In the book of Acts we are introduced to Paul. Many of us know and love Paul. But before he was the famous Paul, he was infamously known as Saul…
Saul was a man who loved God. He was deeply devoted and wanted to spend his life serving God. Saul was a busy church leader. He had the right credentials, the right friends, and one of the most respected teachers–Gamaliel (Acts 5:34, Acts 22:3). Saul’s life was full of busy church activity. Saul was “a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5). We could say Saul was a Christian of Christians, a leader of leaders–Judaism was the church in Saul’s day.
The church was everything to Saul. He had given the best part of his life to it. His deep convictions led him to radically oppose anything that threatened the church. Maintaining the church’s reputation and traditions mattered more than anything–status quo became everything.
Saul zealously followed the traditions of man and the religion men created around serving God, and because of this he was on track to becoming a great leader in the church. By all external appearances Saul looked like a person everyone should look to. He did everything well. He was advancing fast within the church ranks, as stated in his own words: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age… I was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” Galatians 1:14.
Climbing the religious ladder was important to Saul. His own proud admission of advancing and beyond many my own age gives away the addictive and hierarchical nature of manmade religion and how it engenders wrong zeal and wrong loyalty to man. Advancement in a religious system and comparison always appeals to the flesh.
Saul’s love for God ended up in misplaced zeal and loyalty to man: IDOLATRY!
This is were religious madness enters.
Saul, along with all the Pharisees, elevated the traditions of their fathers to the same level as Scripture.
Saul dangerously gave the man-made church practices more weight and authority than Scripture.
Yet Jesus had been clear in denouncing this: “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding to human traditions… You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! … You nullify the word of God by your tradition” (Mark 7:8,9,13 NIV). The NKJV version states, “You make the Word of God of no effect through your tradition” (Mark 7:13).
A few verses earlier Jesus said, “these people honor with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. They worship Me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules” (Mark 7:6, 7 NIV).
Jesus was saying the Pharisees were dishonoring God because they elevated their traditions and loyalty to man above God. Jesus went further and said their worship was vain lip service, masking the idolatry of their heart. The Pharisees real love was for their traditions and their positions–they elevated themselves and wanted to maintain that.
Following man was more important than following Jesus.
Back to Saul…
Saul’s zeal becomes murderous. Remember, Saul thought he was serving God, doing the work of the church, and yet Saul stood over a man as he was stoned to death. Acts 7 tells the story of Saul officiating Stephen’s execution. Saul’s whole heart was invested in this execution. Saul was so blinded by wrong zeal that he couldn’t see murder for what it was: hatred, sin.
Saul’s wrong zeal for maintaining the traditions of the fathers allowed him the luxury of judging murder a righteous act serving God. How blind and illogical and irrational. How far away from the heart of the Father. This is mind-bending RELIGIOUS MADNESS and it’s out of the pit of hell–demonically inspired.
Saul was indeed passionate and zealous in serving God but he didn’t know God. He was not following God. He was following man and man’s traditions.
Steven, the man executed, was lied about and wrongly accused of blaspheming God. But Stephen had not blasphemed God, he was living in obedience to God. He had spoken against the wrong loyalty to the traditions of man. Stephen exposed the current practices of the church which had strayed very far from honoring God. He was going against what the religious leaders were teaching. Stephen said of the Pharisees, “you always resist the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51). Stephen was preaching Jesus Christ–loyalty and obedience to Jesus over any tradition, or church leader–and for this, Stephen was executed, while Saul looked on in smug triumph.
We can find it hard to comprehend that someone who says they love God, Saul, would stand and officiate another person’s execution. Yet some in the church today think nothing of slaying another person and ruining a reputation with words–a sort of stoning to death, more or less. We know that words have the “power of life and death” (Proverbs 18:21). “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him” (1John 3:15). Jesus explained that hatred and murder begin in the heart Matthew 5:21-22).
Spreading gossip and innuendo, politicizing and dividing, ruining reputations and cloaking it in “righteous zeal” is a way of covering jealousy and excusing hatred–all to protect religious power.
False accusations, lies, laying blame and scapegoating, ruining reputations, gossip, all to maintain something: a measure of control, a religious hierarchy, money, power, title, a personal kingdom. This has been happening in the church for the 2000 years since the cross. It didn’t happen just that one time with Saul and Stephen, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
In God’s incredible mercy, He reaches for Saul and renews and reforms Saul’s heart. Acts 9 records Saul’s radical encounter with Jesus. Saul realizes how wrong he has been. Saul recognizes his loyalty to men over God as idolatry. Saul is humbled and repents of his religious madness.
His immediate response is to drop the reverence for false human authority and he begins to live by the leading of the Holy Spirit and the authority of Scripture, “But when God… called me by His grace… (and) revealed His Son to me… My immediate response was not consult any human being…” (Galatians 1:13-16).
Saul is renamed Paul and spends the rest of His life preaching the message Stephen died for.
Coming face-to-face with Jesus will do this every time.
The two vital things for us are the Holy Spirit and Scripture. There is no higher authority in our lives than the Holy Spirit and Scripture. The Holy Spirit will lead you, if you let Him.
There is no man (or woman) on earth who can do a better job of leading you than the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is God. If man tells you he can lead you better, or you need his help so that you won’t be confused, this man is setting himself up as a “god” in your life.
Over valuing the role of tradition and human authority pushes the Holy Spirit out of the life of the individual believer, out of the fellowship between believers, and out of the church. When our focus comes off the Holy Spirit and His leading, and is instead directed toward man, man moves to the center. Manmade traditions are elevated and man is worshipped. This is idolatry. This is religious madness.
“Your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” 1Corinthians 2:5. We value wisdom, but our faith must be in God.