“Next to the work of Christ Himself, the conversion of Paul was probably the most important event in the history of Christianity,” one commentator claims. I agree with that assessment. Why? Because Paul’s conversion eliminated one of the greatest threats to the Gospel—the chief persecutor of the Faith became its top promoter. Christianity’s main antagonist was transformed into an advocate for the cause of Christ. He and his preaching partner, Silas, were accused of having “Turned the world upside down” (Ac. 17:6, NKJV). Indeed, wherever Paul preached, it seems he either sparked a revival or provoked a riot or both.
Paul’s pedigree would make any Jew of his day jealous. Paul was born into a strict Hebrew family from the tribe of Benjamin. The son of a Pharisee, he grew up in Tarsus until about the age of twelve when he moved to Jerusalem. He was a student of “Rabban” Gamaliel, whom Jews considered “the glory of the Law.” According to Herbert Lockyer, Gamaliel was the first of only seven doctors of the Law given this esteemed title, which means “Our Master” (an even higher honor than the term “Rabbi”). Paul was probably versed in four languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin) and quoted Greek poets in his preaching, making him by far the most educated of the Apostles. By contrast, when Peter and John were questioned by the Sanhedrin, they “perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus” (Ac. 4:13). This proves the point that God can use both a scholar like Paul and the uneducated like many of the other Apostles. He is looking for willing vessels from all backgrounds. As someone aptly said, “God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called.”
At some point Paul learned the trade of tent making which he used to supplement his income and gain rapport with Aquila and Priscilla who helped him establish the church in Corinth (Ac. 18:3). Paul followed in his father’s footsteps and became a Pharisee, perhaps even a member of the Sanhedrin Court, the seventy-one-member council that ruled Jewish life and religion (Ac. 26:10).
We are left to wonder if Paul ever married. When he wrote, “I wish that all men were as I am” (1 Cor. 7:7, NIV), he was obviously single at the time. Some suggest that he was a widower. Perhaps his wife died or later left him when he converted to Christianity. The Bible does not mention him having a wife or biological children, only spiritual sons. Some sources say Pharisees were required to be married to have voting power. Paul did call the forbidding of marriage a “doctrine of devils” (1 Tim. 4:1-3) and he provided most of the sound marriage council found in the New Testament, suggesting he may have been married at some point.
Paul emerged as a fanatical religious zealot obsessed with destroying Christians and crushing the fledgling Church. The first time he is mentioned in Scripture, he’s an instigator in the illegal stoning of Stephen. (The Jews were not permitted to execute people under Roman law. That is why they took Jesus to Pilate when they wanted the death penalty imposed—Jn. 18:31). Paul later admitted to being an accomplice in Stephen’s murder, “And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him” (Ac. 22:20).
Paul’s dramatic conversion is recorded three times in the book of Acts (Ac. 9, 22, 26). Some people are saved from sinful lifestyles; Paul was saved from self-righteous religion. He knew everything there was to know about Judaism and the Mosaic Law but was still lost and clueless about spiritual things. With arrest warrants in hand, Paul headed to Damascus to drag any male or female followers of Jesus back to Jerusalem to stand trial like Stephen. That’s when God sovereignly turned his world topsy-turvy. Jesus appeared to him in a blinding light, knocked him to the ground, and demanded to know why he was persecuting Him. Notice Paul’s response: “Who are you, Lord?” He knew a lot about God, but he didn’t truly know God in a personal way. Head knowledge of Biblical information is not nearly as important as having a heart revelation of who Jesus is.
When God saved Paul, He recruited the best player off the enemy’s team, the spiritual equivalent of the Yankees acquiring Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox in 1920. God changed Paul’s heart, mind and direction, plus He changed his name too. A name change in the Bible often indicates a nature change. His parents probably named him after King Saul who became obsessed with destroying David. Saul of Tarsus became obsessed with destroying Christians until God changed his name to “Paul,” which means “small” or “little one.” Incidentally, it is believed that Paul was a man of short stature. More importantly, stripped of his religious pride, he had to become small in his own eyes in order for God to use him.
A physical description of Paul from the second century is not very flattering, “He was a man of little stature (about 5 feet tall), partly bald, with crooked legs, of vigorous physique, with eyes set close together and nose somewhat hooked.” Remember, dynamite comes in small packages. Whatever physical limitations Paul may have had, he overcame them with his boldness, tenacity and the power of the Holy Spirit. The fact that Paul became a history maker and a world changer proves that it’s not what’s on the outside that matters; it’s what’s on the inside that counts. God has a track record of using ordinary people to do extraordinary things, so He can get all the glory!
