The apostle Paul was one of the most prolific early Christian writers of the New Testament. He would be regarded as one of the pillars of Christianity for his role in spreading the good news about Jesus Christ. From his role in the persecution of Christianity’s newest converts early in his career to his conversion on the road to Damascus and to his death in Rome, he would remain as one of the Bible’s most dramatic transformation stories, and he would be remembered as Christ’s most zealous spokesman after his death.
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Saul: The “True” Jew
Saul was raised in the Greco-Roman city of Tarsus in Cilicia (located in modern-day southern Turkey), a crossroads in Asia Minor where trade, religion, and different ideas converged. While it was located in Asia Minor, Tarsus was a province of Rome which made Saul, a man of Jewish descent, a Roman citizen. Although he and his family lived in Tarsus, he was aware of and even proud of his Jewish heritage. He boasted that he was “a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law.” (Philippians 3:5) He received the highest possible Jewish education under Gamaliel when he was sent to Jerusalem at the age of 13 and soon became a high priest in the same city (Acts 22:2-5).
He first appeared in the book of Acts (7:58) after he gave the approval for the brutal stoning of Stephen. He became one of the fiercest opponents of budding Christianity. He personally saw to it that the new converts were taken from their homes and imprisoned. He sought to wipe out new converts in other places, so he asked for letters from a high priest which authorized him to take them back to Jerusalem as prisoners. On the way to Damascus, Jesus appeared to him in a vision and told him to go into Damascus. A bright light which blinded Saul accompanied this vision and he had to be led into the city by his companions. This blindness was taken away when a man named Ananias was commanded by the Lord to place his hands on Saul. This was the start of Saul’s complete 180-degree turn from zealous persecutor to Christianity’s leading spokesman.
He stayed in Damascus for several days and preached in the local synagogue that Jesus is the Son of God—an event that baffled the disciples and other Jews who knew him as someone who brutally hounded the believers. The Jews planned to kill him at the city walls but Saul learned of this plot, and his followers helped him escape to Jerusalem by lowering him in a basket through a hole in the wall. He went to Arabia to come to terms with this event in his life and stayed there for three years before he returned to Jerusalem (Galatians 1:13-24). Unlike the other disciples who were wary of Saul, Barnabas extended the hand of friendship to the new apostle. Saul joined the other apostles and preached around Jerusalem about Christ in the city. He had to be sent first to Caesarea and then back to Tarsus after he got into trouble with the Grecian Jews. Barnabas later went to Tarsus to look for Saul and both set off to meet the new believers in Antioch (in Syria) where they would be first called Christians (Acts 11).
First Missionary Journey
Paul’s first missionary journey would take him, as well as Barnabas and John Mark, from Antioch in Syria to the major cities of central Asia Minor and back again to Antioch where they started.
From Antioch, they traveled to Seleucia in Syria and sailed on to Salamis and Paphos in Cyprus. They sailed to Perga in Pamphylia and traveled to Pisidian Antioch where they preached about Christ to the whole city and converted many to the faith. But they were expelled when the local Jews saw how successful they were in the conversion of many people. They traveled onward to Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe where persecution also followed them. However, they gained more followers for Christ in these cities.
They returned to Antioch in Turkey, then Perga in Pamphylia, and down to Attalia. Finally, they sailed back to Antioch in Syria and reported what happened to them along the way to the members of the church, as well as the success they had in preaching to the Gentiles.
Second Missionary Journey
After a disagreement between Paul and Barnabas about John Mark (he abandoned them during the first missionary journey in Pamphylia), both apostles decided to separate ways. Paul took with him Silas, and they were later joined by Timothy while Barnabas sailed off to Cyprus with John Mark. Paul and Silas went through Syria and Cilicia, then went to Derbe and Lystra with Timothy. They passed through the regions of Phrygia and Galatia, as well as the borders of Mysia and Bithynia. They went to Troas and after a vision of a man of Macedonia who begged them to come over.The men left Asia Minor for Europe and sailed off to the Greek island of Samothrace and Neapolis. They departed for the Roman Colony of Philippi and met the first European convert named Lydia on the city gate leading to the river.
Paul and Silas were thrown in prison in Philippi after Paul freed a slave girl from a spirit which enabled her to tell fortunes and earn money for the people who owned her. This angered her owners who felt that Paul robbed them of a source of income and both men were brought to the authorities. They were stripped, beaten, and imprisoned with their feet fastened in stocks to prevent them from any attempts to escape. They were freed after a powerful earthquake shook the prisons doors open and their shackles came loose. Thia caused the jailer to despair when he thought that his charges had escaped. The jailer attempted to kill himself, but the Paul and Silas ministered to the jailer and converted him and his family to the Christian faith.
They departed Philippi after they were released and passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia; they continued to Thessalonica and preached there but were met with opposition especially from the Jews. They were sent to Berea for their own safety and were met with success there, but the Jews who opposed them in Thessalonica followed them to Berea after they heard about Paul and Silas’ success. Paul was sent to Athens and preached there while Silas and Timothy stayed behind in Berea. He then departed for Corinth where he met two Jewish tentmakers named Aquila and his wife, Priscilla. He stayed with them as he was also a tentmaker by trade while waiting for the arrival of Silas and Timothy. Unfortunately, the Jews in Corinth also brought trouble for Paul. He was hauled to the court of the proconsul of Achaia. The proconsul Gallio let Paul go despite the accusations and he sailed for Syria along with Aquila and his wife, Priscilla. Paul dropped off Aquila and Priscilla at Ephesus, then traveled to Caesarea and Antioch.
Third Missionary Journey
Paul traveled around the regions of Galatia and Phrygia and ministered in these places for some time. He went back to Ephesus and ministered there, but went away to Macedonia after a riot in Ephesus. He traveled through Macedonia and Greece but decided to sail from Philippi to Troas. They stayed there for seven days and traveled to Assos, Mitylene, Kios, Samos, and Miletus but skipped Ephesus as Paul wanted to reach Jerusalem before the Pentecost.
Paul’s visit to Jerusalem after the Third Missionary Journey would be his last after he was accused of bringing Gentiles into the temple. He was dragged out of the place by the Jewish mob. He surrendered to the Roman centurions, and they transported him to a Tribune. They then had to take him to Caesarea Maritima after a plot to kill Paul was revealed. Paul appealed to the governor to send him to Rome instead so he could defend himself as a Roman citizen, his request was granted.
Trip to Rome: The End of the Road
Paul sailed to Rome as soon as his request was granted but was shipwrecked in Malta after a storm. They survived the shipwreck and sailed to Rome after three months in Malta where the people showed him kindness. The ship docked in Syracuse, Rhegium, and Puteoli; then they traveled to the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns before they reached Rome. He stayed in Rome for many years and preached there under the watchful eyes of the Roman guards. The book of Acts is quiet about Paul’s death but according to the Acts of Paul (an apocryphal text), the Roman emperor Nero had Paul beheaded sometime during his reign.
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Picture By Raphael – Royal Collection of the United Kingdom, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1718078
Stamps, Donald C., and J. Wesley. Adams. The Full Life Study Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1992
Polhill, John B. Paul and His Letters. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1999