Paul began life, sometime between A.D 1 and 6 in Tarsus, as Saul. His parents were Jews from the Benjamin’s tribe. He was free-born and a Roman citizen. He was a Pharisee, trained under the famous rabbi Gamaliel. At the time of Stephen’s martyrdom, there was a great deal of persecution against the Christians. Saul may have been at the murder of Stephen in his official capacity, possibly to provide witness as required by the Bible. At any rate, he gave his approval to it. He is reported in Acts 8 to have created havoc for the church by going into the homes of church members and arresting them. In the next chapter, Saul goes to the high priest requesting letters that will allow him to bind and bring back any of the Lord’s disciples.
As he came near Damascus, he suddenly saw a light from heaven. He fell to the ground, frightened, and heard a voice asking Saul why he was persecuting Christ. Saul asked who was speaking and learned it was Jesus Christ Himself speaking. Saul asked Jesus what He wanted Saul to do. Jesus instructed Saul to get up and go into the city, where he would learn what to do. Saul arose, but was unable to see. For the three days of blindness, he did not eat or drink. He prayed and received a vision of a man who would come to heal him.
A disciple named Ananias received a vision which instructed him to go to Straight Street to perform this healing. Ananias was reluctant, knowing Saul had the authority to arrest him. However, the Lord assured Ananias that Paul was receptive to the visit. Ananias healed Saul and Saul was baptized. After meeting with the apostles, he began to preach the gospel, in part because he was already extremely well-versed in the Jewish scriptures. He traveled to Arabia and Damascus, where he was able to prepare himself spiritually in the isolation of the dessert.
Three years after his conversion, he spent fifteen days with Peter and also met Jesus’ brother James. His preaching in Damascus, while astonishing those who knew his former reputation, began to alarm the Jews, who decided to kill him. The members of the church worked to keep him safe, knowing of the threat to his life.
Saul then traveled to Tarsus to escape danger to his life, which the Savior had warned him about during a vision in the temple. He remained there for six or seven years, preaching in Syria and Cilicia. The people there did not recognize him, but they had heard that he had once been a persecutor and now preached the very religion he had once attacked. This impressed many people and they “glorified God in me” (Galatians 1:24).
Barnabus sought out Saul in Tarsus and took him to Antioch. Together, they remained there for a year, preaching, teaching many. It was here that the people first began to be called by others Christians. It was also here that prophets came to Antioch from Jerusalem. One, named Agabus, prophesied that there would be a great dearth. The disciples determined to send relief to the brethren in Judea, which was delivered by Saul and Barnabus.
Saul spent another year in Antioch before being called on his first official missionary journey. He and Barnabus were set apart by the laying on of hands and left. It was on this journey that he began to be called Paul. (See Acts 13:1.)
In Antioch, the people began to argue among themselves concerning circumcision, some saying it was impossible to be saved without it. It was decided, after considerable debate, to send Paul, Barnabus, and a few others to Jerusalem to get a definitive answer from the apostles. They did so and the Pharisees argued for circumcision.
The apostles and elders met together to discuss the issue and the debate became heated. Finally, Peter put an end to the debate. He stood and reminded them of the day the Lord taught him to take the gospel to the gentiles. This change had erased the difference between Jew and Gentile. Peter tied this episode to the circumcision question and said it also placed an unnecessary boundary between believers. Salvation came through grace, not circumcision and the uncircumcised would be saved through the same grace that saved the circumcised.
The audience stopped arguing and Barnabus and Paul were able to talk about the miracles of conversion they had experienced among the gentiles they had been teaching and the issue of circumcision was soon resolved.
Barnabus and Paul returned to Antioch to teach. They decided to then visit each place they had previously taught to check on the progress of their converts. However, they had a strong difference of opinion concerning whether or not to take John Mark with them, Paul arguing against it because John hadn’t been with the on the initial mission trips. The debate became heated and they each chose new missionary companions. Paul set out on his journey with Silas.
In Philippi, they encountered a women who possessed a spirit of divination. Her soothsaying was very profitable to her masters. For many days, the woman followed Paul and his companions around, announcing that they were servants of God. Paul, however, recognized the source of her soothsaying and commanded the spirit to flee from her, which it did. Her masters were angry because of the loss of income. They took Paul and Silas prisoner and brought them into the marketplace to stir up anger against them. The multitude beat them and then they were put in jail, their feet in stocks.
At midnight, the two began singing hymns which were heard by the other prisoners. Suddenly an earthquake began, so fierce it shook the doors open and loosened the bands. The prison keeper awakened and panicked, presuming all the prisoners had fled. He prepared to kill himself, but Paul stopped him, assuring him everyone was still there.
The frightened guard came to Paul and Silas, falling before them, and asked how to be saved. They told him to believe in Jesus Christ. The jailor was baptized and arranged for them to be set free—but Paul was not yet willing to go. He wanted those who put them in jail to come personally to free them. When this happened, Paul was willing to leave.
Paul was also arrested after his third missionary journey. He came to Jerusalem after leaving Corinth at about A.D 58. He traveled by land because there was a threat to his life, but joined the portion of his group again in Toas. They eventually arrived in Jerusalem. Many tried to convince him to avoid this trip due to the danger, but he persisted, perhaps under inspiration.
Paul was falsely accused of violating the inner courts of the temple, because Gentiles were not allowed in it. (See Acts 21.) He had been seen with Trophimus, who was a gentile and thought he had taken the Ephesian into the temple. He could have been stoned for this alleged violation because it was a very serious one.
Paul had the opportunity to share his conversion story with the people and to testify of Christ, but then the audience clamored for his death. He was bound, but asked if it was legal to treat a Roman in this way. Paul was both a Roman and free-born. He was freed from his bonds. Paul realized part of the audience was Pharisee, so he declared his own lineage as a Pharisee, which created a division between the Pharisees and Sadducees in the audience. The chief captain intervened to keep Paul from being torn apart by the argument among the two groups and ordered him taken to the castle.
During the night, the Lord Himself appeared to Paul and comforted Him. A murder plot arose, with some vowing to fast until Paul was killed. The chief captain arranged for his safe departure. Paul, on arrival, was accused of sedition, but had the opportunity to Felix. Paul was a prisoner for two and a half years and then faced a shipwreck while being sent to Rome for trial. During his first imprisonment, he wrote at least four of his epistles. While in Rome, he continued his missionary work despite being on house arrest by converting many of his guards. He appears to have been acquitted and released after the trial.
Paul resumed his travels, undaunted. He was again imprisoned in Rome four years later. Some of his friends desert and even betray him during this time. He wrote several powerful epistles, including to Timothy. The Roman government was no longer friendly to the church because Nero blamed the early Saints for the fire of Rome and persecution was intense. Paul and Peter were both martyred as a result. During Paul’s trial, no one stepped forward to defend him and it appears only Luke stayed with him.
Paul left behind, through an epistle to Timothy, this powerful testimony near the end of his life:
6 For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand.
7 I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith:
8 Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
The video below offers a modern application to the story of Saul on the road to Damascus.