Outstanding in carrying the faith into the non-Jewish, and especially the Hellenistic world was a Jew whose conversion is closely associated with the death of Stephen. This was Saul, or, to use the name by which he is best remembered, Paul. We know more about Paul than we do of any other Christian of the first century. Not only does The Acts of the Apostles make him and his mission its main theme, but we also have, most fortunately, a number of his letters, which give us intimate pictures of him. Yet, much as Paul tells us about himself, and much as Luke adds, there are great gaps in our information, both about what he did, and, still more tantalizingly, in our insight into his inner life.
It is clear that Paul was of pure Jewish stock, that his father had that highly prized privilege, Roman citizenship, that the son was born and reared at Tarsus, a Hellenistic city in what we now call Asia Minor, a stronghold of Greek learning. However, far from conforming to the Greek pattern, Paul had been carefully nurtured in Phariseeism. While probably not highly educated in Greek philosophy and literature, he was thoroughly at home in the Greek language, did not use it crudely, and was steeped in the Septuagint, the famous Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures. He also knew Aramaic and his training in Phariseeism made him think naturally in the methods of interpreting the sacred books which were current in that school of thought. Ardent by disposition, the young Paul may have been all the more loyal and dogmatic in the strict adherence to the Jewish law and customs entailed by his Phariseeism because of his consciousness of the paganism which was all about him in Tarsus. As a youth he went to Jerusalem, the citadel of his religion, to study at the feet of Gamaliel, one of the outstanding teachers in Pharisaic circles. Here he came in touch with the followers of Jesus and joined in persecuting them. He stood by when Stephen was stoned and was sent to Damascus with letters from the high priest to the synagogues in that city with instructions to have arrested and brought to Jerusalem for trial those who were adherents of the Nazarene heresy.
While on his way to Damascus, Just as he was nearing that city, Paul was smitten by a vision, which changed his life. He believed that the risen Jesus appeared to him and spoke with him, and was convinced that the experience was as authentic as those, which had earlier come to Peter, James, and the others.
Into the inner history of the processes which led to this climax we can enter only through conjecture. Yet it is fascinating to make the attempt. We know from his letters that Paul was intense, sensitive, lacking in humour, given to moments of deep depression and of high, quivering exaltation, unquestioning in his belief in God and in the validity of the Jewish law. We also are aware that, by what seems to be a strange paradox, Paul regarded himself as blameless when measured by the Jewish law yet suffered from a deep sense of frustration and inner defeat. In some of the most poignant passages in literature, passages which because of their very vividness and obvious emotion seem to be autobiographical, he speaks of having been alive once "without the law," but that the commandment proved to be death to him, for sin, "taking occasion by the commandment," deceived him and by it killed him. He goes on to say, in moving words which reflect the experience of many conscientious and high-minded souls: "I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not, for what I would, that do I not, but what I hate, that do I. ... O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" By what he honestly believed to be God's will he felt driven to persecute the Christians, yet, perhaps because of the radiance which he had seen in the face of the dying Stephen, his inner turmoil was accentuated, for he here glimpsed a life which had found the inward victory and peace to which he was a stranger. He was set to wondering whether, after all, those whom he was hounding might not be right and he mistaken as to what God's will actually was.
Moreover, Paul may have been both repelled and attracted by the universality of the Gospel, which he glimpsed in the burden of the message of Stephen. Reared a strict Jew in a Hellenistic, pagan city, he was all the more proud of his Hebrew heritage because he was a member of a minority. He held that his were the chosen people bound to God by a special covenant, and presumably he was contemptuous of Gentiles as being outside the pale. That the barrier between Jew and Gentile should be erased by Christ must have outraged much that he had held as axiomatic. Yet it may also have appealed to him.
The inner debate appears to have been going on during the long ride to Damascus, for in one account of the vision the risen Christ is quoted as saying to him; "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks," implying that he had been fighting the trend in his mind which was leading him to be, as he later gladly described himself, "a slave" and a missionary ("apostle") of Christ. Certainly in that blinding instant Paul realized that it was not so much the Christians as Jesus whom he was persecuting.
It appears to be significant that the decisive moment came as Paul was nearing Damascus, where he would be compelled to act. Seeing the risen Christ and hearing his voice, he was stricken down, sightless. Restoration of sight did not come to him until he was comforted by a Christian who, in spite of his fears of the persecutor, obeying a compelling voice, came to him, declared himself a messenger of the Lord Jesus, and welcomed him into the Christian brotherhood.
By temperament a mystic, possessed of a usually quick, incisive mind, Paul was susceptible to the kind of experience, which came to him on the road, and in Damascus. Again and again later at crucial times he was to hear a divine command and obey it, but never again were the consequences to be so soul-shaking and revolutionary.
