Failblog: Paul – the Fail of Zeal without Knowledge
We are nearing the tail end of a series called Failblog in which we have discussed the fact that though we strive for the win, we are fallible, we all fail – even the best of the best fail as we have seen with Moses, David, and Peter. This morning, we are going to look at another one of the best – a Biblical giant.
Today we will be looking at a man who wrote about half of the books in the New Testament and took the Gospel message outside of the nation of Israel and started churches throughout the Mediterranean rim, spreading Christianity like wildfire. This man has churches named after him and is considered historically to be the most influential man for the Christian movement second only to Jesus. We are looking at Paul the Apostle.
But before he was Paul the Apostle, he was Saul of Tarsus.
Now Saul was an Israelite, part of the chosen race that belonged to Yahweh. He was a Pharisee and as far as keeping the Law of Moses (10 commandments and all that) he was faultless, like perfect. He was a very religious individual who always did what was right. One word that could characterize Saul was zeal. Saul was zealous. He had fervor for whatever cause he took up, he was diligent and enthusiastic and ardent in his religion. He wanted to do the right thing. He wanted to please God. That’s why he followed all the rules, keeping the Law. Saul was zealous.
Now we don’t have any record in the Scriptures of Saul encountering Jesus during his ministry before he was put to death. But after the crucifixion, we know that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day and met with the apostles – his closest disciples, taught them and commissioned them to go and preach and teach in the name of Jesus. We also know that the religious leaders who had Jesus put to death did not appreciate this very much so they did everything in their power to stop this movement.
This is where we are introduced to Saul of Tarsus. In Acts 6 a man named Stephen who was full of God’s grace and power performed great wonders and signs among the people but opposition arose from the members of the synagogue who began to argue with him. But since they couldn’t stand up against his God given wisdom granted by the spirit, they secretly persuaded men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” Now that’s a no-no in Israel. You don’t say anything bad about Moses. So they got these false witnesses who said, “This fellow never stops speaking about this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
So Stephen gives the most extraordinary speech in response. In his speech, he basically says everyone you guys love right now were hated by their contemporaries.
And he concluded by saying, (Acts 7:51-53) “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised You are just like your ancestors: you always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One And now you have betrayed and murdered him – you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”
In other words, God’s people have a history of rejecting a person or idea and then hundreds of years later that very person or idea is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Joseph’s contemporaries hated and rejected him, but you love him; you look back and say that they did him wrong. Moses’ contemporaries rejected him, but you love him; you look back and say that they did him wrong. The contemporaries of the prophets rejected and killed them. You love them; you look back and say that they did the prophets wrong. But those prophets predicted the coming of Jesus and the kingdom that he would bring. And now you have done the same thing to Jesus that all your ancestors did. You rejected and murdered him.
The implication: one day in hundreds of years everyone is going to love Jesus and look back on you guys and say you did wrong. What a powerful speech! I mean wow. What can you say to that? Nothing. So, when you’re outwitted, when you’re outsmarted, when you can’t argue back with logic or reason, or truth, or scripture, what do you do? Exercise worldly power to get your way. You make an example out of him to instill fear in people.
Acts 7:54ff54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. (chapter break fail)
Acts 8:1 And Saul approved of their killing him.
There’s our buddy Saul. This is where we are first introduced to Saul of Tarsus. He is present at the stoning of Stephen; they are laying their coats at his feet and he approved of their killing Stephen.
Acts 8:1b ff
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.
Saul, once again, is zealous. He sees this Jesus movement as a threat to his religion, to his tradition. So he begins to destroy the church. He goes from house to house and drags Christians off to be put in prison. That is zeal. That is fervor. That is ardor. That is diligence. Paul is so zealous for his religion, his traditions, his God that he would approve of the death of this man Stephen, and then proceed to go from house to house to imprison Christians.
But it doesn’t stop there. Luke takes a break to tell us about some of Phillip’s encounters and then returns to the story of Saul in chapter 9.
Acts 9:1ff Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.
UH OH! FAIL! This was an EPIC FAIL! His thought was, “Hey, God, you know I’m a super religious guy who always follows the rules and does all the right things; I’m doing you a favor. You got these people over here worshiping this Jesus guy and trying to get rid of the Temple and the Law and we can’t have that. So let me help you out here. I’m going to stamp out this blasphemous movement for you. If I find anyone who belongs to the WAY I will imprison them.” That’s what they called it back then – the Way. They weren’t called Christians until two chapters later in Antioch.
