Biblical Studies (NT)/II. THE MINISTRY OF PAUL
II. The Ministry of Paul
Saul (Paul) Persecutes the Church
In Chapter 9 of Acts, we come into close contact with Saul, later known as Paul, for the first time. Paul has already been briefly mentioned in Acts in Chapters 7 and 8, in connection with the stoning of Stephen. Luke writes:
- They cast [Stephen] out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man whose name was Saul. And Saul was consenting to his death. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial and made great lamentation over him. As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. (Acts 7:58, 8:1-3)
Such was the unpromising introduction to Paul. No one could have foreseen that this man who was so bent on eradicating Christianity was to become one of the greatest leaders in church history.
Apart from Paul’s natural characteristics, there were several things in his background that contributed to his effectiveness as a missionary, evangelist and church leader. Firstly, he was born near the beginning of the first century in the city of Tarsus in the province of Cilicia, which is now a part of Turkey. Tarsus was a busy Greco-Roman city at the northeast corner of the Mediterranean which was noted as a trading center and for its university. This environment provided Paul with his knowledge of the Greek language, philosophy and culture. Secondly, he was born a Roman citizen. This citizenship was to prove invaluable to him when his rights were in danger of being denied, and it probably saved his life on more than one occasion. Thirdly, having been born into a devout Jewish family, he was educated in the traditions and scriptures of Judaism. At the appropriate age, probably thirteen, he was sent to Jerusalem to study under the famous teacher Gamaliel, where he proved himself to be a superior and zealous student.
When Paul first appeared in Acts at the stoning of Stephen, he was probably about thirty years old and had already become an acknowledged leader in Judaism. Paul clearly saw Christianity as a heresy and a major threat to Judaism, and he made it his business to persecute the church wherever he found it, even in other cities. It was one such mission that led him to set out for Damascus in Syria in about 37 A.D. Luke writes, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (9:1-2).
Paul was completely unprepared for what was to happen to him on that journey. As he approached Damascus, a brilliant light shone around him. He then heard a voice which spoke to him the now famous words, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (9:4). The speaker identified himself as Jesus. Paul asked, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” (9:6), to which Jesus replied, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (9:6). After this experience, he was blind for three days, and during this time he fasted. After the three days, a disciple named Ananias came and laid hands on him, and Paul received his sight and was baptized.
Following his conversion, Paul immediately began to preach that Jesus was the Messiah in the synagogues in Damascus. He then went into the Arabian desert. It is not known exactly how long he was there, but it is believed that this was a time of retreat, rather than an evangelistic journey. When he returned to Damascus, the Jews, no doubt feeling betrayed, plotted to kill him, but hearing of their plot, he escaped by being let down at night from the city wall in a large basket.
Paul returned to Jerusalem in about 40 A.D., but was unable to stay because of further threats to his life. He then returned to his home town of Tarsus for several years, but we do not have any definite information concerning this period.
Paul Goes to Antioch
Following the acceptance of non-Jews into the church after 41 A.D., Antioch in Syria began to emerge as a leading center of Christianity. Barnabas, the overseer of the church there, needed help and called on Paul to come from Tarsus to assist him. Although we know nothing of Paul’s ministry in Tarsus, it seems likely that he had already established himself as a mature Christian leader for Barnabas to request him to come to Antioch and help with the church there. Luke writes, “For a whole year they assembled with the church and taught many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (11:26).
When the time had come for Paul to begin his missionary travels, the Holy Spirit spoke through certain “prophets and teachers” who were at Antioch, saying, “Separate to me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (13:2). After fasting and laying hands on the two, the disciples sent them on their way.
Antioch in Syria (not to be confused with Antioch in Pisidia) was about three hundred miles north of Jerusalem, not far from the Mediterranean coast. Having a population of half a million, it was the third largest city in the Roman Empire, surpassed only by Rome and Alexandria. The city was a center for the cult of Ashtoreth, the goddess of fertility, which was noted for sexual indulgence. Nevertheless, the people accepted Christ in large numbers and Antioch also became a major center of Christianity in the middle of the first century. The word Christian was first used there, and it was the starting point of Paul’s famous missionary journeys.