To suggest the background, disposition, and psychology which prepared Paul for what happened on the Damascus road is not to deny its reality or the truth of his profound conviction that through it Christ himself had spoken to him.
Here is one of the most important events in the entire course of Christianity. It gave to that faith one of its greatest instruments. As a missionary Paul was to have a leading role in the planting of Christian communities. As a thinker he was to place an indelible impress upon Christianity in its conceptions of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. His spectacular conversion after deep struggle was to be a prototype of the spiritual autobiographies of untold thousands of men and women, most of them obscure but some of them among the most prominent in the history of Christianity.
So great has been his influence that Paul is often said to have been the chief creator of what we now know as Christianity, and so to have altered what had been transmitted to him that it became quite different from the teachings of Jesus and transformed Jesus from the Galilean teacher and martyr into the cosmic Christ. That, so it seems to the present author, is a mistaken interpretation of the facts. Paul himself emphatically declared that he and those who had accepted the faith through him had "the mind of Christ." That is entirely true. While clearly not a colourless reproduction of Jesus or one who was slavishly bound to the strict letter of the sayings of his Master, and while giving evidence on almost every page of his letters of his own distinctive characteristics, Paul was so loyal to the mind of Jesus as we see it in the Four Gospels that did we not have these documents we would still be able to know what manner of person Jesus was, what were the essentials of his teachings, and his crucifixion, resurrection, and continued presence. Without the Gospels we would not have so many of the incidents or of the specific sayings of Jesus, nor would we be so much aware of his personal characteristics, such as his humour and his piercing glance, nor was the kingdom of heaven as prominent as in the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, but if we were confined to Paul's letters we would not be led to a picture of Jesus essentially different from that which the Gospels give us.
This is all the more so because of Paul's devotion to Christ. It was of the essence of his new faith that the old Paul had been crucified with Christ, that the new Paul lived by faith in Christ, for Christ had loved him and given himself for him. Paul was profoundly convinced that Christ lived in him, and he expected after his physical death to be with Christ. Possessed by such a controlling passion, Paul would certainly seek to know all that he could of the teachings and earthly life of Jesus and to be true to what Jesus had said and been.
Moreover, although the phrase, "the kingdom of God" or "the kingdom of heaven," was not as frequently in the writings of Paul as it was on the lips of Jesus, the idea was often there. To Paul's mind. God had a purpose, which includes the entire creation. God's plan for "the fullness of times" is "to gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth" and "the earnest expectation of the creation waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God." Paul depicted the whole creation as groaning in travail and pain, "for the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope. Because the creature itself shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God." In this the kingdom or reign of God was interpreted, quite certainly as Jesus viewed it, as having a cosmic sweep including not only the human race and human history, but all the vast universe.
Of the precise chronology and detailed course of Paul's life after his conversion we are not fully informed. Yet we know much. For a time Paul remained in Damascus. There, to the amazement and discomfiture of the Jewish authorities, he, the recent persecutor of the new faith, boldly declared that Jesus was the Son of God and won some to his views. Not unnaturally, there were those among the Jews who sought to kill him, and he deemed it wise to leave the city, going by night and being let down in a basket from the top of the wall to escape those who were watching the gates for him. He then went to Arabia, to which part we do not know, but presumably a portion not far from Syria. Nor are we told what he did while in Arabia or how long he was there. He informs us that from Arabia he returned to Damascus.
"After three years," he goes on to say, but whether measured from his conversion or his return to Damascus seems not entirely clear, Paul went to Jerusalem and was with Peter for fifteen days and also saw James, the brother of Jesus. We may surmise, although we cannot prove, that through these contacts he learned much of the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. To one of Paul's temperament this brief sojourn in Jerusalem must have been deeply moving. Memories of his student days and of the persecution in which he had an active part and scenes associated with the life and death of his new Master must have stirred him to the depths. It is not surprising that in the temple he fell into a trance and seemed to see Jesus and talk with him, and that the burden of their conversation was Paul's future work. Nor is it strange that Paul wished to be a missionary to his own people. Indeed, he never outgrew his eager longing that all Jews might become, as he was, a Christian. Perhaps it was in that hour of illumination that he could see that from his birth God had been preparing him to "reveal His Son" in him.
Yet the conviction came to Paul that his mission was to be to the Gentiles, the non-Jews. He was to be a pioneer. The universalism of the Gospel which may have been one of the causes of his original antagonism had gripped him. He declared that by special revelation the insight had come to him that through Christ the wall of partition between Jews and Gentiles had been broken down, that to both the way of life had been opened in Christ, and that the prerequisite of entering upon it was not heredity but faith, faith that was open to all men. He burned to preach the Gospel where no one else had taken it.
In going into a city for the first time Paul usually went to a synagogue and there declared Jesus to be the Christ. When, as generally happened, some heeded him but the majority, outraged, drove him out, he sought the Gentiles. Nor would he have his converts become Jews and conform to the ritualistic practices of the Jewish religion. To him the contrast between Judaism and the Christian message was sharp. His experience had taught him what from the teachings of Jesus should have been obvious to any one, that the radiant life which God desires for men is not to be had through the meticulous observance of the Law, for no one could ever fully keep the commands which God had given for men's instruction and guidance, or, if they attempted to win God's favour in that fashion, they would either be in despair or deceive themselves and be proud of having done so, and thus be guilty of the most deadly of all sins. That life is, rather, so Paul declared, to be received through simple faith, a full, trusting commitment of one's entire self to God in response to God's amazing love as seen in Christ.
Paul rang the changes on what was to him the astounding "Good News" of what God had done in Christ in sending the son of His love — that Christ had emptied himself, that he had submitted himself to being crucified by the very ones whom he had come to save, that in this God Himself had revealed His love for men, men who had so sinned against Him that, blinded, they had killed His Son, that in raising Jesus from the dead God had displayed His mighty power, and that through faith, faith which God Himself inspires, sinful man might be born anew and enter upon the eternal life of love which had been manifested in Christ, that kind of love which gives itself utterly to those who, far from deserving it, have no claim whatever upon it. Moved by this vision Paul preached Jesus in Jerusalem, but, as might have been expected, aroused intense opposition.
From Jerusalem, to escape from those who were seeking to compass his death, Paul went back to Tarsus. From there he was summoned to begin the missionary career of which our records give us many glimpses. First he was called upon by Barnabas, a representative of the Jerusalem church, to help with the young Christian community in An-tioch, which was drawing largely from non-Jews. He so won the confidence of the church in Antioch that he was sent by that body with Barnabas to carry relief to Christians in Judea who were suffering from a widespread famine. Returning from that errand, Barnabas and Paul were set apart by the Antioch church for a mission which led them to Cyprus and to parts of what we call Asia Minor.
Now ensued a number of years in which Paul, usually with one or more companions, carried the Christian message into much of Asia Minor and into Macedonia and Greece. Some of the details of these journeys have come down to us. Of others we have only hints. Paul gave his chief attention to cities. Much, perhaps most of the time he supported himself by working at his trade of tent-maker. He took satisfaction in not preaching where other men had preached and in not being dependent upon his converts for his livelihood. His was an arduous life. Celibate by conviction, Paul devoted himself entirely to his mission, untrammeled by family ties. We hear of his spending months in one or another of the larger centres. Much of the time he was travelling. He speaks of shipwreck, of perils from rivers and from robbers, of hunger and thirst, of beatings, and of being stoned. Upon him weighed the care of the many churches, which he had helped to bring into being. He kept in touch with them by oral messages and by letters. A few of the latter survive and give evidence of the white heat and the pressure under which they were writ ten. Although possessing enormous vitality and astounding powers of endurance, Paul had some persistent physical or nervous weakness, which he described as a "thorn in the flesh" and which was to him a heavy burden. He met with bitter opposition, not only from Jews and other non-Christians, but also from other Christians and within some of the churches which he had nurtured. Yet after some years he could say that from Jerusalem as far as Illyricum, on the cast coast of the Adriatic, he had "fully preached the Gospel of Christ."
Then came seeming disaster, and in an undertaking to which a sense of duty called him. For some time Paul had been gathering from his churches in the Gentile world a fund to give to the poor among the Christians in Jerusalem. He planned to go to Spain from Jerusalem, on the way visiting the Christians in Rome. It became clear that the mission to Jerusalem would be fraught with peril, for he was to be there at the Passover season and was regarded by many loyal Jews who would be flocking there at that high feast from many parts of the Empire as one who was threatening Judaism and the temple. Characteristically, Paul insisted on making the journey. While he was in the temple some Jews from Asia Minor who had been angered by what they had heard of his attitude towards Judaism aroused a tumult against him. A mob was seeking to kill him when the Roman guard intervened. There followed arrest, judicial hearings, detention of at least two years, an appeal by Paul to C^sar, as was his right as a Roman citizen, the journey to Rome under guard, a shipwreck in which the prisoner took command, the survival of himself and the ship's company, the completion of the journey, and a stay of at least two years in Rome, presumably still technically as a prisoner, but with considerable freedom to receive visitors and to present to them the Christian message. Then the curtain falls and assured information fails. The fact of eventual martyrdom in Rome seems to be well established.
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