Paul: Background and Call

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the September 12, 2015 Sabbath School Lesson



I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel that I may share in its blessings.” 1 Cor. 9:22-23, NIV


Paul was an apostle born out of time.[i] He did not have the advantage of walking three and a half years with Jesus as the other apostles did. As a Pharisee, he may even have been one of those who heard of Jesus but thought of him only as the leader of an aberrant offshoot of Judaism, much like he may have felt about the Sadducees. He may have expected a messiah, but nothing like the poor carpenter leading a group of fishermen and other uneducated undesirables. A son of a Pharisee,[ii] following in the family tradition, he may have been too involved in his studies with his famed teacher, Gamaliel,[iii] to concern himself with what was going on in Galilee.


However, once Jesus and his retinue came to Jerusalem, was condemned to die on the cross, and was later resurrected, His disciples lay the blame for His death on the priests and rulers of the city. That meant the Pharisees as well, and particularly would mean someone like Paul, who was also known as Saul.[iv] Perhaps with this charge, made by Peter on Pentecost, a split within Judaism became impossible to prevent. Thousands were now following the new sect, and Saul was not one of them. Zealous for the temple and all that pertained to that system of worship, he was unwilling to allow anything to threaten what had been the religious standard for many centuries. To that end, he began not only supporting the persecution of the Christian sect, but also became a violent leader of that persecution.


Perhaps the most notorious act of that nascent persecution was the martyrdom of Stephen, a deacon of the church. Brutally crushed by stones hurled at him by an angry mob, he emulated the death of Jesus in breathing forgiveness over his tormentors. Saul stood by approving of the horrendous deed, even holding the cloaks of those who were throwing the stones. If we were Christians in Jerusalem at that time, we would be hard pressed to find any redeeming qualities in Saul. However, his zeal, used ignorantly for an evil purpose, was to become a vital element for first century Christianity.


Traveling with his retinue to Damascus with special warrants he requested from the High Priest in Jerusalem, he intended to arrest and to imprison any Christians he might find through the synagogues there. However, upon approaching Damascus, he saw a vision of Jesus and was blinded by that vision. Perhaps this was a metaphor for his previous blindness regarding Jesus’ fulfillment of messianic prophecy. Entering Damascus, and unable to proceed with his mission, he may have begun to seek understanding from his knowledge of the scriptures. God was not willing to leave him groping for understanding in the darkness though. He appeared to him again in vision and told him that a man named Ananias would heal him of his blindness. He also appeared in vision to that same Ananias, a faithful Christian and told him to go to Saul and lay hands on him. Reluctant at first because of Saul’s reputation, he went and did as he was told. As a result, Saul was healed.[v]


Some may wonder at what point Saul became Paul. It was common practice among the Jews to have both a Jewish name and a Roman name.[vi] Since he was a Roman citizen through his father, Paul may have been known by both names, depending on circumstances, for much of his life. Although the book of Acts does not give us the reason for the change or even why the change occurred, just an abrupt ceasing with the name Saul and beginning with the name Paul.[vii] This may be nothing more than a literary metaphor for the abrupt change in the focus of Gospel evangelism from centering on Jewish culture and experience to a focus on the larger non-Jewish, or Gentile, world. While on Cyprus, though, the coincidence of the proconsul Sergius Paulus, becoming a believer and Saul beginning to use his Roman name, Paul (Latin: Paulus) causes me to wonder if the closeness between two brothers in Christ, both Roman citizens, may have had some influence on the change. Perhaps the conversion of such an important personage also confirmed in Paul’s mind his ministry to the Gentiles. Or perhaps Sergius encouraged him to use his Roman name to more effectively reach other non-Jews. But the name change is not the only dramatic change of direction in this portion of the book of Acts. Where Barnabas had previously been the leader of the evangelistic team reaching out to the Greeks and Romans, Paul now is seen as the leader for the remainder of the book.


