ST. PAUL’S LETTER TO THE ROMANS
LESSON 1
INTRODUCTION PART I:
St. Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles

 

Almighty God and Father,
In Your infinite wisdom You raised up for the good of Your Church the Apostle Paul, a man transformed by his encounter with Your Son who set him on a life journey of discipleship as His Apostle to the Gentile nations.  Beloved Holy Spirit, give to us the passion of St. Paul for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and guide us as we begin our study of Paul’s letter to the faithful New Covenant believers of the universal Catholic Church in Rome. We pray in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

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“In the whole world Paul taught that all the churches are arranged by sevens, that they are called seven, and that the Catholic Church is one.  And first of all, indeed, that he himself also might maintain the type of seven churches, he did not exceed that number.  But he wrote to the Romans, to the Corinthians, to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Thessalonians, to the Philippians, to the Colossians; afterward he wrote to individual persons, so as not to exceed the number of seven churches.”
Bishop Victorinus of Petovium [Pettau ] martyred 304AD, from the Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John.

[Unless otherwise stated, all Biblical passages are from the New Jerusalem translation]

In what was probably the year 57/58 AD St. Paul spent the winter in the important trading center of Corinth [Korinathos], Greece.  Paul would have felt “at home” with the Christian community of Corinth which he had founded on his second missionary journey and with whom he had spent eighteen months [Acts 18:1-18] from the end of 50AD to the middle of 52AD. After leaving the fledgling church in Corinth in 52AD he had continued to keep in touch with them, advising them on how best to continue to grow in faith and to resist sin in two letters written to the Church—the first in circa 54AD and the second just prior to his arrival in 57AD.  This was a flourishing, mostly gentile Christian community and St. Paul would have been pleased with the progress they had made and the many difficulties they had overcome despite being established in the center of such notorious immorality.

The city of Corinth was strategically positioned on the Isthmus of Corinth.  The isthmus provided the shortest route from the Adriatic Sea to the Aegean Sea and therefore, the shortest passage from Asia in the East to the rest of the Roman Empire in the West, making the city a great crossroads and commercial center of the Roman world.    In the Roman conquest of Greece the ancient Greek city had been destroyed but Julius Caesar had founded a new city in the year of his death in 44BC, and had designated it as the capital of the Roman province of Achaea.  Initially the population of the Roman city of Corinth had been composed of Italian freedmen and retired soldiers but over time the city had attracted a large population composed of men and women from many parts of the Roman Empire.  Ancient literature, archaeology, and the Bible [1 Corinthians 8:5] all testify to the immorality of the city and the large number of pagan temples at Corinth including temples dedicated to Athena and Poseidon, a hospital and temple complex dedicated to Asklepios [the god of healing], and impressive temples to Apollo and Aphrodite.  The temple to Aphrodite was well known throughout the ancient world for the 1,000 slave-girls who served as temple prostitutes.  There was also a Jewish colony and synagogue established in the city.  It was this Jewish community which had rejected Paul when he attempted to preach to Gospel to them and later denounced him to the Roman authorities when he was more successful in preaching to the gentiles of Corinth [see Acts 18:1-18].  Despite many difficulties, Paul had managed to establish the Christian community of Corinth, and now after three successful missionary journeys spreading the Gospel throughout Asia Minor and Greece Paul is looking to the West to continue his mission to plant the seeds of the New Covenant faith.  He is already committed to a journey in the coming spring [of 58AD] to deliver a generous collection of funds from the gentile Christian churches in Asia and Greece to the mother Church in Jerusalem, a gift which for Paul would have seen as deeply symbolic—the gentile nations giving alms to the One True God!  But Paul is also making plans for his next missionary journey to the West—into Spain and perhaps northern Europe [Romans 15:24-28].  Paul decides now is the time to plan a visit to the large and growing Christian community in Rome. 

