Thursday, September 22, 2011

Church Leadership

A primary Greek word used in the Bible to talk about church leaders is "episkope." Broken down, epi-scope, has the root, "scope," as in telescope, microscope, stethoscope, etc... You think of an instrument designed for getting a good look at something. And the prefix, "epi," means "on, upon, at, by, near, over, on top of, toward, against, and among." You might think of the word, "epicenter," which describes not only the center of a focal point, or the crux of an issue, but actually being there to gain first person, experiential knowledge of the same.

Combining the prefix and the root, the Greek word "episkope," which is where we get our English word, "Episcopal," and which is often translated as "bishop," "elder," "overseer," or even "visitation," describes an investigator and his task, one who visits closely in order to look deeply into something or someone, which is exactly what a church leader should spend his time doing - looking deeply into the people and circumstances of his flock. In fact, when the word is used of an authority figure, even of God Himself, it means, "that act of looking into and searching out the ways, deeds character, of men, in order to judge them and their lot accordingly, whether joyous or sad."

How are your church leaders doing at this primary task of theirs? Are they loaded with other chores and tasks that prevent them from engaging in their primary role? How do you think they should best perform this task? By preaching the word of God, of course, which is "living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates, even to dividing sould and spirit, joints and marrow. It judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12). If you are a church leader, then "watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers" (1 Timothy 4:16).

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Tillman Story

I watched this documentary / movie last night, because I appreciated Pat Tillman's successful football career and subsequent surprising departure from the NFL in order to enlist with the military following the events of September 11, 2001. I really did not know what to expect out of the film, but what I saw and heard was certainly unexpected. I'm still trying to process the motive for the production.

The movie primarily served to accuse the military and US government of a massive cover-up, attempting to honor Tillman and prevent the public from learning of his death by friendly fire. And I think most people are unsuprised if/when that sort of thing happens. How many films have been made about such activity? I think of Courage Under Fire and The General's Daughter, and the lines, "You can't handle the truth!" without much consideration. It's certainly not "right" to conspire or cover-up the truth, especially when it pertains to representing facts to the family and loved ones of a slain soldier. And it's all the more wrong to engage in such activity in an effort to promote military action in foreign lands when the purpose is questionable to begin with. And so for the efforts to make such activity public, I suppose I appreciate the film.

However, there were plenty of additional motives for this film, more subtly portrayed. First, there was a sort of subjective political message in addition to what is depicted objectively, and I can't quite put my finger on it. But I was skeptical, and saddened by the efforts to state that claim. Second, or of more interest to me, was the religious message implied in the film. Messages of hope from well-wishers were squashed by family members with an undoubtedly atheistic worldview. Tillman's younger brother spoke at his memorial service, cursing and declaring that Pat is not with God, because he was not religious. He is simply dead. The anger that was continually present from his family is understandable given their humanity, but illogical, given their atheism. Pat's mother continually replied to the military's and government's immoral behavior, but she had no basis for her views of morality to begin with.

In one clip, a radio conversation between military personnel is played, and the gist is that the family can't get over it because of their atheistic thinking. I think it was meant to glorify atheism in some sense, to honor their perseverance, as if to say that theists are weak and give up easily at the will of the system, while atheists are strong and never yield to the system. In another series of clips, one of Tillman's group members, a "religious" mormon, was shown to be (1) small and puny and weak (in comparison to Tillman), (2) in the best care under Tillman's "practical" leadership, rather than in the hands of his impractical "god" - Tillman even encouraged him not to pray in the midst of gunfire, and this was shown to be a good move for the soldier - and (3) better off when he let go of his wimpiness, his "faith," and instead toughened up and "acted like a man." I can't believe that this subtlty was included unintentionally. I just wonder why.

In the end, Tillman was shown to be much more intellectual and open-minded than you might have expected him to be as a jock. He was portrayed as a risk-taker who lived life to the full, a faithful husband to his high-school sweetheart, and a family-loving son and brother. He was called a hero, and anyone who voluntarily gives up their game-playing multi-million dollar career to fight for their country's freedom, risking their life in foreign lands for minimal (if any) pay, I suppose ought to be given such a title - at least on earth. But I am afraid Pat Tillman has received his reward, if only honor and joy in this life. For the atheist, as his brother clearly stated, is dead. He understands death to be merely the end of this life. He has no concept, as his dead brother now does, of the second death, eternal separation from God. The Tillman Story protrays that family to be ever-in-pain, hardened by the loss of Pat, and in hostility toward God. Only God can take away that pain, and He has to do it by softening their hearts of stone, and reconciling them to Himself. I pray that He would, for their good, and for His glory.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Leading a multi-round tournament, but still a few days to go...

Friday, June 10, 2011


In the fall of 59 or 60 AD, Luke and Aristarchus accompanied Paul, with 273 other passengers (Acts 27:37), onto a grain-ship bound for Rome. The passenger count included many prisoners escorted by a Roman Centurion named Julius (Acts 27:1-2). Luke’s masterpiece is compared with Homer’s Odyssey, Jonah’s Mediterranean Voyage, and is even called in secular circles “one of the most instructive documents for the knowledge of ancient seamanship.” Bruce says, “Paul’s genius for friendship manifested itself at an early stage in the voyage. He so won the confidence of the centurion that, by the time the ship on which they had embarked at Caesarea put in at Sidon, he was allowed to go ashore on parole and visit his friends.”

After stopping in several cities along the way, the ship came in “early October” (59-60 AD) to Fair Havens, on the Isle of Crete (Acts 27:7). Although Paul warned Julius not to sail the Mediterranean during a dangerous time of the year (September 14 through November 11), the Centurion disregarded his advice and tried to reach a farther port in which to spend the winter (Acts 27:9-12). A brief moment of friendly weather gave way to a fierce storm, which drove them out to sea where they expected to die. For 14 nights they were lost at sea and driven nearly mad, but, as Paul prophesied to the passengers, they would be safe after wrecking their ship off the coast of Malta (Acts 27:14 - 28:1). They wintered for three months on Malta, where Paul was a blessing to everyone. He survived a snakebite and healed many people. The following spring (60-61 AD), everyone made it safely to the Bay of Naples, and to the Italian port city of Puteoli (Acts 28:13; modern day Pozzuoli), where Paul and companions stayed for a week with local Christians. Then they walked the rest of the way to Rome. Christians came from Rome to greet and walk with Paul along the Appian Way (Via Appia) for some 30-40 miles outside the city. And so they came to Rome (Acts 28:14).

Julius delivered Paul to the captain of the guard, or some sort of camp commander, in Rome (Acts 28:16), and he was allowed to live at his own expense, by himself, though constantly guarded by a soldier (house arrest). For two years Paul lived in Rome (60-62, or 61-63 AD), and he was able to receive visitors and continue his preaching of the Gospel (Acts 28:23-31). It appears that some Roman Jews came to speak with Paul, unaware of who he was. They considered Christianity a sect and had heard discrediting remarks about the Way (Acts 28:22). They remained unconvinced after hearing Paul, and so he spoke against them the words of Isaiah 6:10, which had become a widespread rebuke of Jews from Christian interpretation of the passage. Paul said finally to them, “Take knowledge, then, that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen to it” (Acts 28:28).

Many scholars think that Paul wrote Hebrews (addressed to the Jewish Christians in Rome?), Ephesians (maybe?), Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon from Rome around 62 AD. And of course, Paul wrote 1 Timothy and Titus toward the end of his stay in Rome (62-63 AD). Meanwhile, Luke may have also finished up his book of Acts during the Roman house arrest timeframe. It is noteworthy that Paul, in these later letters, speaks favorably of Mark, who is linked to Peter and Rome. Papias, Eusebius, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus all write in the early second century that Mark was Peter’s interpreter. According to Bruce, since the time Paul refused to take him on the second mission trip, Mark “no doubt had matured under the wise and sympathetic guidance of Barnabas and then as aide-de-camp of Peter.” Also, Paul had certainly mellowed in these 12-15 years.

Regarding Philemon, many wonder how and why it made its way into the canon of Scripture. Some speculation is required, but much evidence points to Onesimus himself as a compiler of Pauline writings. In 110 AD, Ignatius, the bishop of Syrian Antioch, wrote to Ephesus, where the bishop’s name was Onesimus. And the letter mimics Paul’s style in Philemon. If Onesimus was 20 years old when he met Paul in Rome, he would have been 70 years old in 110 AD, not a far-fetched age to be a presiding bishop. Some even say that Onesimus had a hand in writing Ephesians. But that’s another story.

Not much has been said about Colossians, primarily because Paul had not been there in person. Colossae was Philemon’s hometown and had been a large and prosperous city in the 400s BC that dwindled to a small town by 50 AD. Today, Colossae is deserted; modern day Honaz is a small town three miles away. Epaphras, a valued colleague of Paul, likely founded the Colossian Church, where some pre-gnostic false teaching erupted as Judaism mixed with non-Jewish philosophy. Some scholars trace this teaching to the Essenes (intellectual exclusiveness, speculative tenets, and asceticism), especially since many specifics mentioned in Colossians are also found in the Qumran texts. Some call it “Jewish non-conformity,” but Paul fights the human traditions by repeatedly and in every way pointing to Christ.

When we come to the letter to the Ephesians, we find his heaviest emphasis on the Holy Spirit. The very presence of the Holy Spirit is evidence of the last days (Joel 2:28). The Spirit confirms that Jesus is the promised Messiah, just as the prophets, including John the Baptist, foretold. The Spirit Himself is the promise, the seal, the deposit, and the guarantee that the resurrection life and glory are by faith in Jesus (Romans 8:9; 2 Corinthians 5:5; Ephesians 1:13-14). But the Spirit is not only an individual’s experience, for He unifies all believers as the Body of Christ. Jesus broke down barriers (Ephesians 2:14) and enabled Gentiles to join with Jews (Ephesians 3:1; Acts 21:27). Paul was charged with bringing a Gentile into the holy place, and there’s no indication that he did. But to Paul, the barrier was gone; there was no reason a Gentile couldn’t go right into the Holy of Holies. Jesus paved the way, and Hebrews and Ephesians are similar in their emphasis of this important truth.

Paul undoubtedly had deep concern for Christian unity, and he brings in language to speak of this unity – light and darkness (Ephesians 5:7-14; 1 Thessalonians 5:6; Colossians 1:12). Of course, this language is replete in John’s writings (John 3:19; 12:35; 1 John 1:7; 2:8) and even in the Essenes’ Qumran texts. It’s a call to – by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit – leave the dark, the old way of sin, and enter the light, the new way of life. “One of the most interesting points of affinity,” says Bruce, “between Ephesians and the Qumran texts lies in the idea of the ‘mysteries’ of God.” Paul speaks often of “mysteries,” things once hidden but now revealed (1 Corinthians 2:6,9; 4:1; Romans 1:2; 15:9-12; 16:25; Colossians 1:26; 2:2; Ephesians 1:9; 2:16; 3:8-11; Isaiah 64:4). For example, when Paul says, “It is written,” in 1 Corinthians 2:9 and proceeds to quote a saying, there is some resemblance to Isaiah 64:4, but early church fathers (Origen, Jerome, etc.) say “the words appear in the Secrets (or Apocalypse) of Elijah… They are frequently quoted in the early centuries AD, especially by Gnostic writers, because they lent themselves readily to Gnostic interpretation.” The words are even ascribed to Jesus in the apocryphal Acts of Peter and Gospel of Thomas. Paul may have quoted the words from a Jewish text, the Coptic Testament of Jacob.

So we come to the end of Paul’s life, which came in Rome by beheading. Some scholars suggest he died on the heels of these two years under Roman house arrest. There is no certainty that his trial ever came before Caesar, though, and many credit court congestion or think the Sanhedrin never showed up to prosecute. Records of the Roman judicial system don’t reveal a specific statute of limitations, but they do show that prosecutors were given 18 months from an assigned court date to appear for the trial or face a stiff fine. If prosecutors still didn’t show up within 2 years, there’s no evidence that Rome would simply release a prisoner. Neither Luke nor Paul tell us specifically what happened, but we can speculate from Paul’s pastoral epistles, namely 2 Timothy, that he was released for a time – perhaps visiting Crete and/or Nicopolis (Titus 1:5; 3:12) and even Spain (Romans 15:28) – and then re-imprisoned in a harsher condition, until he was executed.

A fire broke out in Rome on July 18-19, 64 AD. Nero was away but returned to provide relief. Rumors spread that he had set the fire so he could rebuild the way he wanted, but to avoid this stereotype, according to Tacitus, Nero blamed the Christians. One author said, “Christians were generally disliked for what their neighbors regarded as anti-social attitudes.” Christians, then, under Nero in 64-65 AD, were sportingly executed until public pity kept Nero from continuing this strategy. But what happened to Paul? Was he dead by this time? Had he left Rome only to be brought back in the midst of this persecution? Clement of Rome, writing in vague language to the Corinthians in the mid-to-late 90s AD, some 30 years after his death, said that Paul was exiled, but also that he reached the limit of the west, bore testimony before the rulers, and so departed as “the greatest example of endurance.” In 2 Timothy 1:16-18, Paul was obvious struggling in his prison environment. Onesiphorus, an Ephesian Christian, labored to find him in Rome. Paul’s final words appear in 2 Timothy 4:6-8, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing.”