Paul’s First Missionary Journey
The first missionary journey began in about 45 A.D. From Antioch, Barnabas and Saul traveled about sixteen miles to the coast, to the port at Seleucia Pieria. From there, they boarded a ship bound for Cyprus, which is the third largest island in the Mediterranean, being about a hundred and fifty miles long and averaging about twenty miles across. The island lay about a hundred miles southwest of Seleucia and was important for copper mines and timber. While in Paphos, the island’s capital city, Paul cursed the sorcerer Elymas with temporary blindness for obstructing the work of the Lord. This miracle caused Sergius Paulus, who as the Roman proconsul was ruler of the island, to become a believer. Up until this time, Paul is referred to as Saul, the Hebrew version of his name, but from this time forward, he is always called by the Greek version: Paul.
When his work in Cyprus was completed, Paul set sail for Perga in Pamphylia, about a hundred and fifty miles to the northwest. The region of Pamphylia was located on the Mediterranean coast in what is today southwestern Turkey. At this point, Mark, who had accompanied Paul and Barnabas, left them and returned to Jerusalem.
They then went north to another city named Antioch, in the province of Pisidia (often referred to as “Pisidian Antioch” to distinguish it from “Syrian Antioch”). The message was so well-received at Antioch that the Jewish leaders became jealous and began to obstruct them, causing them to turn from the Jews and preach to the non-Jewish population. The Jewish leaders then stirred up the leaders of the city and had Paul and Barnabas expelled from the region. Despite this opposition, Luke writes, “The word of the Lord was being spread throughout all the region” (13:49).
After being expelled from this region, they continued north into Galatia, a Roman province in what is central Turkey today, where they preached in the cities of Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. It is probable that Paul’s letter to the Galatians was intended for the Christians in these towns. In Iconium, “the multitude of the city was divided: part sided with the Jews and part with the apostles” (14:4). After an attempt was made to stone them, they moved on to Lystra where, after Paul healed a man who had been crippled from birth, the population tried to worship them as gods. Then some of the Jews from Antioch and Iconium came and stirred up a crowd who stoned Paul and left him for dead, but he recovered and continued to Derbe. After making many disciples at Derbe, they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, encouraging the churches they had started and appointing elders over them. Then they returned to Syria, arriving back in Antioch after a journey lasting about two years. They gave account of all their experiences, causing great joy among the disciples there.
Rejected by His Own People
Jesus said, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country and in his own house" (Mt 13:57). This was certainly true in Paul’s case. In the course of his evangelistic travels, he was constantly making enemies of the Jewish communities in the cities where he preached. For various reasons, it was his policy when entering a city for the first time to go and preach the Gospel in the synagogue first. Often, his initial reception would be warm. But he was invariably rejected when envious synagogue leaders saw that his powerful and convincing teaching was resulting in many converts.
Undoubtedly, one reason for Paul’s lack of popularity with the Jewish leaders was his teaching that in Jesus all could find salvation, regardless of ethnicity. Salvation, for Paul, was no longer the exclusive privilege of the Jewish nation, as it had been for so long. It now included all who were willing to come to God through faith in Christ. The coming of Jesus had marked the beginning of a new age in “salvation history.” This teaching must have seemed, to the synagogue leaders, to undermine the importance of their role as spiritual leaders, as well as the role of the Jewish nation as a whole as God’s chosen people on the Earth.
The Jerusalem Council
In about 50 A.D., a conflict arose when certain Jewish believers came to Antioch from Judea saying that the new non-Jewish believers must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. This was in sharp contrast to Paul’s doctrine which stated that salvation comes only by the grace of God through faith in Christ, and that the religious observances given by Moses were no longer necessary to salvation. The age of law had been replaced by the age of grace.
