The period of his first teaching at Damascus does not seem to have lasted long. Indeed it is evident that his life could not have been safe, had he remained. The fury of the Jews when they had recovered from their first surprise must have been excited to the utmost pitch; and they would soon have received a new commissioner from Jerusalem armed with full powers to supersede and punish one whom they must have regarded as the most faithless of apostates. Saul left the city, but not to return to Jerusalem. Conscious of his Divine mission, he never felt that it was necessary to consult "those who were Apostles before him, but he went into Arabia, and returned again into Damascus." (Galatians 1:17)
And if he went into Petrsean Arabia, there still remains the question of his motive for the journey, and his employment when there. Either retiring before the opposition at Damascus, he went to preach the Gospel, and then, in the synagogues of that singular capital, which was built amidst the rocks of Edom, whence "Arabians" came to the festivals at Jerusalem, (Acts 2:11) he testified of Jesus:— or he went for the purpose of contemplation and solitary communion with God, to deepen his repentance and fortify his soul with prayer; and then perhaps his steps were turned to those mountain heights by the Red Sea, which Moses and Elijah had trodden before him. We cannot attempt to decide the question. The views which different inquirers take of it will probably depend on their own tendency to the practical or the ascetic life. On the one hand it may be argued that such zeal could not be restrained, that Saul could not be silent, but that he would rejoice in carrying into the metropolis of King Aretas the Gospel which his Ethnarch could afterwards hinder at Damascus. (See 2Corinthians 11:32) On the other hand, it may be said that, with such convictions recently worked in his mind, he would yearn for solitude, - that a time of austere meditation before the beginning of a great work is in conformity with the economy of God, - that we find it quite natural, if Paul followed the example of the Great Lawgiver and the Great Prophet, and of one greater than Moses and Elijah, who, after His baptism and before His ministry, "returned from Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness." (Luke 4:1)
While Saul is in Arabia, preaching the Gospel in obscurity, or preparing for his varied work by the intuition of Sacred Truth, - it seems the natural place for some reflections on the reality and the momentous significance of his conversion. It has already been remarked, in what we nave drawn from the statements of Scripture, that he was called directly by Christ without the intervention of any other Apostle, and that the purpose of his call was clearly indicated, when Ananias baptized him. He was an Apostle "not of men, neither by man," and the Divine will was "to work among the Gentiles by his ministry." (Acts 21:9) But the unbeliever may still say that there are other questions of primary importance. He may suggest that this apparent change in the current of Saul’s thoughts, and this actual revolution in the manner of his life, was either the contrivance of deep and deliberate imposture, or the result of wild and extravagant fanaticism. Both in ancient and modern times, some have been found who have resolved this great occurrence into the promptings of self-interest, or have ventured to call it the offspring of delusion. There is an old story mentioned by Epiphanius, from which it appears that the Ebionites were content to find a motive for the change, in an idle story that he first became a Jew that he might marry the High Priest’s daughter, and then became the antagonist of Judaism because the High Priest deceived him. And there are modern Jews, who are satisfied with saying that he changed rapidly from one passion to another, like those impetuous souls who cannot hate or love by halves.
Can we then say that Apostle Paul was simply a fanatic or an impostor? The question has been so well answered in a celebrated English book, that we are content to refer to it. It will never be possible for any one to believe Apostle Paul to have been a mere fanatic, who duly considers his calmness, his wisdom, his prudence, and, above all, his humility, a virtue which is not less inconsistent with fanaticism than with imposture. And how can we suppose that he was an impostor who changed his religion for selfish purposes? Was he influenced by the ostentation of learning? He suddenly cast aside all that he had been taught by Gamaliel, or acquired through long years of study, and took up the opinions of fishermen of Galilee, whom he had scarcely ever seen, and who had never been educated in the schools. Was it the love of power which prompted the change? He abdicated in a moment the authority which he possessed, for power "over a flock of sheep driven to the slaughter, whose Shepherd himself had been murdered a little before;" and "all he could hope from that power was to be marked out in a particular manner for the same knife, which he had seen so bloodily drawn against them." Was it the love of wealth? Whatever might be his own worldly possessions at the time, he joined himself to those who were certainly poor, and the prospect before him was that which was actually realized, of ministering to his necessities with the labor of his hands. (Acts 20:33, 34; 1Corinthians 4:12; 1Thessalonians 2:9, &c) Was it the love of fame? His prophetic power must have been miraculous, if he could look beyond the shame and scorn which then rested on the servants of a crucified Master, to that glory with which Christendom now surrounds the memory of Apostle Paul.