Well after his death, Paul’s legacy lives on. The apocryphal Acts of Peter, likely composed around 180 AD, describes Paul’s departure from Italy by sea for Spain. The Roman Presbyter Gaius, quoted by Eusebius, in response to a claim that one could visit the tombs of Philip the evangelist and his daughters in Asia, said, “I can point out the trophies (tombstones) of the apostles (Peter and Paul, who are traditionally recognized as the founders of the Roman Church, though neither actually did): [on] the Vatican Hill (Peter) [and] the Ostian Way (Paul).” There are churches at those sites today. A memorial chapel was built on the Ostian Way at Aquae Salviae (now called Tre Fontane), near the third milestone, where, tradition asserts, Paul was beheaded. They say his head bounced three times, forming the three fountains after which the place is named. Excavations of the site revealed two concrete slabs which had engraved on them, “To Paul, Apostle and Martyr.” Though the writing dates only back to the fourth century, the location is in what was a pagan necropolis, not a place pious people would have chosen to commemorate such a legacy if they were inventing the tale.

In time, Peter’s value to Rome was more and more greatly appreciated, while “Paul’s contribution to early Christianity was in practice increasingly overlooked. To be sure,” Bruce says, “Paul with the sword of the spirit stands in the forecourt of St. Peter’s Basilica, alongside Peter with the keys of the Kingdom, just as Peter faces Paul in front of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls – more congenial associates in death, perhaps, than they were in life. But there may be a symbolical fitness, it has sometimes been said, in the location of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. Paul might have understood and approved; he was well accustomed to being odd man out.” Paul’s pride and joy was found in his converts. People mattered most to Paul, and that may have been the case because Paul mattered most to Jesus. Jesus humbled Paul, not by removing his pride, but by changing the things he would boast in. Taming his impetuousness, Jesus made Paul meek. And it didn’t happen by rules or regulations, but by the power of the Holy Spirit.

2 Timothy 1:15 shows that people in Asia turned away from Paul; this happened as Paul spent time in prison, and no one was there to adequately take his place. John and Philip made their way into Asia and stabilized things by the mid-to-late 60’s AD. The Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 AD put an end to Jerusalem’s authority, at least until 135 AD, and Paul’s legacy was rightly restored. Early in the second century AD, an unknown Christian (either Onesimus or someone from Alexandria) compiled ten of Paul’s letters into one volume and circulated them throughout the known world, resulting in both orthodox and heterodox authors using Paul’s letters to make their points. Marcion, for a heterodox example, said in 144 AD that Paul’s ten letters and Luke’s gospel made up the New Testament. In response, orthodox church fathers named thirteen letters of Paul, four gospel accounts, Acts, Peter’s letters, James, and John’s letters as authoritative. Even Hebrews was included – as Paul’s – by 180 AD. Around 150 AD, an Asian presbyter recorded, out of love for Paul, a fictional account of his ministry – the Acts of Paul. Some believed it to be true, even the part where Paul was put in the arena to be killed by a lion, but he befriended and baptized the lion instead. Paul’s legend was often embellished, but his message never changed, which proves his abiding greatness. Augustine, Luther and the Reformers, the Wesleys in the Great Awakening, and even American democracy relied heavily on Paul’s teaching that grace changes people; grace without change (antinomianism) and attempts to change without grace (legalism) always fail.

Bruce concludes, “Although he was rabbinically trained, his reappraisal of the whole spirit and content of his earlier training was so radical that many Jewish scholars have had difficulty in recognizing him as the product of a rabbinical education. They have found it easier to appreciate the Prophet of Nazareth (who, indeed, was not rabbinically trained) than the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul presents an enigma with which they cannot readily come to terms… Paul looked forward to the day when the racial, religious, sexual, and social prejudices or discrimination to which on principle he denied any place in the Christian fellowship would be banished from the whole new creation. And he placed a higher valuation on human personality than social or political democracy could ever do when he insisted that the weaker members of the community should received special consideration because each of them, however insignificant in other respects, was ‘the brother (or sister) for whom Christ died’ (1 Corinthians 8:11). Campaigner for spiritual liberty that he was, he gave one thing precedence even over liberty, and that one thing was love. But spiritual liberty is not really diminished by love; both together are imparted by the Spirit, and to serve in love is perfect freedom. In this, as in so many other respects, Paul has remained unsurpassed in his insight into the mind of Christ.”


It is worth summarizing Paul’s letter to the Romans here. Romans (57 AD) is often been compared to a systematic theology, because its content can easily be summarized by various doctrinal headings, which are often the same as those followed in the creeds, confessions, catechisms, and systematic theologies throughout church history: God, creation and fall, the work of redemption in Christ, the application of redemption by the Spirit, and the Christian life and relation to the world, etc. But it is important to point out that the Book of Romans was not written as a systematic theology; rather, there is a specific historical context that drives Paul’s arguments (especially concerning the relationship between Jews and Gentiles). Notice especially how Paul raises and answers questions throughout the letter. This tool is used both to prove that what he is teaching is true and to cause his audience to engage these issues with their full intellect. The Epistle contains an unfolding theological argument that attempts to summarize God’s work throughout the Scriptures.

1:1-17 Introduction & Thesis
1:18-3:20 Before Paul can elaborate on the good news of v17, he must explain the bad news. All of humanity faces a problem: the wrath of God, which is entirely justified because all of humanity has violated His law. The Gentiles know God according to general revelation, and the Jews know God according to special revelation, yet both have failed to worship and obey Him.
3:21-4:25 Back to the good news: Since everyone is under sin and God’s wrath, the only way out is the Gospel: the announcement that, in Christ, God has provided a righteousness that satisfies His holy requirements. All of this is received through faith alone, apart from works, just as the Old Testament Scriptures have taught, which the examples of Abraham and David demonstrate. Christ propitiated God’s wrath in His death and justified the wicked by His resurrection.
5:1-11 We have peace with God thanks to the work of Jesus Christ. Our understanding of this truth should result in rejoicing, in spite of and even on account of our sufferings.
5:12-21 At this point, Paul has concluded his summary of justification by grace through faith in Christ. This brief section serves as an interlude revisiting our sinfulness and God’s amazing mercy by comparing and contrasting Jesus with Adam. V20 stirs a question that gets Paul going on what happens after justification – namely, sanctification.
6:1-7:6 God has not only secured our salvation from the condemnation of the law, but also from the dominion of sin and death. Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we are made new creatures, no longer slaves to sin, as shown through an example of marriage.
7:7-8:39 Despite this truth, we continue to struggle throughout our life with indwelling sin, and the only hope we have is to look to Christ, with the indwelling Spirit testifying in our hearts to our adoption and keeping alive within us the hope that all of creation will share with us in the final redemption. The Golden Chain of Salvation reminds us that God is at work (v28-30) in us to sanctify us according to His purpose. In light of this, nothing can separate us from God’s love.
9:1-11:36 How can we trust Paul’s Gospel if God has been unfaithful to His earlier promises to Israel? What about Israel in this grand scheme? God has always maintained a faithful remnant among the physical descendants of Abraham, and even among the Gentiles, by sovereign election. Salvation is solely a matter of God’s mercy alone. Faith, which comes through hearing the Gospel, is how salvation is received, and plenty of messengers have been sent to proclaim the genuine offer of the Gospel. All along, God has been perfectly faithful to His promises, and after He adds the complete number of Gentile branches to the Tree of Israel, He will bring in the fullness of the Jews as well. The plan of God throughout time is amazing.
12:1-15:13 Application of 1-8 and 9-11: In view of God’s mercy, which staggers our imagination, we no longer offer dead animal sacrifices for atonement; rather, our own bodies serve as living sacrifices out of praise and thanksgiving. In that light, we must not judge one other in disputable matters, but instead, by grace, build each other up by loving and serving selflessly.
15:14-16 Note the clear display of the Communion of Saints and powerful conclusion in v26-27: Paul accomplished his mission, writing “so that all nations might believe and obey Him – To the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.”

Martin Luther said about Romans, “You had better follow the order of this epistle. Worry first about Christ and the Gospel, that you may recognize your sin and His grace. Then fight your sin, as the first eight chapters have taught. Then, when you have reached the eighth chapter, and are under the cross and suffering, this will teach you correctly of predestination in chapters 9, 10, and 11, and how comforting it is. In chapter 12 he teaches what true worship is, and makes all Christians priests. They are to offer not money or cattle, as under the law, but their own bodies, with slaying of the lusts. Then he describes the outward conduct of Christians, under the spiritual government, telling how they are to teach, preach, rule, serve, give, suffer, love, live, and act toward friend, foe, and all men. These are the works that a Christian does; after all, faith takes no holidays. This Epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament, and is truly the purest gospel. It is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but also that he should occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. We can never read it or ponder over it too much; for the more we deal with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes.”

Finally, John Calvin said of Romans, “It can never be sufficiently appreciated that when anyone gains a knowledge of this Epistle, he has an entrance opened to him to all the most hidden treasures of Scripture. The whole Epistle is so methodical, that even its very beginning is framed according to the rules of art.”

The Roman Church was founded on a Jewish base, before any apostle came and preached there. Though Paul notes Andronicus and Junias as apostles who were in the Lord before he was; perhaps they were in Jerusalem to hear Peter’s Pentecost sermon only to return to Rome and found the Roman Christian Church amongst their Jewish brethren. Jews and Romans had a tenuous relationship from 19 AD, when there was a major and scandalous financial misappropriation that may have led to Paul’s comment in Romans 2:24, that the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of the Jews. Claudius placed a number of travel and business restrictions on the Jews when he became Emperor in 41 AD, based on uprisings in Alexandria and Jerusalem. There were an estimated 40-60,000 Jews in Rome as of 49 AD, when he expelled them from Rome. Secular historians ascribe the eviction to Jewish uproars instigated by the Christians in their midst. Though it is impossible to know how many Roman Jews had become Christians prior to 49 AD, once many of them returned in 55 AD (after Claudius died and Nero succeeded him), the Christian community in Rome was comprised of a minority of Jews and a majority of Gentiles. Paul elaborates on this physical reality by explaining it spiritually in Romans 11. Gentiles had no right to boast; their inclusion would ultimately lead to more Jews turning to Christ. Some suggest Hebrews was written (by Paul) specifically to Roman Jews / Jewish Christians further explaining their situation (Hebrews 13:13).

In Romans 16, Paul greets many people, seemingly in 5 or 6 groups, pointing to the fact that many of Paul’s acquaintances had moved to Rome but lacked a central meeting place (perhaps due to the size of the city, which was separated into suburbs). It is also noteworthy that many of the names appear in records of imperial households. Due to the decentralization, it is not surprising that Ignatius reports that there was no bishop in Rome, even as late as 110 AD. It is suggested that Phoebe, from Cenchreae, the port of Corinth, delivered Romans to each house church. In early or mid April 57 AD, Paul’s delegates to Jerusalem left Cenchreae by ship, but Paul and Luke went a different route due to a plot against Paul’s life (Acts 20:6). They would meet up later in the voyage and hope to reach Jerusalem by Pentecost, which was the last week of May. From the Philippian port of Neapolis, it took Paul and Luke five days to reach Troas, four more than when they had gone earlier in the opposite direction. They celebrated the Feast of Unleavened Bread at Troas (Acts 20:6), with the body of believers there, and Paul even taught late into the night. Eutychus was in the audience, and Paul’s sermon put him to sleep. He fell out a third story window, but thankfully, he was alive and well. They made their way to Miletus, visiting several cities along the way (Acts 20:15). There they were delayed in harbor, probably due to cargo issues for the ship, so Paul invited the Ephesian elders to come down 30 miles and visit him. He warned them of impending danger, both from within and without (Acts 20:15-38). No mention is made of a Christian congregation in Miletus, but there is plentiful evidence of a Jewish synagogue there at that time, with a number of God-fearers as well.

Before arriving at Caesarea, the party stayed at Tyre for seven days, fellowshipping and praying on the beach with the Christians there, though no specific mention of their congregation is made (Acts 11:19). In Caesarea, Paul and his friends stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist for several days (Acts 21:1-8). Perhaps he visited Cornelius, who lived there, as well. Then Paul and his colleagues made for Jerusalem, guided by Mnason, a Hellenist Christian from Cyprus who would host them while in Jerusalem. Paul had been warned twice (by the Ephesian elders and again by the prophet Agabus) about going to the city (Acts 21:4, 10-15), but everyone proclaimed in the end, “the Lord’s will be done” (Acts 21:14). The delegation met James and the elders – perhaps the Sanhedrin of the true Jewish remnant (believers) – and they glorified God. But they were also quick to point out the Jews who believed the gospel and kept the law; they apparently did not accept Paul’s gift, which signified a break between Paul and Jerusalem that would never be healed.

Peter and the other apostles had likely left Jerusalem to minister in the lands of the Jewish dispersion. But at Pentecost, many Jews had returned to Jerusalem, and the Ephesian (or Asian) Jews recognized Paul and one of his Gentile converts named Trophimus at the Temple. They accused Paul of bringing a Gentile where Gentiles were not allowed, and they dragged him out and beat him. The Roman military rescued Paul, and he was brought to the tribune, Claudius Lysias, who was surprised by his educated Greek words. (He undoubtedly thought Paul was a renegade Egyptian who stirred up trouble and escaped a couple years earlier.) Paul was given the opportunity to speak, and he addressed the crowd in Aramaic (Acts 22:3-21). His speech stirred the crowd again (especially when he mentioned ministry to the Gentiles), and the tribune order Paul to be imprisoned and flogged. Before the flogging, Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship and avoided the painful punishment. But if he had broken Jewish law, he would be subject to the Sanhedrin. When no witnesses came forward, Paul was held by the tribune, pending the Sanhedrin’s ability to prosecute. It is thought that Paul’s delegation returned to their homes at this time, with the exception of Luke and Aristarchus, who stayed to try to provide care for Paul. Paul defended himself before them by bringing up the resurrection, which caused the Pharisees and Sadducees to argue amongst themselves. When the tribune saw the lack of progress and learned from Paul’s nephew of a plot to assassinate Paul, he sent him to Caesarea under the cover of plentiful guards and nightfall. There, the provincial governor, Felix, would facilitate the case and hearing against him.

