Through his evangelistic activity, church leadership, theological insights and extensive writings, Paul had an immeasurable influence on the development of Christianity. He spread the gospel and planted churches regardless of national or racial barriers, and in so doing he changed the traditional views of Godfearing people. He interpreted Christ’s life and developed Christ’s teachings in a way that provided a firm theological framework for Christian faith and practice.

Background and conversion

Paul’s original name was Saul. He was a full-blooded Jew, born in Tarsus in south-east Asia Minor (Acts 9:11; 22:3; Phil 3:5). He inherited from birth the privilege of Roman citizenship (Acts 16:37; 22:26- 28; see ROME), and he grew up to speak, read and write Greek and Hebrew fluently (Acts 21:37,40). The Greek influence in his education gave him the ability to think clearly and systematically, and the Hebrew influence helped to create in him a character of moral uprightness (Phil 3:6). As a religiously zealous young man, Paul moved to Jerusalem, where he received instruction in the Jewish law according to the strict traditions of the Pharisees. His teacher was the prominent rabbi, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3; 23:6; 26:5). Like all Jewish young men he learnt a trade, in his case, tent-making (Acts 18:3). Zeal for the Jewish law stirred up Paul against the Christians. He considered that Stephen was a rebel against the law and that therefore he deserved execution (Acts 6:13; 7:58; 8:1; Phil 3:6). With the support of the Jewish Council (the Sanhedrin), Paul then led the persecution against the Christians, imprisoning men and women alike (Acts 8:3; 9:1-2; 26:10-11; Gal 1:13; 1 Tim 1:13).

Paul considered the Christians to be guilty of blasphemy in believing in a Messiah who died on a cross; for a person who died on a cross was under God’s curse (Acts 26:11; Gal 3:13). But while on the way to Damascus to capture Christians, Paul had a dramatic experience that changed him completely. Jesus’ personal revelation to Paul convinced him that Jesus was alive (Acts 9:3-5; 22:14; 26:8,15; 1 Cor 9:1). This meant that Jesus was no longer under God’s curse. He had died, not because he was a lawbreaker, but because he willingly bore the curse on behalf of those who were. Jesus’ resurrection was now the unmistakable evidence of God’s approval of him (Rom 1:4; Gal 3:13; 6:14). Linked with Paul’s conversion was the Lord’s revelation that he intended to use Paul as his messenger to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; 26:15-18; Gal 1:11-16). From that time on, Paul never ceased to wonder at the work of God in saving the opponent of Christianity and turning him into an ambassador for Christianity. It gave Paul an appreciation of the grace of God that affected every aspect of his life (1 Cor 15:8-10; Eph 3:8; 1 Tim 1:12-17). (The date of Paul’s conversion was about AD 32.)

Preparation for future ministry

After his conversion, Paul remained for a while in Damascus, trying to convince the Jews that Jesus was Lord and Messiah. Part of the next three years Paul spent in Arabia, after which he returned to Damascus. When violent opposition from the Jews threatened his life, he escaped to Jerusalem (Acts 9:22-26; Gal 1:17-18). Most of the Christians in Jerusalem doubted whether Paul’s conversion was genuine. Not so Barnabas. After he introduced Paul to Peter and James the Lord’s brother, the tension eased (Acts 9:26-28; Gal 1:19-20). But attempts by the Jews on his life again forced him to flee.

He sailed from Caesarea to northern Syria, from where he went overland through Cilicia to Tarsus (Acts 9:29-30; 22:17-21; Gal 1:21). Paul’s next visit to Jerusalem was eleven years later (cf. Gal 1:18; 2:1). Little is known of those eleven years, though they must have been important years of preparation for Paul’s future work. Paul spent the final year of this preparation period at Antioch in Syria. In response to an invitation from Barnabas, he had come from Tarsus to help the newly formed Antioch church (Acts 11:25-26). At the end of the year, Paul and Barnabas took a gift of money from Antioch to Jerusalem to help the poor Christians there (Acts 11:29-30; Gal 2:1). Peter, John and James the Lord’s brother, as representatives of the Jerusalem church, received the gift from the Antioch church and expressed their complete fellowship with the mission of Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles (Gal 2:9-10). Paul and Barnabas then returned to Antioch, taking with them the young man John Mark (Acts 12:25).