FAIL, Saul. EPIC Fail. I know you are zealous, but you are zealous for the wrong thing! Saul learned a very important lesson here – one that was in his Scriptures for hundreds of years – one found in the book of proverbs. Prov 19:2 it is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.
It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.
Saul had zeal, but he lacked knowledge. He knew the Law and the Prophets, but he didn’t know the Jesus to which they were pointing. He was hasty to jump on board with the popular view and he missed the way, literally. In his zeal against followers of “the Way” he missed the way. He persecuted followers of Jesus, thinking he was doing God a favor by purifying God’s people, when all along he was going against God, persecuting God’s true chosen people. And here in our text, Jesus makes him painfully aware of his epic fail.
It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.
In Saul’s day the popular view among the religious people was that Jesus was a blasphemer, and the religious leaders pressed hard, zealously to stamp out Christianity. Though their view was popular, though all of the well-respected men of the day and teachers of religion taught it, though it was in line with their traditions…it was wrong!
That which is popular, isn’t always right.
Tradition isn’t always right.
And one very valuable lesson we can learn from this fail is that…
We aren’t always right.
Saul learned this principle the hard way. Can you imagine what must have flashed through his mind in that moment when he thought we was doing the right thing, doing God a favor and found out from Jesus himself that uh uh nope, wrong. You’ve been zealous for the wrong things. The Law of Moses and the Temple are on their way out and I, Jesus am here to stay. Henceforth, true worshippers will worship God in spirit and in truth, in ME. And you, Saul, have made a serious mistake, a grievous error. It is not good to have zeal without knowledge. You have been hasty and missed the way. Now look what happens.
19b Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.
And the rest of the book of Acts is about this Saul of Tarsus, who is now Paul the Apostle, traveling around the Mediterranean rim, preaching the gospel of Jesus, establishing churches, and then writing letters to them, many of which are preserved for us today in the Bible.
Paul was so sure that God wanted him to maintain the popular well established religious system of his day that he zealously persecuted Christians. But he was wrong. Epic fail. He ended up becoming the greatest advocate for the thing he tried to destroy.
He became the thing he hated. He was hasty and missed the way. He didn’t realize there was an alternative to his interpretation of his scriptures.
Wouldn’t it have been wiser for Saul to go find the leaders of this Jesus movement and say, “Listen, guys, I think this is a dangerous path for the following reasons. But before I persecute you the way my colleagues have, I just want to sit down with you and hear from you. Tell me your side of the story. Explain to me from your perspective why it is that you think this Jesus is the Christ, why you think he is the son of David who was sent to rule over the kingdom. I want to learn more before I take a hard stance against this.”
Think of how many Christians who would not have suffered – 3 or 3.5 years of persecution. And consider how much regret he could have saved himself. He had to love with that for the rest of his life.
Near the end of his life, Paul wrote a couple of letters to one of his disciples named Timothy and we are fortunate to have them preserved for us in the Bible. In one of those letters, he looks back on his fail and he says the following:
1 Tim 1:12-14 12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. 13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
How ironic, right? Paul once persecuted and imprisoned those in Jesus’ service and now he thanks Jesus for considering Paul trustworthy to appoint him to Jesus’ service. And ironically, he used to call Christians blasphemers for worshiping Jesus, but here, he admits that it was he who was once a blasphemer. He used to justify his violence and persecution because he was zealous for God, doing it in the name of his religion. But here he points out that his violence and persecution was wrong. He recognizes how epic his fail was. But in his fail, much like we saw with Peter’s we see the abundant grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here is Paul, persecuting God’s people and look at the grace of Jesus.
Paul characterized his fail as acting in ignorance and unbelief.
It takes a mature and enlightened individual to admit that he was acting in ignorance. But again, by this point he grasped the fact that it is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.
In fact, this is what Paul says in another letter:
Rom10:1-4 1 Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2 For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. It is not good to have zeal without knowledge.
3 Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. In their lack of knowledge, in their haste, the Israelites are missing the way. The way is not the Law. The way is Jesus. Jesus is the culmination or end of the law. The way of righteousness is not through the Law and it’s certainly not through persecuting and killing Christians. Take it from me. I got a cosmic spanking on my way to do that very thing and I found out that persecuting Christians is actually persecuting Jesus because Christians are the Body of Christ. And Jesus is the way the truth and the life.