Paul spent the next 2 years imprisoned in Caesarea, which was a predominantly Gentile city, in which Roman leadership preferred to live to avoid the Jewishness of Jerusalem. Felix was a freedman, once a slave in the house of the daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia, who happened to be the mother of Emperor Claudius. Felix had a brother, Pallas, who was Claudius’ chief accountant of the public treasury. Felix had skill in befriending the political and social elite – three of his wives were of royal birth – which helped him to maintain a lifestyle of power and prestige. He also maintained his power by siding with Rome against any uprising. At this time, many zealous Jews were launching terrorist-style, guerilla warfare tactics against any people they felt were siding with Rome, even against their own people. Once such victim of the sicarii – daggermen – was the high priest Jonathan, and Felix fought these uprisings harshly and successfully. Even when Pallas lost his position at Nero’s accession (late 54 AD), Felix was able to keep Rome’s favor, and therefore his position of authority, for five more years.

Five days after Paul’s arrival in Caesarea, the Sanhedrin came with Tertullus, a hired lawyer / orator, to carry out the case against Paul (Acts 24:2). Paul defended himself (Acts 24:10), and Felix delayed a decision, waiting to hear from the tribune, Claudius Lysias, on the matter. We have no further record of Felix holding another hearing, though many experts suppose he had hopes of holding Paul for ransom, taking a bribe to release him to the highest bidder. No offers were tendered, and so Paul remained. Felix called on him from time to time, and Luke says surprisingly that he had “a rather accurate knowledge of the Way” (Acts 24:22). One of his wives, Drusilla, a Jewess, may have wanted to hear Paul. In the end, continued strife between Romans and Jews got Felix recalled to Rome.
Festus succeeded him in 59 AD and reopened the case against Paul. Paul was in danger now, because Festus was siding with the Jews over Rome in many cases. Having no confidence in his chances of a fair trial in this district, Paul appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:11). Roman citizenship increasingly abused this right until it was abolished in 212 AD. Claudius always heard the cases himself, but until 62 AD, Nero never did. We don’t know who, if anyone, heard Paul’s case, but because of his case, Bruce says, “It would soon be impossible to regard Christianity as a variety of Judaism… A favorable hearing…might win recognition for Christianity…as the true fulfillment of Israel’s ancestral religion.” Festus was likely glad to have the responsibility off his shoulders, but he still had to draft a letter explaining the situation. Festus passed that duty off to 17-year-old Agrippa II, son of Herod Agrippa I, who died in 44 AD (Acts 12:23). Agrippa, hearing “about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive” (Acts 25:19), wanted to meet and talk with Paul. But he laughed at the rationality of becoming a Christian (Acts 26:27-28), and he suggested that Paul could have been released if he hadn’t appealed to Caesar.


Leaving Antioch in late 49 AD, Paul and Silas traveled to Tarsus, strengthening the churches along the way in Syria and Cilicia, and then on to Derbe and Lystra. In Lystra, they added Timothy to their team; Timothy appears to have been clearly called to this ministry (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6), and became Paul’s frequent traveling companion, fellow laborer in spreading the gospel, and protégé (Acts 16:1; 1 Timothy 1:2, 4:14). Though naturally diffident in temperament, Timothy would never misrepresent Paul (Philippians 2:19-22). But surprisingly – given Paul’s conclusions on the circumcision issue in Acts and Galatians – though not inconsistently, “because of the Jews” (Acts 16:3), Paul had Timothy circumcised. Timothy, unlike Titus, who was not circumcised, was not a Gentile Christian; and although to the Gentiles he appeared to be a Jewish Christian, he wasn’t authentically Jewish because of his Greek father, who likely refused to allow him the Jewish rite of circumcision that his mother, Eunice, would have appreciated. This must have been a stigma of sorts to the young man, perhaps contributing to his timid nature. Therefore, Paul’s decision to circumcise Timothy in order to legitimize his standing among Jews for the sake of his future ministerial efforts, and perhaps even for the sake of his own confidence in ministry. Bruce also considers it to have been “an object lesson for the Gentile Christians in those places (Asia Minor) of the difference between circumcision as an act of legal obedience, undertaken by people like themselves who were under no such obligation, and circumcision as a practical and religiously neutral expedient adopted in a most exceptional case.” This move, therefore, was completely in line with Paul’s principles, both in becoming all things to all men in order to win some (1 Corinthians 9:22), and in the truth that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters (Galatians 5:6; 6:15). Freedom in Christ certainly didn’t demand Timothy’s circumcision, but neither did it prohibit it, especially since it was entirely voluntary and for the sake of improving his ability to minister effectively.

Heading through the Phrygian and Galatic region, where Iconium, and Pisidan Antioch lay, the three missionaries, says Acts 16:6-7, were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia,” and “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” to enter the province of Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1). Perhaps an inward sense of inhibition motivated them to head for the Asia Minor port city of Troas. Troas was an important free city in the Roman Empire, and Acts 20:5-12 reveals that there was a church there – Eutychus fell out of the window during Paul’s late night lesson here – though no detail on its formation or founding is given. Luke joined the group in Troas, and in response to a vision Paul had of a man in Macedonia calling him over (Acts 16:8-9), they immediately traversed the somewhat tenuous sea voyage to Neapolis (Acts 16:10-11) in only one day. (Acts 20:6 notes that the reverse trip took 5 days.) Neapolis was the port of Philippi, which was 10 miles inland along the Roman Via Egnatia, the Roman military road that connected the Aegean Sea and Bosporus Strait with the Adriatic Sea (eastern and western Greece).

Macedonia had been divided into four districts in 167 BC, and Philippi, a Roman colony, was in – but not the capital of – the first district. There was no synagogue in this small town, as there apparently weren’t at least ten Jewish males to constitute one (Qumran’s Essenes engaged in this practice). But outside the city, on the banks of the Gangites River, there was an unofficial place of worship where God-fearing Gentiles gathered to recite Jewish prayers. The four missionaries preached the gospel here, and the Lord opened the heart of a woman named Lydia, who heard Paul’s preaching and responded in faith. She was promptly baptized along with her entire household (Acts 16:12-15), and became the hostess not only of the missionaries during the remainder of their stay but also of the church that formed in Philippi (Acts 16:40). Lydia was a wealthy woman from Thyatira (Revelation 1:11; 2:18-24), where there was a Jewish settlement and where she likely became a God-fearer.

Also while in Philippi, Paul exorcised a spirit of divination from a slave girl (Acts 16:16-18), which made her owners angry that they lost the ability to make more money from the slave’s divination and incited them against the Jewish Christian evangelists. They accused them of proselytizing, which was strongly discouraged in Roman colonies though not technically illegal. Paul and Silas were arrested, stripped, beaten with rods, flogged, and imprisoned (Acts 16:19-24). Luke and Timothy were apparently exempted since they weren’t Jewish, an interesting detail which we will examine shortly. That night, Paul and Silas prayed and sung hymns of praise, and an earthquake shook the prison. When the shackles miraculously fell off and the prison doors miraculously opened, Paul and Silas saved the jailer from killing himself out of fear of the consequences (Acts 16:25-40). They preached the gospel to him and his household, baptized them, and received care from him. The next morning, they were released from prison, but they appealed for an apology, since they were Roman citizens, and, after encouraging Lydia and the young church gathered in her home, they were escorted peaceably from the city. It appears that Luke stayed in Philippi (Acts 16:17; 20:5-6; Philippians 4:3), perhaps to guard the young church until Paul returned, as the other three missionaries passed through the cities of Amphipolis and Apollonia enroute to Thessalonica (Acts 17:1).

Named after Alexander the Great’s half-sister (and daughter of Philip II), Thessalonica was 90 miles down the Via Egnatia from Philippi. Thessalonica was the largest Macedonian city, and a free city, which served as the capital of the second district. Paul visited a Jewish synagogue there for three consecutive Sabbaths to explain why Jesus is the Old Testament prophesied Savior of mankind (Acts 17:2-4). Jason (Jewish Joshua), who may have been one of Paul’s relatives (Romans 16:21), converted to Christianity and became their host; Aristarchus and Secundus joined them in the faith as well. There were also several pagan (1 Thessalonians 1:9) and God-fearing converts, including many wives of city leaders (Acts 17:4).

It must have troubled the city leaders that their wives had become followers of Jesus. It was quite fashionable among the ladies of socially elite families to attend synagogue, but not to get serious with what must have been seen as a cult or scam-artist’s ploy (1 Thessalonians 2:3-12). Certain Jews, envious of the Gospel’s success, took advantage of this citywide unease and incited a riotous mob (Acts 17:4-5), which dragged Jason and some other believers before the local civil magistrates when it couldn’t find Paul, Silas, and Timothy. They were charged with wrongdoing (Acts 17:5-8), but released after posting bond. Now this charge of causing trouble seems to us like no big deal, but the severity is revealed when understood in the context of the widespread unrest in Jewish/Roman relations throughout the Empire. Jewish freedom fighters (terrorists / zealots) were striving to usher in an era for a militant messiah, and Roman leaders wouldn’t easily distinguish this serious threat to peace from Christianity’s Messiah. Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) expelled the Jews from Rome in 49 AD and refused to allow Jews to enter Alexandria out of fear. Christians, still seen as a sect of Judaism by many, were often included in this persecution. Thus, the Thessalonians’ charge against Paul and company was skillfully worded, effectively an accusation of sedition, akin to the words between Pilate and the Jews found in John 19:13-15. Paul would later refer to this episode as Satan hindering him (1 Thessalonians 2:18). Paul had preached quite prophetically in Thessalonica, referring to eschatological events in predictive fashion. This led to even greater suspicion among the civic leadership, as Augustus and Tiberius had forbid political prophecy (in 11 and 16 AD, respectably – yet the Herods of Judea seemed to appreciate it!) with a penalty of death. Of course, Paul wasn’t talking politics, but the wording he used of Jesus, as King and Savior, was more than enough to be seen as threatening to the Empire.

Paul was essentially forced out of Thessalonica, and he went reluctantly, as the young church needed further guidance. He knew they would face persecution, and so, since he couldn’t make a return visit imminently, he wrote the Thessalonians a couple of letters. Scholars note that “apart from one near-apocalyptic paragraph (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12), 2 Thessalonians [seems] a pale echo of 1 Thessalonians.” Many suggest that our second letter actually preceded our first, and that the depth of 1 Thessalonians was required when 2 Thessalonians didn’t go deep enough. A hint of this truth is that 2 Thessalonians 1:4 speaks of present persecution, while 1 Thessalonians 1:6 and 2:14 speaks of persecution in the past tense. Paul may have written 2 Thessalonians from Athens, which Timothy likely delivered, and 1 Thessalonians from Corinth shortly after Timothy returned with a report on their experiences. Paul would have rejoiced at this report, for the Thessalonians were evangelizing in their persecution, and everyone knew it (1 Thessalonians 1:7-8).

Paul issued further instruction on sexual purity, something the Greeks struggled to learn and apply (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8). Likewise, Paul had to urge them to work, as their brief discussions while he was with them on the topic of eschatology had disinclined them to daily labor. If 2 Thessalonians indeed preceded 1 Thessalonians, then the mention that “‘the day of the Lord’ (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12) would not come until certain events had taken place might have stimulated [their] concern about…those…died before it came. On the other hand, if 1 Thessalonians was written first, it might have unintentionally provided ammunition for those who argued that, with the coming day so imminent, there was no point in planning or working in the short interval before it came” (cf. Luke 17:22-27; Mark 13:5-37).

As a brief contextual aside, in 40 AD, it appeared that Caesar Gaius may have been the antichrist, or the man of lawlessness, in the minds of the young Christians, but especially “the abomination of desolation” (Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14) to the Jews. Taking his divinity very seriously, he planned to set up his statue in the Jewish Temple. Should everyone “flee to the mountains,” as Jesus commanded, or “resist the outrageous decree to the death” (Bruce quoting Philo and Josephus)? Though Gaius did not follow through with his threat directed at the Jews, the crisis had lasting impact and readied both Jews and Jewish Christians for the end times.

Still today many wonder if Nero, or Titus at Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 AD, fulfilled this apocalyptic imagery, or whether it still remains to be fulfilled. Thus Paul’s writing seems enigmatic to us, though it probably didn’t seem so to the Thessalonians. Nevertheless, Bruce concludes, “The near-apocalyptic imagery of this (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12) and other passages in Paul’s Thessalonian correspondence is not characteristic of the main body of his writing. In his later letters he deals from time to time with the same topics…but…in other terms (1 Corinthians 15; Romans 8). Since the Thessalonian letters are among the earliest…this may suggest that he came increasingly to feel that apocalyptic imagery was not the most adequate vehicle for expressing the Christian hope.”

Paul, Silas, and Timothy left Thessalonica during the night for safety. Paul might have, if freely chosen, stayed on the Via Egnatia heading west with hopes of visiting Rome (Romans 1:13; 15:22), but they were escorted south to Berea, which Cicero described as “an out-of-the-way town.” Paul preached in the synagogue, where the Bereans, unlike those in Thessalonica, verified what was preached by studying the Old Testament Scriptures (Acts 17:11-12), and many converted to Christianity, including Sopater, or Sosipater (Acts 20:4; called Paul’s relative, perhaps indicating that he was Jewish, in Romans 16:21). Even Greek men and a large number of prominent Greek women were converted (Acts 17:12). Unfortunately, Jews from Thessalonica arrived in the city seeking to cause more trouble for Paul (Acts 17:13). It was plain that he would have to leave Macedonia, and the Bereans escorted him, not to neighboring Thessaly, which would still be unsafe for Paul, but all the way to Achaia, to the great historical city of Athens. When the escorts returned to Berea, they instructed Silas and Timothy, who had stayed in Berea (Acts 17:14-15), on where to find Paul, who remained alone in Athens for a time (1 Thessalonians 3:1).

