I Went: Saul’s Biography

Jackson Snyder

1989, updated October 30, 2002


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Paul's Previous Way of Life 

Galatians 1:13-14  For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the Assembly of Yahweh and tried to destroy it. {14} I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.

  1)  He chose to advance in Judaism

  2)  He chose to be over-zealous for tradition

  3)  He chose to strive against the sect of the Nazarenes

Paul was a compassionless legalist; Paul was a murderer; Paul was the soldier of the status quo; Paul was a militant fundamentalist, obnoxious but effective against the enemies of his faith. His previous life had been by his choice, and he was successful in his career.

   Some scholars tell us that Paul may have been a member of the temple guard and one of the instigators of the death of Jesus (Wilson).  Others show Paul to be a close relative to Herod, a friend to the Herodians and government officials, even an associate of Caligula (Eisenman).  If these scholars are right, then Paul had a great deal of power, influence and training – enough to completely destroy the sect of Nazarenes had he fulfilled his chosen plan.


Paul's Present Life

{15} But when Yahweh, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased {16} to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, {17} nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was…

Although Paul was on his way to fame and glory in his chosen career, Yahweh had other ideas:

  1)  Yahweh “separated him” from his mother's womb (lit.),

  2)  Yahweh had called him for a purpose,

  3)  Yahweh revealed his Son to him, and Paul believed,

  4)  Yahweh gave him a mission in life,

  5)  Yahweh required that he receive approval from no one.

  6)  Even his new theological understanding, he claims, came from above rather from others (like James).

Paul's present life was by election, that is, by Yahweh's choice, rather than his own.  Oh, yes.  He could have chosen his former path after Yahweh’s revelation – he had plenty to gain – he had great connections.  But he chose the harder road of humiliation.  He had a conversion experience and had received a commission to work. 

Acts 22:6. "As I made my journey and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me.   7.  And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?'   8.  And I answered, 'Who are you, Lord?' And he said to me, 'I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.'   9.  Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me.   10.  And I said, 'What shall I do, Lord?' And the Lord said to me, 'Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.'  11.  And when I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.  12.  "And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there,  13.  came to me, and standing by me said to me, 'Brother Saul, receive your sight.' And in that very hour I received my sight and saw him.  14.  And he said, 'The god of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth;  15.  for you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard.  16.  And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.' 

And to fulfill his commission, he was not required to get approval or teaching from anyone, because he had approval from the highest religious authority, Yahweh himself.  When he went to Jerusalem to get that approval, he did not, even from the disciples of Jesus!


"I Was" By Choice / "I Am" By Election

   Clearly, there was a great division in Paul's life, dividing the past, with its ambition, self-sufficiency, and self-satisfaction, and the present, still with its ambition, but based on total reliance on Yahweh, receiving the awards of grace instead of the applause of people.  Choosing to follow the election and calling of Yahweh over personal concerns is a struggle – most will have no part of it.  Learning about Yahweh and his ways is not an easy matter.  Following the road to righteous humility is not the choice of champions.  The choice of accepting Yahweh's perfect plan for our lives is not a passive one, but an active, continuing discipline.  Remarkably, many choose to live in the humility of evil than choosing the good.

   In 1987, the Prince and Princess of Wales allowed TV cameras into their home to film them as a normal couple with their two children.    During the interview Prince Charles described his job in these terms:  "It, more than anything else, is a way of life.  It's more than a job.  It's a complete, 24-hour-a-day business, really."  And that’s the life of a Prince who’s King is the devil – he describes it as a complete commitment.  If we are princes of Yahweh, a royal priesthood, shouldn’t our mission be a "24-hour-a-day business, really."

   Our decision to follow the Just One (Acts 22:14) cannot be a part-time job or a hobby.  It must take first place in our lives.  I know we wrestle with his choosing us and calling us throughout life; that we wrestle is only natural.  But in the end, Yahweh's choice must become our choice, as well.  And not by coercion.  Nobody forced Paul’s choice.  (In fact, his cohorts in Jerusalem tried to force him not to make such a choice.)  For when Yahweh's choice becomes our choice, then our choices become Yahweh's choices.  For Paul, Yahweh's will happily became his will as he went forth.  But it wasn't easy for him, either.


I Went

   Paul's choices took him all over the place.     

