The Transformation of St. Paul

“By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.” (1 Cor. 6:14)

Saul of Tarsus is believed to have been aged around 28 at the time of Christ's crucifixion, and was soon at the forefront of a violent persecution of the Church. In Galatians we are told he was “advancing in Judaism beyond many his own age” (Galatians 1:13–14). In Acts we read that he was “thoroughly trained” in the Pharisaic school of Gamaliel and “was zealous for God.”  This enthusiasm and proximity to the Pharisaic patriarchy enabled him to “take the coats” of the men who stoned Stephen to death:

 “And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.” (Acts 22:20)

To guard the clothes of those stoning heretics was a particularly high honour, conferred on officials of the High Priest:

“And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord's people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them.” (Acts 26:10).

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Yet it was while Saul was “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples” (Acts 9:1) that something unexpected, terrifying and powerful happened him. Paul tells us that this transformation was not the consequence of any human involvement:

“I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the Church of God and tried to destroy it. ...But when God, who set me apart from my mother's womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being.” (Galatians 1:11-16)

Saul's epiphany, as described in Acts, sees him travelling with a small party from Jerusalem along the Damascus road. He was carrying with him a warrant from the High Priest to commence an inquisition in Damascus. His journey was halted by “a blinding light” from heaven “that flashed” around him, accompanied by a sound and the voice of Jesus, exclaiming "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4). It is worth recalling the description of the descent of the Holy Spirit to the twelve Apostles in Acts, which resembles and perhaps describes a similar occurrence:                                                      

“Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.  They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” (Acts 2: 2-3)

The inquisitors accompanying Saul heard “the sound” but did not see anything (Acts 9:7).  Later in Acts we read that these companions did not hear anything either, but the Greek verb for voice or sound (phone, φωνn) is also translatable as "understanding.”  Saul's companions therefore did not understand the phenomenon they had witnessed.  Saul was led by them into Damascus, where he remained blind for three days, unable to eat or drink (Acts 9:9). This blindness may be allegorical of death, and mirrors Jonah's three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish and Christ's three days in hell (1 Peter 3:18). Paul later described his experience to the Corinthians:

"I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat." (2 Cor. 2:12)

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It is Ananias who is then called by God in a vision to go to the house where Saul is laid up to explain what has happened and to restore his sight. Ananias is fearful of his persecutor, but the same voice commands him, to “Go, as Saul is my chosen instrument.”  Ananias places his hands on Saul, and immediately “something like scales” fall from his eyes. This may of course have occurred, but equally it may be allegorical of Saul's gnosis or perhaps his restoration to a new life.  From that point on, the new man Paul acquired the same powers given to the original twelve Apostles and, arguably, some of the Adamic powers wielded by man before the Fall:

“The signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds” (2 Cor 12:12).

What were these “signs” and “mighty deeds” and how was Paul able to perform them? What had happened to him?   It is clear that the gifts (powers) exercised by Paul were transformative and restorative powers given for the purpose of demonstrating his new faith. For the former Pharisee “thoroughly trained in the Law of his ancestors”, it was now the resurrected Christ who was the fulfilment of Divine revelation, demonstrable to men through a threefold confluence of signs (sermeron, σημεpον), wonders (teras, τeρας), and mighty deeds (dunamis, δuναμις). As we read in 1 Corinthians:

“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power.” (1 Cor. Ch. 2 vss.4-5)

The term dunamis was more commonly used in Paul's time to convey a sense of explosive force or energy. The modern English word dynamite derives from it.   The description in Acts of the descent of the Spirit in the Apostles and of the Damascus road experience provide a tantalizing glimpse of ‘The Thing' that empowered those chosen initiates. This power shapes Paul's understanding of his transmutation from death to life, figuratively applied to all those justified through faith in the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ, the fully reintegrated Second Adam, the Middle Pillar of the Temple connecting man and God. It follows that Paul's conversion on the Damascus road was a terrifying event, akin to what we might today describe as a ‘near-death experience.' It was a restoration from death to life, with immense transformative implications for Paul:

“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” (Phil. 3:10)

