Mini-bio : Saint Paul.
Jewish-Christian evangelist who carried the message of redemption and salvation to the non-Jewish world following Christ’s death
Ancient - Roman Empire
Why it’s important for you to know him
His tireless work spreading the Gospel was foundational to early Christianity taking root in the Roman Empire and laying the groundwork for the church as it exists today.
I. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best and brightest.
The Romans were awesome at stealing. They’re known for stealing land and gold and stuff from all over the world because of their mighty armies, but the best stuff they really stole were ideas, and a lot of their ideas were ones they stole from the Greeks. In fact, the Greeks got stolen from so much that there’s a word we use for countries and cultures that were massively influenced by them: Hellenic.
Typewriters and Guttenberg hadn’t been invented or born yet, respectively, so there’s things we know and things we don’t know about Paul. Here’s some things we do know:
We know that he was born as a Roman citizen and educated as a Jew.
We know that he wanted to become a sailor, but dad wanted him to be a rabbi, so therefore he was educated and raised with an appreciation of Hellenic culture and thought (see above).
And we know that he was influenced by Rome and its universal impact on the world.
II. Jews v. Christians
The new-fangled Christians believed that Mosaic law (Mosaic = Moses) had been done away through Christ’s life and teachings. This made the Pharisees super mad. They didn’t like their customs and rituals and beliefs getting messed with.
At first it wasn’t a big deal to Paul. He looked at John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth as just another couple of religious troublemakers whose influence would go away after their deaths. He had no sympathy for anyone or anything that seemed contrary to the Law.
Like many others, he was mistaken. The message of Jesus did not fade after his execution. His followers, called Christians, were gathering in secret to study and worship.
It made Paul even more mad. Super, super mad. He was so mad, that instead of throwing rocks at the first Christian martyr, Stephen, he went one step worse and didn’t throw anything, but instead, held and guarded the coats of the fellows who were doing the target practice: *Spoiler alert: Stephen dies. That’s what happens when someone throws a rock at your head, unless your Ellen White (see: Adventist, Seventh-day (not LDS)).
He did such an enthusiastic job of holding coats for the rock throwers that he was hired to hunt down and punish Christians outside Jerusalem. He was a super good organizer and ruthless at searching out the scattered followers, so he was a great choice. He successfully persecuted them in Jerusalem, then Samaria, and then got the call for Damascus, where the Christian movement was growing rapidly. He headed off to do his thing. This was quite an honor. Like Dog the Bounty Hunter, only...different.
III. The Transitioning
The Book of Acts tells us what happens next. Apparently there was a light shining down and a voice asking why Paul was persecuting the Christians. Turns out it was Jesus speaking to him, and just to keep his attention, he left Paul blind for a bit. He bumbled his way into Damascus and waited for further instructions.
If you’ve ever watched a good movie about a kidnapping, then you know that it’s important to either A) wait for instructions or B) not wait for instructions and do something completely different.
In this case, Paul followed instructions, part of which involved waiting at a house in total darkness for three days. When he finally got his sight back, he was very moved and his heart was changed and he asked to be baptized.
Nobody really believed him. The Christians didn’t believe him because they knew he had originally been sent to kill them. The Jews didn’t want to believe him because...well, because he just flipped sides. Now that he flipped on them, they were after him, and he was narrowly able to escape from Damascus via his friends lowering a basket from the city walls (with him in it). It is evident from this point onward that he has an adventurous spirit.
IV. Back in Jerusalem.
So he comes back to Jerusalem. And who believes his transformation there? No one. Except one. A fellow with the awesome name of Barnabas. Barnabas believes him and helps convince the rest of the Christian community.
V. Why Paul was so cool.
Paul never really quit being a Jew. He kept his Jewishness and his array of knowledge from learning Greek and Roman ideas. For example, he used Greek logic and reason to articulate the Gospel. He used Roman universalism to convey the Gospel all around the world, in a similar manner to Rome. Except that Rome was better at sharing their spears than a message of redemption and grace.
So Paul traveled all over the world. Greece, Mediterranean islands, Syria, Palestine, Macedonia,Asia Minor, and probably other secret places we don’t even know about. And everywhere he went, he started churches and preached the message:
“This Jesus I’m telling you about is the Messiah!”
For thirty years he did this, and still found time to write a bunch of letters and books.
VI. Universal Soldier.
Paul saw the Gospel and Christ’s message as being important for all humankind, not just the Jews. This continued to get him into trouble, as it ran counter to things such as Jewish dietary laws and circumcision. Paul basically raised the notion that you don’t have to follow those laws in order to be saved. Peter, head of the Apostles and chief decision-maker on those matters, ended up agreeing with him, and thus it was official and laid the groundwork for future Christianity.
VII. If at first you don’t succeed, try the next street over.
Paul’s modus operandi in a new place was to start with the Jews. But they usually weren’t overly excited to listen to his message. In fact, they tended to do passive-aggressive things like drive him out of their synagogues by yelling super mean things and making sure he knew he wasn’t wanted. So that left him the Gentiles (usually Greeks and Romans), who were generally more receptive and excited to hear him preach.
He did this repeatedly throughout the (known) world. At last, it was time to return to Jerusalem.
VIII. Welcome home, Odysseus.
Jerusalem was not a friendly place for Paul. He had been warned to not go back, because of the intense anti-Christian zealotry. But Paul was good at not listening when he wanted, so he went. Sure enough, he got himself arrested.
He was about to be whipped when he used his ingenious Greek reasoning to remind the arresting centurion that since he was a Roman citizen, he couldn’t be whipped. This seems to me a good fact to remember at this time. Fortunately, the Roman centurion was aware of this fine point of the law, and decided to skip the scourging. He locked him up in prison while awaiting Paul’s appeal to be returned to Rome to face Caesar, which was his prerogative to demand, being a Roman citizen.
For two years he hung out in prison, preaching and teaching and practicing patience. Finally, Caesar granted his appeal, he was freed, and he hopped back on the road and continued starting up churches all over the place and converting Gentiles left and right.
IX. The Final Countdown.
Warning: this is anticlimactic. We don’t know what happened to him. Second Timothy alludes to his being in chains like a common criminal. He probably died at the hands of the Romans, most likely at the mercurial whim of the horrid Emperor Nero, who was not nice.
Paul’s writings to various churches are known as the Epistles and are considered to be some of the finest letters ever written. He wrote beautifully in the Greek language of the time and conveyed ideas that were both emotional and intellectually powerful. These writings had a strong influence on the beginnings of the universal Christian church and are still studied and analyzed today.
Just as he doggedly persecuted Christians early on, he doggedly spread the Gospel later on for three decades. He didn’t quit in discouragement over the slowness that people sometimes had in listening and adopting the message. He kept on going and ingrained the idea that all were part of a brotherhood and sisterhood that was to fill the earth. He used his strong organizational and writing skills to not simply start churches, but to encourage and keep them going through their early days when they were most prone to discouragement, failure, and losing faith. Although he lost his life in the end, violently, his tireless work was instrumental to building the foundations of Christianity as we know it today.