Paul of Tarsus, the apostle Paul, is undoubtedly one of the best known biblical characters for all Christians. However, his story is extraordinary enough, that it is necessary to know it in detail, to observe everything that God did with this man known as the apostle of the Gentiles.
Paul for many believers is considered the greatest leader of Christianity. Therefore, in this article we will learn more about his story, so keep reading to learn about the incredible story of this biblical character.
Paul was an apostle of Christ, he is recognized as one of the greatest preachers of the gospel of Christ in all of history. He author of thirteen epistles of the New Testament. Before converting to Christianity he was known as Saul and persecuted the Lord’s Church.
Biography of the Apostle Paul
Paul, the Roman name for Saul, was born in Tarsus in Cilicia ( Acts 16:37; 21:39; 22:25). Tarsus was not an insignificant place ( Acts 21:39 ), on the contrary, it was a center of Greek culture.
Tarsus was a university city that was near the northeast coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Although born a Roman citizen, Paul was a Jew of the Dispersion, a circumcised Israelite from the tribe of Benjamin, and a zealous member of the Pharisee party ( Romans 11:1; Philippians 3:5; Acts 23:6 ).
The childhood and adolescence of the Apostle Paul have been the subject of much debate among scholars. Some hold that the Apostle Paul spent his entire childhood in Tarsus, only going to Jerusalem during his adolescence.
Others hold that Paul went to Jerusalem when he was still very young. In this case, he would have spent his childhood away from Tarsus. In fact, from his birth to his appearance in Jerusalem as a persecutor of Christians, according to the accounts in the Acts of the Apostles, there is little information about the life of the Apostle Paul.
Although it is not known with certainty at what age Paul left Tarsus, it is known with certainty that he was educated in Jerusalem under the renowned doctor of the law, Gamaliel, Hillel’s grandson.
Paul had a deep understanding of Greek culture. He also spoke Aramaic, was an heir to the tradition of Pharisaism, a strict observant of the Law, and was more advanced in Judaism than his contemporaries ( Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:5, 6 ).
Taking all these aspects into account, it can be said that his family had some resources and enjoyed a prominent position in society.
Paul was a Roman citizen
The Apostle Paul had Roman citizenship. On this he himself states that he was a Roman citizen by birth ( Acts 22:28 ). This statement probably indicates that his citizenship was inherited from his father.
It is estimated that at that time at least two thirds of the population of the Roman Empire did not possess Roman citizenship. It is not known with certainty how the apostle’s father obtained said citizenship.
Some important and wealthy people were able to buy citizenship ( Acts 22:28 ). Others obtained said citizenship for providing some relevant service to the Roman government. Roman citizenship granted some privileges, among which we can mention:
- The guarantee of a trial before Caesar, if required, in cases of accusation.
- Legal immunity to flogging before conviction.
- He could not be subjected to crucifixion, the worst form of death penalty at the time.
Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor
The book of the Acts of the Apostles relates that when Stephen was stoned, his clothes were laid at the feet of Paul of Tarsus ( Acts 7:58 ).
After this episode of the death of Stephen, Paul of Tarsus assumed an important position in the persecution of Christians. He was given official authority to direct the persecutions. Furthermore, as a member of the Sanhedrin council, he cast his vote in favor of the death of the Christians ( Acts 26:10 ).
Paul himself states that he “breathed with death threats against the disciples of the Lord” ( Acts 9:1 ). In addition to initiating the persecution in Jerusalem, he also requested letters from the high priest for the synagogues in Damascus.
His goal was to bring to Jerusalem everyone who was a follower of Christ, both male, and female ( Acts 9:2 ). Paul persecuted and ravaged the Church of God ( Galatians 1:13 ). He did so believing that he was serving God and preserving the purity of the Law.
The conversion of Paul of Tarsus
The accounts in the Book of Acts, and the Apostle Paul’s own notes in his epistles, suggest a sudden conversion.
However, some interpreters maintain that some experiences throughout his life must have previously prepared him for that moment. The experience of Stephen’s martyrdom and his house-to-house campaign of persecution of Christians can be examples of this ( Acts 8:1-3; 9:1, 2; 22:4; 26:10–11 ).
What is really known is that Paul of Tarsus set out in a rage for Damascus with the intention of destroying the Christian community in that city. Suddenly, something unexpected happened, something that caused a radical change, not only in the life of Paul of Tarsus but in the course of history.
