Everyone I read, who writes about Paul’s early years, generally agrees that he was the ‘great’ Apostle from the very start of his ministry. The whole idea in metaphor has him leaping tall buildings in a single bound, first running headlong persecuting every believer in Jesus, then doing a 180 on the head of a pin. Immediately he is turned into Christianity’s superhero, Paul, the evangelist and great Apostle we have come to know and love.
Is this how Jesus really works with people? Did Paul immediately ooze out the fruits of the Spirit as he was led by the hand to the guesthouse on Straight Street in downtown Damascus? I, for one, don’t believe it! Consider what Paul had been doing. By his own admission, he was a violent man (Galatians 1:13). Luke has him breathing out murderous plans against the body of Christ (Acts 9:1). What happened to these emotions? What did Paul do with his erroneous interpretation of the Scriptures? Normally, folks are simply not aware of error until intense study convinces them otherwise. Did the hatred in Paul’s flesh immediately give way to the love of the Spirit? Is this how Christ works in your life? I know that in my walk with Christ growth in the Spirit occurs only after prayer, studying his word and through learning from my many failures, as I attempt to work it all out in my behavior. How about you?
It seems like most folks who write about Paul believe once Paul was introduced to the Resurrected Jesus, was baptized and spoke with a few believers (some of whom he may have caused to be beaten) that presto-chango, we have the great Apostle to the gentiles standing before us—ready to address the world for Christ. Is this so? Is this even logical?
On the road to Damascus Paul did, indeed, meet the Resurrected Jesus, and Jesus captured Paul’s will; Paul no longer wanted to persecute believers. He was a changed man and did a 180 in his walk. He was running away from Christ, but from this point on Paul walked with Christ. Later, Paul would write that Jesus reigns until every thought that exalts itself above the authority of God is brought into captivity (2Corinthians 10:3-5; cp. 1Corinthians 15:25). Jesus held Paul’s will captive, but did he hold all his thoughts captive, before the time he spent in Arabia?
When I first came to Christ I had to learn many things about my Lord, but I also had to unlearn or put down those thoughts and ways that were of the flesh and could not be readily assimilated into my new life with Jesus. In Paul’s case, for example, he devoted himself to God by seeking to eradicate what he believed to be a cancerous sore on the Jewish faith. Could Paul continue to uses this behavior and thought pattern to preach Christ? Certainly the days of the Crusades centuries later should prove to us that this idea doesn’t work in offering the love of God to the world. Paul had to come to terms with such thoughts and teachings. He had to take a fresh look at what was good about his Biblical understanding and what had to be cast aside. In other words, he had to go someplace where he could be alone with Christ, pray, study and consider the thoughts the Spirit would bring to his mind.
After about 2 ½ years in Arabia, Jesus had not only captured Paul’s will, but now he had Paul’s mind as well. Paul not only knew where he was going, but he also had a general idea of what he needed to teach the world in Jesus’ name. Was Paul ready? I think he thought so, but I don’t think Jesus was through fully preparing him for the task at hand.
Years later Paul would write: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2 KJ2000). How could Paul possibly have understood this, unless he first lived it? I believe that after Paul was content with what to say about Christ he probably began preaching in Arabia, perhaps in Hagra, where he expounded upon his new understanding of the Hagar-Jerusalem allegory (Galatians 4:22-26). If Damascus is any indication of what to expect, he was probably run out of town.
Later, in Damascus, Paul met the same response and had to escape the city through a window in the wall. Everywhere Paul went he seemed to cause a violent response. Years later, he told the Corinthians King Aretas had tracked Paul to Damascus and left word to take him into custody as he left the city (2Corinthians 11:32). Aretas had been at war with Herod Antipas and Paul’s preaching about a new Messiah no doubt peeked his political interest.
Paul was on the run, and he came to Jerusalem 3 years after he left on the important business of the high priest. Now, he returned quietly seeking a meeting with Peter. Through the efforts of Barnabas, Paul was able to overcome the initial mistrust of the disciples, and he stayed with Peter for about two weeks. Together, they discussed many things about Jesus. Paul needed the Jesus traditions. Luke tells us that many had undertaken to record those things (Luke 1:1), so Paul may have been given a written copy of events and sayings of Jesus’ life. These things existed with the oral traditions from the very beginning.
Paul also would have rehearsed with Peter what had happened to him, how he met Jesus, and what he had come to know in Arabia concerning the circumcision and the gentiles. This would have been difficult to believe both for Peter and James, with whom Paul also met during his stay with Peter. After all, the Lord also practiced the ceremonial traditions that all Jews observed, though not to the extremity that the Pharisees delighted in. Nevertheless, it would take a later revelation directly from Jesus before Peter could fully understand Paul’s doctrine. When Paul began to preach this doctrine in Jerusalem in the same synagogues in which Stephen preached, he was again run out of town, leaving for Tarsus, his hometown in Cilicia.
One has to wonder about Paul’s real success as a preacher in the beginning of his walk with Christ. Certainly Paul had a general idea what to say, but how to say it seems to be an art he had to learn through the discipline of persecution. Paul says he was beaten by the Jews five times (2Corinthians 11:24), but neither Acts nor any of Paul’s epistles reveal where these occurred. It is possible that he was beaten in Arabia, and he took this as a sign to leave. Another may have been given in Damascus, certainly the scars and bruises would be proof of his dedication to the Gospel and may have been what won Barnabas to his side. A third may have been given in the synagogue in Jerusalem just before Paul fled. The fourth and fifth were probably yet facing him in the synagogues in Cilicia. On the other hand, all five could have been his lot during his entire stay in Cilicia, as he continued to preach the Gospel there—to the Jew first and then to the gentiles.
Nothing is ever said about Paul’s winning disciples for the Lord in Arabia, Damascus or Jerusalem, but he was successful in Cilicia (Acts 15:23, 40-41). I believe it was here in Paul’s hometown that the Lord captured the whole man, Paul—his will, his mind and his emotions. It is from here that the Lord took him for ministry to gentiles in Antioch, Galatia, Asia and Europe. I don’t believe the great Apostle to the gentiles came out of Arabia or Damascus. I think he came out of Cilicia.