[Originally Submitted as a paper for New Testament Orientation II for Liberty University]
Paul is an extraordinary character in the New Testament. He was seen in Acts as the great persecutor of the church and a great promoter of the church (Acts 8-9). He is also one of the most influential writers of the New Testament, having written thirteen epistles and maybe the book of Hebrews. When looking at the life, letters, theology, and impact on the church today, Paul should be seen as a forgiven Jewish sinner who was called by God to bring the gospel to the nations.
The life of Paul can only be deduced from the writings of Paul and the testimony given about him in the book of Acts. While being largely written about in the New Testament, there are no first century outside sources that talk about his life apart from the New Testament. The only other outside sources are the early church fathers written in the early second century. Clement wrote about his ministry and death:
By reason of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the prize of patient endurance. After that he had been seven times in bonds, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, had preached in the East and in the West, he won the noble renown which was the reward of his faith, having taught righteousness unto the whole world and having reached the farthest bounds of the West; and when he had borne his testimony before the rulers, so he departed from the world and went unto the holy place, having been found a notable pattern of patient endurance.
Outside of those early references of the church fathers, the New Testament is the best, earliest, and only sources on the life of Paul.
Paul started out his life as Saul, a Jew from the Roman city of Tarsus (Acts 9: 11). Not much is known about Tarsus at the time of the first century, but it is in the modern-day city of Tersous in the southern part of Turkey. Paul described himself as a natural born Roman citizen twice in the book of Acts (16: 37; 22:28). While having the privileges of Roman citizenship, Paul was largely influenced by his Jewish heritage (22: 3). Paul could trace his lineage through the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5). That was no small feat considering the first dispersion of the Jews in 600 B.C. left many Jews unaware of their genealogy (Ezra 2: 59). Paul was a Pharisee whose father and perhaps grandfather were Pharisees (Acts 23:6). This meant Paul belonged to the select party of Jews, numbering about six thousand, who were known for their strict lifestyles and zeal for the Old Testament and Jewish oral tradition. Paul also received training from a leading Pharisee named Gamaliel, who was the son of Hillel, who developed a new exegesis that allowed for a further liberalized interpretation of the law. This shows how Paul would have interpreted the Old Testament and the oral traditions that surrounded it before coming to faith in Christ.
The New Testament introduces Paul as one who guarded the coats of those who stoned the first Christian martyr, Stephen (Acts 7: 58). The reason the Jews were angry with Stephen was because he was highly intelligent, he was innocent, and he was turning away many priests to following Jesus as the Messiah (6: 7- 8). Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin and was falsely accused of speaking blasphemous words against Moses, God, and the temple (vv. 11- 14). Stephen preached a message giving a message on God’s dealing in the history of Israel, the opposition to God’s messengers by the Israelites, the fact that worshiping God should not revolve around temple worship, and ended with accusing the religious leaders of rebelling against God and failing to keep the law (7:1-53). Here is the accusation of Stephen,
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it (Acts 7: 51- 53, ESV).
As this statement did not sit well with the Sanhedrin, it did not set well with Saul (8:1). He was very passionate about the oral traditions and his interpretation of the law (Philippians 3:5). Any credible opposition to his way of life had to be snuffed out. Therefore, he set out to go from house to house and town to town to throw Christian in prison and have them killed (Acts 8:3; 9: 1-2).
There is some speculation as to what happened to Paul on the Damascus road. The question at hand concerns whether Paul was converted or called? On the way to persecute followers of Christ, Paul actually meet the risen Jesus Christ, was commissioned to go preach the gospel to the Gentiles, and told to meet a man named Ananias who would restore Paul’s sight (Acts 9: 1- 12). There is no question as to whether or not Paul was called by Jesus to proclaim Him among the Gentiles. The question is was Paul converted? The answer lies in what conversion is. Conversion is related to changing the direction one is going. Paul was not changing gods or religions, he still considered himself a Jew following the one true God (Romans 9: 1- 5). Paul was going against Jesus as the Christ before his conversion, and he began to preach Christ after his conversion (Acts 9: 20). It is the same kind of conversion Peter called for in Acts 3:19.