We return to the narrative. Saul’s time of retirement in Arabia was not of long continuance. He was not destined to be the Evangelist of the East. In the Epistle to the Galatians (Galatians 1:18), the time, from his conversion to his final departure from Damascus, is said to have been "three years," which, according to the Jewish way of reckoning, may have been three entire years, or only one year with parts of two others. Meantime Saul had "returned to Damascus, preaching boldly in the name of Jesus." (Acts 9:27) The Jews, being no longer able to meet him in controversy, resorted to that which is the last argument of a desperate cause: they resolved to assassinate him. Saul became acquainted with the conspiracy: and all due precautions were taken to evade the danger. But the political circumstances of Damascus at the time made escape very difficult. Either in the course of the hostilities which prevailed along the Syrian frontiers between Herod Antipas and the Romans, on one side, and Aretas, King of Petra, on the other, - and possibly in consequence of that absence of Vitellius, which was caused by the Emperor’s death, - the Arabian monarch had made himself master of Damascus, and the Jews, who sympathized with Aretas, were high in the favor of his officer, the Ethnarch. Or Tiberius had ceased to reign, and his successor had assigned Damascus to the King of Petra, and the Jews had gained over his officer and his soldiers, as Pilate’s soldiers had once been gained over at Jerusalem. Apostle Paul at least expressly informs us, (2Corinthians 11:32) that "the Ethnarch kept watch over the city, with a garrison, purposing to apprehend him." Luke says, (Acts 9:24) that the Jews "watched the city- gates day and night, with the intention of killing him." The Jews furnished the motive, the Ethnarch the military force. The anxiety of the "disciples" was doubt less great, as when Peter was imprisoned by Herod, "and prayer was made without ceasing of the Church unto God for him." (Acts 12:5) Their anxiety became the instrument of his safety. From an unguarded part of the wall, in the darkness of the night, probably where some overhanging houses, as is usual in Eastern cities, opened upon the outer country, they let him down from a window in a basket. There was something of humiliation in this mode of escape; and this, perhaps, is the reason why, in a letter written "fourteen years" afterwards, he specifies the details, "glorying in his infirmities," when he is about to speak of "his visions and revelations of the Lord."
Thus already the Apostle had experience of "perils by his own countrymen, and perils in the city." Already "in journeyings often, in weariness and painfulness," (2Corinthians 11:26, 27) he began to learn "how great things he was to suffer" for the name of Christ. (Acts 9:16) Preserved from destruction at Damascus, he turned his steps towards Jerusalem. His motive for the journey, as he tells us in the Epistle to the Galatians, was a desire to become acquainted with Peter. (Galatians 1:18) Not that he was ignorant of the true principles of the Gospel. He expressly tells us that he neither needed nor received any instruction in Christianity from those who were "Apostles before him." But he must have heard much from the Christians at Damascus of the Galilean fisherman. Can we wonder that he should desire to see the Chief of the Twelve, - the brother with whom now he was consciously united in the bonds of a common apostleship, - and who had long on earth been the constant companion of his LORD?
