The Life of Paul
"The Called Apostle"

NOTES from "The New Compact Bible Dictionary" [1]

PAUL (little) the great apostle to the Gentiles. [1]

The main Biblical source for the life of Paul is The Acts of the Apostles, with impor­tant supplemental information from the Pauline Epistles. Allusions in the epistles make it clear that many events in his checkered and stirring career are unrecorded (cp. 2 Corinthians 11:24-28).

His Hebrew name was Saul and he is always so designated in Acts until his clash with Bar-Jesus at Paphos, where Luke writes,” But Saul who is also called Paul”(13:9). Thereafter in Acts he is always called Paul. As a Roman citizen he doubtless bore both names from youth. His double name is implied in Luke's statement, “Saul, the one also Paul.”

Three elements of the world's life of that day, Greek culture, Roman citizenship, and Hebrew religion met in the apos­tle to the Gentiles. Paul was born near the beginning of the first century in the busy Greco-Roman city of Tarsus, located at the North East corner of the Mediterranean Sea. Proud of the distinction and advan­tage conferred on him, by his Roman citizenship, Paul knew how to use that citizenship as a shield against injustice from local magistrates and to enhance the status of the Christian faith. His Gentile conne­ctions greatly aided him in bridging the chasm between the Gentile and the Jew.  Of central significance was his strong Jewish heritage, being fundamental to all he was and became. He was never ashamed to acknowledge himself a Jew (Acts 21:39; 22:3), was justly proud of his Jewish background (2 Corinthians 11:22), and retained a deep and abiding love for his brethren according to the flesh (Romans 9:1-2; 10:1). Becoming a Christian meant no conscious departure on his part from the religious hopes of his people as embodied in the Old Testament scriptures (Acts 24:14-16; 26:6-7). This racial affinity with the Jews enabled Paul with great profit to begin his missionary labors in each city in the synagogue, for there he had the best prepared audience.

Born of purest Jewish blood (Philippians 3:5), the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6), Saul was cradled in orthodox Judaism. At the proper age, perhaps 13, he was sent to Jerusalem and completed his studies under the famous Gamaliel (Acts 22:3; 26:4-5).

At his first appearance in Acts as “a young man” (7:8), probably at least 30 years old, he was already an acknowledged leader in Judaism. His active opposition to Christianity marked him as the natural leader of the persecution that arose upon the death of Stephen (7:58-8:3; 9:1-2). The persecutions described in 26:10-11 indicate his fanatical devotion to Judaism. He was convinced that Christians were heretics and that the honor of Jehovah demanded their extermination (26:9). He acted in un-doubting unbelief (1 Timothy 1:13). The spread of Christians to foreign cities only increased his fury against them, causing him to extend the scope of his activities. As the persecutor, armed with authority from the high priest, was approaching Damascus, the transforming crisis in his life occurred. Repeatedly in his ep­istles Paul refers to it as the work of divine grace and power, tran­sforming him and commissioning him as Christ's messenger 1 Corinthians 9:16-17; 15:10; Galatians 1:15-16; Ephesians 3:7-9; 1 Timothy 1:12-16). The three accounts in Acts of the conversion are controlled by the immediate purpose of the narrator and supplement they each other. Luke's own account (Chap. 9) is his­torical, relating the event objectively, while the two accounts by Paul (Chap. 22, 26) stress those aspects appropriate to his immediate endeavor.

When the supernatural being arresting him identified Himself as “Jesus whom thou persecuted,” Saul at once saw the error of his way and surrendered instantaneously and completely. The three days of fasting in blindness were days of agonizing heart searching and further dealing with the Lord. The ministry of Ananias of Damascus consummated the conversion experience, unfolded to Saul the divine commission, and opened the door to Christian fellowship at Damascus. Later in reviewing his former life Paul clearly recognized how God had been preparing him for his future work (Galatians 1:15-16).

The new convert at once proclaimed the deity and Messiahship of Jesus in the Jewish synagogues of Damascus, truths that had seized his soul (9:20-22). Since the purpose of his coming was no secret, this action caused consternation among the Jews. Paul's visit to Arabia, mentioned in Galatians 1:17, seems best placed between Acts 9:22 and 23. There is no hint that its purpose was ‘to preach’ rather it seems that he felt it necessary to retire to rethink his beliefs in the light of the new revelation that had come to him. The length of the stay is not certain, but Paul came out of Arabia with the essentials of his theology fixed.

