Send comments and questions to:

Introductory Note: This article is actually an excerpt of the first few pages of my book, “The Apostle Paul: Master Imitator of Christ.” The book is one of my longest (272 pages) and also one of my most in-depth. Greater spirituality must include greater knowledge, meaning that we cannot remain satisfied with shallow reading and study. The writer of Hebrews put it this way in Hebrews 5:12-14: “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13  Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14  But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” In the interest of promoting deeper study, I wrote this book. In the interest of promoting deeper study through this book, I am providing this brief excerpt to whet your appetite for reading it. Enjoy!

Acts 8:1–3

And Saul approved of their killing him. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

Acts 9:1–2

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2and 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.

This first mention of Paul (using his Hebrew name, Saul) is shocking, but it also raises a number of questions. Trying to figure out the context of a passage means that we not only look for the explicit information provided in it, but also the implicit information. Regarding the latter, some implicit information is absolute, while other information may or may not be implied. But the fact that it may makes raising the possibilities important and helps the Bible come alive. Using our imaginations can fill in many blanks for us, as long as we stay within the bounds of what would seem to be at least possible and reasonable. Thus, what is taught here explicitly is that Paul (I’ll just start using the Greek form of his name, since that is the one that we know him by best) was totally in favor of making Stephen the first Christian martyr. Next, we see that Paul’s hatred for the Christian cause wasn’t assuaged in the least by this one murder; he wanted to kill every Christian or at least inflict as much emotional and physical pain on them as possible. Then we see that he was verbally quite outspoken against disciples, and finally, that he was going all the way to Damascus to arrest both men and women who were dedicated to Jesus. Commenting that Paul seemed to be a bit of a madman isn’t a stretch, based only on what is said in these texts. Hence the question about whether he was driven solely by zeal for God (as he then understood God) or by some sort of intense anger is a reasonable one.

One reason for the question is based on our understanding of Jewish discipleship in this era. To follow a Jewish leader as your mentor involved much more than simply learning the Law, and the traditions based on it, from him. Discipleship meant that you were committed to becoming as much like this person whom you were learning from as possible. In fact, it involved a level of committing to imitate them to a point that even those of us in churches that employ discipling would be quite uncomfortable with their practices. Honestly, those practices wouldn’t be dissimilar to some of what we look back on in our history as being clearly wrong. So, why is that practice of discipleship within Judaism so relevant to our question about Paul’s motivation for persecuting Christians? It is relevant because we not only know who his mentor was; we also know something of how he chose to view and treat Christians. Suffice it to say that it was far different from Paul’s choices.

His name was Gamaliel, perhaps the most famous Rabbi of the day. We are introduced to him in Acts 5, when the apostles were creating havoc in Jerusalem. A special meeting of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling body, had been called, and the confrontation between the High Priest and Peter and the other apostles led to these Jewish leaders being “furious” with the apostles and quite ready to have them put to death. In the midst of this wild atmosphere, Gamaliel spoke—calmly and reasonably. Whatever else Paul may have imitated in Gamaliel, he had not imitated his demeanor and approach in emotionally charged settings. The conclusion of his speech was quite striking: “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 is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38–39).

Thus, we can safely say that Paul’s intense anger was not based upon imitating the one who was training him; it came from some other source. What might that source have been? I have two ideas, both of which are possibly implied and not stated clearly, but each of which has some biblical support (with a little imagination). Before delving into these, it must be admitted that whatever may be said about Paul’s anger level and its source, he was an extremely zealous person. That was true when he was a Jew only and it was also true when he became a Christian Jew. He was a man of passions when it came to his service of God—period. But he had an anger level that begs for a deeper examination and explanation.

Explanation 1: Paul Sensed the Truth about Jesus and Hated It

It is common for us humans to sense an unwelcome truth before we are prepared to admit it. We try to block it out of our conscious minds and keep it at the subconscious level. Most of us had exactly that reaction when seriously studying what the Bible said about our salvation for the first time (and maybe the second and third time, etc.). Is that not so? Many of us thought we were saved already and didn’t want to admit the possibility that we might be wrong and therefore yet in a lost condition. Further, by admitting that we were lost, we were also tacitly admitting that many of our relatives and friends were also lost. We knew what we had been basing our supposed salvation on and what they were basing theirs on as well. This is such a common phenomenon that we hardly need further illustrations, although there are many that could be mentioned.

Paul knew the Scriptures (Old Testament) as well as almost anyone in Jerusalem, the mecca of the Jewish religion. When he heard the Christian leaders quoting Messianic passages, he didn’t hear any passages with which he was unacquainted; he just heard a different interpretation of them. Jesus tied the Jewish leaders in knots using the exact same technique. In Galatians 1:14, here is what Paul said of himself: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” By the time he wrote Galatians, his humility level had increased significantly, and to state that he had been the top student of Gamaliel wouldn’t be difficult to believe. As one becoming highly esteemed in Judaism at a young age, following in the steps of his teacher, admitting that the top echelon of Judaic scholars was completely wrong about Jesus being the Messiah of their Scriptures would have been unthinkable at first. Such an admission would not only call his own salvation into question; it would also call into question the salvation of all of his current heroes.

When Jesus finally confronted Paul personally, he made an interesting comment found only in Acts 26:14. The original account of Paul’s conversion is found in Acts 9. Paul then repeated that account in Acts 22 as he spoke to the Jews in Jerusalem who were ready to kill him. Finally, he repeated the account in Acts 26 to Roman officials, primarily King Agrippa, while imprisoned in Caesarea. In all three accounts, Jesus’ first comment to Paul is recorded: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” For whatever reason, when he addressed Agrippa, Paul added an additional sentence spoken by Jesus when he appeared to him, as recorded in Acts 26:14: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” Paul also adds in this verse that Jesus spoke to him in Aramaic, a fact not mentioned in the other two accounts. I will include the three accounts of Paul’s conversion in an appendix in parallel columns if you would like to observe the similarities and the differences (asking yourself the question as to why these differences exist in their broader context).

Goads were sharp sticks used to prod livestock when they were not acting as their owners wanted. Similarly, Paul was not going in the direction for which he had been created, and was thus kicking against the goads. This was a common saying of the times in application to humans and not just livestock. The question is, precisely what did Jesus mean by it? Did he simply mean that Paul wasn’t accepting the gospel and his ultimate mission? Or was he implying also that deep inside his heart, he had already heard enough to sense that he was wrong. In the latter case, it would have been a matter of his conscience hurting him, even if he was unaware of this phenomenon at the time. Both this explanation of Paul’s anger and the next one involving the latter part of Romans 7 assume that his conscience was involved.

For the scholarly world, this assumption ushers in a problem. Some years ago, a Bible scholar named Krister Stendahl wrote a lengthy article entitled “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” In this article, known now as a classic, he argued that Jews in Paul’s time didn’t struggle with guilty consciences. According to him, that is characteristic of a later form of Christianity in Western culture and popularized by writers like Martin Luther. Stendahl denied that Romans 7:14–25 applied to Paul before he was a Christian or after he became one. Of course, Paul did say that he had fulfilled his duty to God in all good conscience (Acts 23:1) and was faultless regarding righteousness based on the Law (Philippians 3:6). However, he also said that our consciences can be hardened (1 Timothy 4:2) and can be an unsafe guide (1 Corinthians 4:4). I think Jeremiah’s comment about the heart must be kept in mind when discussing conscience: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Whatever else may be said, if having a guilty conscience is a learned behavior, as Stendahl implies, then Cain was an amazingly fast learner (Genesis 4); nor can David’s condition of being “conscience-stricken” (1 Samuel 24:5) be blamed on Luther or Western culture. I believe that Paul’s conscience, whether he was in touch with it or not, may well have had something to do with his anger level and extreme reactions toward disciples of Jesus.

Explanation 2: Paul Vented His Legalistic Spiritual Frustrations on Christians

As stated, this possible rationale for Paul’s extremity is also a conscience issue. If legalism could be perfected, Paul would be the champion. No one was more devoted to works salvation or a performance merited religion than he. His own statements along these lines speak for themselves. Perhaps that is why God chose him to be the apostle to the Gentiles rather than the apostle to the Jews, just to keep him in a place of having to constantly deal with Jewish legalists in order to protect his Gentile ministry. At any rate, one who strives with all his might to be righteous by meritorious works rather than by grace through faith is destined to be filled with frustrations and hurts, which inevitably lead to anger. Anger is a secondary reaction, a response to some type of hurt, even if the anger appears almost immediately in a given situation. If the hurts are deep enough, even from the distant past, they can prompt almost a constant state of anger, generating an emotional “hair trigger.”

In Paul’s case, his words in Romans 7:14–25 show some deep frustration and hurt that could easily have been vented through anger at others. The old saying about a man coming home from a bad day at work only to yell at his wife and children and kick the dog reflects this pattern. We often take out our pain on others, sadly. Who can claim to have never done this? Therefore, if Paul is describing his emotional condition as a legalist prior to his conversion in Romans 7, it could account for his anger at those who were saying that salvation could only be had by God’s grace demonstrated through the cross of Christ. It was that message that proved to be the stumbling block for the Jews who rejected Christ’s substitutionary death and their own woeful sinfulness (Romans 9:30–33).

