persecuting zealot—turned God’s messianic servant
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The Bible is our instruction manual, history, present, future. God's words, drawing us into the hidden, His deep. We read what's written. But what about what’s not said—between the lines and within the strokes of each Hebraic letter? Those crevices are often where revelation and backstories emerge.
This soul-arrow story is part of a series, birthed from my Soul Remodeling post. In the Bible, God calls individuals—and the entire nation of Israel—into a soul-wilderness journey, where He takes them off the grid . . . away from the common and into a holy, deeper understanding within their soul.
There are three components of God’s soul-remodeling process:
(1) The love call (a going into yourself, for yourself, to yourself, known in Hebrew as lech lecha לֶךְ-לְךָ ).
(2) The deconstruction-reconstruction soul process.
(3) The emergence.
READING TIME: 15-20 MINUTES.
He’s the famed pharisee whom some Jews and some Christians love to hate. His story—a real page-turner. His name, Saul Paulus from Tarsus.
So who exactly was this love-him-or-hate-him Saul Paulus . . . who was privileged and free, yet caged behind bars of religious zealousness, then later caged by man, yet free in the Spirit of God?
- A Jew. From the tribe of Benjamin, born in Tarsus of Cilicia (estimated 10 CE), circumcised on the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, in regards to the law, a pharisee—per Saul Paulus in his letter Philippians 3:5 and the book giving an accounting of the first Jewish believers, Acts 22:3
- A pharisee. Descended from pharisees, a scholar, highly intelligent, moved to Jerusalem to be a talmid (devoted student of the law)—which typically mean beginning by age 16 with deeper study to follow in early 20s until age 25 or 30, potentially putting Saul Paulus in Jerusalem for his rabbinic/pharisaical schooling somewhere between 26-30 CE
- Educated under the renowned Rabbi Gamaliel. Strictly according to the law of the patriarchs, “being zealous for God”—Rabbi Gamaliel taught from approximately 22 CE to 55 CE and in the more lenient, more welcoming of converts, non-radical, nonviolent tradition of his grandfather, the great Hillel
- Yet, overzealous, persecuting—students were to become like their masters (rabbis), but Saul Paulus at times appeared more like the stricter, Jews-only traditions of Shammai (a sage opposing Hillel’s more lenient teachings) or in step with the oft blinding pride of the religious Sanhedrin—however, after his messianic conversion, Saul Paulus became more tender, more focused on love, promoting the one-new-man convergence—Jew and Gentile becoming one in Messiah, with joint access to ADONAI, per Amos 9:11-12 and Ephesians 2:14-15, 18, 22
- Jew and Roman citizen. The Roman citizenship was purchased by his presumed “moderately wealthy” family, hence his Jewish-Roman name, Saul Paulus
- A tentmaker of goat’s hair. Saul Paulus learned the trade from his father’s successful business and later on employed the trade to bear the expenses of his messianic ministry—Acts 18:3, I Thessalonians 2:9, II Thessalonians 3:8, I Corinthians 4:12, I Corinthians 9:6-18
- Did not witness or interact with Jesus (Yeshua, Hebrew name) during his years of teaching/miracle works . . . the first time Saul Paulus encountered Jesus is via his Damascene experience with the resurrected/ascended Messiah—my posit for this is shared toward the end of this article
STILL A SOUL MATTER
He may have had Torah knowledge. Pedigree. Been a rising star among the pharisees.
Revelation from above alluded him because he was stuck in a religiously spirited mindset. Made his soul stubborn like caliche, filled with cemented-together soil particles that restricted spiritual root growth and God’s river movement.
There was no rich soil, no aeration, no room, no flow from His throne so the soul could stretch upward. Sure, Saul Paulus’ dedication to Torah/Tanakh learning was good, painstaking, exhilarating, a worthy life immersed in the things of God.
However . . .
What God said. I recall the words the L-rd spoke to me back in 2005 as I sat reflective on the lower part of the southern steps in Jerusalem—Herod’s southern extension of the Temple Mount where Jews, including Jesua/Yeshua and the disciples, would have ascended to reach the Temple’s entrance, particularly during Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot. In fact, these steps are where Jesus often would teach.
