Paul. A name so familiar to us who know the Bible, and yet sometimes he remains no more than a formality in the first verse of each of his letters. What was Paul’s life as the famous New Testament missionary like?
Born by the Hebrew name “Saul”, Paul was originally from Tarsus, a reputable city – most likely for its high intellectualism and commercial wealth. Since tent-making from goat’s hair cloth was a popular trade in Tarsus, it is possible that as a young lad he had learned the trade that would later pay the bills during his missionary trips.
However, tent-making was not to be his primary occupation. In Acts 22 we learn that Paul was trained in Jerusalem under the strict teaching of Gamaliel the celebrity rabbi of the day. The Talmud contains a witty comment about one of Gamaliel’s students who some think is a reference to Saul. It states that Gamaliel tutored a student who displayed “impudence in learning.” Whether or not that comment refers to Saul, it was no doubt true of Saul. Saul was a Pharisee of the Pharisees.
The first reference in Scripture of Saul, is at the end of Acts 7 where he gives the approving nod to those stoning Stephen, the first Christian martyr. And according to the beginning of Acts 8, Saul was merely gaining momentum in his persecution of the Christians. But then, Jesus introduced Himself to Saul, soon-to-be-Paul. In Acts 9 we read of Paul’s Damascus road experience and salvation. Two brief verses map out Paul’s post-conversion life in service to his new Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
But the Lord said … “… he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
After his conversion, he spent three years in the Arabian desert being taught by Christ and seeing visions that he was not allowed to speak about (2 Corinthians 12:1-4). Back in Jerusalem, being vouched for by Barnabas, he was sent out as a missionary with his trusting brother Barnabas (Acts 13:2).
The next year Paul’s itinerary resembles that of a leper looking for friends. Arrive in city, speak to Jews, get chased out of synagogue, speak to Gentiles, plant church, get stoned, flee to next city. Arrive in next city, speak to Jews, get chased out … and the whole process repeats itself a number of times for a whole year.
Then he becomes one of the key figures in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, and leaves for another 3 year missionary trip. Done with this trip, he embarks on another 3-year missionary trip planting churches. In all this, Paul the best educated believer, not only preached and taught on a daily basis, but also took care of most of his own personal needs by working for the local tent-maker. According to 1 Corinthians 9, he never imposed himself on others and always limited his lifestyle and rights to consider the sensitive consciences of those he ministered to.
2 Corinthians 11:22-27 gives us an overwhelming list of physical and spiritual trials that Paul experienced. Paul confesses that all these would be quite bearable if the churches he had invested in were doing well, but most of them were torn in two – one half being destroyed by false and greedy teachers and the other half diving back into all kinds of previous sinful habits.Thus he adds:
And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying.2 Corinthians 11:28-31
This is the life of a missionary. God’s calling on your life might be less dramatic, but may our own hearts echo the love for the saints and praise for God that oozed from Paul’s heart.