Persecution of Christians is only understandable when we know what a threat God’s mercy is to stubborn rebels.
Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.”
So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defense: 2 “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense against all the accusations of the Jews, 3 and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently.
4 “The Jewish people all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. 5 They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee. 6 And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today. 7 This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. King Agrippa, it is because of this hope that these Jews are accusing me. 8 Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
9 “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11 Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.
Christians are often viewed as strange people. At one level Christians would appear to be quite harmless. In general, they are quite docile people who try to be useful citizens of their community. The whole belief system takes them away from criminal and even dishonest behaviour. Christians view loving others as the appropriate life in the community. That doesn’t mean that Christians can’t behave badly but, in general, they will be trying to behave well and helpfully. In some ways, then, it doesn’t make sense that Christians should be treated with hostility; but they are.
Paul provides a little insight here into his motivations when he once persecuted the Church. In verse 9 he makes it clear that it was primarily antagonism toward “name of Jesus of Nazareth”. That is, he wanted to be rid of Jesus and all memory of him. This led to the imprisonment of Christians and even death sentences being passed on them. He forced Christians to blaspheme, that is, to speak in some hostile way about Jesus. He also shows he was angry with Jesus and Christians to the extent he was ready to pursue Christians to distant places. We might ask, why?
For the Apostle, in the days before he was converted, Jesus represented a great threat. It was hostility to the “name of Jesus”, which carries the sense of the authority of Jesus. If we wonder how Jesus was a threat, we need only consider the lifestyle of Paul before conversion. All the self-righteous works of Paul were rendered worthless if forgiveness and life are found only through Jesus’ work for us. His boasts of an elite status were also made nonsense if he needed to be saved by Jesus. Similarly, if people became Christians, then the legalistic control that he and other Pharisees exercised over people would be at an end. You can’t manipulate people with guilt if they know they are forgiven!
Perhaps most telling of all for Paul and other Pharisees was that when they were confronted with Jesus and his followers they were confronted with the reality of God. The deception Paul had fallen under was that God, though harsh and unbending, was pleased with religious zealots like him who were able to work their way into favour. The reality, revealed by Jesus and proclaimed by his followers, is that God is overwhelmingly holy and unimpressed by even the best of human effort. On the other hand, he is merciful and compassionate toward those who cry out for mercy from under their burden of sin. Paul faced the horrific problem that if Christians were right, he was pathetically wrong. He was fighting for his life as he attacked the Christians.
When Paul met the risen Lord Jesus his world collapsed, and he recognised that his one hope is Jesus. While this was a difficult step of humility for him, it is not unlike our daily need to lose control of our life and to rest in Jesus who lived died and rose again to save us. Then in the light of that work of Jesus we too need to move away from delusions of elitism, hostility to people with whom we disagree, manipulating people for our own purposes, false views of what God is like and especially our self-righteous disposition.
We are truly humbled by needing Christ to do all the work of our salvation.
Prayer: Father, please forgive me for the many times I have sought to glorify myself instead of you. Help me to humble myself and rest in and delight in my saviour Jesus Christ. In Jesus name. Amen.
A song to listen to: Mercy, Mercy