God’s words to me came with a soul-penetrating vision: Jesus/Yeshua standing beside me on those steps, his long robe, his feet, and an impression of the disciples standing behind him. I followed his gaze, which looked passed me and outward to the city, the people. Then I heard these words from the L-rd:
“I gave them the law,
but they loved the law more than Me.”
About three years later, the L-rd led me to share His words with an orthodox rabbi—who upon hearing them, sat back, silenced. As I explained it further, along the lines of the following words, he nodded in understanding and agreement. I said, “Adonai gave the law, but the law can become an idol too—anything that takes the place of God is idolatry.”
Perhaps Saul Paulus had made that blurry-line transition without knowing it. Perhaps he had became more enthralled by the religious elements, position, and spirituality—the law itself, the halachic steps, the learning, discussions about God, debates, commentaries, Hebraic word plays, standing apart from the masses.
Perhaps without realizing it, his world-bound vessel
was more in love with and actually worshipping the stuff of the law, spiritual gifting, and heritage . . .
rather than falling in love with and worshipping . . .
God, the giver.
It’s a tricky business: Being spiritually minded, spiritually driven—yet misaligned in the soul. The swelling and swelling of knowledge . . . which can cause deeper fissures in the soul, releasing toxic, legalistic vapors.
Manmade laws. Manmade separations. Self-driven interpretations. Performance and self-ambition waif upward, act slick, and claim center stage in the soul.
The reality is, studying or talking about someone doesn’t mean you know the person. Studying scripture doesn’t mean you have a personal relationship with the living God. It simply means you’ve been acquiring knowledge—accurate, false, human, divine, or otherwise.
His thinking would become heavy/impeded (kaved, kah-vehd,כָּבֵד), like the uncircumcised lips of Moses that almost cost him his calling, uncircumcised hearts of B’nai Israel during the wanderings that cost them entering the land, and the hard heart of Pharoah throughout the ten plagues that cost him his firstborn and much more.
Human intellect takes you only so far.
True revelation from spending time seeking God’s heart lifts your soul to His throne and ushers you into His secret place, where His deep calls to your deep, releasing the prophetic.
The unseen that is unveiled in and through what’s seen.
And that is precisely where God wanted to take Saul Paulus.
YOUNG MAN, YOUNG PHARISEE
From early childhood to late teens, Saul Paulus probably studied the gamut: Torah, oral traditions, the rest of the Tanakh—nevi’im/prophets (נביאים) and ketuvim/writings (כְּתוּבִים). But as an excellent, serious student, he went on to further study, which would have included rabbinic interpretation and scripture memorization/possibly scroll writing, then finally, scholarly study under a noted rabbi. As stated earlier, in Saul’s case, it was the famed Rabbi Gamaliel.
What did that life look like in the tradition of a first-century pharisee sect? Set apart. Meticulously living the law. Focused. Unmistakably robed. Honored by the majority. At philosophical odds with the Sadducee sect, who denied resurrection of the dead, destiny, and the soul’s permanence.
While claiming that everything is affected by destiny, they [pharisees] do not deprive human will of power in these things. For it occurred to God to make a combination and to admit to his counsel the will of men—with its virtue and its vice. Their belief is that there is an undying power in souls and that, under the ground, there is an accounting to reward and punish those who were righteous or unrighteous in life. Eternal punishment is offered to the latter, but re-creation in a new life to the former. —Jewish historian Josephus in his Antiquities
Despite all that—or perhaps because of it—Saul had become a dogmatist, fueled by youthful zeal. Not to mention, the heated indoctrinations of some rabbinic teachers, sadducees, and Sanhedrin members who unabashedly made defamatory comments against Jesus.
I say some because followers of Jesus included pharisees, sadducees, members of the Sanhedrin, Torah teachers, the wealthy, the poor, the middle class . . . a multitude of Jews from every walk of first-century life.
Of course, Jesus had a few things from the Father to say about these men of notoriety . . .
In Matthew 23, Jesus [Yeshua] cautions the people to do what the Torah teachers and Pharisees said since they occupied the “seat of Moses,” but don’t do what they do:
“They tie heavy loads onto people’s shoulders but won’t lift a finger to help carry them. Everything they do is done to be seen by others, for they make their tefillin broad and their tzitziyot long, loving the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, being greeted deferentially in the marketplaces, and being called Rabbi.”
Take a look at the religious-political stew Saul Paulus swam in—the same one that confronted Jesus, and later on, railroaded Saul.
