EDITOR’S NOTE: This groundbreaking series is being offered in celebration of a previously top-secret project and now unprecedented new 3-Volume book series (over 10-years in the making) from best-selling scholar Dr. Thomas Horn and acclaimed biblical history and theology majors Donna Howell and Allie Anderson: THE MYSTERY OF JESUS FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION—YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
One man was hated by the early Christians at first, and he avoided them like the plague. But later, he would become hated among the Jews when the risen Jesus made yet another personal appearance. This was the man who would go on to be credited as the author of thirteen (possibly fourteen) books within the New Testament!
His Greek name was Paul, but his Jewish name was Saul, possibly after King Saul, Israel’s first king. Saul was the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6), which likely contributed to his evident legalism in the beginning of his biblical role. He hailed from the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5), which meant he was born into a tribe known in Israel’s history as great warriors. When Saul was young, he had developed a trade skill. Similar to Jesus, who was a carpenter, Saul was a tentmaker. Though we can assume this particular skill played little part of his life during his years as a Jewish sage of the Law working directly under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), and as he was establishing himself as a great and zealous leader of the Jews (Galatians 1:13), he would later use his tentmaking to fund his ministry (Acts 18:3). Another important ability Saul developed while he was young was to fluently speak Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. (All three of these were common languages of his day and in his area of the world. This multilingual capability would make him an expert in communication, which would be vital for what God called him to do later on.) His familiarity with Greek culture, customs, religions, and ancient proverbs and writings (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12) made him not only able to communicate but to also understand those he would minister to. In addition to all of this, Saul was legally a Roman citizen (Acts 22:28), giving him extra clout with Rome than fellow non-citizens, and very few of his religious associates could claim such a divergent background. (When he and Silas were jailed in Acts 16, they were not given the same fair trial a Roman citizen could expect. They were beaten and jailed on the spot, and when Saul brought up his citizenship, it was to the shock and dismay of those who had enacted punishment based on his appearing to be a mere Jew, so they scrambled to make him feel respected [16:37–39]. And again, in Acts 25:11–12, Saul appealed to Caesar for supreme justice—a right given to only a Roman citizen. It’s therefore no wonder Saul was chosen for the work he was given in the Divine plan of our Lord. It’s clear God had His hand on His servant from the beginning!) As his character in the New Testament is almost always referred to by his Greek name, we will hereafter call him “Paul.”
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Paul’s physical appearance is noted in the mid-second century Acts of Paul. Far from the tall, lanky, intimidating man with a brooding face and a brow of judgment, hovering over his quill like we see in classic paintings, Paul was actually short, bald, possibly bowl-legged from horseback riding, and had a kink in the bridge of his nose. A man named Onesiphorus, a resident of Iconium, met Paul on the way to the city and it is then that Paul is described as “a man small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs…with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked, full of friendliness.”[i]
Paul first appears in Acts as an advocate of the stoning of Stephen, who was “a man of…the Holy Ghost,” “filled with faith and power,” and “did great wonders and miracles among the people” (Acts 6:5, 8). The synagogue where Stephen angered the Jews is not mentioned specifically. However, the description of “the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia” (6:9) gives us some tracking power. Paul, being “a Hebrew born of the Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5), may have chosen to attend a place of worship where the services were conducted entirely in his native, Hebrew language. But in Acts 22:3, Paul speaks of himself: “I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia.” The mentioning of Cilicia in both Acts 6:9 and 22:3 possibly infers that Paul (and therefore his direct Jewish mentor, Gamaliel) were regular attendees at the synagogue where Stephen ran into trouble.[ii]
Stephen, like Peter and John, stood before the Sanhedrin in trial for teaching about Christ’s Kingdom, or, as the religious leaders accused, speaking “blasphemous words against Moses, and against God” (6:11). And, like Christ, Stephen could not be found guilty for anything he had actually done, so the Sanhedrin appointed “false witnesses” (yet again) to testify against him (6:13). At this moment, Stephen’s face became like that of an “angel.” This is, at first, an ambiguous description, but scholars have dissected the terminology here and compared it to similar phrasings in other Scriptures (2 Samuel 14:17; 2 Samuel 19:27; Genesis 33:10; Exodus 34:29–30; 2 Corinthians 3:7, 13; Revelation 1:16; Matthew 17:2). The consensus shows that, most likely, Stephen’s face had a literal glow as well as a solemn, calm countenance of faith. Paul, also, had this look about him at one point, if the account of Onesiphorus of Iconium in Acts of Paul is accurate: “And he saw Paul approaching…for now he appeared like a man, and now he had the face of an angel.”[iii]
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Stephen’s self-defense before the council revisits the history of Israel and her failure to follow Moses (a good defense considering he was being accused of speaking blasphemy against that very man). He illustrates how the Jewish nation had always been guilty of rejecting the forefathers and the Spirit that guided them (7:2–53). While the council gnashed their teeth at his words, Stephen looked upward to heaven and saw Christ: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God!” (7:56). This was a direct reference to both Psalm 110:1 (“the Lord said unto my Lord, ‘Sit thou at my right hand’”) and Daniel 7:13 regarding the “Son of Man” coming on the clouds of heaven. But scholars also connect this vision of Stephen’s to that of Ezekiel:
Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.… And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.… This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face. (Ezekiel 1:1, 26, 28)
Evidently it was the Son of Man, this Jesus, whom Ezekiel had seen so many years ago…
What a magnificent fulfillment! (And there will be another in Revelation!) But the Jews were not as excited as we are to hear Stephen speak of these things. It so angered the chief priests of the Sanhedrin that Stephen was stoned on the spot. This is where Paul comes into the story:
Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. [In a formal execution, witnesses would take off their outer robes and lay them at the feet of the supervisor of the act. This being Paul heavily suggests that he was the key leader in Stephen’s death.] And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” [This is extremely similar to Jesus’ final words on the cross, “Father, into Your hands I commit My Spirit” (Luke 23:46) and “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).] And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
And Saul was consenting unto his death.
