FROM THE WORST TO THE BEST
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Mary Marrow had just arrived in China as a missionary when the Boxer Rebellion broke out in 1900. The leaders of China blamed the missionaries for the problems of the land, and mobs began to violently persecute the Christians. They were dragged from their homes and forced to stomp on a cross or they were killed on the spot. Mary had come to China to serve these people and see Christ exalted through her life, and she is what she faced. She didn't even have a chance to learn the language. When she heard the angry mob approaching the mission compound she was frightened. She prayed that God would give her strength as so not to shame the other missionaries.
Suddenly she did a shocking thing, it was even a shock to her, for she ran out of the door and faced the mob. She cried out, "I am no good here! I speak such poor Chinese. So kill me. Save all those inside, for they have healed your sick, taught your children, and they love you. Tomorrow you will want them back again, and so kill me quickly." The soldiers were amazed at the courage of this girl, and they froze until their captain stirred them up. Then they attacked and killed her on the steps.
A memorial service was held in the states for Mary. She had gone out with such great dreams, but at such a bad time that she died before she could do anything. Twenty years went by and Mary was almost forgotten. Then one day a well-known Chinese General by the name of General Fang came to the mission headquarters and told them this story. He had been one of those vengeful soldiers who killed Mary. For 20 years he had lived with her words echoing in his mind, and the vision of her courage painted on his eyes. He asked himself how she could have been so brave, and when he heard of the Bible he got a copy and read it. He was searching for the answer to Mary's courage. He became a Christian and joined the church, and he became well known all over China as the Christian General. He purchased Bibles for his soldiers and had classes for them. Wherever he and his army went in China the crops and the women were safe. Mary Marrow's life had not been in vain after all. She didn't even learn the language, but her life made an impact on masses because through her a man of violence became a man of peace.
This true story has several paradoxes. It illustrates first of all that sometimes God uses those who do the least to accomplish the most. Because this is so we need to be faithful with our little, for God in sovereignty may use it for great things. The second paradox is that quite often the worse people become the best people. Never get so disgusted with a zealous servant of the devil that you forget that they may become a choice servant of God. And intolerant, bigoted, violent man can become an apostle of love and peace. This is precisely what Paul tells us about himself.
Paul tells us in verses 13 and 14 that he was always a very religious man, and he was zealous in his commitment to Judaism. Paul becomes a great example of both the danger and value of being religious. Sometimes we tend to assume that being religious is good, but the facts of history tell us that religious people have written some of the bloodiest chapters of history because of their zeal without knowledge. Religion can actually be a great tool of the devil. Jesus blasted the Pharisees for their zeal in traveling the world over to make one convert, but when they win him they make him more a child of hell then themselves.
Paul was one of those fanatical Pharisees who was literally working like the devil for the Lord. He violently persecuted Christians, and all the while was convinced he was doing it for the glory of God. Fanaticism always does evil with the conviction that it is good. Finley Dunne said, "A fanatic is a man that does what he thinks the Lord would do if he knew the facts in the case." William James said, "Fanaticism is only loyalty carried to a convulsive extreme." Nothing is so sure of its self as fanaticism. Jesus knew the fanatical zeal of the Jews, and He knew there would be men like Paul persecuting His church. He warned the disciples in John 16:2, "They will put you out of the synagogues; indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God."
Jesus fully understood the paradoxical nature of religious conviction. It can persecute the people of God and blaspheme the name of God, and all for the glory of God. There's not a crime known to man that has not been committed for the glory of God in the minds of those who do them. Paul only persecuted Christians because he was zealous to protect the law of God. He would not have been a great man in Judaism had he not been intolerant of what threatened the foundations of Judaism. It is important that we recognize that Paul was just like those who killed Christ. Jesus asked His Father to forgive them for they didn't know what they were doing. Paul also did not know what he was doing when he destroyed Christians. In I Tim. 1:13 he wrote, "I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him, but I receive mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief."
In his own mind Paul was convinced he was doing good when he was doing evil, and this does make a difference as to how God judges a person. God looks at the motive and not just the outward action. Folly because of ignorance is a different category from willful evil. If your child buys you some bubble bath and you discover you are allergic to it and break out, you do not scold the child for the gift. But if a child knows you are allergic and slips in to add some to your bath water, then your anger at this deliberate mischief is justified, and some degree of wrath is legitimate.
We need to keep this distinction in mind, for God does, and it makes a world of difference in how we interpret Paul's life. As rotten as were the things that Paul did, he obtained mercy because he was convinced that what he did was right. We are not trying to whitewash Paul's past, for he did not do that himself. He was guilty of the sin of fanaticism and extremism. Whatever his thorn in the flesh was, his thorn in the soul was the memory of his zeal without knowledge. He was never free from the vision of Stephen having the life knocked from him as he held the garments of those who stoned him. Paul spent much time in prison, and he must have often relived the experience of his past when he threw many Christians in prison. Paul was ever conscience of his former folly, and he freely shared it. Here in verse 13 he says to the Galatians that you have heard of my former life. Practically everybody had, for Paul shared his personal testimony everywhere he went.
