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Saul of Tarsus

“Few backgrounds could have better prepared Saul to be the chief persecutor of the early church. He was born at Tarsus–“no mean city,’ as he liked to describe it (Acts 21:39)–a major Roman city on the coast of southeast Asia Minor. Tarsus was a center for the tent making industry, and perhaps that influenced Saul to choose that craft as an occupation. Teachers of the Law, which Saul eventually became, were not paid for their services
and had to earn a living in other ways…

However, Saul said that he was ‘brought up’ in Jerusalem ‘at the feet of Gamaliel,’ the most illustrious rabbi of the day (Acts 22:3) and a highly respected member of the Jewish council (5:34)…In making that statement, Saul was describing a process of technical training in the Law that prepared him to become one of the Pharisees, the religious elite of Judaism. For many Jewish youth, the rigorous course of study began at age 14 and continued to
the age of 40.

Apparently Saul was an apt pupil. He claimed to have outstripped his peers in enthusiasm for ancestral traditions and in his zeal for the Law (Phil. 3:4-6). Probably through Gamaliel, he had opportunity to observe the council and come to know many of its principals and some of its inner workings.

So it was that he chanced to be present when the conflict between the council and the early church came to a head in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:57-8:1). He had likely watched earlier encounters between the council and members of the Way, such as those with Peter and John (4:5-18; 5:17-40). But apparently the incident with Stephen galvanized his commitment to traditional Judaism and set him off on a mission to seek out and destroy as
many believers as he could (8:1-3).

Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles

“Ironically, Paul’s background not only prepared him to be the early church’s chief opponent, but also to become its leading spokesperson. Devout, energetic, outspoken, stubborn, and exacting, Paul became far more troublesome to the Jews than he had ever been to the Christians, not in terms of violence, but ideology. Indeed, he lived with a price on his head as his former colleagues among the Jews sought to destroy him (Acts 9:23-25,29; 23:12-15; 2 Cor. 11:26, 32-33).

Perhaps the chief irony of Paul’s life was his calling to be the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ (Acts 9:15; Gal. 1:16; 2:7-9). Paul had been a Pharisee, the very title meaning ‘to separate.’ Some Pharisees even refused to eat with non-Pharisees for fear of being contaminated by food not rendered ritually clean. They also separated from women, from lepers, from Samaritans, and especially from Gentiles (or ‘foreigners’).

So for Paul to take the gospel to the Gentiles was a reversal of his life and a thorough repudiation of his background as a Pharisee. Perhaps three people proved invaluable in helping him make this dramatic change: Barnabas, who like Paul was a Hellenistic Jew and came from a Levite background–he embraced Paul and mentored him in the faith when no one else would come near him (see Acts 4:36-37); and Priscilla and Aquila, fellow tent makers–they joined Paul in business in Corinth and probably discussed the faith and its implications with Paul much as they did with Apollos (18:1-3, 24-28; see Rom 16:3-5).

Paul eventually became Christianity’s leading evangelist and theologian. But even as his status in the church rose, his perspective on himself changed. At first he saw himself as an important Christian leader, but then as ‘the least of the apostles’ (1 Cor. 15:9). Later he realized that he was capable of ‘nothing good’ (Rom 7:18) and was ‘less than the least of all the saints’ (Eph 3:8). Finally he described himself as the ‘chief’ of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15)–and threw himself on God’s mercy and grace.

The fearsome Pharisee of Pharisees became the fearless apostle to the Gentiles whose credo was,
‘To live is Christ, and to die is gain’ (Phil.1:21).”

Source: The Word in Life Study Bible, pgs 1960-61.


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