The apostle Paul has been slanderously reported as being the second founder of the Christian faith. After two thousand years, he is no doubt accustomed to the slanders by now—he was the kind of man who attracted slanders—but this particular slander has been more effective than some of the others because of the grain of truth in it. Paul’s doctrine, life, example, zeal and personality have been enormously influential. The passing of the years has not done anything to make Paul less well-known. But this widespread knowledge of Paul has also served, at least in the minds of some, to obscure some of his contributions.
Saul of Tarsus came from what he described as “no mean city,” born there as a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37; 21:39; 22:25ff). First, we should consider Saul’s statement about his hometown. “But Paul said, I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city: and, I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto the people” (Acts 21:39) We know that Saul was a Roman from multiple sources. For several examples: “But Paul said unto them, They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily? nay verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us out. And the serjeants told these words unto the magistrates: and they feared, when they heard that they were Romans (Acts 16:37-38).
“And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned? When the centurion heard that, he went and told the chief captain, saying, Take heed what thou doest: for this man is a Roman. Then the chief captain came, and said unto him, Tell me, art thou a Roman? He said, Yea. And the chief captain answered, With a great sum obtained I this freedom. And Paul said, But I was free born. Then straightway they departed from him which should have examined him: and the chief captain also was afraid, after he knew that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him” (Acts 22:25-29).
So Saul was a Jew of Tarsus, a great city of Cilicia, and he was born as a Roman citizen. The city of Tarsus was third among the centers of Greek learning—the first two being Athens and Alexandria. It was no backwater town.
Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin, and was brought up as a strict Pharisee—although he was educated in the school of Hillel, which was the liberal wing of the Pharisees. Nevertheless, Saul identified himself as a zealous member of that party (Rom. 11:1; Phil. 3:5; Acts 23:6; 26:5). As we consider his words, we are justified in concluding that Paul believed his background to be very important. In Romans 11, he says “I say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Rom. 11:1). Elsewhere he says, “Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:4-5). His background comes out in two places in Acts: “But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question” (Acts 23:6). “My manner of life from my youth, which was at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews; Which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee” (Acts 26:4-5).
After Saul’s primary education, he came to Jerusalem to study in the school of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), who was the grandson of Hillel, the founder of that movement. Saul put it this way. “I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day” (Acts 22:3). The fact that Saul was born a Roman citizen indicates a very well-connected family. Later on in the story Luke tells, the fact that his nephew had access to the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem indicates the same thing “And when Paul’s sister’s son heard of their lying in wait, he went and entered into the castle, and told Paul” (Acts 23:16). “Then the chief captain took him by the hand, and went with him aside privately, and asked him, What is that thou hast to tell me? And he said, The Jews have agreed to desire thee that thou wouldest bring down Paul to morrow into the council, as though they would enquire somewhat of him more perfectly” (Acts 23:19-20).
We know that Saul had significant weight to obtain things from the leadership of the Jews. Saul gained official authority from them to persecute Christians, and he stated that in his past he had “cast my vote against them” (Acts 26:10). This indicates possible membership in the Sanhedrin. We should think of a young, intelligent Jewish noblemen, well-educated, and very zealous for the traditions of his fathers.
Contrary to popular assumption, Saul was not his non-Christian name, with Paul as his Christian name. Rather, Saul was his Hebrew name, which he continued to use for quite a long time after his conversion. He was not called Paul until the missionary outreach to the Gentiles got under way in earnest (Acts 13:9), about fifteen years after his conversion. “Then Saul, (who also is called Paul,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him” (Acts 13:9).
With this understanding of his background, we must now come to consider how Saul was converted to Jesus Christ, by Jesus Christ. One of the deacons established in the early church was a very wise and insightful man named Stephen. He stood out in faith, grace, spiritual power, and wisdom (Acts 6:5,8,10).
“And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, witnand Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith. And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people. Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake” (Acts 6:5-10).
In addition to the work assigned to him, Stephen also did miracles and preached with great power. He was also one of the first to grasp the implications of the new creation for worship in the Temple at Jerusalem. Christians were not to be thought of as a new sect, worshipping in the Old Temple. The Christians were the New Temple. Now as he was preaching the Word, Stephen encountered in debate certain men from the synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:9). This synagogue, among others, included men from Cilicia—where Tarsus is. And these men, who were mangled in debate by Stephen, put together a collection of false witnesses against him (Acts 6:13).
“And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council, And set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law: For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us. And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel” (Acts 6:12-15). Now of course, Stephen is standing in the place of Moses—he does miracles and he has a radiant face—and this means he is charged by the so-called heirs of Moses with subverted the customs of Moses.
