St. Paul is so prominent a figure in the New Testament and in the history of the early church that he has been considered by some as the second founder of Christianity. He continues to minister to us today through the fourteen epistles he wrote, which make up about one fourth of the New Testament.
Exploring St. Paul’s background will help us better understand his life and appreciate how, by the grace of God, the persecutor of Christians was turned into the foremost preacher of Christ and chosen as a vessel for God’s service. (Acts 9:15)
Paul’s Early Life
According to his own account in speeches given to a hostile crowd of Jews, King Agrippa, and the Roman Governor Festus, (Acts 22: 1-21; 26: 2-23) Saul (his name before conversion) was born in Tarsus in the province of Cilicia (in the extreme southeastern region of Asia Minor). He was both a Jew and a Roman citizen by birth. (Acts 22:27,28)
Saul studied under Gamaliel, a Pharisee and a teacher of the law in Jerusalem, where Saul spent his early years. (Acts 22:3) He never tired of emphasizing that (Acts 22:3; 26:5; Gal. 1:14; Phil.3: 5-6), not only was he a “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” but also was by conviction an exceedingly zealous follower of Judaism, advancing beyond many of his contemporaries. (Gal. 1:14) He lived as a member of the “strictest sect” (Acts 26:5) – the Pharisees.
By his own repeated admission, Saul’s zeal for Judaism led him to persecute the early Christian Church, having received authority from the chief priests. He declares, “I persecuted this way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.” (Acts 22:4) “Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prisons…and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them.” (Acts 26:9-10)
On The Road to Damascus
The turning point in Saul’s life was a vision of the risen Christ that he received as he traveled to Damascus to arrest the Christians and bring them bound to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:3-8; Acts22:6-11 and 26:12-15; Gal 1: 15-16) That dramatic encounter turned him from a zealous Jew and persecutor of the church to more than a follower of the Lord Jesus – it turned him into a foremost preacher of Christ, who labored more than all the other apostles. (2 Cor.11: 23-28)
Paul’s Missionary Career
Paul’s conversion through the revelation of Christ to him was also a call to ministry, (Acts 9:15; 22:15; 26:15-18 and Gal.1: 16) particularly to preach to the Gentiles. (Rom.1: 1,5,15-16; Gal 1:16; 1 Thess. 2:4)
Early Missionary Work
Soon after his conversion, Paul preached the Gospel of Christ to the Jews in Damascus, and spent sometime in Arabia. (Acts 9:22; Gal. 1:17)
After three years, he went up to Jerusalem where he saw St. Peter and St. James, the Lord’s brother. (Gal. 1:18,19) Opposition from and an attempt to kill him by the Hellenists drove him to Tarsus, where he apparently worked for several years. (Acts 9:28-30; Gal. 1:21)
Sometime after this, Barnabas, who had been sent out from the church in Jerusalem to Antioch, called Paul from Tarsus to join in the work at Antioch, (Acts 11:25-26) which is estimated to be some twelve or thirteen years after Paul’s conversion. Working together, they spent a whole year preaching in the church and teaching many people.
St. Paul’s Missionary Journeys
For the next stage of his missionary work, St. Paul set out on three extended journeys to several countries in Asia Minor and in Europe. He untiringly preached the word of God and founded many churches in all places he visited.
First Missionary Journey (Acts 13:4-14:26)
This journey took Paul, Barnabas, and for part of the way John Mark to Cyprus (Barnabas’ home), and several cities in southern Galatia (Asia Minor), namely Pisidian, Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe.
Following the first journey and after spending a long time in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem for the Apostles Council, which assembled about 48 A.D. They then returned to Antioch, where after a period of time, and following a dispute over the question of John Mark accompanying them on further service, the two men went separate ways.
Second Missionary Journey (Acts 15:40-18:22)
This took him to southern Galatia and on to Macedonia, in particular the cities of Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea and then Achaia, including Athens and Corinth. There he stayed for eighteen months before returning to Antioch following a brief stay in Ephesus.
Third Missionary Journey (Acts 18:23-21:16)
Paul left Antioch and traveled throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia before arriving in Ephesus. There he spent anywhere from two years and three months (Acts 19:8,10) to three years (Acts 20:31). From Ephesus, Paul traveled north into Macedonia and came to Greece where he spent three months, probably in Corinth. (Acts 20:2-3; 2Cor9: 4) He finally retraced his steps back to Caesarea and Jerusalem. (Acts 20:3-21:16)
Paul’s Voyage to Rome
Shortly after his arrival in Jerusalem, and having been mobbed by Jewish zealots, Paul was imprisoned. Shortly thereafter he was transferred to Caesarea where he spent two years. (Acts 24:27) Having appealed his case to Caesar (Acts 25:11) he was sent by ship to Rome for a formal hearing as a prisoner. St. Luke’s account (Acts 28:30,31) closes with Paul under house arrest for two years in Rome.
According to Christian Tradition, Paul was released from prison allowing him to conduct further missionary work. Whether this ministry took Paul to Spain as he had planned (Rom 15:24) is uncertain. He was rearrested and later beheaded in Rome about 67 A.D.