THERE was one man who had more to do with the future of the Christian church than even the apostles themselves, and his name was Paul, or Saul in Hebrew. He was the greatest of all Christian missionaries.
Much more is known about Paul than about other leaders of the early church, for he wrote or dictated long letters of instruction and encouragement to various missions he had established. These letters were called epistles. A number of them were preserved and published. In addition, most of the Acts of the Apostles, the fifth book of the New Testament, deals with Paul and his teachings. Taken together, his epistles and the chapters of the Acts devoted to him make up almost one half of the New Testament.
One of the most amazing things about Paul was that he first came to the attention of the brethren in Jerusalem as a dangerous enemy of the church. He was first mentioned in the Acts as one of those present during the stoning of Stephen: “And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.” He was one of the angry mob crying for the blood of Stephen, and he guarded the cloaks of the executioners while they were casting their stones.
Paul was the kind of man who had to live by his faith. He was a Pharisee, well-educated in the Law, proud of his rich Jewish heritage and deeply loved the God of Israel. Anyone who mocked or offended God was guilty of blasphemy and deserved to be punished. There was no doubt in Paul’s mind that Stephen was guilty. Paul hated him for it and eagerly joined with those whom he believed to be carrying out the Lord’s punishment.
According to tradition, Paul was short, broad shouldered, with a slightly hooked nose and heavy brows that almost came together. He was born a few years after the birth of Jesus in the Greek city of Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia, another Roman province. Somehow his family had obtained Roman citizenship, which gave them certain rights and privileges most people in the provinces did not have.
“WHO ART THOU, LORD?”
His father taught him the trade of tentmaker. When Paul was fifteen he went to Jerusalem to study religion under the famous religious teachers of the Temple, for it was his ambition to become a recognized expert in the Law. He studied the Bible in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic under the most famous Pharisee teacher in the Holy City, Gamaliel the Elder. How long Paul studied in Jerusalem is not known, but he was in Jerusalem when Stephen was stoned and was then about thirty years old.
Such was his hatred for the followers of Jesus that he led a campaign of terror against them, hunting down the Christians in every back street of the city and even in the nearby villages. Not content with that, he went to the high priest and asked for letters to the synagogues of Damascus. He wanted authority to arrest the Christians there and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial and punishment.
The high priest gave him the letters and also an armed escort to guard the prisoners on the way back. Paul and his escort set out at once. They followed the ancient caravan trail up through Palestine and across the steppes for eight days. They were nearing Damascus when something happened to Paul. He may have had a vision, or some great emotional experience. Whatever it was, Paul’s description of it is the same as that in Acts.
According to Paul, he and his party were travelling along the road when suddenly a light brighter than the sun shot down from heaven and surrounded them. Terrified, Paul fell to the ground:
He heard a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”
“Who art thou, Lord?” he managed to ask.
The voice answered, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.”
“Lord,” said Paul, “what wilt thou have me to do?”
The men with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but seeing no one. Paul was blind when he staggered to his feet and they led him by the hand into Damascus. There he stayed in the house of a certain man by the name of Judas on the street called Straight and refused to eat or drink for three days.
Then came a man known as Ananias and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Paul recovered his sight, arose and was baptized. Men have puzzled over the conversion of Paul from that day to this. Paul’s conversion, however it may have happened, is certainly the most outstanding event in the history of the early church. Paul joined the disciples in Damascus and began to preach in the synagogues, saying that Jesus was truly the Son of God. But his conversion had come too suddenly. He had not been prepared for it and he needed time to adjust himself to his new faith. The teachings of Christ could not have been difficult for him to accept, since they were based on the Scriptures and were very much like the teachings of Hillel, the famous Pharisee teacher. Hillel, like Jesus, taught that the real heart of religion could be found in the two great commandments — to love God and to love your neighbour. The resurrection and all that it meant was new to Paul. He withdrew from society end lived for a time as a hermit in a desert area called Arabia.
When he felt ready to continue his ministry, he returned to Damascus and began preaching again in the synagogues. Some Jews considered him a traitor to his people and made plans to kill him. They posted guards at all the city gates to prevent his escape. The Christians, who were warned in time, took Paul by night and lowered him over the city well in a basket.
Paul made his way to Jerusalem to see Peter und the other apostles who had known Jesus personally. There were many questions he wanted to ask about the man who had given his life on the cross. In Jerusalem the Christians avoided him. To them he was still Paul the persecutor. One Barnabas came to his aid and told them how Paul had been converted and had preached in the synagogues of Damascus.
Paul began to preach in Jerusalem. It was not long before he was in trouble again. He may have been too bold in his preaching, for he offended so many Jews that the brethren feared for his life and sent him back to his home city of Tarsus. While he was there, according to tradition, his family and friends turned against him because he attempted to convert them.
