Perhaps the greatest event in the record of the early church, following that of the day of Pentecost, was the conversion of Saul of Tarsus; one who persecuted the people of ‘this way’ - those who were later called ‘Christians’, Acts 9. 2; 11. 26. He was to become God’s messenger to the Gentiles, 22. 21.
The writer of the Acts of the Apostles can be identified as Luke, a medical doctor, Col. 4. 14, who penned the Gospel that bears his name. The book follows on from that Gospel and covers some thirty to thirty-five years. It is the only inspired record of the development of the early church and describes the progress of the gospel as a result of the labours of the Lord’s servants.
The book of Acts opens by describing the ascension of our Lord Jesus and recording His outline of the geographical progress of the gospel. In His own words, ‘Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth’, 1. 8. While Peter initially declared the message in Jerusalem, and Philip in Samaria, someone was needed to spread the message further, and so the Lord had His eye on a man whom He described as a ‘chosen vessel’, 9. 15. God’s ways are past finding out! The man in question is first introduced to us as a persecutor of Christians but, as some would say, he had a ‘Damascus road experience’ when he met the risen Christ, whom he thought was dead. That encounter changed the course of his life thereafter. Here we must acknowledge the sovereignty of God.
Although the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles apparently ends abruptly, it does so with Paul still ‘preaching the kingdom of God’, 28. 31. So, the work which commenced at Pentecost was continuing, and it continues today, and will continue to do so until the Lord returns. God is still taking ‘out of them [the Gentiles] a people for his name’, 15. 14.
Although much has already been written about Paul, I would like to take a fresh look at him, and, in doing so, enable the reader to navigate through the vast amount of material about him in the Acts and in the thirteen Epistles which we are sure that he wrote. May our meditation prove challenging as we seek to serve the Lord in the twenty-first century.
Scripture is silent when it comes to the year of his birth and of his death. He is first mentioned under his former name, Saul, 7. 58. He was present at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and as Tertullian said, ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’. Might it be that Saul was named after the first king of Israel? Both men came from the same tribe.
Paul was a citizen of Tarsus, ‘no mean city’, but was accorded heavenly citizenship, 21. 39; Phil. 3. 20. His father was a Jew who had been granted Roman citizenship, but Paul became ‘a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee’, Acts 22. 27, 28; 23. 6. Moreover, he was a devoted Pharisee, 26. 5. He would therefore have had a strict religious upbringing and been zealous for the law, which led him to persecute the church, something which later he realized was misplaced. As a Pharisee, he was connected with the ceremonies and ordinances of the Mosaic law. He would have had a detailed knowledge of the law of Moses, having memorized scripture, and been taught Jewish history.
He was well-educated at the feet of Gamaliel, who became his mentor, 22. 3, but was a tentmaker by trade, 18. 3. There seemed to be a great potential in him to become a leader of the Jewish faith. So much more could be written about the pedigree of this man, but he was to count it all but loss, Phil. 3. 8.
He was a blasphemer, 1 Tim. 1. 13, but a man who changed sides when he met the risen Christ!
Saul is mentioned first at the stoning of Stephen, Acts 7. 54-60, and in the next chapter we learn that he consented to Stephen’s death, 8. 1. Although we are told that he made ‘havock of the church’, 8. 3, and if the Lord had not stepped into his life, he intended that the Christians be removed completely. He was a fanatic. Did Stephen pray for him? No doubt he was included in Stephen’s prayer, ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge’, 7. 60. Stephen’s martyrdom spoke to Saul, 22. 20. On his way to Damascus with letters authorizing him to persecute the believers there, the Lord intervened in his life, and from that day he was under His authority.
How many Christians have suffered for the gospel’s sake over the years, and yet the perpetrators of that suffering have been gloriously saved! We recall that in comparatively recent times (1956), five missionaries laid down their lives in attempting to reach the Auca Indians with the gospel, and today there are believers in that very tribe! To God be the glory, Gal. 1. 23, 24! But the Lord did say to Ananias, ‘I will show him [Saul] how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake’, Acts 9. 16.