Breaking into new territory

Having a desire to spread the gospel into the unevangelized areas to the west, the Antioch church sent off Paul and Barnabas as its missionaries (Acts 13:1-2; about AD 46). Accompanied by John Mark (who had gone with them as their assistant), Paul and Barnabas went first to Cyprus, where they proclaimed the message from one end of the island to the other (Acts 13:4-6). From there the group went to Perga in Asia Minor. At this point John Mark left the other two and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). Paul and Barnabas then moved inland, planting churches in the Galatian towns of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe (Acts 13:14; 14:1,8,20).

To strengthen the new churches, they returned to Perga by the same route as they had come, and then sailed back to their home church in Syria (Acts 14:21-28). This trip, commonly referred to as Paul’s first missionary journey, showed how Paul thought carefully about his missionary work. He established some basic patterns, which he followed on later trips as his field of missionary activity expanded. For example, Paul set himself certain guidelines concerning how and where he preached. He felt an obligation to preach to the Jews first, since their entire national history had prepared them to receive the Christian gospel (Acts 13:14,46; Rom 1:16). On entering a town, Paul usually preached first in the synagogue, where God-fearing Gentiles, as well as Jews, provided him with a well prepared audience (Acts 13:14,43-44,48; 14:1; 17:1-4,10). His preaching in the synagogue was usually based on the Old Testament (Acts 13:15-41). His preaching in other places, where people knew nothing of the Old Testament, was usually based on the more general revelation of God in the natural creation and the human conscience (Acts 14:12-18; 17:17-31; Rom 1:19- 20; 2:14-16).

Paul’s aim was not merely to preach the gospel or make converts, but to bring people into a relationship with Jesus Christ that would change their lives. The life of Christ was to be reproduced in the lives of Christ’s people (2 Cor 5:17; Eph 4:17-24; Col 2:6-7; 3:1-4). However, Paul did not leave these people to live in isolation. In each locality he built them into a church, or body, where the lives of all would be enriched as they contributed to, and shared in, the life of the body (1 Cor 12:12-14; see CHURCH). From the Christians within each church, Paul appointed suitable people as elders, in order to give leadership to the church (Acts 14:23; 20:28; see ELDER). As independent units, each of them answerable to Christ as head (Eph 1:22-23; 4:15-16), churches then had the responsibility to evangelize the areas round about. For this reason Paul usually chose important towns along the main highways and trade routes as centres in which to plant churches. Once strong churches were established in these centres, the gospel would spread quickly to the surrounding regions (Acts 13:49; 16:11-12; 19:10; Rom 15:19-20; 1 Thess 1:8).

Trouble from Judaisers

There had always been some Jews in the Jerusalem church who believed that Christians had to follow the regulations of the Jewish law. Some of these people, known as Judaisers, came to Antioch in Syria and taught so persuasively that even Peter and Barnabas were influenced by them (Acts 15:1; Gal 2:11- 14). Paul quickly dealt with the problem in Antioch, but soon he heard news that the Judaisers had spread their teaching to the new churches of Galatia. Without delay he wrote and sent off the letter that we know as Galatians (Gal 1:6-8; 3:1-3; see GALATIANS, LETTER TO THE). For the rest of his life Paul opposed unceasingly any attempt to place Christians under the law of Moses.

A prominent theme of his teaching was that Christ’s death and resurrection has freed Christians from all forms of bondage, and given them a power to produce a quality of character that no law-code could ever produce (Rom 6:15-18; 7:4; 8:1-4; Gal 5:1,14; Col 2:13-14; 1 Tim 4:1-4). He was uncompromising in insisting that, through the grace of God, people are justified and sanctified by faith, regardless of lawkeeping (Rom 3:28; 6:19). Paul’s careful exposition of the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection (namely, that it is the basis of the salvation God has provided) was one of his most influential contributions to the development of Christian doctrine (Rom 3:24-25; 5:1-2,6-11; 6:3-11; 1 Cor 1:21-24; 2 Cor 5:19-21; Gal 2:20-21; Eph 1:7; Phil 3:8-9; Col 1:20; 1 Tim 2:5-6; see JUSTIFICATION; SANCTIFICATION). With these truths clear in mind Paul went to Jerusalem, along with others from Antioch, to deal with the problem that the Judaisers had created (Acts 15:1-5). The Jerusalem leaders supported Paul and expressed their disapproval of the Judaisers (Acts 15:11,19,24). They also sent a letter to the troubled churches to reassure them in what they had believed (Acts 15:23-33; 16:4).

