St. Paul, the First Christian Missionary Martyr; c. 69 A.D.

StPaul St. Paul
Rembrandt Van Rijn Leiden
(1606 - 1669 Amsterdam)

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 of faithfulness.

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.

StPaul The Martyrdom of St. Paul
Mattia Preti
(1613-1699 Italy)

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 4:11-13).

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.

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