No city in the Roman Empire could match Athens for the qualities Greek-speaking people most admired. When Rome took possession of Athens in 146 BC, the city was allowed to remain self-governing, a free city in the Roman Empire. Waiting for the arrival of his companions, Paul must have toured the city, knowing its great history. Troubled by how pervasive the worship of false gods were among the Athenians (Acts 17:16), Paul began to preach the gospel, and his preaching earned an invitation to speak before the areopagus, “the most venerable of Athenian institutions,” which at one time functioned as a senate, though in Paul’s day merely held prestige as an authority on moral and religious matters. This would have taken place at the agora (Mars Hill), at the foot of the acropolis, where men would gather to discuss and debate the moral, philosophical, and political issues of the day.

Paul’s speech before the areopagus (Acts 17:22-31) has been scrutinized perhaps more than any other of his monologues. Motifs of this speech are found elsewhere, but this is a full and well-adapted effort, given the intellectual climate of the audience. Bruce explains, Paul “begins with God the creator of all, continues with God the sustainer of all, and concludes with God the judge of all,” much as the orientation of Scripture itself. Paul found a point of contact with the altar to the unknown god, traditionally set up by Epimenedes, a Cretan scholar, whom Paul quotes in his speech. Interpreting this altar as a confession of ignorance, Paul had come to dispel that ignorance.

After commencing, as noted, with creation, Paul points out what higher paganism knew to be true, that divinity cannot be contained or housed by mankind (Euripedes). Likewise, as Plato noted and as Paul pronounced, divinity has no need of humanity (Psalm 50:9-12; Acts 17:25). Paul’s biblical insight continues with something to say about mankind. All men come from God through Adam, the common ancestor of all men, a fact which most pagans – especially in Athens – would have denied, seeing a scale of evolution-like descent, from elite intellectuals to typical Greeks to barbarians. Furthermore, says Paul, God is sovereign over each man’s life and even his placement, not arbitrarily, but so that each man would seek God. Rather than say, “God created man in His image,” Paul chose a quote by Epimenedes and another by Aratus. His concern was not to liken the Biblical God to Zeus for the Athenians’ transition, but, as Bruce notes, “to impress on his hearers the responsibility of all men, as God’s creatures into whom He has breathed the breathe of life, to give Him the honor which is His due.”

Finally, Paul issues a call to repentance, focusing on God’s merciful forbearance and Christ’s resurrection, before announcing the impending judgment. While some have criticized Paul for not being more direct with his word choice, such as in Romans 1:18-32 where he was speaking to believers, but he knew his audience; Bruce says, “The thought of being ‘in Christ’ by grace would have been meaningless to pagans.” Nevertheless, Paul “does not cease to be fundamentally biblical in his approach to the Greeks, even when his biblical emphasis might seem to diminish his chances of success.” Bruce goes on, “If Paul had spoken of the immortality of the soul, he would have commanded the assent of most of his hearers except the Epicureans, but the idea of resurrection was absurd… Outright ridicule and polite dismissal were the main responses to Paul’s exposition of the knowledge of God. [Only] one member of the court of the Areopagus is said to have believed his message – Dionysius.” There were a number of other hearers who followed Paul, perhaps in the infancy of belief and in hopes of learning more, and there was also a woman named Damaris, about whom nothing else is known. Bruce concludes, “We hear of no church in Athens in the apostolic age, and when Paul speaks of the ‘firstfruits of Achaia,’ it is to a family in Corinth that he refers (1 Corinthians 16:15).”

In late summer 50 AD, perhaps dejected by his Athenian experience – violence is easier to take than polite amusement – and anxious about the condition of the Macedonians, Paul came to Corinth “in weakness and in much fear and trembling” (Acts 17:33; 18:1; 1 Corinthians 2:3). There was little reason to expect success in Corinth, given its reputation, which we’ll consider in a moment, but Paul spent 18 months there and founded a vigorous, though volatile, Christian church. Acts 18:9-10 records an important vision Paul had shortly after arriving in Corinth, in which the Lord said to him, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” Paul’s time in Corinth was not his plan, but it was the Lord’s plan, and it served, as Bruce notes, “to deepen his human sympathy and to promote his pastoral maturity.”

Corinth was a pre-Greek city known for its commercialism, luxury, and sexual laxity. A fifth century BC Greek verb translated “to play the Corinthian,” literally meant to practice well the art of fornication. Idolatry was also practiced in abundance (1 Corinthians 8:5), with shrines to Aphrodite, Ares, Melicertes (the primary deity of Tyre), Poseidon, and Apollo. The Corinth of old had been completely destroyed in 146 BC and rebuilt in 44 BC as a Roman colony, the capital of Achaia. Its citizens were Romans (Italians), but there were plenty of Greek and Jewish inhabitants as well. Upon arrival, it appears that Paul found employment with Aquila and Priscilla, wealthy tent makers and Jewish Christians from Rome. They probably were forced from Rome under Claudius’ edict to expel Jews (and Jewish Christians) in 49 AD. (There is no doubt that the Jewish clamor, which earned their harsh treatment, was in part due to the Christian movement.) Paul was certainly grateful to them for their friendship, and perhaps even their employment and financial / ministerial support. But he was more appreciative for their service to the Gentile churches (Romans 16:4). And interestingly, where others probably referred to the wife casually, as Priscilla, Paul nearly always spoke of her formally, as Prisca, perhaps honoring her as the more impressive personality of the couple.

In several weeks of synagogue preaching in Corinth, Paul won many converts, including the synagogue leader, Crispus, and a God-fearing synagogue neighbor, Gaius Titius Justus (Acts 18:7-8; 1 Corinthians 1:15; Romans 16:23), who became Paul’s host, once the Jews expelled him from the synagogue, and even the host of the Corinthian congregation. Stephanus and his family are also mentioned as Paul’s first converts, whom he himself baptized. Once Silas and Timothy arrived in Corinth, likely with a gift of financial support for Paul from the Macedonian Christians, Paul was able to stop the tent-making and engage in full time ministry work. Since the Corinthians cherished “wisdom,” he counter-culturally resolved to know nothing except Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Ironically, that resolution drew pagan attention, and many of them became followers of Christ, including Erastus (Acts 19:22; Romans 16:23; 2 Timothy 4:20), who served as the city treasurer for a time. Speculation allows us to consider that he may have eventually become the curator of public works, for archaeologists have discovered an inscription, dating to 75 AD, bearing his name and declaring that he used his own money to pave a portion of the streets of Corinth.

The Jews eventually raised another tumult against Paul, bringing him before Gallio, the newly appointed (in July 51 AD) Roman proconsul of Achaia (Acts 18:12-16). Gallio’s refusal to hear the matter, thinking Paul’s Christianity to be merely an internal conflict over the doctrines of Judaism, a matter which was outside his jurisdiction, set a precedent that enabled Christianity to spread under the protection of Judaism, which was a lawful religion under Roman law, for another decade or so. (If it had been determined that Christianity did not fall under Judaism, Paul could have been convicted as a propagator of an illegal religion, punishable by death.) Sosthenes, the synagogue leader who presumably took the place of Crispus and brought the charge against Paul to Gallio, bore a beating in Paul’s place, and Gallio literally “pretended not to notice.” Perhaps this beating brought him to turn to Christ and follow Paul, as he, if indeed this is the same man as tradition suggests, is mentioned even as co-author of the first Corinthian correspondence in 1 Corinthians 1:1.

Remaining in Corinth a short while longer after the incitement (Acts 18:18), Paul eventually traveled with Priscilla and Aquila to Ephesus (Acts 18:18-19; approximately 52 AD). Paul preached in a synagogue briefly, gaining significant interest from the Jews and God-fearers there, but then left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus while he went to Caesarea and on to Jerusalem (Acts 18:19-22) in order to celebrate one of the three primary Jewish feasts – Passover (Unleavened Bread), the Feast of Tabernacles (Succoth), or Pentecost (the Feast of Weeks). It has been suggested that this trip to Jerusalem was for Paul a fulfillment of some sort of Nazarite vow he took in response to the vision he had ensuring his protection and blessing in Corinth (Acts 18:21). He made his way to Antioch, officially ending his second mission trip (Acts 18:22).

Meanwhile, a Jewish Christian named Apollos showed up in Ephesus eloquently preaching the gospel in the synagogues. Priscilla and Aquila heard him gladly, but took him aside and explained the way of God more accurately (Acts 18:26). “Learned” and “well versed in the Scriptures,” Apollos had come from Alexandria, where he had likely studied under the Jewish scholar and philosopher, Philo, who died in 50 AD. The fact that Apollos was already a Christian when he came to Ephesus, yet unfamiliar with Jesus’ baptism of the Holy Spirit, suggests that Christianity had made its way to Alexandria from a non-Apostolic source. Bruce says, “Alexandrian Christianity…was for some generations regarded as defective by the standards of Jerusalem (in the apostolic age) and Rome (in post-apostolic times).” (But Alexandria did go on to produce a number of prominent church fathers, such as Clement, Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril.)

When Apollos left Ephesus for Corinth, he had a letter of commendation from Aquila and Priscila, which was addressed not to the synagogue but to the disciples, or the church. Nevertheless, it appears he went to the synagogue, where he “was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:27-28). The Corinthians cherished Apollos and his eloquence, and this would later cause division within the congregation, as some preferred him to Paul while others remained loyal to Paul. Though Paul may have been rightly concerned over who built on his foundations, he had no anxiety about the work of Apollos and considered him valuable in every way (1 Corinthians 3:3-6,22; 4:6; 16:12; Titus 3:13). Apollos remained in Corinth for quite some time, even as Paul was making his way from Antioch to Ephesus as the beginning of what we call his third missionary trip.

In fact it was when Paul was in Ephesus that he heard of Apollos’ ministry. Representatives from Chloe’s Corinthian household, which presumably hosted a church congregation there, came to Ephesus with news for Paul from Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:11). In addition to mentioning Apollos, they also mentioned that some of the Corinthians preferred Peter’s ministry to Paul’s. This, of course, implies that Peter had also been in Corinth working with the church there. Once scholar tracks Peter as venturing from Jerusalem to Rome after Emperor Claudius died (and the ban on Jews in Rome was lifted) on October 13, 54 AD, stopping in Corinth for a time, or simply preaching the gospel while en route. Another scholar maintains that Peter’s ministry expanded to the Gentile regions after Paul rebuked him in Antioch years (or months) earlier.

Though Paul wasn’t threatened by Apollos in Corinth, the same probably cannot be said about his feelings regarding Peter, based on the possibility that Peter’s authority – unlike that of Apollos – could be deemed by any audience as being higher than his own. Some suggest that Peter never came to Rome, only that other Jewish Christians – perhaps even those labeled Judaizers – came in Peter’s name, urging audiences to observe certain food laws or participate in various traditional rites and/or festivals. Still there were others in Corinth, according to Chloe’s representatives send to Paul in Ephesus, that separated into a faction claiming only to follow Christ, not Peter, Paul, or Apollos. This kind of division drove Paul crazy, as he can’t imagine (because it isn’t possible for) a divided Christ! “I follow Christ” should not have been a slogan for a particular denomination, but it seemed to Paul that this is exactly what it had become. These factions, along with the discovery of subtle differences between Gentile and Jewish application of the language of the gospel, forced Paul to labor with the Corinthians for years, engaging in multiple correspondences explaining gospel application more clearly.

Paul battled legalism on the one hand and antinomianism on the other throughout his ministry. But in no place did he do it more clearly, all the while fighting to keep his audience’s loyalty, threatened both from within and without the church body, than with the Corinthians. For Paul, the message of Christianity was very much about liberty, and he was often accused of antinomianism because of his emphasis on grace. But self-imposed restrictions on liberty for the sake of gratitude and charity are the essential application of Paul’s gospel, and these must be made voluntarily, lest freedom and grace be threatened or even negated by legalism. Bruce says, “Paul goes as far as he can with his converts in either the ascetic (legalistic) or the libertarian (antinomian) direction, until he reaches a point where he calls a halt, and profoundly qualifies his foregoing concession… It was not Paul’s way to impose a rule but to help his converts to judge such issues for themselves in the light of basic Christian principles. One of the most important of these principles was to consider the consciences of weaker brethren so as to assist them gently to a better and more enlightened appreciation of what their faith involved. Otherwise a Christian’s freedom was not to be impaired by external restrictions.”

After Timothy delivered 1 Corinthians from Ephesus, which included Paul’s travel plan of a lengthy winter visit to Corinth after Pentecost in Ephesus and briefly seeing the Macedonians, Paul changed his plans. He had decided to briefly visit Corinth twice, en route to and returning from Macedonia. Then he would go to Jerusalem with a gift of financial support, accompanied by an entourage of Gentile ministry supporters. But the trouble in Corinth, relayed to him by Timothy, forced another change of plans – this one painful. Paul quickly visited Corinth from Ephesus, and he returned saddened by his experience. He wrote a severe letter, which Titus delivered and which we lack (though some say 2 Corinthians 10-13 is part of that severe letter). He regretted writing it, out of fear that it would make things worse. He waited in depression and in some sort of extreme danger in Ephesus, and then he went to Troas hoping to find Titus. When certain that Titus wouldn’t sail to Troas, because of the winter weather, Paul headed for Macedonia (2 Corinthians 7:5), hoping to find him there. When he found Titus and learned of the Corinthians’ repentant and reconciled condition, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians and had Titus deliver it, saying that he would soon come and rejoice with them – hopefully, assuming they continued in Christ under Paul’s tutelage and not by failing prey to other so-called authorities. Bruce concludes, “There never came a time during Paul’s life, so far as can be known, when he could feel that the cause of gospel liberty had finally triumphed at Corinth. ‘Paul, who learned at Corinth what it is to be weak in Christ, shows there perhaps more clearly than elsewhere his full stature of Christian intelligence, firmness, and magnanimity’ (Barrett).”

