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There are 27 books in the New Testament. The apostle Paul wrote 13 or 14 of them (some are not convinced Paul wrote Hebrews). Here is one man who, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote most of the things Christians believe and follow today. The thing is, this man was a murderer (Acts 8:1, Acts 22:4-5, Acts 22:20) of Christians!
According to the scriptures, we know that the believers were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26). These Christ Ones followed a doctrine that was referred to as “The Way.” This derives from the Greek word ὁδός “hodos,” which means “road” (Acts 9:2, Acts 24:14,25). They followed the teachings of this Jesus fellow who came out of Nazareth (Acts 25:19). These Christians were telling the world that this fellow is the Son of God, that he died on the cross for all sins, and that he rose again from the dead!
Many of the followers of the teachings of Moses considered this doctrine blasphemy. Others who knew Moses’ teachings, and the prophecies concerning the Christ (the Messiah), recognized that this Jesus fellow was indeed the Holy One sent from God. Paul was a strict Pharisee (Acts 23:6, Acts 26:5, Philippians 3:5). He believed in a resurrection while the Sadducees did not (Acts 23:8). However, before Paul met the already Risen and Ascended Savior on that road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-8, Acts 22:6-11), he considered this Jesus fellow as nothing more than a blasphemer who got what he deserved. Paul was intent on getting all of Jesus’ followers to either change their way of thinking or die.
Paul had it out for the Christians. He went so far as to secure warrants (Acts 9:1-2, Acts 22:5) to take them from their homes and bring them back to Jerusalem to be judged. It is significant that he not only went after men who believed in this Way, but that he went after the women believers as well. The punishment they all faced was likely going to include death by stoning.
He was on a mission to stamp out this faith in Jesus of Nazareth actually being the Messiah (Hebrew language) or Christ (Greek language). The nation of Israel was waiting on the Christ to come, hoping he would deliver them from all of their oppression under the rule of their Roman conquerors. They were looking for the Christ to come in power to overthrow Rome rather than a Christ that must suffer, die and rise from the dead (Acts 3:18, Acts 26:22-23).
Another interesting thing is that Paul was born in Tarsus (Acts 21:39) making him a Roman citizen from birth. Talk about privilege! Not only was he trained under the law of Moses through a great teacher of the law named Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), he was also a free Roman citizen. Much of the rest of the people of the nation of Israel that Paul knew were just subjects under the rule of Rome. Even a Roman military commander Paul encountered was amazed because Paul was a Roman from birth while this commander had to buy his freedom (Acts 22:27-28). Ah, but since there is no such thing as coincidence, God had a plan for this Paul fellow. Like Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5), God knew Paul before he was even formed in his mother’s belly (Galatians 1:15-16).
Paul was the Roman name of Saul of Tarsus. Saul was his Hebrew name. Though some are under the impression that he had a name change when he believed in salvation through Jesus and was called to be an apostle, the fact is that it was common to have a dual name during that era of history in that part of the world. The scriptures show him being called by Saul when he was interacting with his Jewish brethren (Acts 9:24, Acts 9:26, Acts 11:25, Acts 11:30, Acts 12:25, Acts 13:1,2,7,9) and often referred to as Paul on other occasions when interacting with the Gentiles (non-Jewish people).
Paul was called by the Lord to be an apostle ( Acts 9:10-20, Romans 1:1, Romans 11:13, 1 Corinthians 1:1, 1 Corinthians 9:1-2, 1 Corinthians 15:9, 2 Corinthians 1:1, 2 Corinthians 12:12, Galatians 1:1, Ephesians 1:1, Colossians 1:1, 1 Timothy 1:1, 1 Timothy 2:7, 2 Timothy 1:1,11, Titus 1:1). This former murderer of Christians thought he was zealously defending the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by his acts of rounding up the followers of The Way to be judged. After his conversion on that road to Damascus he began preaching that this Jesus fellow is actually the Christ, the Son of God (Acts 9:20)!
However, Saul the Pharisee/Paul the Roman was known by all to be a bringer of death. To his brethren who rejected Jesus as being the Messiah, he was highly effective at gathering up and bringing to judgment followers of The Way. To the followers of this Way, he was a murderer. In the sight of God, he was a murderer! The Lord and his church long ago forgave Paul. No longer do we read words written by him or about his ministry and see him as a bringer of death (Acts 9:21, Galatians 1:13). No! On the contrary, now we see his apostleship as bringing life to the lost through the preaching of the Word. However, there was a time when Paul was lost, on his way to hell and a murderer of Christ’s followers.
Paul was obviously buffeted by Satan throughout his remaining years after he repented and believed on the Lord Jesus. It is apparent based on his own words. Paul spoke how he was the least of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:9) because he once persecuted the church, and he referred to himself as the “chief” among all sinners. (1 Timothy 1:15-16). The word “chief” in 1 Timothy 1:15 means “foremost.” Even though Paul indicated that he was at the head of the pack among all sinners of all time from any place, verse 16 tells us something important. Paul declares that one of the reasons God chose to show mercy on him in the manner that he did (turning him from a murderer into an apostle) was to show a pattern that was applicable to all of us.
