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, but this particular slander has been more effective than some of the others because of the grain of truth in it. The force of Paul’s doctrine and life have been enormously influential.
Family and Background
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). The city was third among the centers of Greek learning—the first two being Athens and Alexandria. 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 knew himself to be a zealous member of that party (Rom. 11:1; Phil. 3:5; Acts 23:6; 26:5). After his primary education, he came to Jerusalem to study in the school of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), who was the grandson of Hillel. The fact that Saul was born a Roman citizen indicates a very well-connected family. The fact that his nephew had access to the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem indicates the same (Acts 23:16,20). Saul gained official authority 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. 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 many years 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.
CONFLICT WITH STEPHEN
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). In addition to the work assigned to him, he also did miracles and preached with great power. He also was one of the first to grasp the implications of the new creation for the Temple worship. Christians were not a new sect, worshipping in the Old Temple. Christians were the New Temple. Now Stephen encountered in debate certain men from the synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:9). The 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). According to Jewish law, the witnesses were the ones who had to throw the stones, which they did. But Saul shows up by name for the first time here, holding the cloaks of the executioners (Acts 7:58). It seems clear that Saul was one of those bested in debate by Stephen, and one of those who had suborned liars to testify against him. Imagine someone of Saul’s native genius in an unconverted state. How would he take losing a debate? But 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), breathing, as it says, threats and murder (Acts 9:1). In short, Saul was ready to blow.
The Lord Jesus appeared to Saul in a vision on the road to Damascus. The fact that the story of his conversion is told three 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). 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). He made his way to Jerusalem, where he scarcely made it two weeks before the Jews tried to kill him (Gal. 1:18; Acts 9:29). From there he returned to Tarsus for the next ten years. Barnabas finally brought him to Antioch to help in the ministry there, which he did for about a year (Gal. 2:1). At this time, they went up to Jerusalem again on the famine relief visit of Acts 11: 27-30.
Upon their return from 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.
The first was a round trip from Antioch through South Galatia (Acts 13-14). John Mark deserted them at Perga, probably the result of the gospel being preached directly to Sergius Paulus. Upon his return to Antioch, Paul collided with Peter (Gal. 2:14), and discovered that false teachers were corrupting the newly established Galatian churches. He wrote Galatians at this time, and the Jerusalem council had to settle the question (Acts 15).
The second journey was with Silas—because Paul and Barnabas had a falling out over John Mark (Acts 15:40-18:22). 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.
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. After visiting a number of churches in Macedonia and Achaia, Paul goes back to Jerusalem, where he was arrested. From there, he appeal to Caesar, and was eventually brought to Rome.
SHORT CATECHISM FOR LITTLE SAINTS
What kind of disciple was the apostle Paul?
Why Did Peter not keep his promise to Jesus?
Because he tried to love Jesus in his own strength.
What describes Paul’s life and ministry?
Zeal, intelligence, and faithful obedience.