Paul

The Resurrection: Saul to Paul

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While the debate concerning the identity of Jesus Christ as God himself as historical fact or fiction will forever continue, the figure of Paul is much less easily argued against. Paul comes down to us from the 1st century as a real man who wrote real documents, who preached faith in Jesus Christ and the Gospel.

Paul is a historical figure: very few people will object to that statement. However, while some attempt to legitimize the life of Paul and reject the life of Jesus, a closer look at the life of Paul will lead to the truth that Paul cannot exist as history presents him without the existence of Jesus as history presents him as well. The life of Paul without the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not worthy of anyone’s study. Without the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Paul is simply another Jewish Pharisee destined to be remembered only by his family, friends and colleagues. As we have it, with the resurrection, the name of Paul is possibly the second most important name in human history, second only to Jesus himself. The reason Paul is worthy of anyone’s study is because of his radical transformation on the road to Damascus.

Acts 9:1-22

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

“Yes, Lord,” he answered.

The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”

“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.

Over the course of three days, Paul transformed from Saul of Tarsus, a fiery Jewish Pharisee, devoted to the destruction of the Christian heresy, to Paul the Apostle, preaching the good news of Christ and changing the course of human history through his many missionary journeys, church planting and frequent correspondence with the early Christian Churches, comprising more than two thirds of the entire New Testament. We must ask the question, why?

Why would Paul suddenly change and become a member of the sect he was committed to destroy? Why would he forfeit his wealth and status to become poor and persecuted? Why would he endure hardships such as shipwrecks, stoning, floggings, imprisonment, and sickness for this heresy of Jesus Christ? Without the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the actions of Paul are those of a man gone insane. His transformation without the resurrection is unlikely and unreasonable. With the resurrection, the mission and promise of Jesus to Paul that he preach salvation in Christ to all nations, Jew and Gentile, suddenly thrusts the reality of Paul’s conversion into the reality of the Gospel, with the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day.

Serving the King: Change

Many characteristics may define a Christian life.  Many things may be signs that someone truly lives their faith in correspondence with the Gospel.  In this reflection series, we’ll explore how different Scriptures emphasize service as a defining character trait of the Christian.

Service can be defined as what you do for something or someone.  But in the Gospel context, service is much larger than that.  Service, according to the teaching of Jesus, is a way of life.  More than an aspect Christian character, it IS Christian character.  In these reflections, we’ll discover five elements of service that please God.

Serving with Change (Ephesians 4)

The apostle Paul left behind a lasting legacy in the many letters he wrote to churches and individuals important to the early Church.  While at first glance all of the letters seem to discuss the same topics and ideas, as one devotes more time to them, the diversity within each letter separates them into distinct messages, rather than one massive “Paul Letter” section of the Bible.

The letter to the Ephesian Church expresses sound Christian theology; however, its purpose-driven nature sets the letter apart from the others.  Throughout the letter, Paul not only reminds us of the things that have been and will come as we continue to walk in the light of Jesus Christ, but also devotes significant attention to the idea that falling back into a previous way of life is no acceptable option if the experience of meeting Christ was true and Spirit-led.

The idea of “genuine change” is best expressed in a different letter: Galatians 5.  Paul compares this change in a person’s life and character to a fruit tree. Paul used the idea of “Christian Fruit,” first taught by Jesus throughout his lifetime.  As a person begins to change their life in Christ they witness the emergence and growth of “fruit,” namely love, joy, patience, kindness, faithfulness, self-control, peace, gentleness, and goodness.  It is in the discovery of this fruit that, Paul explains, a follower of Christ will become aware of the change promised by Christ emerging in their character as a Christian.

A theme of Paul’s letters, including the letter to the Ephesian Church, is the notion of a “new life” and an “old life.”  This idea is far from original with Paul as it was first and best explained by Christ himself in the Gospel of John where Jesus talks with the Pharisee, Nicodemus.  According to Jesus there was a clear difference between a person’s old way of living and their new life as his disciple.  Just as a baby, once born, does not return back to the mother’s womb, likewise a new Christian does not return to their “old life.”