And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.
As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison. (Acts 7:57–8:3)
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When men and women were arrested for preaching in the Name of Christ, the punishment was death. Therefore, Paul was directly responsible for a great many martyrs. He personally burst through the doors of humble homes belonging to early Christians and had them carted off to prison where they would be tried, convicted, and executed for their work in the Kingdom of Jesus. And this was not just “a few Christians here and there in the area of Jerusalem.” Later, Paul would write that his anger against Christians was so exceedingly hot that he pursued them well beyond the traditional borders of Israel and into “foreign cities” (26:11). Scholars believe Paul’s zeal was equal to the Maccabeans.[iv]
But back in Acts 9:1–2, we see that Paul was “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” when he went to the high priest and asked for official documents allowing his persecution of those who had fled from Jerusalem to Damascus so he could bring them back to the Sanhedrin for trial. The high priest granted his request, and Paul left straightaway to spread his own message: You can’t run, you can’t hide, and if you’ve been marked as one who follows the Gospel, you will face death.
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On the way there, a great light from heaven surrounded him, and an authoritative voice spoke, saying, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (9:4). Again, scholars note: “There are affinities between [Paul’s] conversion experience and Ezekiel’s inaugural vision.”[v] Paul asked who the Speaker was, and Jesus answered, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (9:5). This reference to “kicking against the pricks” (or “goads”) was an old Greek proverb. A “goad” was a stick with a sharp, iron protrusion connected to the oxen during plowing to urge them forward. If a stubborn ox kicked against it in protest, it would only cause injury to the ox, but it wouldn’t stop the forward motion of the plowing process. Christ’s words here were letting Paul know that resistance to the Gospel movement was futile, and that the only one he was hurting by persecuting those who were willing to die for the sake of Jesus was himself.
Paul asked the Speaker what he must do, and he was sent to Damascus to await further instruction. When he stood and opened his eyes, he was blind, but those who were travelling with him, who also heard the voice, led him into the city (9:6–8).
When Paul arrived, three days passed while he remained blind in the home of a man named Judas. Jesus then came to a believer named Ananias and told him where to find Paul. Christ instructed Ananias to minister to Paul, despite Ananias’ reservations at the mention of the name of this persecutor, saying, “Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (9:15–16). Ananias obeyed, and when he laid hands on Paul, “scales” fell from his eyes (9:18). (The “scales” have been the subject of much debate. However, in the apocryphal book Tobit [3:17; 11:13], a similar account seems to explain that this was a filmy substance that fell—an expulsion of the “grey haze” that often covers the eyes of the blind.) Paul rose up, was baptized, and immediately started preaching the Gospel in the local synagogues, to the amazement of all who heard this radically saved convert (9:18–22).
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Recall that there were three (two directly stated and one implied) qualifications for one to be called an apostle. He must be: personally called by Christ (as Paul just had been); taught by Christ (as Paul would then be during his time of isolation [Galatians 1:1–19]); and a witness to the Resurrected Messiah (as Paul had been on the road to Damascus). Therefore, fresh with the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit infused in his very being, Paul was empowered for what would become one of the greatest ministries in world history…the office of the thirteenth apostle, who wrote most of the New Testament!
However, there was a distinct difference between Paul and the other apostles. Paul would become the world’s first—and the grandest example—missionary. His multilingual, multicultural background qualified him to reach Jews and Gentiles alike (“to bear my name before the Gentiles…and the children of Israel” [Acts 9:15]) in a way that many only-Jewish or only-Gentile ministers would never be able to.
Sometime in mid-2017, Howell’s work had been graded through long-distance, correspondence learning by Professor Otto Kaiser in a class on Islamic religion (therefore, they had never met in person).
Howell had a question about the comments he had left in the margins of one of her papers. When she emailed him for clarification, she expected the standard, short response in a couple of business days. When a week had passed without response, Howell assumed he was too busy to get back to her, and because her inquiry was not of crucial importance, she decided to let it go. Imagine her surprise when she checked her post office box the next day and found a hand-written, seven-page letter from the professor detailing his logic behind every single one of his comments to her?! Such a gesture was overwhelming. Howell poured over that letter for several days, touched to the core that this busy man would spend so much time addressing her simple needs. It was more than humbling, this example he had set, and the time he spent to make sure she knew precisely all she had to regarding the historical spread of Islam in predominantly Muslim-centric countries. (This reminds us of how much time Paul also spent hand-writing letters in response to many early-Church issues.)
Later that week, