When I think of Paul, I always think of a story from Luke 7 in the hopes of understanding him and how fervently he served Christ.
She knelt and was already weeping. Her tears fell on Jesus’ feet, so she wiped them off with her hair. She kissed the feet of the King of Kings again and again and again. She then took a “beautiful alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume” and put the rare perfume on His feet (Luke 7:36-38, 43-46 NLT).
When I think of Paul, I often think of this woman. It is not because of the weeping, the hair, or the image I carry of an alabaster jar. It is because of two questions issued at two very different times to two different Pharisees.
Jesus’ question to Simon the Pharisee
The Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner was less than hospitable to Him several times. The first one mentioned was a thought he had in Luke 7 when the woman wept on, kissed, and anointed Jesus’ feet:
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!” (Luke 7:39 NLT).
Jesus, to answer his thoughts (v. 40), spoke to the Pharisee named Simon:
Then Jesus told him this story: “A man loaned money to two people—500 pieces of silver to one and 50 pieces to the other. But neither of them could repay him, so he kindly forgave them both, canceling their debts. Who do you suppose loved him more after that?”
Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the larger debt.”
“That’s right,” Jesus said (Luke 7:41-43 NLT).
Jesus then opened the eyes of the Pharisee about how he had not given the usual hospitality for invited guests: water to wash dusty feet, greeting with a kiss, and olive oil to anoint the head. As Jesus shared each one, he stated the woman’s behavior which honored Him: tears, kisses, and rare perfume for His feet.
As if this didn’t shock His host and the others enough, Jesus showed them His authority to know the soul and forgive sin:
“I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 7:47-48 NLT).
Jesus’ question to Saul the Pharisee
Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee, persecuted the early Christian church tremendously (Acts 8:1-24; Galatian 1:13-23). He stalked believers like a hunter does prey and was willing to travel outside of Jerusalem to find them. Men and women were imprisoned by him, and his vote contributed to the stoning execution of Stephen (Acts 8:1).
In Acts 9:1 (NLT), Saul is described as “uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers.” In his misplaced zeal, he acquired letters from the high priest addressed to the synagogues in Damascus so he could arrest followers of Christ to take them in chains back to Jerusalem.
Modern travel methods taint our views of how long it would have taken Saul to move the 135 to 170 miles from one city to the next. Two main routes existed then, but the methods varied: foot, donkey, camel, horse, and caravans. Even modern routes by foot would take 56 hours according to Google
Somewhere near the end of his four to ten days of travel, the Light of the World shined on him to transform his world:
As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?”
“Who are you, lord?” Saul asked.
And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:3-6 NLT).
Later, you can continue reading Acts to learn the rest of Saul’s conversion to Christ and his name change.
For now, instead, let’s stay here: “Saul, Saul…”
R.C. Sproul preaches that the dual repetition of a person’s name occurs less than twenty times in the Bible:
Over and over and over again we see this, and it’s always an expression, in the Hebrew tongue, of profound personal intimacy. That’s why Jesus at the end of the Sermon on the Mount said that many people on the last day would come and say, “Lord, Lord” – that is, their hypocrisy would be clothed in this hypocritical form of the repeated address, claiming intimacy with Jesus.
Imagine someone who knows you well and loves you asking: Why are you hurting me? Why are you killing me?
I’ve always wondered how many people Saul imprisoned or killed in his misplaced zeal. Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? I searched multiple places, and websites. It became a pet project, but I never found any clarity.
Instead, thanks to Bert Harper, host of Exploring the Word, I found a different perspective – how long did Saul persecute Christians? According to him and his research, Saul persecuted Christians for three to five years.
His zeal worked within those years as the church grew rapidly to present many opportunities for persecution. Many. We have no record from him, except that this may factor into why he wrote of himself as the chief of sinners.
So why do I think of the story from Luke 7, particularly the woman, when I think of Paul?
Jesus said those who have been forgiven the most, love the most. When we consider Jesus describing love as obeying Him and that those who obey Him are his friends (and no longer just His servants), then the connection only grows stronger in my mind each time I think about this woman and Paul.
The intimacy of Jesus calling out Saul’s name twice probably haunted him with each memory of each person he persecuted. His sins, like the woman's, were many.
A final comparison and prayer
The first Pharisee, Simon, invited Jesus into his home. The second Pharisee, Saul, sought to destroy the homes, the church, that worshipped Jesus.
The first insulted Jesus. The second persecuted Him.
The first watched with his hard heart as a forgiven sinner worshipped Jesus with tears, kisses, and perfume.
The second, Saul, became a forgiven sinner who worshipped Him as Paul through his zeal and perseverance. This chief of sinners' zeal may have only increased after recognizing how much he had been forgiven.
Neither the woman nor Paul could have worked enough for forgiveness.
Yet once forgiven of their many sins, both righteously chose to give glory back to God for His overflowing generosity.
Lord, help us be more aware of your holiness and the enormity of the sin we’ve been forgiven so we can truly see your love and generosity towards us. Thank you for Jesus. Let us worship you with our lives so whatever you give us overflows back to you. Amen.