However, this desire to stay away from the “old life” does not come through force or insistence by anyone but the person directly involved in the change.  There must be some experience that plants the seed of this desire in the heart of the individual, a seed that continues to grow over time. Awareness of the distinction between the two lives emerges within a person, along with the desire to maintain the newly found direction of this “new life.”

When we are children there are many instances where we are headed straight for a mistake or a bad situation.  Parents may try with all of their might to prevent children from experiencing the predictable outcome that might bring harm.  However, there are also times where the parent knows that to allow the child to experience disaster may be the most effective decision. It may be that allowing the child to fall, so to speak, and allowing the child to experience falling will prompt an experience, not rules, that will encourage a change.

For example, when I was young I loved to play in the sink in our kitchen as my mother cooked or did housework.  My mother would fill up the sink for me and then allow me to play in the water with my favorite toys, clad in a raincoat to protect me from the violent splashing that would ultimately ensue.  However, one day my mother was not around to ask to fill the sink, and I saw an alternative in a large pot of water atop the stove.  Unaware that the pot had been left to boil in preparation for pasta, the only thing I saw was an opportunity for me, along with my toys, to explore new and exciting waters.  Needless to say, what followed was a massive burn that left a sizable scar on my left hand that is still with me.  As a result of this experience, I did not stop my fun water game of splashing, raincoats and toys. What I came away with was a cautious awareness of pots and boiling substances on the stovetop.  That burn gave me enough to know that I never wanted to make the same mistake again.  The scar was a visible reminder of my decision and its consequences.

When Christians, like Paul, discuss the idea of a new life, many people assume that this is just cheap Christian lingo, something we know is in the scripture but don’t know how to experience.  Reading Paul’s desire for the Christians at Ephesus to “put off the old self” makes us aware that there’s something to be done there, but defining the “old self” can seem complicated and discovering the “new self” can be rather ambiguous and hard to comprehend.  What is not difficult to understand is that both Jesus and Paul took this “new life” extremely seriously.

Jesus himself made it perfectly clear that to be a Christian and to represent his name in our new identity means carrying the burden of a cross that accompanies this “new life.”  For some, this cross is heavy, splinter-ridden, and a burden.  This perception of the “new life” can soon make returning to the “old life” without the cross look pretty appealing.  Assuming that the cross means judgment, rules, and impossible expectations makes burning oneself in the boiling water of the “old life” almost desirable.  The difference between the Christian who has not truly encountered the living God and the Christian who has been born of the Spirit, is that the first has not truly understood the dangers of the boiling water, and the second has found that one burn was enough.  The first saw no reason to change; the second saw that change was the only option.

Being changed by God is not something that happens to you but something that happens within you.  The change is supported by the awareness that ahead of you is a well-lit path, and behind you the dark ground already traveled.  Someone who has truly met Christ recognizes that in the darkness exists a world of mistakes already made and desires left unfulfilled.  For this person, walking ahead into the well-lit path of “new life” with Christ is an opportunity to enter into a world of hope and promise.  From this place, the decision to place the hand in the boiling water a second time would seem insane.

At the heart of the Christian’s transformation is an inner acknowledgment that to “go back” is not only counterproductive but counter-intuitive.  Going back is never an option.  Service, bearing the cross in the new life, becomes a part of who you are, and less a list of things you are required to do.  Service becomes more of an instinct and less a choice to be considered.  Serving the king, the suffering servant, the great Teacher, becomes your lifelong desire, the essence of who you are and everything you do.

To know Jesus is to be made like him.  By serving him and serving like him we truly find union with him.  This union establishes us firmly on the rock that is Jesus Christ.  It is then on this rock that we can honestly and confidently refer to ourselves as Christians.