The political/secular Sanhedrin during this period functioned like a supreme court—with 70 (or 71 counting the president) aristocratic members, who met in a chamber of the Temple or elsewhere, held varying functions per the Roman government’s restrictions, was presided over by a president (the Jewish high priest held this position), heard criminal cases, and could impose capital punishment. (1)
There was another Sanhedrin at the time—a religious council called the Great Bet Din (or Bet Din), originated as Kenesset ha-Gedolah/the Great Synagogue during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah—who were regarded as being the highest religious authority. It had two titled officers at the head: a Nasi (“prince,” held by the high priest, but prevented at times from presiding over the meetings) and Av Bet Din (father of the court, the director).
The Great Bet Din had 70 members (some Pharisees and/or Sadducees, depending on who held influence at the time) whose qualifications included scholarship, modesty, popularity among their fellow men, as well as being courageous and strong. They sat daily (not on shabbat or feast days) on the southern side of the Temple’s inner court, between morning and evening services. (1)
The Great Bet Din supervised over . . .
1. judgment of women charged with adultery (sotah/bitter water drinking)
2. any questions/disputes regarding religious law
3. ritual acts
4. the Temple service
5. burning of the Red Heifer
6. water purification preparations
7. which city would be selected to atone for the body of a murdered person
8. harvest tithes
No wonder these Pharisees, Sadducees, Sanhedrin rushed to Jesus with coy questions—healing on the sabbath, hand washing, fasting, the adulterous woman, paying taxes, eating the grain from the wheat fields, etc. (Matthew 12, John 8, Luke 11:38-54, Matthew 6:16-18, Luke 18:9-14.)
Yet each time, Jesus countered them with the words and actions of the Father . . . and with demonstrations of miraculous power and wisdom beyond their realm.
When Jesus [Yeshua] had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at the way he taught, for he was not instructing them like their Torah teachers, but as one who had authority himself.—Matthew 7:28-29
The regarded Rabbi Gamaliel had one idea of how to handle Messianic Jews . . . later on, Saul Paulus would have his own.
But one of the members of the Sanhedrin rose to his feet, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Torah highly respected by all the people. He ordered the men be put outside for a little while; he then addressed the court:
“Men of Isra’el, take care what you do to these people. Some time ago, there was a rebellion under Todah, who claimed to be somebody special; and a number of men, maybe four hundred, rallied behind him. But upon his being put to death, his whole following was broken up and came to nothing. After this, Y’hudah HaG’lili led another uprising, back at the time of the enrollment for the Roman tax; and he got some people to defect to him. But he was killed, and all his followers were scattered. So in the present case, my advice to you is not to interfere with these people, but to leave them alone. For if this idea or this movement has a human origin, it will collapse. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them; you might even find yourselves fighting God!”
They heeded his advice. After summoning the disciples and flogging them, they commanded them not to speak in the name of Jesus [Yeshua], and let them go. The disciples left the Sanhedrin overjoyed at having been considered worthy of suffering disgrace on account of him. And not for a single day, either in the Temple court or in private homes, did they stop teaching and proclaiming the Good News that Jesus [Yeshua] is the Messiah.—Acts 5:34-42
That didn’t stop Saul. He oversaw the stoning of Stephen, the first Messianic Jew martyred, and continued to keep his persecuting pedal to the metal.
I persecuted this Way [Messianic Jews] to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons, as also the high priest and all the Council of the elders can testify. From them I also received letters to the brethren, and started off for Damascus in order to bring even those who were there to Jerusalem as prisoners to be punished.—admission by Saul Paulus, Acts 22:4-5
They [Stephen’s executioners] began yelling at the top of their voices, so that they wouldn’t have to hear him [Stephen]; and with one accord, they rushed at him, threw him outside the city and began stoning him. And the witnesses laid down their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.—Acts 7:58
Saul Paulus was a threat to contend with. But then, God stepped in. It was deconstruction-reconstruction-of-the-soul time.
Just as we stand on the shattered tablets of Sinai and hold the second set of whole tablets in our hands, so Saul would be shattered in order to become whole.
