Paul of Tarsus Biography

It must be admitted that Paul was one of the unlikeliest individuals ever to become a Christian missionary.  He was born a Jew with Roman citizenship, and was a Pharisee both by birth and theological choice.  Paul was trained by Gamaliel, one of the greatest Jewish master teachers, and he obeyed the Law of Moses meticulously.  Those he considered opposing or blaspheming strict Judaism, Paul vehemently despised.  Christians fell within this category and Paul hounded them from city to city, executing some and imprisoning others.  When courageous Stephen was being stoned to death, Paul stood by, apparently in a supervisory role.

Saul's conversion

Saul’s conversion

Then on a trek to Damascus in raging search of Christians, Paul saw a blinding light and heard a voice say, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?  I am Jesus whom you persecute.”  (originally Paul went by the name of Saul but changed his name following his conversion). The light blinded Paul and he had to be led into Damascus.  Soon a disciple was sent to restore his sight.  This experience resulted in Paul’s conversion to Christianity.  At this point it was revealed that he was called by God to spread the gospel both among high nobility and common Jews and Gentiles.  “And I will show him how much he must suffer for my sake,” God declared.

One might expect that Paul would immediately launch into a public ministry at this point.  But, interestingly, at least the first ten years after Paul’s conversion were spent in relative obscurity.  He seems to have spent most of this time in Tarsus, his hometown, and possibly in Arabia.  It was probably during these years that Paul learned all he could about Christ’s ministry and thought through the gospel of grace—a gospel that rested alone on Christ’s sacrifice for mankind’s sin, not on additional obedience to multitudinous Judaistic rules and regulations.  This deep conviction was to result in great controversy and conflict with strict Judaists throughout Paul’s later ministry.

Barnabas, a mature and tolerant Christian leader, is the one who displayed most confidence in Paul’s conversion and his value as a teacher.  When Barnabas was commissioned to establish the thriving young church in Antioch, he sent for Paul in nearby Tarsus to help him train the Christians in the gospel.  The year spent there set the stage for Paul’s series of missionary journeys to Asia Minor, Syria, Macedonia, and Achaia—a period spanning about ten years.

Paul preached in synagogues

Paul preached in synagogues

Paul and his companions thus founded churches in various cities.  Then many of these churches were later revisited either by Paul or by an associate.  In other cases, Paul sent letters of encouragement and instruction to churches in individual cities.  At least thirteen of these letters are included in our New Testament scriptures.

Most of the book of Acts focuses not on the other apostles, but on Paul.  This man, more than any other, God used to establish the early church so firmly that no later obstacles, no incendiary persecutions were possibly able to obliterate it.  And Paul wrote more books of the Bible, by far, than any other author.  Quite simply, this man overshadows all other New Testament characters except our Lord.

Was Paul, then, superhuman?  Was he a handsome, charismatic figure—a dynamic, eloquent orator who swept people into the kingdom by virtue of his shining talents?  Evidently not.  Tradition reports that he was a short man, balding, with crooked legs and a hook nose.   His speaking ability was not phenomenal either.  Though familiar with the eloquent wisdom of the world, Paul claimed he only taught Christ crucified—always the simple, powerful message of the Cross.   Apparently Paul was not naturally the aggressive, “take charge” type.  He claimed he stood before the Corinthian Christians in weakness and fear, with much trembling.  And one church is said to have claimed, “Paul sounds very bold in his letters, but he is meek in person and is a contemptible speaker.”

Paul and Silas in prison

Paul and Silas in prison

Paul’s life was not easy.  He faced constant ups and downs—enemies beating him silly, sickness and dungeon life weakening his body, hecklers constantly interrupting his sermons, other itinerants sabotaging his ministry—he lived the life of a fugitive, usually only one jump ahead of the ‘Law.’

Obviously it was God who made Paul so incredibly effective, not a mesmerizing charisma or adored dynamism.  Paul’s unquenchable love for Christ overflowed to the people around him until Paul could honestly say, “My heart is heavy within me and I grieve bitterly day and night because of you.  …it is no pretense when I say I would be willing to be forever damned if that would save you.”

What can we learn from Paul of Tarsus?

Those with shy, inward personalities like Mary’s sometimes envy outgoing Christians like Martha for their numerous relationships and achievements.  And outgoing Christians wish they had the spiritual depth and contemplative insight of the introspective. Yet the church needs both.  Don’t wish that God had made you differently.  Your personality is indispensable to the kingdom of God.

Bible Verses about Paul of Tarsus

God found a strict Pharisee, a Christian-hater, a diminutive, unimposing Jew, and called him to become the greatest missionary of all time.   Sometimes God does the unexpected, the seemingly impossible, for His own glory.  After Paul met Jesus, he was faithful to the end.  Shortly before he was beheaded in Rome, Paul wrote, “I have fought a good fight.  I have finished my course.  I have kept the faith!”  He is a model of  triumph for Christ to all who follow through the centuries.

What questions does this help to answer?

  • Who was Paul of Tarsus in the Bible?
  • Why did Saul become Paul?
  • Who is the greatest missionary?
  • What is significant about a person’s name?
  • How should we stay faithful in hard times?
  • How should we grow amidst persecution?

Author Info

Steve Fortosis served for six years as youth minister in several parishes.  Meanwhile he was also working toward his masters, then his doctorate in religious education.  Through the years he has enjoyed teaching on the college and seminary levels and writing professionally.  He has published a number of books including story and prayer compilations, missionary biography, Biblical character biography, devotional lit, children’s lit, and even stories of Bible translation. Presently he resides in Florida with his wife, Debra, where he teaches part-time and writes on a free-lance basis.

Steve Fortosis