And speaking of ironic. Check out what Paul says in the letter he wrote to the church in Philippi:
Phil 3:4-8 4 If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:5 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; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
I used to have the most prestigious religious pedigree ever. And as for zeal, persecuting the church. That’s how zealous I was. Notice that his next sentence starts with BUT. But, it is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way. BUT!
7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ
Once Paul knew Christ, the things he formerly considered profit, he now considered loss & garbage / rubbish.
All the time I spent focusing on the Law and persecuting Christians, I could have and should have focused on knowing Jesus, loving Jesus, serving Jesus. And all of that time, energy, and effort – all that zeal is wasted. It’s like I invested in the wrong stocks. If I would have known then what I know now, I would have invested in apple stock or google stock. I would have invested in the New Covenant, in the Kingdom, in Christ, but I wasted my investments. All that stuff I once considered profit is pointless, it’s loss, it’s garbage, it’s crap. I was zealous for the wrong things! It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.
Within the community of God’s people, there have always been differing views. It’s one thing to hold to a view. It’s another thing to argue with opposing views and tell other people they’re wrong. It’s another thing to kill people for their opposing views. Today, for the most part, we are much more sophisticated and don’t kill people but we sure do slay them with our words when we disagree. We still name call. We still ostracize and excommunicate and shun.
When it comes to disputable matters, wouldn’t it be wiser and more mature to say I’m not sure, my cement is still wet in that area, I’m still studying that and I haven’t landed on a firm position, but I lean this way. I wouldn’t argue about it, break fellowship; I wouldn’t name call. It isn’t a hill I would die on. And in fact I’m open to hear your view and learn from you. We can agree to disagree.
But I plead with you: please, DO NOT argue zealously for a position if you lack knowledge. If you cannot defend your own position. If you don’t understand the opposing view fully. Do NOT call someone else names or say that they are dead wrong.
Think about it this way. If I was on a journey with a few of you, and we were headed to a destination somewhere, we are pretty dependent upon the GPS on our phone to help us get there. But we are out in the Boonies and we have no signal. We come to a fork in the road and I say, “I’m not really sure where to go from here.” The path to the left looks suspicious because the path is not very worn; it looks like it hasn’t been traveled as heavily, but the path to the right looks well worn, well traveled. Two of you said I know which way we need to go. And one of you said left the other said right. The argument escalated and the one that said right was more adament more zealous and I took your advice and went right. What would happen if you were wrong?
How far would we go in the wrong direction before we saw the error in our ways, before we realized that we were too hasty and missed the way? Wouldn’t it have been better to pause at the fork and say, I am not 100% sure. Let’s collect more data before making a firm decision before we go too far in the wrong direction? Wouldn’t it have been better to admit we weren’t sure and ask for directions from someone who knows better? Well, if it was an all male group that option is off the table because we don’t ask for directions, right?
It’s tempting to be hasty and say, but the path was more worn this way which means more people went this way historically. Well, if the majority have gone this way it can’t be wrong, can it? Thousands of people can’t be wrong can they? If it’s popular, it has to be right, doesn’t it? Does it matter how many people went that way if they were all wrong? But how can so many people be wrong? What if that well worn path was well worn by the chupacabra along that well worn path? Wouldn’t that just mean that lots of people traveled down the wrong path? Do you want to follow the majority down the wrong path?
Jesus said the path is narrow that leads to life and few find it. The path is broad that leads to destruction and many find it.
Doesn’t majority get it right?
Do you know that at one point, a man named Martin Luther stood up to the church, the religious leaders, and said, um, your indulgence system, which allows freedom from God’s punishment for sin to be purchased with money, that’s wrong. In fact, a lot of what the church is doing is wrong. The Bible teaches that salvation is not earned by good deeds, but is a free gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus alone. And the Bible is really our only source of divinely revealed knowledge of God, not the pope. The church (aka the religious leaders, the majority) didn’t like what Martin Luther was proposing, so guess what they did? They excommunicated him. Because the majority and tradition can’t be wrong, can they? Not for hundreds of years! But we enjoy freedom from such tyranny today because of Luther’s intestinal fortitude and his ability to stand up to the majority and to the religious leaders who had it wrong, who were so zealous for the wrong thing that they excommunicated him. Was he right? Doesn’t majority get it right?