Gal 1:17b-21,2:1-2 {17b} But I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. {18} Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. {19} I saw none of the other apostles--only James, the Lord's brother. {20} I assure you before Yahweh that what I am writing you is no lie. {21} Later I went to Syria and Cilicia. {2:1} Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. {2} I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain.

   No wonder Paul often speaks of his journeys as races to be run.  It has been estimated that Paul may have walked as many as 50,000 miles in his missionary journeys.  In this section of his letter, seven places or groups of places he visited are either mentioned or implied.  They are Tarsus, Damascus, Arabia, back to Damascus, Jerusalem, Syria and Cilicia, and finally back to Jerusalem.  These places seem to The Way of discipleship for us as we make our own missionary journeys in life.  Let's look at Paul's travels:


Discipleship a Journey

  1.  Tarsus – Like us, Paul begins his journey at home.  Paul desired to serve Yahweh, but wanted to do it in his own way instead of Yahweh's way.  Remember, Paul was a Pharisee!  He was following his own understanding and his tradition -- but not Yahweh's will.  He thought that persecuting the Nazarenes was pleasing to Yahweh, and he enjoyed bringing them down.  He enjoyed watching the stoning death of Stephen.  But Paul's deity was too small and narrow – too much like him.  Tarsus stands for the beginning of our awakening in faith, our seeking to be religious.

  2.  To Damascus (conversion) -- It was on this road that Paul met the Just One.  It was on this road that Yahweh revealed his Son to Paul and set a course for him that has affected us greatly even down to the present day.  I might add that, though there were several sects of Christians by the end of Paul’s life, his brand of Christianity was the only one to survive into our time.  Nowadays, scholars are discovering the many varieties of Jesus’ followers; but for the vast majority, the only Christianity most today will know is that of the Pauline school.  Maybe this is as it should be.

   Damascus represents our conversion, however it may come about.  Yahweh, in his love and mercy, has chosen to reveal his Son to us, and we believe.  By the way, the name Damascus has a Hebrew meaning that is significant.  Damascus means, “Bloody Cup.”  Damascus was used as a code word in early times to refer to the Christian faith.  “The cup we drink, is it not the New Testament in His blood?”

  3.  Into Arabia (zeal) - Why did Paul go to Arabia?  Three ideas:  a.  To reflect, study, and pray.  To hear from Yahweh.  To seek Yahweh's will for his life.  To find out what he should do next.  b.  To meet the devil in the wilderness, like Jesus did, and be tested and tempted.  "Arabia" is synonymous with desert, or wilderness.  The Jews believed that the devil lived in the wilderness, as did all kinds of devilish creatures, like serpents and lizards.  Was Paul driven out into the wilderness as Jesus had been?  Or did Paul go because he was anxious...  c.  To immediately fulfill his calling -- Knowing Paul, he may have wanted to set out immediately to fulfill the mission Jesus had given him on the Damascus Road, to preach among the Gentiles (see Acts 9:20).  But Paul was used to doing things on his own, rather than to follow the voice of Yahweh.  And if Arabia was Paul's idea of a place to start, it certainly was not a good idea!

   10 years earlier (23 A.D.) Herod's son “Philip” had divorced the Arabian king's daughter in order to marry his brother's wife, Herodias.  We read about this in Mark 6:17ff.  John the Baptist had condemned this marriage as incestuous.  Because of this, John's head was served on a silver platter.

   The King of Arabia, to get revenge on Philip for divorcing his daughter, attacked Galilee with his army.  The situation was still tense when Paul went in -- for Arabs were not then any more well disposed towards Jews then as they are now.  Because Paul was related to the Herods (Eisenman), he considered a spy, and was chased out of Arabia by the forces of the King.  Paul certainly met his devils in the desert, but these devils were the flesh and blood variety, armed with swords.

Arabia represents the zeal of a new believer, taking baby steps in faith, even if the steps are in the wrong direction.

  4.  Then Paul returns to Damascus for Three Years (doubt) -- Damascus was the location of three great crossroads.  After his failure in Arabia, Paul goes back to the crossroads of his life, probably quite discouraged and depressed about his first bold step in faith.  Nevertheless, he can't keep quiet about his newfound faith, and people in Damascus are amazed at his witness.  "Isn't this the man who was arresting these Nazarenes?  Now he has joined them!"  Some people were glorifying Yahweh because Paul had so changed.  But others were set against him, and plotted to kill him.  It was here that his friends had to drop him over the city wall in a basket for him to escape assassination.  Acts implies that those who wanted to kill him were the disciples of James in Jerusalem (Acts 9:26).

