Saul of Tarsus was actually the First Christian Missionary Martyr sometime around
69 A.D. Saul was known to Christians as St. Paul.
Saul grew up in a strict Jewish family in the port of Tarsus, a province of Cilicia,
in what is now southern Turkey. This area of Asia Minor which was near Cyprus was
a Greek-speaking area. It was also within the Roman Empire and Saul’s family was
distinguished enough to have been granted Roman citizenship. Saul’s father, using
his influence, arranged for Saul to go to Jerusalem to study among the Pharisees,
under the tutelage of Gamaliel, a leading authority in the Sanhedrin and the grandson
of the great Jewish Hillel the elder.
The first glimpse that we have of Saul is at the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7:58-60),
where those taking part in the stoning of Stephen “laid aside their robes at the
feet of a young man named Saul.” As Saul had become closely linked with the religious
authorities in the city and zealously helped to suppress the Jewish heresy which
was being spread by the followers of the crucified Jesus, Saul watched with full
approval the stoning of the first Christian martyr.
Probably oneProbably one of the greatest ironies of Saul’s life is that he accomplished
a lot to spread the gospel even while he was persecuting the church. His rabid efforts
to hunt down Christians in and around Jerusalem scattered believers to the wind,
planting the gospel seeds everywhere they went. This should well demonstrate to
us that God uses even the plans and efforts of evil men to accomplish His will.
Once Saul has his confrontation with Jesus on the Damascus road, all that fiery
intensity of his former life was now channeled into his efforts for Christ. Instead
of persecuting the Christians of Damascus, Saul is baptized by them and stays among
them for about three years. Now named Paul, Saul returns to his home in southern
Turkey and preaches the Christian faith there. Then, sometime around 40 A.D., Paul
begins the great series of missionary journeys which give the young church its first
sense of being a widespread community. These journeys also give Christianity its
earliest written records.
Paul’s missionary journeys take him to Cyprus, through much of Turkey and to all
the Greek communities around the Aegean Sea. Paul’s first visit in each new place
was always to the synagogue, for Christianity at that time was still essentially
a Jewish sect. If his arguments were resisted by the local Jews, he extended the
debate to the local Gentiles who were usually more willing to listen and receive
the news of Jesus Christ.
To the Jews, comfortably settled in their religion and tolerated by the Roman authorities,
Paul was a dangerous trouble-maker. Often they would beat him and drive him out
of their city. As Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 11:24-28, “From the Jews five times
I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was
stoned (and left for dead); three times I was shipwrecked…” We should always remember
that the faith we claim has been delivered to us by many willing to pay the price
Many Jews, perhaps with justification, saw Paul as encouraging people to abandon
strict observance of Jewish ritual. This reaction leads to violence when he visited
Jerusalem in about 55 A.D. He was in the Temple, undergoing ritual purification,
when he was assaulted by hostile Jews.
The Roman authorities rescued him from a murderous mob and took him into a protective
custody. This “protective” custody lasted for two years while argument goes on as
to whether Paul should be handed over to the Jewish authorities and to almost certain
death. Being a Roman citizen he “appeals to Cesar”, insisting that his case be transferred
to Rome. Eventually he sets of as a prisoner , on the long journey by sea to Rome.
Paul is allowed to hire his own lodgings, where he remains for a few years under
“house arrest”, and “received all that came in unto him, preaching the kingdom of
God, and teaching those things which concerned the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence,
and no man forbidding him.”
It is rather strange that Luke, Paul’s frequent companion, does not include in Acts
either the result of the legal process against Paul or any mention of his death.
Christian tradition states that Paul was martyred in Rome, and perhaps a violent
conclusion would not have appealed to early Christian readers of this otherwise
inspirational account of the great missionary. The date of Paul’s death is generally
guessed to be somewhere around the second half of the 60s, after the Fire of Rome
led to the first large-scale persecution of Christians.
We miss a significant lesson from Paul’s life if we make suffering our goal. Suffering
is not an accurate measurement of obedience or faithfulness. Disobedience and faithlessness
can also bring suffering. When suffering becomes a goal, pride is often the hidden
motivation. Suffering is an unpredictable by-product of obedience and faithfulness.
But it’s only a small part of an even greater unpredictable aspect of life in Christ
– joy! The example of the great martyrs of the faith is one of joyful, carefree
living. They didn’t relish suffering, but they didn’t run from it either. They learned,
as Paul, the principle of radical contentment:
“Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am,
to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and
in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and
to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians
Paul let nothing but God’s Spirit hinder him from going to the ends of the Earth.
How far will you go for God? Paul fought the good fight, finished the race, and
kept the faith.
We can do the same as Paul, if we just have faith in Jesus Christ.