Who Thought to Pray for Saul?

Here’s an interesting question that sprang from our class discussion in Seminary 101 last Wednesday night: who thought to pray for Saul of Tarsus, i.e., the man who would later become the apostle Paul?

The question becomes important when we take a moment to consider who Saul was. The New Testament—including several autobiographical passages—tells us that Saul was radically opposed to Christianity, so much so that he actively and violently and persecuted the church. The book of Acts tells us that he watched the garments of those who participated in the stoning of Stephen (7:58). A bit later in the narrative, we find him “breathing murderous threats” (9:1). Toward the end of the book, when Paul addressed King Agrippa, he describes his activities this way:

I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11 Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them (Acts 12:9-11).

The bottom line: if you were a Christian contemporary of Saul, it would be difficult to find a more strident and dangerous enemy.

With that in mind, I would imagine that the number of those Christians who thought to pray for Saul at all, let alone on a regular basis, was extremely small. Surely if anyone was beyond God’s grace, Saul was that person. And why pray for a man who was doing so much damage to the cause of Christ, a man who made you afraid for your very life?

But then again, Jesus himself had given this command to his disciples:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? (Mat. 5:43-47).

And surprisingly enough, we do know of at least one man who did pray for Saul: Stephen, one of the very individuals he persecuted. Echoing Christ on the cross, Stephen cries out just prior to his death, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

Finally, we’re confronted with the fact that Saul was not beyond God’s grace at all. Not only does he place his faith in Christ, he eventually becomes—of all things—an apostle, set apart to preach the gospel over much of the known world and author a good portion of the New Testament.

With the benefit of a couple thousand years, it becomes much easier to offer a biblical critique of the church’s likely failure to pray for a man like Saul. What is much more challenging, however, is applying the lesson to our own lives. In other words, who are the individuals and groups—people who sharply oppose and even persecute Christians and their faith—for whom you and I fail to pray…or even think to pray? Who do we evaluate as beyond God’s reach and not worth the effort? Who would we rather love to hate? Osama Bin Laden and radical Islam? Christopher Hitchens and the rest of the New Atheists? Richard Dawkins and the proponents of scientific naturalism? Homosexual groups? Or maybe it’s just that very trying family member, or the person in your office you find nothing short of irredeemable.

And yet, Jesus’ words were never meant to be an oft-quoted but easily ignored platitude. The command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us still stands. Is it a tremendous challenge? Yes, one that will require nothing short of God’s powerful grace working in our hearts to meet. Is it futile? Not in light of Paul’s own story. God, it turns out, is much more gracious than we are.

(My thanks to Jerram Barrs for many of the thoughts in this post).

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