IN THE YEAR 34 AD, a young man named Saul came to Jerusalem from Tarsus, in Cilicia.
At that time there was serious controversy concerning an empty tomb. The chief priests and Pharisees had requested that Pontius Pilate, procurator of the Roman government in Judea and Samaria, secure the tomb where the body of Jesus had been placed.
"Lord," they observed, "we are reminded that that deceiver said while still living, 'After three days shall I be roused.' Then order the sepulchre to be secured till the third day, lest at some time his disciples, coming, should be stealing him and may be saying to the people, 'He was roused from the dead,' and the last deception will be worse than the first." (Mt. 27:63:64).
With ill-concealed impatience, Pilate acceded to their request. It must be remembered that, following the infamous trial and unjust conviction, he had inscribed a title and had placed this on the cross: "Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews." This was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. The chief priests had attempted to dissuade him from this action, and Pilate had angrily retorted, "What I have written, I have written." (Jn. 19:21,22).
There are many considerations around the Procurator's behaviour and his judgment of the Prisoner, against Whom the chief priests had levelled charges of forbidding to pay tax to Caesar and claiming to be a king. In reading the accounts it seems that throughout the trial, Pilate increasingly resented being manipulated by the accusers. He was doubtless experienced in detecting the wiles of those who came before him, and the sight of the Jewish rulers feigning outrage at someone they claimed was forbidding the payment of taxes to Rome would leave him unmoved. For a while he restrained his anger, but when they sneered, "If ever this man you should be releasing, you are not a friend of Caesar —everyone making himself king is contradicting Caesar!" this proved too much!
In granting their request for the tomb to be sealed, it can be imagined that Pilate would growl, "You have a detail. Go, make it secure, as you are aware." It has been suggested that this was a detailed Roman guard, but, for the following reasons it is unlikely. The morning after the crucifixion; a morning of one of the Sabbaths, this detail reported to the chief priest! Further, it is well known that among the sternly disciplined Roman soldiers the penalty for sleeping while on duty was death! Therefore, this detail to which Pilate referred was probably from the Temple guard.
Coming upon this fiercely debated issue, Saul would have drawn his own conclusion —the disciples had stolen the body. And if so, where was it hidden ? With a dedication born of ruthless bigotry, Saul threw himself into the work of crushing what he deemed a sinister and dangerous movement.
Following the pitiless stoning of Stephen, many of the "Christians" were arrested and thrown into prison. Others fled from the city, and these he pursued to villages and other cities. But while on the road to Damascus to further this persecution, he was confronted with the evidence which he had fought to suppress in others, but also, very significantly, within himself! The previous Occupant of that empty tomb, now resurrected as foretold, and glorified,—was there before him! Read the account rendered to king Agrippa:
"I, indeed, then, suppose myself bound to commit much contrary to the name of Jesus the Nazarene, which I do also in Jerusalem. And besides, many of the saints I lock up in jails, obtaining authority from the chief priests. Besides, I deposit a ballot to despatch them. And at all the synagogues, often punishing them, I compel them to blaspheme. Besides, being exceedingly maddened against them, I persecuted them as far as the outside cities also. Among which persecutions, going to Damascus with the authority and permission of the chief priests, at midday, on the road, I perceived, O king, a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining about me and those going together with me. Besides at all of us falling down to the earth, I hear a voice saying to me in the Hebrew vernacular, 'Saul! Saul" Why are you persecuting Me? Hard is it for you to be kicking against the goads!' Now I say, 'Who art Thou, Lord? Now the Lord said, 'I am Jesus, Whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand on your feet, for I was seen by you for this, to fix upon you before for a deputy and a witness both of what you have perceived and that in which I will be seen by you, extricating you from the people and the nations, to whom I am commissioning you to open their eyes, to turn them about from darkness to light and from the authority of Satan to God, for them to get a pardon of sins and an allotment among those who have been hallowed by faith that is in Me'"
We are all familiar with the dramatic series of events which followed this incredible intervention. We can only speculate as to what lay behind the words, "kicking against the goads." It might be assumed that Saul was not fully convinced with the argument of the chief priests against these "Christians." Or, he was deeply impressed by the repeated witness of comparatively simple folk in claiming to have both seen and spoken to their resurrected Master! Dedicated zealot he most certainly was, but insincere hypocrite? Never!
Whatever the truth of this matter may be, we are left in no doubt concerning the excitement which his appearance provoked when he appeared in the synagogues of Damascus, now heralding Jesus as the Son of God ! Those whom he had previously persecuted were astounded!
