For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. 20 Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 21 I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. Roman 7:19-21
This is my favorite verse from Paul. When I despair of not living up to the life I want to live for Christ, I remember that Paul struggled with this very problem.
St. Paul, indeed, is a great example to be had for us all. He represents both the worst and the best. He represents the extent to which Jesus will forgive sins. He was responsible for the death of Christians as a persecutor of the early church. He literally held everyone’s coats as they stoned Stephen to death! Yet he became Paul, called by Christ, trained by Christ, and sent to the Gentiles of the world as their apostle. Imagine that! A self-described “Jew of Jews” and a Pharisee finds himself the apostle to everyone who is not Jewish!
The book of Acts deals a lot with Paul and documents his three missionary trips, which took him as far as Spain. Paul was beaten, stoned and left for dead, imprisoned and even shipwrecked all for the sake of Jesus and His Gospel! He easily racked up thousands of miles in his three missionary journeys, traveling by land and sea.
He even went head-to-head with Peter over Peter’s refusal to eat with the uncircumcised as cowardly and unbefitting the message of Christ. Paul collected money from other churches to help the church in Jerusalem when she was in dire straits.
Much of the New Testament was written by Paul in addition to Acts spending a lot of time on his missionary journeys. Acts was written by Luke, who was a friend of Paul’s and even accompanied him part of the time.
Let’s take a quick survey of his letters. First, there are several which some believe were not penned by Paul. First is Hebrews. Origen said in about 3AD, “God alone knew who wrote it.” Indeed, the opening passages of Hebrews does not have any attribution of authorship, but rather plunges directly into its narrative.
Scholars also call into question Paul’s authorship of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. However, 1 Timothy starts with “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope.”
2 Timothy’s greeting is similar: “Paul, an apostle off Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus.” Timothy was a close friend and helper of Paul, so it stands to reason that they stayed in touch by letter, especially Paul writing to him with encouragement.
Titus also begins with such a greeting – “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness…” Like Timothy, Titus was a close helper of Paul’s. They first met in Antioch, and Paul brought him back to Jerusalem where he went to refute the idea that new Christians had to be circumcised to be accepted in the Christian fellowship. This policy, of course, went against the whole promise of mercy and being under faith in Jesus instead of the law. Titus was a representative of Paul’s efforts to extend the Gospel to Gentiles as well as Jews.
While not a biblical scholar, I can’t see questioning the authorship of these three letters when one considers the openings of each as well as the close relationships Paul had with both men.
Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and 1 and 2 Corinthians were letters to churches Paul had established, to people he knew personally. He was often responding to infighting over minor issues like proper Christian diet – vegetarian or not, etc. There was also one-upmanship, some claiming to be of one apostle’s teachings over another.
More seriously, Paul had to fight heretical teachings that tried to branch off from truth. The biggest problem was the arrival of Gnosticism, which essentially preaches salvation through secret knowledge. This is heretical, of course, as salvation comes from faith in Jesus and the saving power of His perfect sacrifice. Mankind has always wanted to be self-reliant, starting with Adam and Eve, so it makes sense that someone would branch off Jesus’ teaching into something that placed at least some of the onus for salvation onto men.
The epistle to the Romans is different in that he wrote it before going there. He had continually expressed his desire to visit Rome, but other issues prevented that from happening as soon as he wished. He was writing to people he had not yet known, so this was a letter that introduced him as well as provided foundational knowledge of the Gospel and its meaning until he could arrive and speak with them directly.
Perhaps this is why so many Christians today still find his letter to Rome so useful; it covers so much ground on the Christian faith and is so instructional it is a virtual primer on the Gospel.
Finally, there are the so-called prison letters – Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon. We can’t be certain of which prison he wrote from, as he had been imprisoned in both Jerusalem and Caesarea before his final incarceration in Rome. They also demonstrate how closely Timothy worked with Paul during his confinements; all of them except Ephesians were sent jointly by Paul and Timothy.
Paul died a martyr’s death, having first been imprisoned by the Jews in Jerusalem. After taking a beating, he revealed that he was a Roman citizen, which scared the Jewish authorities half to death. Beating Roman citizen could have dire consequences. Paul then appealed to Rome for consideration of his case, because he knew he wouldn’t a fair hearing in Jerusalem.
Paul is believed to have been put to death after the great fire of Rome under Nero. Legend has it that he was decapitated on the Via Laurentina outside of Rome. He was buried, again according to legend, two miles outside of Rome on the Via Ostiensis.
According to Wikipedia, “In 2002, an 8-foot (2.4 m)-long marble sarcophagus, inscribed with the words “PAULO APOSTOLO MART” (“Paul apostle martyr”) was discovered during excavations around the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls on the Via Ostiensis.”
Paul’s part in the New Testament has been praised and criticized over the centuries. Some feel he is more prominent in the New Testament than Christ Himself, as if this is Paul’s doing. However, Jesus never wrote anything that we are aware of. His job was to preach the Gospel, die for our sins, and send His disciples into the world as His emissaries. As is usually the case, we are better defended by others than ourselves, so Paul, Peter, John, and the rest should figure prominently in the telling of Jesus’ story and expounding on what He taught them. It is why He taught them!
Next time: Peter!
*I should note here that I’ve used Who’s Who in the Bible by Peter Calvocoressi for information in this article, but his take on the biographies do not read as a believer. His writing is from a secular vantage point. If you decide to read it at any point, I would do so with a careful eye.