”On the journey, it happened that, as he approached Damascus, a light from heaven suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him: – Saulo, Saulo, why are you persecuting me? – Who are you, Lord? he asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the voice answered. Get up and go into the city, and there you will be told what you have to do. ( Acts 9:3-6 )
In writing the Acts of the Apostles, Luke interprets the conversion of Paul of Tarsus as a miraculous act, a moment in which an avowed enemy of Christ was transformed into his apostle. The men who were with Paul heard the voice but did not understand the words. They were amazed, but they could not see anyone.
The repentance of the Apostle Paul
Paul saw the risen Christ and heard his words. This encounter was so important to Paul that the basis for his claim to the legality of his apostolate is based on this experience ( 1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8-15; Galatians 1:15-17 ).
Considering that Paul of Tarsus had not been one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, in addition to having persecuted his followers, the need and importance of Christ’s personal revelation for Paul become evident. This experience profoundly transformed Paul of Tarsus, as can be seen:
Paul responded to the call of Christ: The first aspect of the change in the life of the apostle Paul can be seen when he immediately responds to the voice of Christ: “Lord, what do you want me to do?” ( Acts 9:6 ). This question marked the beginning of her new relationship with Christ ( Galatians 2:20 ).
From persecutor to a preacher of the Gospel
The radical change that affected the life of the apostle Paul is evident in the message that he began to preach in the city of Damascus itself. This is really impressive.
He began to preach the Gospel in the very place where he intended to arrest the followers of Christ ( Acts 9:1–2 ).
Before his conversion, Paul did not accept the divinity of Jesus. He even believed that by chasing his followers like a wild animal, trying to force them to blaspheme Jesus, he was doing God’s will ( Acts 26:9-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3 ).
It is true that he saw Jesus as an impostor. After his conversion, his preaching was none other than to announce that Jesus is the Son of God ( Acts 9:20 ). The tough, rigorous, threatening and violent Paul of yesteryear, after his conversion, he began to show tenderness, sensitivity, and love. These characteristics are evident in his works.
The beginning of the ministry of the apostle Paul
After his encounter with Christ, the Apostle Paul arrived in Damascus and was visited by Ananias. It was Ananias who baptized him ( Acts 9:17, 18 ). It was also there, in that same city, where Paul began his evangelizing work.
There is no detailed information about the early years of his ministry. What is known is that the Apostle Paul preached briefly in Damascus and then went to spend time in Arabia ( Acts 9:20-22; Galatians 1:17 ).
The Bible does not clarify what he did there, or even where in Arabia he stayed. Later, the Apostle Paul returned to Damascus, where his preaching provoked such great opposition that he had to flee for his own life ( 2 Corinthians 11:32-33 ).
At that time he fled to Jerusalem ( Galatians 1:18 ). At that time he had completed about three years of his conversion. Paul tried to join his disciples, but they were all afraid of him. It was then that Barnabas was willing to introduce him to the leaders of the Christians. However, his stay in Jerusalem was very brief, because again the Jews tried to assassinate him.
Because of this, the Christians decided to fire Paul, a decision that was confirmed by the Lord in a vision. According to what he himself affirms in Galatians 1:18, he only spent fifteen days with Peter.
This information agrees with the account in Acts 22:17-21. Paul ended up leaving Jerusalem before he could meet with the other apostles, and also before he was personally known by the churches of Judea. However, believers throughout that region were already hearing the good news about Paul.
”But in Judea, the churches of Christ did not know me personally. They had only heard it said: “He who once persecuted us now preaches the faith he sought to destroy” “( Galatians 1:22-23 ).
Silence in Tarsus and work in Antioch
Soon after, the Apostle Paul was sent to his hometown of Tarsus. There he spent a silent period of about ten years. Although these years are known as the silent period of the apostle Paul’s ministry, it is likely that he planted some churches in that region. Scholars suggest that the churches mentioned in Acts 15:41 were founded by Paul during this same period.
It is true that Barnabas, upon learning of the work that Paul was doing, requested the presence of the apostle in Antioch as an auxiliary worker. The goal was for Paul to help him in a promising evangelizing mission among the Gentiles.
Within a year, there was a period of great famine. Then the believers in Antioch contributed contributions to serve as a relief to the Christians in Judea. These contributions were brought by Paul and Silas. With their mission accomplished, Paul and Silas returned to Antioch.