Do you know that at one point, the majority said that the sun went around the earth? In the 17th century, a man named Galileo said nope, I know that I stand alone when I say this, but the earth revolves around the sun. Galileo’s initial discoveries were met with opposition within the Catholic Church, and in 1616 the Inquisition declared heliocentrism to be formally heretical. Heliocentric books were banned and Galileo was ordered to refrain from holding, teaching or defending heliocentric ideas. In 1633 he was tried and sentenced to indefinite imprisonment. He remained under house arrest until his death in 1642 (from Wikipedia). The majority said the sun revolves around the earth. And the majority can’t be wrong, can they? Tradition can’t be wrong, can it? Who was wrong? The religious people! Who was right? Galileo. Galileo. Galileo!
And this continues today. The majority view, at least in American Christianity is that Jesus is coming back any day now to rapture Christians and set up an earthly kingdom. The JW’s tried to predict the actual date, declaring that it would be 1914. That didn’t happen so they tried again with 1918, then 1925, and then 1975. Edgar C. Whisenant wrote a book entitled 88 reasons why the Rapture will be in 1988. Then when that didn’t happen, he wrote 89 Reasons why the Rapture is in 1989. Then a man named Harold Camping wrote a book “Are you Ready” dating the Lord’s return in 1994. Well, that didn’t work, so he tried it again in 2011. These people were so zealous for their position that they wrote books, that they used donations from Christians for billboard advertisements. How many people have zealously argued that the world would end in 2012 due to the Mayan calendar?
Like Paul, so many religious people in Church history have zealously upheld error and done so in the name of majority rules (majority can’t be wrong), or in the name of tradition (we have believed this for hundreds of years, it can’t be wrong), or in the name of respected people (my favorite theologian with all of his credentials can’t be wrong). Zeal can be a good thing but only when it is combined with knowledge. It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.
Let’s be zealous for that which we DO know. Let our zeal be based on knowledge.
I don’t know with absolute certainty that there was a literal talking snake in the Garden of Eden.
I don’t know with absolute certainty whether the flood of Noah’s day was global or local.
I don’t know how to reconcile some of the differences in the gospel accounts.
I don’t know with absolute certainty a lot of things so I’m not going to die on those hills and I won’t be zealous about them.
What I DO know is that what we have in the Bible is our best source for matters of faith and doctrine. And based on what the Bible teaches there is forgiveness of sins for those who place their faith in Jesus, that he was sinless, that he died for sins and was raised from the dead. That’s what I do know and for that I will be zealous.
Zeal should be reserved for things we have studied thoroughly and only when we have honestly considered the alternative(s).
Zeal without knowledge is NOT good. Don’t be hasty and miss the way. Don’t discount an argument or a view without studying it first and hearing a good argument from that perspective. Don’t just believe something because it’s tradition or popular or a view held by those you respect. How many people were zealous for the wrong things? How many people have been hasty and missed the way?
Last week we saw how our faith can be strengthened by Peter’s fail – that Peter’s drastic transformation from scared sissy to powerful preacher is evidence that he truly encountered the risen lord. This morning, we see once again that Jesus IS ALIVE. If Jesus didn’t ever really appear to Saul on his trip to Damascus then we would not have 13 books in the NT authored by the apostle Paul; in fact, we probably never would have heard of Paul. Saul of Tarsus would have continued to persecute Christians.
But the very fact that he went from highly regarded religious leader, among the elite, well respected in the eyes of his people to a man with a death warrant is proof that he really did encounter the risen Christ.
No one signs up for this stuff. No one says, I’m going to go along with this made up fairy tale story so that my people will hate me, try to kill me, imprison me, and ultimately put me to death UNLESS he really did meet Jesus on the road that day.
No one goes from hater of, persecutor of Christians to greatest advocate of Christians, lover of Christians UNLESS he really did meet Jesus on that day.
No one does that stuff. No one says I’m totally against this, it’s wrong, this needs to stop and then flips and says I have to travel across the Roman empire because I’m totally for this, it’s right, this needs to spread UNLESS he really did meet Jesus on that day.
And that, my friends, is something for which we can and should be zealous.