Do you know what a "gestalt" is? It's those images that when you look at them you see one thing, and then when your vision shifts or you change your perspective. You look at them again, and you see something entirely different. Sometimes it takes a long time to focus correctly and recognize the different image. Some people never do see them.
We're generally familiar with stories of Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. Let's look at young Saul-- the Hebrew. Remember, "Paul" was his Greek name.
Tarsus was the chief city of the province of Cilicia in the eastern part of Asia Minor. Although it is inland a little ways, a river makes it an excellent Mediterranean seaport. To the north of the town are snow-covered mountains providing plenty of timber to support one of the principle objects of Tarsian trade - shipbuilding. It was in an ideal location for observing different cultures. Alexander the Great had marched through the town on his conquest, bringing Greek philosophy and love of beauty and the Greek language into the Tarsian city. Later the Romans brought PAX ROMANA, the peace and security that most of the Roman empire enjoyed, meaning there was no fear of other warring people. In fact, many cities no longer felt the need to close their city gates at night due to the peace of Rome. Roman organization was another plus. Mark Antony granted the city the status of LIBERA CIVITAS, meaning it was part of the Roman province, but free to govern themselves and not required to pay monetary tribute to Rome. Thus they were governed by a Greek democracy. People and merchants could travel safely during this time. Tarsus reaped the benefits of many cultures that traveled through that province. It was a great place for a future traveler to grow up who needed to know a lot about a lot of different cultures.
Saul (Hebrew name of the Apostle Paul) spent his young life in this city with his family. He would be most familiar with the Greek culture and language, readying him for a future trip to Athens and the Greek peninsula. He would be familiar with Roman soldiers as they marched through on the great road they had built just north of the city, preparing him to speak on Christian warfare and our spiritual weapons which he mentions in Ephesians 6. He was born inheriting a Roman citizenship. From that fact alone society and the law would have respected him. This would have placed him in the aristocracy of any provincial town regardless of his financial status. And most important to him, he had the benefit of growing up a Jew. At this time the Jews were unmolested in the city of Tarsus. Although he grew up the native of a city filled with a Greek population and incorporated with the Roman Empire, Saul was born and spent his earliest days in the shelter of a home which was Hebrew--not in name only, but in spirit. Although other Hebrew families around him may have grown up taking on many of the Greek customs (Hellenizers), Saul implies his family stayed true to Judaism.
He was a member of the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, a Pharisee. From infancy he was brought up in the straightest sect of the Jews' religion. His childhood was nurtured in the strictest belief. The stories of the Old Testament were literally true. The world of spirits was a reality to him. The resurrection of the dead was an article of faith. He would have been brought up reading from both the Hebrew scriptures and their Greek translations. His father would provide as his religious example, praying and walking with broad phylacteries, scrupulous and exact in his legal observances. Saul was exceedingly zealous for the traditions of his fathers. Everything about his younger life was in preparation of his becoming an eminent member of the Pharisaic party. He was to help preserve their national life and to extend their national creed. That's what he believed his role in life was to be - preserve a religion that was threatened from without and within.
He would have been diligently educated as Moses had instructed in Deuteronomy 6 and 11. He would have been drilled in the 78th Psalm which implies the continuance of a chosen people, with recollections of the past, and great anticipations for the future. He would be taught the destinies of his own tribe of Benjamin. Little Benjamin, the last of twelve sons of Jacob and the beloved Rachel. He would know the story of Joseph in Egypt, of the silver cup put in the mouth of the sack. He would know the dying benediction of Jacob when he said, "Benjamin shall be ravenous as a wolf, in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil" (Genesis 49:27), perhaps a prophetic intimation of this young Saul who, in the morning of his life, should tear the sheep of God, and in its evening feed them, as the teacher of the nations. He would know the story of King Saul, also from the small tribe of Benjamin, whose name he bore. When the ten tribes revolted, the tribe of Benjamin remained faithful. And in Babylonian captivity, another Benjamite, Mordecai, helped save the nation. These were Saul's childhood stories and earliest influences. He was educated to preserve and add to this history.
At the age of 5 he would begin to be taught the scriptures - at 10 the Mishna. He would not have received this education in a Greek school. He was either educated in his own home or in a Hebrew school located in a Hebrew synagogue. Perhaps he had an attendant who walked him to and from school, according to the custom which he afterwards uses as an illustration in the Galatian Epistle when he spoke of the Law as the Slave who conducts us to the School of Christ. His idea of the Messiah would be the worldly notion of a mortal king, a "Christ known after the flesh" (II Corinthians 5:16), and he looked forward with the hope of a Hebrew to the restoration of "the kingdom of Israel."
Somewhere around the age of 13 he was sent to Jerusalem to learn at the feet of the great Rabbi, Gamaliel. This was a most prestigious academic school. We discussed Gamaliel's flowering credentials a few weeks ago. He was called the "Beauty of the Law." Although a Pharisee, Gamaliel was above the prejudices of his party and respected by Jews of any Sect. Saul learned from the best - the top-notch school and the top-notch teacher. Gamaliel's teachings seemed to have centered on these 3 things:
Most teaching took place orally. Students were encouraged to ask questions and debate among themselves and with the teachers. Contradictory opinions were expressed with the utmost freedoms and even encouraged. This taught the student to think on his feet, increased his intelligence and gave him plenty of practice at oration - a skill Saul would put to use many times in later life.