It was not long after his conversion that Paul himself was persecuted. He experienced opposition from without, 9. 23, and opposition [mistrust] from within, v. 26. Paul gives us his own summary of his sufferings in 2 Corinthians chapter 11 verses 23 to 33.
The first thing that Ananias was told by the Lord was that Paul was praying, Acts 9. 11. Before his conversion, his prayers would be formal and ritualistic, but now he was laying hold of God. He was beginning to manifest divine life -‘behold, he prayeth’.
Paul was a man of constant thanksgiving and prayer. How he found time to pray in view of his busy life is quite ‘mind boggling’! See, for example, ‘without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers’, Rom. 1. 9.1 What an intercessor! He prayed for different persons, places and problems. Today, we too can pray for family, friends, the fellowship, fellow-labourers, the frail, the fallen, and the field of the world, Matt. 13. 38. Little prayer means little power. Much prayer means much power. No prayer means no power.
Paul tells us that he went to Arabia for the space of three years, Gal. 1. 15-18, and there is general agreement that this time could be inserted between Acts chapter 9 verses 21 and 22. In this he followed the steps of Moses, Elijah, and the Lord Jesus Christ. We must also remember that while Nehemiah tells us about his deep concern for Jerusalem, Neh. 1. 1-11, he did not start the rebuilding immediately. A lot of preparation had to be made, Neh. 2. 4-8, 12-18. God’s men are prepared men.
Luke tells us that having been converted, Paul ‘straightway … preached Christ in the synagogues’ at Damascus, Acts 9. 20, and so began a life declaring the truth of God and bearing the Lord’s name ‘before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel’, v. 15. His first recorded sermon is in Acts chapter 13. This is the first of three preserved in the Acts. He could say, ‘woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel’, 1 Cor. 9. 16. He was ‘appointed a preacher’ of the gospel, 2 Tim. 1. 11. His messages were simple, scriptural, methodical and personal, and he took every opportunity to preach with the view of seeing souls saved, assemblies established, and saints grounded in the truth. Have we ever considered the number of miles he undertook to make the Lord known? It has been estimated he travelled 3, 000 miles by land and 5, 500 miles by sea. Thus, in his travels, trials and triumphs, he preached the word of God.
Thirteen of the New Testament books were written by Paul. Galatians chapter 6 verse 11 indicates that one was written by his own hand. We have prison Epistles as well as personal Epistles to encourage by his own experiences, example and endurance, and also pastoral Epistles, which can be summed up by the words, ‘the care of all the churches’, 2 Cor. 11. 28.
We cannot help but wonder how he had time to write with the busy schedule he had, but the thrust of his writings was to correct error, to encourage, to exhort and to edify. Such is their message to individuals and assemblies in the first century, and they are just as relevant today. They are timeless in their character and part of the canon of divine truth.
He did not always find it easy to write. We should note that there were times when:
Wherever he went, Paul met with many people. In Romans chapter 16, he lists many believers, and others are mentioned in 2 Timothy chapter 4 and Colossians chapter 4. No matter who they were, he never over-rated or underestimated them. He commences his Epistle to the Romans by saying, ‘First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all’, Rom. 1. 8. In the same Epistle, how delightful to notice how he links Erastus, the highest official in the city, with Quartus, known simply as ‘a brother’, possibly a slave, 16. 23. Seventy names are mentioned in his Epistles.
Ananias was told by the Lord that Saul would ‘bear my name before … kings’, Acts 9. 15. Acts chapter 26 describes his experience before King Agrippa. Although Paul stood as a prisoner before this pitiful king, he rose to the occasion and courteously, but plainly, stated the facts. All are commendable features of this man of God.
Other passages worthy of note are: Eph. 1. 16; Phil. 1. 4; Col. 1. 3; 1 Thess. 1. 2. Did Paul see in his mind the faces of those for whom he was praying?
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