Apostle Paul was an outstanding Apostle in the body of Christ.
Paul may be the most influential person in the history of the Christian faith. His dramatic conversion from a zealous enemy of Christians to a tireless advocate of the gospel ranks as one of the most dramatic stories in Scripture. His years of ministry took him to countless towns and cities throughout Asia Minor and Europe. He also wrote thirteen letters that are included in the New Testament.
FAMILY AND CULTURAL BACKGROUND
Paul was born around AD 10, a Jew in a family of Pharisees (Acts 23:6) of the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5) in Tarsus of Cilicia (Acts 9:11; 21:39; 22:3). At that time, Tarsus was a center of commerce and learning that embraced Greek culture and Roman politics. The city was a source of pride for him (21:39). His parents named him Saul, perhaps after the first king of Israel, who was also a Benjaminite (1 Samuel 11:15; Acts 13:21), but 13:9 notes that he “was also called Paul.” He used his Roman name Paul throughout his letters.
With the encouragement of devout parents, Paul studied the law and prophets and the Hebrew and Aramaic languages (Acts 21:40; 22:2-3; 23:6; Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:5-6). Tarsus, however, was not a Jewish city. It was a place where the Greek language was spoken and Greek literature was cultivated. This accounts for Paul’s familiarity with Greek (Acts 21:37), the language of the streets and shops of Tarsus. Many Jews migrated to Tarsus, the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia, in 171 BC to promote business in the region. At that time Paul’s ancestors were probably given Roman citizenship.
Paul inherited from his father Roman citizenship, which would prove to be of great value to Paul as he traveled throughout the Roman Empire (Acts 16:37; 22:25-29; 23:27). Paul may have had several brothers and sisters, but 23:16 mentions only a nephew, who warned Paul about a plot against his life. Paul was a tentmaker (Acts 18:3). He may have learned this trade from his father, or he may have learned it as a way of making a living, as many rabbis did in his day.
The artisans of Tarsus were well known for their goat’s-hair cloth called cilicium. By knowing how to weave this cloth and fashion it into tents, sails, awnings, and cloaks, Paul gained a measure of economic independence during his ministry (18:3; 20:34; 28:30; 2 Corinthians 11:9; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:8).
Although born in Tarsus, Paul testified that he had grown up in Jerusalem and had studied under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). It is not clear when Paul arrived in Jerusalem, but it is likely that he began his formal rabbinical studies sometime between the ages of 13 and 20. His teacher, Gamaliel, was the grandson of Hillel, an influential Pharisee and teacher. (Hillel’s teachings appear in Talmudic writings to this day.) The same Gamaliel persuaded the Sanhedrin to spare the lives of Peter and the apostles (5:33-40).
With little doubt we can conclude that while studying under Gamaliel, Paul’s understanding of his faith progressed far beyond that of his peers. He became extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers (Galatians 1:14). Perhaps Paul also then began to experience the struggles with the law he would later describe in Romans 7.
SAUL THE PERSECUTOR
Shortly after the world-changing events of Jesus’ resurrection and Pentecost, the members of certain synagogues in Jerusalem, including the Cilician synagogue of Paul’s native land (Acts 6:9) acted to quash the new church. In particular, they battled the wisdom and spirit (6:10) of Stephen (6:5, 8). They accused him of blasphemy before the Sanhedrin (6:11-15) and, after his eloquent defense (7:1-53), dragged him out of the city, where he was stoned to death.
He became the first Christian martyr. The record does not fully reveal the role Paul played in these proceedings, but we know that he was an active participant. The witnesses against Stephen, who were required to throw the first stones in the execution, “laid their clothes at the feet of a young man called Saul [Paul]” (Acts 7:58, NIV). Stephen’s death initiated the events that would result in Paul’s conversion and commission as the apostle to the Gentiles.
But at that time Paul was a leader of the oppressors of the church. He breathed threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord (Acts 9:1); he persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it (Galatians 1:13) by imprisoning Christian men and women (Acts 22:4) in many cities.
CONVERSION AND CALLING
Paul obtained letters from the high priest in Jerusalem, addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, authorizing him to arrest the believers there and bring them to Jerusalem for trial (Acts 9:1-2). As he neared the outskirts of Damascus, a light from heaven brighter than the midday sun shone around Paul and his traveling companions, and they fell to the ground (26:13-14). Only Paul, however, heard the voice of Jesus, who told him that he would be Christ’s chosen instrument for bringing the Good News to the Gentiles (26:14-18).