Half-yearly examinations were held on four Sabbaths when the scholars made recitations and promoted. If they didn't do well, punishments were confinement, flogging and excommunication.
Under these conditions, Saul says in Galatians 1:14, he "outran in Judaism many of his own age and nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of his fathers." His mind was trained in logic and his memory stored with quotations of scriptures. He strictly observed the requirements of the Law, led a conscientious life, after the example of his ancestors. (II Timothy 1:3.) With this background is it no wonder that this Hebrew of Hebrews would so passionately persecute anyone or sect that became a threat to the Jewish religion? His Jewish enthusiasm was nourished along with his self-righteousness. He had been conditioned to tremble and lash out at the slightest deviation from the Law. His zealous character demanded it, and he would obey.
I brought a gestalt with me today. One that Saul had a devil of a time with. He just couldn't see Jesus with the same focus that some Jews had. From the Hebrew point of view, the disciples of Christ would be regarded as a Jewish sect. The disciples had done nothing to separate themselves from the nation. They attended the festivals, they prayed in the temple, they still frequented the synagogues. There were many different opinions concerning the nature and office of the Messiah within the synagogues. These Galilean disciples would be distinguished as holding the strange opinion that the true Messiah was that notorious "malefactor," who had been crucified one Passover. Saul took the matter as personally offensive, and after witnessing Stephen's stoning, decided this was the correct form of action against this new sect. Saul sets out to right the wrong, breathing threats and murder against these disciples. That word "breathing" in verse 1 is expressive of deep, agitating emotion. Every breath dripped with hatred and encouraged him to persecute more, to the point of obtaining permission to follow the fleeing believers into the countryside and other cities.
As he approached Damascus he is hit by a blinding light that might as well have been a freight train, as shocking as it was to be to him. He had a very real encounter with Jesus. It is this encounter that he gives in the first Corinthian letter as his qualification for being an apostle. He now becomes a witness to the resurrection of that Galilean teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. Later Saul will stress that his call came directly from Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead (Galatians 1:1), and not from any man. His call and his mission to the Gentiles was directly and miraculously from God.
Paul left Jerusalem for Damascus proud and driven, with eyes full of hate. After his encounter with Jesus, he arises blinded, humbled, subdued and ready to listen to a new and higher calling and a new way of life. I'm not sure he was ready to accept it immediately. After being led to the city to the house of Judas, he sits in darkness for three days, neither eating nor drinking. The Christians in this town would stay well away from this house. They knew his reputation. The unconverted Jews and those who accompanied him on his journey could have no true sympathy for Saul in his present state of mind. He fasted and prayed in silence. Perhaps he recollected his earlier years, the passages of the ancient scriptures that he had never understood. Perhaps he prays, "Lord, do I give up my past, my accomplishments? You know how I worked hard in school. I know the high priest. The high priest knows me. I'm a student of Gamaliel - a good student. I'm a Benjamite - a faithful tribe trying to please You. Do You want me to give up Gamaliel and the high priest for Galilean fishermen? Do you know what You are asking of me? Do I give up my power? I have letters from the high priest. Do I give up my prestigious friends? Do I give up my station in life? Was all my past in vain? What do You ask of me?"
Perhaps the image of Stephen kept jumping to his mind. His sermon. How at peace Stephen was, even in the face of death. His prayer for the crowd's forgiveness. For three days Saul waits on the Lord while the Lord is giving him time to accept his new station in life. His heart is prepared while at the same time Ananias is being prepared to assume a small, but significant role in the history of the world. Ananias will bring God's chosen vessel into compliance with God's command and restore his sight.
With his new vision, Saul never looked upon the human race the same old way again. His fervor to uphold and protect the Law changes to concern for each man's soul. He replaces his pride with humbleness. He understood "being with God" instead of "working at religion." He understood God's love for all men. He understood dying to self so that Christ may live.
Saul had been taught scriptures, but from one viewpoint. Now he opens those eyes to see the truth. This encourages us to look at the scriptures from different perspectives. Question what you have been taught. This should be a healthy thing to do, although some religious leaders discourage it. Look to see if it is God's teaching or man's teaching. See if you see Jesus in it.
Saul at last could see "Jesus." He at last knew that his past was not in vain. His new life may have contradicted all that his teachers had taught him, but it did not contradict God's law. This was the essence of Stephen's sermon that Saul heard. Jesus didn't come to destroy the old Law, but to fulfill it. The Law was preserved throughout generations of threats of destruction to prepare the world for the greatest sacrifice of all--God's only Son. He finally learned that the Law brought people to the place to learn as his attendant took him to school to learn in his childhood.
Or--continuing Lynn's thoughts on the kernel of corn--the husk of the ear is necessary for the growth of the ear because of the immaturity of the individual kernels. But, when it reaches maturity, the husk has to be removed and discarded for us to get the good of the ear. The husk must be removed and put aside - like the Old Law. The old Mosaical Law served it's function - to bring the knowledge of God into the world and to prepare the world for His Son's death and resurrection. Saul now understands it is time to shed the husk. I guess the silks could represent the snares or sins of the world that try to distract us from the meat of His Word. They are pesky like the snares of the world. But, oh, how sweet the ear of corn is when the husk and the silks are removed!
And how sweet is life when you at last see Jesus.
West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR