Paul (or Saul, as he was also known) was a zealot, a staunch defender of the Jewish faith. He was especially zealous about exposing and punishing offshoots of Judaism that threatened to obscure its message.
He targeted the disciple of a rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth who were attempting to keep his message alive even after the rabbi himself had been crucified. They spread stories about seeing him risen form the dead. They claimed he was the Son of God and the way to everlasting life.
Saul was determined to stamp out the movement. He led the charge in persecuting “Christians,” as they were later called (Acts 11:26). He participated in the first recorded martyrdom in church history, the stoning of Stephen.
One day Paul set out for Damascus to arrest Christians and take them back to Jerusalem for punishment. His plans were derailed by a bright light from heaven that knocked him to the ground and left him temporarily blind.
He heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
“Who are You, Lord!?” he said.
“I am Jesus, the One you are persecuting,” He replied. “But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” (Acts 9:4-6)
In Damascus, Saul was met by a believer named Ananias, who “placed his hand on him and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road you were traveling, has sent me so that you can regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ At once something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized” (Acts 9:17-18).
Shortly thereafter, Paul started preaching about Jesus in the local synagogues. He didn’t need much prep time. As a devoutly religious Jew, he knew the Scriptures. So once he recognized Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, he was ready to share the good news.
People-including the apostles-were understandably skeptical at first. It didn’t take long, though, for most to recognize that his transformation was real. Thus began a life on the move, as Paul carried the gospel throughout Asia Minor and Europe. The book of Acts records three separate missionary journeys taken by Paul. On his first journey, a group of Jews who didn’t like his message stoned him and dragged his body outside the city, thinking him dead. He wasn’t-not by a long shot.
His original plan had been to preach the gospel in local synagogues, but the Jewish audiences rejected his message. Undeterred, he turned his attention to Gentile audiences, a decision that sent shock waves throughout the Christian world.
On his second journey, he and his fellow missionary Silas were beaten and imprisoned in Philippi. When an earthquake opened the doors of their cells and freed them from their chains, the two missionaries refused to escape. Their jailer was so moved by their gesture that he converted to Christianity on the spot.
Paul’s third journey was marked by stunning miracles, including the healing of a young man who was thought to be dead. Paul experienced several near misses, including becoming a victim of a riot in Ephesus. The Journey ended in Jerusalem, where Paul was beaten by a Jewish mob and arrested by Roman soldiers.
The biblical narrative ends before Paul stood trial. Church tradition suggests that he spent years as a prisoner in Rome before finally being executed during the reign of Nero around AD 67.
The apostle Paul founded or shepherded several different churches during his lifetime. When his journeys took him to a new destination, he maintained contact with congregations through letters. In those letters, Paul encouraged, taught, chastised, and challenged church members. At least 13 of Paul’s letters are part of the New Testament canon.
From a logical perspective, Paul’s experiences as an enemy of believers should have disqualified him from Christian service. God, however, saw his potential and not his past. And the rest is Christian history.