In Paul's writings there is an explicit connection to raising the dead in his descriptions of this force or energy. In Acts we have a detailed description of the Apostle physically lying on top of a deceased body, placing his arms around it, and giving a demonstration of the “wonder” and “sign” of restoring life to the dead before a large crowd of eye witnesses:

“There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead.  Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don't be alarmed,” he said. “He's alive.”  Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted.” (Acts 20 8-12)

Eutychus' body is broken and smashed by his fall, the cause of his death. Yet he is completely restored to full health by Paul. The word for ‘wonder' used by Paul (τeρας) is more accurately translated as sudden shock or terror. Such demonstrations (epodexi, eποδεξει) of the Spirit were shocking to onlookers - and they were numerous. For instance, in Acts we read of Paul's prison gate being mysteriously unlocked and opened (Acts 12:10); of a “cloud of darkness” blinding a rival magus (Elymas' is possibly derived from the Arabic al?m for ‘learned" or ‘wise' (Acts 13:11-12); a transfer of power received from his apron (Acts 19:11-12); the casting out demonic spirits (Acts 16:18); and an earthquake powerful enough to break the chains of his prison wall and tear off the gaol door (Acts 16:26).  In Acts 19:6 we read of twelve men being empowered by him to speak in tongues, that is, receiving a transfer of gnosis. 

Ultimately these signs, wonders and demonstrations serve the purpose of establishing the Church. Paul is, after all, God's chosen instrument as explained to him by Ananias. “I laid a foundation as a wise builder” (1 Cor. 3.10). Paul refers to the test the convert must face of passing through the transmutative power of God:

"If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person's work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward.  If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Cor. 12-15).

Paul's zealousness for the Law had been revealed for what it was: a futile hope: it was time for initiates to discover Christ through the transformative power of the Spirit:  

“Don't you know that you yourselves are God's Temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Cor. 17).

It is the Spirit that raised Christ to be at the Father's side in the Third Heaven. It is likewise through the Spirit that Christ communicates his will on earth.  It is this which connects the immortal spirit in man to God's Spirit. Through his training with Gamaliel in Jerusalem, Paul was familiar with the doctrine of the Spirit as an emanation, or manifestation, from God. It was the Spirit that hovered over the formless void at creation and, as the harmonisation of the dual nature of God, engendered the complimentary halves of man. It is the Mirror of Jehovah, the Great Architect of Worlds. The Spirit walked alongside the First Adam; wrestled with Abraham and spoke to Moses from the burning bush.  For Paul, the glory of the Spirit is manifest in creation, concealed and revealed in all. Paul alludes to this union with the Spirit when he describes the resurrection body:

“Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. For just as there are natural bodies, there are also spiritual bodies.” (1 Cor. 15:43-44)

Those “with the Spirit” acquire judgement, which is another form of power.  In the mind of Paul this equates to having what he refers to as “the mind of Christ.”   He acknowledges the intimacy of the Spirit with the unfathomable mind of God, and therein lies the true source of the power of which he speaks. To know the Spirit is to know God. This reminds us of the original emanated man, who enjoyed the same virtues and powers as the hierarchies and who held given judgement over the fallen angels.  Paul explains that he is one with the mind of Christ, and by analogy he acquires the use of some of man's original powers.  It is plausible that the empowering of the twelve men in Ephesus by Paul to speak was a limited transference of the gnosis of which he was not permitted to speak (Acts 19:6).  This wisdom is perhaps too precious, or even so terrifying that it can only be given to those who “live by the Spirit.”  It is this indwelling presence if Divinity which cannot be destroyed by material processes here on earth.

We have followed Paul's journey from the dry desert, to the sound and blinding vision of Heaven. His baptism in water brought him into a new birth. The supernatural powers conferred on Paul were a powerful reminder of hope in Christ in the midst of suffering. Ultimately, Paul's story is the mystery of man and God. A glimpse into our path of return.  In the words of his one-time rival, St. Peter:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1: 3-5)


This article is the copyright (c) of the SRIA Metropolitan Study Group & M.R. Osborne, 2019