Tag Archives: pagan

Wrong Made Right

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.

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A Time and a Place

This afternoon, while preparing for Sunday, I noticed a Facebook post from a pastor in Pakistan sharing the joy of this year’s Easter celebration. Of course, it didn’t take long for some “well-meaning” Christian to strip away any joy from the post. An American believer responded with the tired old: “Easter is a pagan Roman Catholic holiday.” Now, before you jump on the bandwagon and try to convince me that Easter is evil and sells out the faith along with Christmas and other holidays, let me tell you what bothers me so much about the discussion—a discussion I am more than familiar with, having discussed it for decades.
The first thing bothering me is the absolute inability to celebrate what another church is doing without jumping in with judgment. Here we have a brother celebrating the resurrection of our Lord in a land where doing so makes one into a target. Then, assuming he has any right to speak against such a brother, we hear from one who will likely never actually suffer anything greater than a bit of ridicule for his Lord. I’m sorry, but I’ll put the faith of a brother in Pakistan, China, Cuba or any number of other nations up against the faith of most of my fellow American Christians—including my own faith!
The second thing bothering me is how much of what we see as so important is nothing but a symptom of our own affluence and freedom. We have time to argue and fight with one another about whether Easter or Christmas should be celebrated because our faith costs so little. Christians in America are, comparatively speaking, wealthy. We can afford to waste time with such arguments because we have so much time to waste. If we were locked in a constant struggle to eat we would have no time for such things. If we were assaulted daily for our faith we would not be so cavalier about driving wedges between ourselves and other brethren.
We in the US have time and leisure to argue, fight and divide. It is just sad to see this spoiled nature vomit out when a brother in a persecuted land shares the blessings of our Lord’s service.
This brother’s mean-spirited petty response to the praises of another is a perfect symbol of so much of American Christianity. Does this mean we should never discuss such issues or debate them? Of course not! But we must understand that such discussions are our privilege because of the freedoms we enjoy. We should not smack our unfree brethren upside the head with them—no matter how important we may believe them to be.
Remember, as the teacher said, “There is a time and a place for everything.” There is one important lesson all of us Christians can learn. We must all learn “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” –Mark Twain

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