Into Europe

In view of the recent troubles, Paul decided to revisit the churches of Galatia. When he and Barnabas split because of a quarrel concerning whether to take Mark with them, Paul chose Silas as his partner. Soon he added Timothy as a young assistant (Acts 15:36-41; 16:1-3; about AD 49). This marked the beginning of what is commonly referred to as Paul’s second missionary journey. Although Paul planned his movements, he was also responsive when God redirected him. As a result he moved from the churches of Galatia up to Troas, from where he sailed to Macedonia in northern Greece (Acts 16:6-11). He established churches in Philippi (Acts 16:12-40), Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9) and Berea (Acts 17:10-14), after which he moved to the southern part of Greece known as Achaia.

He preached with only moderate success in Athens (Acts 17:15-34), and then moved across to Corinth, where he stayed eighteen months (Acts 18:1-11). During this time in Corinth, Paul wrote the two letters that we know as 1 and 2 Thessalonians (cf. Acts 18:5; 1 Thess 3:1-6; 5:1; 2 Thess 1:1; 2:14; see THESSALONIANS, LETTERS TO THE). Some of the matters Paul dealt with in these letters concerned the return of Jesus Christ. Throughout his writings Paul showed Christ’s return to be the great hope, the assured expectation, the joyous climax towards which Christians move (Rom 8:18,23-24; 1 Cor 15:20,51-57; Phil 3:20-21; 1 Thess 1:10; 3:12-13; 4:13-18; see HOPE). It is also a sober reminder to Christians that, in view of their future meeting with Christ, they should be careful how they live now (1 Cor 4:5; 2 Cor 5:10; 1 Thess 5:1-11; see SECOND COMING). From Corinth Paul sailed for Ephesus. After a short stay there, he sailed for Palestine, where he visited the church in Jerusalem before returning to Antioch in Syria (Acts 18:18-22).

Developing churches

After a time with the church in Antioch, Paul set out on what is known as his third missionary journey (about AD 53). Once more he visited the churches of Galatia, after which he moved to Ephesus on the west coast of Asia Minor (Acts 18:23; 19:1). He stayed there three years (Acts 20:31), during which time his disciples evangelized much of Asia Minor (Acts 19:9-10). His work in Ephesus brought extraordinary results among a wide variety of people (Acts 19:9,18-20,24-26). The entire record of Paul in Acts is only an outline of his travels and experiences. He suffered many beatings, imprisonments and other hardships not mentioned in Acts (2 Cor 11:23-28), and met particularly violent opposition in Ephesus (1 Cor 15:32). During his three years in Ephesus he also had to deal with many problems that had arisen in the Corinthian church. He wrote the church a number of letters, and on one occasion made an urgent trip to Corinth to deal with the more serious matters.

(For details of these travels and writings, not mentioned in Acts, see CORINTHIANS, LETTERS TO THE.) Although Paul based his missionary plan on the establishment of churches in the key cities of a region, the plan would work only if those churches were strong and healthy. For this reason Paul gave repeated instruction to congregations and leaders on the quality of life required within the church. He emphasized the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives (2 Cor 3:17-18; Gal 5:18-24; Eph 5:15-20), the loving consideration that Christians should have for each other (Rom 14:13,19; 1 Cor 10:24; Gal 6:1-2; Phil 2:4), the importance of right teaching in the church (2 Cor 4:1-2; 1 Tim 1:3-5; 3:15; 2 Tim 2:15,24), and the need for the public life of the church to be orderly, God-honouring, and spiritually helpful to all (1 Cor 11:17-22; 14:12,26,40; 1 Tim 5:16-17; Titus 1:5; see CHURCH; GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT; HOLY SPIRIT). Ephesus and Corinth were the two churches that gave Paul the most concern on these matters. They were also the two places where he stayed longest. After his three years in Ephesus he moved north to Macedonia (Acts 20:1), from where he travelled further through the region, possibly as far as Illyricum (Acts 20:2; Rom 15:19). He then travelled south to Corinth, where he spent a further three months (Acts 20:3).

