And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.(Acts 9:1-5)
Saul hated Christians, and despised the very name of Jesus. He said as much, when years later he gave his testimony to Herod Agrippa,
I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities.(Acts 26:9-11)
What was it about the explosively growing Jewish sect, the ‘Nazarenes’, which so aggravated Saul? What compelled him to zealously hunt down the meeting places of the followers of the Galilean prophet, arresting and imprisoning men and women, torturing them, and even participating in the killing of some of them?
Saul was a disciple of Gamaliel, and a Pharisee.
The Pharisees were a sect which arose as a reaction to the attempt a century and a half earlier, to Hellenize the Jewish people, in the terrible days of the Antiochian rulers. Supposedly Greek language and culture was going to unite the world, therefore all other cultures were expected to subordinate themselves to it, where ever in the world the successors to Alexander the Great ruled. That would even include Judea, Jerusalem, and the chosen people.
How far did Hellenism go? The High Priest of Israel actually took on a Greek name(Jason), and there was erected a gymnasium in the city of Jerusalem. Gymnasiums were not the “Gyms” we know of today, where people work out for health. The Gymnasium was a Greek school for the whole man, featuring philosophy, physical fitness,homosexuality, and other facets of Hellenic paganism.
Circumcision was forbidden as was sabbath observance, and many pious Jews died for practicing those elements of the faith in those dark days. On the other hand, many other powerful Jews defected and denied it. Ultimately there was a revolt, and an overthrow of the Greek Rulers, and a revival of Biblical Judaism flourished as a result of it. Pharisaism was one of the expressions of that revival. it was a kind of “back to the Bible movements” of the time.
The Pharisees undertook to strictly observe all 613 of the commandments of God, even going so far as to apply to themselves, the laws of ritual hand washing for priests. This is where Jesus conflicted with them over “the washing of hands”. As time went on, as many of our own modern denominations have done, the movement calcified into a system of mere external observance, and “salvation by separation” from all that is unclean, rather than the true return to the Lord it once had been.
Pharisees were not rationalistic unbelievers as the Sadducees were, nor were they political schemers as the Herodians of Jesus day. Pharisaism was a serious attempt to systematically observe the laws of God, and to separate from ungodliness.However, of all of the known sects of Israel in Judea at the time of Christ, Pharisaism was closest to the theology of Jesus.
It is for that reason that Jesus offered a scathing critique of Pharisaism. His denunciation of Pharisaic pride and hypocrisy, as well as his insistence on the fact that all men, (even Pharisees) are sinful, and need a new birth in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, ran counter to Pharisaic teaching.
Furthermore Jesus’ insistence that it is spiritual and moral affinity with Abraham, and not merely physical affinity, that counts with God, hit at the false assurance of salvation which the Pharisees and much of Israel clung to.
Jesus loved the Pharisees, therefore he dialogued with them most of all. With passion he pleaded with them, argued and debated scripture with them, and warned them of the coming judgment. He placed them as characters in some of his Parables, to show them an image of themselves in the sight of God, that they might repent.
No doubt this humiliated and offended the Pharisees, for it was all done in public. But they couldn’t ever successfully argue with the Galilean Rabbi, not even the sharpest among the Pharisees, for Jesus knew the Law in a way that none of them had ever imagined possible. His argument and pleading showed their false knowledge and authority for the hollow sham that it really was.
But Jesus died.
He was crucified on a Roman gibbet, and seemingly that was the end of the story. This man could not possibly be the Messiah of Israel. Everyone who knows the Law of God, is familiar with the significance of death on a cross, for Moses the Teacher says “Cursed is everyone that hangs upon a tree”.
And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)
But shortly after the ‘imposter’ was justly crucified for his blasphemy, reports began to circulate about an empty tomb, a risen Jesus, and an instant congregation of followers. Simon Peter, one of them preached boldly that Messiah of Israel had come, but had been crucified. Blasphemy! To dare to say that God’s Messiah had died the death of a criminal, cursed of God and rejected by the nation!!!
So Saul became possessed of the idea that He, a loyal son of Israel, and of Benjamin, and a true disciple of Gamaliel; had been trained and prepared all of his life for this cause; to wipe out of existence the heretical, blasphemous, ignorant and vile sect known as “the way”, “the Nazarenes”, before this heresy gets out of hand.
Surely God would help him in this…right?