The purpose, then, of Paul’s Corinthian correspondence was to convey these truths, most of which he undertook while in Ephesus, where we now turn our attention. Paul’s third trip, which lasted from 53-58 AD and was more of a lifestyle than a mere voyage, began with him setting out from Antioch, taking the land route through the Asia Minor regions of Galatia and Phrygia in order to strengthen all the disciples (Acts 18:23), just as he had done on his second trip. He eventually arrived in Ephesus and remained there for nearly three years (Acts 19:1-20). Javan in Genesis 10:4 represents the early Greeks, who settled western Asia Minor, which was controlled by Cyrus of Persia in 546 BC. These people groups regained independence while Xerxes was king (480-479 BC), but became vassals again by 387 BC. Alexander liberated them from Persian dependence in 334 BC, and they enjoyed civic autonomy under the Roman Empire.

Though Pergamum was the capital of the region, Ephesus was the largest, most prosperous, and most illustrious settlement, seated at the mouth of a river and claiming home to the goddess Artemis, who was worshipped even before the reign and influence of Greece. Legend says the many-breasted image of Artemis fell from the sky (Acts 19:35), proving its divine origin. Her temple, four times larger than the Parthenon, was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and worship of Artemis had spread from Ephesus throughout Asia and to the entire world (Acts 19:27). The Temple no longer exists, but its foundations were excavated in 1869 in a swamp some 3 miles outside the city, which was a seaport in Biblical times. Today, it lays seven miles inland.

During his nearly three years in Ephesus, Paul directed the evangelization of Asia. He and his colleagues, such as Epaphras, were so effective that “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). The region’s Christian heritage was maintained until 1923, when the Greeks and Turks swapped populations. While Luke does not seem to have been with Paul in Ephesus, and while Paul doesn’t record details of his ministry there in his letters, others, such as Aristarchus, must have given details to Luke, as several colorful episodes are recorded in Acts 19. It appears that the Christians in Ephesus, prior to Paul’s arrival, knew nothing of the Holy Spirit, and, like Apollos, knew only the baptism of John. Therefore, we see the only clear re-baptism in the Bible in Ephesus. (Even the re-baptism of Apollos in inferred, though not necessarily implied, and the disciples of Jesus do not appear to have undergone an additional water baptism; but the Ephesians do.)

Paul was welcomed in the synagogue for three months before being forced out, and it doesn’t seem that the synagogue leaders evicted Paul. Rather, unspecified “stubborn” unbelievers seem to have sent Paul away, “speaking evil of the Way before the congregation” (Acts 19:8). It appears that Paul left with other believers and began meeting in the hall of Tyrannus, about whom nothing is known. Paul had access to the hall from 11 AM – 4 PM daily, and he taught and held public debates during this time, proving both the stamina of Paul and his audience in the heat of the day. Paul may have made tents in the mornings and evenings of these early days in Ephesus (Acts 20:34). Interestingly, Ephesus was known as a city of magical arts. Shakespeare even alludes to this in his Comedy of Errors. Therefore, it is no surprise that Paul was seen as a magician of sorts because of his miracles of healing done in the name of Jesus. Others also attempted to use “in the name of Jesus” as a magical formula. It didn’t work for the seven sons of Sceva (Acts 19:13), as the power was not the formula but the faith; it was not magic, but miracle. Many magicians in Ephesus, by the preaching of Paul, saw the evil of their ways, turned to faith in Christ, and burned their valuable magic scrolls. The Ephesian ministry was so successful that the idol makers for Artemis became concerned that their selling business was in jeopardy. So Demetrius, one of the sellers (and perhaps cult leaders), started a riot that captured Gaius and Aristarchus, but failed to locate Paul. The Jews were uneasy about the proceedings, as they didn’t approve of Paul’s message, but neither did they worship Artemis. Alexander, an Ephesian Jew, tried unsuccessfully to calm the riot, but the city secretary quited the crowd and told them to prosecute Paul if there was a violation. Rioting would not help matters, but taking the matter to court might solve it.

Paul faced many dangers in Ephesus, such as fighting wild beasts (1 Corinthians 15:32) and a near certain-death experience (2 Corinthians 1:8-10). Despite “many adversaries” (1 Corinthians 16:9), there were many opportunities. His enemies were Jews (Acts 20:19; 21:27) and pagan Gentiles (2 Timothy 4:14). But Priscila and Aquila risked their lives for him (Romans 16:4), perhaps as he faced imprisonment in Ephesus with Andronicas and Junias (Romans 16:7; 2 Corinthians 11:23-27). Nevertheless, the fruitful time had a major impact on Paul’s inner life. Some scholars call this portion of Paul’s ministry (and especially his near-death experience) “a sort of second conversion.” Though others say “it is probably impossible to draw a sharp line between Paul’s attitude to life before the crisis and his attitude after it.”

If any noteworthy shift can be found, it may be in “his thinking about the life to come.” There were wide-ranging opinions in Jewish thought on the subject from 200 BC – 100 AD. For example, this was a primary point of disagreement between the Pharisees and Sadducees (Acts 23:6; 24:15). Whatever Paul may have thought as a Jew (Daniel 12:2; Proverbs 10:7), his opinion undoubtedly changed as a Christian. He began to consider Christ’s second coming (parousia; Isaiah 27:13; Daniel 7:13). Immortality of the soul was a given, but it seems Paul thought at first that he and most of his contemporaries would see the return of Christ (as depicted in Thessalonians, one of Paul’s earliest works). Later, Paul may have realized that he would not live to see it. Nonetheless, he could not consider immortality apart from a body. For the Greeks, man was an embodied soul, but for the Jews, man was an animated body. To be living without a body, for Paul, was nonsense (2 Corinthians 5:1-10). There would be no time, at least from the perspective of self, between death and eternity. Even death cannot separate us from God (Romans 8:32-39)!

As Paul’s Ephesian ministry came to an end, he longed to see Rome. But Rome, for Paul, was a stepping stone, not his ultimate goal. He longed for Spain (Romans 15:23), and he even said that he “no longer has any room for work in these regions.” Paul mentions having taken the gospel as far as Illyricum, which was the province north of Greece on the Adriatic Sea. Though he mentions it several places (Romans 15, Titus 3:12, 2 Timothy 4:10), we know nothing of any trip he might have made there. Acts 20:1-3 provides time for Paul to have gone from Ephesus to Macedonia and beyond before coming back down to Achaia for three months. But we’re just not sure when he went there, or when he went with Titus to Crete for that matter. But why Spain? Paul yearned to go where the gospel was not. It is likely that the Mediterranean coast had been reached with the gospel by this time, except for Spain, the western border of the Roman Empire. Spain would have truly been a new frontier, as it was Latin-speaking.
So leaving Ephesus, with the dual goal of evangelism and collecting a financial gift for Jerusalem, Paul visited Macedonia and Achaia for three months (Acts 20:1-3), and maybe Illyricum and/or Crete, before heading for Jerusalem. Jerusalem was important to Paul; unfortunately, Paul was not as important to Jerusalem. Perhaps he hoped the gift he would bring would change their opinion of his ministry. And as noted earlier, Paul saw this gift as a voluntary expression of gratitude, but the recipients may have deemed it a necessary tribute to them from Gentiles. But Paul wasn’t planning to show up in Jerusalem with a bag of money; he was bringing a delegation! Gentiles from many of the churches Paul had founded were accompanying him to Jerusalem, for this was his offering more so than money. Paul was undoubtedly pondering the relation between his Gentile ministry and God’s plan for Israel, which led him to include a lengthy section on this topic in his letter to the Romans, written before making his way to Jerusalem.


It is unlikely that Jerusalem or Antioch leadership realized that this problem would arise, especially so quickly. Paul was conscious of his calling to evangelize Gentiles, but he saw the God-fearing Gentiles in the Jewish synagogues as those providentially prepared to be a bridge to wider Gentile audiences. Though it was virtually impossible to evangelize Gentiles without offending Jews, in this setting, Paul saw his ministry as indirectly serving to expedite Jewish salvation as well (Romans 9-11; Deuteronomy 32:21; Hosea 1:9). Bruce says, “It was as natural for God-fearing Gentiles to embrace the blessings of the gospel on these terms [salvation by grace through faith apart from the law] as it was for Jews to decline them on these terms.”

Forced out of Iconium by Jewish dissenters, Paul and Barnabas came to Lystra, a Roman colony like Pisidian Antioch. Timothy was likely converted from Judaism to Christianity here, along with his mother and grandmother (Acts 16:1), but Luke’s emphasis is on the conflict with pagans that Paul and Barnabas experienced. They healed a crippled man, the pagans were so amazed that they began to worship Paul as Hermes (the talker) and Barnabas as Zeus (the sovereign). Paul’s speech to them (unintelligent pagans, opposed to the later intellectual pagans in Athens) in Acts 14:15-17 was ineffective (Acts 17; Jonah 1:9); but the pagans were then incited against Paul and Barnabas by the Jews who had come following them from Pisidian Antioch and Iconium. Paul was stoned almost to death (2 Corinthians 11:25), but he persevered and the next day left Lystra for Derbe. After making converts in Derbe, 60 miles southeast from Lystra, Paul and Barnabas retraced their steps, encouraging the young congregations and appointing elders (Acts 14:23).

Paul and Barnabas left Antioch in the spring of 44 AD. They were gone for about two-and-a-half years. Acts 14:26-28 says that Paul and Barnabas, upon their return, stayed in Antioch “a long time with the disciples,” which probably means from the fall of 46 until the summer of 49 AD, another two-and-a-half years. Syrian Antioch had become a mother church, and the Jerusalem church had mixed feelings about that. Gentiles, unlike Jews, were not generally moral people, so conforming them to Jesus’ teachings would be difficult. Barnabas and Paul continued their evangelical efforts, but Jerusalem leaders could not continue with theirs, as persecution against them was kicking into high gear under Herod Agrippa’s short reign. James, the brother of John, was executed and Peter would have been had he not miraculously escaped prison (Acts 12). Even after Agrippa’s death in 44 AD, Jewish Zealots began persecuting – often by means of terrorism – anyone who was suspected of siding with Romans (and that included Gentile proselytizing, the very bridge-building that was deemed acceptable by the Jewish Christian church leadership).

The simple solution for the Jerusalem church to maintain authority as the true mother church was to demand circumcision from Gentile converts. Theologically, this enforcement would have made the converts more significantly conform to Jewish, and now Christian, moral standards; it would have likely kept any half-hearted converts from making that extensive leap to prove their faith; and perhaps equally important, from a political perspective, it would have appeased the Zealots and saved themselves from their persecution. But what of the already-converted Gentiles in Antioch and Galatia? It came to a head when, around that time, some Jerusalem Jews came to Antioch teaching that Gentiles must be circumcised in order to be salvation (Acts 15:1,5). Paul and Barnabas disputed this teaching, and they and other church members went to Jerusalem to discuss the issue with the church leaders (Acts 15; possibly Galatians 2:1-14).

We have mentioned the uncertainty over the timeline of Acts with Galatians. Here Acts 15 seems to fit with Galatians 2, but it is hard to put it together with all the likely coming and going of the leadership between Jerusalem and Antioch. It appears that, after the group came to Antioch preaching circumcision – Paul and Barnabas, along with other believers including Titus, met privately with James, Peter, and John in Jerusalem about incorporating Gentile believers into the Christian faith, specifically addressing, albeit without much concern, circumcision (Galatians 2:4-10). Then the issue was brought before the entire Jerusalem church (Acts 15:6, 12, 22), which determined, even though many Pharisee believers, probably the group that originally came to Antioch, wanted circumcision to be required, that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised (Acts 15:19). Paul, Barnabas, Silas, and others then returned to Antioch with the news (Acts 15:22-31).

Perhaps after that, Peter showed up in Antioch and waffled on the issue of fellowship when the pro-circumcision believers came again continuing to press the circumcision demand. Paul dealt with Peter on this, but notice how Peter’s position is not enviable. He likely agreed with what Paul would later write in Romans 14:13-21, that we should not use our freedom in such a way that causes our brother to stumble. He was in a tight spot, for he would have offended the one he perceived to be his brother no matter what he chose to do. Whatever Peter’s motives in withdrawing from fellowship with the Gentile believers, Paul saw them as negligible in comparison to the progress of the Gentile mission and the well being of the Gentile Christians. Peter’s actions caused Jewish Christians – even Barnabas – to follow suit! The Gentile Christians must have concluded either (1) that they would remain uncircumcised and second-class citizens in the eyes of some Jewish believers or (2) that they would accept circumcision to gain first class status. Either way, the good achieved at the Jerusalem Conference would be undone; the gospel would be compromised. We know Peter stood corrected by Paul, but we don’t know what happened next for his ministry.

Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch for an unknown time period (Acts 15:35-36), during which Paul may have written his letter to the Galatians (49 AD). The importance of this letter for the early church makes it a challenge to see that there is little agreement on its date, either before or after the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. Clearly there were fellowship and authority issues at stake between Jewish (especially Judaizers) and Gentile Christians before and after the council, so it may not matter. At the council, the Jerusalem leaders made the right decision for the gospel and, therefore, for Paul’s ministry.

