St Paul is regarded as a leader of the Apostles and we remember him during
every Holy Eucharist by reading one of his lessons. The following is a brief
summary of his life based on Holy Bible and I hope it will stimulate the readers
to read more about him and follow the foot steps of St Paul by visiting the
places where he served as an Apostle of our living Lord, Jesus Christ. I have
done this and words cannot express fully my reverence and respect for this true
When we first meet him in the Book of Acts (7:58-8:1) it is as Saul; and
later, Acts 13:9 describes him as "Saul, who is also called Paul." As a Jew he
bore the name of Israel's first king (1 Samuel 9:2, 17); but as a free citizen of
the Empire, he also bore a Roman name. Many Jews of this period in history
had two names, one Semitic and the other Greek or Roman. A child of the tribe of
Benjamin (Romans 11:1; Philippians 3:5; 2 Corinthians 11:22), Paul proudly
identified himself as an "Israelite" and a "Hebrew born of Hebrews, as to the
law a Pharisee" (Philippians 3:5) "extremely zealous for the traditions of my
fathers" who excelled his peers "in Judaism" (Galatians 1:14). But he was also
proud to be "a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city" (Acts
21:39). Tarsus was a Hellenized city, famous for its university, gymnasium,
theatre, art school and gymnasium. It became the capital of the province of Cilicia
during Pompey's reorganization of Roman Asia Minor in 66 BC. Later on, Mark
Antony - famous as Cleopatra's lover - granted freedom and Roman citizenship to
the people of Tarsus. In an age when most of the people living within the
boundaries of the Pax Romana were slaves, Paul was born a free citizen of the
St. Paul was "educated strictly according to the law of our fathers" at the
rabbinical school conducted in Jerusalem by the great rabbi Gamaliel (Acts
22:3). Gamaliel was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, "a teacher of the
law respected by all the people" (Acts 5:34). Although Gamaliel is depicted in
the New Testament as lenient towards Christians (Acts 5:33-39), his disciple
Saul was active in the earliest persecutions of Christianity and attended the
stoning of St. Stephen the deacon and first Christian martyr (Acts 7:58). Paul
"persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men
and women" (Acts 22:4).
Intent on exterminating the new faith, Paul sought to travel to Damascus to
undertake the persecution of Christians there. It was during his trip from
Jerusalem to Damascus in Syria that his life would take a crucial turn when he
encountered the risen Jesus in a vision of light that left him temporarily
blind. This experience was revolutionary, caused a complete transformation and
redirection of his life. As a result of this "revelation" (Galatians 1:12), Saul,
the bloodthirsty persecutor of Christianity converted to the faith he once
hated, was baptized by Ananias and received into the Church of Damascus, the very
community he had set out to suppress (Acts 9:10-31). From this moment on, he
became a "slave of Jesus Christ" (Romans 1:1) and in that slavery discovered
"the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Romans 8:21).
Luke recounts this Damascus experience three times in the Book of Acts: once
in the narrative, Acts 9:3-19; and twice, in speeches, before a crowd in
Jerusalem (22:6-16) and before Festus and King Agrippa (26:12-18).
"Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,
went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues of
Damascus, so that if he found any that belonged to the Way,
men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem."
"While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon, I saw
a great light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that suddenly shone
around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground,
I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language,
'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?'
I answered, asking, 'Who are you, Lord?'
The Lord answered, 'I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.
But get up and stand on your feet!
I have appeared to you for this purpose:
to appoint you to serve and testify to the things you have seen.
I will rescue you from your people and the Gentiles - to whom I am sending
to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light
and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of
and a place among those who are being made holy by faith in Me."
This vision of the glory of God - what later theologians and saints will
call the uncreated light - is the call by which Paul becomes the Apostle to the
Gentiles, the greatest missionary in the history of Christianity. It is
through his missionary efforts that Christianity, originally a sect of Judaism,
becomes a world religion.
PREACHING, MISSIONARY JOURNEYS AND THE
APOSTOLIC COUNCIL IN JERUSALEM
After his encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus and baptism
at the hands of Ananias, Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians that he
"went away at once into Arabia," spending time in the desert wastes before
returning to Damascus, where he remained for three years (1:17-18). By the time of
his return to Damascus, the essentials of his teaching were crystal clear:
God's promise to Abraham has been fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus. The
risen Jesus is the climax of history for He is both the Messiah, the Christ, and
"the power and wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:24). Teaching in the
synagogues in Damascus that Jesus "is the Son of God," his preaching proved so
controversial that there were plots to kill him. He escaped Damascus by being lowered
over the city walls in a basket at night (Acts 9:19-25).
Three years after his conversion, Paul journeyed to Jerusalem to meet with
Peter and stayed with him for fifteen days. "But I did not see any other apostle
except James, the Lord's brother" (Galatians 1:18-19). In Acts 9:26-30 Luke
describes the suspicion with which the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem
greeted Paul and that it was Barnabas who secured Paul's acceptance. From
Jerusalem, Paul returned to Syria and ultimately went to its capital, Antioch, the
third city in the empire after Rome itself and Alexandria in Egypt.
It had been in Antioch of Syria that followers of the Way had first been
called Christians (Acts 11:26) and it was this community that would commission
Paul and Barnabas as missionaries (Acts 13:1-3).
Luke organizes Paul's missionary activity into three segments or journeys.
