Is there anyone among the first Christians more famous than St. Paul? This man of God traveled the world, broke cultural barriers, wrote some of our most enduring literature, and established a network of churches that would forever change the face of Europe and the Middle East. Beginning on June 28 of this year, Pope Benedict XVI sought to honor this "apostle to the nations" by dedicating an entire year to St. Paul.
So who is this hero of heroes? Where did he come from, and what were his most important accomplishments? Let's take a look at his life to find some answers.
From Pharisee to Preacher. Paul was born around A.D. 10 in Tarsus, in south-central Turkey. Though Jewish, his family enjoyed Roman citizenship. As a young man, Paul traveled to Jerusalem to study under the revered rabbi Gamaliel. Beyond that, little is known about Paul until he is mentioned as a witness of the stoning of St. Stephen in Jerusalem.
After Jesus died, his followers caused an uproar in the Sanhedrin, claiming that not only had Jesus come back to life but he actually was the Messiah and the Son of God. The most extreme members of the Sanhedrin wanted to impose the death penalty on these followers of "The Way," and Paul, known as Saul, was passionately with them. When a group called the Freedmen managed to bring charges against Stephen, who was a leader in The Way, Paul watched with approval.
The success of Stephen's trial emboldened the disciples' enemies, and a persecution began that drove many believers from Jerusalem. Paul secured permission from the high priest to track them down and bring them back for trial. As far as he was concerned, this new "way" was both an offense against Judaism and a threat to his people's precarious position under Roman occupation.
But everything changed during one of Paul's manhunts. While he was on the way to Damascus, he was struck to the ground by a blinding light, and he heard a voice saying, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9:5). When he got up, Paul discovered that he was blind.
Through this dramatic experience, Paul became convinced that Jesus really was alive, just as his followers had said. He also came to believe that Jesus had called him to proclaim the resurrection to Jews and Gentiles alike. When Ananias, a disciple in Damascus, came and prayed with Paul, he was filled with the Holy Spirit. He regained his sight, and was baptized. From that moment on, he dedicated himself to serving the One whose followers he had previously sought to kill. He spent the next ten years or so working as a tent maker but also praying and studying the Hebrew Scriptures, asking God to help him understand who Jesus was and what his death and resurrection really meant.
Moving Out. One of the results stemming from the persecution after Stephen's death was that some followers of Jesus moved to the city of Antioch. It was here that these followers began to evangelize Gentiles as well as Jews. The apostles, hearing about this "mixed" church, sent Barnabas to help them out. After assessing the situation, Barnabas traveled to Tarsus to find Paul and bring him back to work with him. The two spent the next year building up the church in Antioch, rejoicing in the way these new believers were growing closer to the Lord and to each other.
Their time at Antioch would prove to be short-lived. Inspired by a prophetic word from the Holy Spirit and with the blessings of the leadership in Jerusalem, Barnabas and Paul set sail to spread the gospel. It was the beginning of Paul's life as a missionary, a life that would take him thousands of miles away from home and result in countless conversions.
This first journey included stops in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe—all cities either on the island of Cyprus or in what is now south-central Turkey—and the Holy Spirit was with them. How did these two evangelists find the people? Paul and Barnabas devised an effective strategy: They would go to the synagogue, where there was an opportunity to preach. But rather than discourse on familiar Old Testament themes, they talked about Jesus as the promised Messiah. They also were careful to reach out to the Gentiles among them, welcoming anyone who embraced their message.
As a result of their preaching, people began to band together to form small churches. In developing these new churches, Paul and Barnabas taught about prayer and holiness. They also established eucharistic celebrations, carrying on the traditions that Jesus' first followers had established. They also set up an organization with elders, ministries, and rules. In all of this, they became "master builders" of the church.
As exciting as it must have been to see the Lord working so powerfully, there was also a painful side. In many of these places, Paul and Barnabas experienced opposition, even acts of violence against them. But, they pressed on, returning to Antioch full of joy over how many people had turned to the Lord.
By Law? Or by the Spirit? Back in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas told the people about the great work of the Spirit and the glowing report about the Gentiles. But some Jewish believers from Jerusalem said that the salvation that all the Gentiles were enjoying had to include circumcision and the upholding of Jewish laws. Paul and Barnabas objected strongly, both out of a concern for the truth of the gospel and out of a concern for all the Gentiles they had brought to conversion in their travels.
A council was held in Jerusalem, and after much debate and discussion, it was decided that gentile Christians were not under obligation to obey the whole Torah because, as Peter put it, "We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they" (Acts 15:11). Paul and Barnabas had won the debate, and the door remained open for them to keep proclaiming salvation to the Gentiles.
While the issue was formally settled, it never fully went away. Old habits, traditions, and prejudices can die hard, and many Jews—both believers and nonbelievers in Christ—continued to oppose Paul's message. But the silver lining for us is that this ongoing controversy pushed Paul to become clearer and clearer about Jesus, the salvation he came to bring, and what life in the church should be like. And we are the beneficiaries of this clarity—every time we read and ponder his writings.
The Missions Continue. After the meeting in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas decided to go their separate ways, both continuing to preach the gospel. For his second journey, Paul took Silas with him, and later added Timothy and Luke. This trip, which lasted far longer and covered far more ground than the first one, included a monumental decision: Paul sensed the Spirit moving them out of Asia Minor and into the broader arena of Europe, beginning with Macedonia. This surprise of the Spirit meant new ground, new boundaries, and the potential for a much greater harvest. Despite all the religious, political, and cultural challenges this leading of the Spirit imposed, the fruit of this decision confirmed the Spirit's intention—that God wanted them to spread the gospel to the whole world, just as he calls us to do. Churches were founded in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, and Corinth.Whether it was accepting Barnabas' invitation to go to Antioch, sensing the Spirit calling them on their first missionary journey, or deciding to venture into Europe, one thing is clear: Paul was determined to follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit. He was convinced that it was possible to "live by the Spirit," and his life now stands as an example for all of us.
By A.D. 52, Paul started his third missionary journey. He left Antioch and moved to Ephesus, where he spent two years preaching, teaching, and establishing the church. From there, Paul went to Troas and on to Philippi, revisiting the churches he had established earlier. Paul divided his time between evangelizing, securing the young churches, and writing letters to other congregations (1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans). Finally, in the summer of A.D. 58, amid death threats and plots to kill him, Paul was arrested in Jerusalem.
The Good Fight. Paul spent the next few years defending himself and announcing Jesus as the Messiah before a number of Roman officials. Ultimately, he was sent to Rome, where he lived under house arrest for the next few years but with enough freedom to allow other people to visit him. Some historians believe that Paul was released from prison and went on another missionary journey, possibly to Spain. In any event, it is generally accepted that he was once more imprisoned and sent back to Rome, where he was beheaded around A.D. 68.
From the time of his conversion, Paul kept the faith, often in the face of intimidating odds. He was beaten, jailed, maligned, and plotted against—but he never lost his courage or turned away from his calling. He brought the gospel to Jews and Gentiles. He established an extensive network of brothers and sisters, trained them, formed them into leaders, and showed them how to grow in holiness and as a church family. His writings continue to help believers learn how to find Jesus and to give him glory and honor. In the end, Paul gave his very life for the sake of Christ and the church. Clearly, he fought the good fight. He won the race. Paul was one of a kind—a man set apart for God in every way.