How changed was every thing since he had last traveled this road between Damascus and Jerusalem! If, when the day broke, he looked back upon that city from which he had escaped under the shelter of night, as his eye ranged over the fresh gardens and the wide desert, how the remembrance of that first terrible vision would call forth a deep thanksgiving to Him, who had called him to be a "partaker of His sufferings!" (1Peter 4:13) And what feelings must have attended his approach to Jerusalem! "He was returning to it from a spiritual, as Ezra had from a bodily, captivity, and to his renewed mind all things appeared new. What an emotion smote his heart at the first distant view of the Temple, that house of sacrifice, that edifice of prophecy! Its sacrifices had been realized, the Lamb of God had been offered: its prophecies had been fulfilled, the Lord had come unto it. As he approached the gates, he might have trodden the very spot where he had so exultingly assisted in the death of Stephen, and he entered them perfectly content, were it God’s will, to be dragged out through them to the same fate. He would feel a peculiar tie of brotherhood to that martyr, for he could not be now ignorant that the same Jesus who in such glory had called him, had but a little while before appeared in the same glory to assure the expiring Stephen. The ecstatic look and words of the dying saint now came fresh upon his memory with their real meaning. When he entered into the city, what deep thoughts were suggested by the haunts of his youth, and by the sight of the spots where he had so eagerly sought that knowledge which he had now so eagerly abandoned! What an intolerable burden had he cast off! He felt as a glorified spirit may be supposed to feel on revisiting the scenes of its fleshly sojourn."
Thus, with fervent zeal, and sanguine expectations, "he attempted to join himself to the disciples" of Christ. (Acts 9:26) But, as the Jews hated him, so the Christians suspected him. His escape had been too hurried to allow of his bringing "letters of commendation." Whatever distant rumor might have reached them of an apparition on his journey, of his conduct at Damascus, of his retirement in Arabia, they could not believe that he was really a disciple. And then it was that Barnabas, already known to us as a generous contributor of his wealth to the poor, (Acts 4:36) came forward again as the "Son of Consolation," - "took him by the hand," and brought him to the Apostles. (Acts 9:27) It is probable that Barnabas and Saul were acquainted with each other before. Cyprus is within a few hours’ sail from Cilicia. The schools of Tarsus may naturally have attracted one who, though a Levite, was an Hellenist: and there the friendship may have begun, which lasted through many vicissitudes, till it was rudely interrupted in the dispute at Antioch. (Acts 15:39) When Barnabas related how "the Lord" Jesus Christ had personally appeared to Saul, and had even spoken to him, and how he had boldly maintained the Christian cause in the synagogues of Damascus, then the Apostles laid aside their hesitation. Peter’s argument must have been what it was on another occasion:"Forasmuch as God hath given unto him the like gift as He did unto me, who am I that I should withstand God?" (Acts 11:17) He and James, the Lord’s brother, the only other Apostle who was in Jerusalem at the time, gave to him "the right hands of fellowship." And he was with them, "coming in and going out," more than forgiven for Christ’s sake, welcomed and beloved as a friend and a brother.
The first meeting of the fisherman of Bethsaida and the tent-maker of Tarsus, the chosen companion of Jesus on earth, and the chosen Pharisee who saw Jesus in the heavens, the Apostle of the circumcision and the Apostles of the Gentiles, is passed over in Scripture in a few words. The Divine record does not linger in dramatic description on those passages which a mere human writing would labor to embellish. What took place in the intercourse of these two Saints, - what was said of Jesus of Nazareth who suffered, died, and was buried, - and of Jesus, the glorified Lord, who had risen and ascended, and become "head over all things to the Church," - what was felt of Christian love and devotion, - what was learnt, under the Spirit’s teaching, of Christian truth, has not been revealed, and cannot be known. The intercourse was full of present comfort, and full of great consequences. But it did not last long. Fifteen days passed away, and the Apostles were compelled to part. The same zeal which had caused his voice to be heard in the Hellenistic Synagogues in the persecution against Stephen, now led Saul in the same Synagogues to declare fearlessly his adherence to Stephen’s cause. The same fury which had caused the murder of Stephen, now brought the murderer of Stephen to the verge of assassination. Once more, as at Damascus, the Jews made a conspiracy to put Saul to death: and once more he was rescued by the anxiety of the brethren. (Acts 9:29, 30)
Reluctantly, and not without a direct intimation from on high, he retired from the work of preaching the Gospel in Jerusalem. As he was praying one day in the Temple, it came to pass that he fell into a trance, and in his ecstasy he saw Jesus, who spoke to him, and said, "Make haste and get thee quickly out of Jerusalem: for they will not receive thy testimony concerning me." He hesitated to obey the command, his desire to do God’s will leading him to struggle against the hindrances of God’s providence - and the memory of Stephen, which haunted him even in his trance, furnishing him with an argument. But the command was more peremptory than before:"Depart; for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles." The scene of his apostolic victories was not to be Jerusalem. For the third time it was declared to him that the field of his labors was among the Gentiles. This secret revelation to his soul conspired with the outward difficulties of his situation. The care of God gave the highest sanction to the anxiety of the brethren. And he suffered himself to be withdrawn from the Holy City.
