Saul to Paul to Apostle (Fr. Varghese Paul, SJ)

I feel that Paul is a formidable character in the Bible that it is difficult to do justice to his profile in a short essay! I have read and studied much about Paul. I even wrote in Gujarati a long introduction to a book on Paul. Still I have been postponing time and again to write this character sketch of Paul.

In fact, I wanted to write a profile of Paul when I got the news in June 2008 that Pope Benedict XV was inaugurating a special year to honour the life and works of Paul. The Pauline Year from June 29, 2008 to June 29, 2009 is dedicated to celebrate the 2000th birth anniversary of the great Apostle of the Gentiles.

Paul acknowledges that he is a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cicilia (Acts 22,3). Paul with the original name Saul was born around 10 AD in Tarsus, in south-central Turkey. The Acts of the Apostles refers to Saul as a man from Tarsus in two other places (Acts 9, 11 & 11, 25). Paul was born a Roman citizen in an orthodox Jewish family. So Paul says in the Acts that he is Roman citizen by birth (Acts 22, 28). Defending himself against his fellow Israelite-accusers Paul says, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up here in Jerusalem as a student of Gamaliel. I received strict instruction in the Law of our ancestors and was just as dedicated to God as are all of you who are here today” (Acts 22, 3).

We know that Saul was a staunch Pharisee who passionately persecuted the followers of the Way – as Jesus’ disciples were known in the beginning. Acts tells us that Saul was there in Jerusalem approving the murder of Stephen, the proto-martyr (Acts 8,1).

From being a persecutor and hunter of the followers of the Way, Saul became Paul, the greatest defender and promoter of the Way. Paul’s transformation was very dramatic. On his way from Jerusalem to Damascus with letters of authority to arrest and bring back to Jerusalem the followers of the Way, Saul encountered Jesus Christ who told him, “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you persecutes” (Acts 22, 8). Paul has narrated the event of his conversional experiences to three different audiences as recorded in the Acts. (Acts 9, 1-1; 22, 6-16; & 26, 12-18).

From being a fanatic hater of Jesus, Paul became not only a passionate lover but also the greatest missionary for Christ; so much so, Paul is able to identify himself as an apostle. Speaking about Resurrection of Christ, Paul writes, “Last of all he appeared also to me – even though I am like someone whose birth was abnormal. For, I am the least of all the apostles – I do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted God’s Church” (Acts 15, 8-9). No wonder that Paul is often called the 13th apostle.

Reading the books of the Acts and Paul’s letters we cannot fail but to note his immense love for the person of Jesus. Paul says, “I reckon everything as complete loss for the sake of what is so much more valuable, the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have thrown everything away; I consider it all as more refuse so that I may gain Christ” (Phil 3, 8).

Then, Paul identified himself totally with Christ that he says, “I have been put to death with Christ on his Cross, so that it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. This life that I live now, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave his life for me” (Gal 2, 19-20).

In his letter to the Romans we read about Paul’s passionate love for Christ. Paul asks, “Who then, can separate us from the love of Christ?” Then Paul lists various forces and concludes, “I am certain that nothing can separate us from his love.” (see Rom 8, 35-39).

Paul’s love of Jesus was nourished by his prayer. In fact at Paul’s conversion Luke introduces him in the Acts as a man of prayer. A Christian in Damascus is instructed by the Lord to “Get ready and go to Straight Street and at the house of Judas ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying” (Acts 9, 11)

Ananias has heard about Saul, “and about all the terrible things he has done” to the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and he knew that Saul “has come to Damascus with authority from the chief priests to arrest all” the followers of Jesus (Acts 9, 13-14).

But the Lord overruled Ananias’ objections to Saul and revealing his plan for Paul told him to go. “Go, because I have chosen him to serve me, to make my name known to Gentiles and kings and to the people of Israel. And I myself will show him all that he must suffer for my sake” (Acts 9, 15-16). After Saul’s conversion and baptism Luke tells that he started preaching Christ in the Synagogues in Damascus. (Acts 9. 19).

But it is not likely as Paul himself tells us in his letter to Galatians that after his baptism, “I did not go to anyone for advice…returned to Damascus” (Gal.1, 16-17). Paul also tells us in his second letter to Corinthians about his visions, dreams, ecstasies and revelations given to him (2 Cor. 12, 1-10). But the news have spread far and wide about Paul’s conversion and his complete turn around from being a persecutor of Christians to a preacher of Christ and the defender of the Way.

The persecution of the followers of the Way after Stephen’s death (martyrdom) forced many followers to leave Jerusalem. Some followers went to Antioch and started preaching Christ not only to the Jews there but also to the Gentiles (non-Jews). When this news of Gentiles being evangelized reached Jerusalem, the apostles there sent Barnabas to help them.

Getting hold of the situation at Antioch Barnabas travelled to Tarsus in search of Paul and brought him to Antioch. Luke writes, “Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul. When he found him, he took him to Antioch, and for a whole year the two met with the people of the Church and taught a large group. It was at Antioch that the believers were first called Christians” (Acts 11, 25-26). Antioch was the capital of Syria and the third important city in the world after Rome and Alexandria. Antioch was destined to become the headquarters of Paul’s missionary journeys.

The stay of Paul and Barnabas at Antioch was rather short. While some prophets and teachers were fasting and praying at Antioch, “the Holy Spirit said to them, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul to do the work to which I have called them’. They fasted and prayed, placed their hands on them, and sent them off” (Acts 13, 2-3).

