I have lived by the rules of the Pharisees. Those rules are harder to obey than those of any other Jewish group.
Acts 26:5b (NIRV)
Paul was a religious Pharisee and yet God used him to change the lives of more non-religious people than anyone who has lived (other than Jesus). I have often wondered why God picked Paul. What was it about him that ideally suited him for God’s purposes? How did God help Paul grow and change?
I ask these questions about Paul, because I also come from a religious background and can wonder why God chose me. Rather than being ashamed of being a Pharisee or being in denial, Paul was confident with who he was and who God had made him. This is what I want to learn from Paul: how to believe that everything I have experienced is part of who God wants me to become.
This Bible study seeks to give hope to all of us Pharisees who have stopped believing God can use us to change the world.
A Disruptive Vision
I am sending you to them to open their eyes. I want you to turn them from darkness to light. I want you to turn them from Satan’s power to God. I want their sins to be forgiven. They will be forgiven when they believe in me. They will have their place among God’s people.’ “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.
Acts 26:17b-19 (NIRV)
Paul’s life as a Pharisee was interrupted and forever changed by a vision. It was a disruptive vision God gave him that set him on a new course and rewrote his destiny. No Pharisee is torn from their life of control, containment, and comfort except by a vision from God. As a Pharisee, I like Paul, have to decide whether I am going to allow God’s vision to disrupt my life and shape me into who I am meant to be.
A Transformative Process
In the third chapter of Philippians, Paul describes the painful but inspiring process he had to go through to be transformed. Most are unwilling, but every Pharisee who goes through this process will emerge like Paul, a force for change.
These are 4 necessary steps of Paul’s transformation that we can also apply to our lives.
1. Experiencing Loss
But whatever former things I had that might have been gains to me, I have come to consider as [one combined] loss for Christ’s sake.
Philippians 3:7 (AMP)
The complete transformation from Pharisee to man of God begins with losing. Everything he used to value and gain confidence from had to be ripped away and uprooted. I’ve experienced that as well. I have had to give up the love of position, power, prestige and pretense that I’ve held on to for so long. This requires ruthless self-evaluation with the Bible and spiritual relationships that will challenge and guide. It is very painful and leaves me feeling loss. There is a loss of confidence as I shift from human, external appearance, to spiritual, internal truth. Is the discouragement and depression I feel really the loss of what I have valued and put my confidence in? The vision from God is essential during this part of the process, so we do not give up before God’s transformational work is finished.
2. A Desire Shift
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.
Philippians 3:8 (NIV)
Only when I rid myself of external pursuits and motivations can I find and understand how valuable knowing God really is. God will not share a heart. So, once my heart is reached, I can then begin to understand how incredible it is to experience a life not of fulfilling rules but of loving relationships. One that is not so uptight and contained, but relaxed and free. The key here is focusing on God and establishing God as my number one pursuit and motivation. Is knowing God my first and most important desire?
3. Fighting The Battle
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Philippians 3:10 (NIV)
Pharisees have no power. They don’t change lives, they are not refined by suffering, they are not resilient, and they cannot come back to life. Jesus teaches us how and gives us the power to do all of these things. It is the power to live a life that is flexible and adaptable. However, it is far easier to go back to the controlled comfort of hiddenness, deceit, and distance. So, we will either kill the Pharisee in us, or he is going to crucify Jesus in me. Am I fighting the battle every day to completely kill and reject the Pharisaical habits that have controlled me?
4. A Focus on the Future
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 3:13-14 (NIV)
Because Pharisees try to be perfect, we can have a hard time moving on once we see truth of who we have been. Paul had to learn to rely on and enjoy the new starts God’s forgiveness gives, rather than ruminating on the past failures our sins have produced. The only way to move on to who God wants us to be is to forget what is behind us. Are you focusing on the past or are you riveted on the future?
By going through this process, God forged Paul and can forge us into a force he uses to change lives and the world. God wants someone who understands the hidden anger and arrogance of a heartless rule-follower. He wants someone who understands the secret insecurity of those who only rely on themselves and the attention of people rather than the acceptance of God. He wants someone who has experienced and rejected the powerlessness of human effort and has chosen a powerful God.