Zealotry characterized much of first-century Judaism, and it came in two main forms. First, there was political zealotry as seen in those who were known as Zealots. These individuals wanted to overthrow Roman rule and return the Jews to independence by any means possible. One of the twelve disciples was Simon the Zealot, the designation probably reflecting that he was a part of that political movement before Jesus called him (Matt. 10:1–4).
The second form of zealotry common in first-century Judaism was religious. Here we are referring to the religious zeal of individuals such as the Pharisees, who prided themselves on exact obedience to the Mosaic law. Some Pharisees focused on law keeping as a personal matter, but others made it their job to go after Jews who were not keeping the law in the manner that the Pharisees wanted. One of these latter Pharisees was Saul of Tarsus, a man with so much zeal for what he thought was the right way to keep God’s law that he fiercely persecuted the early Jewish Christians (Acts 9:1–2, 11). They were not doing what good Jews did, Saul thought, and they had to be made to conform to the Pharisaic code.
Few would have thought that this Saul would become Paul, perhaps the most important of the Apostles of Christ. But God delights in doing the unexpected, so Jesus had a face-to-face encounter with Saul after His ascension. Our Lord confronted Saul on the way to Damascus, blinding him temporarily and calling Saul to stop persecuting Him (vv. 3–5). Of course, Saul had not been persecuting Jesus directly but only going after His followers. But Jesus’ comment reveals that there is a close, intimate connection between Jesus and those who follow Him in faith. We are so closely united to Him that Jesus views the persecution of us as the persecution of Him.
As a result of this encounter, we have what is perhaps the most dramatic conversion experience in Scripture, indeed in history. Saul went from a Christ-hating persecutor of the church to its most ardent defender and encourager, and God used him mightily to preach the gospel to the Gentiles (vv. 6–22). The church continues to benefit from Paul’s ministry to this day, for the Apostle wrote approximately half the books of the New Testament. All of this shows us that no person is ever beyond God’s grace if God wants to save that person. Jesus can take those who hate Him the most and turn them into servants who are willing to die for the gospel.