Paul had less success in his missionary work among the Jews than did other brethren of the church. The others used tact and patience. They linked up the gospel with their Jewish faith in such a way that people could carry on with their old religion and be good Christians at the same time.
MISSIONS TO THE GENTILES
Paul believed the resurrection had changed everything. It proved to him that the Son of God had suffered and died on the cross to wash away the sins of the world. He believed that Christ was the way, the truth and the light. Paul’s conversion had given him an entirely new outlook on life and religion. It had made him a different person. He said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” The old laws and rituals of the Jewish religion were therefore no longer of any importance.
Not usually a tactful man, Paul refused to compromise with his new faith. He had to speak out. When he preached to the Jews he made it clear that the new faith had taken the place of the old. This, to the Jews, was an unbearable insult. Paul was asking them to turn their backs on the faith for which Jews had been fighting and dying for centuries.
Paul soon joined Barnabas, who had been placed in charge of the thriving new church in Antioch. For a year they carried on missionary work there. A famine in Judea prompted the Christians in Antioch to take up a collection for the needy brethren. Barnabas and Paul were appointed to deliver the donations to the church at Jerusalem.
In the Holy City they found the church in serious difficulty. King Herod Agrippa, trying to please the Jews, had launched a campaign of persecution against the Christians. Most of them were in hiding. James, the brother of John, had been beheaded. Peter was in prison at the time, but later managed to escape and leave the city. So many Christians fled from Jerusalem during the persecution that the church there never recovered its strength. Its influence faded in time and Antioch became the center of the Christian world.
Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch and made ready for the first of several great missionary journeys to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world of the Gentiles. They set out in the year 45 and went first to the island of Cyprus. They then crossed to the mainland of Asia Minor and continued on over the mountains of Pisidia to a country town which also happened to be called Antioch. Paul preached there in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The Gentiles asked him to preach to them on the following Sabbath, which he did. He attracted such a large audience that the Jewish community became envious and turned against him.
Paul told them, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it from you . . . we turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us saying, I have sent you to be a light of the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the uttermost parts of the earth.”
The Gentiles rejoiced when they heard this “and glorified the word of God.” The Jews went to the chief men of the town and had Paul and Barnabas driven from the region. The two continued on foot for three or four days and came to Iconium, where they had limited success with the Jews. They converted so many Gentiles that they stayed there for some time, and again Jews forced them to leave. They went to Lystra, some eighteen miles away. They had not been there long before Jews from Iconium arrived and organized the local Jews against them. Paul was caught, dragged out of the city, stoned and left for dead. The Christians secretly brought him back into town and treated his wounds.
Undiscouraged, Paul and Barnabas went next to Derbe and founded a church there. In spite of the danger, they went back to Lystra and to each of the other towns to help with the new churches and to ordain priests. They also preached in Perge and finally returned by ship to their headquarters in the city of Antioch. They were still there a year later when certain Christian Jews came from Jerusalem and told the Gentile brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
The Gentiles were greatly upset. They saw no reason why they should have to follow religious practices of the Jewish faith. Barnabas and Paul sided with the Gentiles. The question was so important that Paul, Barnabas and others decided to have it considered by the elders and apostles of the church in Jerusalem.
CHILDREN OF GOD
The meeting in the Holy City in 48 or 49 was the first council of the Christian Church. The elders in Jerusalem believed that Christian Jews should be required to carry out all obligations of their Jewish religion. They had never been able to take a firm position regarding the Gentile Christians. One group held that the laws of Moses were binding upon the Gentiles and the other group said they were not.
Paul was anxious to have the question settled. He believed that the future of the church hung in the balance. Many Gentiles would not want to join the church if they had to accept the Jewish faith and the Law along with it. In that case, Christianity would always be merely another Jewish sect. Paul felt that if the Christian Jews wished to continue the practices of the Jewish faith, they should be allowed to do so. He argued that the purpose of the laws of Moses was to prepare the way for the coming of Christ. After the death and resurrection of Christ the laws had been fulfilled. They ceased to have any real importance and were therefore no longer binding upon anyone.
There should be no distinctions between Christians, he said. They were all children of God. Once people had been baptized and had accepted Christ, they were all the same. He said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Salvation through Christ was for all people, Paul declared. He had opened the door to the world of the Gentiles and he wanted to continue working with them. He saw Christianity as a faith for all nations.
DECISION AT JERUSALEM
The Jews who argued against him were not thinking selfishly of themselves. Their concern was for the Jews as a people. They thought it only right that salvation through Christ should be for the Jews, God’s Chosen People. They knew that if Paul’s view was accepted, the Jews would feel that the religion of their fathers was being threatened. They could not accept Christ on that basis and the end result would be that salvation through Christ would be denied to them.