We can only speculate on the reasons Paul wanted to form a relationship with the Christian community in Rome.  One reason is, of course, that the Church in Rome had become the world center of the New Covenant faith just as Jerusalem had been the world center of the Old Covenant Church and perhaps Paul wanted to visit this center of Christian faith. Paul compliments the Christians of Rome when he writes to them in Romans 1:8 “First I give thanks to my God through Jesus Christ for all of you because your faith is talked of all over the world.”  It is Paul’s desire to come a share with them the love of the Gospel which they share; as he writes in Romans 1:11 “For I am longing to see you so that I can convey to you some spiritual gift that will be a lasting strength, or rather that we may be strengthened together through our mutual faith, yours and mine.”

Roman Jews had first been exposed to the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ on the Jewish Feast of Pentecost in 30AD, fifty days after the Ascension of Jesus the Messiah from the Mount of Olives [Acts 1:1-11].  The Old Covenant Feast of Pentecost celebrated the formation of Israel as the Old Covenant Church fifty days after crossing the Red Sea.  On the fiftieth day with the 12 tribes of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai God came down in fire on the mountain—forming a covenant with Israel which signified the birth of the Old Covenant Church.  This holy day was one of the 3 feasts in which Jews from all over the known world were required to come to Jerusalem to make a sacrifice at God’s holy Temple in Jerusalem—the other two “pilgrim feasts” were Unleavened Bread and Tabernacles [see the chart The Seven Sacred Feasts of the Old Covenant].  On the morning of Jesus’ ascension 10 days earlier, He had commanded the disciples to return to the Upper Room in Jerusalem and to remain in prayer until they were baptized with the Holy Spirit. That morning as crowds of the Jewish faithful began to make their way to the Temple God the Holy Spirit descended upon the faithful disciples gathered in prayer with the 12 Apostles and with Mary the Mother of Jesus in the Upper Room.  This second great Pentecost became the birth of the New Covenant Church: “..and there appeared to them tongues as of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them.  They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak different languages as the Spirit gave them power to express themselves.  Now there were devout men living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, and at this sound they all assembled, and each one was bewildered to hear these men speaking his own language”   [Acts 2:3-5].  Among those Jews from across the Roman world were “residents of Rome—Jews and proselytes alike” [Acts 2:10-11]. These men were Jews who were residents of Rome and Roman Gentiles who had converted to Judaism.  It was this group of Romans who heard Peter’s first great homily—who believed in Jesus the Messiah, and who became the seeds of the world-wide Church in Rome.

St. Peter had laid the foundation of the universal (Catholic) Church in Rome, firmly establishing this faith community in about the year 42AD and perhaps now in 58AD Paul was being called by the Holy Spirit to cement that foundation with his contribution of soundly developed New Covenant doctrine.  Paul did not evidently see that he was being called to preach anything new or different but to reinforce what they had already received.  In Romans 15:20 he assures them, “I have fully carried out the preaching of the gospel of Christ, and what is more, it has been my rule to preach the gospel only where the name of Christ has not already been heard for I do not build on another’s foundations.”  Theodoret of Cry [393-466AD], in his Interpretation of the Letter to the Romans noted that “Paul only wants to share what he has himself received.  And because the great Peter was the first to have taught them, Paul adds that he merely wants to confirm them in the teaching which has already been given to them and to water the trees which have already been planted.”  

If Paul did not plan become a part of the “foundation” in Rome there may be another reason for Paul’s desire to establish a relationship with this Christian community of mixed Jewish and Gentile believers, and it may have been generated by his hopes to spread the Gospel in the west.  What does every missionary need? He needs funds and the prayer support of a faith community. The Church at Antioch had supported Paul’s other missionary journeys but they would be unlikely to support a missionary effort so far removed from their part of the world.  Rome, however, was the prefect center for missionary activity into the Roman provinces of Europe.  In Romans 15:23 Paul writes to the Christians of Rome, “I hope, after longing for many years past to visit you, to see you when I am on the way to Spain—and after enjoying at least something of your company, to be sent on my way with your support.”  Whatever his reasons, Paul is anxious to establish this relationship and this letter provides his introduction to what he hopes will become a fruitful relationship.