When Paul went to Jerusalem and to the temple the crowd heard of his presence and a riot was started. Paul's life was in danger because they wanted to kill Paul, and he fully understood their anger. When he stood up to defend himself he said this in Acts 22:3-4, "I am a Jew born at Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as you all are this day." In other words, Paul understood their zeal in wanting to destroy him. He goes on to say, "I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women."
Paul gives even more details of his bloodthirsty zeal against the church when he defends himself before king Agrippa. This is his testimony in Acts 26:9-11: "I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth and I did so in Jerusalem; I not only shut up many of the saints in prison, by authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities." There is no doubt about it, Paul was a religious fanatic, and one of the most dangerous men the church has ever had to face. What a paradox! The man most responsible for establishing churches all over the world was the great destroyer of the church. Fanaticism always goes to extremes.
In the 19th century the immorality was wide spread and there was reaction against it. Lady Gough, the Emily Post of her day, gave this advise to respectable people: "The perfect hostess will see to it that the works of male and female authors be probably separated on her book shelves. Their proximity, unless they happen to be married, should not be tolerated." We can laugh at this extreme perspective, but you have to admit it was an extreme that began with a good motive to protect Christian morality. But it could so easily lead to the evil of persecuting those who did not comply, and this could make a capital offense out of a mere triviality.
History is filled with blood baths due to people who make their whims the will of God. Violators of the will of God they say should be destroyed, and so when their whims are violated they set out to destroy those who will not conform. This should make us extremely cautious to how we use the Old Testament as a basis for our actions today. Many times the church has appealed to God's command to destroy people in the Old Testament as a basis for persecuting non-conformists. Paul thought he was just like the heroes of old who were destroying idolaters when he persecuted the Christians. When he became a Christian, however, he never again advocated violence in dealing with those who were enemies of the truth. Paul fought heresy with great zeal, but as a Christian leader he never held the garments of Christians while he watched them stone a heretic. He fought error with great zeal, but he never once implied that any should be imprisoned or harmed physically for their error.
Paul's attitude became the very attitude that makes America the land of religious liberty. True Christians do not approve of violence against those who do not believe. Christianity, however, has been perverted time and time again. One of the saddest records of history is of how Christians have gotten even with the Jews for killing Jesus. The cross was a sign of terror to the Jews all through the middle ages, for it represented hatred for them. During the Spanish Inquisition thousands of Jews were killed and their property taken over by the church.
Nowhere does Paul advocate violence as the answer to the problem of heresy. Paul's answer is the book of Galatians. It is the answer of argument, persuasion and discussion. These are the methods that are the basis for the Christian battle, and these are the methods that are the basis for our country having true religious liberty. Paul's conversion has a great deal to do with the religious freedom we have as Americans. Had he brought over into his Christian life the attitudes he had as a Jewish leader, Christianity would be like all other religions where persecution of those who differ is common.
The Koran, for example, gives us an idea of how Moslems are to deal with unbelief. "When you encounter the unbeliever, strike off their heads, until you have made a great slaughter among them. Verily, if God pleased, He could take vengeance on them without your assistance, but He commands you to fight His battles." Most religions feel it is right to destroy those who do not believe, and whenever Christians have come to that same conclusion they have fallen to the sub-Christian level. Henry Buckle in History Of Civilization in England wrote, "It is an undoubted fact that an overwhelming majority of religious persecutors have been men of the purest intentions, of the most admirable and unsullied morals. Such men as these are not bad, they are only ignorant..." Paul admits that he was ignorant, but his conversion to Christ changed, not only his concept of the truth, but his concept of how truth is to be preserved. It is not by persecution but by persuasion and by a life that demonstrates it to be superior.
In contrast to other religions where vengeance is given into the hands of persecutors, listen to this series of advise from Paul to the Romans in chapter 12:14-21:
v. 14 "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them."
v. 17 "Repay no one evil for evil."
v. 19 "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God..."
v. 21 "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
Paul was a good and godly man as a Jew, but his intolerance made him an instrument of evil. He was a good man at his worst, and many godly people have been followers of that unconverted fanatic. May God help us to listen to Paul and observe the change Christ made in him, so that we can be followers of him at his best. Paul never saved anybody as a fanatic destroyer of men, but no one has won more than Paul the Christ-like fighter for truth. Jesus changed Paul from the worst kind of religious person to the best kind of religious person. May God help us to be like Paul at his best.