“The scene Luke paints in verses 6-12 [of Acts 25] is horrifying. Paul is surrounded by his hateful accusers shouting charges against him. As horrifying as this is, we must never lose sight of the humanity of his enemies because they believe they are doing a good and righteousness thing. They by any means necessary (by lying and bearing false witness) are seeking to bring about the death of a heretic, one who they believe is a direct threat to diaspora faith and life.” Willie James Jennings
We might blanch at the suggestion not to lose sight of the humanity of Paul’s enemies, but we’ve forgiven Saul, now Paul, for the same hateful behavior. Here’s how he describes his (pre-conversion) “busy work for God” (:12) “I thought I was under obligation to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth, and that is what I did in Jerusalem. I received authority from the chief priests to shut up many of God’s people in prison, and when they were condemned to death I cast my vote against them. I punished them many times in all the synagogues and forced many of them to blaspheme. I became more and more furious against them, and even pursued them to cities in other lands.” Acts 26:4-11 (Trans. by N. T. Wright)
Moving From Head to Heart
The Apostle Paul “thought he was under obligation” to fight again Jesus and his followers. He helped imprison them and voted for their deaths. We don’t even want to imagine what he did to force them to blaspheme. After his conversion, the religious establishment would turn on him, hoping to exterminate him–thinking “they were doing a good and righteous thing.”
- Have you seen zealous believers turn in hate on those who differ from them in doctrine or practice? . . . who seem like a threat? . . . like heretics? (And not in the past only, but now?)
- From inside it looks like faithfulness and zealousness (even though it involves perjured testimony, and conspiracy to commit murder)–right?
- It’s hard though, like “kicking against the goads” (:14)–since, for example in Saul’s case–you have to forget what you believe, e.g., that all people are made in God’s image, that all people (not just they but we) are sinners, that all people are loved by Yahweh–and perhaps also, some first century version of “The ends don’t justify the means.” And yet he persisted. Perhaps in his “zeal” he was too blinded and “busy” (:12) for such considerations. Is your zealousness ever that kind of haste and blindness?
- Paul was “busy on this work.” Wow. Imagine all those today, whether from the right or the left, who are “busy” that same way–justifying lies, scheming, disloyal to their own core beliefs–in the cause of their truth, party, faith.
Abba, may my zeal be that which “discerns every operation that places creaturely life on this path [of destruction] and presses against it with all the means at [my] disposal as a citizen.” (Jennings)
For More: Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible by Willie James Jennings
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