Saul was a terrorist. His mission in life was to terminate everyone who believed in Jesus. It was an obsession. He breathed hatred for Christians. He despised them so much he wanted to rid the earth of them. He went from town to town on search and destroy missions. He would crash their meetings, torture them, and haul them off to prison. At their trials, he used his influence to have them executed. Saul viciously led his terror squads to attempt to annihilate the people who followed Jesus.
He hated the Christians so much because he hated Jesus of Nazareth. He believed that Jesus was a dangerous cult leader. A sham Messiah. A liar. A rip-off. He believed Jesus was an enemy of the status-quo, the time-tested and time-honored religion and way of life of his nation. Saul despised Jesus because he made the blasphemous claim to be the Son of God in the flesh. Jesus had been executed; so, at least, he was gone. But his influence did not die with him. So Saul took on the mission to obliterate the name of Jesus from his culture. He was willing to do whatever that took. If it meant killing every person who gave allegiance to the dead prophet, so be it. Saul’s mind became programmed with one radical objective: TERMINATE JESUS-FOLLOWERS.
One of his brutal assaults was targeted for Christians in the city of Damascus, which is over 150 miles northeast of Jerusalem, where this Terrorist was headquartered. Saul was not satisfied just for Christians to leave his community. He wanted to find them and destroy them wherever they went. He assembled his death-squad; they gathered provisions and the legal papers they would need and advanced on Damascus.
On the way, the Terrorist got the shock of his life. He was traveling on the road, and it was about noon. The sun was high in the sky. Suddenly there was another light in the sky – even brighter than the sun. It beamed down, like a huge laser, and surrounded Saul and his men. It must have hit him square in the face – before he could blink he was blinded. And it knocked him to the ground. Saul, the fearsome terrorist, lay in the road quivering in fright. The fierce, flashing, pulsating light of Heaven seemed to burn away every shadow.
Then a voice spoke: “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Why are you trying to get rid of me?
Saul responded: “Wh-, wh-, who are you?”
The voice answered: “Jesus.”
Jesus? The one who came from Nazareth and did miracles? The one who said obeying all those religious requirements don’t get you anywhere? The one who claimed he was the way to God because he was the Son of God? The one who alleged himself to be the King of God’s Kingdom? The one who was crucified and buried?
That’s the one.
You’re supposed to be dead and gone.
Now this could be trouble. Jesus is alive and well, present in radiant, divine glory, speaking from Heaven. Saul has been trashing his followers. It’s like if you took a sledgehammer and smashed up a car, believing some wimpy dork owns it, then you find out it belongs to Darth Vader. Yep, this could be trouble.
Jesus did have more to say to Saul. Summed up it was: “Saul, I want you.”
And the brilliant glory of Jesus shined into the Terrorist’s heart. It pierced the darkness of his arrogance and hatred. It lasered through his pride and anger. It penetrated to the core of his soul and bathed his deepest need. Saul did not feel condemnation, revenge, or judgment from Jesus. Later on, he told a friend, “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 1:14, NIV) “Grace mixed with faith and love poured over me and into me. And all because of Jesus.” (The Message)
(Saul On the Road to Damascus by Richard Serrin)
Jesus morphed the Terrorist. What Saul was looking for, working for, fighting for, killing for – to be right with God – was given to him by grace. That transformed him from the inside out. He made a 180 degree turn of his life and started in a new direction. His mind was reprogrammed with a new passion, a holy mission. His heart was radicalized from hatred and violence to love and care. Jesus morphed the Terrorist.
Think about the kind of vision of Jesus that began the change for Saul. It was not seeing the sweet baby Jesus in a manger. It was not hearing the great Teacher explain the standards of morality that ought to be obeyed. It was not seeing an example of how to get along with people. It was not hearing “just follow your heart.” It was not finding out how to be more religious. It was not a bland, inoffensive Jesus. It was not a Jesus who was pretty much the same as everyone else. It was not a Jesus who could be taken or left, and it doesn’t really matter. It was not a Jesus who compromised and commercialized his holiness. It was not a Jesus who could be used, manipulated, or fooled. But it was not a Jesus who led an armed militia forcing opponents to submit or die. It was not a Jesus who threatened and demanded and fought fire with fire, terrorism with terrorism.
The vision that changed Saul was the real Jesus. Risen from the dead, exalted to the throne of Heaven, reigning until he puts all his enemies under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:25). Jesus who is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus who is absolute righteousness and holiness. Jesus who unimaginably and unconditionally loves – not loves “if” or loves “when” or loves “because” or loves “but” – loves, period. Jesus whose passion for people is both intensely ferocious and gently merciful. Jesus who downpours extravagant grace and excessive kindness. Jesus who is the wonder of the universe – transcendent, magnificent, splendid, awesome, majestic, glorious.
Saul surrendered his heart to that Jesus and was radically changed. He stopped terrorizing Christians. In fact, he joined up with them and, in time, became one of their leaders and shared his story and the good news about Jesus wherever he went. But that’s not the half of it.
When Saul became a Christian, he gave up terrorism, but he still had enemies. The ones who still hated Jesus and his followers. His fellow Jewish religious leaders. His own countrymen. They went after Saul almost everywhere he went. They threatened him, ambushed him, jailed him, flogged him, beat him with rods, chased him out of town. They terrorized him.
This is what he said about them: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (Romans 9:2-4).
Do you get what he’s saying? He said he would be willing to be “cut off from Christ” for the benefit of those who were terrorizing him. He would be willing to give up his own relationship with Jesus – his own salvation, his eternal life – if that could bring them to their own faith in Jesus.
Saul did not just switch sides and keep fighting. He did not just change the target of his hatred and hostility. If that’s all he did, he would not have been a changed man. But he was changed. He gave up hatred and hostility and looked at his enemies the same way Jesus looked at him. He didn’t call them “terrorists.” He called them “brothers.” Even though they hated him and wanted him dead, he cared for them and wanted them to find the “grace mixed with faith and love” that he had received from Jesus. That’s how radical the change was.
Could this man be an example and inspiration for us? Could the change he experienced and the love he developed help us deal with terrorists in 2016? I believe in self-defense. I believe evil people need to be stopped, sometimes with deadly force. But I don’t think that’s all there is to it. That’s not the complete answer. The ultimate solution involves transformation, not just termination. We who have had abundant grace poured out on us from Christ and have believed in him so he can change us really need to let that affect our attitudes and goals related to the terrorism and violence and hostility that disturb the world. It’s very complex and I don’t know how to work out all the specific actions. However I know it’s critical that we believe in and follow the real Jesus and that we accept his Kingdom priorities for our own.
(Saul’s story can be read here: Acts 9:1-20, Acts 22:4-16, and Acts 26:9-19)