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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary

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Through his evangelistic activity, church leadership, theological insights and extensive writings, Paul had an immeasurable influence on the development of Christianity. He spread the gospel and planted churches regardless of national or racial barriers, and in so doing he changed the traditional views of God-fearing people. He interpreted Christ’s life and developed Christ’s teachings in a way that provided a firm theological framework for Christian faith and practice.

Background and conversion

Paul’s original name was Saul. He was a full-blooded Jew, born in Tarsus in south-east Asia Minor (Acts 9:11; Acts 22:3; Philippians 3:5). He inherited from birth the privilege of Roman citizenship (Acts 16:37; Acts 22:26-28; see ROME), and he grew up to speak, read and write Greek and Hebrew fluently (Acts 21:37; Acts 21:40). The Greek influence in his education gave him the ability to think clearly and systematically, and the Hebrew influence helped to create in him a character of moral uprightness (Philippians 3:6).

As a religiously zealous young man, Paul moved to Jerusalem, where he received instruction in the Jewish law according to the strict traditions of the Pharisees. His teacher was the prominent rabbi, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3; Acts 23:6; Acts 26:5). Like all Jewish young men he learnt a trade, in his case, tent-making (Acts 18:3).

Zeal for the Jewish law stirred up Paul against the Christians. He considered that Stephen was a rebel against the law and that therefore he deserved execution (Acts 6:13; Acts 7:58; Acts 8:1; Philippians 3:6). With the support of the Jewish Council (the Sanhedrin), Paul then led the persecution against the Christians, imprisoning men and women alike (Acts 8:3; Acts 9:1-2; Acts 26:10-11; Galatians 1:13; 1 Timothy 1:13).

Paul considered the Christians to be guilty of blasphemy in believing in a Messiah who died on a cross; for a person who died on a cross was under God’s curse (Acts 26:11; Galatians 3:13). But while on the way to Damascus to capture Christians, Paul had a dramatic experience that changed him completely. Jesus’ personal revelation to Paul convinced him that Jesus was alive (Acts 9:3-5; Acts 22:14; Acts 26:8; Acts 26:15; 1 Corinthians 9:1). This meant that Jesus was no longer under God’s curse. He had died, not because he was a lawbreaker, but because he willingly bore the curse on behalf of those who were. Jesus’ resurrection was now the unmistakable evidence of God’s approval of him (Romans 1:4; Galatians 3:13; Galatians 6:14).

Linked with Paul’s conversion was the Lord’s revelation that he intended to use Paul as his messenger to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; Acts 26:15-18; Galatians 1:11-16). From that time on, Paul never ceased to wonder at the work of God in saving the opponent of Christianity and turning him into an ambassador for Christianity. It gave Paul an appreciation of the grace of God that affected every aspect of his life (1 Corinthians 15:8-10; Ephesians 3:8; 1 Timothy 1:12-17). (The date of Paul’s conversion was about AD 32.)

Preparation for future ministry

After his conversion, Paul remained for a while in Damascus, trying to convince the Jews that Jesus was Lord and Messiah. Part of the next three years Paul spent in Arabia, after which he returned to Damascus. When violent opposition from the Jews threatened his life, he escaped to Jerusalem (Acts 9:22-26; Galatians 1:17-18). Most of the Christians in Jerusalem doubted whether Paul’s conversion was genuine. Not so Barnabas. After he introduced Paul to Peter and James the Lord’s brother, the tension eased (Acts 9:26-28; Galatians 1:19-20). But attempts by the Jews on his life again forced him to flee. He sailed from Caesarea to northern Syria, from where he went overland through Cilicia to Tarsus (Acts 9:29-30; Acts 22:17-21; Galatians 1:21).

Paul’s next visit to Jerusalem was eleven years later (cf. Galatians 1:18; Galatians 2:1). Little is known of those eleven years, though they must have been important years of preparation for Paul’s future work. Paul spent the final year of this preparation period at Antioch in Syria. In response to an invitation from Barnabas, he had come from Tarsus to help the newly formed Antioch church (Acts 11:25-26). At the end of the year, Paul and Barnabas took a gift of money from Antioch to Jerusalem to help the poor Christians there (Acts 11:29-30; Galatians 2:1).

Peter, John and James the Lord’s brother, as representatives of the Jerusalem church, received the gift from the Antioch church and expressed their complete fellowship with the mission of Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:9-10). Paul and Barnabas then returned to Antioch, taking with them the young man John Mark (Acts 12:25).

Breaking into new territory

Having a desire to spread the gospel into the unevangelized areas to the west, the Antioch church sent off Paul and Barnabas as its missionaries (Acts 13:1-2; about AD 46). Accompanied by John Mark (who had gone with them as their assistant), Paul and Barnabas went first to Cyprus, where they proclaimed the message from one end of the island to the other (Acts 13:4-6).

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Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Paul'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​bbd/​p/paul.html. 2004.
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