For some time Paul had been collecting money from Gentile churches to help the poor Christians in the Jerusalem church. He hoped that when he and representatives from the Gentile churches took this money to Jerusalem, it would help towards healing the ill-feeling that many Jerusalemites had towards their Gentile brothers (Rom 15:25-27; 1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8:1-9:15). Upon completing this mission in Jerusalem, Paul hoped to visit Rome (Acts 19:21; Rom 15:28-29). In preparation for this visit to Rome, Paul wrote (from Corinth) a lengthy letter to the Roman church, setting out in systematic fashion the basics of the Christian faith. If Rome, the centre of the Empire, was to be a centre from which the gospel could spread, the church there had to have a clear understanding of the gospel (Rom 1:10-13; 15:14-16; see ROMANS, LETTER TO THE). Just as Paul had wanted to make sure that the church in Corinth was strong before he moved west to Rome (2 Cor 10:15-16), so he wanted to be sure that the church in Rome was strong before he moved farther west to Spain (Rom 15:23-24). With these plans in mind, Paul and his party moved from Corinth back to Macedonia, across to Troas and down to Miletus (Acts 20:4-6,15). There he met the leaders of the Ephesian church, warning them of troubles that lay ahead for their church (Acts 20:17,28-30). After visiting Christians in a number of other ports, Paul reached Jerusalem (Acts 21:15; about AD 57).

Final break with Jerusalem

The Jerusalem Jews, some Christians among them, had always been suspicious of Paul, mainly because of his refusal to acknowledge the Jewish law as either a way of salvation or a rule of life. Yet Paul was always prepared to adjust to Jewish practices voluntarily, if he thought such action would gain him acceptance with the Jews and give him the opportunity to win them to Christ (1 Cor 9:19-23). He tried such an approach when he arrived in Jerusalem, but the Jews misunderstood. A riot resulted and Paul ended up in prison (Acts 21:17-40; 22:1-30). The Roman commander then sent Paul to stand trial before the Jewish Council, but that also finished in a riot (Acts 23:1-10). He therefore sent Paul to the provincial governor, Felix, in Caesarea (Acts 22:31-33). Paul’s accusers were unable to convince Felix that Paul was guilty, but Felix left Paul in prison to prevent any further trouble with the Jews (Acts 24:22-27). When, after two years, Festus replaced Felix as governor, he continued the injustice. As a result Paul claimed his right as a Roman citizen and appealed to the Emperor for justice (Acts 25:10-12).

Before Paul left for Rome, a visiting expert on Jewish affairs, Herod Agrippa II, confirmed that Paul was innocent (Acts 26:32). Through one crisis after another, Paul had shown himself to be a person of great physical courage and mental alertness. Earlier, when saved at the last moment from being beaten to death by the rioting Jews in Jerusalem, he had insisted on speaking to those who wanted to murder him, and he even brought them to silence (Acts 21:35-40). More than once he surprised the Roman military commander by his quick thinking (Acts 21:37-40; 22:25-29). Before the Jewish Council his speedy assessment of the situation enabled him to change proceedings to suit himself (Acts 23:6). With calm reasoning he convinced Felix of his innocence (Acts 24:10-23), and his alertness before Festus enabled him to seize the opportunity to get to Rome at last (Acts 25:9-12). He was now sent off to Rome by sea, under a Roman guard (Acts 27:1-2). Although a prisoner, Paul did not hesitate to give advice to the ship’s officers, warning them against sailing further in dangerous weather. They ignored his advice and the ship was soon in trouble (Acts 27:10-11,14,20). When, after two weeks of terror, the ship was about to sink, Paul’s leadership prevented panic and ensured that all on board got to land safely (Acts 27:29-38,42-44). The place they landed was the island Malta (Acts 28:1). Some months later they arrived in Rome, where Paul was kept under guard while awaiting the hearing of his case (Acts 28:11,16; about AD 60). He was allowed visitors and could speak openly in making known the Christian gospel (Acts 28:17,30-31).

