The passing away of pastoral heroes has led me to think about the glimpses the Scripture give us of the Apostle Paul’s process of becoming. Through glimpses into his heart through the epistles he penned and through the recorded words of his own testimony to others, we get a chance to see the story of Paul from beginning to end. Rather than leading us to hagiography, such a glimpse leads us to the One from whom all help comes. Studying the life of Paul does not lead us to worship Paul, but rather leads us further into worship of the One Paul worshipped.
The Transformation of Paul
Even though he did not have the privilege of knowing Christ incarnate as did the disciples, the glimpses that he received were enough to utterly transform Paul. The self-righteous, cloak-carrying Saul we meet at the stoning of Stephen had no idea that his life would end in a similar manner (Acts 7). The Saul who panted after positions of power and authority over others had no clue that he himself would be tossed to and fro in kangaroo courts of human authority, all the while trusting in the sovereignty of God (Acts 23 – 26). The one zealous to throw followers of the Way into prison would write letters encouraging followers of the Way from prison (2 Tim. 1:8-14).
The one who seized control and sought to impose his will on the lives of others would be continually seized by human hands as he trustingly submitted himself to the divine will (Acts 8: 1–3; Acts 14). The one who achieved to ascend to the top of his sect’s ladder learned the long, slow descent of those who follow Jesus (Acts 26: 4-11; Phil. 2: 5-11). The one who chased earthly crowns of honor would learn to live in light of the crown of righteousness to be bestowed by the One who bore the crown of thorns (2 Tim. 4:8). The one who took pride in sitting at Gamaliel’s feet would learn to sit at the feet of One who washed feet (Acts 5: 33–34; Acts 22: 3–5; John 13:1–5).
The one trained in rhetoric to manipulate words would become one who would rather be condemned than twist the words of God (Gal. 1: 6-9). The one wanting to impress others with cunning committed to preaching nothing but Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles (1 Corin.1: 18; 1 Corin. 2: 1–5). This sounds like the stuff of the best stories. But it is real.
The One Who Transformed Paul
When we look at the lives of spiritual giants, we need to look behind their lives to the One working in and through them. I relate to Paul in his intensity and desire for justice and rightness. Though I don’t like to admit it, I resemble the early Saul in my attempts to do things my own way by sheer force and willpower. As I studied the end of his life in the last few chapters of the book of Acts, I found myself crying over the beauty of Christ’s work in him.
Paul would not try to write a self-help book about ten ways to release control. Paul would not allow a hint of hagiography over his life. He was always quick to point to the Source of his life: his Savior. The same Paul who told the Colossians that their lives were “hid with Christ in God” lived it to the very end (Col. 3: 1-4).
Christ was the banner over Paul’s life. Christ was his balm in sufferings. Christ was his companion in prison. Christ was his company and gave him company when all who were in Asia deserted him (2 Tim. 1: 15-16). Christ was his commendation (2 Corin. 10: 18).
The One Transforming Us
The same Christ that did such an almost-unbelievable work in Paul works actively works in the lives of each of his children. Though the circumstances and personality may differ, the transformer reminds the same.
When I am overwhelmed by the rough edges that remain in my soul, I am reminded of the slow, steady work of God. I am thankful that our Christ was also carpenter. I am helped to know that he is not through with me yet (Phil. 1:6). I am heartened to know that Jesus does all things well, that he finishes all he begins, and leaves nothing undone in the lives of his children. One day, we will see him and, seeing him, be like him (1 John 3: 1-3). Until then, may we fix our eyes on the author and initiator of our faith who is also the completer of our faith (Heb. 12: 1-3).