After Paul’s conversion, Paul was healed, preached the gospel, meet the apostles, and was taught in the desert by Jesus Christ for three years (Acts 9: 17- 28, Galatians 1: 11- 24). There is no indication as to how to chronologically make sense of these events. It could be that Paul was revealed the gospel, he was healed, he went to the Arabian desert for three years, he preached the gospel, and he meet the apostles as is indicated by the passage in Galatians 1:11- 24. Whatever the case, Paul argued with some Hellenists after meeting with the apostles and had to flee to his hometown in Tarsus until he was commissioned by the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel to the Gentiles on his first missionary journey (Acts 9: 30; 13: 1- 3).
Paul’s first missionary journey started off preaching the gospel at Cypris in the synagogues (13: 4). It ended after a two-year journey through the whole Galatian territory. The next two missionary journeys are described as follows,
A second foray, this time with Silas and Timothy, lasted most of three years (ca. AD 50–53) and resulted in churches founded in PHILIPPI, BEREA, THESSALONICA, and CORINTH. The Thessalonian letters were written during this period. Paul’s third missionary journey (Acts 18–21) lasted from about AD 53 to 57 and centered on a long stay in EPHESUS, from which he wrote 1 Corinthians. During a sweep through MACEDONIA, he wrote 2 Corinthians. At the end of this time, awaiting departure for Jerusalem, he wrote Romans from Corinth (ca. AD 57).
Paul’s strategy in evangelizing these areas was to first go to the synagogues and try to win over the Jews to Christ (Romans 1:16). After no more Jews would be won, he would preach the gospel to God fearing Gentiles who probably were in the process of being proselytized (Acts 13: 44- 52). Paul did not in his recorded sermons to Gentiles try to convert them to being Jews but to worship the creator God who sent his risen son to judge the world (17: 22- 34). Paul ended his third missionary journey in prison where he awaited to present the gospel to Nero under house arrest in Rome (28). As mentioned by Clement above, Paul ended his life as a martyr for Christ after Nero burned down Rome and blamed it on Paul in the mid to late sixties.
Throughout Paul’s ministry, Paul needed to keep in contact with churches to give them guidance on problems that would arise in the church personally and theologically. Paul wrote thirteen canonical letters that aided these churches and the churches throughout the centuries. While the Bibles that are written today have them organized Romans through Philemon, chronologically they are written 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, Titus, and 2 Timothy. While much can be said about Paul’s letters, it is probably best to focus on what is said in a small collection of them for the scope of this paper. This paper will focus on Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 2 Corinthians.
Romans was written by Paul from Corinth between 56-57A.D. Romans was unique among Paul’s letters as he wrote to a church he did not found (Romans 1: 8- 15). Romans was written as an encouragement letter in hopes that Paul would be financed on his missionary trip to Spain (15: 28). Romans is an extremely gospel centric letter where Paul defends the gospel of salvation by Jesus through faith, and not by works (1: 16- 17; 3:23-26; 4). Paul does not address any specific problems that this church has; though there is indication that there might be some problems between Jews and Gentiles. The majority of the letter argues against salvation through becoming a Jew and living out the law as a means of salvation (1- 11). Chapters twelve through fifteen demonstrate how salvation works out itself in the life of the believer in Christ. The last chapter lists several persons that Paul wishes to commend in the Roman church for their faith and aid in his ministry (16: 1- 16). It also addresses that Paul dictated this letter to a secretary named Tertius, some final instructions, greetings from fellow believers in Corinth, and a praise to God (vv. 17- 27).
One big issue that comes up in this book is the use of the word law. It is used several ways in the book. It can refer to law overall like when Paul says, “For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression” (4: 15, ESV). Law can mean a principle, “The law of works… and the law of faith are two contrasted principles by which human beings seek to secure God’s acceptance.” The law can mean the Torah (3: 21). The law can mean “the Old Testament as a whole.” Chapter three verses ten through nineteen show this because it lists several different quotations from the Old Testament to condemn the whole world. The law can also mean the law of God that was given to Moses. In this case Paul does not condemn the law but the Jew’s handling of it. Bruce explains,
The law, then, whether spelt out in code or implanted in the conscience, is God’s law, ‘holy and just and good’ (7:12). If, as Paul insists, it was not given as the means of justification, why was it given? To this question the letter to the Romans provides a variety of answers, which may be arranged under four principal heads. It was given to be a revelation of God and his will. … It was given for the health and preservation of the human race. … It was given to bring sin to light, and to lead sinners to cast themselves on the pardoning grace of God. … It was given to provide guidance for the believer’s life.
