During the closing years of Caesar Augustus’s reign, a boy was born to a Jewish family in Tarsus, capital of the Roman province of Cilicia (in modern-day Turkey). The family traced its descent from the tribe of Benjamin, and they named their son after the most illustrious member in their family’s history: Saul, the first king of Israel. As a Roman citizen, the boy had three names, by one of which he became famous: Paulus.
Tarsus was ancient and prosperous; Saul described it as “no ordinary city.” Industries in Tarsus included weaving and tentmaking—a craft Saul would use later to subsidize his travels.
His Roman citizenship implied that his family owned property. It also carried with it privileges—the right to a fair trial, exemption from degrading punishments like whipping, and the right of appeal.
Early on Saul learned a trait that would stand him in good stead in later life: how to cross cultural boundaries. Though born in a center of Greek culture, Saul was sent to school in Jerusalem, where he studied the Jewish scriptures and religious law under renowned rabbi Gamaliel “the Elder.”
Gamaliel was a member of the Jewish ruling council (the Sanhedrin) and grandson of the famous rabbi Hillel. Gamaliel was gracious. When the Sanhedrin raged against members of a local sect who taught that Jesus of Nazareth, recently executed, was Messiah, he counseled forbearance. The council demanded the death penalty; Gamaliel convinced them to enforce a lesser punishment and let the cult members go.
Saul, however, did not adopt his teacher’s moderation, especially toward members of this messianic sect. Saul joined the growing number of Jewish leaders who steadily harassed and even killed followers of “The Way,” as it was called.
Saul could not help but be passionate—a great deal was at stake. He was devoted to his Jewish heritage and traditions, and his sharp intellect quickly perceived that this new sect threatened everything he stood for. So he joined wholeheartedly in restraining measures against The Way.
During one meeting of the Sanhedrin, a follower of the Way, Stephen, appeared before the council. His replies infuriated the members, who began taking off their cloaks and picking up rocks. Saul volunteered to watch their cloaks as they pummeled the radical to death.
Harassment of The Way now intensified, and Saul secured official papers from Jerusalem’s high priest requesting that Damascus synagogues extradite members of The Way to Jerusalem for trial. On his way to Damascus, however, Saul’s plans, and life, were changed.
At about noon as Saul and his group neared Damascus, a bright light flashed around them. Saul fell to the ground stunned, and he heard a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
He was mystified: “Who are you, lord?” he asked, not knowing what had thrown him to the ground.
Then he heard, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
Saul’s traveling companions had seen the light, and they heard noises afterward, but they couldn’t make sense of it. As they helped Saul up, they discovered he couldn’t see at all. They had to lead him by the hand the rest of the way to Damascus.
Saul didn’t eat or drink for three days, though it’s not clear whether this was a self-imposed fast or the result of trauma. On one of those days, he experienced another vision, in which a man came to him and laid hands on him in prayer. Then the vision came true: a man named Ananias came and prayed for Saul. That’s when, as the historian Luke put it, “Something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes.”
Saul gained not only eyesight but a new religious outlook. He was convinced that Jesus, the executed Nazarene itinerant, was alive and calling him to special service. Astonishingly, Saul—a devout, ethnocentric Jew—now believed his life mission was to talk about Jesus to non-Jews.
Saul submitted to baptism, the rite of initiation for followers of The Way. He then disappeared into Arabia for three years, from about A.D. 33 to 36. Where he went and what he did remains a mystery, but during this time, he received revelations. He said Jesus came to him and taught him a message of forgiveness and salvation through faith.
Saul decided to visit the leaders of the The Way in Jerusalem, especially Peter and James. They taught him about the emerging movement, the details of Jesus’ life and teachings, and their own encounters with the resurrected Jesus.
Still, Saul would later make it clear that nobody taught him anything about the gospel, the fundamental message of Christ. His message and calling, he argued, came by direct revelation from Christ, negating any contribution of even key figures like Peter and James. Saul’s type-A personality and his love of personal superlatives (e.g., he once called himself the “chief of sinners”) remained characteristics throughout his life.
During these years, Saul’s life was in danger. On two occasions, devout Jews—perhaps former colleagues—tried to murder him. And despite his dramatic turnaround, Saul remained unknown and distrusted by The Way’s adherents in Judea. Rumors circulated that Saul’s conversion was a fake, a clever ruse to ferret out more members to put in jail. Joseph of Cyprus (known as Barnabas) gained a welcome for Saul by introducing him to churches. Still, Saul seems to have felt more comfortable in his home town, and he stayed in and around Tarsus for the next decade.
By the mid-40s, The Way had spread north to Antioch in Syria. Its members, many of whom were “Greeks” (i.e., non-Jewish), had become known as “Christians.” Barnabas, one of the leaders, traveled to Tarsus to get Saul. Together they spent a year teaching converts in Antioch.