Paul's missionary journeys cover roughly 46-58AD, the most active years of his
life, as he evangelized Greece and Asia Minor. Paul's first missionary journey
is recounted by Luke in Acts 13:3-14:28 and lasted for three years, probably
from 46 to 49AD.
However, Paul's message created controversy wherever he went. Initially
preaching and teaching in the synagogues of the various cities they visited, it was
in Antioch of Pisidia that the conflict led Paul and Barnabas to declare that
they were now "turning to the Gentiles" (Acts 13:46). This decision, to
preach not only to the Jews but to all peoples, marks a decisive turning point in
the history of Christianity. From that moment on the message of Jesus, the
crucified yet risen Messiah, was clearly open to everyone and this was understood
by Paul and Barnabas to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures
(Acts 13:47-48). God had "opened the door of faith for the Gentiles" (Acts
But it was in Antioch of Pisidia that Paul and Barnabas soon found themselves
in conflict with other teachers in the Church, "believers who belonged to the
sect of the Pharisees" (Acts 15:5), men "from Judea" who were teaching that
"unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be
saved" (Acts 15:1). When this leads to "no small dissension and debate, Paul,
Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem" to consult
"the apostles and presbyters" about the status of Gentile converts and whether
or not it was necessary for them to conform to the Mosaic covenant (Acts
15:1-5). This visit leads to the council of Jerusalem (circa 49-50AD). This
council was to be a paradigmatic event in the life of the Church, the pattern for
ecumenical councils yet to be called in the centuries to come. At this council
there was "much debate" as Paul and Barnabas presented their Gospel before the
assembled community, which included "James, Peter and John" who were
"acknowledged" as "leaders" and "pillars" of the Church (Galatians 2:1-10). According
to Acts 15:6-21, it was Peter's voice that carried the day in favor of Paul and
Barnabas. But it was James, speaking on behalf of all, who announced the
decision of the council: circumcision is not obligatory for salvation.
After the council of Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas go their separate ways:
Barnabas taking John Mark and sailing to Cyprus, Paul choosing Silas and
traveling throughout Syria and Cilicia "strengthening the churches" (Acts 15:36-41).
In the decade to come, Paul was to embark on two more missionary journeys,
the second one from 50 to 53AD and the third and final missionary journey
lasting six years, from 53 to 59 AD. During these journeys Paul would travel
throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, preaching and teaching, establishing new
churches everywhere he went. His Letters leave a trail of churches founded
and/or nurtured by him: Ephesus, Corinth, Thessaloniki, Philippi. He preached in
Athens and was to die in Rome, the intellectual and political centers of the
Paul's letters are the oldest Christian documents that we have. Most modern
scholars believe that Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians is the first
book of the New Testament to be written, sometime in 52AD. His letters are also
the largest collection of writings by any one person in the New Testament. In
modern Bibles, they are placed in order of their length, with the longest
letter, that to the Romans, being first and then followed by letters to individuals
(Timothy, Titus and Philemon) last. Paul's letters are exactly that: letters,
occasional writings meant to deal with specific issues in the churches to
which he addressed them. They are not systematic theological treatises in the
modern sense. And yet, they have provided rich and deep theological insights that
have never been surpassed in the Church's history.
IMPRISONMENT AND FINAL YEARS
It is during his last visit to Jerusalem "to visit James" (Acts 21:18) that
Paul is arrested near the Temple after a small riot and taken by a Roman
tribune before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council. Paul defends himself before the
Sanhedrin by playing on the dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees and
their conflict over the resurrection. After a plot to assassinate Paul is
discovered, Paul's case is transferred to Antonius Felix, the procurator of Judea,
who keeps him in prison for two years, expecting a bribe. When Felix's
successor, Festus, arrives on the scene, Paul appeals his case to Caesar, requesting
a trial in Rome by virtue of his Roman citizenship. "You have appealed to the
emperor; to the emperor you will go," Festus replied (Acts 25:12). Paul's
journey to Rome was to be an eventful one that included shipwreck. The Book of
Acts closes with Paul under house arrest in Rome still carrying out his ministry
of teaching and preaching - faithful to his Master to the end.
During his thirty-year ministry as an apostle what had Paul suffered for the
sake of the Gospel? Already in 2 Corinthians, Paul describes some of what he
endured to preach the Good News of Jesus risen from the dead: "Five times I
have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten
with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked. For a
night and a day I was adrift at sea. On frequent journeys, I was in danger from
rivers, from bandits, from my own people, from Gentiles, in danger in the city,
in danger in the wilderness, in danger at sea, in danger from false brethren;
in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty,
often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily
pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches" (11:24-29).
Eusebius, the 4th century bishop of Caesarea who is often called the first
Church historian, records that the apostle Paul was executed in Rome during the
persecution of the emperor and madman, Nero. Nero's persecution of Christians
lasted for four years, from 64 to 68AD. It was also during this persecution
that the apostle Peter was executed. As a Roman citizen entitled to a quick
death, Paul was beheaded. St. Gregory the Great, the 6th century pope, wrote that
Paul's execution took place on the left bank of the Tiber River on the Via
Ostiensis, the road to the port of Ostia, and is buried near the site of the
basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.
This article is based on one of the best article on this subject I read in a
Greek Orthodox publication.
DR M.S.ALEXANDER, LEEEDS, ENGLAND.