Paul’s use of the law differs as he uses that word through Romans, but his message is clear the believer, whether Jew or Gentile, is saved by God’s power through faith (1:16-17).
1 Corinthians is the first of several correspondences between Paul and this problem church. The church as a whole was divided amongst itself (1 Corinthians 1: 10- 13). It was divided over following different teachers, philosophy, the cross, sexual immorality, participating in orgies, eating food offered to idols, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul addresses each of these problems throughout the letter, making the letter seem disorganized but unified on the central theme of being unified in the truth of Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Paul might actually be responding to a letter from the Corinthians,
It was, then to clarify the intention of his ‘previous’ letter, to respond to news brought by (Stephanus and) Chloe’s people, to answer the enquiries made in the Corinthians’ letter, and to head off some emerging criticisms of his own person and ministry that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians during his time in Ephesus.
Paul very well could have been responding point by point in this letter, which would account for it seeming like there is no organization to his epistle.
This epistle seems to have been written when things started to calm down in the Corinthian church. Paul had heard of the Corinthians repentance after he had a painful visit and he had written a harsh letter (2 Corinthians 2:1-4). This is probably the fourth and last letter that Paul had written to this problem church. He was pleased to hear about their repentance (7: 10- 12). Paul wanted to comfort the believers in Corinth over the severe letter by reminding them of the gospel, the victory they have in Christ, their future glory, and the great ministry of reconciliation they had been entrusted with (2- 6: 13).
At the same time, Paul also felt the need to warn his readers of joining with Satan by partnering with unbelievers (6: 14- 18). He warns his readers to make sure they give what they promised for the collection for the poor (8- 9). Then he launches in a self-defense against false demon possessed teachers named super apostles (10- 13: 10). Some people teach that these are two different letters that Paul wrote that were joined together because of the stark contrast between the message of comfort and the message of condemnation of these super apostles. Other people realize Paul is dealing with a whole range of emotions when writing this letter and they note Paul starts dealing with the attacks of the super apostles as early as chapter six verse twelve. In any case Paul wants his readers to love each other, comfort each other, and live in the grace and love of God the father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (13: 11- 14).
Paul was a Jew. He held all the beliefs that a normal Jew had about God, Israel, the resurrection, angels, demons, heaven, and hell. Yet, after encountering the living Christ, and being taught by him, he developed theology that differed from his fellow Jews, that was not accepted by them. Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ and his gospel didn’t differ from the rest of the apostles (Galatians 2: 1- 10). There are three major areas of theology that one must touch on when considering Paul’s doctrine: Jesus, soteriology, ecclesiology. These seem to be the areas of theology Paul is most concerned about in his writings.
Paul obviously taught that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who is also the Messiah for the whole world. Whenever Paul speaks about Jesus, he always says Jesus Christ, Christ Jesus, or Lord Jesus Christ. Paul believed Jesus was the Messiah who restored sinners to God. Yet, Paul believed differently about the Messiah than what his fellow Jews believed at the time.
Paul believed Jesus was a fully human man descended from David (Romans 1: 3). Jesus is the second Adam, or federal head of human beings (5: 15). Jesus was the obedient man who was obedient to the point of death (Philippians 2:8).
Paul also believed that Jesus was God as God the Son; as declared by his resurrection (Romans 1: 4). Jesus is equal to God (Philippians 2:6). Jesus is full deity dwelt in bodily (Colossians 2:9). Jesus is distinct from God the Father, but equal to God the Father (3: 1). He is called,
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (1: 15- 20, ESV).
This is important to note Paul believed that as Messiah Jesus was God because this is where he differed from his fellow Jews. This opens the door for Paul believing in the Trinity because he believed that the Father was God, Jesus was God, and the Holy Spirit was God but they are all distinct persons (2 Corinthians 13: 1- 4).
