Saul’s Preparation

Luke in Acts 9:19-30 gives a brief summary of what happened to Paul after his conversion. The details he mentions here are not the only ones found in the New Testament about this period. In Galatians 1:15-24, Paul mentions some other details, including the length of time between his conversion and his return to Jerusalem, which was three years.

Paul was aware of his calling as an apostle of the Gentiles (Gal. 1:15), although he does not mention any contact with them during those three years, unless it was when he went to Arabia. Yet since he knew what he was going to be, it is appropriate to regard them as years of preparation. We can consider the progress by looking at geographical locations that he mentions.

In Arabia
Paul mentions in the passage from Galatians that the first thing he did after his conversion was not to consult with anyone, not even with the apostles in Jerusalem. Instead he went into Arabia (Gal. 1:17), which is a term that describes the area around Damascus called Nabatea. Paul does not say how long he was there, but it would only have been for a few weeks probably. Neither does he say why he went there, but it is reasonable to assume that he found a place of solitude where he would spend time with God, think about what the Old Testament said about the Messiah, and get things sorted out in his mind. Of course, he may also have preached or spoken to the Gentiles in Nabatea. He did this before he started preaching in Damascus.

In Damascus
Returning to Damascus (Gal. 1:17), he commenced preaching about Jesus in the synagogue and Luke tells us what the theme of Paul’s messages were – he preached that Jesus is the Son of God (Acts 9:20) and the Messiah (Acts 9:22). What can we deduce about his messages from those details? There are three features, at least.

First, Paul now knew that God is a Trinity. Before then, as an orthodox Jew, he would have been appalled at the suggestion and would have regarded it as blasphemy. He now knew that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

Second, Paul now knew that Jesus was God and man. Before then, he knew that Jesus was human and would have regarded Jesus as a false prophet, but he now realised that Jesus was much more than a true prophet. Probably, his experience of Jesus on the Damascus Road had convinced him that Jesus is divine, and would have led him also to consider how there could be more than one divine person. 

Third, Paul now knew that what was meant by the Messiah was very different from what he had previously believed. In the past, he had assumed that the Messiah would live in Jerusalem and reign over the world from there. He now realised that the throne of the Messiah was in heaven and that he controlled all things from there.

Luke says that Paul was very effective in his preaching and that the Jews in Damascus were unable to show he was wrong. Eventually they resorted to a plan to kill him. Paul on discovering the plot was compelled to flee and the disciples made use of an innovative means for this to happen when they lowered him down over the city wall in a basket (Acts 9:23-25). This bout of opposition also involved Aretus, the King of the Nabateans, trying to arrest Paul, and his involvement also suggests that Paul’s time in Arabia had led to events in Nabatea that the king did not like (2 Cor. 11:32-33).

What can we say about Paul’s preaching as he prepared to become the apostle to the Gentiles? First, it was daring because he took it to those who disapproved of his message about Jesus. Second, it was devout because he was conscious of who Jesus is. Third, it was deep, which is inevitable if we are trying to explain who Jesus is – there is no such thing as a simple message whenever we are explaining who Jesus is. Fourth, it was dangerous because it resulted in people trying to kill him.

In Jerusalem
It was a very different Paul who returned to Jerusalem after three years in Damascus. But he discovered on arriving that the church in Jerusalem were unaware of his conversion and did not believe that he was a Christian (Acts 9:26). This is a reminder to us that news did not always travel fast in the ancient world, even such an important event as Paul’s opening years of ministry for the Lord in Damascus.

In God’s providence, Barnabas was aware of what had happened to Paul and of what he had been doing in Damascus. Luke says that Barnabas took him to the apostles (Acts 9:27), but Paul clarifies this by saying that he only saw two apostles – Peter and James, the brother of the Lord (Gal. 1:2). Paul also says that he stayed with Peter for fifteen days. Likely, he explained to Peter and James what had happened to him and learned from them details about the life of and death of Jesus.

