Many have come to believe that religious fervour inevitably leads to violence and so we are not surprised to read that Paul, who exceeded his contemporaries in religious commitment, was violent and aggressive (cf. 1 Timothy 1:13 for a much later recollection of Paul’s abusive past).
A less fervent hold on one’s religion looks more attractive. But Paul’s earlier religious fanaticism doesn’t prove the virtues of being only moderately religious. (Are not those who are lukewarm in their beliefs merely going with the flow? The half-hearted will not offer much resistance to the powers that be whether they are good or evil. Giving it a moment’s thought, probably most would agree that some things are worth passionately believing in and fighting for.)
Paul’s earlier religious fanaticism shows that the content of the faith about which we are passionate matters. Paul did not cease to be zealous about what he believed in when he has apprehended and transformed by Christ but he was now passionate about the God who has revealed his love for us in Christ. Ardent love for Christ made him turn away from hatred and violence.
Whenever Christianity has turned violent, it turned its ‘good news’ into something that wasn’t the Gospel. The Gospel is the Lord Jesus Christ “who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (1:4).
The Gospel speaks of God’s free and unmerited favour (grace) and of full reconciliation with God and others (peace). Jesus can do things that other religious leaders cannot do. He brings “grace and peace” – it won’t do being lukewarm about that.