Paul also taught that Jesus was the crucified and resurrected Messiah. In all of Paul’s sermons in Acts, Jesus was a risen Messiah (Acts 13: 13- 40; Acts 17: 30- 31). Paul preached Christ crucified as a propitiation for sins (Romans 3: 23- 26). Paul preached Christ crucified to show the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). Paul also taught the resurrection showed that Jesus was the Son of God (Romans 1:4).
Paul’s view of salvation was unique to the current view of Judaism at the time. Paul taught all people were evil and deserving of God’s wrath (3: 10- 20). Jewish heritage did not save a person from sin (2). Salvation is by faith in the sacrifice of Jesus’ blood sacrifice that appeased God’s wrath on the cross (3: 21- 26). Paul taught that this did not excuse a person to repent from sin (6). If one does struggle with sin, if they are repentant and trusting in Jesus, there is no condemnation for them (8:1). God does choose who will repent and trust in Jesus through election (8: 26- 9). Yet, this is still dependent on faith (10: 4). This is no different from God’s choosing of Israel to be a holy nation in him for no other reason than he loved them (Deuteronomy 7: 6- 11).
Paul believed that Jews and Gentiles were one new people in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2: 11-22). Paul believed there were no ethnical, sexual, or social divisions in this new people in Christ (Colossians 3:11). Paul believed in all members of the people of Christ using their spiritual gifts to benefit each person like in a body each member helping the other members (Romans 12: 3- 8). Paul taught male leadership in the church (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1). Paul taught that social relations between husband and wife, father and children, and master and slave needs to be done out of love and respect as they do Christ (Ephesians 5-6).
Throughout the church era Paul has had a significant impact on the people of God. Peter was the first to recognize Paul’s writings as scripture (2 Peter 3: 15-16). The leading church father Augustine was converted after reading a section of Romans in the fourth century.  Martin Luther was saved after reading Paul’s writings, translated the Bible into the language of the people, and started a movement that would uncover the gospel that Paul taught. John Wesley in the seventeenth century was saved after reading a section from Romans, and he started a movement that led to the Great Awakening in the American colonies. Paul is probably the most read and most loved writer in the church today. Not because of who he is, but who he points to, Jesus Christ our savoir and God.
Paul was a Jew who had been forgiven by God and called to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. He loved God’s Word. His love for God and his word, and his calling as an apostle, led to him writing Holy Scripture. His humility and love for Christ should bring every believer to their knees and imitate him as he imitated Christ.
Barnett, Paul. The Message of 2 Corinthians: Power in Weakness. Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 1988.
Bruce, F.F. Romans: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove, Illinois, IVP Academic, 1985.
Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church: The Story of Emergent Christianity from the Apostolic Age to the Dividing of the Ways Between the Greek East and the Latin West. Strand, London, Penguin Books, 1993.
Elwell, Walter A. Yarbrough, Robert W. Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey. Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Academic, 2013.
Freed, Edwin D. The Apostle Paul and His Letters. New York, New York, Routledge, 2014.
Kruse, Colin G. 2 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Lightfoot, J. B. The Apostolic Fathers: The Early Christian Writings of Church Leaders Who Followed Soon After the Apostles of Jesus Christ. Cambridge, Ohio, Christian Publishing House, 2020.
 J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers: The Early Christian Writings of Church Leaders Who Followed Soon After the Apostles of Jesus Christ (Cambridge, Ohio, Christian Publishing House, 2020). 13.
 Ibid. 38.
 Ibid. 38.
 Ibid. 237.
 Ibid. 238.
 Henry Chadwick, The Early Church: The Story of Emergent Christianity from the Apostolic Age to the Dividing of the Ways Between the Greek East and the Latin West (Strand, London, Penguin Books, 1993). 18
 Ibid. 60.
 Ibid. 60.
 Ibid. 61.
 Ibid. 63.
 Colin G. Kruse, 2 Corinthians. 25- 26.
 Paul Barnett, The Message of 2 Corinthians. 14.
 F.F. Bruce, Romans. 65.
 Ibid. 65- 66.
 Ibid. 67.