As a result, Paul, Barnabas, and “certain others” went to Jerusalem to resolve the matter in what has come to be known as the Jerusalem Council. At this meeting, Peter stood up and said of the non-Jewish converts, “God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (15:8-10). As a result of the arguments of Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and James, it was resolved that the non-Jewish believers should be required only to “abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood” (15:20) – things which were associated with the idolatrous practices of the time.
Paul’s Second Missionary Journey
Soon after the Jerusalem Council, Paul embarked on his second missionary journey. Luke writes, “After some days, Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing’” (15:36). However, there was a disagreement between the two when Barnabas decided he wanted to take Mark, because Mark had returned home before completing the first journey. As a result, Barnabas and Mark (who were cousins) traveled together, while Paul teamed up with Silas (also known by his Latin name, Sylvanus) instead.
On this occasion, Paul chose to take the overland route, going north from Syrian Antioch about a hundred miles, then west into Asia Minor. Luke writes, “He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (15:41). Paul’s home town of Tarsus was in Cilicia, and no doubt he stopped there on his way. Continuing west, Paul came into Galatia, where he revisited the churches at Derbe, Lystra and Iconium. At Lystra, the group was joined by Timothy.
After visiting the towns of Galatia, they arrived at the coastal city of Troas on the Aegean Sea. Luke writes, “A vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’” (16:9). This led him to cross the Aegean to the region of Macedonia, now in northern Greece. After a voyage of about a hundred and twenty miles, Paul and his party arrived at Neapolis (Kavala) on the coast, and from there journeyed a few miles inland to Philippi, where the first known Christian convert was made in Europe: “Lydia, a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira” (16:14). Paul and Silas were whipped and imprisoned at Philippi after Paul cast a fortune-telling demon out of a slave girl, who, as already noted, had made much money for her master. However, Acts tells us that the Holy Spirit miraculously opened the doors of the prison in the night, and as a result, the jailer and his family were converted.
After his release, Paul traveled westward to Thessalonica where he made many converts, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Encountering opposition from the Jewish leaders, Paul continued west to Berea, where he ministered for a time before traveling south to Athens, which was then in the province of Achaia. Paul did not have great success in Athens, although “some men joined him and believed” (17:34). The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible (Westminster, 1956) says:
- In its golden age, Athens had been the center of the classical culture of ancient times. On its Acropolis stood famous masterpieces of art and architecture. In Paul’s day, Athens was less brilliant, but it was still a city to thrill any lover of culture. Objects of art abounded; interest in poetry, mythology, and philosophy continued; tradition was rich.
While in Achaia, Paul also spent time at Corinth, fifty miles west of Athens. Corinth was the political and commercial center of Achaia. It was also famous for a huge temple dedicated to the goddess of love which was situated on the Acrocorinth, a nearby mountain. Paul met with great success there, even being able to convert Crispus, a leader in the Jewish community, together with his household. Luke writes, “He continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them” (18:11).
After Corinth, Paul set his sights toward home. Wishing to attend the coming festival in Jerusalem, he boarded a ship and sailed to Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast of Palestine, then continued overland to Jerusalem. After the festival, he returned to Syrian Antioch, arriving in about 52 A.D. He had traveled over three thousand miles, an incredibly large distance in those days.
Paul’s Third Missionary Journey
After only a short stay in Antioch, Paul departed on his third missionary journey, which began in about 53 A.D. Luke writes, “He departed and went over all the region of Galatia and Phrygia in order, strengthening all the disciples” (18:23). After revisiting the churches that he had founded on his previous journeys, Paul continued on to Ephesus, where he remained for nearly three years. The time he spent there was the high point of the third missionary journey. He taught extensively in and around Ephesus and his ministry was accompanied by extraordinary miracles.
Unfortunately, a silversmith named Demetrius who had a business making idols saw a serious threat in Paul, who was turning people away from idol worship in large numbers. He stirred up others of his trade and together they incited the people to riot. Although the riot ended without any harm to Paul or the other disciples, it became necessary for Paul to leave Ephesus. Nevertheless, the work there had been extremely successful. Acts tells us that during this period, “All who dwelt in [the province of] Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (19:10).
