paul for the mission of proclaiming the gospel, it was at least five years (See At 11:25,26). It took that much time, including three years in an Arabian desert, for Saul to dig out of his inner soul his former misguided religiosity, and especially his lust for notoriety among religious people. He came from the extreme of religiosity in this matter because he had formerly assigned himself to be the “savior of Judaism.” And today, we are not unaware of those who step up to be some “savior of the church” (See Gl 1:13,14). Those who involve themselves in being such are forgetting that the church has only one Savior.
In Paul’s response to the gospel in Damascus, he knew that he had to radically change his heart, thinking and behavior in order to emulate the gospel of the incarnate God who appeared to him in a vision on the Damascus road. So over time, Saul transformed. He transformed into the humble Paul we all know best. He transformed so much that he certainly practiced what he preached in Romans 12:2: “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
After his years of repentant transformation in Damascus, the Arabian desert, and Troas of Cilicia, Paul was worthy and ready to be the apostle to the Gentiles. He was ready to accomplish his Christ-given mission as an evangelist of the living Jesus to the Gentiles, Kings, and the household of Israel (At 9:15). He was transformed even to the extent of willingly being humiliated for Jesus for the rest of his life, sometimes being stoned, and continuing on in his mission trips with the threat of death hanging over him as he struggled from one city to another in his mission to both live and preach the gospel. He did all this in order to preach the good news of the crucified Galilean whom he had once considered a condemned religious criminal (See At 14:19; 2 Co 11:16-29; Gl 2:20).
On one occasion, Paul essentially upbraided some disciples who were fearful of his possible murder in Jerusalem. He responded to their concerns, “What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (At 21:13). This is certainly the extent to which a true gospel response will take us in our thinking and living. It is as John also explained, “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life” (Rv 2:10).
Since it took the Lord Jesus unto death to bring us into His realm of the redeemed, then it should be no surprise that it will take us, as Paul and John, unto death to be redeemed into eternal glory. In fact, Jesus would remind all of us of the following: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me, cannot be My disciple” (Lk 14:27).
From the pomp of notoriety in a religious system that encouraged such, to poverty and death in the shadow of a cross, Paul was driven to transform. Only because he was eventually transformed to be a servant of Jesus could he have been qualified to write the following remarkable statement in reference to his transformational repentance from pompous persecuting Pharisee to a gospel-preaching suffering servant of Jesus who would die for the gospel message he preached:
“I [Paul] say the truth in Christ, I do not lie, my conscience also bearing witness with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rm 9:1-3).
As leaders of God’s people, we must continue to pray as David: “Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins. Do not let them have dominion over me” (Ps 19:13; see Nm 15:30). We need to cease presuming to be somewhat in view of the One who emptied Himself from being God in the spirit to being Jesus in the flesh on a cross (See Ph 2:5-8). The more we grow in our knowledge of the extent to which the Son of God went in His incarnation, the more we are overwhelmingly stirred to transform ourselves into being a humble servant of our reigning King.