Have you considered what the Holy Spirit does to transform your life to be like that of Christ? You are a unique creation of God with certain traits He wanted you to have. What does the Spirit do with those? What does He keep? What does He change? One of the best ways to answer those questions is to look at the life of Jesus’ apostles in the book of Acts. Looking at Peter’s life, you see how the Spirit transforms an ordinary life. From Paul’s story, you see how the Spirit transforms a misdirected life. This is post #5 in the Radical Acts blog series. In this article, we will consider the evidence in Acts 8-12 to see that the Spirit enhanced some of Paul’s good traits, redirected others that were misdirected, and gradually removed that which did not represent Christ well.
Listen to this post as a similar podcast from our Radical Acts Bible Study covering the book of Acts in the New Testament. (11 lessons)
The Choice to Be Transformable
When you read the New Testament, you run across verses that describe how the Holy Spirit works to transform us to be like Christ.
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (Romans 8:29)
Both words, transformed and conformed, have a common root (Gr. form) meaning a pattern or a mold. “Being transformed” refers to the process. Conformed refers to the finished product. Jesus is our pattern or mold. We are being transformed so that we will eventually be conformed to the likeness of Jesus.
We are not the transformers of ourselves. We are the ones who need to be transformable in the hands of the living Christ and His transforming power. It’s not that automatic, though. We can resist our transformer. Why do we do that? Perhaps it’s a fear of the unfamiliar. Or it could be stubbornness—not being convinced that we really need transforming. Sometimes, it is just ignorance—not knowing transformation is even available to us.
So how do we cooperate with our transformer? We cooperate by faith, like everything else in our Christian life. Yielding to the God who loves us dearly, knowing it is for our own good. When we do that, our lives declare and demonstrate the undeniable reality of the living Christ and His transforming power. We choose to be transformable.
We see what a transformed life looks like by studying Paul’s life (in the book of Acts and throughout his letters) and how God transformed him. Let us first look at Paul’s character traits as a young adult and how he was conforming to the pattern of his world. These are what he brought with him when he met the living Christ. Some were good traits, some good traits were misdirected, and some bad traits needed to be totally transformed by the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s Early Character Development
Birth and early childhood
Paul was born in Tarsus, a big city on major highways only 30 miles from 12,000-foot-high mountains and 10 miles from the beach! Sounds like a great place, doesn’t it? Tarsus was an elite university town that was prosperous and well-known for its fine linens and water-repellent goat hair fabric used for making tents. At some point, Paul learned tent making, which he used later to support himself. Paul was born into a Jewish family and given the name Saul. He was born a Roman citizen as well and given the Roman name Paul. He also had at least one sister. These were the advantages given by God to Paul.
Two particular phrases in Philippians chapter 3 tell us how he was raised.
…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; (Philippians 3:5)
- The phrase “as a Pharisee” meant he had a Pharisee father who raised him to be a Pharisee also. That is not an occupation. It is more like being a Boy Scout with a code of conduct and lifestyle of rigorous training. Paul learned to be a disciplined rule follower. That is a good thing.
- The phrase “Hebrew of Hebrews” meant he was raised a Hebraic Jew. What did that mean? Most Jews outside of Israel mainly spoke Greek and attended Greek-speaking synagogues. These were called Grecian Jews. The ultraconservative Jews outside Israel primarily spoke Hebrew and sent their kids to Hebrew schools at Hebrew synagogues. That was Paul’s upbringing. Paul lived a segregated life. He knew of the Greek ways but did not participate in them. He developed pride and prejudice against the Grecian Jews and all Gentiles, being taught to think lowly of them. Pride and prejudice are not such good traits.
Higher education and beyond
Paul apparently completed high school or whatever we would call seminary in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). He was zealous for God, a diligent student, and thoroughly trained to teach as a rabbi or perhaps law professor. Good traits. While at school, good mentors impacted his life. Rabbi and professor Gamaliel was wise and honorable (Acts 5). A few other law teachers and Pharisees had sincere faith. But Paul was also impacted by bad mentors—other law professors and religious leaders who later rejected Jesus.
Paul lived as a Pharisee after school. He likely went back to Tarsus and missed interacting with Jesus for those 3 years. Neither Paul nor Luke references Paul ever meeting Jesus on earth except in resurrected form. Paul states that he followed the Law faultlessly, advancing in Judaism beyond his peers. So, he was ambitious, had confidence in the flesh, and was self-seeking.
He came back to Jerusalem in time for Stephen’s case (Acts 6-7). Stephen was a Grecian Jew. This especially made him a target for the religious leaders and a prejudiced Paul. What happens next clues us into the impact of those ungodly mentors on this idealistic young man.
Paul Began Destroying the Church.
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. (Acts 8:1-3)
I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities. (Acts 26:11)
Paul started going from synagogue to synagogue and house-to-house, dragging men and women to prison, giving approval to their deaths. He was deliberate; destructive; and bold (unafraid of strangers). He disrespected families, lacked compassion (blind to suffering), and promoted murder. For about 2 years, he heard their testimonies and was unmoved as an independent thinker, not easily persuaded. He was manipulative as he tried to force Christians to deny their faith.
He obtained letters from the Jewish authorities to go to other cities, obsessed that he ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus. He was proactive (targeted what he was after), respected authority, and a courageous traveler. Paul was also sold out to his cause, determined to stamp out “wrong,” and obsessed to get them all.
Did you recognize some good traits that were corrupted by his association with those misguided religious leaders who formed his world? He conformed to their pattern of thinking. Which of his good character traits became useful to Paul’s life of serving God? All of them, including the misdirected ones. Which bad traits needed to be changed by God? All of them.
Jesus met Paul on the Damascus Road and began the transformation of his life (Acts 9). As a new Christian with the Holy Spirit inside of him, Paul had to choose to yield to the Lord Jesus and find out what He would do. Paul chose to be transformable. We must do the same.
