The birth name of Paul is actually Saul. He was born into a Jewish family in the city of Tarsus. His birth in a Roman "free city" grants him Roman citizenship, a privilege he will exercise later in life. His early training comes from the best Rabbinical school in Jerusalem, led by the well-known Pharisee Gamaliel.
Paul is thirty years old when he is an official witness at the stoning of Stephen. His Pharisaic zeal for God's law and dedication to stopping the early spread of Christianity knew no bounds. After seeing Stephen's life taken, he leads the first great wave of persecution against the early church. On reflecting on his pre-conversion days he says the following.
"For you heard of my (Paul is speaking) former conduct when I was in Judaism, how I was excessively persecuting the church of God and was destroying it; And I was advancing in Judaism far beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more abundantly zealous for the traditions of my fathers." (Galatians 1:13 - 14, Holy Bible in Its Original Order - A Faithful Version )
How BAD were the persecutions of Paul against the early New Testament church? His dedication to eradicating those believing in the teachings of Jesus led him to take bold actions, such as going from HOUSE to HOUSE in order to find believers (Acts 8:1, 3)!
After his efforts to stop the spread of early Christian beliefs in Jerusalem, he sets his sights on achieving the even more audacious goal of removing any Christian influence in the synagogues of Damascus. He receives written permission from the temple's High Priest to rid the city's synagogues of any who believe in "the way." His intention is to arrest those who believe Jesus is the Messiah and escort them back to Jerusalem for punishment.
It is during his trip to Damascus that THE pivotal event the apostle's life occurs. A spotlight from heaven shines on him (Saul) during his travel and the voice of Jesus asks "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?" (Acts 9:4) God strikes him blind and his traveling companions must lead him to the city. These events lead to his total repentance and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. God also heals him of his blindness.
After his conversion, the same zeal and single-minded dedication Paul had against Christianity transforms into a hyperactive-like quest to spread the gospel worldwide. His amazing ministry lasts thirty-five years until his death at the age of sixty-six. His accomplishments are astonishing given the rudimentary (by today's standard) level of transportation and other difficulties that exist in the first century.
Important people, events and accomplishments in the life of Paul include his witnessing of the stoning of Stephen. He is personally taught by Jesus, for three years, while living in Arabia. During his ministry he resurrects at least one person from the dead, is resurrected HIMSELF after being stoned to death, carries out five evangelistic journeys, visits more than 50 cities in his travels and preaches the gospel to Emperor Caesar and his entire household. He also writes no less than fourteen books (epistles) of the Bible (the most of any author), trains other evangelists and gospel preachers like John Mark and Timothy, and endures a total of more than five years in prison.
The apostle Paul, whose life was cut short by the Romans in 66 A.D., is easily the most influential Christian in the New Testament short of Jesus himself. In our last lesson, we will tie everything together with a basic timeline of the Bible that shows its story flow.