According to Jewish law, the witnesses against him were the ones who had to throw the actual stones, which they did. But Saul shows up by name for the first time here, holding the cloaks of the executioners (Acts 7:58).
“And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the esses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul” (Acts 7:58). It seems clear from all this that Saul was one of those bested in debate by Stephen, and one of those who had suborned liars to testify against him. Now imagine someone of Saul’s native genius in an unconverted state. How would he take losing a debate? How would he handle that? And how would he handle losing a debate to a Christian? But at the same time, someone of that caliber would also know that a man is not answered by killing him. Immediately after this, Saul lashes out against the church, savaging it (Acts 8:3),
“As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3). The verb used here for “made havock” is the verb that is used for a wild animal savaging its prey. Saul goes out after the Christians, breathing, as it says, threats and murder (Acts 9:1). In short, Saul was a volcano ready to blow. “And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2).
While Saul was engaged in his murderous pursuit of Christians, the Lord Jesus appeared to him in a vision on the road to Damascus. The fact that the story of his conversion is told three separate times in the book of Acts indicates its importance, not only for Saul, but also for Luke (Acts 9, 22, 26). After Ananias baptized him, Saul then spent the next three years in Damascus/Arabia/Damascus (Gal. 1:17; Acts 9:19ff).
“And when he had received meat, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus. And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God. But all that heard him were amazed, and said; Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests? But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ.And after that many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel to kill him: But their laying await was known of Saul. And they watched the gates day and night to kill him. Then the disciples took him by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket” (Acts 9:19-25).
Saul tells us about this later in several of his epistles. “Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days” (Gal. 1:17-18). Finally, his ministry there arosed such opposition that he had to run the road blocks in that city by escaping in a basket lowered from the city wall (2 Cor. 11: 32-33). “In Damascus the governor under Aretas the king kept the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desirous to apprehend me: And through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped his hands” (2 Cor. 11:32-33). He made his way to Jerusalem, where he scarcely made it two weeks before the Jews there tried to kill him (Gal. 1:18; Acts 9:29).
“And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. And he was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem. And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him. Which when the brethren knew, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus” (Acts 9:26-30).
From there he returned to Tarsus for the next ten years. We therefore have a ten year period in scriptural history in which no one is recorded as trying to kill Saul. This does not mean they were not trying to—it just means we don’t know about it. Barnabas finally brought him to Antioch to help in the ministry there, which he did for about a year (Gal. 2:1). And after a year of ministry in Antioch, Saul returns to Jerusalem.
“Then fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also” (Gal. 2:1). This fourteen years mentioned in Galatians gives us the ten period in Tarsus. We know he spent three years in Damascus, and one year in Antioch, leaving us with ten for Tarsus. After the year in Antioch, they went up to Jerusalem again on the famine relief visit of Acts 11: 27-30. I say “up” to Jerusalem, even though it was south, to conform to the scriptural usage. Jerusalem was in the mountains. It was uphill.
The decision was made to go to Jerusalem in response to a revelation about a coming famine. “And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea: Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:27-30).
Upon their return from the famine relief visit to Jerusalem (around A.D. 46), the Holy Spirit determined it was time for the gospel to move west. And so the next period involves what are popularly known as the three missionary journeys of Paul. The first was a round trip from Antioch through South Galatia (Acts 13-14), and eventually back to Antioch.
“Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (Acts 13:1-3).
John Mark deserted them at Perga, probably the result of the gospel being preached directly to Sergius Paulus. It is not likely that Mark left because of physical hardships, but rather because this is the first time that the gospel is preached to a Gentile “raw.” Sergius Paulus was not a God-fearer in a synagogue like Cornelius. He is just a Gentile living a Gentile life. This reason for leaving Paul also accounts for Paul’s reluctance to take him on the second missionary journey. In addition to this, upon his return to Antioch, Paul collided with Peter (Gal. 2:14).
“But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?” (Gal. 2:11-14).
Paul also discovered that false teachers were corrupting the newly established Galatian churches. He wrote the book of Galatians at this time, and the Jerusalem council had to meet in order to settle the question (Acts 15). Galatians was written just before the Jerusalem council, when the controversy was hot and the decision was still in doubt. I think it is very likely that Galatians was written in the weeks just before the council.
Once the controversy was settled, the second journey was with Silas—because Paul and Barnabas had a falling out over John Mark (Acts 15:40-18:22). Remember that Barnabas—son of encouragement—was the one who introduced Paul around Jerusalem when he first came there as a Christian. He also accepts John Mark’s acceptance of the decision of the council, but Paul is suspicious. Later events show that Barnabas was right in the long run about John Mark’s character, although Paul may have been right about not taking him on that particular journey.
