New People, New Places
Below are the notes from today’s Bible study.
Today doesn’t have to be just another yesterday. God wants to transform us into new people, and take us to new places — and He can do it.
To illustrate, I want to look at Paul today. He’s one of the prime examples of the type of transformation God can bring about in us. To recap, Paul was one of the fiercest opponents of the church when it was just starting out. Then, he had a dramatic encounter with God, and became one of the founding fathers of the church. It’s like Red Skull had a vision and suddenly joined the Avengers.
I want to look at some of the details of Paul’s transformation because as we do, it’ll give us hope for our own personal growth and change. If God can make an apostle out of Saul of Tarsus, He can make anything out of anybody.
To get a handle on this story, let’s look at Saul before he became Paul. As we do, you’ll see how deep he was into his old way of life.
For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
Paul says it himself: he was a “Hebrew of Hebrews.” He was like a first-century Jewish superhero. He makes a really bold claim in verse 6: that he was “faultless” in terms of following the law. That’s really hard to do. Really hard. The Law handed down by Moses had a lot of commands in it. And by the time Saul was born, the Jewish teachers had added tomes of new laws to help prevent them from breaking the Law of Moses. They seriously had a set number of steps you could take on Saturday to keep from breaking the Sabbath by doing work.
It’s like playing Dungeons & Dragons for the first time, or Warhammer. There are rules for how many steps you can take, and what you’re allowed to do when, and you have to keep them all straight. Paul says he did it. He was deep into that way of life.
And he was doing well for himself. Note also that he was a Pharisee. Pharisees had a lot of religious and political power in his time. They were the leaders and teachers of Israel. And he had connections to very influential Pharisees.
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.”
But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while.
And influential people believed in his zeal and his ability.
“I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.”
He was deep into his lifestyle. He was good at what he did; influential people believed in him. And he believed in it enough to kill. He did the kind of things we don’t think you can really come back from. If you’re killing people because you believe what you believe, how are you ever going to change?
But he did. Got got to him, and he did change. And if God can do it with Saul, He can do it with us.
No matter how dark our lives are, or how deep we are into them, God can change us. We’ve each done things we know aren’t right. We may think we’ve gone too far to ever come back. We may think our habits are too deeply ingrained to ever go away. We may think we’ve done things God just can’t forgive.
Not true. Jesus forgave us, and He offers us new life, just like He did with Paul. Know what that means? We really can let go of the past. It’s forgiven. It’s done. And as we turn away from our mistakes and our bad habits, we can leave them behind. Accept the changes God is making.
Now, let’s look at what a difference there is between Saul and Paul. It’s remarkable. He started out, as he said, by persecuting the church. He had Christians killed for their beliefs. But after his conversion:
Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah. After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.
Now, he’s risking his life for the message he once tried to oppress. I should mention that the encounter with God that changed him happened on the road to Damascus. He was on his way to arrest the people that are now saving his life. Mind you, this is at the very beginning of his ministry. You couldn’t ask for a more dramatic reversal.
His circumstances completely change. He was once favored by the Jewish high council; now he has to defend his beliefs to his own people. He once terrified the church; he would soon encourage and strengthen them. He bitterly opposed Jesus and thought He was a heretic; then he met Him, and became His servant, worshiping Him.
But the even more dramatic thing is, it wasn’t just his circumstances that changed. Paul himself was changed. He became a new man. Look at what he says in Romans 9:
What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone.
His perspective has switched. He sees things differently now. He calls the way of life he followed so zealously a “stumbling stone.” He says it even more strongly in Philippians 3, right after the passage we read earlier:
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
This isn’t just an external change. His heart is different. His perspective has changed. His emotions have changed. His desires have changed. He has been changed within. He says that all his hard work in his old life is “garbage” compared to knowing the One he used to oppose.
God can change things in us that we can’t change on our own. An encounter with God, a meeting with Him, can do more to change us inside than willpower and good intentions ever could. As Paul says, it’s knowing God that makes the difference and brings us power.
What is it about your life that seems like it will never change? An attitude you have? A weakness to temptation? A desire you know is wrong? Maybe even a desire you think will never be satisfied, something that comes between you and God? Pray about that thing. Acknowledge it to God, and ask Him to change it. Pray for Him to change you from the inside out, then cooperate with Him as He does. He wants to do it.
Now, my final point. Everyone flip to the table of contents in your Bible. Look at all the books between Acts and Hebrews. They were all written by Paul. Each of those letters represents somewhere Paul’s ministry reached and had a great impact: Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philppi, Colosse, Thessalonica. That doesn’t even include Jerusalem, Antioch, Cyprus, Athens, Tyre, and on, and on. And that’s just in his lifetime. The church has used his letters for 2,000 years to instruct believers and help bring new ones to Jesus. Theologians debate who’s more influential on the early church: Peter or Paul.
Paul has made an indelible mark on the world, and on the lives of millions of people throughout history. And the stuff he’s remembered for happened after he came to God. Remember how deep he was into his old life? Remember the people he had killed? Thanks to God, Paul’s life turned around completely; he is remembered for the incredible impact he had after his conversion. As far as history is concerned, Paul’s redeemed life completely overshadows his old life.
No matter what you’ve done in the past, God can do new, great things through you now. God has a purpose for you beyond what you’ve done so far. He wants to move you forward, no matter what’s behind you.
Some of us know parts of the great plans He has for us. Some of us are too busy looking at the past to even think about moving forward with God. What can you do to engage God’s plan for your future? What do you need to put behind you in order to move forward? That’s something else to pray about: for God’s voice to guide you onto the path, and for His strength and forgiveness to move you along it.
Paul was deeply rooted in a way of life that separated him from God. But God intervened and changed him from within. And his life after that changed the world, despite the damage he had done before. God wants to change us, too, and take us to new places we can’t even imagine.