   Here, Damascus represents doubt.  One cannot increase faith without first doubting.

  5.  To Jerusalem (discipleship) -- Paul had probably never seen Jesus before his crucifixion.  There was no New Testament then.  There was not a common understanding about who Jesus was.  Paul next makes the journey of discipleship to Jerusalem to spend time with Cephas and the Lord's brother James, to learn about Jesus - what he said and did, and how it did what he did.  To fellowship with people who knew him and ministered with him, were taught by him and whom he nurtured. 

   But after all these years, the teaching of Paul and that of James the brother of Jesus (who led the Jerusalem assembly) were vastly different.  James was a Nazarite of the Sadducees, who was thoroughly Jewish and an avid follower of the law.  Paul, as a Pharisee, had been teaching a highly spiritualized form of Christianity; Paul had actually denigrated the law and important traditions, like circumcision.  The Bible is clear that James and Paul did not agree on the concept of salvation at all.  However, in Acts 15 (if it is to be believed), Paul and James struck a compromise, with James proclaiming,

Acts 15: 19,20. My judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to Yahweh, but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood. 

   Jerusalem therefore represents discipleship.  A child of Yahweh must be brought up in the way she is to go, so that she may not depart from that way when she is mature.  However, this is a case in which the student outdistanced the teacher.  Paul disregarded the James’ instructions about both drinking blood when he instituted the first Communion:

1 Corinthians 10:16.  The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?

From what we know of James and those who were with him in Jerusalem before its fall, this drinking of blood, even if it be Jesus’ blood, would be repugnant in the extreme.  Had there been no Paul, there would be no blessed sacrament for us, no participation in the body of Messiah, no eucharistic power.  It took extreme gall to override the Apostles in Jerusalem who had actually known Jesus – and it was dangerous!  Likewise, it takes courage for us today to preach and make known the revelations of Jesus that are not commonly believed, understood or practiced.  But it’s our hope that all disciples will overtake their teachers, at least in the matter of revelation.

    6.  To Syria and Cilicia – Now Paul is on mission for real – he goes back to his home – from Damascus back to Tarsus in Cilicia through Syria – to his own people – maybe to round up support for his mission.  We don’t know much about these journeys; however, Paul undoubtedly did a lot of talking, explaining, working, fund raising, support building.  He undoubtedly worked hard on the conversion of his family; we know he had a sister and a nephew, and that they may have been rather high placed.

   Personal evangelism of one’s own family is one of the hardest and most thankless jobs one can do.  (Reconciliation.)

   We might also add that raising money for ministry is very difficult.  What Paul was raising money for was, at that time, considered a cult!  But look what he says about giving later on in the letter:

Galatians 6:5.  For each man will have to bear his own load.  6.  Let him who is taught the word share all good things with him who teaches.  … 9.  And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart. 

How else could I teach if you didn’t share all good things with me?  Your sharing with me helps me not to lose heart and guarantees that we will together reap in due season! 

   7.  Finally, Paul returns to Jerusalem (reputation and testimony) –

Galatians 1:22-24.  And I was still not known by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea; they only heard it said, "He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy."  And they glorified Yahweh because of me. 

Now he is a man with a resume of persecutions.  He has had to prove himself over and over.  And even if they still don’t agree with his teachings in Jerusalem, they can’t fault him for his zeal, his stick-to-it-iveness, his generosity.  After all, he had not only raised money for himself to serve in the capacity of traveling evangelist, but he had brought money back from his travels to help the poor in the Holy City.  It’s hard to argue doctrine with someone who puts his money where his mouth is.  Indeed, the messenger became the message, coming full circle, now preparing to take the final journey – on to Rome itself and the household of Caesar.

   In what town do you dwell?  Are you still in Tarsus or Arabia?  Have you yet recognized that Yahweh has chosen you from your mother's womb and called you to serve him?  Yes, you!  And that you are deemed worthy to serve him, not because you have lots of talent and money to offer, but because of his gracious choice?   If you can truly recognize and realize the privilege of Yahweh’s choice of your life, then you too may set out from your Tarsus.  There are no little ministries in His economy; no small favors in his service.  Many are called but few choose; and greater things you may do in the eyes of Yahweh than even He.


Note: "What Was Paul Doing in Arabia?" from Bible Review, October, 1994, p. 46-47.


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