As the apostle Paul defended the genuineness of his apostleship and teaching, he informed the Galatian saints that he received the gospel which he preached through the revelation of the Christ (Galatians 1:12). In the next two verses, we read of his personal background before he became a follower of the Christ. Paul wrote:
For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. (Galatian 1:13,14)
What do we learn from these statements about Paul’s religious life before he obeyed the gospel? First, it is obvious that Paul was not only religious, but he was actively involved in Judaism. He was not an observer; he was a participant. He was not a proponent of Judaism in name only; it was the center of his life. No one could point a finger at Paul and say, “He is lukewarm or apathetic when it comes to his religion.” Yet, even though Paul was devoutly religious, he was lost as long as he was outside of the Christ (Romans 3:23,24; 6:3,4).
To his credit, in his pre-Christian life Paul vigorously opposed what he was convinced was wrong. He openly persecuted God’s church and tried to destroy it (1:13). The man had strong convictions, did he not? He considered the Lord’s church to be a false religion and a threat to Judaism, which he counted as the one and only true religion from God. What was Paul’s motive for his persistent persecution of God’s people? At least twenty years after his conversion to the Christ, he looked back and in his own words said, “Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9). So, Paul did what he did (oppose and damage Jesus’ church) because he was convinced that it was the right thing to do. Yes, he had strong convictions, but he was still lost outside of the Christ. Do those of us who today are members of Jesus blood-bought church stand up and oppose religious error as bravely as Paul stood against what he thought was false doctrine? We need to give that question serious thought.
A third thing that we observe from Galatians 1:13,14 is Paul’s advancement in Judaism. He advanced in it beyond many of his contemporaries. He had been trained in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, who was a highly-regarded teacher among the Jews (Acts 22:3). He also had authority from the highest positions in Judaism to carry out his attacks
against Christians (Acts 9:14; 26:10-12). Despite Paul’s high standing among the Jewish authorities, his “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1) did not please the Almighty. So, remember, a person can be of high standing in a religious movement and still be lost.
Paul’s zeal in religious matters was exceeded by none. He was zealous. He was exceedingly zealous. He was “more exceedingly zealous” (1:14). The man had amazing passion for what he did in the name of Judaism. As he said, he “was zealous toward God” (Acts 22:3). No one can be faithful in God’s sight without being zealous. Jesus wants His followers to be “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). Yet, we are reminded by Paul’s past zeal that just because one is zealous does not mean that he is saved. Remember, after Paul was converted, he prayed for Israel (the Jews) to be saved. Why did they need salvation? He admitted that they had “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:1,2). So, only zeal that is based on proper knowledge of God’s word leads to proper conduct.
Look further at the realm of Paul’s former zeal. It was zeal “for the traditions” of his fathers (1:14). Have you ever met anyone today that is zealous for the religious traditions of his family? Some refuse to accept the Bible’s truth because they are so influenced my man-made traditions. They know that submitting to the gospel message would mean going against the traditions that their loved ones hold so dearly. When their faith is not strong enough, they shrink back from obedience to the gospel and instead hang on to the commands of men which make worship to God vain or useless (Mark 7:7). Make no mistake about it: when Saul of Tarsus (Paul) turned away from the Jewish traditions and became a convert to “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), he knew that he risked alienating himself from many of his own family members and countrymen. What happened in his life after his conversion? He became the number one enemy of the Jews that continued to hate God’s church. But, thank God, he remained faithful to his Master.
What if the zeal, energy, conviction, and passion of Saul of Tarsus could be turned to serving Jesus and preaching His gospel? Thankfully, that is exactly what happened! The change in Paul’s life is one of the most amazing transformations in history. Praise God for his willingness to accept the truth.
— Roger D. Campbell
TRUTH is published monthly by the Klang church of Christ (http://klangchurchofchrist.org/) in order to help educate, edify, encourage, and equip the saints of God.