Paul was the epitome of the Jewish man. If the law could save anyone, it could save Paul. Philippians 3:4-6 reads,
“though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
He had it all down pat. He knew his lineage and could tell people his ancestry made him a member of the tribe of Benjamin. He had been circumcised exactly as the law prescribed. He was a Pharisee. And let me tell you it was tough to become a Pharisee. The Pharisees were devoted to the law. They studied it, memorized it, and methodized it. They made sure the rest of the Jews were following the law by putting rituals and rules to their lives that ensured they would not break any of the numerous laws. And Paul wasn’t just any old ordinary Pharisee, he was fervent and passionate to the point that he wanted to bring down the Christians who seemed to have no regard for the law. He was blameless under the law. He observed the Torah with absoluteness. He had every law down pat.
So how could Paul refer to himself as the foremost of sinners? If he had followed the law so perfectly how could he be the chief of sinners? Paul describes his sin in 1 Timothy 1:12-13.
“I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief,”
Paul was a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent opponent. Paul cursed God when he cursed the church, he spoke about Christ and Christians with hatred and disdain. He hounded and oppressed the church and therefore Christ. Paul was an enemy of the church, and an enemy of Christ. We all were enemies of Christ before Jesus saved us. Romans 10:5 reads,
“For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”
1 Timothy 1:13-14 reads,
“though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ.”
Paul was a sinner, an enemy of God, He had thought he was acting for God, when really it was for the law. His actions made him not just an enemy but an enemy who pursued and hunted Christians and Christ with the intent of wiping them out. But Jesus knew Paul. He understood and so He was merciful and He forgave Paul completely. When Jesus forgave Paul he flooded him with faith and love.
Paul followed the law to the letter, but there was no love in it. There was no love for God, and there was no love for his fellow man. Paul had passion for the law and he believed that passion for the law meant passion for God. But God doesn’t ask for us to have zeal for the law. He never asked us to have ardor for the law. He asked us to adore Him. Deuteronomy 6:4-5 reads,
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
In Leviticus Chapter 19 Moses has given a long list of laws that are somewhat reminiscent of many of the Ten Commandments and he ends it with verse 18.
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
When the Sadducees came to Jesus and asked Him what the greatest commandment was He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-39).
He said that all the commandments and the Prophets depended on those two commandments. If you love the Lord with your entire being (body, mind, and heart) and you love your neighbor, then you will by your faith keep the law.
But the Pharisees hadn’t put laws like love God into a ritual. There is no way to make actual love a ritual. 1. Pucker lips. 2. Open arms 3. Say, “mwah.” Or 1. Take your money out of the bank. 2. Donate it to the poor. There is no love in following a set of directions. They had been keen to keep the law, so keen that they forgot God in the process. In their fervor they replaced The Lord with the idol of law.
Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6 on a couple of occasions. It reads,
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
When Paul was saved he knew all his perfect following of the law meant nothing. He may have followed the letter of the law but without love it was only ritual. Without love and knowing God, his sacrifices and offerings were absurd. Whatever righteousness he had was worldly and didn’t matter when it came to knowing Jesus. Philippians 3:7-9 reads,
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—“
You just can’t be good enough to be saved. Salvation by the law is unachievable. If it were possible to be saved outside of Christ, Saul would have been saved and never become Paul. If it were doable, Jesus never would have needed to come.
Romans 3:23-24 reads,
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,”
Salvation can only be attained through Jesus. It is a gift. It cannot be earned. It is by grace, there is no one who can deserve it.
That is how Paul could be righteous to the world and the worst of sinners in the Kingdom of God.