Look with me to see how important this is to understand correctly. In Acts 28, we see an account of just after the time Paul was in a ship full of people that included his friends, likely some family members, Roman guards and other prisoners. Paul was on his way to Rome to be judged by Caesar when he was shipwrecked on the island of Melita. It was rainy and cold, so the people of the island kindled a fire to help the exhausted passengers of the ship that was torn apart (Acts 27:41). Then, it seems that it was about to get even worse for Paul.
Understand that Paul was once a hero of those who thought like he once did. Paul was zealous in persecuting this sect of the Nazarenes that the people, especially the religious leaders of the time, wanted to annihilate. He held the cloaks of those who murdered Stephen with stones (Acts 7:58, Acts 8:1, Acts 22:20). Paul then meets Jesus on the road to Damascus, and the Savior corrects Paul by showing him a new road (Way) to follow that ends up getting Paul accused of being a ringleader of this sect of the Nazarenes (followers of Jesus) that he once persecuted (Acts 24:5).
Paul then traveled great distances in an age when there were no automobiles, airplanes or even bicycles to carry out his assignment as being the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 13:44-49). Later in his ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles, we find him on his way to be judged by the Roman emperor. This is when Paul is shipwrecked on the island of Melita. If it was not for the protection of God, all those on that ship would have died (Acts 27:21-26). They all made it safely to the island. Paul then gathered a bundle of sticks to put on the fire that was kindled by the inhabitants of the island.
Just as in 1 Timothy 1:16 where Paul declares that what happened in his life is a pattern for future followers of Jesus, there is an example in Acts 28:3-6 that is extremely significant. Paul had turned his life fully over to his Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Whereas he used to bring believers bound to Jerusalem for judgment, he declared after his conversion that he was not only willing to be bound but also killed for what he stood for in Christ (Acts 21:13). The murderer was now sought after by the religious leaders of his time to be murdered because he placed his faith in this Jesus he was once so much against.
The barbarous (foreign) people on the island of Melita saw a man who escaped death from being shipwrecked only to have vengeance (justice) exacted by a venomous snake. The snake apparently was among the bundle of sticks Paul threw on the fire. The rain and the cold probably had this cold-blooded reptile unable to move much until the heat of the fire revived it enough to bite Paul on his hand (Acts 28:3).
The snake was a viper or ἔχιδνα “echidna” in the Greek. In Acts 28:4 it is said in the Greek to be a θηρίον
“thērion,” which means “dangerous animal.” The snake was poisonous and the people were waiting for Paul to die (Acts 28:6). Notice that Paul just shook the snake off into the fire (Acts 28:5). Into the fire! Did you get that? The devil himself once spoke subtly through the serpent in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1-4). Satan tempted human beings with a choice to do something contrary to the will of God. Both Adam (the first man) and Eve (the mother of all living) chose to do something contrary to the will of God thus resulting in the fall of all human beings (Romans 5:12). God, not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9), arranged from the foundation of the world that Jesus would pay the price of all sin (1 Peter 1:18-21). Now, Paul the murderer was redeemed by that blood that Jesus shed on the cross.
The inhabitants of Melita waited for Paul to swell up and drop over dead (Acts 28:6), but he felt no harm (Acts 28:5). The example here is a miracle in that the viper could not harm Paul as well as the fact that Paul apparently did not worry much about being bit by a poisonous snake because he just shook it off into the fire. The people of Melita who thought Paul was a murderer on whom justice was being served by the snake bite changed their minds when he did not fall over dead, considering him to be a god (Acts 28:6).
The people were partly right with their first thought. Paul was indeed a murderer. However, he was no god. Rather, he had been redeemed by the blood of Jesus. The sins of his past, even though they included executing the followers of Jesus, were forgiven. Not by what Paul did, but through what Jesus did. Paul knew that it was grace that saved him because he wrote about it in Ephesians 2:8-9. The bite of death from the snake held no power over Paul just as the bite from that old serpent, the devil, no longer has any hold over those who turn to Jesus for their salvation (Romans 6:23, 1 Corinthians 15:55-58).
As Matthew 25:41 speaks of the wicked being cast into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels, Paul shaking off that venomous snake into the fire is both a miracle of divine protection on Paul’s life as well as a declaration that judgment against the bringer of death from Tarsus was paid for completely on the cross of Christ. Now understand that the pattern Paul talked about in 1 Timothy 1:16 applies to everyone! If a former murderer of God’s people can be forgiven by God, declared not guilty because of his faith in Jesus being the sacrifice for his sins, made an apostle and write half of the New Testament, what can God do in your life if you let him?