Background The apostle Paul probably came from a family that was financially well off and of good social standing. He grew up in Tarsus where he inherited Roman citizenship (Acts 21:39; 22:25-29). One of the earliest records of Tarsus refers to its rebuilding by Assyrian King Sennacherib (705–681 BC). In 67 BC it was absorbed into the Roman province of Cilicia. It was a leading city of the Eastern Empire, with an economy based on agriculture, linen and tentmaking. Tarsus was known for its wealth and its schools which rivaled Athens and Alexandria. Paul’s family must have been religious as they sent him to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel, one of the most influential rabbis of that time. He would have been in his mid-teens when he went to Jerusalem, where he not only studied the Law, but according to Jewish tradition learned the tentmaking trade as an occupation to fall back on in times of need (Acts 18:3).
Jerusalem was the center of Jewish religious life in Israel since King David built an altar there to worship Jehovah (2 Sam. 24:18-25). The original temple built by Solomon was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and later rebuilt in Ezra’s time (Ezra 6:14). Herod was installed by Rome as king of Judea after a successful war against the Parthians, which gained him favor and political power in Israel. As peace followed, Herod began a building program in Israel, which included a new temple in Jerusalem (20 BC), gaining him more favor. This was where Paul studied to become a teacher of the Law and a Pharisee.
Pharisees had great influence in Judea both politically and religiously. When the pharisaical system began, its purpose was to accurately interpret and observe the Law of God, as well as maintain ritual purity in Israel. But after generations they had lost sight of the spirit in which it should have been taught and practiced. As they mixed their great knowledge with extra-biblical traditions and customs (which they themselves could not keep) it resulted in what Jesus called “hypocrisy.” Jesus warned the people against the Pharisees, saying that they did not practice what they preached, so the people should do what they say and not do what they do (Mt. 23:2-3).
Paul, also known as Saul, went to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel, a moderate among religious intellectuals. Gamaliel was an honored elder of the Sanhedrin, a governing body of priests and Pharisees. His clear thinking was seen by how he intervened when the Sanhedrin wanted to kill the apostles. He said: “Leave these men alone … For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39).
After years of training in Jerusalem, Paul had become a well-educated, God fearing, legalistically religious, fanatical bigot. He looked back on his life after his conversion and described himself as “circumcised … of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews … a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the Church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Phil. 3:5-6). As a recent graduate from the rabbinical school, Saul began his religious duties with religious fervor. Our first encounter with him in Scripture is as the leader of the mob that stoned Stephen, the first martyr (Acts 8:1). Not content with killing Stephen, he began a campaign of persecuting believers in Jerusalem and putting them in prison (Acts 8:3).
With authority from the high priest, Paul went after others who had fled to Damascus and other cities to escape persecution. While today we might wonder at Paul’s behavior, we need to understand that his knowledge of the Scriptures led him to think he was serving God. How many today are perpetrating heinous crimes in the name of God? His knowledge was intellectual. He later wrote: “We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God” (1 Cor. 8:1-3). Paul knew a lot about Scripture, but did not really know the God of Scripture. He did not know that God is love!
But something happened that would change his life so radically that he wrote: “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him” (Phil. 3:7-9).
While traveling on the road to Damascus, light flashed around Paul; he fell to the ground and heard the Lord’s voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” In the exchange that followed, Paul realized that the One whom he had been fighting was not a dead subversive but the living Christ. Though Paul was physically blinded by the Lord’s glory, his spiritual eyes were opened to know that Jesus was the fulfillment of those Scriptures and prophesies that pointed to the coming Messiah. What had been academic became a reality (Acts 9:1-9).
Paul’s response was submission to the Lordship of Christ and the surrender of his life to serve Him: “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10). He later wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal.2:20).
The Lord told Paul to go to Damascus where he would be told what to do (Acts 9:6). His new life’s plan was not given at that time. In Damascus he fasted, prayed and waited in obedience to the Lord. This obedience typified Paul’s attitude and way of life from then on.
Ananias was instructed in a vision to go to Paul and place his hands on him so he would receive his sight again. This frightened Ananias as he knew Paul was arresting believers. The Lord calmed him by telling him that Paul was a chosen vessel who would be used by God to take His message to the Gentiles, to kings and to Israel, and who would suffer for Jesus’ name (Acts 9:10-19). After he received his sight, Paul was immediately baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to teach publicly that Jesus was truly the Son of God, the Messiah.
Process Of Change
In spite of his readiness to obey and follow the Lord, Paul was in a process of change. It’s not easy to make radical changes in our lives. What we have been taught in our formative years becomes a part of us. That’s why in many churches today older people find it hard to adapt to changes in the way some things are done. Biblical doctrines don’t change, as the apostle Paul confirmed through his writings, but the ways we understand them are colored by our cultural and spiritual backgrounds. Before his conversion, Paul saw everything from the strict traditional focus of the Jewish religion.
Now that he realized that Jesus was the Christ, the Cornerstone of Scripture, he had to re-align his understanding of Scripture. Over the next few years he lived in Tarsus, and spent time in Arabia. These years of isolation from Israel were necessary so God could work in Paul’s heart, open his mind to the true meaning of Scripture and reveal things to him he would teach to the infant Church. It was in Arabia where Paul was “caught up to the third heaven” to see things that could not be expressed in words (2 Cor. 12:2-4).
Barnabas was in Antioch helping believers form a local church, and realized that Paul was better equipped to teach this church which was a mixture of both Jew and Gentile believers. He went to Tarsus and brought Paul to Antioch where he discipled the believers for a year. It was from Antioch that Paul and Barnabas left on Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 13). The following years in Paul’s ministry were fruitful and effective as he established churches in many places. He made three important missionary journeys, and during those years was the first to establish churches in Europe. He discipled and trained younger men who would carry on the work even after his death. Timothy and Titus were two examples of disciples who were given great responsibility in Ephesus and Crete.
Paul’s concern for the churches caused him not only to pray for them but to write to them to encourage their collective witness and their walk with the Lord. In some cases it was necessary to correct wrong attitudes and practices such as those in Corinth. To the Romans he wrote a superb thesis on the gospel of salvation and justification by faith. He wrote to Timothy and Titus to encourage them in the important pastoral work and teaching needed for building up and strengthening the local church.
Paul’s most effective writing was from a prison in Rome. He called himself the Lord’s prisoner, realizing that the Lord was using him during the latter years of his life to write many pages of inspired Scripture that would light the paths of believers in the future: salvation by faith alone and not of works (Eph. 2:8-9); the rapture of the Church (1 Th. 4:13-18; 1 Cor. 15); the analogies of the Church as Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12; Rom. 12), as His bride (Eph. 5:25-27), as a temple (2 Cor. 6:16), and as a family (Eph. 2:19-20; 1 Tim. 3:15).
Life And Witness
From the day the Lord called him, Paul made Him his whole purpose for living: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Paul was ready to die for Him. Second Corinthians 11:22-33 tells us some of the ways that Paul suffered. With the Lord as his focus and goal, his main desire was to please Him: “So we make it our goal to please Him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it” (2 Cor. 5:9).
As Paul awaited death, he stated confidently: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7-8). Paul turned his back on the world, and focused on the only worthwhile goal for life and eternity: “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).
By Ian Taylor
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org