The leaders, apparently impressed with Paul and Barnabas’s work with Greek converts, determined that these two should take the Christian message to Cyprus and Asia Minor. So they departed on what has become known as Paul’s first missionary journey.
Several aspects of this trip deserve notice. First, Saul began using his Roman name, Paulus. Second, early on, perhaps on Cyprus, Paul became the leader of the mission—Luke, who chronicled their journey, no longer writes of “Barnabas and Paul” but of “Paul and Barnabas.” Finally, on this journey Paul’s missionary style blossomed, particularly his drive to win followers for Jesus Christ and his willingness to cross political, cultural, and religious barriers to do so.
His experience in Pisidian Antioch (in Asia Minor) would become typical. “On the Sabbath,” Luke records, “they [Paul and Barnabas] entered the synagogue.” After the Hebrew scriptures were read, the leaders of the synagogue, as was customary, turned to the guests and said, “Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak.”
Paul rose and said, “Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me!” Then he reviewed the history of the Jewish people, finally coming to the point that the long-awaited Messiah had come: “We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled in us, their children, raising up Jesus.… Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.”
Throughout the town, word spread of the unusual visitors, and on the next Sabbath, “almost the whole city” turned out to hear Paul. This time, though, some Jews argued abusively with him. He abruptly halted the debate and revealed his strategy.
“We had to speak the word of God to you first,” he said. “Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.” Paul believed that although he was called to spread the message of grace among Greeks, he was still obligated, as a Jew, to offer it first to his countrymen.
Many of the Greeks joined the fledging Christian church there. Still, Jewish dissidents convinced city authorities to run Paul and Barnabas out of town.
In the next city they visited, Iconium, a plot was hatched to kill them. In Lystra, Paul was stoned till his attackers thought he was dead. Still, Paul and Barnabas established a number of churches in Asia Minor, filled with both Jews and Greeks. By A.D. 48, Paul and Barnabas were back home in Antioch and spent a lengthy time recuperating.
Breaking the Law
About this time, some Jewish Christians arrived in Antioch and insisted that Christians had to obey the laws of Moses, including the injunction that males be circumcised. Greek converts naturally balked.
Paul and Barnabas were furious—to them, the requirement sabotaged their message of grace. So the church of Antioch appointed Paul and Barnabas, among others, to go to Jerusalem to settle the matter.
After Peter, James, and the Jerusalem elders gathered, a heated discussion ensued. Peter made an impassioned speech against the advocates of circumcision, concluding, “Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
Then Paul and Barnabas talked about the many Greek conversions they had witnessed. This had a powerful effect on the assembly.
Then James concluded, “It is my judgment that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” He limited the requirements on Gentile converts to just four areas of abstinence: food sacrificed to idols, sexual immorality, meat from strangled animals, and meat juices. Two Jerusalem delegates, Judas and Silas, were sent with Paul and Barnabas to deliver the ruling to the Antioch church.
Though the issue was formally settled, Paul would battle it for the rest of his life. (At one point, he had to confront Peter when he temporarily retreated from the council’s decision).
Sermon of a Lifetime
With this issue settled, Paul invited Barnabas on another journey to see how their new converts were faring. Barnabas insisted on taking John Mark, an early companion of their first journey. But Paul balked. John Mark had deserted them after their first stop, and that, insisted Paul, disqualified him.
Paul and Barnabas argued so sharply, they parted ways. Barnabas and John Mark sailed for Cyprus; Paul took a new partner, Silas, and went through Syria and Cilicia, delivering the results of the Jerusalem Council.
Along the way, Paul picked up a convert named Timothy, whom Paul circumcised! Why the seeming turnabout? Apparently, Paul didn’t see this as a requirement for salvation, but he didn’t want to offend local Jewish Christians who were still uncomfortable with the Council’s decision. Later Luke, a Greek physician who wrote a history of the movement, also joined the group.
Perhaps the most significant incident of this journey occurred when Paul was mysteriously prevented from further travel in Asia Minor. Luke says obliquely, “The Spirit of Jesus would not allow them” to go further. This revelation or circumstance was accompanied by a dream in which Paul saw a man from Macedonia (modern northern Greece) who said, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul concluded he was called to preach there and sailed for Macedonia. The Christian message had crossed another boundary, moving out of the Middle East and into Europe.
On this leg of the journey, Paul founded churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea, among other places. Paul’s longest stay was in the large commercial city of Corinth, where derisive treatment by the synagogue again led him to begin work among Greeks. During his more than eighteen months there (from A.D. 50 to 52), a charismatic and volatile church was born.
One city where he failed to establish a church became, ironically, the scene of his most famous sermon. Athens was the cradle of democracy, the home of philosophers Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno the Stoic, and was graced by magnificent architecture and sculpture.
Paul must have been deeply disturbed by Athens’s pagan temples, altars, and images. Yet, as he preached on Mars Hill, he decided to enter the intellectual world of Athens. He affirmed the traditions of the Athenians: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious,” and quoted Greek poets and philosophers approvingly.