On his way to Damascus, Saul experiences a physical and a spiritual flash of light. Not a bolt of lightning cracking the sky. It was the glory of the resurrected and risen Messiah, Jesus/Yeshua. A lightning moment that penetrated Saul’s body and soul—his physical and spiritual man—a light that physically blinds him for three days . . . and spiritually awakens him so he can finally, truly see.
The intensity of the heavenly lightning equated to the intensity of the calling on Saul’s life. He spends three days wondering where it all would lead. Three days of going from an honored, intellectual pharisee to a stilled soul before God.
Saul regains his physical sight and emerges with a radically different spiritual sight. It took years—including three years of solitary time in the desert with God and near abandonment from his fellow messianic believers—to grow through his deconstruction process before his soul was readied for its destiny. A destiny as a chosen vessel to bear the Messiah’s name “before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel,” per Acts 9:15.
BECOMING A SERVANT
Saul had lost everything with his conversion and soul reconstruction process. Position. Jewish community. His pharisaical robes. His honor by the majority. Indeed, he now was at odds not only with the Sadducees, but the Pharisees, unbelieving Jews, and Rome itself.
Saul, the one who once hunted . . . became the hunted.
The one previously seated with the Pharisees and Torah teachers who occupied the “seat of Moses”—per Matthew 23—was unseated from everything he thought and was.
He had a new seat at the feet of the Messiah. There, Saul surrendered everything to be deconstructed in order to be reconstructed for a humble purpose in the service of the living God.
In fact, he was ecstatic about it. In his letter to the Philippians 3:8-11, Saul writes this:
I consider everything a disadvantage in comparison with
the supreme value of knowing the Messiah Jesus [Yeshua] as my Lord.
It was because of him that I gave up everything and regard it all as garbage,
in order to gain the Messiah and be found in union with him,
not having any righteousness of my own based on legalism,
but having that righteousness which comes through the Messiah’s faithfulness,
the righteousness from God based on faith.
Yes, I gave it all up in order to know him, that is,
to know the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings
as I am being conformed to his death,
so that somehow I might arrive at being resurrected from the dead.
Jesus was crucified around 33 CE. So if Saul Paulus was studying in Jerusalem around 26 CE . . . did the twain ever meet?
Probably not. Saul—a young man still in training at the time—may have been somewhat shielded from having his own encounters with the messiah.
Why do I suggest that? Several reasons. This deeply intellectual, dedicated-to-detail pharisee never once mentioned hearing or seeing Jesus prior to his Damascus Road experience—and he never mentioned taking part in, hearing, or seeing so much as a smidgen of the 33 CE (estimated) crucifixion proceedings.
And when he finally comes to faith in Jesus as messiah, Saul Paulus labels himself as the “least of the apostles and not fit to be called an apostle” because he “persecuted the church of God”—I Corinthians 15:8, 9. If he had heard and debated Jesus’ teachings, joined the pharisaical surges against Jesus, even casted a nod in favor of the crucifixion . . . he certainly would have included such actions in his I Corinthians remorse.
Then in Galatians 1:11-12, Saul Paulus says the gospel preached by him was not according to man, not taught to him by man—it was given to him by revelation from the risen Messiah, Jesus [Yeshua, ha Moshiach].
So either Saul was sent elsewhere, out of Israel, for a period of time to study (or teach, perhaps back in Cilicia?) or he was shielded in some way from the occasions when Jesus was in Jerusalem.
Regardless of how it played out, Saul Paulus—fueled with his well-meaning, but misplaced, zealous fire (or hotheadedness?)—didn’t appear to interact with Jesus until that transformational day when Saul was on the road to Damascus to fulfill his raison d’être, the destruction of Messianic Jews, followers of The Way.
Read all the Soul Arrow stories:
- Soul Remodeling Series: Soul Arrow—Sarah
- Soul Remodeling Series: Soul Arrow—Joseph
- Soul Remodeling Series: Soul Arrow—Moses
- Soul Remodeling Series: Soul Arrow—Jeremiah
- Soul Remodeling Series: Soul Arrow—Saul Paulus
I’ve had my God- designed wilderness journeys to deconstruct-reconstruct my soul. How about you? These posts can shed some light and encouragement: Soul Remodeling Series: The Wilderness Call, Part 1 and Soul Remodeling Series: The Wilderness Call, Part 2.
(1) Information on the political/secular and religious Sanhedrin is from various sources presented on the site http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13178-sanhedrin