After Ephesus, Paul continued westward into Macedonia and Achaia (now in Greece), where he revisited the cities where he had ministered on his second journey. He met with sufficient success to warrant spending three months there, most of it probably in Corinth. While there, he made plans for his final visit to Jerusalem. Paul finally left Greece after discovering a plot by the Jewish leaders to kill him.
After he left Greece, Paul returned to the province of Asia, where he sojourned in the city of Troas on the Aegean coast. He stunned everybody there when he miraculously raised a young man named Eutychus back to life. Eutychus had fallen from a third storey window while listening to Paul preach.
From Troas, he traveled overland to nearby Assos, where he boarded a ship bound for Jerusalem. The ship made several stops and among them was Miletus, which was near enough to Ephesus for Paul to make contact with the elders of that church, who he exhorted to continue steadfastly in the work which he had started. Luke writes, “They all wept greatly, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him, sorrowing most of all for the words which he spoke, that they would see his face no more” (20:37 38). Paul knew that he would be arrested in Jerusalem, for he had told them, “I go bound in the Spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me” (20:23).
Paul is Arrested
In about 58 AD, at the end of his third missionary journey, Paul arrived in Jerusalem for the purpose of observing the Feast of Pentecost. He had not been there many days when some of the people who had come from the province of Asia for the festival stirred up the crowd against him and he was arrested in the temple grounds. He was accused of turning people against Judaism and of defiling the temple by bringing a person into it who was not Jewish, a charge for which there was apparently no basis. As a result, an unruly crowd tried to kill Paul, but he was rescued by Roman soldiers and taken into custody. The next day he was brought before the Sanhedrin (the ruling body of the Jewish people in Palestine). However, they could not agree among themselves concerning the charges, so the commander took Paul back to the barracks.
The following night, Paul had a vision of Jesus standing by him and saying, “Be cheerful, Paul, for as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also at Rome” (23:11). Hearing of a plot to kill Paul, the military commander sent him away with a heavy escort to Felix, the Roman governor, who lived in Caesarea on the coast. When Ananias, the high priest, came down from Jerusalem with the elders, Paul defended himself eloquently before both them and Felix. Finding nothing substantial in the charges against him, Felix refused to condemn Paul to death, but not wanting to antagonize the Jewish leadership, he kept him in custody. Paul was to remain imprisoned in Caesarea for two years. Nevertheless, Acts tells us that Felix “commanded a centurion to keep Paul and to let him have liberty, and told him not to forbid any of his friends to provide for or visit him” (24:23).
Caesarea was a cosmopolitan city whose prevailing culture was Greco-Roman, rather than Jewish. It was the Roman administrative capital of Palestine and, as already mentioned, had the distinction of being the first place where non-Jewish converts were accepted into the church. It was developed by King Herod the Great to honor the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, and inaugurated in 10 B.C. It was the site of Palestine’s most important seaport, and ships from there made connections with all parts of the empire. Among the many fine buildings were the governor’s palace and an amphitheater which was larger than the Colosseum in Rome, and in which gladiators spilled their blood in exciting tournaments for the entertainment of the people.
Paul Appeals to Caesar
After two years, a new governor, Festus, replaced Felix. Wanting to please the Jewish leadership, Festus was ready to send Paul back to Jerusalem, but knowing that this would mean certain death, Paul availed himself of his right as a Roman citizen and “appealed to Caesar.” By law, this required that Festus send him for trial in Rome.
Several days later, King Herod Agrippa II, great-grandson of Herod the Great, was in Caesarea with his sister Bernice, so Festus invited them to come and hear Paul speak. Paul gave an account of his life as a Pharisee and his conversion and subsequent efforts to spread the Gospel. Agrippa was so impressed that he told Paul, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian” (26:28). Then, speaking aside to Bernice and Festus, Agrippa said, “This man might have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar” (26:32).