Thereafter, Paul began to preach in the synagogues of Jerusalem, in particular in the synagogues made up of Jews from the Gentile world (the Hellenists). From another point of view, they were the synagogues with which Paul himself had been connected when he lived in Jerusalem. Probably, he went to stay with his relatives, although that cannot be proved. We do not know how long this preaching lasted for, but as in Damascus opposition from the Jews became so strong that the disciples decided to send Paul to his home city of Tarsus, which was in Cilicia.

In Acts 22:17-21, Paul mentions how God told him to leave the city during a time of prayer he was having at the temple. In the divine message, Paul was told to leave the city quickly because those listening to him among the unconverted Jews would not believe his message. Initially Paul seems to have wanted to stay on because of his own evil behaviour in the past and witness to them, but instead God said that he would send his servant far away. So Paul would not have been surprised when the leaders in Jerusalem then decided to send him to Tarsus.

Paul mentions in Galatians that he did not visit other churches in Judea, which could indicate that he was not in Jerusalem for long. But they heard about the incredible change that had taken place in his life and they praised God for what he had done in and through Paul.

What can we learn, or what can we say that Paul as a leader learned from this time in Jerusalem? First, the involvement of Barnabas introduced him to one who would later become a close friend and colleague. Second, his two weeks with Peter would have shown him the value of fellowship with other leaders. Third, the opposition in Jerusalem, following on from that in Damascus, would have confirmed to him the fulfilment of Jesus’ warning, given through Ananias, that he would suffer for the sake of Jesus.

In Tarsus
Paul returned to Tarsus and it seems to have been his base as he travelled in the regions of Syria and Cilicia (Gal. 1:21). The regions of Syria and Cilicia is a broad description. How long was he there for? It is assumed that he was there for about nine or ten years, a number based on what he says in Galatians about visits to Jerusalem. What happened to Paul during that time?

First, God arranged for Paul to be known in his home city of Tarsus as a Christian. It does not look as if he had any particular plans to go there. Yet Paul could not email his family and say that he had become a Christian. God required Paul to work amongst those who had known him in the past. It was likely that during this time he suffered the loss of all things, as he describes it in Philippians 3:9.  His family were not pleased that he had become a Christian and disinherited him.

Second, Paul called to be an apostle by God had to serve away from the limelight for almost a decade, preaching to groups throughout the region. Maybe he had to travel around because he had no personal support in Tarsus and went to places to find work. We are not told about any evangelistic success he had, although he did go to places in that area later on to strengthen churches (Acts 15:31). So maybe he returned to some places he had visited before. But he does not mention what success, if any, he had during that decade. Paul the future apostle was being tested by providence concerning what God had said to him about his apostolic career. He had to learn patience until God opened doors.

Third, it was during this time in Tarsus that Paul received the thorn in the flesh that he describes in 2 Corinthians 12:2-9. Paul wrote 2 Corinthians about AD 55 and this experience had taken place fourteen years earlier, which places it during the time he was in Tarsus. It had been preceded by an unusual spiritual experience when he had been caught up to the third heaven. Whatever the thorn in the flesh was, and since we are not told it is pointless to speculate, it gave Paul a real experience of spiritual warfare since he says it was a messenger of Satan that assaulted him and which Jesus refused to take away.

Of course, Jesus also gave to Paul the amazing promise that his grace was sufficient for him, and that his physical weakness was not a hindrance to serving the Lord. Maybe it was shortly afterwards that he heard a knock at the door and there stood Barnabas with an invitation to join him in the amazing work God was doing in Antioch.

What can we say about Paul’s years in Tarsus? They were not wasted, although they may have been weary. He left Tarsus different from how he had entered it when he returned there from Jerusalem. Maybe he expected a welcome and instead was rejected in his home. Maybe he anticipated going somewhere significant for God and instead had to roam around in an obscure area. Maybe he wondered what he could do now that he was physically weaker and harassed by a thorn in the flesh. All maybes, but he did know that the grace of Jesus was with him and therefore he was ready for acts of great service when Barnabas came looking for him to take him to work in the church in Antioch.

Read more

© (2017)