On this journey, Paul traveled back through the places evangelized on the first journey, picked up Timothy, ministered at Corinth for several years, and crossed over to Europe for the first time. On the way back to Antioch (via Ephesus and Jerusalem), Paul dropped off Priscilla and Aquila as an advance team in Ephesus—for when Paul comes back to Ephesus.
The third journey could be considered the “Aegean ministry” (A.D. 53-58). The bulk of this time was spent in Ephesus, where all of Asia Minor was evangelized. Although Ephesus was a major city, the work Paul was doing there transformed the city. The church grew significantly, and the impact of their presence had a great impact on the sale of silver idols and spell books and magic paraphernalia. One of the merchants saw the impact that the Christian faith was having, and organized a riot.
The end result of this affair was an amphitheater full of Ephesians shouting, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!”—but other than that, having no real idea why they were there. Paul saw this rioting crowd as a good opportunity for doing some preaching, but his friends wisely restrained him. One comment Luke makes in passing shows that the pagan leaders of the city were friends with Paul, and knew his character, and that these charges were false.
After he left Ephesus, Paul visited a number of churches in Macedonia and Achaia. He then went back to Jerusalem, where he was arrested on a trumped up charge. He was accused of taking a Gentile into the forbidden area of the Temple, which was false, but the charge was enough to set off another riot. The crowd was involved in beating Paul when an Roman officer showed up with a company of soldiers, and rescued him. As they were taking him away, Paul looked regretfully at the crowd they were leaving—another preaching opportunity—and asked for leave to speak to the crowd. This was granted, and the crowd listened respectfully to Paul until he mentioned that he had been commissioned to preach to Gentiles. This set them off again, and the Roman officer took Paul away to find out—by means of torture—what Paul was actually up to. When he found out that Paul was a Roman citizen, his treatment of him became much more respectful.
Paul was held in prison under the governor Festus, and when a transition of power was made to the next governor—Felix—the new governor began to show signs of wanting to appease the Jews by allowing Paul to come to trial there. Paul knew what the outcome of that would be, and so he appealed to Caesar, which was his right to do as a Roman citizen. This got Felix off the hook with the Jews, but he still did not know how to formulate the charges against Paul in a way that would make any sense in Rome. He enlisted the help of King Agrippa in this, and Paul made an eloquent defense before the court.
Luke takes the opportunity to record the fact that Agrippa said that the charges against him were bogus—indicating that perhaps the book of Acts was written as an apologia for the apostle Paul, a brief to be used in Paul’s trial at Rome if necessary. So after Paul appealed to Caesar, he was eventually brought to Rome. An eventful sea journey was part of this, but Paul came at last to the city of Rome, and the book ends with Paul under house arrest. He meets with the Jewish leaders in Rome, who had heard nothing from Judea, and they could not make up their minds about him.
The pastoral epistles—the Timothys and Titus—were written after this point, but we have to reconstruct Paul’s life after this point from the little amount of extra-biblical material we have. It is unlikely that the pastorals were written during this imprisonment that is recorded in the book of Acts. The tone of that imprisonment is not at all like what we find the pastorals. At the end of Acts, the tone is hopeful of release, while in the pastorals, Paul is resigned to his death.
Several early church documents tell us a little more. A friend of Paul’s—a man named Clement—became a leading presbyer at Rome, and he wrote a letter to the Corinthians in the 90’s. In that letter, he says that Paul was released and went on the missionary journey to Spain that was mentioned in Romans. After that trip, Paul was rearrested, imprisoned in Rome, and was beheaded under the persecution of Nero. As a Roman citizen, he would not have been crucified.
This was the man who wrote the majority of the books in the New Testament. He called himself the chief of sinners, and yet God in His sovereign grace took this man, while in the midst of a persecuting fury against the Church, and made that man an apostle. No one has ever been interrupted by grace in quite so dramatic a fashion. And look at the nature of grace. Paul was not preparing his heart to receive Jesus at all. Rather Jesus was preparing to receive Paul into His service, whatever Paul thought about it.
Paul once told Agrippa that he had not been disobedient to the heavenly vision that had come to him—and this was certainly the case. No one pursued an apostolic calling with quite so much single-minded clarity of vision as the apostle Paul. And that clarity was given to him in the vision. The Lord Jesus told Saul that he was commissioned to open their eyes, turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God.
And Saul, delivered himself, in just this way, was used by the Holy Spirit of God to preach, and labor, and weep, and bleed, and write, in such a way that countless millions have had their eyes opened. They have been turned from darkness to light. They have been transferred from the power of Satan to God. You all know this is true—it includes almost everyone reading these words. Let us give thanks for the life of our brother, and our father in the faith, the apostle Paul.