Among Paul’s letters to seven different Christian communities which are part of the fourteen letters ascribed to him in the New Testament canon, St. Paul’s letter to the Church is Rome is unique on several different levels:

  1. It is the only letter written to a community which he did not found
  2. It is written to a community which he had never previously visited
  3. It is the longest of Paul’s letters
  4. It is St Paul’s most deeply theological letter, touching on almost every different aspect of Christianity’s major theological themes making his message as powerful and relevant to Christians today as it was to the men and woman of the universal Church in Roman in the first century AD

St. Paul’s letter to the Romans also has the dubious distinction of being the most misinterpreted of his letters.  It is the New Testament document upon which Martin Luther founded his 3-fold doctrine of: “faith alone”, “Scripture alone”, and “grace alone.”  As Catholics we fully support the doctrine of “grace alone” [that God’s gift of salvation is a gift of grace] but we completely reject the other two tenants of Protestant doctrine.  This leads us to a question we need to address before discussing the theological and doctrinal issues presented in Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome.

Question: As Catholics, do we interpret Sacred Scripture literally?
Answer: There seems to be much confusion about what constitutes a literal or non-literal interpretation of the Biblical text.  Most of our Protestant brothers and sisters will tell us that they are bound to a literal interpretation of Sacred Scripture while many Catholics will insist that Catholics do not.  As a matter of fact, Catholics do strive for a “literal” interpretation of the Biblical text.

Question: Please turn to John 6:52-56.  How do Catholics interpret this passage?
Answer: We believe that we must literally eat Jesus’ Body and drink His Blood for the sake of our salvation.  We literally believe the words of Jesus Christ in this passage.  Perhaps it would help is we would examine what is meant by the “literal interpretation” of the Biblical text and how the Church teaches us to study and interpret Sacred Scripture.

Historians study history primarily through events and through documents.  However, in order to interpret the events that have impact on the historical record, events are not examined in isolation from other events.  For example, if one only focused on the German invasion of Poland in 1939 it would be an error to interpret this event from the Germany propaganda that represented the invasion as, “a liberation of the Germanic peoples living in Poland from Polish tyranny.”   In light of the events that followed this invasion, four years of a world-wide war, we understand that this invasion was the beginning of World War II. 

A similar discipline is employed by the historian when studying historical documents and letters.  When a historian studies documents and letters the goal is to discover what the writer of the document intended to say, not necessarily focusing on the individual meaning of the words on the page.  For example, if I write that “yesterday it rained cats and dogs”, do I mean it was actually raining “cats and dogs” or do I meant that it was raining very hard?  Obviously, I mean that it was raining very hard.  This is the “literal meaning” of my statement. 

The similar discipline is applied by the Catholic Church in the study of Sacred Scripture.  A correct interpretation of the canonical books of the Bible and the individual passages demands that attention is focused on all the events of Salvation History as it unfolded in God’s comprehensive Plan of Salvation and that the interpretation of the passages of the Biblical text is the meaning that the Holy Spirit inspired writer intended to convey.  To attempt to discover the intended meaning of the writer is to seek the “literal interpretation” of the text.  Our Protestant brothers and sisters, however, usually look to the “literalist” meaning of Scripture.  A literalist interpretation of my previous statement would assume that it was indeed “raining cats and dogs.”  However, it should be noted, the one passage than many of our Protestant brothers and sisters seem to not interpret literally is the passage in John 6:32-58.

Question: But who decides what meaning is intended by the inspired writer of the Biblical text?
Answer:   This is the authority that Jesus Christ gave to His Church, meaning the One Church, the Body of Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, which our Savior founded before His Ascension—the Universal or Catholic Church.  It is to the ministers of His Kingdom, the Universal Magisterium, that He gave His interpretation of Sacred Scripture and “all power and authority” over His Church [see Matthew 16:18-19; 18:18; Luke 24:25-27; 44-47; John 20:22-23; Ephesians 1:22-23; CCC# 100-141].

CCC# 119 “…For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God.”

And the interpretation of Scripture is not a matter to be entrusted to each individual but is done under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the Apostolic tradition: 2 Peter 1:19-21 “So we have confirmation of the words of the prophets, and you will be right to pay attention to it as to a lamp for lighting a way through the dark, until the dawn comes and the morning star rises in your minds.  At the same time, we must recognize that the interpretation of Scriptural prophecy is never a matter for the individual. For no prophecy ever came from human initiative.  When people spoke for God it was the Holy Spirit that moved them.”  [also see 2 Timothy 3:14-17]

In the Catholic Church we begin with the literal sense of Scripture and then move to an examination of the interpretation of the “spiritual sense” of Sacred Scripture. 

