Saul – Good Heart Wrong Head
Lesson 46
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This study has focused on Bible characters whose experiences have significant end time parallels, and the life of the apostle Paul is no exception. To summarize the life of Saul before his conversion into a single sound bite, I would say, “good heart, wrong head.” If I were sum up the life of Saul after conversion, I would say, “Whole heart, right head.” The story of Saul’s transformation has dimensions that every Christian should consider because a complete paradigm shift is no small thing.

As a Child

Bible students know few facts about Saul’s childhood. Most scholars believe that he was born about A.D.12 in the coastal city of Tarsus. Tarsus was near the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea at a location about 250 miles southeast of where Ankara, Turkey is today. Saul belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, a tribe well known for its fierce and zealous devotion. (Genesis 49:27, Judges 20:15,16) Saul’s parents many have named him after the first king of Israel, who was also a descendant from the tribe of Benjamin. Because Pompey made Tarsus the capital of the Roman Province of Cilicia in 67 B.C., Saul came into this world having two identities: He was a Jew by nationality, and he was also a Roman citizen. This unique combination ultimately enabled Paul to travel and speak for god in places and languages that few people could have done at that time. As a city, Tarsus was noted for its advanced schools, including a respected school in stoic philosophy. The pride of Tarsus was its academic prowess and this son of Tarsus was no embarrassment.

As a young man, Saul decided to serve God as a rabbi. His passion for learning was as great as his ability to absorb and comprehend. As a lad, Saul probably traveled to Jerusalem with his father for the appointed feasts. It must have been an awe-inspiring treat for young Saul to see the grandeur of the temple and the fascinating services the priest conducted. Perhaps it was these events that inspired Saul to dedicate Himself to God’s service. Saul was not a Levite, so he could not become a priest, however, he could do the next best thing and become a member of the Pharisee party.

After completing studies in Tarsus, he was accepted into the school taught by the Pharisees scholars in Jerusalem. There, he studied under the famous teacher, Gamaliel. (Acts 22:3) I believe Saul was about 18 when he arrived in Jerusalem, shortly after Jesus ascended to Heaven in A.D. 30. Saul was deeply passionate about his religion and being accustomed to a life of self-denial, he paid careful attention to right doing. Saul was totally committed to becoming a Pharisee. He was a zealot in every detail; energetic, intense and ideological. He was an exemplary student, and because he was intellectually superior, his teachers were confident this young man would have a bright future within their ranks. It has been said, “love is blind.” If this is so, then Saul’s love for his religion led him to be totally convinced of the inerrancy of the Pharisaical doctrines and the righteousness of his ways. Years later he wrote,”…If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” (Philippians 3:4-6)

Religious Parties

In Saul’s day, Israel consisted of several religious sects (or denominations) much like Protestantism today. Tensions between various sects were openly hostile and militant toward each other at times. Constant friction made it difficult for Rome to govern Jerusalem. Because Jerusalem was a city of relatives having competing views about God, it was a contentious place in which to live. No doubt this caustic environment was one reason why John the Baptist conducted his meetings in the desert.

When Saul arrived in Jerusalem for advanced schooling, tow religious parties dominated the scene. As you might expect, these two parties represented the liberals and the conservatives. The Pharisee party, to which Saul had pledged himself, was known for its pious commitment to righteousness through austerity and rigor. As conservatives, they were zealous for righteous living and were quick to condemn anyone who violated their rules of righteousness. (Mark 2) They believed righteousness was of utmost importance because they thought unrighteous people could not receive eternal life. Therefore, the Pharisees were constantly codifying righteousness by defining rules for every aspect of life. For example, when it came to Sabbath observance, the Pharisees had codified more than 400 rules for proper Sabbath observance. The Pharisees were convinced that life in the hereafter was only possible through rigorous obedience to God’s laws. Their winning argument was: “Would God grant eternal life to a sinner who chose to live in ignorance and defiance to His laws?” Because Israel had a long history of apostasy, the Pharisees “reasoned” that using a heavy legalistic doctrine would “help” the Jews prevent apostasy from occurring again. (Matthew 23) It is ironic that the greatest fear of the Pharisees was apostasy.

The religion of the Pharisees required conformity to rules rather than purity of heart. (Matthew 3:7-10) To them, a zeal for conformity was the evidence of a “new heart” mentioned in Ezekiel. (Ezekiel 18:31; Jeremiah 31:33) Pharisees loved religion; it was their God. They believed that if a “righteous person” happened to have any “unknown” sin in his life, the righteousness of Abraham, their father, covered any deficit. (Genesis 15:6; Luke 3:8) Perhaps Saul was attracted to the Pharisees because like him, they were dogmatic and their thirst for advanced education was insatiable. (John 5:39,40; 2 Timothy 3:7)  The Pharisees considered the Old Testament, plus the writings and traditions of the rabbis to be the  “Word of God.” Therefore, the Pharisees staunchly defended the traditions and orthodoxy of Judaism more aggressively than any other party in Israel.

