How Did God Change St. Paul ?

(A sermon by Robert Brow preached in Agia Kyriake, the church of St. Paul's Pillar in Paphos, Cyprus, January 24, 1998)         (

When we become disciples of Jesus Christ there are a hundred attitudes and habits of mind that God needs to change. And that takes time. The problem is that God has begun correcting my wrong attitudes numbers 66, 67, and 68.

He is working on your attitudes numbers 3, 4 and 5. So I get upset with you for not changing the way I have changed. And you wonder how I can be so un-Christian.

Let me illustrate this with three astonishing changes that God managed to work in the life of St. Paul. Two of these changes took many years; the first occurred immediately the day of his conversion.

In every nation people keep looking for a messiah. In an election they hope he or she will be elected. The Irish have two opposite ideas of what their messiah will do. The Germans made a serious mistake with Hitler, and Russians got stuck with Stalin. Every four years Americans try to pick the perfect President And here in the Greek world they still long for a messiah to save them from the Turks.

Before his conversion Paul was expecting a Jewish messiah, who would drive out the Romans. The Messiah would make Jerusalem the religious, cultural and commercial center of the world. That is why for Saul of Tarsus it was obvious that Jesus did not qualify. How could the Messiah be a village preacher from Galilee bleating about turning the other cheek and loving enemies. And anyway the Christian Jesus ended up hanging crucified on a tree.

Then unexpectedly on the road to Damascus Paul was blinded by a light from heaven, and he knew in an instant that Jesus was the Messiah. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, who do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord? And immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God" and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah' (Acts 9:3-5, 20, 22).

In the case of Peter the apostle it took two or three years before it dawned on him that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. And there are many in our churches who take much longer hoping for a human solution to their problems, and some human messiah to intervene and save them. But for Paul this first change was instantaneous. Other changes took much longer.

An assumption that all of us need to correct is that to make it with God we must try harder, make good resolutions, and steel ourselves to keep them. In a month's time millions of Anglicans will try to improve a bit during Lent. But most of them will be no better for it by Good Friday unless they discover the grace of God and the mighty power of the Holy Spirit to do in them what they can never do themselves.

Paul was a Pharisee, who was totally committed to making himself good by trying to obey 600 rules of what should be done and not done to be a righteous man. As he said before King Agrippa, "All the Jews know my way of life. They have known for a long time that I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee" (Acts 26:4-5). Slowly among his new Christian friends he learned that he was loved and accepted by grace alone, and the only way he could produce the fruit of the Spirit was by being made right by the power of God.

"By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8). "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit" (Romans 5:5). That is why he was upset with the Galatian Christians who had gone back to living by their own energy instead of looking to the power of the Spirit. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, and none of these beautiful fruit come by self-effort. That Jesus was the Messiah Paul had seen immediately. I wonder how long it took him to learn life in total dependence on the Spirit.

Let me conclude with a third change, which was for Paul the hardest of all. Most cultures of the world have assumed that women must be kept down. Paul was trained as a rabbi, and a daily prayer was "Thank you, O God, that you did not make me a woman." He knew that it was Eve who was deceived in the Garden of Eden, and men need constant vigilance to avoid being snared by feminine wiles.

By the time he wrote his first Epistle to the Corinthians he was teaching a total mutuality between men and women in Christian marriage (1 Corinthians 7:1-16). How did Paul make this incredible change from the ingrained attitudes of Jewish and Arab patriarchy? As a rabbi he had been taught to believe that women should never be allowed to study the Word of God. So after his conversion he must have been astonished to see women as well as men being baptized as disciples. He heard how Jesus had taught Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene, and the woman of Samaria.

I like to think that another turning point was when he crossed from Asia Minor into Europe. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. But when Paul arrived in Philippi there was no Jewish synagogue, and he couldn't find a male who was interested in his message. To his astonishment the man of Macedonia turned out to be a woman. And it seems that the first communion service in Greece was at the home of a business woman.

Luke records that "on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, and spoke to the women who were gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God was listening to us; she was a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying "come and stay at my home."  In Philippi Paul and Silas were beaten and then imprisoned by the city magistrates.  During the night there was an earthquake releasing them. The city jailor was converted and baptized with his whole household. The next morning the magistrates came and apologized for beating Paul and Silus who were Roman citizens. "After leaving the prison they went to Lydia's home, and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters, they departed" (Acts 16:22-40)

Probably as a result of spending eighteen months with the church in Corinth (Acts 18:1-11) Paul came to see how a church grows as a body with many different members, and there is no way we can divide these into male and female functions. This may explain how Paul came to accept the total mutuality between men and women that he describes (1 Corinthians 7:1-16).

Evidently Paul must have struggled with such radical changes in his life, and each of us will find God changing us in different ways and in a different sequence. If we can welcome these changes in our own attitudes, and in the lives of others, our growth will be smooth and peaceful. If we dig in our heels God will force us to change much more painfully.

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