Finally, in the interpretation of Sacred Scripture the Catholic Church affirms in CCC# 137: “Interpretation of the inspired Scripture must be attentive above all to what God wants to reveal through the sacred authors for our salvation.  What comes from the Spirit is not fully understood except by the Spirit’s action.”

In order to grasp a better understanding of Paul’s letter to the Christians of the Church in Rome it is important to understand the reasons the Holy Spirit may have motivated Paul to write this letter to a faith community he only knew of through others, and it may also help our study of the text of the letter to gain a more intimate view of Paul the man.  In fact, we know more about the Apostle Paul than we know about any of the other men Jesus the Messiah, son of David, Son of God, personally chose to fulfill God’s promise of the “world-wide” blessing made to Abraham in the Book of Genesis.

The Life of Saint Paul Prior to 58AD

The Resurrected Jesus to the disciple Ananias “…for this man is my chosen instrument to bring my name before gentiles (ethne, goyim) and kings and before the people of Israel. I myself will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Acts 9:15

Question: From which New Testament inspired writers do we receive the most personal information about Paul and his ministry?
Answer: Much of what we know about Paul’s life and conversion to Christianity is written by his disciple St. Luke who wrote the third Gospel account as well as the history of the earliest years of the New Covenant Church in the Book of Acts of Apostles.  We also have interesting personal information provided by Paul himself in many of the 14 letters ascribed to him in the New Testament canon. 

By his own account, St. Paul was born a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin in the city of Tarsus, the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia.  Please consult a map of Asia Minor in the first century BC-AD and locate the Roman Province of Cilicia, on the coast of modern southeastern Turkey and its capital city Tarsus on the Cydnus river about 20 miles from the Mediterranean Sea.  Tarsus was given special status as a “free” Roman city by Marc Antony (died 31BC) and its privileges were confirmed and enlarged by Octavian/Augustus Caesar (ruled 27BC - 14AD). 

Question: What was Paul’s Hebrew name?  Who is the most important member of the tribe of Benjamin in the Old Testament for whom Paul may have been named?
Answer: He was given the Hebrew name Sha’ul [in Hebrew meaning “to desire” or “to ask”] or in English, Saul.  He was probably named for the tribe of Benjamin’s most illustrious member, Sha’ul the first King of Israel [1 Samuel 9:1-31:13].  It was not uncommon for Jews in this period to use two names, their Hebrew name and a gentile name that facilitated their interaction in the gentile community.  Paul probably always used the two names; Saul his Hebrew name and Paulus, his Latin name.  His home town was a Roman provincial capital and his father was a Roman citizen who must have provided some important service to the Empire to be granted citizenship.  There are several examples of dual names in the New Testament.  John-Mark, the inspired writer of the second Gospel is one example. John-Mark was the son of a Jewish mother and a Roman father.  John or Yehohanan is his Hebrew name and Marcus his Roman name.  Tabitha/Dorcas in Acts 9:36 and Symeon-Niger in Acts 13:1 are two other examples of Jews who also adopted gentile names.

By his own account Paul was an orthodox Jewish Pharisee who was born a citizen of Rome but who was called from his mother’s womb to serve God. As a youth he was sent to Jerusalem to study under the great rabbi and Sanhedrin council member Gamaliel.  Saul later served as an officer of this same Jewish law court which condemned both Jesus and St. Stephen.  It was Paul’s assignment as an officer of the Sanhedrin to hunt down and persecute suspected follows of Jesus of Nazareth [see Acts 6:12-8:1; 22:3-5].  After his conversion to Christianity, he only used the Latin patrician name Paulus [Acts chapter 13ff] in his missionary work. Paul’s home church, the Christian church in Antioch, Syria funded three of Paul’s missionary journeys to Asia Minor and Greece.  He supplemented his income with his skill as a tent or prayer shawl maker [the Hebrew word for prayer shawl “tillit” can also be translated as “tent”; see Acts 18:3] and zealously dedicated his life to fulfilling Jesus’ commission to be His Apostle to the Gentiles.