Nevertheless, this period must have been challenging for Paul, an intelligent man who found it difficult to understand how others couldn’t see a logical argument as clearly as he saw it, especially when the premises were agreed upon. Acts 15:28 gave essentially two requirements for Gentile Christians, and these primarily for the sake of unity and fellowship (more so than doctrinal authority, as the circumcision mandate would have been): abstaining from sexual sin (fornication), and abstaining from certain foods related to idolatry (bloody, strangled, or sacrificed to idols). Paul’s teaching was inline with the apostolic authority on sexual sin. No argument made by the Gentile converts would sway him to compromise his – and the Lord’s – strict convictions there. But Paul was more open-minded on the food issue; his desire was mutual edification, whatever that required. For Paul, any obedience had to be voluntary, not compulsory, based on charity and not anxiety, disgruntlement, or fear. Paul referred to this attitude for voluntary, mutual edification as following “the law of Christ” or “love.” According to Bruce, love “cannot be imposed or enforced by external authority. Rather, it is the spontaneous principle of thought and action in a life controlled by the Spirit of Christ… Love is generated spontaneity and cannot be enforced by penal sanctions.”

Though the essence of Paul’s gospel, received by direct revelation from Jesus Christ on the Damascus Road, was unaffected by the conflict over Jew and Gentile Christian relations (circumcision and fellowship questions), his comprehension of the gospel, in terms of practicality, was enriched. Bruce says, “Justification by faith…was implicit in his conversion, but now it became in his hands a fighting doctrine – not only a principle for which to contend but a weapon with which to contend.” Many Christians may have seen faith in Christ and works of obedience as complimentary, but Paul, knowing that concept to be an impossible contradiction, said, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for everyone who believes,” or “that everyone who has faith may be justified” (Romans 10:4). “End” could mean “goal” or “finishing point,” and Paul may mean both. As mentioned earlier, some scholars suggest that, in his early Christian learning, Paul must have recalled a Jewish chronological scheme, recorded in the Mishnah shortly before Paul’s education (and traditionally belonging to Elijah or Moses), claiming a 2000-year period of chaos (roughly creation to Moses), a 2000-year period of law (roughly Moses to Messiah), and a 2000-year period of the Messianic age (Messiah to end), all culminating in an eternity of Sabbath rest. Did Paul know of that scheme, and that easily put the epoch of the law to rest? We don’t know, but Paul, according to Bruce, “raised no objection…if Jewish Christians continued to observe (as he himself occasionally did) various customs prescribed by the law as part of their inherited way of life” (such as Passover; 1 Corinthians 9:20; Acts 16:3; 21:20-26).

In the end, the law may be deemed to have a threefold purpose – as a means of preservation (restraining sin), as a summons to repentance (showing us the sinfulness of sin and driving us to Christ), as guidance for the church (revealing God’s holy character) – but for Paul, the law of love, guided by the indwelling Holy Spirit, is all that mattered. The great question for Paul, which he explored in Romans 6-7, was, according to Bruce, this: “How can one who exists temporally ‘in the present evil age’ nevertheless enjoy deliverance from it and live here and now the life of the age to come? [The answer:] By the aid of the indwelling Spirit.” The Spirit generates love in us, and preaching the law of love borders on antinomianism, rather than legalism. Paul was, as Bruce declared, “the supreme libertarian, the great herald of Christian freedom, insisting that man in Christ…must no longer be confined to the leading-strings of infancy (the law) but enjoy the birthright of the freeborn sons of God (love by the Spirit). Here…Luther entered into the mind of Paul: ‘A Christian man is a most free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian man is a most dutiful servant, subject to all.’ ‘Subject to none’ in respect of his liberty; ‘subject to all’ in respect of his charity. This for Paul, is the law of Christ because this was the way of Christ. And in this way, for Paul, the divine purpose underlying Moses’ law is vindicated and accomplished.” Bruce concludes, “The purpose of the law, that men should be holy as God is holy (Leviticus 11:44) is thus (according to Paul) realized in the gospel.”

Even with this law of love working by the Spirit in the apostle Paul and throughout the young Christian churches, conflict was inescapable. While serving in Antioch, an argument arose between Barnabas and Paul over the issue of including or excluding John Mark from the planned trip to revisit the young churches founded during their first mission trip. Of course, John Mark “abandoned” them on the first trip (Acts 13:13), and so Paul wanted to exclude him. But Barnabas, being an encourager, and also being John Mark’s cousin or uncle (the word in Colossians 4:10 translated “cousin” could be “nephew” as well), wanted to take him on the journey. There is reason to believe that things weren’t the same between Paul and Barnabas even before this argument, after the confrontation with Peter over his refusal to eat with Gentile Christians while the Judaizers were in town. Paul says in Galatians 2:13 that even Barnabas was led astray in the hypocrisy, and a deep wound likely formed in their friendship from then on. Paul no doubt still held Barnabas in high esteem, but the rift made it impossible to work together. Their disagreement caused a split, which God worked for good; the church of Antioch was now sending two missionary teams to share the gospel instead of one.
There is no doubt that both parties (Barnabas with Mark, and Paul with Silas) benefited from this arrangement. Mark, who would later pen the gospel by his name and work with the apostle Peter (Acts 12:12; 1 Peter 5:13), grew in spiritual maturity under the encouragement of his relative, and Paul would later attest to his value in ministry (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24; 2 Timothy 4:11). Silas was a great fit as Paul’s partner; he was like Paul in many ways: a Jewish Christian from Jerusalem who could vouch for the results of the Jerusalem Council should an inquiry arise; he, like Paul, had two names (Silas as his Jewish name, and Silvanus in Greek); he was a prophet and leader in the church, and even a Roman citizen with civic privileges, like Paul (as implied in Acts 16:36-37). He came to Antioch as one of two messengers bearing the letter declaring the results of Council at Jerusalem and remained there (Acts 15:34) until going with Paul on his second missionary journey. So Barnabas and John Mark went to Cyprus (Acts 15:36-41), and Paul journeyed with Silas through Asia Minor and eventually on to Greece. We know nothing of the trip to Cyprus, and Luke never again mentions Barnabas. Tradition holds that Barnabas remained a faithful evangelist and church builder, preaching in Alexandria and even Rome but cherishing his home island country, until his martyrdom at the hands of angry Jews in Cyprus in 61 AD. However, the journey of Paul and Silas is well documented.


Around 32 AD, just a year or two after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Paul the Pharisee witnessed and approved of the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:55-60; 8:1-3; 22:20), for which the authority was granted from Rome to the Sanhedrin, since it was a crime of religious and not civic nature. Then Paul began to destroy the church by pursuing and imprisoning as many Christians as he could find in and around Jerusalem. He asked for and received permission from the High Priest, Caiaphas, to continue his search for Jerusalem Christians who had sought refuge in Damascus, in order to put them on trial back in Jerusalem. On the way to find followers of the Way, Paul met the Way, Jesus Christ.

Before we look at Paul’s conversion, let’s look at what Paul might have been thinking about Christianity, and then we’ll consider what role the city of Damascus might have played in being the first outreach for Paul’s persecution efforts. Several Scripture passages, both from Luke’s biographical information and Paul’s autobiographical mention, give us insight as to his mentality at this stage. In Acts 9:1, Luke records that “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” before he asked to track down refuges in Damascus. In the time between Stephen’s stoning and his conversion, perhaps a year to 18 months, Paul went from being a mere witness of persecution against Christians to leading the way in the seek and destroy mission that the Pharisees must have gone on. And from what I’ve learned of Pharasaism, this reaction is a little surprising. The Pharisees, vying for the straight and narrow middle of the road between the Sadducees and Essenes, had bared the brunt of minority persecution, all the while siding with the common folk, throughout their history. At this point in history, perhaps seeing that they finally garnered an equal power share with their archrival Sadducees, maybe they felt – like the time they sought foreign assistance against Jannaeus – this was the only way to keep power. Acts 6:14 reveals that the Pharisees thought Jesus was trying to change the customs Moses handed down to the Jews, which must have served as the primary motive for Paul, though many of the Pharisees may have been more concerned about their political power. Generally speaking, it appears that Jewish people still respected Christian Jews (Acts 22:12), so the Pharisee reaction was undoubtedly extreme.

1 Corinthians 15:9 and Galatians 1:13 make it clear that Paul saw himself as a persecutor of the church who tried to destroy it. Considering his efforts “zeal” (Philippians 3:6), Paul said in Acts 26:11, “Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.” Theologically speaking, Jesus’ status, career, and teaching didn’t conform to what Paul or the other Pharisees expected (though they should have – Acts 26:22-23) from the Messiah, but the absolute primary thing that offended them all, the conclusive argument against Jesus as Messiah, was the crucifixion, which ironically, they brought about themselves. A “crucified Messiah” was a contradiction of terms, in their opinion. Isaiah 11:2 says, “The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him.” The Messiah could not be crucified. Of course, since we have 2000 years of assistance understanding how the Messiah not only could be crucified, but had to be crucified, we don’t easily sympathize with Jewish scholars who miss the truth. Deuteronomy 21:23b says, “Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” But the first part of the verse is crucial, and may have been crucial in Paul’s learning as a new believer, “You must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day.” Paul would learn this and come to explain it well, later saying, “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). And again in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’”

So Paul, zealous for God’s law and bringing Judean Christians to justice, headed for Damascus. Damascus is said to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. Jewish tradition even says that Abraham ruled there for a time (Genesis 14:15; 15:2). It was first an Amorite town then ruled by Arameans throughout Israel’s monarchy (1200-750 BC). It changed hands during the Empirical reigns of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece. As the Greek Empire fell and the Roman Empire rose, the Ptolemies claimed the city, but the Seleucids controlled and Hellenized it. Rome took it in 66 BC, and it became one of the ten cities of the Decapolis. Damascus probably maintained a sizeable Jewish population from the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles onward; Josephus reports 10-18,000 Jews were massacred in Damascus in 66 AD. Interestingly, the city had and still has some eschatological significance for both Jews and Muslims, but not so for Christians. And recent archaeological discoveries reveal that the Essenes of Qumran may have started off, or sought refuge at some point, in Damascus (They cited Amos 5:27 as reason to go there, and even beyond to Qumran). With all of this said, and though speculation surrounds their origin, Damascus undoubtedly had a group of Christian Jews by this time, for the Jerusalem Christian Jews headed there for refuge from Paul.

One scholar suggested that Jesus’ family went there after his resurrection and founded a church, expecting Him to return there in glory. Many others deny this option and instead point to the likelihood that the Damascus Christians were Galilean Jews rather than Judean Jews, for both the proximity of the Decapolis to Galilee and the fact that Jesus had more Galilean followers during His ministry. One other speculation peaks interest: that the Essenes and/or their descendants founded the Damascus Church. There is record of the Essenes in Damascus (either at their beginning or in seeking refuge sometime later), and they were certainly looking for the Son of David to be Messiah. The Dead Sea Scrolls make it clear that they wrote often of both the inherent righteousness of God and the righteousness He gives to His people (Paul would later say, “He is both just and the One who justifies”). Additionally, they wrote, just as Paul often did, about the flesh and spirit being in strict opposition. Could the Essenes have had right theology all along? I’m not saying they were right to run off to isolation at Qumran, but they obviously maintained some contact with the world at large. There were even Essenes, at times, represented in the Sanhedrin, for example. An interesting question arises: How much, if any, did the Essenes influence Paul and/or the disciples of Jesus in Damascus, who then later may have influenced the newly converted Paul? Galatians 1:12 reveals that Paul learned directly from Christ. Does any link, then, to the Essenes make them right?

Believe it or not, there are self-proclaimed Essene Christians out there today. And they can get pretty crazy with some of the links they make. Some modern-day Essene Christians claim that their descendants and theology go back to Enoch, who walked with God and then was not, because God took him. They claim Moses was an Essene, in his theology, though the group wasn’t official named until around 175 BC at the earliest and 140 BC at the latest. There are experts out there that claim Mary and Joseph and John the Baptist were Essenes, and that Jesus’ baptism by John confirmed Jesus as a fellow Essene (all of which explains why both of them were so harsh with the Pharisees, that sect trying to waffle between their viewpoints and those of the far leftist Sadducees). Hints of their theology are heard from Jesus’ mouth, especially when He speaks of His body as the Temple and demands a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees. All those who knew the baptism of John were, by their repentant lifestyles, preparing the way for the Lord, something the Essenes were eager to do from the beginning of their movement. The Essenes claimed, and still claim today, phrases like John “the Baptist,” followers of “the Way,” and even Jesus as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” The Acts 4 lifestyle among the growing group of Christians was very much according to the Essene manual of discipline (healing, hospitality, sharing, and service). They were radical in this regard, and Jesus’ teaching and healing activity was certainly radical to the audience of the day, and many, though still a minority, think there has to be a connection. Even Paul was seen by some to have adopted the Essene mentality, seeing his ministry as “priestly duty” (Romans 15:16).

But I do not want you to think that I, having studied this stuff for a while, am going to leave Southeast and track down the nearest Essene Christian community; nor do I want you to think that I’m trying to get you to do that either. There are some bizarre doctrines out there among Essene so-called Christians that are extremely eastern and new age in slant. They tie Enoch’s rapture to reincarnation and the concept of Hindu or Buddhist nirvana. Some of them suggest that Jesus had a secret Essene society and left John “the evangelist” in charge of keeping it going. They go so far as to say – and this is where we tie it all back into Paul – that Paul corrupted the ideal Essene teachings of John the Baptist and Jesus, which therefore makes all of the New Testament, with the exception of John’s writings – because he was secretly an Essene Christian – unreliable. One author concludes on this: “The similarity between the Essenes and Jesus and His community are immediately evident, the close community life, the sharing of a common purse, baptism, the healing ministry with power through the hands, the importance given to common meals, and the urgent expectation of the kingdom of God.” But the differences are scary, and maybe that’s why God gave us Paul.