This period in Antioch was essential in the ministry of the Apostle Paul. There he began to gain strength in his mission to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. It was during his stay in Antioch that the Holy Spirit commanded the Church to set Barnabas and Paul apart for the work to which God had called them. Only then did the missionary journeys of the apostle begin.
“While they were fasting and participating in the worship of the Lord, the Holy Spirit said: ‘Set apart for me now Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after fasting, praying, and laying hands on them, they sent them away” ( Acts 13:2-3 ).
The missionary journeys of the apostle Paul
The evangelizing work of the apostle Paul covered a period of about ten years. This work was carried out mainly in four provinces of the Roman Empire: Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia.
Paul concentrated on the key cities, that is, on the largest population centers of his time. This was part of his missionary planning. When some Jews and Gentiles accepted the Gospel message, these converts soon became the nucleus of a new local community.
In this way, the apostle Paul reached even the rural areas. The missionary strategy used by the Apostle Paul can be summarized as follows:
- He worked in the large urban centers so that from there the message would spread to the surrounding regions.
- He preached in the synagogues, to reach the Jews and the Gentile proselytes.
- He focused his preaching on demonstrating that the new dispensation is the fulfillment of the prophecies of the old dispensation.
- He understood the cultural characteristics and needs of his listeners. So he applied these particularities in his evangelical message.
- He maintained contact with established Christian communities. This contact occurred through repeated visits and the sending of letters and messengers trusted by him.
- Mindful of the inequalities present in the society of his time, he promoted unity between rich and poor, Gentiles and Jews. In addition, he asked that the more prosperous churches help the poorer ones.
The establishment of local churches of the Apostle Paul
In Acts 14:21-23, it is possible to see that Paul’s method of establishing a local church followed a regular pattern.
First, there was a work dedicated to evangelization, with the preaching of the Gospel. Then there was a building work, where the converted believers were strengthened and encouraged.
Eventually, elders were elected in each church, establishing the church organization.
first mission trip
Paul’s first missionary journey is recorded in Acts 13:1-14:28 . It is not known exactly how long this first voyage lasted. We only know that it must have taken place around AD 44-50. The starting point was Antioch, a place that had become something of a center of Christianity among the Gentiles.
Basically, the trip was concentrated on the island of Cyprus and the southeastern part of the Roman province of Galatia. Barnabas was the leader until a certain point of the trip, and Paul was the main preacher.
Juan Marcos served as an assistant to the main missionaries. However, John Mark left them (literally abandoned them) and returned to Jerusalem. From that moment on, the apostle Paul assumed the leadership of the mission.
Second missionary trip
Paul’s second missionary journey is recorded in Acts 15:36-18:22 . The purpose of this trip, as Paul himself says, was to visit the brothers in all the cities where the word of the Lord had already been preached ( Acts 15:36 ).
However, not agreeing with Juan Marcos going on a missionary trip, Paul and Barnabas decided to separate. Then Paul took Silas, also called Silvano, with him.
The probable date of this voyage is between AD 50 and 54. This second voyage covered a much larger territory than the first, extending as far as Europe. The evangelizing work was completed in Macedonia and Achaia, and the cities visited were Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and Corinth.
The apostle Paul stayed a long time in Corinth ( Acts 18:11, 18 ). There he preached the Gospel and carried out his professional activity as a tentmaker. From this city, he sent the Epistle to the Galatians and, probably a little later, also the Epistles to the Thessalonians.
Paul also stopped briefly in Ephesus, and as he left he promised to return another time ( Acts 18:20-21 ).
Third mission trip
Paul’s third missionary journey is recorded in Acts 18:23-21:16 . This journey took place between AD 54 and 58. The Apostle Paul traversed the region of Galatia and Phrygia and then headed towards Asia and his main city, Ephesus. There the apostle remained for a long period, fulfilling the promise made earlier ( Acts 19:8-10; 20:3 ).
It is likely that all, if not most, of the seven churches in Asia were founded during this period. It seems that before Paul wrote the First Epistle to the Corinthians, he paid a second visit to the city of Corinth, returning shortly thereafter to Ephesus. Then later he wrote 1 Corinthians.
When he left Ephesus, Paul set out for Macedonia. It was there, perhaps at Philippi, that he wrote the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Finally, the apostle Paul stopped for the third time in Corinth. Before leaving that city, he probably wrote the Epistle to the Romans ( Romans 15:22-25 ).