The account of Saul/Paul’s life in his own words:

Paul must have been one of the brightest young men of his generation to have been chosen to study in Jerusalem with the great Jewish rabbic scholar, teacher of the Law of Moses, and member of the Jewish High Court, the Rabbi Gamaliel [Acts 22:3 and 5:34-39].  Paul probably studied with Gamaliel the customary three or four years and was then appointed an officer of the Jewish Law Court, the Sanhedrin.  He was serving in this capacity when he witnessed the martyrdom of St. Stephen in circa 37AD [see Acts 7:58-8:1], and as an officer of the Sanhedrin Paul was sent to Damascus, Syria to arrest other Jewish Christians who had fled persecution in Jerusalem.  The turning point in Paul’s life was his encounter with the risen Savior on the road to Damascus.  It is a story that is repeated three times by Luke in Acts of Apostles in 9:1-19; 22:4-16; and 26:1-23.  Please read the account of Paul’s conversion in each of these passages.

Question: In each of the three accounts of Saul’s encounter with Christ, of what does Jesus accuse Saul?  What question does Jesus ask the terrified man?  See Acts 9:5; 22:7; 26:14-15
Answer: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

Question: What does Jesus’ question reveal to us about the persecutions of Christians and the Church?
Answer: Anyone who deliberately persecutes Christians or the Church persecutes Christ Jesus who unites Himself to the suffering of His Church.  See the Catechism of the Catholic Church # 598 and 618.

Question: After his encounter with Christ on the Damascus Road Saul/Paul is both physically blinded and spiritually transformed.  Why is the New Covenant Jewish disciple Ananias at first reluctant to heal Saul at the Lord’s command?  See Acts 9:10-14
Answer: He has heard of Saul’s persecution of Christians.

Question: When does Paul receive the anointing of God the Holy Spirit and what prophecy does Jesus make concerning Saul/Paul?  See Acts 9:15-19
Answer: When the disciple Ananias lays hands on Saul he is both healed of his blindness and “was filled with the Holy Spirit.”

After his conversion Paul spent 3 years in retreat in Arabia [Galatians 1:17-18] before journeying to Jerusalem where he conferred with Jesus’ vicar of the New Covenant Church, St. Peter, who approved Paul’s mission to the gentiles: “Only after three years did I go up to Jerusalem to meet Cephas.  I stayed fifteen days with him but did not set eyes on any of the rest of the apostles, only James, the Lord’s brother.”   

Question: The name “Cephas” refers to Simon-Peter. What is the significance of Paul using this title for Simon-Peter?  See Matthew 16:16-18.
Answer: In his letters Paul will refer to St. Peter as Cephas, which is the Greek transliteration of Kepha, [pronounced kay-fah], the Aramaic title Jesus gave to Peter in Matthew 16:18 meaning “Rock”, eight out of ten times—and only twice in the Greek, Petros, or Peter in English.

Question: The James to whom Paul refers is not James Zebedee the Apostle, nor is he James son of Alpheus, the other Apostle named James.  Who is this James who Paul will call one of the three “pillars of the Church in Galatians 2:9?” See Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3; Acts 12:17; 15:13-23; 21:18; 1 Corinthians 15:7
Answer: The James to whom Paul refers is Jesus’ kinsman James, first Christian Bishop of the Church of Jerusalem. 