Thus began Paul’s missionary journeys. Luke continues to write in the Acts, “Having been sent by the Holy Spirit, Barnabas and Saul went to Seleucia and sailed from there to the island of Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they preached the word of God in the synagogues. They had John Mark with them to help in the work” (Acts 13, 4-5).

In their first journey Paul and Barnabas halted at Iconium, Lystra and Derbe – all cities of Cyprus – today’s south-central Turkey. The two evangelists devised a method. They would go to synagogues where there was opportunity to preach. But instead of reading and expanding from the Jewish Scripture they would talk to the Jews about Jesus as the promised Messiah. They also were keen on reaching out to the Gentiles who also welcomed Jesus and embraced his message.

They did more as part of their evangelical mission. At every place they appointed elders and teachers of the new Way so new Christian communities came up with elders and teachers with specific ministries and rules.

The Spirit of the Lord was with them working miracles through them. The Christian communities grew in many places. But they also experienced opposition and even outright acts of violence and persecutions. But undaunted by the opposition and persecutions Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch with glowing report of the success that many people including the Gentiles have accepted to follow Jesus and become his disciples.

In the midst of success Paul and Barnabas experienced painful opposition. Some Jewish Christians came from Jerusalem and said that the salvation through Christ included circumcision of the Gentiles – the non-Jewish Christians. The strong opposition of Paul and Barnabas to circumcision of the Gentile Christians led the apostles and other Christian leaders to hold a Council – the first Council in Jerusalem.

In the Council as a conclusion Peter said to the whole assembly, “We believe and are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus just as they are” (Acts 15,11). The stand of Paul and Barnabas was vindicated. But the tradition and prejudices do not die easily. Some Jewish Christians persisted on their stand that the Gentile Christians should be circumcised. This opposition challenged Paul to expand his position on salvation. Through preaching and writing Paul proclaimed that salvation is only through Jesus Christ. In his letter to Galatians, Paul writes, “We know that a person is put right with God only through faith in Jesus Christ never by doing what the Law requires” (Gal. 2, 16).

We know that after the Council Meeting in Jerusalem Paul and Barnabas decided to go each on separate ways. So for his second missionary journey Paul took Silas with him. Later Paul took two other co-workers - Timothy and Luke - with him.

Paul’s second missionary journey from AD 49 to 52 was longer than the first one from AD 46 to 48. The second journey covered more ground as Paul inspired by the Holy Spirit reached out beyond Asia Minor to Europe. Christian communities were established in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea and Corinth.

Paul’s third missionary journey started from Antioch in AD 53 lasted four years until he reached back Jerusalem in AD 57. From Antioch Paul moved to Ephesus where he spent 2 years by preaching, teaching and establishing the Church there. From Ephesus Paul proceeded to Troas and then to Philippi. Then Paul proceeded to Berea and to Corinth.

In his missionary journeys Paul spent time to evangelize and to found new Christian communities or strengthening already established communities. He also found time to write letters to the communities for strengthening them in faith or solving the problems like eating meat offered idols, division and quarrels among believers, etc. He always proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah. Paul preached everywhere that in Jesus God has revealed his grace for the salvation of all humanity (see Titus 2, 11). Paul’s letters and his preaching had the strength of his own deep faith, his patience, his love as well as his suffering and endurance in persecution.

Paul’s last stay in Jerusalem during AD 58–59 must have been most trying period for him with intimidation and plots to kill him and finally arrest. But Paul continued in his mission proclaiming Christ in season and out of season. Paul was arrested in AD 59. After keeping him a consider able time in prison Paul was sent to Rome in AD 60. In Rome Paul was put under house arrest with freedom to meet people. So in prison too Paul continued his mission of preaching and writing letters to Churches and individuals.

Some historians believe that Paul was released from the prison in Rome and he went on a missionary journey probably to Spain. In any event it is believed that Paul was arrested again and sent to Rome where he was beheaded around AD 65.

In his life Paul was severely tested. Paul has recalled in the 2nd letter to Corinthians the sufferings which he has endured in the pursuit of his mission. “I have been in prison more times, I have been whipped much more, and I have been near death more often. Five times I was given the thirty-nine lashes by the Jews; three times I was whipped by the Romans; and once I was stoned. I have been in three shipwrecks, and once I spent twenty-four hours in the water. In my many travels I have been danger from fellow-Jews and from Gentiles; there have been dangers in the cities, dangers in the wilds, dangers on the high seas, and dangers from false friends. There has been work and toil; often I have gone without sleep; I have been hungry and thirsty; I have often been without enough food, shelter, or clothing.” (2 Cor. 11, 23-27).

But from his conversion at Damascus till his martyrdom in Rome Paul remained firm in his faith that he could write to his disciple Timothy from his last days in Roman prison that, “As for me, the hour has come to be sacrificed; the time is here for me to leave this life. I have done my best in the race, I have run the full distance, and I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4, 6-7).

Paul’s writings which form an important part of the New Testament continue to help the believers to be trained and formed as disciples of Jesus in the Church.

If a legend be true, then Paul was beheaded at Tre Fontane on the Appian way in Rome and he died triumphantly for the Lord. Today a magnificent Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls stands at the place of his martyrdom. Truly for Paul life is Christ and death a gain (see Phil. 1, 21). (contact the author: यह ईमेल पता spambots से संरक्षित किया जा रहा है. आप जावास्क्रिप्ट यह देखने के सक्षम होना चाहिए. )

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