This was now the second occasion when Paul’s Roman citizenship had come to his aid. The first was when he was arrested in Jerusalem. The Roman commander had ordered that Paul be “examined under scourging”, i.e. that he be questioned with a few lashes of a whip to help him talk. As he was being bound, Paul asked, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman, and uncondemned?” (22:25). When the commander found out that Paul was a Roman, he was afraid of the potential consequences of what he had done and immediately ordered that Paul be unbound. This is the same commander who, hearing of a plot to kill Paul, sent him under protection of a heavy guard to the governor at Caesarea, where his enemies would not be able to harm him. Clearly, there was one law for citizens and another for non-citizens. It is unlikely that Paul would have been given continued protection if he had not been a Roman citizen.
Paul Goes to Rome
Probably in 60 A.D., Paul began his voyage to Rome. On the way, the ship ran into a storm and was shipwrecked on the island of Malta, which lies in the Mediterranean about sixty miles south of Sicily. They decided to stay there for the winter, and while there, Paul healed many sick and disabled people. After three months, they continued in another ship to Puteoli, on the west coast of Italy, completing the journey to Rome overland.
In Rome, Paul seems to have had a relatively comfortable existence for one who was a prisoner, being allowed to live in his own rented house (with a soldier guarding him), and being able to receive visitors freely. It was during this time that he wrote the “Prison Epistles”: Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, and Philippians. While the next few years are somewhat vague, it is generally believed that Paul was released from custody after two years, because Acts ends by saying, “Paul dwelt two years in his own rented house” (28:30). After this time, it is likely that he revisited the churches in Greece and Asia Minor. He may also have gone to Spain, as he had previously indicated a desire to do so.
Several years later, Paul fell victim to a great persecution of Christians which arose in 64 A.D. after much of Rome burned in a devastating fire. The Christian community, which was thought by many to be an unusual and somewhat strange sect, was a convenient scapegoat. Christians were ostracized, tortured, and murdered in barbaric ways. During this time of persecution, Paul was imprisoned in Rome and finally beheaded in about 66 A.D. His last remaining words were written from his prison cell and are preserved in his second epistle to Timothy. In it, there are surprisingly no words of condemnation for the emperor or for the Roman political system by which he was imprisoned and soon to be executed. He merely writes: “Do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the Gospel according to the power of God” (2 Tim 1:8).
The Roman Empire and Church Growth
Notwithstanding the persecution mentioned above, Rome had a great deal to do with the establishment of the early churches. Roman forces had united all of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean under one government. Travel, communication, and trade flourished between these numerous provinces. Overland travel was made possible by the vast network of quality roads that the Romans built, and the empire was made safe by the Roman military forces, which for the most part ensured that law and order prevailed everywhere. The sea-routes were safe also, for the entire Mediterranean coast was ruled by Rome and there were no enemy ships to worry about.
This provided an ideal setting for the spread of the Gospel. Paul and the other apostles were able to travel freely, establishing churches throughout Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece and even in Rome itself. Another by-product of the unity of the empire was that the Jews had been able to establish synagogues in most major cities, and Paul generally preached in the synagogue on arrival in a town where the Gospel had not been previously taught. As a well-educated Pharisee with an expert knowledge of the scriptures, he was always welcome to speak, though he was usually rejected by the synagogues once he began to make converts. Nevertheless, the overall political environment created by the empire, itself a pagan institution, created an ideal field for evangelization.
An "Unexcelled Missionary Statesman"
Paul’s life has been an inspiration to people for two thousand years. According to the Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (Zondervan, 1967): “Paul’s achievements proclaim him as an unexcelled missionary statesman. His epistolary writings, formulating, interpreting, and applying the essence of Christianity, are vital to Christian theology and practice. He grasped truth at its full value and logically worked out its implications. Having understood his duty, he followed it unflinchingly, undeterred by possible consequences to himself.”
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