Temporarily blinded, Paul was led into Damascus (9:8). There, the disciple Ananias and the Christian community helped him through the unsettling event of his conversion (9:10-22). After a short time with the church there, Paul began to publicly proclaim the risen Christ, and the Jews threatened Paul with death (9:20-22). He was protected by the believers and ingeniously delivered from his persecutors (9:23-25).
Paul’s conversion was of such revolutionary and lasting importance that three detailed accounts of it are given in the book of Acts (Acts 9:1-19; 22:1-21; 26:1-23). Paul himself refers to it many times in his own writings (1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8; Galatians 1:15-16; Ephesians 3:3; Philippians 3:12). The transformation of this zealous persecutor of Jesus Christ into the chief advocate of the gospel (1 Corinthians 3:10; 1 Timothy 1:13) would profoundly change the course of world history.
PREPARATION FOR MINISTRY
After his escape, Paul began a period of preparation that lasted about thirteen years. During this time, Paul lived in the desert of Arabia for three years. He took this opportunity to pray and undoubtedly to reflect on Stephen’s defense of the gospel, his conversion, the vision he received of Jesus Christ, and the meaning of all this in light of the law he had studied so passionately for years. Following this, Paul returned to Damascus and then visited Peter in Jerusalem for fifteen days (Galatians 1:17-18).
At first, the disciples in Jerusalem were afraid of Paul because they did not believe he was a disciple of Jesus (Acts 9:26), but Barnabas spoke fervently on his behalf and won over the believers (9:27-28). While there, Paul may have heard an oral telling of the gospel, a summary of the words and deeds of Jesus handed down to all converts. This would have included the institution of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-25), specific words of the Lord (Acts 20:35; 1 Corinthians 7:10; 9:14), the appearances of the resurrected Christ (15:3-8), and the spirit and character of Jesus (2 Corinthians 10:1; Philippians 2:5-8).
Paul also preached in Jerusalem, perhaps in the same synagogues in which he had heard Stephen. However, when the Jews marked him for death again, the believers sent him away to Tarsus (Acts 9:29-30; Galatians 1:21). The end of Paul’s preparation came when Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for him and bring him to Antioch. By this time Paul had lived for ten years in Cilicia. Since his conversion, he had proclaimed Jesus (Acts 9:20), speaking boldly in the name of the Lord (9:27). There is no reason to think he did otherwise while living among the Gentiles in Cilicia.
In fact, his work may have been so effective that he began to attract attention in Antioch. During these years, Paul probably underwent many of the sufferings he mentions in 2 Corinthians 11:24-26. Several scholars think that the ecstatic experience mentioned in 12:1-9, with its accompanying thorn in the flesh, also took place before he came to Antioch. In a way, the church in Antioch had been a product of Paul’s pre-conversion persecution of the church in Jerusalem. Until they arrived in Antioch, the scattered believers had only presented the gospel to Jews (Acts 11:19). It was here that the Gentiles first heard the Good News (11:20), and many became believers (11:21). It is fitting that Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21; Romans 11:13), should appear in Antioch to formally begin the ministry to which he was called (Acts 26:17-18).
Barnabas and Paul stayed with the church in Antioch for a year. Their work there was so far-reaching that a new name, Christian, was coined to distinguish the believers in Antioch from Gentiles and Jews (Acts 11:26). Hearing of a famine in Judea, the disciples in Antioch sent relief to the believers in Judea and entrusted Barnabas and Paul with the delivery of the gift (11:30). When their mission was complete, Barnabas and Paul returned to Antioch with John Mark (12:25), Barnabas’s cousin (Colossians 4:10). Until this time, the spread of the gospel had been local and inward-looking.
Contacts were made in the homes, the marketplace, the streets, synagogues, and highways (Acts 3:1; 5:12, 42; 8:26-29; 10:22). But in Antioch, the Holy Spirit began a determined effort to evangelize the Roman Empire (13:1-3). By the Holy Spirit’s instructions, the church appointed Barnabas and Paul for this work. With the prayers and encouragement of the Antioch assembly, and with John Mark as their assistant, Barnabas and Paul sailed for Cyprus (Acts 13:4).