un temps pour pleurer . . . un temps pour se lamenter . . . Ecclésiaste 3: 4
People with no hope, no freedom, no grace, no forgiveness, doing the only thing they know to do: Use violence and terror to impose the same brokenness on others. They are brutal and merciless, but what they are not is outlaws. They are following a law, the law of moralism as dictated in their religious and civil code. And according to the system set up to interpret that code, all infidels are to be put to death at the command of the high priest.
One of the most promising adherents of this ruthless interpretation of the code was Saul of Tarsus. Oh, did you think I was talking about different violent terrorists? The Phariseeism of the first century that inspired Saul had at its root the same philosophy that drives the Islamic State and its sidekick strains of virulence. The young aspirant to the ruling class of religionists of his day found great satisfaction in a righteousness achieved by ticking items on a list, a form of moralism—faith in rules by which he believed he would be able to attain access to the presence of God.
And yet, this guy Saul was extreme. Perhaps there was psychological pathology to it for him. Haters of God abound, but who could so casually stand by and witness the execution of the first Christian martyr, collecting and holding the garments of the executioners, and not be sickened but a man who was deeply disturbed, driven by the bloodthirstiness of it? The account of the Acts of the Apostles says that immediately following the death of Stephen, “There arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. . . . But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” (Acts 8:1-3 ESV)
He says of himself: “I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.” (Galatians 1:13 ESV)
Saul was convinced he was pleasing God by going about this systematic elimination of the sect known as the Way. His righteousness stock was rising with each imprisonment, each murder, each cleansing. Or so he thought. He was trapped in a sin of rebellion against the true God that was so dark and horrific that he believed he could control the salvation of his own soul. Then he met the King of the Universe, the Messiah himself, whom his teachers had told him about, whose arrival he was still anticipating in earthly form, but who he believed hadn’t yet come. Here’s Luke’s account in Acts 9:3-8a:
Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing.
Jesus the risen Son of God confronted the bloodthirsty killer of his people and crushed any hope of reward for the years of “service” he had racked up. Saul could now not deny that all he had been doing for the sake of zealous attainment of glory and righteousness was vain, empty, vile, and foul. He had patted himself on the back for eliminating the followers of a fraud, the “fraud” that now appeared before him, risen from death and full of glory. With power, Jesus altered the universe, afflicted Saul bodily, and pierced his heart to bring to life the stone that was lodged there. Neither moralism or self-delusional righteousness could find quarter in a soul now inhabited by the Spirit of Christ. Praise God! Hallelujah!
After countless lives lost, families split up, terror stricken in the hearts of children, the Savior stops the terrorist in his tracks. Why now? Why not earlier, to prevent the deaths of so many who loved and followed the Lord with faith and devotion?
Following his conversion, Saul was blind for three days, did not eat or drink, and was visited by a leader of the Christians, Ananias, whose only knowledge of the man until recently was that he “had done much evil to the saints at Jerusalem.” But faith in the unseen rather than the unknown moved him to heed the Lord’s exhortation. “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:15-16)
I imagine with every trial and affliction, every adversity and humiliation that he experienced later in his life, Saul (a.k.a. Paul) recalled the ravaging and persecution and terror he inflicted on the people of his Lord—some who had already entered the presence of God, some who were now his brothers and sisters in Christ, bound in unity by suffering and love. Saul’s suffering was linked to theirs, and ours, and to the Savior’s as well, for the sake of the gospel, the holy calling (2 Timothy 1:8-12), so that he could say with his fellow Christians, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” (Romans 8:36)
But it wasn’t understood that way at first. Men and women reflecting on the horror that they’d seen, some perhaps even present when loved ones had been dragged away, never to be seen again, had the face of Saul seared in their memories as the one that gave the orders. Word traveled slowly in the ancient world, and many Christians had heard only bits and pieces about the “new” Saul, if anything at all. But the Lord does not desert him to gossip, random events or human persuasion.
. . . And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.