Acts 9 gives the account of Paul’s journey toward Damascus, where he experienced a dramatic conversion. Literally blinded on the way, he had a brief interaction (hearing and seeing) with the resurrected Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8; Acts 9:3-4,17; 22:6-7,14; 26:4-29). Addressing him as Saul (fellow Jew), Jesus asked why he was persecuting Him, and Paul asked in reply, “Who are You, Lord?” And Jesus answered with His name and authorized him to get up and go into Damascus. Paul was escorted into Damascus where he remained blind for three days. He neither ate nor drank during this time, and the Lord only knows what was going through his mind. One thing is for sure; Paul had experienced the prime example in all of Scripture of “monergistic regeneration;” faith is a Divine revelation. We all experience it, but sometimes it’s hard to tell; there’s no doubt with Paul. The risen Christ stopped him in his tracks, instantaneously displacing the law and making Himself the center of Paul’s life, thought, and passion. Paul was not taught the gospel; he received it by revelation from Christ (Galatians 1:12). He had been imprisoned anew (Philippians 3:12; Ephesians 4:1), and he, as in the conversion of C.S. Lewis with his fingernails scraping the concrete as he was dragged to the Lord, would no longer “kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). As with the Old Testament prophets (Isaiah 6:1-9; Ezekiel 1:4-3:11; Jeremiah 1:5), his calling and commission were simultaneous to his conversion.

Ananias, a follower of Jesus, despite some initial reluctance to the vision from God, approached Paul with a welcoming and healing hand. It’s a picture of grace. Acts 9:18-19 records the scene: “Something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” He stayed with the awestruck and welcoming disciples, and he preached in the Damascus synagogues that Jesus is Son of God. People were astonished, and Paul grew in power as he proved to the Jews from the Scriptures (he instantly knew to be true what was impossible before his conversion; Luke 24:45) that Jesus is the Christ. Paul’s conversion gave him an instant new perspective on his past learning and training, especially on matters of law and grace. This new perspective took time to develop, perhaps in Arabia and over his lifetime (Philippians 3:8), but he began at once to expound on it (Acts 9:20). This, of course, serves as a good lesson for us!

Some scholars suggest that, in his early Christian learning, Paul must have recalled a Jewish chronological scheme, recorded in the Mishnah shortly before Paul’s education, claiming a 2000-year period of chaos (roughly creation to Moses), a 2000-year period of law (roughly Moses to Messiah), and a 2000-year period of the Messianic age (Messiah to end), all culminating in an eternity of Sabbath rest. Did Paul know of that scheme? Did he come to believe it? Why don’t other Jews believe it? All of this is impossible to answer definitively. Paul never describes his conversion vision, other than repeatedly hinting at the “Radiant Light” metaphor (Acts 9:3; 22:11; 2 Corinthians 3:7-16; 4:4-6). There is reason to believe that he saw the exalted Christ in His spiritual body, as he emphasizes the spiritual body throughout his writing (1 Corinthians 6:17; 15:44-49; Philippians 3:21). Whatever the case may be, commentators agree that, other than the Christ-event explained in the gospels, there is no bigger event in Christian history than the conversion of Saul of Tarsus to Paul, missionary to the Gentiles.

Now there is often general curiosity regarding Paul’s trip to Arabia, mentioned only in Galatians 1:17 and not at all in Luke’s account. Did he go there before or after preaching in Damascus? Maybe he preached a little, went to Arabia, and came back and preached a little more (combining an understanding of Acts 9 and Galatians 1). And why did he go? The common answer is that he went after being lowered in the basket to escape death threats in Damascus, and that his purpose was to retreat, reflect, study, and learn from the risen Jesus at Mount Sinai / Mount Horeb, where both Moses and Elijah went to meet with God. Some scholars, however, suggest that Paul went to Arabia before preaching in Damascus (Galatians 1:17) for the purpose of starting on his calling to preach the gospel to Gentiles. This minority opinion infers from 2 Corinthians 11:32 that King Aretas was the one responsible for conspiring with the Jews to have Paul killed in Damascus at some point over the three years following his conversion (Galatians 1:18). King Aretas ruled the neighboring Gentile kingdom of Nabataea, and there’s no reason he would have worked for that unless Paul had stirred up trouble while in Arabia.

Whenever the trip to Arabia, or however long it lasted, or whatever the purpose for it was, we know that Paul returned to Damascus after the trip (Galatians 1:17). Three years after leaving Jerusalem on the warpath to Damascus to snuff out any Christian flames he could find, Saul of Tarsus, the Jewish Pharisee from the tribe of Benjamin who had learned from Gamaliel and been so zealous for the law of God, made his way back to Jerusalem as an Apostle of Jesus Christ, who cared not about his pedigree or education any longer, but longed only to know Christ and Him crucified and to proclaim Him to the Gentiles of all people! Oh the grace of God through the power of His Holy Spirit!

As we know, many Jews were angry about Paul’s conversion, and many Jewish Christians were skeptical about it and therefore fearful of him. Jerusalem must have known about Paul’s conversion before he returned, for three years had passed. And Damascus Christians may have welcomed Paul, but he wasn’t out to get them. Maybe, the Jerusalem Christians could have thought, he was trying to infiltrate their membership to destroy them from within. Barnabas (or Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus (Acts 4:36)), whose apostle-given name meant “son of encouragement,” served as mediator between Paul and the Jerusalem Christian leaders (Peter and James); and Paul only visited Jerusalem for a short time. Perhaps there were some critics of Paul and his ministry who made him out to be a liar of the specifics of his Jerusalem visit, which caused him to swear that his story was true in Galatians 1:20. He stayed with Peter for 15 days and, of the Lord’s apostles, saw only James besides him (Acts 9:26-30; Galatians 1:17-19). What was accomplished during these two weeks?

Speculation here is required, but it makes sense to piece together what Paul may have done. Peter and James, both of whom had seen the risen Lord Jesus in one-on-one encounters and were listed as being the only ones besides Paul to have had such a meeting (1 Corinthians 15:5-7), were the leaders of the Jerusalem Christians. Peter was distinguished as an original disciple of the risen Lord, and James was Jesus’ brother. Peter was to be Paul’s primary informant on the historical Jesus and His earthly ministry, about which Paul likely knew very little. Peter led the Church at Mary’s (the mother of John Mark) house, one of at least two groups of Jerusalem Christians mentioned in Acts 12:12. James was Paul’s secondary informant on the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, and is said to have led the other group of Jerusalem Christians (Acts 12:17), which may have consisted of Jesus’ family. Paul went, no doubt, to learn firsthand what he could not have learned elsewhere, as well as to built a bond of fellowship with the Jerusalem Church.

F.F. Bruce, my primary source for much of this material, claims that Paul learned from Peter and James what was called “the tradition.” It certainly consisted of the gospel message (1 Corinthians 15:1-11, especially v3,11) and may have also included early songs and creeds that the first Christians repeated together from 30-36 AD, from which Paul seems to often quote in many of his epistles (Philippians 2 for example). Paul would have wanted to be in complete agreement on the matters of important doctrine as he strived to fulfill his calling in excellence. If we break down 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, we catch a glimpse of the core truths of Christianity, the things of first importance: that Jesus is the Messiah, the prophesied Christ, that He really died, that His death constituted a blood atonement for our sins, that He was buried (actually entombed; the lack of mention of an empty tomb shows that an empty tomb alone is not evidence for resurrection), that He was raised from the dead (being seen alive was the evidence of resurrection), and that all of this happened in accordance with the Old Testament Scriptures. These truths are found throughout the New Testament, in every writer’s words, and Paul treated this information as foundational.

So in one sense, Paul received the gospel by revelation from Christ alone (Galatians 1:12), and in another sense, Paul likely received the gospel from Peter and James during his visit to Jerusalem. The first sense refers to the quickening power of the Holy Spirit, monergistic regeneration, which no personal testimony would have given to Paul, especially not that of Peter or James. And the second sense refers to the testimony of believers, which is invaluable, especially to baby Christians, for the sake of unifying the Body of Christ as a whole and for edifying and encouraging each individual member thereof.

Before Paul leaves Jerusalem, there’s one more thing we need to notice. In addition to meeting with Peter and James, Paul “moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him” (Acts 9:28-29). Most commentators say that the events of Acts 22:17-21 occurred during this brief visit to Jerusalem. There we read Paul’s own testimony of the timeline: “When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking. ‘Quick!’ He said to me. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about Me.’ ‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in You. And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’ Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” So Paul must have wanted to witness to his former companions, and rightly so, but Jesus reminded him of his calling to go to the Gentiles. Jesus knew they wouldn’t listen to Paul but would try to kill him. Can you imagine how Paul, the new believer, excited about his relationship with Jesus, free from the law and praising God for His amazing grace, would have felt at this hostile rejection? He was escorted from Jerusalem to Caesarea and, from there, home to Tarsus (Galatians 1:21; Acts 9:30), where he remained for 4 years, from the summer of 36 AD to the summer of 40 AD. And Acts 9:31 says, “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.” Maybe Peter and James were glad to see Paul go!

Paul headed home, well acquainted by revelation to the exalted Christ and somewhat better acquainted by the testimony of Peter and James of the historical Jesus. It is at this point that many biographers of the Apostle Paul venture into a detailed look at Paul’s theology, compared to that of Jesus. I don’t want to go too far into that comparison, but I do want to make a couple of summary points. Paul does in fact significant details, if only in passing, about the historical Jesus and His ministry in his writings, which are, with that of James, the earliest written of the New Testament. He notes that James was Jesus’ brother (Galatians 1:19), that James, Peter, and John were the leaders of the church in Jerusalem (“pillars,” Galatians 2:9, which confirms the gospel accounts that those three men comprised the inner circle of Jesus’ ministry). He records the fact that Jesus was crucified (Galatians 3:1). Paul describes Jesus as the promised seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16). Paul notes that Peter was married (1 Corinthians 9:5; Mark 1:30). Paul importantly records the institution of the Lord’s Supper, including quotes of Jesus that line up with the later gospel accounts (1 Corinthians 11:23-25). In addition to all the important gospel details of Christ’s work (the things of first importance that we’ve mentioned from 1 Corinthians 15:3-8), Paul notes that Jesus was a descendant of David, in fulfillment of a crucial Messianic prophecy (Romans 1:3).

Though Paul never records anything about the parables of Jesus, making some wonder if he was even familiar with them, his doctrine of justification by faith alone is thought by many to come straight from the parables of Christ, especially the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and the Laborers (Matthew 20:1-16). The parables of Jesus point to salvation by grace through faith, which was the primary message Paul wanted to convey during his ministry. When he says in Romans 10:4 that Christ is “the end of the law,” Paul reveals the radical change in his perspective of the historical Jesus. As a Pharisee, he would have seen Jesus and His teaching as a threat to the law, primarily because He rejected the oral tradition of the Pharisees, but also because He exhibited sovereignty over the Sabbath and the various food laws, which so greatly concerned the Pharisees. Though He was virtually silent on the issue of circumcision, Jesus’ clear teachings on other matters of law gave reason for Paul and the early church leaders to conclude that it was unnecessary for converting Gentiles. The huge decision, which we’ll mention later as it comes up at the Jerusalem council of 49 AD, proves that Paul sided with Jesus in seeing the law as an internal means to an end (the glorifying worship of God), rather than an external end in itself, as the Pharisees and many Jews would have believed.

Scholars have long argued over how much Paul may have known of the historical Jesus and His teachings. Those doubting a significant link acknowledge as few as four notable parallels between their words. Others desiring to show a convincing parallel between Jesus and Paul find as many as 925 allusions. This wide range makes the uncertainty on the issue all the more clear. Here are a handful of the links if you want to consider the matter more exhaustively: 1 Corinthians 13:2 speaks of a faith moving mountains and aligns to Mark 11:23 (Matthew 17:20); Romans 12:14 speaks of blessing those who persecute you, parallel to Matthew 5:44; in Romans 13:9, Paul quotes Jesus, as well as Leviticus 19:18, saying to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31); Romans 16:19 says to be wise regarding good and innocent regarding evil (Matthew 10:16); 1 Corinthians 7:10, speaking of divorce and remarriage, alludes to Mark 10:2,11; Paul says, “the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14), referring to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 10:10. There are some interesting things to add about this reference. Paul quotes Luke 10:7 in 1 Timothy 5:18, but it may actually be that Luke quotes Paul! The timeline leaves us uncertain, and Luke may have even been Paul amanuensis. Also of interest, Paul did not obey this “command” with the Corinthians; experts say that he saw the regulation as pending permission, and this philosophy was in agreement with the Rabbinical teaching of Hillel (and Jesus as well, in Matthew 10:8).

Let’s consider a few more parallels: though the contexts, relating to Jew and Gentile, are completely different, the exact wording, “eat whatever is set (put) before you,” is used in 1 Corinthians 10:27 and Luke 10:8; Paul and Jesus share views on paying taxes in Romans 13:7 and Mark 12:17, and this is especially critical given the political scene after Judas the Galilean led insurgence (Zealots) starting with Roman taxation of Judea in 6 AD; Paul and Jesus both speak of blessing those who curse you (1 Corinthians 4:12; Luke 6:28); Overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:17,21) is a theme both Paul and Jesus taught (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27); Love fulfills the law (Romans 13:10; Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:28-34); and finally, in eschatological agreement, Jesus and Paul both used a thief as an illustration (1 Thessalonians 5:2-5; Luke 12:39). In the end, F.F. Bruce says, “Paul may not have known the written gospels as such, but his tradition ascribed the same ethical qualities of [the historical] Jesus as are found in the gospels; and Paul commands those, either one by one or comprehensively, for the sake of following Jesus.”