The Transformation Begins
To understand what it means to be transformed, look at how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. A caterpillar finds its spot, spins a chrysalis, and submits itself to the transformation, trusting in its Creator. To be transformed is not just putting on a costume or mask. It is a change from the inside out yet using the resources God has already placed within the caterpillar.
That is what God does to us. God’s plan is to transform us to become like Jesus in our character. And He uses what He’s already put in us to complete that transformation. Let us see what happened as Paul submitted to the living Christ and His transforming power.
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. (Acts 9:20-22)
The first 3 days after Jesus appeared to Him, Paul was isolated and dependent on others so that all he could do was think about God and pray. He spent the next 3 years, not back with those old conforming influences in Jerusalem, but in the Arabian desert with Jesus and in Damascus with other believers. While there, he taught the gospel message with boldness. No surprise there, huh? During that time, Jesus revealed to him the plan for bringing Gentiles into equal relationship with the Jews in the Church through God’s grace, not through the Law. This was valuable time for removing old ways of thinking.
After that 3 years, Paul spent 2 weeks in Jerusalem getting to know the Christian leaders there (Acts 9:26-30). He respected authority, but his old teachers were so hostile to him that Jesus told him to leave and go back to Tarsus. Paul was in tune with God’s will for him, not knowing how God would carry it out (like the caterpillar).
But he was not sitting on his hands back home. During the next few years, we know he had some influence in the churches of Cilicia and Syria because he visited those churches on his missionary journeys (Acts 15:41). Paul only went to churches where he had an influence. This time was also when he had that heavenly vision recorded in 2 Corinthians chapter 12.
Positive Traits Enhanced or Redirected, Negative Traits Replaced
Jesus’ transforming power enhanced the positive traits and replaced the negative ones with His own character. Let us see how this looked in Paul’s life.
- God showed Paul the value of weakness (2 Corinthians 12:10). That is his confidence in the flesh transformed.
- He learned humility in light of Jesus’ strength in him. That is pride transformed. Spiritual power at work.
- Paul’s energy before Christ was aimed at promoting himself (self-seeking) and his world’s agenda. As Jesus’ disciple, his energy was transformed toward promoting Jesus Christ and His agenda (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). A good trait redirected.
- Before Christ, Paul manipulated Christians to denounce their faith. As Jesus’ disciple, he labored as an encourager to help Christians mature in their faith and stand firm against persecution (1 Thessalonians 3).
- From being destructive of the church, he became constructive, founding many churches. His priority changed as did his character. Transformed.
- Over the years, God replaced Paul’s heart that lacked compassion with one that loved people deeply including Gentiles whom he accepted as family. His former prejudice totally transformed! He knew that he was dearly loved by His Savior, and they were, too.
- No longer was Paul disrespectful of women, but he penned the beautiful words in Ephesians 5, Colossians 3 and Romans 16 that have built up respect for women wherever the gospel has gone.
- God took Paul’s obsession to destroy all the Christians, and redirected it to a restlessness to win as many as possible to Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19). He remained sold out to his cause and a very courageous traveler.
- Instead of being a willing participant in murder, at least twice Paul saved the lives of prisoners. His life was being transformed. It was for his own good, and it definitely pleased God. He was becoming like Christ.
As you can see, God took Paul’s misdirected life with all of its good qualities and redirected them to do His work with the same zeal and determination. God also replaced Paul’s sinful behaviors with godliness that reflected the Lord Jesus Christ well. As a result, Paul dared to be different from his world and influenced it mightily for Christ.
Your Transformed Life
Dear believer, recall your own teen and young adult years. Studies say that 80% of a person’s character is developed by age 5; the rest is developed by age 12. What kind of good and not-so-good traits were developed in you by the time you reached your 20s?
Now, consider what God has done in your life since you trusted in Christ. Which ones of those traits have been used by God as you serve Him? Which ones have been redirected or needed to be changed by God?
For me, Jesus changed my drive for self-achievement to a drive to serve Him in whatever way He chooses. He has used my love of learning to pursue learning of His Word and ways. I think I am more compassionate now than I used to be. He replaced my emotional dependence on athletes and athletics with joy in Himself. I have lots of things He is still working on. I need to submit to Him for transformation.
Are you transformable? What do you need to give to the living Christ today to be transformed? Submit to the Spirit’s work in that area of your life and trust Him to do that.
It is good to say, “Lord Jesus, I can’t change myself. I know that. But I desire to be changed by you. I will trust you to do that in my life. Show me how to yield to you.” Then, watch what He does!
Read the next article on the Spirit’s transformation of Peter, an ordinary life transformed.
Let Jesus satisfy your heart with His Spirit’s transforming power. And say yes to a life of adventure with Him!
All of the above information is covered in the Radical Acts Bible Study of the book of Acts.
- Radical Acts Bible Study
- Satisfied Series 7 Podcasts (Acts series)
- Book of Acts—Get fired up for adventure!
- Acts 1: Trusting Jesus When Making Decisions
- Acts 2: Spirit Baptism
- Acts 4-6: Spirit Filling
- Acts 8-12: Paul, A Misdirected Life Transformed
- Acts 2-11: Peter, An Ordinary Life Transformed
- Acts 13: Support Causes Aligned with God’s Purpose
- Acts 13-16: Finding Your Purpose During the Adventure
- Acts 17-19: Living Life in the Extremes
- Acts 20: Jesus as Lord Deserves Our Loyalty
- Acts 21-26: Experience God’s Goodness on the Adventure
- Acts 27-28: Adventure in God’s Protective Hand
- Romans 12:1-2 Dare to Be Different from Your World
- Release Your Expectations of Acceptable Outcomes
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