In The Proto-Evangelium of James, an ancient document from the earliest years of the Church [dated prior to 120AD], St. James is reported to be a son of St. Joseph by a previous marriage [see Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3; Acts 12:17; 15:13-23; 21:18; 1 Corinthians 15:7].  In Bishop Eusebius’ fourth century Church History he also states that James, Bishop of Jerusalem is a son of St. Joseph by a previous marriage, “This James was called the brother of the Lord because he was known as a son of Joseph”  [Eusebius, Church History, II.1.2].  Paul also records that Jesus appeared to James after His Resurrection [see Galatians 1:19; 2:9, 12].  St. James “the Just”, Bishop of Jerusalem was martyred in 62AD and is believed to be the inspired writer of the Epistle of St. James in the New Testament. In Book II.1.3 of Eusebius’ Church History he quotes from Clement of Alexandria [2nd century AD] concerning James’ appointment as Bishop of Jerusalem, “But Clement in the sixth book of his Hypotyposes writes thus: ‘For they say that Peter and James and John [Zebedee] after the ascension of our Savior, as if also preferred by our Lord, strove not after honor, but chose James the Just Bishop of Jerusalem.” They also chose James to shepherd the Church in Jerusalem because God had called them to another destiny.  John was to be the spiritual father of the churches in Asia Minor, serving as the Bishop of Ephesus for many years and Peter was destined to found the geographic center of the New Israel, the New Covenant Universal-Catholic Church in Rome [the Greek word katholikos and the Latin word catholicus, means “universal”] and to serve as Christ the King’s Vicar of His earthly kingdom.

After receiving St. Peter’s approval Paul returned home to Tarsus in Asia Minor to await the Church’s call to ministry.  The call would come from the community of believers at Antioch, Syria.  It is this community, founded by refugees from the persecution of New Covenant believers in Jerusalem following the death of St. Stephen, that will first use the term “Christian” to describe disciples of Jesus the Messiah [see Acts 11:19-26].  The evangelical preaching of this community of believers was so successful that the Jerusalem community sent Barnabas to the Antioch church [see Acts 11:22].  Encouraged by the great harvest of souls for Christ in Antioch, Barnabas sent to Tarsus for Paul to join him in Antioch.  This thriving Christian community, which St. Peter would shepherd for seven years before leaving to found the Church in Rome, would send Paul on three missionary journeys to bring the Gospel of salvation to the gentiles of Asia Minor and Greece. 

Fourteen years after his conversion Paul again conferred with Peter and the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem.  He describes this meeting in Galatians 2:1-10 where he records that “..once they saw that the Gospel for the uncircumcised [gentiles] had been entrusted to me, just as to Peter the Gospel for the circumcised (for he who empowered Peter’s apostolate to the circumcision also empowered mine to the gentiles), and when they acknowledged the grace that had been given to me, then James and Cephas and John, who were the ones recognized as pillars, offered their right hands to Barnabas and to me as a sign of partnership: we were to go to the gentiles and they to the circumcised.  They asked nothing more than that we should remember to help the poor, as indeed I was anxious to do in any case.”

Peter and Cephas are one in the same Simon-Peter who was commissioned by Jesus as His Vicar of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.  James is Jesus’ kinsman the first Christian Bishop of Jerusalem, in whose church they were assembled, and John is the Beloved Apostle.  This passage makes it clear that Barnabas’ and Paul’s ministry was in fact approved by Christ’s Vicar and a small assembly of His Bishops.

Question: Why where the three “pillars of the Church” committed to carry the Gospel message to the Old Covenant people?
Answer: It had always been God’s plan of salvation that the Hebrew people were to be set aside as a people holy to Yahweh and that it would be their mission to carry the Gospel message of the New Covenant to the world.  In Jesus’ 3 year mission He focused His message on the Old Covenant people to whom He had been promised, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel” Matthew 15:24.  [also see John 4:22; Matthew 10:5]. With the descent of God the Holy Spirit upon the disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem at the Feast of Pentecost, the faithful remnant of the Old Covenant Jews and Israelites who believed in the New Covenant established by Jesus the Messiah through His sacrificial death and glorious Resurrection was commissioned to carry the Gospel message of salvation to the world.  Out of obedience to God’s plan wherever Paul preached he always went to the Jewish synagogue first before he carried Christ’s message of salvation to the gentiles [Acts 17:1-2].

