The first time we read about Paul’s life in the Acts of the Apostles is in Chapter 7, Jesus had been crucified and resurrected and had ascended to heaven just a couple of years earlier. The fledgling movement of Christ’s followers had exploded in Jerusalem. There now were thousands of people who believed that Jesus was in fact the long-awaited Messiah. These Jewish disciples of Jesus called themselves “followers of the Way,” and among them, surprisingly, were some of the rabbis from the party of the Pharisees.
In Acts 6 one of the leaders of the Way, a man named Stephen, was arrested and placed on trial. When he gave his testimony, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem convicted him of blasphemy and condemned him to death. In Acts 7 we first hear Paul mentioned in Scripture, though by his Hebrew name:
“Then they dragged [Stephen] out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul....And Saul approved of their killing him. “(Acts 7:58-60; 8:1)
It appears that Paul may have been about twenty years old at the time, which would mean he was quite young to be giving approval for the killing of Stephen.
Death by stoning required that the witness who testified against the convicted individual drop the first stones upon him. The fact that they laid their coats at Paul’s feet likely indicates that Paul was given authority to act on behalf of the Jewish leaders to oversee the execution.
We read in Acts that after Stephen’s death,
“That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria....Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison....Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (Acts 8:1, 3; 9:1-2)
What was it that motivated Paul to volunteer for the job of approving Stephen’s execution and then going from house to house to arrest followers of the Way? I think it may have been the same thing that caused him years later to write, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Galatians 1:14).
Early in his career Paul was eager to impress the Jewish ruling council in Jerusalem and to make a name for himself. In other words, it was Paul’s personal ambition, combined with his unwavering religious convictions, that I believe led him to the work of persecuting the fledgling Christian movement.
Thinking about ambition, let’s consider how Paul’s story might connect with your story or with the stories of people you may know. Many of us struggle with ambition. I have struggled with it my whole life. I remember praying years ago, “Lord, please take away my ambition.” And I felt him saying to me, “I’m not going to take it away; I’m going to use it, but your ambition must be for me and not for you.”
Some people are blinded by ambition and are willing at times to do horrible things in order to get ahead. Paul was convinced that followers of the Way, regardless of how devout or gentle or loving, had to be stopped. It wasn’t God that drove him to arrest those followers and approve their deaths. Blind ambition and unwavering religious conviction can be a dangerous combination.
It’s important for us to submit our ambition to God, directing it to his glory and not our own, and for the most part that’s what Paul seems to have done for the rest of his life. We can avoid acts that are contrary to our faith, as Paul learned to do, by holding our religious convictions with humility and never forgetting the commands of loving God and neighbor.
To help me with that task, I memorized Scripture—like Psalm 115:1, which I often repeat as a “breath prayer,” (the kind of prayer you can say in one breath): “Not to us, O lord, not to us, but to your name give glory.” I committed to memory Jesus’ question in Matthew 16:26, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (NIV).
When we fail to surrender our ambition to God’s purposes, when we live to seek our glory and are willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead, we are bound to fall. But if we succeed in surrendering our ambition to God’s purposes, we will help others find their way on the path of life.
That’s exactly what Paul was about to do.
Today’s post is an excerpt from The Call: The Life and Message of the Apostle Paul.