…though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. ~ Paul, 1 Timothy 1:13-14
What do you think when you see a stranger walking down the street? What do you think when a person speeding along the interstate cuts you off to pass someone on the right? What do you think when you see the news about someone who has robbed another? About someone who has murdered? About a terrorist who shouts for joy as he beheads another person?
The Bible tells us to think of each of these people as someone who needs the gospel and can be transformed by the grace and love of Christ. Pleasant or hostile, friend or enemy, neighbor or living on the opposite side of the globe—no one is beyond the reach of salvation in Christ, if only they hear his gospel, repent of their sin, and follow Jesus.
We sometimes have a hard time with this. Our feelings might not be set against the stranger we pass on the street and the anger might quickly fade against a person who cut us off so long as no other harm occurred; but a murderer and a terrorist?
Yet what was Paul before Acts 9, before he encountered Jesus?
He told Timothy that he was a persecutor. Acts 9 begins with the statement, “But Saul [Paul’s given name], still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters…so that if he found any [followers of Jesus], men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” In Galatians 1:13 he wrote, “You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.” And in Acts 26:10, he said that he cast his vote against imprisoned Christians in order that they might be put to death.
We don’t know if Paul himself ever personally executed anyone, but he arrested and had a hand in the deaths of many Christians simply because they were Christians.
By modern day definitions, Paul was a terrorist. And yet God granted him mercy that led to faith and repentance because everything he did was carried out “ignorantly in unbelief.” That doesn’t mean he didn’t know what Christians believed—every indication is he knew it well, and that was why he hated them so much. But he didn’t believe it himself. He didn’t grasp it as truth until that encounter with Jesus.
This means for us that as we engage our lives in sharing the gospel, no place and no person is off the table.
What if they want to persecute us and do evil to us because of our faith? We are to rejoice, finding our greater happiness in God as we show them love and pray for them (Matthew 5:10-12, 43-48). What if they want to kill us? We should have no fear because all they can do is kill the body, they can’t destroy the soul (Matthew 10:26-33). What if they refuse to live at peace with us and act as our enemies? Then if they’re hungry we feed them, if they’re thirsty we give them something to drink, so we overcome their evil with good (Romans 12:14-21).
Following Jesus is not about our comfort and safety. It’s about trusting an all-wise, all-loving, all-powerful God and his promise to give us life beyond death and joys forevermore. It is about looking at a world where many live in the darkness of the ignorance of unbelief and doing what we can to take them the gospel.
It’s about living as if none are beyond the reach of Jesus and his grace, for as many as will hear and receive the gospel message about him will find eternal life—no matter what their lives looked like before.
This post is part of our on going journey through the Bible as a church.