At this point, Paul’s zeal becomes the predominant theme in Acts. Along with that zeal is perhaps a certain lack of tolerance for those who do not share the same level of zeal. This ultimately caused a split between Paul and Barnabas when Paul did not wish to give John Mark a second chance after he abandoned the first mission trip in Pamphylia and returned home.[viii] Barnabas then traveled with John Mark, and Paul chose a new partner, Silas. Some feel that the rift was later healed based on Paul’s later references to someone named Mark in a more positive perspective. However, there is not widespread agreement that this later Mark is the same person as John Mark. It is a possibility, following Paul’s example in using his Latin name, John Mark did the same, abandoning his Jewish “John” in favor of the Latin “Mark” (Marcus). If, as early church traditions assert, Barnabas was martyred on Cyprus around 61 CE,[ix] Paul would have remained as the pre-eminent evangelist to the Gentiles and may have influenced Mark greatly in subsequent missionary efforts. His success raising up churches throughout Asia Minor and Greece possibly endorsed the effectiveness of his methods.


Paul faced many challenges to his efforts. When he persecuted Christians earlier in his life, they provided little physical resistance to his efforts, perhaps because of Christ’s teachings regarding non-violence. The Jews, who now viewed him as an enemy, had no such qualms, raising a tumult wherever they could and fixing as much blame as possible on Paul and his companions for the civil chaos they themselves had caused. Because of their animosity, Paul was stoned and left for dead in Lystra when Jews from Antioch and Iconium stirred up the crowd.[x] But opposition did not come only from the Jews. It soon developed from certain Gentiles as well. In Philippi, Paul and Silas were imprisoned when they cast the demon from a Gentile woman and her owners became upset about it. They had been making money from her condition and now felt that income was lost. Raising a hue and cry, they blamed the ensuing riot on Paul and Silas, who were then beaten and thrown in jail.[xi]


Interestingly, often on occasions when Paul and other Christians were persecuted, this seemed to confirm the truth of their ministry in the eyes of some and converts joined the church as a result. In Philippi, the jailor in charge of the prison where Paul and Silas were kept was amazed at their miraculous deliverance via an earthquake, and he and his family became believers and were baptized. It is not uncommon for such things to happen except in that it is perhaps too uncommon that individuals have the zeal to stand for the Gospel as these early evangelist did. We might ask why things are so different for so many today. Perhaps it is because we do not face the trials for being Christians that those early believers did. If it takes persecution to make a zealous church, then we might understandably believe that the church, persecuted as it has so often been in Communist and Muslim countries, might be the most zealous and committed in the world.


So should we seek and even encourage persecution to strengthen the church? Perhaps in doing so, we would be getting the proverbial cart before the horse. In other words, do we stir up persecution to become more committed Christians, or do we stir it up by becoming committed Christians? The answer may be found in our understanding of works and grace. If we are heavily invested in a theology of works based faith, we might feel the need to be confrontational in order to generate hostility and thereby persecution. On the other hand, if we place our faith in God’s working out everything according to His will, irrespective of our involvement, and we realize all we can bring to the salvation table is our faith in His grace and goodness, then any persecution that arises would not be opposition to us per se, but rather opposition to the immutable will of God. Perhaps this is why Paul wrote to Timothy, “…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”[xii] Perhaps it is the nature of darkness to oppose light, and as we move toward the light,[xiii] opposition naturally increases. This may have been Paul’s experience. Perhaps it should be ours.



[i] 1 Corinthians 15:3-8

[ii] Acts 23:6

[iii] Acts 22:3

[iv] Acts 13:9

[v] Acts 9:1-18

[vi] "Paul the Apostle,"

[vii] Acts 13:9-13

[viii] Acts 15:36-40

[ix] "Barnabas,"

[x] Acts 14:19-20

[xi] Acts 16:16-40

[xii] 2 Timothy 3:12

[xiii] John 1:9-10




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