|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
The week between the Festival of the Confession of St. Peter (Jan 18) and the Festival of the Conversion of St. Paul (Jan 25) is the "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity." Peter, the apostle to the Jews, and Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, represent the unity of the Christian mission to all people, as well as the particular mission of individual believers. Besides this distinction, Pfatteicher (Festivals and Commemorations) also presents Peter as representing "the Mosaic tradition of law, and Paul... the Abrahamic tradition of faith."
I would also suggest that Peter might represent those who moved from a non-religious life (an assumption about fishermen) to a life of faith; and Paul represents those who moved from a very strong legalistic religious commitment, to a grace centered faith.
My comments about the gospel reading will be sparse because I think that the other two lessons are better texts for talking about Paul's conversion.
Luke 21:5-36 is Luke's version of the apocalyptic discourse (par. Mk 13:1-37; Mt 24:1-25:46). However, in Luke, the discourse is addressed to an unnamed "they" in the temple, rather than to just the disciples on the Mount of Olives.
In all three accounts, Jesus' discourse is in answer to the questions: "When will this be?" and "What will be the sign?"
Other assigned sections of this discourse:
It would seem that this text was chosen for this festival because (1) Paul had been a persecutor of believers, thus fulfilling part of these words from Jesus; and (2) the converted Paul was persecuted and "brought before kings and governors" because of Jesus' name and he used such occasions as an opportunity to witness to them, thus fulfilling part of these words of Jesus.
One basic message from this text is that the times of conflict are also times of witnessing. Paul, as we read in Acts, certainly used in time in prison as opportunities to witness. He used his time before "kings and governors" as opportunities to witness to them.
I think that this is a question we need to ask ourselves: "How do we use times of conflict or turmoil as opportunities to witness?" For most of us, the conflicts we face will not be as severe as Jesus' mentions or as Paul experienced, but we face them.
Some years ago, a pastor in the town where I was serving died at age 52 of a brain tumor. It was frequently said that the way he approached his death over the months of his illness was a witness to his faith.
When a congregation is in the midst of conflict and turmoil, can their approach to the difficulties be a witness to their faith?
A word that is common to all three of our lessons is the Greek dioko = "to persecute" or "to pursue". It is used in our text in v. 21. It occurs in the First Lesson at Acts 9:4, 5 (also the parallels: 22:7, 8; 26:14, 15). It occurs in the Second Lesson at Gal 1:13, 23
In these verses from Acts and Galatians (also Phl 3:6; 1Ti 1:13), it is clear that Paul was the persecutor.
What was it about these believers that so angered (the unconverted) Paul that he persecuted them? A way I answered this in a sermon was:
I don't think that Paul found it too offensive that the Christians claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. That was open to discussion. Besides that, there had been many so-called Messiah groups before. Paul didn't try eliminating them. They usually just disappeared on their own. The Christian's belief that Jesus was the Messiah wouldn't have upset Paul all that much.
What, I think, got Paul so stirred up, was the Christians' claim that God's Messiah was sent to them. What kind of group were these early Christians? They were led by some fishermen, who could hardly understand Hebrew, who didn't understand or keep the Law too well. There were some tax collectors in the group. They certainly didn't deserve any of God's blessings. They had defiled themselves by working for the Romans and cheating their own Jewish neighbors. It was reported that there were even some prostitutes in the group of Christians. We all know that God would have nothing to do with people like that.
The fact that this group of unfaithful, law-breaking people claimed that God had come to them and chosen them is what stirred Paul to great anger. Paul was a devout keeper of the Law. He knew how God worked. What would this righteous God want with such a group of sinful people? Just to think that God would choose such a group of disrespectful people would have been blasphemous. Paul was going to eliminate the blasphemy against his righteous God. Even though Paul already believed in the one, true God, his thinking about God and himself needed changing. That is what happened at his conversion.
Paul was wrong! The Christians were right! The Messiah did come to these offensive, sinful, unlawful people. The Messiah came and chose these people who were outside the mainstream of proper society -- the people who had broken the law. The Messiah came and chose and saved the sinners.
That is how Paul's mind was changed. This is what his conversion brought about. God, through Jesus Christ, comes to those people who don't deserve it -- to the people we would least expect a righteous God to associate with. Paul even says that of himself. Paul deserved God's grace even less than any of the other Christians. He was persecuting the Christians. He was hard at work against God's plan. He was actively going against God's will. Yet God broke into his life anyway. Jesus Christ came and chose him when he deserved it the least: When he was one his way to arrest the followers of the Messiah.
What might happen to a pastor (or a lay person) who started bringing into a congregation alcoholics, drug addicts, homeless people, unwed mothers, etc. -- and declare that God loves them as much as every other member of the congregation. I'm certain that some people would object.
There are a number of verses that indicate that (the converted) Paul was the recipient of persecution (dioko -- 1C 4:12; 2C 4:9; Ga 5:11; diogmos -- 2C 12:10; 2Ti 3:11). In addition to these verses that specifically use the words "persecute" and "persecution," there are many other accounts of Paul being persecuted -- being arrested, beaten, imprisoned, etc.
What was it about Paul that now brought persecution upon himself?
In Ga 5:11, Paul is clear that it is because he is not "preaching circumcision" and in 6:12, he indicates that those who compel others to be circumcised do so, so that they might not be persecuted.
Paul's conversion meant changing the way he understood God's relationship with humans. It was no longer through external acts -- like circumcision or obedience to the Law. It was a relationship centered on love and grace. He was so convinced of this new understanding that he wouldn't back down even when threatened with persecution. Are we that brave? Do we add some legalism to our gospel proclamation, so that we might not be persecuted by those who consider their relationship with God as something created and sustained by our own actions?
Note also that v. 17 indicates that we will be hated by all because of Jesus' name. We need to be certain that if we are hated (and/or persecuted) it is because of Jesus and not for some other reasons.
A theme present in Luke's eschatological discourse is that the delay before the end comes, and the arrests and persecutions give the believers the opportunity to witness. A similar scene is presented in Acts 8:1-8. The severe persecution of the church in Jerusalem caused the believers and the gospel they proclaimed to be scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.
Using both Paul's life and our text, there should be no reason why we shouldn't witness. Persecutions and hatred in the present time shouldn't detour our witness. Ultimately we know that we have no need to preserve our lives. We are confident in the resurrection.
A prior life filled with mistaken notions and actions shouldn't detour our witness. In fact, Paul uses his own biography to support his proclamation about the unmeasurable grace of God. Perhaps a contrast might be made between Peter -- who was always making mistakes; and Paul, who considered himself perfect under the law. Both men needed Jesus. Both men learned that their past actions meant nothing -- Paul's good didn't save him, Jesus does. Peter's evil didn't damn him, Jesus forgives and saves him.
Brian Stoffregen, Marysville, CA