Upon returning to Damascus, his aggressive preaching forced him to flee the murderous fury of the Jews (Acts 9:23-25; Galatians 1:17; 2 Corinthians 11:32-33). Three years after his conversion Saul returned to Jerusalem with the intention of becoming acquainted with Peter (Galatians 1:18). The Jerusalem believers regarded him with cold suspicion, but the good offices of Barnabas secured his acceptance among them (Acts 9:26-28). His bold witness to the Hellenistic Jews aroused bitter hostility and cut the visit to 15 days (Galatians 1:18). Instructed by the Lord in a vision to leave (Acts 22:1-21), he agreed to be sent home to Tarsus (Acts 9:30), where he remained in obscurity for some years. Galatians 1:21:21-23 implies that he did some evangelistic work there, but we have no further details. Some think that many of the events of 2 Corinthians 11:24-26 must be placed there.

The work of Gentile foreign missions was inaugurated by the church at Antioch under the direction of the Holy Spirit in the sending forth of “Barnabas and Saul” (13:1-3).

The First Missionary Journey began apparently in the spring of A.D. 48, with work among the Jews on Cyprus. Efforts at Paphos to gain the attention of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, encountered the determined opposition of the sorcerer Elymas. Saul publicly exposed his diabolical character and the swift judgment that fell upon Elymas caused the amazed proconsul to “believe” (13:4-12). It was a signal victory of the Gospel.

After the events at Paphos Saul, henceforth called Paul in Acts, emerged as the recognized leader of the missionary party. Steps to carry the Gospel to untrodden regions were taken when the party sailed to Perga in Pamphylia on the southern shores of Asia Minor. Here their attendant John Mark, cousin of Barnabas (Col 4:10), deserted them and returned to Jerusalem, an act which Paul regarded unjustified. Arriving at Pisidian Antioch, located in the province of Galatia, the missionaries found a ready opening in the Jewish synagogue. Jewish-inspired opposition forced the missionaries to depart for Iconium, South East of Antioch, where the results were duplicated and a flourishing church begun. Compelled to flee a threatened stoning at Iconium, the missionaries began work at Lystra, which was apparently without a syn­agogue. The healing of a congenital cripple caused a pagan attempt to offer sacrifices to the missionaries as gods in human form. Paul's horrified protest (14:15-17), arresting the attempt, reveals his deal­ings with pagans who did not have the Old Testament revelation. Timothy appar­ently was converted at this time. Fanatical agitators from Antioch and Iconium turned the disillusioned pagans against the missionaries and in the uproar Paul was stoned. Dragged out of the city the unconscious apostle was left for dead, (may have been actually been dead, cp.  2 Corinthians 12:2), as the disciples stood around him he regained consciousness, reentered the city, and the next day was able to make the trip to neighboring Derbe. After a fruitful and unmolested ministry there, the missionaries retraced their steps to instruct their converts and organize them into churches with responsible leaders (14:1-25). They returned to Syrian Antioch and reported how “God had opened a door of faith unto the Gentiles” (14:23). The summary of Paul's philosophy of Gentile missions could be said to be “salvation solely through faith in Christ.”

For the second missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas separ­ated because of their “sharp contention” concerning John Mark. Barnabas sailed to Cyprus with Mark, while Paul chose Silas and revisited the churches in Galatia (15:36-41). At Lystra Paul added young Timothy to the missionary party, having circumcised him to remove obstacles for work among the Jews. Leaving Luke at Philippi, the missionaries next began an expository ministry in the synagogue at Thessalonica. With the synagogue soon closed to him, Paul apparently carried on a successful Gentile ministry there. A Jewish-instigated riot forced the missionaries to flee to Berea, where a fruitful ministry resulted among the “noble” Bereans. Later, in Athens, Paul preached in the synagogue and daily in the market. His appearing on “Mars’ Hill” was not a formal trial. His memorable speech before the pagan phi1osopher (17:22-31)is a masterpiece of tact, insight, and condensation. The work at Corinth, a city of commerce, wealth, squalor and gross immorality, proved to be a definite success, lasting 18 months (18:1-17). After finding employment at his tent-making trade with Aquila and Priscilla, recently expelled from Rome, Paul preached in the Corinthian synagogue.

From Corinth Paul took Aquila and Priscilla with him as far as Ephesus, intending upon his return to continue the profitable partnership with them there. Refusing an invitation: for further ministry in the Ephesian synagogue, Paul hurried to Judea. He apparently visited Jerusalem and then spent some time at Antioch (18:18-22).

Paul's departure from Antioch traditionally marks the beginning of the third missionary journey. It is convenient to retain the traditional designation, but it should be remembered that with the second journey Antioch ceased to be the center for Paul's activities.

Having strengthened the disciples in “the region of Galatia and Phrygia,” Paul commenced a fruitful ministry at Ephesus, lasting nearly three years (19:1-41; 20:31). While at Ephesus Paul inaugurated a financial collection among his Gentile churches for the saints in Judea (1 Corinthians 16:1-4). Since its delivery was to mark the close of his work in the East (19:21), intending from there to go to Spain (Romans 15:22-29). First he took the collection to Jerusalem.