Generally speaking, and not surprisingly, Paul more commonly discusses the roles and attributes of the exalted and risen Lord Jesus. Paul often speaks of Jesus as seated at the right hand of the Father, revealing His authority; Paul calls Jesus “Lord,” referring to Psalm 110. In this Old Testament passage, the key phrase is “The Lord said to my Lord…” The Greek reads “kyrios” as Lord; the Aramaic is “mar,” as in maranatha; but the Hebrew is “Yahweh” and then “Adonai.” Paul sees the name of Jesus as equivalent to the very name of the Creator God, and worships Him as such. Paul calls Jesus the Son of God and speaks of His role as intercessor and mediator. Paul even calls Jesus the Lord, who is the Spirit (Romans 8:2; 1 Corinthians 15:45; 2 Corinthians 3:8,16-18). He compares Jesus to Adam, noting them both as the image of God (Ezekiel 1:26,28; John 1:1-14; Hebrews 1:3). Where Adam failed to obey, Jesus obeyed perfectly. Paul also considers Jesus, as in Proverbs 8, as the wisdom of God personified. For Paul, the risen Lord Jesus is the one and only eternal God.

Paul has been called a “visionary” (2 Corinthians 12:2-10) and a “mystic.” His visions, not his success, confirmed his calling (Galatians 1:15; Jeremiah 26:15; Isaiah 49:1-6; Acts 13:4-7), fueled his labor, and perhaps even founded his theology; but visions like his were not unparalleled in the literature of the day (1 Enoch 12; 71 – a text found at the remains of the Essene community of Qumran). Many believe that his famous “thorn in the flesh” was a result of the ecstatic visions, to keep him from becoming conceited about them. That Paul may have been a “mystic” is worth considering further. One Jewish author claims that mysticism is the use of “contemplative techniques to attain the vision of the chariot throne of God” from Ezekiel 1,10. Another secular author says mysticism is “the art of establishing…conscious relation with the Absolute.” Another, perhaps with a keen understanding of the ancient Essenes, says, “Mysticism, in its normal aspect [is] a type of religion, which is characterized by an immediate consciousness of personal relationship with a Divine Being.” Still another expert, with a view to regeneration and being born again, says mysticism is “applicable to every religious tendency that discovers the way to God through inner experience without the mediation of reasoning.” Another defines it as “the name of that organic process which involves the perfect consummation of the Love of God: the achievement here and now of the immortal heritage of men.” Albert Schweitzer notes Paul’s unique mysticism, due to his stress on union with Christ in order to get to God the Father.

Paul often says, “In Christ,” or “In the Lord.” For Paul, dying and rising with Christ is not mere theology or doctrine, but it is his personal experience – one that every Christian must have to be united with Christ and thereby on the path to eternal life with God. This is the same for his understanding and experience and teaching on suffering (Acts 9:16; Romans 5:3; Philippians 3:11; Colossians 1:24; 2 Corinthians 1:6; 4:12). Paul even saw his suffering as a means that would leave less total suffering for the rest of God’s people to endure. Paul’s mysticism also includes life “in the Spirit” – a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Ezekiel 11:16-20; 36:24-27; Joel 2:28). The Essenes undoubtedly saw this coming and prepared themselves by heading to Qumran with a “spirit of holiness,” picturing themselves – as a community – as a living temple, where the offering of themselves in praise and obedience to God replaced animal sacrifices (Hosea 14:2; Hebrews 13:14; Romans 12:1). Again the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is no mere doctrine for Paul, but a personal experience of God (mystic). When he writes Galatians 5:22, listing the fruit of the Spirit, he sees the perfect living out of that life in Jesus and no only desires to mimic that lifestyle, but to see it lived out in others who follow Christ as well.

Typically, the “mystic” as we’ve seen one defined tends to be self-sufficient and recluse in his religious life, and in some sense Paul could be seen that way (Philippians 4:11-13). But in another sense, Paul demanded fellowship for edification of the body (1 Thessalonians 2:19; 2 Corinthians 7:3). Mystics commonly spoke in tongues, uttering mysteries “in the Spirit,” but Paul demanded interpretation for the practice to be deemed useful. His recorded mysteries were not private experiences for his own spiritual enrichment but rather revelations of the divine purpose and its fulfillment for the edification of the body.

R.C. Tannehill concludes by defining mysticism as “The doctrine that the individual can come into immediate contact with God through subjective experiences which differ essentially from the experiences of daily life.” He continues with a glance at Paul, “By this definition, Paul may be spoken of as, among other things, a mystic, but he does not have a mystical theology.” His theology isn’t based on his truly mystical experiences, but on Jesus. Prophecy, rabbinical exegesis, and primitive Christian tradition contribute to Paul, but his lifelong activity cannot be described as that of a mystic. Paul had mystic experiences, but he didn’t live the life or talk the talk of a mystic.

Back to our timeline, the church grew in peace for a time, while Paul was home, during – and even beyond – the reign of Caesar Tiberius. We don’t know how long Paul had resided in Jerusalem, but it was likely most of his life to that point. So the return to Tarsus for Paul was not only his leaving behind much of his Jewish upbringing but also his irrevocable commitment to the Gentile (Hellenized or Romanized) world. Paul was entering his homeland, but it probably wasn’t familiar territory, though he likely learned plenty of Greco-Roman culture from his studies under Gamaliel. Just as today’s seminary education includes a basic summary of worldviews and philosophies, so Paul’s would have as well.

We don’t know with certainty how the next 4-5 years of Paul’s life – from 36-41 AD – played out, but we can say that it certainly included Gentile evangelism (Galatians 1:22-23; 1 Corinthians 11:22-27) in the context of synagogue worship (such as Cornelius the God-fearer). Jewish proselytizing was common from 20 BC-60 AD; Hillel expected it from his students, and Paul probably engaged in it even before his conversion (Isaiah 43:10-12,21; Galatians 5:11; Acts 2:10; 6:5; 8:27-39). Paul was not the only Christian missionary in Syria and Cilicia at the time; and there was good reason for that! Christian Jews often found that pagan and semi-pagan regions, such as Alexandria, Cyrene, and Phoenicia, afforded them greater freedom to serve God and be His witnesses (as was the case for Philip in Samaria, with the Ethiopian eunuch, and later in Caesarea Maritima (Acts 8:5-40), and even back in the Old Testament with Daniel in Babylon). So we leave Paul for a moment to his ministry in Syria and Cilicia, with unrecorded results, and turn to what Luke reveals as the next big thing in the Christian movement, the growth of the church in Antioch.

Syrian Antioch, as opposed to Pisidian Antioch, was founded in 300 BC by the Seleucids. It was the third largest city in the Roman Empire in New Testament times, behind only Rome and Alexandria. There was a significant Jewish population there from its inception, and both Josephus and the Bible hint that the Jews there were proselytizing and winning converts when they mention “Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism” (Acts 6:5), who became one of the first deacons in the church at Jerusalem after converting to Christianity. There were a number of competing cults in the large city; but Christianity may have stood out due to the amazing message of the Creator God who humiliatingly became man to solve the problem of sin, dying out of His great love for His people, only to be exalted as Lord (Philippians 2:5-11). This simple proclamation was understandable and attractive to God-fearers in Antioch, and so the followers of Jesus were first called Christians there. Jews wouldn’t have given them the name, for it implies that Jesus was the Christ, or Messiah. On the other hand, Gentiles saw Christ as another name for Jesus, so it fit perfectly. Interestingly, in Latin, the word for “Christian” was only a vowel away from a common word used for “slave.” Many probably mistook the one for the other!

Anyway, the Jerusalem church held authority over the Antioch church at this time, and so Jerusalem leaders sent Barnabas to ensure proper doctrine and governance (Acts 11:23). As the church in Antioch grew, there quickly became more Gentile Christians, and that’s when critical decisions had to be made about defining what it means to be a Christian. One author says, “Due to the rapid spread of the Gospel among Antioch (in Syria) Greeks, the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to minister to the new believers (Acts 11:20-22). God used Barnabas, after his arrival in Antioch, to add even more converts to the church (Acts 11:23-24). Barnabas soon traveled to Tarsus, where Paul lived, to solicit his help with the newly converted Antioch brethren.” Barnabas must have known about Paul’s ministry, and perhaps his specialty in dealing with Gentiles. So Paul now re-enters Luke’s Acts storyline.

Paul and Barnabas ministered in Antioch for a year, around 42 AD (Acts 11:25-26), and there were likely many comings and goings between Antioch and Jerusalem around this time by the church leaders. We have noted Jerusalem’s leadership; Antioch’s leaders, including Paul and Barnabas, are listed in Acts 13:1. First, we have Simeon called Niger, who is thought to be Simon of Cyrene, the very man who carried the cross of Christ. He is thought to be a black man, for along with the moniker “Niger,” his hometown of Cyrene was a prominent city in the North African country of Libya, which had many Jewish synagogues. It is thought that Paul may have lodged with his family while in Antioch (Mark 15:21; Romans 16:13). Next, we are told of Lucius of Cyrene (Romans 16:21), also a North African who had come to Antioch. Third and finally, we read of Manaen, who was brought up with Herod the Tetrarch (Antipas). Josephus speculated that he may have been the grandson of an Essene named Menahem, who was honored after predicting Herod’s rise to power. Perhaps this honor included bringing the family into Herod’s palace on a regular basis, which would explain the tag line in Acts 13:1.

Acts 11:27-30 offers a nice glimpse of what happened next: “During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius [which was 41-54 AD].) The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” So Paul and Barnabas made their way to Jerusalem around 43 AD. When they had finished their mission in Jerusalem, they returned to Antioch with John Mark (Acts 12:25).

There is general uncertainty as to the placement of this episode with Paul’s timeline given in Galatians. Some suggest that the famine of Acts 11 coincides with Paul’s explanations in Galatians 2:1-10. Others say that Paul’s explanation in Galatians fits better with Acts 15 and the conference in Jerusalem. F.F. Bruce prefers the former, based primarily on the fact that circumcision doesn’t appear to be a big deal in Galatians 2:1-10. Therefore, says Bruce, the circumcision issue arose later. And we’ll discuss that in a little while. But the point of this visit to Jerusalem was to alleviate the needs of the Jerusalem church on account of the famine. James had the primacy as leader of Jerusalem, over Peter and John, and their key message was to remember the poor in their ministry to the Gentiles. There are several suggestions as to the identity of the poor here. It could refer to the poor Jerusalem Christians, the entire Jerusalem church in the midst of persecution and famine, the Essenes, who specifically referred to themselves as the oppressed and afflicted of the flock (Zechariah 11:7,11), or even the Jewish dispersion, referred to as Ebionites (1 Peter 1:1; James 1:1). Most experts suggest that, though Paul was eager to remember the poor as a voluntary gesture of Christian love, the Jerusalem leadership may have seen this responsibility as a tribute or debt owed from the daughter churches to the mother church.

One author sums up what happened next: “From Antioch in Syria Paul, Barnabas and John (surnamed Mark) began their first journey (Acts 13:4-52, 14:1-25). They traveled to Cyprus and Perga. John Mark left Paul and Barnabas at Perga and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). After Perga, Paul and Barnabas journey to Antioch in Pisidia, then to the cities of Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. When they finished preaching the gospel in Derbe, they retraced their steps through Lystra, Iconium, Pisidian Antioch and Perga to strengthen and teach the brethren (Acts 14:21-25). From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch (Acts 14:25-26).” There’s a lot there, and it’s worth talking about in a little more detail.

Barnabas desired to visit his native Cyprus, which was Roman controlled as a province of Cilicia, and Paul likely desired to return to Asia Minor where he had been working. The Holy Spirit moved among the Antioch leaders and brought them to send Paul and Barnabas – with John Mark (Acts 12:12) – to both places. The missionaries made their way through Cyprus preaching in the synagogues of previously established Jewish communities. Because traveling agitators were stirring up many Jewish communities throughout the Roman Empire at this time (Acts 13:6-12; 17:6), Rome often required the agitators to appear before the proconsul for approval or banishment. Sergius Paullus, “an intelligent man,” was the proconsul on Cyprus, and he not only approved of Paul and Barnabas, despite the efforts of Satan through Elymas to stop them, but also “believed, for he was amazed at the teaching of the Lord” (Acts 13:12).

From Cyprus the group sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, and the only news of that part of the trip that Luke reported, in addition to preaching the gospel (Acts 14:25), was the departure of John Mark. Then they headed 100 miles north into southern Galatia, through a region called Pisidia, which lay between Pamphylia and Phrygia, to a plateau-town called Antioch, Pisidian Antioch. Sir William Ramsay speculated that Paul headed there because of the altitude, to recover from Malaria he picked up in Perga (Galatians 4:13). Others speculate that he headed there, because the Roman proconsul of Cyprus, Sergius Paullus had a relative in Pisidian Antioch that he wanted to hear the gospel. Whatever the reason, Paul and Barnabas, without John Mark, arrived in Pisidian Antioch, which was a Roman colony, infused with Roman citizens to help Romanize the region. Roads were built stretching out from the town to aid in this endeavor.
Paul’s speech in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-41) is similar to Peter’s in Acts 2:14-40. Their audiences were both primarily Jewish, but God-fearing Gentiles were also present. Both mentioned the forgiveness of sins (in v38 respectively), but Paul adds mention of justification (v39). Paul’s message was attractive, and he was invited back the following Sabbath. Practically the whole town gathered – mostly Gentiles, no doubt – and the Jews were jealous and tried to divide the audience against Paul and Barnabas. The immediate result was that Paul and Barnabas left Pisidian Antioch due to persecution and headed for Iconium, where the same thing occurred. However, the more lasting consequence of this action was that Gentiles and Jews who had worshipped together in the synagogues would have to be separated into Christians and Jews. Thus, Galatian churches were born in Pisidian Antioch and Iconium.