Two years in Rome

Among those who came to Rome to see Paul was a Christian from Colossae named Epaphras (Col 1:7-8; 4:12). There had been false teaching in the Colossian church, and Epaphras sought advice from Paul concerning how to deal with it (Col 2:16-23). Although Paul had not personally founded the church in Colossae (Col 2:1), he gladly sent off a letter to help the church through its difficulties (see COLOSSIANS, LETTER TO THE). Another arrival from Colossae was a runaway slave named Onesimus, whose master Philemon owned the house in which the Colossian church met (Philem 1-2). Onesimus had heard the gospel from Paul, become a Christian, and now thought he should return to his master. Paul therefore wrote to Philemon, urging him to welcome Onesimus back (Philem 10-13,16; cf. Col 4:9; see PHILEMON). Since Paul’s friend Tychicus was to take these letters to Colossae (Col 4:7-9), Paul decided to send additional letters with Tychicus to other churches in the area, such as those at Ephesus and Laodicea (Eph 6:21-22; Col 4:16).

False teaching similar to that in Colossae had created difficulties in churches of neighbouring towns. (For details see EPHESIANS, LETTER TO THE.) Paul possibly wrote his letter to the church in Philippi during this imprisonment in Rome (though he may have written the letter elsewhere, during a previous imprisonment). Paul still had freedom to welcome visitors and speak openly of the kingdom of God (Phil 1:12-13; 2:19,25). He had just received a gift that the Philippian church had sent to him with Epaphroditus, and he wrote to thank them for it (Phil 4:18; see PHILIPPIANS, LETTER TO THE). In these letters from prison, Paul gave some of his richest teaching concerning the person of Jesus Christ. False ideas about Christ had forced Paul to set out clearly some of the important truths that people were forgetting or distorting (Eph 1:17-23; 3:4,14-19; Phil 2:5-11; 3:8-10; Col 1:15-20; 2:8; 3:1-4; see JESUS CHRIST). False ideas had also grown up concerning Christian behaviour and the nature of the church. Paul therefore wrote of the eternal purposes that God was bringing to fulfilment through the church collectively (Eph 1:11-14; 2:11-22; 3:3-12; 4:1-16; 5:27; Phil 2:12-16; Col 1:24-28) and through the lives of his people individually (Eph 1:3-10; 5:1-2,21; 6:10-18; Phil 1:9-11; 2:5,12-13; 3:12-16; 4:8-9; Col 1:9- 14; 3:12-17).

The final triumph

Throughout his imprisonment Paul had remained hopeful that he would be released and so be able to visit various churches again (Phil 1:25,27; 2:24; Philem 22). It seems certain that he was released and that with Timothy, Titus and others he visited a number of places. One of those places was Crete, where Titus remained for a while to help correct difficulties in the churches (Titus 1:5). Paul also visited Ephesus, where he left Timothy, again to help strengthen the churches after a period of instability (1 Tim 1:3,19- 20; 3:12-16; 5:20-22; cf. Acts 20:29-30). Paul then moved north to Macedonia (1 Tim 1:3; cf. Phil 2:24). It was possibly about this time that he received news of affairs in Crete and Ephesus that prompted him to write letters to his two fellow workers (see TITUS, LETTER TO; TIMOTHY, LETTERS TO).

Among other places he visited were Corinth, Miletus and Troas (2 Tim 4:13,20). About this time Paul must have been arrested again, for the next mention of him is as a prisoner in Rome once more. This time he expected not release, but execution (2 Tim 2:9; 4:6-8). From prison Paul wrote his last letter, known to us as Second Timothy (see TIMOTHY, LETTERS TO). It seems that Timothy was still in Ephesus and that Mark was in nearby Colossae (cf. Col 4:10). These two men, who had started out with Paul many years earlier as his young assistants, were the two he most wanted with him in his final days (2 Tim 4:9,11). With Christianity facing increasing dangers, many of the Christians had deserted Paul, leaving only Luke to support him in his imprisonment (2 Tim 1:15; 4:10-11,16). Paul wanted Timothy and Mark to come as quickly as possible and to bring with them Paul’s books, parchments and warm clothing; for winter was approaching (2 Tim 4:13,21). It is not known whether they reached Rome in time. According to tradition Paul was executed in Rome about AD 65.

Privacy Policy