So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied. (Acts 9:26-31)
Once zealous for legal purity, Paul became urgent in his appeals that no one should succumb to the lie and destruction of believing that rules and external acts could acquire eternal rest. “We know,” he said later in his letter to the Galatians, “that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Acts 2:16)
Those other moralists on the other side of the world, who have begun a campaign of ravaging the church, dragging followers of Christ off to prison, inflicting terror on the world, cannot ever be justified by efforts to please God. They begin with a false deity; they have fabricated a false righteousness; they are inspired by a false hope. They are as spiritually dead and doomed to eternal destruction as Saul was. As we were as well, for though we have not murdered bodily, anger toward our brothers equals murder under Christ’s law (Matthew 5:22). It seems nothing can turn back the delusion that motivates them—and I would believe this if it were not for the account of Paul.
ISIS does not represent all Muslims, although it asserts that its interpretation of the Koran is the most accurate. Thousands of Muslims have been tortured and killed for not kowtowing to the dictates of the new moral law; for decades, many have fled to Europe, Asia and other Middle Eastern nations. Today, while the sweep of refugees across the European continent and into other lands such as ours portends danger, it does not negate the fact that many Muslims have been trying to get out of the way of the hammer of this bloodthirsty arm of Islam for years.
As Romans 8:22 says, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” The world appears to be in chaos, and yet, according to Christian missionaries to Muslim peoples, conversions to Christ are happening by the thousands in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. In a WORLD magazine interview (July 28, 2014), David Garrison, currently with the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Missions Board, where he served as a missionary for 25 years, states that he “believes between 2 and 7 million former Muslims have converted to Christianity in the past two decades.”
“I began compiling lists and ferreting out the truth, what I discovered was, in the whole course of Muslim-Christian interaction, there’s been 82 times, 82 movements, of Muslims to Christ of at least 1,000 baptisms or 100 church plants over two decades. Eighty-two times. Now here’s what’s striking: 69 of those have occurred since the year 2000. We are in the midst of the greatest turning of Muslims to Christ in history. I don’t think the church of Christ is aware of this. Even though it’s minuscule when you look at 1.6 billion Muslims—less than 1.5 percent of Muslims have been touched by the gospel at this point—we’re still seeing 84 percent of all movements that have ever happened are happening right now.”
David Vaughn, missionary to France, shared with me summer of 2015 reports he’d heard from colleagues in the southern provinces that there have been astounding accounts of mass conversions to Christ, new believers renouncing Islam and embracing the orthodox biblical teaching of Christ the Way, the Truth, and the Life, of forgiveness, and of grace alone. Says Garrison of the converts, “Jesus began to reveal himself through his faithfulness, and they realized that to follow Christ was not to follow a 2,000-year-old prophet, it was to follow a living Lord.”
Church, we need to be aware of this, especially when the news evokes fear and stirs up hatred and threatens to undermine our faith in the unseen. Just as Christ revealed himself to the bloodthirsty moralistic pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, he has done the same for all of us caught in our own ugly self-righteousness, and he is continuing to do so with people imprisoned in a dead and twisted religious history. Just as the first century church turned fear into welcome when they discovered that Paul had indeed been born anew by the power of Christ, so we must also accept and rejoice over these stories of new birth among our enemies.
The pain and suffering inflicted on the people of Paris deserves unadulterated compassion and empathy. Yet, there is more to the horror, however unimaginable it may seem, than the terror, loss and destruction. Instead of dwelling on the question, Is there no room for grace and forgiveness in this tragedy?, I must remember the world’s greatest crime, the death of the Son of God for the sake of the sins of man. Lest I chastise with “It’s not appropriate to pray for the salvation of animals like that”, I would be negligent not to recall that my rebellion put Jesus on that tree, and that God is not pleased with petulance in his disciples (Jonah 4). What do we do? Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45a)
As we weep for Paris and mourn the deaths of innocents* who were caught in the crossfire of a brutal attempt to achieve acceptance with a non-existent god, let us also pray for the Sauls of Islam. All are image-bearers of the one true God. Let us remember the greatest eternal need they all have — those fleeing the horror, as well as those being used as tools in the crossfire of Satan’s campaign against Christ—that if they deny God, either passively with a sophisticated enlightenment, or violently with the sword of evil, then without a Damascus road intervention, they are doomed to eternal destruction.
Let us storm the gates of heaven, that they might know what it is to follow a living Lord.
* popular meaning, not theological