As we continue in our series on the resurrections of various biblical characters, let’s do a little recap. Two weeks ago, we talked about Moses and how he went through a series of different identities to become what God had in store for him, each of which led him to a different place and relationships and resurrected his personality along the way. Last week, we talked about Ruth and how she went through various circumstances and how God resurrected and altered her life through those circumstances. And this week we come to perhaps the most important figure in the New Testament outside Jesus himself: Paul and the resurrection of his life purpose.
Many things have been said and written about this apostle to the Gentiles, some by what appears to be his own hand, others in accounts written about him later on, but one thing we know for certain: Paul had a profound change of heart that changed the face of Western Civilization. But before we get into that, let’s talk a little about the man himself, what we know about him, and how this might have led to his conversion or maybe calling.
Paul was born outside of Jerusalem, into a Greek speaking Jewish family. They were part of something known as the diaspora or dispersion of Jews from Judea. The diaspora happened over the course of years going back the time of the Babylonian Exile and going forward. Jewish people were scattered about the Mediterranean region and Middle East, living all over the region in what were the Babylonian, Persian, Greek-Seleucid, and finally, during the time Paul was born, Roman empires. These various empires had what were now term pagan religions, meaning that they were not monotheistic or connected to the God of the Jewish people. They worshiped not just one god but many and saw this as a normal way of life, in contrast to Judaism and the offshoots of Judaism. This sort of exclusivism in religious practice (one god, one revelation through a sacred book, one place of worship) put the Jews at odds with the pagan peoples that lived around them and put Paul, I would think, at odds with those around him as well.
As he grew into adulthood, Paul apparently took his faith seriously. He says in Philippians 3,
If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more: 5 I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. 6 With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church. With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.
Also, in Galatians 1,
13 You heard about my previous life in Judaism, how severely I harassed God’s church and tried to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my peers, because I was much more militant about the traditions of my ancestors.
I imagine that growing up in a pagan environment where Greek and Roman gods were seen as “superior” may have meant that Paul felt a need to prove his faith beyond a shadow of a doubt if to no one else, himself. Notice how he saw himself: a righteous keeper of the law, devoted to Judaism to the point of defending it physically, violently if necessary, advancing in knowledge and understanding further than those of his generation. And eventually, Paul becomes a Pharisee.
A side note about Pharisees; they may not be what you think they are. Pharisees, people like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, sought keep and uphold the Torah (the instructions) and the ‘traditions of the elders.’ They were the conservative force behind Judaism, strictly adhering to the Torah and the traditional teaching of the people to the best of their understanding. In truth, if they believed in Jesus and live now, they would make great conservative Christians.
We know from his writings that at some point after the Jesus movement started and probably after Jesus himself died, Paul sought to fight against the followers of Jesus. By his own admission, he tried to harass the church and destroy it because of his militant stance about the traditions of the elders. The writer of Acts places him as witness and potential instigator at the stoning of Stephen, regarded as the first martyr of the Jesus movement. And of course, a chapter later, he is facing the risen Jesus who asks him, “Saul, why are you harassing me?”
Another little interesting tidbit, did Paul answer a call or convert? There are several ways that people have looked at this topic, but from what I have read and seen, Paul was not becoming part of a new religion anymore than any other Jew who followed Jesus did. They were simply Jews who recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Like Peter, Andrew, James, and John before him, Paul saw in Jesus the anointed of God (another way of saying Messiah or Christ) sent to usher in the Kingdom of God.
I think this is important as we look at this idea of resurrection. Paul’s purpose, his reason for being, was resurrected on the Damascus Road. He went from being one who fought against the Way of Jesus and by extension Jesus himself, to being one who embraced it and became one of its greatest defenders and advocates. The change was so profound, so completely out what had been Paul’s character, that during the immediate time after his recognition acceptance of Jesus, many followers of the Way were skeptical including Ananias, who was used by God in our passage today to restore Paul’s sight after being blinded by the resurrected Jesus on Damascus Road. Paul was the same man – focused, intent, zealous – but now all those things for the Way of Jesus and the early church. The resurrection, the change in his purpose, led Paul to truly repent of what he had done to the church (literally change his attitude toward the church) and become one of the great missionaries and church planters of all time. This was truly a resurrection, a rebirth of mission and purpose.
Thinking about Paul brings me to a question: what does our resurrected purpose look like? Many people have, from a Wesleyan perspective, experienced prevenient grace (God calling us) and justifying grace (us answering that call and realizing the need for change), but have we engaged with a resurrected purpose? Before you answer that with a hearty amen or affirmative of any kind, think about your life both where you have been and where you are. Is it any different than the life you had before you experienced justifying grace? For that matter, is it any different than the life you experienced with prevenient grace? To have a resurrected purpose is to have a profound change in attitude and action. It is not just saying the words and thinking the thoughts of The Jesus Way but it is living out The Jesus Way in every moment of every day. It goes beyond thinking to being and doing.
In that case, what are you being and what are you doing?