Who exactly was the Apostle Paul? What was his background and what was he before he became an apostle at God’s calling? Was he the greatest evangelist and missionary ever?
The Apostle Paul
If Paul wasn’t the greatest Christian missionary ever, then I don’t know who was. He was certainly the most effective and planted more churches than all the other apostles combined. He wrote well over half of the New Testament and was one of the most brilliant minds of his, and perhaps, any age. Paul was born and raised a Jew in Tarsus around A.D. 10 and was old enough to have witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Paul also claimed to be a Roman citizen (Acts 21:28, 39). This must have meant that he had inherited his father’s citizenship and must have done at least some meritorious service for the Roman Empire. What that might have been is a mystery. Although he was a Roman citizen, he was born of Hebrew stock and of the tribe of Benjamin (Phil 3:5). This meant that as early as age six, Paul would have attended school in the synagogue where he would have been drilled in the Scriptures and learned Hebrew. His was educated in Jerusalem and learned “at the feet” of his teacher (Acts 22:3), Rabban Gamaliel who is believed to be one of the most brilliant of all teachers at that time. This could mean that Paul was a Rabbi which would explain why he was a member of the Pharisee’s at one time (Phil 3:5-6). Unlike the Sadducees who didn’t believe in the resurrection, angels or miracles, the Pharisees believed in all of these and soon enough, Paul would see all three of these with his own eyes.
The Bi-Vocational Paul
Paul worked as a tentmaker and as such, worked with leather (Acts 18:3). This would have been considered unclean by most Jews as they thought that touching anything that was dead made them unclean, however this was Paul’s primary means of support, even after his calling (1 Thess 2:9; 1 Cor 9:6). Even though he could have enforced his authority as an apostle after he was converted to insist he be paid, he decided to continue to work so as not to imply that he was only preaching the gospel for money as some has falsely accused him of doing.
Saul the Destroyer
Before Paul was converted on the Damascus Road, his name was Saul. The name Saul means “destroyer” and this name certainly fit his occupation of trying to destroy the church. Paul was constantly throwing believers into prison and bringing about their death. He was zealous over Judaism and was bent on destroying the Christian church. He went to the uttermost parts of the Roman Empire and took his persecution “even to foreign cities” and said “Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities” (Acts 26:11) and “was…breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1) and had “even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished” (Acts 22:5) so if anyone was ever going to resist becoming a Christian, it would seem that he would be the last person to ever do so. After Saul’s conversion, and his name would be changed to Paul, he openly confessed that he “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (Gal 1:13). This gives those of us hope who witness for Christ to those who we think it’s impossible to ever turn to Christ, however if we understand that salvation is fully a work of the Lord, there is nothing impossible for the God of the possible.
Saul Becomes Paul
It would take a miracle to convert Saul, but that’s exactly what happened“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:3-6). It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t say that Saul was persecuting the church but that He was actually persecuting Jesus Christ because when we are persecuted, it is for His sake, therefore when people reject us, ridicule us, scorn us, and persecute us, they are really doing this to Jesus Christ. Paul would later receive the Holy Spirit and become, some Bible scholars claim, the most powerful apostle of all and certainly the greatest evangelist and church planter.
The Apostle Paul
Saul, which name means destroyer, would now be called Paul, which is of Latin origin and means “small” or “humble” and is from the Roman family name “Paulus.” Remember how zealous Paul was for the Jewish Sanhedrin? He now turns this zeal toward the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He risks life and limb to proclaim and gospel to all of the Roman Empire and some claim that he went so far as England and Spain. Paul evangelized all that would listen fearlessly and tirelessly. This man of God suffered like no one else in the Christian world, and only to Christ can he claim to have endured more as we read in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” Who of us have had to endure such suffering for the sake of Jesus Christ’s glory? None I would venture to say.
The Apostle Paul is believed to have been one of the most brilliant men of that age, if not in the present age as well. He spoke Hebrew, Greek, probably Latin, and certainly Aramaic (Acts 22:2). He was well versed in the Scriptures, he was bold as a lion in witnessing for Christ, he was a suffering servant enduring severe trials, and there were fewer men of God even among the apostles that were more zealous for Jesus Christ and His church than Paul was. Paul has gone down in history as one of the greatest evangelists of all time and for those who have repented and trusted in Christ, they will meet this man someday and finally ask him, what was his infirmity that God allowed to keep him humble? Was it gout, the Jews, or macular degeneration (a severe, age-related eye condition where vision begins to disappear)? We have Paul to thank for the bulk of the New Testament and personally, I eagerly await meeting him in person to hear what he went through for the Lord’s glory. The Apostle Paul was truly a godly man and a man that God mightily used for Jesus’ glory. Isn’t that what you desire to do as well…be a vessel for the glory of God?
Another Reading on Patheos to Check Out: What Did Jesus Really Look Like: A Look at the Bible Facts
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is also the Senior Writer at What Christians Want To Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Blind Chance or Intelligent Design available on Amazon