The other leading party of the time, the Sadducees, was also legalistic and politically powerful, but in a different way than the Pharisees. The Sadducees did not believe in a hereafter. Consequently, they were self-indulgent and focused on obtaining wealth, pleasure, status and comfort.  Even more, they rejected all but the first five books of the Old Testament. The Sadducees were legalistic pragmatists. For example, they saw nothing wrong with hiring Gentiles to work for them on Sabbath, as long as none of the Gentiles lived within their gates. (Exodus 20:10) The Sadducees despised the austere lifestyle of the Pharisees and they constantly argued with them over theological differences. Overall, it seemed that the Sadducees held control of Israel politically, while the Pharisees held control over the people religiously.

A.D. 30 Christianity Begins to Grow

Before we examine Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, we need to highlight developments that happened in Jerusalem while Saul was attending school.  After the apostles baptized 3,000 believers into the kingdom of God on that great day of Pentecost in A.D. 30, the Christian movement in Jerusalem began to expand rapidly.  Over the next four years, various disciples of Jesus were publicly humiliated and punished for promoting what was considered an inflammatory religion that was highly critical of Jewish leaders and the teachings of Judaism. As is so often the case, the more Jewish leaders persecuted the disciples of Jesus, the more popular they became!

The Bible says, “The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade.  [In the temple complex].” (Acts 5:12, insertion mine) Proselytizing in the temple and healing the sick on the streets produced a large number of converts. As Christianity grew in popularity in Jerusalem, the Sadducees became highly agitated. Their political support was eroding. The Pharisees were also alarmed because people called them the enemies of God. The Christian movement was different than anything Jewish leaders had ever seen before. The disciples of Jesus were performing genuine miracles daily, just like Jesus had done! People who had suffered from lifelong illness were being healed, right before the eyes of people who were intimately acquainted with their illness. These wonderful and joyous manifestations of divine power were the talk of the town and crowds flocked to hear and see what the disciples of Jesus were doing and saying.

“…People brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.” (Acts 5:15,16) Boldly, Peter and the disciples spoke and performed miracles and Jewish authorities could not rebuff them. Christians were teaching salvation through belief in Jesus Christ. They were preaching to the Jewish people that Jesus was man’s High Priest and the temple rituals were no longer necessary. The Christians exclaimed that Pharisees and Sadducees had slain the Lamb of God! Over the course of time, the Pharisees and the Sadducees held several meetings to discuss proposals that would shut down the growth of Christianity.  Christian doctrine and influence was threatening the survival of Judaism and something had to be done.

The Sanhedrin

The Sanhedrin was Israel’s highest court. The 71 members of the Sanhedrin came from all religious parties according to election and/or bribery. The Romans granted the Jews (and other similar tribal nations) a limited amount of civil power to deal with their own people. As far as the Romans were concerned, tribal nations were allowed to impose their cultural laws as long as they stayed within the higher laws of Rome. Granting this type of authority freed the Romans from the onerous chore of passing judgment on meaningless and disputable matters like religion. However, there was one law above all others that Rome imposed on all tribal nations. The Romans made it clear that tribal nations did not have the power to punish any Roman citizen. Every Roman citizen had the right to appeal to Caesar.

You may recall that after Peter denied being a follower of Jesus in Pilate’s judgment hall early Friday morning before the crucifixion, Peter’s remorse and broken spirit allowed him to have a “born again” conversion that weekend. (John 21:15-19) The Lord restored Peter’s credibility among the disciples by empowering him with enormous Holy Spirit power. Thus, it was Peter who boldly led the way at Pentecost when 3,000 souls were baptized. Later on, God used Peter again in a powerful way when the Holy Spirit revealed to him a deception of Ananias and Sapphira. Their sudden death had a profound impact on the early church. (Acts 5) For all his faults and weaknesses, Peter had certain qualities the Lord could use, but only after Peter was converted. Peter became bold in God’s grace and strength, no longer depending on his arms of flesh. Peter was a “black and white” kind of guy, leaving no gray areas in his mind. He did not mince words about the atrocities of Jewish leaders, especially when telling the Jews about the murder of Jesus. Peter’s boldness had a price for which he was arrested and imprisoned, but an angel miraculously freed him from the chains of his captors during the night. A few days later, Peter rallied the apostles and they went out on the streets of Jerusalem again. No human can thwart this kind of determination and power.