When all those who wished to speak had been heard, Peter stood up and announced the decision: “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choices among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. God who knows the heart . . . made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples . . . ?”
Paul returned to Antioch with an official letter informing the Gentiles that they were not bound by the laws of Moses. Paul’s victory was not complete. Nothing had been decided about the Christian Jews. Were they still required to live according to the laws of Moses?
The question came up a short time later while Peter was present in Antioch. Peter always associated freely with the Gentiles and ate with them whenever he was away from Jerusalem. A party of very strict Christian Jews arrived from the Holy City and refused to associate with the Gentile members of the church, or to eat with them.
Peter apparently found himself in an embarrassing position. A sudden change came over him and he stopped associating with the Gentiles. His influence was so great that Barnabas and many others began following his example. The Gentiles could not help notice the change. They were being shoved to one side, avoided, as if they were second-class Christians.
Paul was furious. He recognized it as an attempt to push the Gentiles out and to keep Christianity a Jewish sect. He scolded Peter in public and reminded him that salvation came through Jesus Christ and not through following the Law. Peter quickly agreed. He told the people that there was no longer any reason for Christian Jews and Gentiles to be divided. They were all of one faith and could associate freely and eat together, for the laws of Moses were not binding upon any of them.
This decision finally put to rest the most critical problem faced by the young church. It doomed the hopes of those who wanted to keep Christianity a Jewish sect. It increased the opposition of the Jews to Christianity. But for Paul it meant that Christianity was for all nations, a universal church.
PAUL’S SECOND MISSION
Now that the question had at last been settled, Paul was eager to start his second missionary journey to the lands of the Gentiles. Barnabas and his cousin Mark sailed for Cyprus. With Silas as his companion, Paul set off on foot, passing through Syria and Cilicia to his home town of Tarsus. Then they visited the new churches Paul had established in Asia Minor on his first mission.
In Lystra they met Timothy and persuaded him to join them. They continued on through Phrygia and Galatia, then went into the province of Mysia, to the port city of Troas on the Aegean Sea. Luke was with them in Troas, probably joining them there. He became one of Paul’s most loyal companions and according to tradition, he was the author of the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.
Paul and his party sailed across the Aegean Sea to Neapolis in Macedonia and began preaching the gospel in Europe. In Philippi, Paul and Silas were beaten with rods and held in the local jail overnight before being released. They preached in Thessalonica and in Beroea for several weeks and were highly successful among the Gentiles before being forced to flee from the angry Jews.
DEFEAT IN ATHENS
Paul’s reception in Athens was unlike anything he had so far experienced. It was not the Jews that troubled him there. His visit probably took place in the year 50. Athens had long since passed her days of glory and most of the city lay in ruins. The place was crowded with students and people of culture and learning who spent much of their time arguing philosophy and playing games. When they heard that a missionary was preaching in the synagogues, they were amused. “What would this babbler say?” they asked.
Paul preached to them on Mars’ hill, saying, “Men of Athens . . . I found an altar with this inscription, To an unknown god. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
He told them how God had created heaven and earth and all things and tried to persuade them with skill and logic. When he mentioned that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they laughed and jeered.
Defeated in Athens, Paul went to Corinth, a city of shame and sin. He met with such success that the Church he established there became his favourite. He preached in Corinth for eighteen months and converted many, even Crispus, a leader of the synagogue. Leaving Silas and Timothy behind to carry on the work, Paul crossed the Aegean Sea again, landed in Ephesus, on the coast of Asia Minor and sailed from there to Caesarea. He reported on his mission in Jerusalem and then returned to Antioch.
His third missionary journey began a few weeks later. This time he took Titus as his companion. Again Paul visited all the churches in Asia Minor and then went on to Ephesus. The greatest port in Asia Minor, Ephesus was known as the pagan religious center. The famous temple of Diana, one of the wonders of the ancient world, was located there and attracted many pilgrims from other lands during festival days. Paul remained in Ephesus about three years, supporting himself and his company by working at his trade as a tentmaker. At first he preached in the synagogues, but soon began teaching daily in a private classroom provided by one of his converts. It was in Ephesus that he wrote some of his letters to the Galatians and the Corinthians.
Paul won so many converts in Ephesus that he all but ruined the business of those who made and sold images of the goddess Diana and small models of the temple. The silversmiths stirred up the people and caused so much confusion and bitterness that Paul thought it best to leave the city. He crossed over to Europe again and visited the young churches in Macedonia. He continued on into Greece and spent the winter in Corinth. About this time he wrote his famous Epistle to the Romans in which he explained the Christian faith. It is recognized as one of the finest explanations of the faith ever written. In this letter, too, Paul confessed a longing to visit the Christian community in Rome.