After his conversion, baptism and introduction to the church in Damascus, Paul preached Christ so persuasively that the Jews gave him a dose of his own medicine—they conspired to kill him. Paul fled under the cover of night and escaped by being let down from the city wall in a basket. (He and Moses had something in common—they were both basket cases.) Then Paul vanishes from the Biblical record for the next three years until he reemerges in Antioch in Acts 11:25-26. Paul alluded to his absence in Galatians 1:15-18, “I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter.”
Strangely enough, three years of Paul’s life are unaccounted for, which begs the question, “What was he doing during that time?” Author Chuck Swindoll offers an interesting explanation, “For three years, Saul lived somewhere in the desert, cut off from his former manner of life—in solitude, quietness, and obscurity . . . A thousand days plus he most likely spent alone. All alone. Thinking. Praying. Wrestling within. Listening to the Lord . . . I’m convinced it was there, in that barren place of obscurity, that Paul developed his theology. He met God, intimately and deeply . . . It became a three-year crash course in sound doctrine from which would flow a lifetime of preaching, teaching, and writing.” Preparation is never wasted time. He apparently confined himself in an atmosphere of study, prayer and spiritual growth to prepare for future ministry. If you feel like God has temporarily placed you on the shelf and is not using you to your full potential, keep in mind that as you wait on and grow in Him, He is preparing you for a new phase of ministry.
Paul’s other periods of confinement were times when he was incarcerated for the “crime” of preaching the Gospel. Several times he called himself, “A prisoner of Jesus Christ.” Notice he never called himself the prisoner of a particular city, or jail or of the leader within a city. No, He recognized that God controlled his destiny. He alone held the final verdict in his case, not man. It was during this confinement that Paul did some of his greatest work. He didn’t wallow in self-pity or complain about how unfairly he was being treated. Nor did he squander valuable time. Instead, as a redeemed man, he “Redeemed the time” just as he instructed the Ephesians to do (Eph. 5:16). An argument could be made that if Paul wasn’t confined to prison at various times he could have established more churches, trained more leaders, preached more sermons and won more souls. True, but God had a higher purpose in mind—the completion of the Canon of the New Testament. In Paul’s confinement he produced several important “books” known as “The Prison Epistles” (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians and Philemon). 2 Timothy, though classified as a “Pastoral Epistle,” was also written by Paul from prison in Rome. Contained in these inspired letters is a treasure-trove of doctrinal and practical truth that has guided the church in belief and practice for two millenniums.
You may find yourself in some kind of unexplained and unexpected confinement that you can’t seem to escape (i.e. a hospitalization, a financial crisis, an emotional storm, a mental battle, a legal matter, or a family conflict). Recognize that God can use you in unique ways even in your confinement. Learn from it, grow from it and let God use you through it. As Paul reminded Timothy from his jail cell, realize that “the word of God is not bound” (2 Tim. 2:9). In other words, God is not limited by our confinement.
Paul’s legacy lives on via the thirteen (fourteen if you count Hebrews) New Testament Books he authored. During his three missionary journeys and his last trip to stand trial in Rome, he established many churches, trained dozens of church leaders and won thousands of souls to God. He almost singlehandedly took the gospel to the Gentile world. He served at various times in all five of the ministry offices of the church: apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher. He stood and boldly proclaimed Christ unashamed before governors, kings, and even Nero, the most powerful man in the world. He did all this before the days of air planes, phones and computers. Imagine what he would do now with modern transportation and communication methods.
Ultimately, his head was placed on a chop block and severed from his body for his faith and testimony. In his last recorded words, perhaps on the eve of his execution, he wrote to his beloved protégée Timothy, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:6-8). Ironically, this man who prior to his conversion tried to eradicate the Faith, ended up becoming an honored martyr for the Faith. And, as his head was severed from his body, Paul’s spirit was released to his Savior he loved and served so faithfully. He had written his own epitaph years before, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
His life and letters still inspire millions today 2,000 years after the fact. Paul’s life, second only to Jesus, had the most far reaching influence on Christendom. The reason Paul turned the world upside down is God turned his life right side up first. You may feel small, but if God used Paul—a murderer turned minister—He can use you to turn your world topsy-turvy for Christ.
Ben Godwin is the author of four books and pastors the Goodsprings Full Gospel Church. To read more articles, visit his website at bengodwin.org and take advantage of his 4-book bundle for $25.00.
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.