When the Sanhedrin heard that Peter was out of prison and that he and the apostles were healing the sick on the streets of Jerusalem again, they immediately sent a captain and soldiers for him. Notice what the bible says, “At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them. Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,’ he said. ‘Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.’ Peter and the other apostles replied [in never-to-be-forgotten-words] ‘We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead – whom you have killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.’ When they heard this, they [members of the Sanhedrin] were furious and wanted to put them to death.” (Acts 5:26-33, insertion mine)

The Bible record continues: “But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a while. Then he addressed them: ‘Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in a revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourself fighting against God.’” (Acts 5:34-39)

The wisdom of Gamaliel is legendary for good reason. No wonder Saul wanted to sit at his feet. The words and influence of Gamaliel during the meeting brings up a very important point. Consider this: For centuries, Christians have viewed the Pharisees with a certain amount of contempt. This contempt rises from the New Testament. Christians believe that Jesus is “God in the flesh.” They find the Pharisees and the Sadducees to be so blinded by their religious dogma that they cannot even see that Jesus is the Messiah. Consequently, a certain amount of contempt has been held down through the centuries for those who participated in Christ’s death. But is this Christian contempt for the Jews appropriately placed? Consider this:


Jesus came to Earth at God’s appointed time. His birth was not a random event. The timing of Jesus’ birth and ministry on Earth was predetermined to that Jesus could challenge the finest religious system that man could produce. (Galatians 4:4) God wanted to demonstrate the reaction and behavior of the world’s best religious system when confronted with truth. In other words, the contest between Jesus and the Pharisees is a parallel of Jesus versus any religious system! This is an end time parallel that everyone should consider. Some of the Pharisees, like Gamaliel, were sincere and devout. The Jewish people respected them because they were dedicated to selfless sacrifice for the service of God. The Pharisee party was horribly misguided, but Gamaliel was not an evil man. He was a spiritual man, a good man in a religious system that commingled the doctrines of men with the truth of God. (Mark 7:7) As a Pharisee, Gamaliel had a “good heart” but a “wrong head” when it came to understanding the fulfillment of Scripture. His comments prove that he wondered in his heart if Jesus might be the Messiah.

A Christian cannot appreciate the contest between Jesus and the Pharisees until he/she also discovers that he/she actually suffers from the same problems that afflicted the Pharisees. A blind man cannot see. A blind man cannot see what he should see unless, (a) there is someone to open his eyes, and (b) he is willing to open his eyes. When people are blinded by the certainty of their own religious dogma, they cannot see or understand their own blindness! This is a problem that every human being must wrestle with. The Pharisees were convinced they were right and everyone else was wrong. Jesus came into their world and spoke truth. The result was a deadly confrontation. Here is a profound thought: Our ability to understand truth is proportional to our willingness to consider truth. We cannot mature in an understanding of truth unless we are willing to submit to what we have learned. We cannot enjoy the freedom and the joy of truth until we come to a place in life where we decide to follow truth – no matter what it is, or what it costs.

The Pharisee Test

There are some pharisaical ways in every human being. Here is a short test that demonstrates this. The Pharisees hated Jesus for three reasons: First, Jesus did not show reverence for the ideas they respected. Jesus insulted their piety, their culture, their ideas about salvation and their overall view of God. (If Jesus came into your church and did this to you, how would you react?) Second, Jesus embarrassed the Pharisees by condemning them with their own words. Jesus caused people to have less respect for the Pharisees with each episode of embarrassment. Jesus continually demonstrated how the religion of the Pharisees was driven by vanity. (If Jesus embarrassed your church leaders every time they made a religious statement, how would you feel?) Third, Jesus performed miracles every day to back up His outrageous claims. Since the Pharisees could not perform miracles, Jesus’ actions further humiliated the Pharisees in the eyes of the people by proving they were spiritually devoid of God’s power. (What would your church leaders do with a miracle working person in their midst who taught a strange and different doctrine?) To be confronted with God and His truth is not a causal experience. During the Great Tribulation, the confronting presence of truth will push every person into either defiant rebellion or complete submission. There will be no middle ground. Jesus told His disciples, “For whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40)

“The Way”

This bold new Christian belief system threatened the culture and traditional way of the Jews, so the Pharisees and Sadducees united against a common enemy called “The Way.” The Christian movement was initially called “The Way” because Jesus said, “…I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, italics mine) As time passed, members of “The Way” became known as “Christians.” (Acts 11:26)

During the first four years of Christian growth in Jerusalem, Saul was a graduate student in the school of the Pharisees. As tensions mounted between Jews and Christians, young Saul, a zealous ideologue, came to despise Christians because their actions were tearing down the very institution to which he had dedicated his life. By the end of A.D. 33, the Sanhedrin was forced to ignore Gamaliel’s words. The Sanhedrin finally concluded that the death penalty must be administered to all dissidents belonging to “The Way” or chaos would ultimately bring the wrath of Rome down upon Jerusalem.

Note: The Romans required tribal nations to keep peace in their cities. If a civil disturbance required the presence and services of the Roman army, the Romans would destroy the entire city. Total destruction was Rome’s way. This action prevented many problems from reappearing in the future. Of course, loot from the city was used to pay Rome’s mercenary soldiers.

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