Paul’s third great missionary journey ended with his arrival in Jerusalem in A.D. 57. He was given a joyous welcome by the elders of the church. They advised him to go through the rite of purification and then appear in the Temple so that the Jews would have a better opinion of him.
Paul followed their advice. When he entered the Temple, he was recognized by certain Jews from Asia Minor. They pointed him out to other Jews, and they all rushed at him. So bitter was their hatred that they fought among themselves to get their hands on him. They dragged him out into the street and would have killed him had not the Roman guards come quickly to his rescue.
The noisy mob followed the Romans as they took Paul to Antonia fortress. The chief captain, confused by their bitterness, had Paul taken inside and ordered him beaten so they could get the truth out of him. Paul protested. Was it lawful to beat a Roman citizen before he had been sentenced? A Roman citizen! The captain was surprised when he heard that. Anyone who mistreated a citizen could be punished for it. The Captain decided to hold Paul in prison so that the Jews could bring formal charges against him. Word came the following day that forty Jews had taken an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. They had planned an ambush for him. To protect Paul, the captain sent him by night to Caesarea under a strong armed escort and turned him over to Felix, the Roman governor. The Jews came from the Holy City and accused Paul of many things, but failed to prove anything against him. Felix held Paul for two years, probably hoping that Paul would offer money for his release. Many of Paul’s friends came to visit him. According to tradition, Luke saw him often and may have been gathering material during this period before writing the third Gospel.
JOURNEY TO ROME
After two years Felix was replaced by Festus. The new governor, wishing to please the Jews, asked Paul if he would return to Jerusalem and stand trial there. Paul refused, for he feared another Jewish ambush. He appealed as a Roman citizen to Caesar. This was a right that could not be denied. He would have to be tried in Rome and Festus had to put the charges in writing.
When King Agrippa II came for a visit, Paul was brought before him. He made such an able defense that Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”
In the fall of 59, Paul and some other prisoners were turned over to a Roman officer named Julius, who placed them on a sailing ship bound for Myra in Lycia. With Paul were two of his most faithful friends, Luke and Aristarchus. At Myra the prisoners were transferred to a ship bound for Italy. The wind held them back for many days, but they finally reached Fair Havens on the island of Crete. As they continued their journey they were caught in a great storm. They were tossed about by the storm for fourteen days, with no sight of sun or stars by which to steer.
On the fourth night they approached land. They did not know where they were. In the morning they drove the ship aground and it soon began to break up under the pounding of the waves. Julius, the Roman officer, ordered all those who could swim to jump overboard and make for shore. The others followed‚ clinging to boards and floating parts of the ship and in time all landed safely. They were told that they had landed on the island of Malta. There they remained for three months. They continued their journey on a ship named Castor and Pollux‚ which finally carried them up to Puteoli in the Bay of Naples.
They found a Christian community at Puteoli. Paul persuaded Julius to remain there a week to that he could preach the gospel. Meanwhile, word was sent to Rome of Paul’s coming. When the journey was continued, many Christians from Rome came out along the Appian Way to greet him. Paul arrived in Rome probably early in March of the year 60.
He was allowed to rent a private house and live there by himself, with only a soldier to guard him. His friends were free to come and go. Luke and Aristarchus kept him company. There is a tradition that Luke was then writing his Gospel and the book of the Acts. Timothy was there and Mark, who may have been writing the second Gospel at that time. With all these men to help him, Paul must have taken an active part in the affairs of the Christian communities in Rome. He converted many who came to his house and even some of the soldiers who guarded him. He made his influence felt in the outside world as well, for he continued writing letters to the churches he had founded, and to various individuals. His epistle to the Philippians in Macedonia and one to the Colossians in Phrygia were probably written during this time.
“And he lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered.” The Acts of the Apostles comes to a sudden end with these lines, and nothing positive is known about the last years of Paul’s life.
According to one tradition, Paul was released in the year 62, made a missionary journey to Spain and may also have visited Crete, Corinth, Ephesus and Nicopolis. He was arrested a second time and brought back to Rome, where he was kept in a damp cell in the Tullianum jail. There is another tradition that Paul was held prisoner about four years and then was beheaded on the Ostian Way in 64, at the time when the Roman Emperor Nero was persecuting the Christians. According to this tradition, Peter was crucified in Rome at about the same time.
Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, is considered the greatest missionary of all time. It was largely due to his efforts and influence that the Christian faith broke away from the laws of Moses and became a world religion instead of a Jewish sect.