They brought him down to Caesarea by the sea, and from Caesarea they sent him to Tarsus. (Acts 9:30) His own expression in the Epistle to the Galatians (Galatians 1:21) is that he went "into the regions of Syria and Cilicia." From this it has been inferred that he went first from Caesarea to Antioch, and then from Antioch to Tarsus. And such a course would have been perfectly natural; for the communication of the city of Caesar and the Herods with the metropolis of Syria, either by sea and the harbor of Seleucia, or by the great coast-road through Tyre and Sidon, was easy and frequent. But the supposition is unnecessary. In consequence of the range of Mount Taurus, Cilicia has a greater geographical affinity with Syria than with Asia Minor. Hence it has existed in frequent political combination with it from the time of the old Persian satrapies to the modern pachalics of the Sultan: and "Syria and Cilicia" appears in history almost as a generic geographical term, the more important district being mentioned first. Within the limits of this region Saul’s activities were now exercised in studying and in teaching at Tarsus, - or in founding those Churches which were afterwards greeted in the Apostolic letter from Jerusalem, as the brethren "in Antioch, and Syria, and Cilicia," and which Paul himself confirmed after his separation from Barnabas, traveling through "Syria and Cilicia."
Whatever might be the extent of his journeys within these limits, we know at least that he was at Tarsus. Once more we find him in the home of his childhood. It is the last time we are distinctly told that he was there. Now at least, if not before, we may be sure that he would come into active intercourse with the Heathen philosophers of the place. In his last residence at Tarsus, a few years before, he was a Jew, and not only a Jew but a Pharisee, and he looked on the Gentiles around him as outcasts from the favor of God. Now he was a Christian, and not only a Christian, but conscious of his mission as the Apostle of the Gentiles. Therefore he would surely meet the philosophers, and prepare to argue with them on their own ground, as afterwards in the "market" at Athens with "the Epicureans and the Stoics." (Acts 17:17, 18) Many Stoics of Tarsus were men of celebrity in the Roman Empire. Athenodorus, the tutor of Augustus, has already been mentioned. He was probably by this time deceased, and receiving those divine honors, which, as Lucian informs us, were paid to him after his death. The tutor of Tiberius also was a Tarsian and a Stoic. His name was Nestor. He was probably at this time alive: for he lingered to the age of ninety-two, and, in all likelihood, survived his wicked pupil, whose death we have recently noticed. Now among these eminent sages and instructors of Heathen Emperors was one whose teaching was destined to survive, when the Stoic philosophy should have perished, and whose words still instruct the rulers of every civilized nation. How far Saul’s arguments had any success in this quarter we cannot even guess; and we must not anticipate the conversion of Cornelius. At least, he was preparing for the future. In the Synagogue we cannot believe that he was silent or unsuccessful. In his own family, we may well imagine that some of those Christian "kinsmen," (Romans 16) whose names are handed down to us, - possibly his sister, the playmate of his childhood, and his sister’s son, who afterwards saved his life, - were at this time by his exertions gathered into the fold of Christ. Here this chapter must close, while Saul is in exile from the earthly Jerusalem, but diligently occupied in building up the walls of the "Jerusalem which is above."