“Life is queer with its twists and turns, as everyone of us sometimes learns…” That’s a line from probably my favorite poem “Don’t Quit” written by one of my favorite authors—anonymous! It sort’a, kind’a fits Paul’s life in many ways at various times in his walk with Christ. However, through it all Paul didn’t quit, rather he committed his way to the Lord, and God made all things work together for his, that is, Paul’s own good as he, himself, testifies (Romans 8:28).
In the beginning of his relationship with Christ, he was an enemy of the Jesus movement. He persecuted the Way and was en route to Damascus to capture and bring back to Jerusalem for punishment believers, whom the authorities heard were in that city. Unexpectedly, Jesus met Paul just outside of Damascus, and Paul’s life did an about-face. The persecutor became the persecuted, because the enemy had joined forces with those he had been hating. “Life is queer with its twists and turns…” isn’t it? How quickly hatred can change to love under certain circumstances!
Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians that he didn’t stay long in Damascus but left for Arabia. Probably, his stay was for over two years, because he didn’t return to Jerusalem until three years after he had originally left for Damascus to persecute the Way.
Galatians 1:15-18 KJV But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, (16) To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: (17) Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. (18) Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days.
Immediately after God called Paul, he left for Arabia. Why? Probably Paul needed to do some soul searching and study the Scriptures to see how Jesus should fit into his new life. It was one thing to be a converted believer, but it was quite another, if the one who converted was also to become a leading Gospel preacher, and that specifically to gentiles. Who among the then present believing community could help Paul establish his Gospel to the gentiles? As far as believing Jews were concerned, gentiles needed to first become Jews in order to be saved by Jesus. The Jewish faith, after all, was the only religion / faith that was actually begun by God, so this was only the natural reaction for an observant Jew who also believed in Jesus. But, why Arabia? Well, don’t forget; the Arabians were relatives of the Jews, being the children of Abraham through Ishmael, the son of the slave woman. Many of them also practiced circumcision, but it was not given the righteous status it had among the Jews. This and other similarities were food for thought as Paul studied the Scriptures with a view toward Jesus, while mingling with his distant relatives.
However, lest we believe that Paul’s stay in Arabia was all study and no application, he tells us in his second letter to the Corinthians that the ethnarch under Aretas, the king of the Arabians, waited for him at the gates of Damascus, hoping to capture Paul, so they could bring him to Aretas for questioning and perhaps punishment.
What had Paul done? Well, Paul was converted sometime near the death of Herod Philip (cir. 35 CE). The power vacuum this left opened up a border dispute between Herod Antipas and King Aretas. The two were at war. Herod’s armies were vanquished, and he sought Rome’s assistance. Tiberius ordered Vitellius, the Roman legate governing the Syrian province, to intervene on behalf of Herod and make war with Aretas. Before he could do this, however, Tiberius had died, and Vitellius considered his orders null-and-void, and awaited new orders from the new Caesar, Caligula, who was apparently content with existing governments in the east. In any event, the war lasted only a brief period of perhaps 2 to 2 ½ years. However, it was during this time, cir. 35-37 CE, that Paul had been studying and later, apparently, preaching in Arabia. There is nothing like a war to perk up the interest of the current rulers to what may be political agitators. Aretas had probably assumed Paul, a Jew, could be working on behalf of the defeated Herod Antipas to stir up trouble in his country. The least that he wished to do was interrogate him (2Corinthians 11:32), which back then involved torture!
“Life is queer with its twists and turns…” and Paul escaped death by the Jews in Damascus, where Paul had returned, and the interrogation, torture and possible death at the hand of Aretas, by escaping over the Damascus wall in a basket. It was at this time he went to Jerusalem to meet with Peter (cir. 38 CE). Soon, however, Paul had to flee Jerusalem, and he ended up returning to his birthplace of Tarsus in Syria-Cilicia, but probably not before he established some good relationships with the believers in Caesarea. More than likely, he kept in touch with them, while he preached in Tarsus and the surrounding communities with some real success with gentiles. Perhaps it was after being inspired by Paul’s success that the believers from Cyprus and northern Africa, living then in Caesarea, decided to go to Antioch, the capital of Syria, to preach there to the gentiles. And, it just so happened that the Jews and Rome were on the brink of war over Caligula’s intention of erecting a statue of himself in the Temple at Jerusalem. The Roman authorities’ interest in the Jewish movement was peaked due to its Messianic implications, and how that might relate to the possible war with the Jews. Nevertheless, they decided the Messianics weren’t a threat to Roman rule and began referring to them as Christians—first at Antioch.
“Life is queer with its twists and turns…”, but through it all, God has a purpose. He will bring his people through it all with their best interests at heart. There were several messianic movements arising out of Judaism during the first century CE, but the Jesus movement, Christians, had already been considered politically innocuous early in its growth and ended up being the only Messianic movement of the Jews that was not targeted by Rome for eradication.