As may be imagined, Saul's former associates were furious. Their anger at this sudden change in one who had led them in the persecutions was savage. Almost immediately they plotted to assassinate him!
With his typical enthusiasm, Saul was eager to witness to his new faith. However, he now faced a real dilemma. In one group—those whom he had terrorised—he was distrusted! In the opposing group he was hated! What was he to do ? To whom could he turn? In his testimony to those in Galatia, he clearly expressed what all this meant to him:
"Now when it delights God, Who severs me from my mother's womb and calls me through His grace, to unveil His Son in me that I may be evangelizing Him among the nations, I did not immediately submit it to flesh and blood, neither came I up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I came away into Arabia, and I return again to Damascus."
IN THE ARABIAN DERSERT
Reading the above presentation it is obvious that what Saul refers to is quite simply the unveiling of Christ Jesus! Here was no unlearned man, but one who was well educated, and gifted with keen perception. In addition, we know that he was tenacious and thorough. True, his entire world had been turned upside down. After the startling confrontation with his Lord on the approach to Damascus, he was never the same again! He had much to unlearn! But in addition, he now had to ponder many matters which differed radically from his former religious training and comprehension!
To free himself from the many distracting influences, he turned to the wilderness! How long he spent in the desert of Arabia is not clear. How he survived; where he wandered, we are not told. He was resolute and tough, but his upbringing in a prosperous society would not have prepared him for such extremities of starvation or exposure. Yet, just as his nation was disciplined and hardened forty years in the wilderness before they were ready to cross the Jordan river, so Saul learned just a little of the intense hardship and suffering he was to endure—nay, rather in which he was to rejoice--–for his Lord.
What matters were revealed to Saul's spirit in the lonely deserts of Arabia? How did God unveil His purpose? Surely God's "approach present," the gift of faith communicated there in the arid wastes, realisation of the sacrifice of His Own beloved Son, must have been a refreshing draught of pure delight! This display of His precious love, must have unlocked all the frustrations and confusion! Stripped of all his Jewish prerogatives, Saul was now to sit at the feet of One greater and wiser by far than his former teacher, Gamaliel!
In common with the rest of his nation, Saul's most earnest longing had been for the appearance of Messiah. The woman at the well declared, 'We are aware that Messiah is coming, Who is termed Christ. Whenever He should be coming, He will be informing us of all things.' Jesus is saying to her, 'I am He, Who am speaking to you'" (Jn. 4:25,26).
When Saul first encountered this strange sect he must surely have made some enquiry into the origins. The inspired writings did not exist, but with his customary thoroughness he could have investigated the strange circumstances surrounding the time, the location and the unusual circumstances around the birth of Jesus. On orders from King Herod, all the boy children of two years and below in Bethlehem and its boundaries, were massacred! There would certainly have been records and memories of this evil in that humble village!
Thirty years had passed but he could have spoken with those who remembered. Perhaps one or both of the parents of John the Baptist was still alive and Saul could have questioned there. Despite their grief at the murder of John, they would have spoken out. If Simeon, the prophet who brought consolation to Mary was still living, then why not question him? And if he could not trust the companions of Jesus, then why not speak with Mary, the wife of Cleopas, or Salome, or Mary Magdalene. If any of these were not considered to be reliable witnesses, then why not confer with two colleagues, for that is what Joseph of Arimathea together with Nicodemus were. Both of these, coming from the ruling class in Jerusalem, would command respect! Both had approached Pilate to take away the body of Jesus for honourable entombment! (Jn.19:38,39). And was it beneath his dignity to ask Mary, the mother, wife of an itinerant tradesman ?
Whether it was his endorsement of Stephen's death, or the inordinate manner in which he persecuted the "Christians," all that happened to Saul was in accord with the specific counsel and foreknowledge of God! Rejoicing in the assurance of God's justification, he obviously recognized the inevitability of his actions, for in his letter to the Galatians, he describes how God had prepared him, a choice instrument: "Now, when it delights God, Who severs me from my mother's womb ..." The unerring precision of God's loving purpose assures him that His chosen instruments are of tempered excellence!
In this presentation of the man, Saul —whose name was changed to Paul —it might be suggested that the facts have been shaped to fit his theories. Humble consideration of the devotion and suffering of his ministry refutes this. In obedience to the honour of being entrusted with the evangel for the nations, the apostle Paul, who describes himself as "...the least of the apostles" (1Cor.15:9), could rightly declare at the close of his days, "I have contended the ideal contest. I have finished my career. I have kept the faith. Furthermore, there is reserved for me a wreath of righteousness, which the Lord, the just Judge, will be paying to me in that day; yet not to me only, but to all who love His advent. (2Tim.4:7,8).