The result of the missionary journeys of the apostle Paul was extraordinary. The Gospel spread considerably.
It is estimated that towards the end of the apostolic period the total number of Christians in the world was about five hundred thousand. Although this result was the fruit of hard work in which a large number of people, known and anonymous, participated, the worker who stood out the most in this mission was undoubtedly the Apostle Paul.
The apostle Paul’s debate with Peter
At one point, due to the growing number of Gentiles in the Church, issues related to the Law and Jewish customs arose among Christians.
Many Jewish Christians insisted that Gentiles must observe the Mosaic Law. They wanted Gentile believers to conform to Jewish customs, especially regarding circumcision. For them, only then could there be equality in the Christian community.
The Apostle Paul identified this Judaizing movement as a threat to the very nature of the Gospel of grace. That is why he clearly positioned himself against this situation.
Given these circumstances, the apostle Paul publicly rebuked Peter ( Galatians 2:14 ). Peter had separated from some Gentile believers to avoid problems with certain Judaizing Christians. This was also the background that led the apostle Paul to write a warning epistle to the Galatians. In this epistle, he presents with great emphasis the theme of salvation by grace through faith.
We can say that this event was the first theological crisis of the Church. To solve the problem, Paul and Barnabas were sent to a conference of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem council decided that, in general, converting Gentiles were not required to observe Jewish customs.
Prisons and death of the apostle Paul
There is much discussion about the number of arrests suffered by the apostle Paul. This discussion is mainly due to the fact that the book of Acts does not describe the entire history of the apostle. Also, it is likely that the Apostle Paul was imprisoned sometimes for a very brief period, as in Philippi ( Acts 16:23 ).
Speaking of his own arrests, the Apostle Paul writes the following:
“Are they servants of Christ? What madness! I am more than them. I have worked harder, I have been imprisoned more times, I have received the most severe whippings, I have been in danger of death several times.” ( 2 Corinthians 11:23 )
Considering only the main arrests of the Apostle Paul, it is known that he was arrested in Jerusalem (Acts 21 ), and to prevent him from being lynched, he was transferred to Caesarea. In that city, Felix, the Roman governor, imprisoned the Apostle Paul for two years (Acts 23-26 ). Festus, Felix’s successor, pointed out that he could hand Paul over to the Jews for judgment.
Since Paul knew that the outcome of the trial would be totally unfavorable to his person, so, as a Roman citizen, he appealed to Caesar. After a speech before King Agrippa and Bernice, the Apostle Paul was sent under escort to Rome. After a terrible storm, the ship he was traveling on sank and Paul spent the winter in Malta.
Finally, the Apostle Paul arrived in Rome in the spring. In the capital of the Empire, he spent two years under house arrest. Despite this, he had complete freedom to teach the Gospel ( Acts 28:31 ).
It is exactly at this point that the story described in the book of the Acts of the Apostles ends. The rest of Paul’s life must be told using records from other sources.
Therefore, the only additional information that we find in the New Testament about the biography of the Apostle Paul, is part of the Pastoral Epistles.
These epistles seem to suggest that the apostle Paul was released after that first Roman imprisonment reported in Acts about AD 63 ( 2 Timothy 4:16, 17 ). After being released, he would have visited the Aegean Sea area and traveled to Spain.
martyrdom in Rome
Later, Paul was imprisoned again in Rome. This last time he was executed at the hands of Nero around AD 67-68 ( 2 Timothy 4:6-18 ). All this indicates that the Pastoral Epistles document situations not historicized in the Acts.
The Epistle of Clement (around the year 95) and the Muratorian canon (around the year 170) bear witness to a trip by the Apostle Paul to Spain.
Christian tradition tells that the death of the Apostle Paul occurred near the road to Ostia, on the outskirts of the city of Rome. He would have been beheaded. Perhaps the text that best defines the biography of the apostle Paul is precisely this one
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. For the rest, the crown of justice that the Lord, the just judge, will grant me on that day awaits me; and not only to me but also to all those who have waited for his coming with love.” ( 2 Timothy 4:7-8 )
Epistles Written by the Apostle Paul
The epistles attributed to the Apostle Paul throughout his entire ministry are the following:
- I Corinthians
- II Corinthians
- I Thessalonians
- II Thessalonians
- I Timothy
- II Timothy