A Famous Conversation

by Pastor Ricky Kurth

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Two men were talking one day, and one said, “Last night my wife said to me, ‘You haven’t been listening to a word I’ve said, have you?’ At the time I remember thinking, ‘What a strange way to start a conversation!’”

Speaking of conversations, we’re about to read about a conversation the apostle Paul once had in Israel that was so famous that even the Galatians heard about it over 500 miles away:

“For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it” (Gal. 1:13).

As you can see, the conversation Paul is talking about here involved more than just his words. It included his actions as well. Did you know the first word used to define the word “conversation” in older dictionaries is behavior? The way new dictionaries limit the definition to just our words is probably reflective of how men seem to have forgotten that your behavior speaks volumes. An old saying says: “What you’re doing is speaking so loudly, I can’t hear a word you’re saying.” That’s a good adage for Christians to remember, for if you tell people you’re saved, you should act like you’re saved.

But when Paul talked about his conversation “in time past,” he was talking about his behavior before he got saved, his behavior in what he calls “the Jews’ religion.” The Jews’ religion was originally God’s religion. When God gave it to the people of Israel, it was “pure religion and undefiled…” (James 1:27). But it got so defiled by the people of Israel that Paul couldn’t bring himself to call it God’s religion. And before Paul got saved, he was part of that defiling, for his conversation in those days consisted of persecuting the church.

A Search for the Church

When we think of the word “church,” we think of a building. But in the Bible, the word almost always refers to a group of God’s people. Just don’t make the mistake that most Bible teachers make, that of thinking there’s only one church in the Bible, “the church, which is His body…” (Eph. 1:22,23). The Body of Christ is a church, of course. It’s the church of today, the church of the dispensation of grace.

But if it was the only church in the Bible, Paul wouldn’t have had to add “which is His body” in talking about it. The fact that he had to add that qualifying phrase implies there were other churches in the Bible that were not His Body. God has always had a church of people in every dispensation, like the one we read about in Acts 7:37,38:

“…Moses…was in the church in the wilderness….”

The Jews in the wilderness were a church of God’s people, but they weren’t the church which is the Body of Christ. That church began with the conversion of the apostle Paul.

If you think about it, a city is also a group of people. But when you see the word “city” in the Bible, do you assume it is always talking about the same city? Of course not! Then you shouldn’t assume the word church always refers to the same church either.

The church Paul persecuted is what we call the kingdom church. We call it that because of what the Lord told Peter in Matthew 16:18,19:

“…thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church… And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven….”

He was telling Peter that after He died and rose again, He would build a church of people in Israel who would live in the kingdom of heaven on earth, and He’d give Peter the keys to that church. That meant Peter was in charge of who got into that church, just as the keyholder of any building is in charge of who is allowed to enter it.

Now that didn’t mean Peter could say to people, “Okay, I’ll let you in, and you, but not you, and certainly not you!” Is that what you see Peter doing in the Book of Acts? No! The “keys” to the kingdom church included “the key of knowledge” that Israel’s lawyers took away from people, even though they weren’t using it themselves (Luke 11:52). In any dispensation, if you want to get into God’s church, you have to know something. You have to know the gospel being preached in that dispensation, and believe it.

And that’s what you see Peter doing in the Book of Acts: preaching the kingdom gospel, and building the Lord’s church. And that’s the church Paul persecuted, because he didn’t believe the members of that church were God’s people.

Measuring the Immeasurable

Galatians 1:13 adds that Paul persecuted that church “beyond measure.” That phrase always reminds me of the tachometer on my friend’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle. It measures the rpm of his motor, but it only goes up so high. If he exceeds the rpm the tachometer can calculate, he’s pushing the motor beyond measure. We say he’s burying the needle. And that’s how Paul persecuted the kingdom church! He buried the needle, and persecuted it beyond measure.