The important meeting in Jerusalem which Paul describes in Galatians chapter 2 probably took place before the time of the first council of the universal Magisterium, the Council of Jerusalem which met in circa 49/50AD to decide such important issues as the requirements for gentile converts—an issue which was very important to St. Paul (see Acts chapter 15).  Paul, Barnabas and Titus traveled to Jerusalem as representatives of the Church at Antioch to receive the Church’s blessings on the missionary efforts among the gentiles so their efforts would not be “in vain” [Gal 2:2].  The church at Antioch, Syria is the same Christian community to which the mother church in Jerusalem had sent Barnabas to insure the community of Jews and Gentiles receive proper instruction, and Barnabas had enlisted Paul in his mission [Acts 11:19-26].  It is the community in Antioch that will send Barabbas and Paul on a missionary journey into Asia Minor, and will later send Paul and his companions into Greece to spread the Gospel. 

Barnabas and Paul were missionary companions on the first missionary journey but a dispute over another missionary companion, Barnabas’ young cousin John Mark, led to the disillusion of their partnership.  Later Paul was reconciled to John Mark but he was probably not always the most congenial companion.  Paul does not seem to be a man of compromise.  He even berates Peter/Cephas in his letter to the Galatians in 2:11-14 concerning what he perceived as Peter’s mishandling of gentile converts in yielding to demands of Jewish New Covenant believers, probably failing to take into account that Peter was in the most difficult position of keeping peace in a Church where the once Jewish majority was fearful of being outnumbered by the growing population of gentile Christians.  Later Paul would find himself making compromises, for example arranging to have Timothy [the son of a Greek father and Jewish mother] circumcised in order to give him more influence in sharing the Gospels with Jews [see Acts of Apostles 16:1-3].

In the late 40’s and early 50’s the once entirely Jewish New Covenant people were now being overwhelmed by gentile converts who where rising to positions of authority within the hierarchy of the Church.  By the winter of 57/58AD the Church of Rome was one of these mostly gentile Christian communities.

A SUMMARY OF THE LIFE OF ST. PAUL : “Apostle to the Goyim (Gentiles)”

Acts 9:15: “… this man is my chosen instrument to bring my name before gentiles (ethne, goyim) and kings and before the people of Israel.  I myself will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
EVENT Year  AD
(all dates are approximate)
Born at Tarsus (in modern Turkey) sometime between 7 and 12 AD of Jewish parents who are Roman citizens and traced their ancestry to the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1; Philippians 3:5) 10?
Arrival in Jerusalem to study with Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) 30
Sent as an officer of the Sanhedrin to arrest Christians in Damascus & conversion (Acts 9; 22:6-16; 26:12-18) 36
3 year sojourn in Arabia and mission to Damascus (Galatians 1:17) 36-39
Visit to Jerusalem (Galatians 1:18) 39
Sojourn in Tarsus (Acts 9:30) ?
Arrival in Antioch in Syria (Acts 11:25) 43-44
1st Missionary Journey (Acts 13-14);  name change to Latin “Paulus” 45-49
Visit to Jerusalem for the 1st Great Council of the Church (Acts 15) 49-50
2nd Missionary Journey (Acts 15:36-18:21):
-at Athens & Corinth (Greece) meets Gallio*
-wrote 1 &2 Thessalonians
50-52

50?52

51-52
3rd Missionary Journey (Acts 18:23-21:14)
-visited Phrygia & Galatia
-at Ephesus (Turkey)
-wrote Galatians
-wrote 1 Corinthians
-mission to Macedonia
-wrote 2 Corinthians
-at Corinth (Greece)
-wrote letter to the Romans
53-58
53
54-57
54
54
57
57?58
57-58
57/58
Return to Jerusalem (Acts 21:15-23:22) 58
*Hearing with Roman Governor Felix / 2 year imprisonment at Caesarea.  Hearing with Governor Festus at Caesarea (Acts 24-25) 58-60
4th Journey: Voyage to Rome & shipwreck off the coast of Malta (Acts 27) 60?61
Paul’s first imprisoned in Rome (Acts 28)
-wrote letters to the churches at  Colossus, Philemon, Ephesus, Philippi
61-63
*Voyage to the east and the west (Spain? Voyage to Britain?) letters 1 Timothy; Titus 63-67
Final Roman captivity: letter 2 Timothy 67
Martyrdom by beheading 67

