In an earlier blog I had suggested that Paul’s move to Tarsus had a prophetic implication. It is suggested in a book I have read: “Paul: Between Damascus and Antioch” by Martin Hengle and Anna Maria Schwemer, that Paul deliberately placed himself in the position to fulfill prophecy which he saw in Genesis in Noah’s prayer: “God enlarge Japhet, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27).
The reasoning for this comes out of the Genesis Apocryphon where Abraham deliberately walked out over the boundaries of the land God promised him: from the Nile river in Egypt east and north along the Mediterranean to the Taurus mountains in Cilicia, and then to the Tigress River and southward to the sea, and finally westward back along the Arabian Peninsula to the Nile where he had begun. Ancient Jewish scholars interpreted the boundary along the Taurus Mountains was shared between Shem and Japhet. This was the location of Syria-Cilicia during Paul’s day, and Tarsus (named after Japhet’s grandson according to Jewish scholarship; cp Genesis 10:4) was its main city. The ancient Targumist wrote as a translation / paraphrase of Genesis 9:27: “May Yahweh beautify the borders of Japhet! May his sons become proselytes and dwell in the school of Shem! (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan). Therefore, when Paul went to Tarsus, he wasn’t going home to ‘lick his wounds’ so to speak, but to place himself in position to be used of God to fulfill this prophecy, from the point of view of ancient Jewish scholarship.
Was Paul successful? Neither Luke in Acts nor Paul in his epistles comment upon his stay there. However, we can conclude that Paul was very successful during his stay in Syria-Cilicia. How so? First of all, Barnabas sought him out to retrieve him for the important work of ministering to the new gentile believers in Antioch (Acts 11:25-26). How did Barnabas know Paul would still be in the vicinity of Tarsus? The implication of the context seems to be that there was some contact between him and the Hellenist Messianic Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene who preached successfully to the gentiles in Antioch (Acts 11:19-21). If Paul were unsuccessful in Syria-Cilicia, why would Barnabas want to take advantage of his expertise in Antioch? Secondly, years later after the conclusion of the Jerusalem council of Acts 15, James wrote letters to be taken to the churches whose communities included gentiles. Specifically, they were sent to Antioch, where the conflict arose that sparked the need of the council, and Syria-Cilicia where Paul had been preaching before he was sought out by Barnabas for the work at Antioch (Acts 15:23; cp. 19-29). Presumably, “the men from James” had also gone there, and we have no record of anyone but Paul preaching Syria-Cilicia up to that time.
If Paul’s mission in Syria-Cilicia was so successful, why did he leave? I think we can conclude that his work as an apostle was finished there. The churches were raised up, and as later in Corinth and Ephesus (Achaia and Asia), Paul simply moved on to keep spreading the Gospel. Paul’s work as an apostle was finished, and these churches needed to grow on their own. Therefore, he left them in the care of God as is true or should be true for all God’s people. No man is so important that he is needed to maintain the community of believers for his whole life. We are in the God’s care, and God will use various men to carry out his continuous work. No one man is so important that God cannot use someone else. Therefore, for growth sake and for the sake of spreading the Gospel elsewhere, it was needful for Paul to move on.
In a manner of speaking, moving to Antioch may have seemed to be a set-back in Paul’s mind, considering he had intended to fulfill prophecy by preaching to Japhet’s descendants, but after a rather lengthy stay there, ministering the churches in Antioch and probably the churches in Syria-Phoenicia, the Holy Spirit set aside Paul and Barnabas for further work among the sons of Japhet, and they sailed off to preach in Galatia (Acts 13:1-3), invading deep into regions of Japhet for the sake of Christ.