During our election cycles in the U.S., we see a lot of headlines and hear a lot of talk about the past of candidates for public office. We wrestle with and quarrel about the question, Do their pasts matter? Usually, it matters when we think their pasts are a predictor of what they’ll do in the future. So, we say, sometimes their pasts matter; sometimes they don’t.
Often when we see these headlines, we can’t help but think of officeholders in the Bible. Whether in the nation of Israel or in the church, we ask, Did their pasts matter? There is one officeholder in particular who gets our attention. See if you can guess his name as we rehearse his past.
According to the best sources, he was a son of aristocrats in his hometown, the beneficiary of wealth garnered by a distinguished and respected family of social rank. He held citizenship both in the most powerful empire on earth and in a distinguished and busy metropolis known for its diverse culture and international commerce.
Owing to his parents, he was heir to a rich religious and intellectual heritage. Indications are that his mother and father were members of the party best known for its fervent nationalism and for strict obedience to the law of Moses. By the age of 13, he had mastered his people’s history, along with its poetic and prophetic literature: he was ready for higher education. He was sent from abroad to study with one of the most celebrated teachers in Israel, the homeland of his faith. There he learned to dissect the sacred texts and to discern their meaning according to the history of their interpretation. He became a skilled debater too, practiced in the art of diatribe. Reports say he was the perfect blend of preacher and lawyer. The path he was on placed him on the fast track to a seat among Israel’s rulers, even its Supreme Court.
Oh, and one more thing: he hated the name of Jesus. Reportedly, this hatred ran so deep that he openly and shamelessly determined to make his reputation as a public enemy of the followers of Jesus. His tactics included obtaining official papers from Israel’s leaders so that he might conduct house-to-house searches for Christians and drag them off to prison and even to death — all out of allegiance to God. Even this man’s own authorized biographer placed him at the scene of one particularly brutal murder of a Christian, where he was observed aiding and abetting a howling mob as it stoned that Christian to death in cold blood.
In time, however, Christ heard the cries of His church, took note of this persecutor’s threats, showed him mercy, appointed him into His service. By now you probably know this man’s name: he was Saul, who became Paul the apostle.
An apostle, to be sure – but, clearly, a man with a past. And not just any past. His was a past of aggravated sins. Paul himself summarized his pre-Christian life in 1 Timothy 1.13.
First, he had to acknowledge that he had been “a blasphemer.” That is, Paul had a past as one who had slandered and defamed Christ. Not only that – he had a past as one who had coerced others, especially Christians, to slander and defame Christ too (Acts 26.11). Paul also had to own the fact that, as Saul, he had been “a persecutor.” If blasphemy had involved him in sins of word, persecution involved him in sins of deed. About himself Paul testified: “I persecuted this Way [the church] to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women” (Acts 22.4; see Philippians 3.8). With all candor he said, “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1.13). Given the frankness of his testimony, it is hard to avoid the words “terrorist” and “genocide” when describing the man formerly known as Saul and his mission.
Third, he couldn’t deny that he had been “a violent man,” a ruthless, insolent aggressor. As Luke tells us in Acts, “Saul [was] breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” So malicious was his warfare against Jesus and His followers that the apostle had to own a past in which the violation of basic human rights was standard policy for his treatment of Christians. Fourth, he had to confess that he had been one who “acted in ignorance and unbelief.” What a tragically ironic way to describe one’s past: Paul had to admit that, though he would have professed to believe God and to know His will, he actually disbelieved God and was ignorant of His will when he disbelieved in the Christ of God and assaulted His Bride. He had to acknowledge that, though he would have professed to love God and his neighbor, he actually hated both by hating Christ and His church.
From Paul’s own words, then, it is clear that he knew well the pit from which he had been dug. He was a man with a past in aggravated sin.
And how did the church respond to all this? At first, there was a lot of talk among the disciples about Paul, because they had known him when he was Saul. After all, it wasn’t too long after Saul’s campaign of terror against the Jerusalem church that he had shown up again in Jerusalem and attempted to join the disciples (Acts 9.26). The last image that the church had of him was his notorious complicity in Stephen’s stoning and in harassment of Christians (Acts 8.1-3). Clearly, the church wasn’t exactly thrilled to see him, because Luke tells us: “And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple” (Acts 9.26). We can just imagine the debate: “Shouldn’t his past matter? Isn’t it a predictor of what he will do in the future?”
In the end, it took the intervention of Barnabas to inform the Apostles in Jerusalem how Saul had become Paul (Acts 9.27). Only then did the church come to terms with the fact that, this time, a man’s past no longer mattered. Why? Because this time, Christ had shown mercy to a blaspheming persecutor. This time, Christ had made a violent man into a new creation (2 Corinthians 5.17). Christ Himself did not hold Paul’s past against him – and so neither should the church.
Wrestle and quarrel as we will about the relevance of a candidate’s past for holding national or church office, what about your past and mine: does it matter? If you have come to know yourself to be a sinner as Paul did when he was Saul, you know it matters. But what we learn from Paul is that our past doesn’t have to matter. Paul himself is proof of that fact. He wrote: “I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1.16). Paul’s point is clear: since he, the worst of sinners, was shown mercy by Christ, no other sinner, even those with a past in aggravated sin, needs to despair of Christ’s mercy!
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance” — in other words, you are in God’s “No Spin Zone” and what you read here has been authenticated as a message from Him worthy of your acceptance without any reservation — “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1.15), sinners who believe in Him for eternal life.