Verse 13 also says Paul “wasted” the church—and he means he wasted it in the same way the Mafia talks about wasting someone in the movies. They’re talking about murdering someone! That’s just one of many modern phrases that come from the Bible. By Paul’s own admission, he wasted people by persecuting God’s people “unto the death” (Acts 22:4). He had a very dark past.

Maybe you do too. Maybe your past is so dark that you’re afraid if anybody ever found out about it, you could never serve the Lord. If so, I remind you that everybody knew about Paul’s dark past! The Galatians had heard about his conversation, and so had everyone else. But he didn’t let it keep him from serving the Lord, and neither should you.

The reason Paul was reminding the Galatians about his dark past is that he was trying to prove what he had just said in the previous two verses, that his gospel was “not after man” or “of man” (Gal. 1:11,12). Paul’s dark past proved he didn’t get his gospel from men, because all the men who could have given it to him were afraid of him. Right after he got saved, God told a man named Ananias to go see him, and

“Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to Thy saints at Jerusalem” (Acts 9:13).

It’s easy to understand his reluctance here. After all, what the Lord was asking Ananias to do was like asking a Jew to go see Hitler during World War II.

But the point is: Paul’s message was about the Lord Jesus Christ, and nobody who could have given him a message about Christ was about to go anywhere near him! That’s just one of many proofs we have that he didn’t get his gospel from men.

We see proof that he got his message from the Lord instead when Paul started preaching his gospel, and went from being a persecutor to being a persecut-ee, so to speak. Paul went from being a waster of God’s people to being the target of all the other wasters in Israel. He knew in advance that that would happen, and there wasn’t a man on earth who could have made him make that choice. Only God can talk a man into subjecting himself to that kind of lethal persecution.

Cashing in on Killing

Another proof that Paul didn’t get his gospel from men can be seen in the next verse of Galatians 1, where Paul says he

“…profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1:14).

Paul was making money in the Jews’ religion, and only God can talk an unsaved religious leader into walking away from his cash flow.

If you’re wondering how Paul profited in the Jews’ religion, the answer might have something to do with how he said he was “zealous.” Take a look at the first appearance of that word in the Bible, a place where it’s used twice:

“Moses said…Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baalpeor. And, behold, one… came and brought…a Midianitish woman…in the sight of all… Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle.…And when Phinehas…saw it, he…took a javelin in his hand; And…thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly…And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Phinehas… was zealous…he was zealous for his God” (Num. 25:5-13).

When the Jews balked at killing a woman who was pregnant with a Canaanite’s child, Phinehas was more zealous than his countrymen, for he knew that the demonic seed of the giants she was carrying had to be exterminated.

But if the word “zealous” there is connected with killing in the name of God, well, isn’t that what Paul did before God saved him? The law of first mention says that the first time a word or phrase appears in the Bible it often sets the tone for how it will be used in the rest of the Bible, and the Bible’s first mention of zealous describes the kind of murderous zeal Paul engaged in while thinking he was serving God (John 16:2).

How would he profit from that? Well, what if there was a bounty on the heads of the believers Saul was killing? I can’t prove there was, but it would certainly explain how Paul profited from his zeal.

How would he profit above many of his equals? Perhaps his equals among the wasters in Israel drew the line at killing pregnant women and Paul didn’t. That would fit when verse 14 says he was more “exceedingly” zealous than his equals.

Cashing in on Grieving Widows

But killing in the name of God wasn’t the only way Paul could have profited from being zealous of the traditions of his fathers. Did you ever wonder what Peter meant when he wrote:

“…ye were not redeemed with…silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ…” (1 Pet. 1:18,19).

Who would ever think you could be redeemed from your sins with silver and gold? The answer is found in a money-making religious tradition found among Paul’s religious fathers in Israel, one the Lord scolded them for in Matthew 23:14:

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayer….”