Although cordially received at Jerusalem by James and the el­ders, Paul’s presence created tension in the church because of reports that he taught Jews of the dispersion to forsake Moses. To neutralize these reports they suggested to Paul a plan to prove that he had no aver­sion to a voluntary keeping of the law. Always anxious to avoid offen­se, Paul agreed to their proposal. The act of reconciliation apparently satisfied the Judean believers but was the cause of Paul's arrest. Certain Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, created a tumult by falsely charging him with defiling the temple. Rescued from death at the hands of the Jewish mob by the Roman commander and some sol­diers, Paul proved his love for the Jews by securing permission to address them from the castle steps. They gave silent attention until he mentioned his commission to the Gentiles, when the riot broke out anew. A scourging, ordered to force information out of him, was avoi­ded by Paul’s mention of his roman citizenship. Efforts by the Roman commander the neat day to gain further information about Paul before the Sanhedrin proved futile. That night the Lord appeared to the discour­aged apostle, commended his efforts at witnessing, and assured him that he would go to Rome. Informed of a plot to murder Paul, the Roman commander sent Paul to Caesarea under a large protective guard (23:17 - 23:35). He appeared before Felix at Caesarea which made it clear that the charges against him were spurious but, unwilling to antagonize the Jews, Felix simply postponed a decision. Asked to expound the Christian faith before Felix and his Jewish wife, Drusilla, Paul courageously probed their consciences by preaching “of righteousness, and self control, and the judgment to come” (24:1-27).

With the coming of the new governor, Festus, the Jewish leaders renewed their efforts to secure Paul’s condemnation. When it became clear to Paul that he could not expect justice from the new governor, he used his right as a Roman citizen and appealed his case to Caesar, thereby removing it from the jurisdiction of the lower courts (25:1-12). When Herod Agrippa II, and his sister Bernice, came to visit the new governor, Festus, perplexed about Paul's case, presented the matter to Agrippa, an acknowledged expert in Jewish affairs. The next day before his royal audience Paul delivered a masterly exposition of his position and used the occasion to seek to win Agrippa to Christ. Uncomfortable under Paul's efforts, Agrippa terminated the meeting, but frankly declared Paul's innocence to the governor (25:13-26:32).

Paul was sent to Rome, perhaps in the autumn of A.D. 60, under the escort of a centurion named Julius. Luke and Aristarchus accompanied him. Luke’s detailed account of the voyage has the minuteness, picturesqueness, and accuracy of an alert eye-witness. Adverse weather delayed the program of the ship. At Myra they transferred to an Alexandrian grain ship bound for Italy. Futile efforts to reach commodious winter quarters at Pheoniz caused the ship to be caught in a typhonic storm for 14 days, ending in total wreck on the island of Malta. After three months on Malta, the Journey to Rome was completed in another Alexandrian grain ship. Paul's treatment in Rome was lenient; he lived in his own hired house with a soldier guarding him. Permitted to receive all who came, he was able to exercise an important ministry in Rome. The “Prison Epistles,” Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, and Philippians, are abiding fruit of this period which afforded him opportunity to meditate and to write.

Acts leaves the question of Paul's release unanswered, but there is strong evidence for believing that he was released at the end of two years. After his release, perhaps in the spring of A.D. 65, Paul went east, visited Ephesus, stationing Timothy there when he left for Macedonia (1 Timothy 1:3). He left Titus to complete missionary work on Crete, and in writing to him mentions plans to spend the winter at Nicopolis (1:5, 3:12). From Nicopolis he may have made the traditional visit to Spain, wording there at the outbreak of the Neronian persecution in autumn of A.D.64.  2 Timothy makes it clear that Paul is again a prisoner in Rome, kept in close confinement as a malefactor (1:16-17, 6, 7, 8). He was executed at Rome in late A.D. 66 or early 67.

Physically, Paul did not present an imposing appearance, as is evident from 2 Corinthians 10:10. Tradition pictures him as being small of stature, having a decidedly Jewish Physiognomy. That he possessed a rugged physical constitution seems plain from all the hardships and sufferings he underwent (2 Corinthians 11:23-27) as well as his ability, amid his spiritual anxieties, to earn his din living through manual labor. He endured more than most men could endure, yet he keenly felt his bodily frailty. Especially he was afflicted by “a thorn (or stake) in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7) The exact nature of the affliction can only be conjectured; attempts at identification have varied widely. Whatever its precise nature, his feelings of weakness made him constantly dependant upon divine empowerment (2 Chronicles 12:10; Philippians 4:12-13).


The New Compact Bible Dictionary
Edited by T. Alton Bryant
Special, Crusade Edition
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Box 779, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 55440

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2023-09-04 update