Church Heretics: An Interesting Way Jesus Changed Paul

by Travis Bookout

Paul can be pretty feisty when dealing with heretics. Honestly, Paul seems like a pretty feisty guy in general. But last night a thought occurred to me. Paul’s feisty personality can be an interesting example of the transformative power of Jesus. Here’s what I mean: Paul dealt with heretics a lot throughout his life, but somewhere in there a major shift took place. Paul dealt with heretics before he met Jesus and after he met Jesus. With Jesus comes a significant change in his thinking and actions toward those who pervert the faith.

Prior to Jesus, Paul describes himself as “a persecutor of the church” (Philippians 3:6). His zeal led him to the conclusion that those who “apostatized” and worshiped Jesus were dishonoring God, blaspheming, and needed to be violently pursued. A “zealot” was one whose religious convictions leads to violence and murder. They would kill for the faith. To be zealous often had violent consequences, and there is a long tradition of this in Judaism (see Phinehas who “was zealous for His God,” Numbers 25:6-13).

A fascinating account of this tradition of violent zeal is seen in Mattathias (1 Maccabees) when Greek officials attempt to force the Jews to blaspheme and offer pagan sacrifices. Mattathias was offered gold and silver and gifts for him and his sons if he would use his influence to help the Greeks Hellenize the Jews (1 Maccabees 2:17-18). Mattathias refused. To put it mildly. When the Greek officials threatened and tried to force the Jews to sacrifice, a willing Jewish man came forward. He was going to give in. Now read this next paragraph carefully:

“When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the altar. At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar. Thus he burned with zeal for the law, as Phinehas did against Zimri the son of Salu. Then Mattathias cried out in the city with a loud voice, ‘Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come with me!’” (1 Maccabees 2:24-27).

Paul is one who would have followed Mattathias. He would have been right with Phinehas. Paul saw Christianity as a perversion that needed to be snuffed out. He would be blessed as a righteous hero, a zealous devotee of Yahweh. This is what Paul means when he writes, “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church” (Philippians 3:6). That’s why he was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1) and why he says, “being zealous for God…I persecuted this Way to the death , binding and putting both men and women in prison” (Acts 22:3-4). Paul laments, “I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it…being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions” (Galatians 1:13-14).

Paul loved God. This is one way he showed it.

But that all changed one fateful day. Paul’s zeal would be transformed. His whole life would be transformed by an encounter with the risen Lord. Jesus changed everything. We know the story. Paul had this experience with Jesus, he became a believer, and he took the faith to places no one had imagined.

But he still had to deal with those blasted heretics. Previously, he viewed “the Way” as a heretical movement. Now, in many ways, things are reversed. The persecutor has become the persecuted. Those who are dishonoring God are those who reject His Messiah. They are now the “blasphemers.” Paul now deals with idolatrous pagans who reject Yahweh, Jews in the synagogues who reject the Messiah, and false teachers within Christianity itself. Paul has to fight false teachers who sneak in and try to undermine his ministry. They try to distort his gospel. Paul is under constant attack, verbally and physically. Paul now deals with those who want to persecute him.

The transformative power of Jesus is seen in how Paul now responds to the “heretics.” Does his zeal lead him to violence and persecution? Does he tell his churches to arm themselves against their persecutors? Does he try to force conversions? Like Phinehas does he grab a spear? Like Mattathias does he prepare for battle? Not at all.

Paul is just as zealous as ever. Even more so. But his zeal has been transformed. He’s zealous enough to die rather than kill. After Jesus, he chooses to receive persecution rather than inflict it. After Jesus, he tries to save his enemies rather than harm them. To Paul, love has become a more powerful motivator than fear and death. He makes himself a slave to all (1 Corinthians 9:19). He encourages his churches to “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse…Never pay back evil for evil to anyone…Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:14-21).

Paul is starting to sound a lot like Jesus. Now, don’t get me wrong. Paul is still a feisty guy. Read Galatians. He may call a curse upon those who change his gospel and harm his churches (Galatians 1:8-9). He may even make a few jaw dropping statements (read Galatians 5:12, yikes!). One of the oddest moments in his ministry was when God momentarily struck one of his opponents blind in a showdown of supernatural power (Acts 13:6-12). But his overall approach has been drastically transformed. Instead of violence, he calls for repentance. When it’s time for discipline, he calls for correction, or rebuke, or tragically even expulsion from the community (for the purpose of restoration to the community). But never persecution. Never violence. Never death.

Jesus changes things. Jesus changes people. He does so in many ways. This is just one way (of many) that Paul seems to have been transformed by Jesus. He’s the same guy. He still deals with heretics. But he seems to love at an impossibly new level. It is one thing to care so much that you’ll kill for your faith. It is something else entirely when you care so much you will sacrificially die for it. I hope Jesus makes that kind of change in every one of us.

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