In Galatians 1:13-16, Paul speaks of being a persecutor of the church. He violently attacked the church, seeking to destroy it. But in verse 15 he speaks of God setting him “apart before birth” to be saved by and preach grace to the Gentiles. It’s easy to overlook one simple fact here. The temporal element of this statement is quite profound and should not be ignored. When Paul was attacking the church, imprisoning followers of Christ and sending them to their deaths, he was already elect of God’s to be saved by Christ and used for his purposes.
So, why did God choose to use such a zealous persecutor? It’s not my place to speculate about why God does anything—at least not beyond any explanations that he himself gives. However, Paul does give us a clue if we look. Paul says that he was “extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers.” As a Pharisee, he would have held to a very specific and conservative view of covenant observance. So, why would God send such a person to preach to the Gentiles?
The church very quickly faced several issues: circumcision, law observance, dietary limitations and many other requirements that set Jews apart from Gentiles. Judaism had been debating these issues for well over a century. Many Jews felt they should reject practices which made it hard for those living in Gentile communities, making it hard to live and do business. The dietary restrictions alone could make it hard to find appropriate food in many communities—the issue of eating meat offered in pagan sacrifice had been debated by the Jews long before Paul and Church. It could even be hard to find something considered so essential as wine—since much of the wine produced in pagan communities was clarified or blended with substances considered unclean. Circumcision made it hard to do business when most large contracts were negotiated in the bath houses. Many Hellenistic Jews had already rejected these practices; therefore, they were not seen as sufficiently Jewish by the religious leaders. When Paul speaks of being zealous for the traditions of his fathers, he means that he had taken a very traditional view of these. He would have opposed any rejection of circumcision or relaxing of dietary restrictions. Now, imagine God choosing to use such a man for a mission to the Gentiles. Imagine this man teaching that a Gentile not only need not, but must not, be circumcised. Imagine such a man telling people to eat whatever they purchase in the market without raising moral issues (1 Cor 10:25). His prior zealotry would force one to wonder what changed.
Paul, in Galatians 1, tells us what changed. He was called by God to preach grace to the Gentiles. But he was already elected to this before he was born. So, even when he was persecuting Christians, God was preparing him for the work he was to do. One who did not observe the traditional practices closely would have been questioned. “You say one need not keep these, but this is only because you do not want to keep them yourself.” Paul could testify, “I am telling you that these are not needed for salvation, and I can say this because I have kept them all.”
But this raises a question: Wasn’t Paul wrong when he zealously persecuted Christians and demanded strict covenant keeping? Of course, he was wrong. But this brings us to something interesting. God does not only use the areas in which we are right. He often allows us to be wrong, and still uses us. He had to change Paul. I am sure he did not immediately become a person of grace. He probably held on to his view of the Old Covenant observances for some time. He speaks of going into Arabia for years and having these truths given to him by divine revelation. God had to do a great work to change him—to correct him. This is important for us to consider when dealing with Christians we believe to be wrong. We should still be gracious. It is possible that God is going to use their wrong beliefs to prepare them for teaching, sharing and living the truth. Once he changes their wrong beliefs, it is possible they will be better fitted to serve God than one who never had a wrong belief—if such a person ever existed, other than Christ. Be patient. He is not done with them—any more than he is done with you.