The Apostle Paul -- A Life Changed by Grace
A Study in Paul's Letters: Acts
January 1, 2001
by I. Howard Marshall
This article begins a Bible study series on the Life and Letters of the Apostle Paul. Taking our cue from one of the central themes in Paul's writings, we have titled the series "Living in Grace." Our prayer is that through these studies, you will come to live more fully in the grace of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I cannot count how many times I have heard evangelists say, "We cannot all have a Damascus-Road experience." That phrase, "Damascus-Road experience," comes from the life of Saul, later known as the Apostle Paul. He had not met Jesus personally, and Saul had attacked Jesus' followers with the senseless violence that we associate today with racially motivated thugs.
But on one of these occasions Saul had an extraordinary experience. A blazing light from the sky struck him temporarily blind, and he had a vision of Someone who claimed to be Jesus and who commanded Saul to stop attacking Jesus and become His ambassador instead.(1) The experience turned Saul around and made a new person of him.
There was a suddenness and unexpectedness about this cataclysmic event. One doesn't expect to meet Someone who had died only some months earlier. Those elements of what happened to Saul near Damascus do not usually happen to people nowadays.
just Jews but all the people of the world to become God's people"
But—and this is crucial—the conversion to a total commitment to Jesus and living for Him is essential. Many people are not living lives totally opposed to Jesus; those people may be respectable and well-intentioned, and perhaps (like me) brought up as "Christian" from their birth. But—and again this is crucial—they still need to make a full commitment of themselves to Jesus.
Back, however, to Saul! Zealous by nature, Saul now found his zeal harnessed to the work of a Christian missionary. Learned as a religious scholar, he used his knowledge of the Scriptures to understand the significance of Jesus.
Saul linked up with Christians in Damascus and then in Jerusalem.(2) From those early Christians Saul learned more about Jesus.
Saul was not alone in having personally experienced Jesus as a living Person now raised to new existence in heaven with God the Father. From the earliest days, after the first Easter, Jesus' followers saw in the resurrection a confirmation that Jesus was the Messiah, or the Christ (these are the Jewish and Greek terms respectively for the Person God anointed to be the leader of His people). And Jesus' followers recognized His position as Lord alongside God the Father.
Saul's vision of Jesus corroborated all this for himself. He saw Jesus as a Person who was like God (the image of God) and who shared God's glory as His Son. And Saul keenly realized that the coming of Jesus made it possible for not just Jews but all the people of the world to become God's people.
It was no longer necessary to keep the Jewish Law in all its details in order to be part of God's people; circumcision and other characteristically Jewish practices no longer were required. God could put all people in the right with Himself through Jesus.
Doubtless it took some little time for Saul to realize all this. We are ignorant of what Saul did during the early years of his ministry. Certainly he was engaged in Christian missionary work, and he must have had some contacts with other Christians. A Jerusalem Christian called Barnabas, who had befriended and welcomed Saul earlier and who now was working with Christian groups in Antioch, journeyed to Tarsus to find Paul and take him back to Antioch to help teach the Christians.
To Those Who Had Not Heard
A year later things took off! At a prayer time in the Antioch congregation, the Christians became convinced that God was calling them to send out Barnabas and Saul as missionaries.(3)
Thus began the first of what we loosely term the three missionary campaigns of Paul and various companions, first Barnabas and later Silas. [It is during the account of this first trip in Acts 13:9 that the Bible begins to refer to Saul as Paul.] Now for the first time there was a planned expedition to take the Gospel to people who had not heard of Jesus, and this set a precedent that continues to this day. The missionaries traversed the island of Cyprus, traveled north to the coast of modern Turkey and then pressed inland to Derbe before they encountered violence and had to retrace their steps back to the coast and to Antioch.
They established a pattern of going to the local synagogues and telling the people that God had sent Jesus to be the Messiah promised in the Scriptures and that God had confirmed Jesus' status by raising Him from the dead. Paul and Barnabas called on all present, both Jews and Gentiles, to accept the Messiah. Occasionally (as at Lystra) Paul and Barnabas met native peoples who worshiped a variety of gods, and the first step had to be to proclaim to the people the one true God.(4)
Meanwhile, back in Antioch a crisis was looming. Many Christians were not as yet persuaded that non-Jewish people could become and remain Christians without submitting to circumcision and other Jewish customs. This placed a question mark over the mission of Barnabas and Paul as well as over the practice of the missionary-sending church in Antioch. A meeting in Jerusalem endorsed the missionaries' position, provided that the non-Jewish Christians showed some sensitivity for their Jewish colleagues.
Fortified by this decision, Paul set off again on a second, lengthier trip that began by revisiting the infant Christian congregations in Galatia (modern Turkey). Then, conscious of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Paul and his companions (Silas and Timothy) found themselves traveling west to the northwest corner of Turkey, where Luke joined them. A vision of a Macedonian calling them to "come over to Macedonia and help us"(5) led them to Philippi and Thessalonica. In each city they stayed long enough to establish Christian congregations before outbreaks of violence forced them to move on.
They went south to Athens, where some philosophers took a polite but detached interest in the message of Paul and his companions. Then they traveled to Corinth, the major city of Greece, where a lengthy time of mission established a church whose later internal bickerings caused Paul considerable worry and pastoral concern.
Extending the Mission
After some time back in Antioch Paul made a lengthy stay in Ephesus that extended the Christian mission throughout the western area of Turkey. We can detect from his stay in Ephesus the typical strategy of Paul in evangelizing the major cities of the eastern Roman Empire, strategic centers from which the Gospel filtered out to the surrounding areas.
This mission preceded a third visit in which Paul followed up the work done in Corinth and other places visited on the second campaign. Paul also followed up his work by writing Letters to the congregations, and these Letters are invaluable for revealing to us Paul's teaching and way of life as a Christian believer.
Trouble in Jerusalem
Paul returned to Jerusalem with two things in mind. One was to bring a monetary gift from his mainly non-Jewish congregations to help the economically poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and to be a sign of Christian fraternal love to them. The other was to extend the work of the Gospel farther west. Paul could look back on his work so far and say that, in terms of founding churches in strategic centers, he had fully preached the Gospel from Jerusalem to the Adriatic Sea, and there was nothing more for him to do in that area; therefore he would continue his policy of going where no missionaries had previously gone, in this case to Spain.
It was not to be as Paul had hoped. Back in Jerusalem there was trouble. Some non-Christian Jews saw in Paul the archenemy of their faith, the man who betrayed the essence of Judaism by his indifference to the Jewish Law. They arrested him and brought him before the Jewish court. The situation was complicated by the fact that Judea was under a Roman governor with Roman troops, and the case of Paul moved between the Jews and the Romans without coming to a conclusion.
A Prisoner and Martyr for Christ
Paul claimed his legal right to appeal to the highest court in Rome. To Rome, therefore, he went, but as a prisoner under a Roman guard, and on a journey that was highly eventful with its storms and a shipwreck. When Paul arrived safely in Rome, then, it was as a prisoner, kept under house arrest for a couple of years.
Here the story in the Acts of the Apostles ends, with its picture of Paul still preaching and teaching with no further attempt made to stop him.
According to one early tradition, Paul was released from prison, and he was able to travel again as a missionary before being arrested once more. Then, before his death, Paul may have visited the congregations that he had founded earlier, and some people think that Paul did indeed fulfill his desire to reach Spain.
Early Christian traditions attest that Paul died as a martyr at the hand of the Roman government.
In the development and spread of Christianity, Paul's influence was second only to that of Jesus. But Paul himself admitted that if he was able to work hard and achieve anything, it was no credit to himself. It was entirely the grace of God that made Paul what he was.