Then he gently but firmly called his audience to Christian faith: “The God who made the world and everything in it … does not live in temples built by human hands.… We should not think the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past, God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead!”
At the mention of a resurrection, some listeners sneered, and Paul’s speech came to an end. Only a few Athenians became Christians.
Still, this speech better than any other illustrates Paul’s ability to cross all sorts of boundaries to get his message across. Historian Henry Chadwick wrote, “Paul’s genius as an apologist is his astonishing ability to reduce to an apparent vanishing point the gulf between himself and his converts and yet to ‘gain’ them for the [authentic] Christian gospel.”
Paul returned to Antioch, then revisited churches in Asia Minor and settled down in Ephesus for more than two years (from about A.D. 52 to 54). Then he was off to Jerusalem. In part, he wanted to deliver a famine-relief fund he had been collecting from Gentile churches for Jerusalem Christians, to show them the solidarity of Christians elsewhere.
But Paul was a realist, and he recognized his reputation among Jews in Judea would likely lead to more persecution and perhaps arrest. When his friends tearfully tried to dissuade him, he forged ahead. He said he felt “compelled by the Spirit” to go so that he could “complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.”
After a delay—due mostly to another plot against his life—Paul and companions arrived in Jerusalem in about A.D. 57. Since his reputation was shaky among many Jewish Christians, the Jerusalem elders asked Paul and his companions to partake in Jewish purification rites. As with Timothy’s circumcision, though it was against Paul’s principles, he complied for the sake of harmony.
He may have accomplished harmony in the church, but within a week, the city was in an uproar. Some Jews recognized Paul in the temple area one day, and they began shouting, “Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place.” People came running from all directions. They seized Paul and dragged him from the temple. They were about to kill him when Roman troops showed up and arrested Paul and chained him. When it was discovered that Jerusalem Jews were still plotting Paul’s murder, Paul was transferred secretly by night to Caesarea.
The main charge, disturbing the peace, was enough to keep him jailed for three years as Roman authorities tried to figure out what to do with this troublemaker. Paul used the time to meet with Christians who visited him in prison, and to write letters to churches he had founded.
For the next few years, he was dragged before one Roman official after another. On such occasions, he often described his conversion and called those present to repent and believe in Christ. With deft use of his rights as a Roman citizen, he avoided being whipped.
When Paul stood trial before Festus, Roman governor of Judea, Jewish leaders were unable to prove the accusations they were making. Paul said, “I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.” Festus, anxious to please the Jews, tried to get the trial moved to Jerusalem, which was under Jewish jurisdiction. Such a move would certainly end in Paul’s death. So Paul pulled out his trump card.
“I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried,” he said. “If the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”
With that, Festus’s hands were tied. As a Roman citizen on trial for a capital offense, Paul had the right to a hearing before the Emperor. “You have appealed to Caesar,” said Festus. “To Caesar you will go.” The appeal helped Paul accomplish one of his long-term goals: a visit to Rome.
Fighting the Good Fight
As with most incidents in Paul’s life, even the journey to Rome could not be uneventful. The Alexandrian grain ship that carried Paul encountered a hurricane that wrecked the vessel. Passengers, clinging to planks or pieces of the ship, swam to the nearest island, Malta. After a delay of three months, in the spring of A.D. 60, Paul and his guard finally reached Italy.
In Rome, Paul was put under house arrest, but he invited Jews to come to his rented home, and he debated with them. As usual, when they stopped giving him an ear, Paul turned his message to the Romans. For two years, he continued teaching any who visited.
We do not know the results of Paul’s legal hearing, which probably took place in A.D. 62. Early tradition says he was martyred by sword during Nero’s persecution in July 64. It is highly possible, however, that he was released, and after further missionary work (perhaps in Spain), was imprisoned again in Rome before being executed.
In this case, his final confinement would have been harsh. This may well be when he wrote his letters to Titus and Timothy: in them, he referred to being deserted by former companions and wrote, “I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
To keep the faith is to put it mildly. Paul had done so in the face of jailings, floggings, death threats, murder attempts, and the constant anxiety for the churches he founded—not to mention what Paul called his “thorn in the flesh”—a chronic and debilitating weakness.
Still, Paul had carried his message to people of many religions and cultures. Preacher P.T. Forsyth once said, “You must live with people to know their problems and live with God in order to solve them.” Paul networked an entire empire in life and letter, sharing his soul and Christ’s message with Jew and Greek, bond and free, male and female. He once said, “I have become all things to all men, that I might win some.” It’s clear that nobody’s done it better.
James D. Smith III, pastor of Clairemont Emmanuel Baptist Church and adjunct professor of church history at Bethel Seminary—West, both in San Diego, California, is an adviser for Christian History.
Copyright © 1995 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.