M. Hunt, copyright 2000

Although there is no detailed description of Paul’s personal appearance in the New Testament, his Latin name may suggest his physical statue since Paulus in Latin means “little”.  Scripture, however, does provide some glimpses of his appearance and his demeanor.  Paul quotes his adversaries as calling him “unimpressive” in 2 Corinthians 10:10.  Paul speaking of himself writes, “Someone said, ‘His letters are weighty enough, and full of strength, but when you see him in person, he makes no impression and his powers of speaking are negligible.’ I should like that sort of person to take note that our deeds when we are present will show the same qualities as our letters when we were at a distance.”  We also know that he suffered physically for Christ—from the many beatings he received and from some other illness or affliction to which he refers [see 2 Corinthians 4:10; 11:23-27; Galatians 6:17].  Paul writes of “the sting of the flesh” he suffered in 2 Corinthians 12:7, “Wherefore, so that I should not get above myself, I was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan to batter me and prevent me from getting above myself.  About this, I have 3 times pleaded with the Lord that it might leave me; but he has answered me, ‘My Grace is enough for you: for power is at full stretch in weakness.’  It is, then, about my weaknesses that I am happiest of all to boast, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me, and that is why I am glad of weaknesses, insults, constraints, persecutions and distress for Christ’s sake. For it is when I am weak that I am strong.”  And in Galatians 4:13-15, he writes  “…indeed you remember that it was an illness that first gave me the opportunity to preach the gospel to you, but though my illness was a trial to you, you did not show any distaste or revulsion; instead , you welcomed me as a messenger of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.”  Allusions to the “marks” he bore on his body [“I carry branded on my body the marks of Jesus”] may have been to the scars left by his persecutors, perhaps the scars from the stoning he received at Lystra that was so sever the perpetrators thought they had killed him [see Acts 14:19], or as some scholars have suggested, these “marks of Jesus” may refer to the stigmata, the wounds Jesus bore on the Cross [see Galatians 6:17 ].

There are physical descriptions of Paul that are found outside of Sacred Scripture.  My favorite description of St. Paul is found in the third century apocryphal document, The Acts of Paul which testifies that “Paul was a man low statue, bald (or shaved on the head), crooked thighs, handsome legs, hollow eyed; had a crooked nose; full of grace; for sometimes he appeared as a man, and sometimes he had the countenance of an angel.”  The Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1.7.  And John of Antioch, writing in the sixth century, confirms other descriptions of the Apostle when he records that Paul was “round shouldered, with a sprinkling of gray on his head and beard, with an aquiline nose, grayish eyes, meeting eyebrows, with a mixture of pale and red in his complexion,…”  The Search for the Twelve Apostles, William McBirnie, page 291.

It cannot be denied that his frail body housed a tremendous spirit that was consumed with a passion for the mission given him by his Lord and Savior. Many times in his letters he strenuously defends his title as an Apostle, reminding us that he was personally chosen by Jesus Christ to serve the Church, “All the marks characteristic of a true apostle have been at work among you: complete perseverance, signs, marvels, demonstrations of power.  Is there any way in which you have been given less than the rest of the churches…?” 2 Corinthians 12:12.  And in his writings we see his complete determination to identify himself with the Jesus Christ of whom he preached and served tirelessly.  It is clear from his letters that he was a man of strong passions and a fiery personality who possessed a keen mind.  His zeal is impressive but even more impressive is Paul’s assurance that he can successful preach the gospel anywhere because he founds his faith and hope on Christ Jesus, “But thanks be to God who always gives us in Christ a part in his triumphal procession, and through us is spreading everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of himself.  To God we are the fragrance of Christ, both among those who are being saved and among those who are on the way to destruction…”  2 Corinthians 2:14-15.

Next lesson we will examine the Christian community in Rome in the 1st century AD and Old Testament prophecy that points to the rise of the Roman Empire as a world power and of the prophecy of the Kingdom that would overpower Rome to take the Gospel message and the power and authority of God to every nation in the world.

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2008 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.

RESOURCES USED IN THIS LESSON:

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church
  2. The Search for the Twelve Apostles
  3. A Guide to the Ancient World
  4. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture
  5. The Navarre Bible: Romans and Galatians