Of course, in order to accept this explanation as a possible reason for Paul’s anger, you would have to accept the interpretation of Romans 7 that applies it to Paul’s preconversion days, in spite of the fact that he writes here in first person. Yet this is a literary device designed to make something more impactful emotionally for the reader—to make them feel the force of the wording in a more personal way. Although this interpretation of Romans 7 is much debated, I do believe it is the correct one. Whether it accounts for a significant part of Paul’s extreme anger or not might still remain a question, but I think this interpretation of the passage is correct, for a number of reasons. Rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel (my wheel, at least!), here is what I wrote in my exposition on the book of Romans, Romans: The Heart Set Free, under the heading of seeing ourselves as being dead to the law as paradoxical:

To really understand the law and the condemnation it wrought in our lives, we must understand its paradoxical nature (vv14–25). The paradoxes are difficult to deal with on a consistent basis, especially on an emotional level. For example, we are not under law (Romans 6:14), yet we are under law (1 Corinthians 9:21). We are not saved by works (Ephesians 2:8–9), yet we are not saved without works (James 2:14–26). We must obey with all of our hearts, yet our obedience does not merit righteousness. We cannot work to earn our salvation, yet we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling! (Philippians 2:12).

Obviously, the line between correct and incorrect understanding can seem to be a fine one indeed. When we live with the correct understanding, life is fulfilling; when we live with the incorrect one, life is frustrating. Romans 7:14–25 graphically describes the latter situation. Much ink has been used discussing who Paul must have been describing in this passage. Some say it describes Paul as a Christian, while others say it describes Paul as a Jew. A variation of the second view claims that Paul used the first person in the present tense to be more graphic in showing his frustration as a Pharisee and of any person who seeks law justification. This view seems to square with the text and other texts the best.

On the surface, Paul was likely not in touch with the amount of his inner turmoil until grace found his heart. In Philippians 3:6, he wrote that he was “faultless” in legalistic righteousness. Addressing the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, he claimed to have lived before God in all good conscience (Acts 23:1). Surely Paul was one of the most exemplary Jewish leaders in all of Israel. But I have to wonder just why he was so filled with rage at Christians. A good amount of frustration and inner turmoil seems to be the most likely answer. After all, this phenomenon is not uncommon, for we all learn to stuff inner pain when we do not believe that solutions exist.

On the practical level, all of us experience the feelings expressed in this passage at various times, for all of us slip into a legalistic mindset. This is why the passage is written at this point of Paul’s argument¾he drives home the truth of how useless a performance orientation actually is! God does not want any of us to feel such frustration and failure. Being guilt ridden does not bring God glory, and it does nothing to produce in us real spirituality. In fact, living with a Romans 7 conscience is about the poorest advertisement for Christianity that we could possibly find.

Certainly this passage was not intended to be descriptive of the disciple’s normal life, although it can seem to be. Note the following biblical principles that demonstrate God’s plan for our spiritual victory over the misery depicted in Romans 7:

  1. We are under bondage to Christ, not to sin (Romans 6:16).
  2. We sin, but we do not practice sin (1 John 3:7–9).
  3. Christ, not sin, dwells in us (Galatians 2:20).
  4. We can follow through in faithful obedience with God’s power (1 Corinthians 10:13; Philippians 2:12–13, 4:13).
  5. Although there is a struggle between flesh and spirit (Galatians 5:17), the Spirit wins in a demonstrable way, for by his power, our lives can be worthy of imitation (1 Corinthians 4:16–17, 11:1; Philippians 3:15–17, 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 2:10–12).
  6. The law of the Spirit frees us from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2).
  7. We are filled with rejoicing (Philippians 4:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:16), not with the frustration and failure that is described in Romans 7! Too many of us do live in Romans 7 and need desperately to move on to life in Romans.
  8. The most important ingredient in making that transition is how we see God and how we think he sees us.

Although there are other possible explanations for his intense degree of anger toward Christians, I think these two are the most likely, perhaps in combination. In describing Paul as a person, he was without doubt amazingly devoted to God as he saw him through the eyes of a Jewish legalist. Further, in my opinion, he was also the very epitome of the “angry young man.” He was full of zeal for God, a quality that remained for the rest of his life, but there seems to be more to it than that. In his non-Christian days, his personality went beyond zealous to the point of anger and hatred. We can debate the reason(s) behind that fact, but the fact itself would be difficult to debate successfully.