When it says they devoured widow’s houses, that was a figure of speech that meant they took all a widow’s money. It’s kind of like when we talk about eating someone out of house and home. Those unscrupulous religious leaders devoured widows’ houses by promising to pray for their dead husbands in exchange for money. Do you have any idea how much wealth Catholic leaders accumulated over the centuries doing that? Catholicism got to be the richest religion in the world, in part by telling widows they’d pray for their husbands to be released from purgatory. The Lord’s words there indicate that this was a tradition that started long before Catholic leaders got hold of it.

But if Paul’s religious fathers in Israel had a softer heart than he had, and didn’t pray too many widows out of house and home, he could have exceeded their zeal when it came to that tradition as well, and profited big time!

And all of this gives us even more proof that Paul’s message was not of men, for only God could have convinced him to leave all that profit behind and start preaching grace, a message that left him nearly broke most of the time. And as we read on in Galatians 1,  Paul begins to tell us how God convinced him to leave those money-making ways behind:

“But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by His grace” (Gal. 1:15).

When Paul says God separated him from his mother’s womb, we have to ask if he was speaking literally or figuratively, for that phrase is used both ways in the Bible. In one instance, it’s used both ways in one verse. Job said,

“Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither…” (Job 1:21).

Job came out of his mother’s womb literally when he was born. But he said he planned to return to his mother’s womb when he died. If I were Job’s mother, I think I’d have something to say about that. These days you hear a lot about young people who graduate college but can’t find work, so they move back in with their parents. But this would be taking it a bit too far, don’t you think?

Back When the Womb Was a Safe Place to Be

Job is obviously using a figure of speech. Let me ask you: When you die, where do you “return,” as Job said there? God told Adam:

“…dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen. 3:19).

When you die, they bury you and you return to the earth. So Job’s mother’s womb was an idiom for what men call “Mother Earth,” interestingly enough.

And Paul was using a similar figure of speech in Galatians 1. Did you notice he didn’t say, “You’ve heard of my conversation in the Jews’ religion, how I profited in the Jews religion, but God separated me from the Jews’ religion”? Instead he said, “You’ve heard of my conversation in the Jews’ religion, how I profited in the Jews religion, but God separated me from my mother’s womb.” He was using a figure of speech. His mother’s womb was the Jews’ religion.

Do you remember which branch of the Jews religion Paul belonged to? He tells us in Acts 23:6, where

“Paul…cried out…I am a Pharisee…”

My old dictionary says the word “Pharisee” comes from Hebrew words meaning “separated one.” The Pharisees considered themselves so holy that they weren’t just separated from the lowly Gentiles as God insisted that all Jews should be. Pharisees thought they were even separate from other Jews who they thought to be less pious, in a class by themselves. Isaiah 65:5 is a prediction of them.

So when Paul says God separated him from his mother’s womb, he’s making a play on words. He’s saying, as it were, “I was a Pharisee, a separated one, but God separated me from the separated ones!”

And Paul had a reason for making this play on words. It was to emphasize how comfortable he was before he got saved and started preaching grace. He was as safe and as comfortable in the Jews’ religion as he was when he was in his mother’s womb. Only God could have caused him to leave such comfort and security. The thought of being separated from his mother’s womb in the Jews’ religion wouldn’t have pleased him before he got saved, but it pleased God!

Now here I should point out that when Paul says God called him by His grace, that proves he wasn’t saved by the kingdom gospel under the kingdom program, as is sometimes taught. God called Paul by grace—the same grace He used to call the Galatians, as we see when Paul told those dear saints,

“I marvel that ye are so soon removed from Him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel” (Gal. 1:6).

Paul was called and saved by the same grace that saved the Galatians, the grace found in the dispensation of grace. But after that, the Galatians went the opposite way that Paul had gone. Paul went from his mother’s womb in the Jews religion of the law to grace. They went from grace to the Jews religion of the law!

And in this dispensation, if you’re heading in the opposite direction from the way Paul went, you’re heading in the wrong direction. If that’s what you’re doing, the only way you’re going to be able to serve the Lord effectually is to turn your ship around, and begin following Paul as he followed Christ.

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