Just about anyone who has read the Bible or been to church more than once knows about Paul the Apostle, or at least knows he was sort of a big deal when it came to Christianity and the Church. Some could probably say they know about his travels, and all the letters he wrote which were included in Scripture when they formed the canon. However, how many could say he could easily counted as a Jewish extremist, who terrorized the church before meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus?
But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. Acts 8:3
Paul’s name was Saul before he turned to Christ (when they changed it to Paul), and he was a Pharisee among Pharisees. Born a Jew, trained by Gamaliel, who in turned was trained by Hillel, a man they called Rabboni (teacher of teachers) in Pharisaic circles, Paul was to the Pharisees what Aristotle was to the Greek philosophers: a grandson of the greats. His zeal for Judaism was great.
1But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Acts 9:1-2
Saul here is taking up the duty of extermination, ridding the world of the followers of Jesus, who are a disgrace to Judaism and heretics who do not deserve to live. We never know just how many followers he killed or dragged before the courts, but we can imagine it was many. Paul recounted many times how he killed so many Christians, and counted himself the least of the apostles for doing so.
Jesus, as seems to be the case with all of us, had other plans for Paul.
Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Acts 9:3-6
At this point, Paul had gone blind and had to be led into the city. He stayed there, and didn’t eat or drink anything. I can only speculate about this, but I wonder if Paul didn’t eat out of regret and guilt for what he had done. The very movement he had been killing off in suppression was the true way to God, and he persecuted them. He had been a terrorist, an extremist, killing those who didn’t believe the same way he did.
Fortunately, God can make good use of extremists.
10Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision,”Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Acts 9:10-16
I love Ananias’ reaction to God telling him to go find Saul. It would be the same thing if God appeared to one of us and said, “Go find Osama bin Laden and pray for him, because I’m going to use him for my purposes now.” For one, you’d have to be better and faster than Seal Team Six to do so, and you’d be traveling some hostile lands to do so, and two, you’d be seeking out someone with very little regard for human life at all.
But God uses anyone, even extremists, for His kingdom, and He will use whomever he chooses.
With Ananias’ obedience, he went and found Saul, prayed for him, and Saul regained his sight. Scripture describes it as scales falling from his eyes. One could say he was blinded by his own idealisms, that he refused to see the truth because of “what he knew.” Only God has the ability to remove the scales from our eyes that we may see the truth.
Saul, who became Paul, went on to write more than half the New Testament because of the forgiveness of God and the willingness of Ananias to bring it to him. How many more great Christians could we see do great things in Jesus’ name if only we would be willing to go to them? What if we had taken it to Timothy McVeigh, or Saddam Hussein? If we don’t believe that Jesus can redeem even the most evil of men, then we have no reason to believe half of the Bible, because He did it, and He STILL does it.
In an attempt to bring this home, ask yourself: who have I written off as unredeemable? Who do I know that needs forgiveness, be they in my workplace, my family, or even far away from me, in prison, in another country? No one is exempt from God’s love, and we cannot withhold it from them without serious consequence from God.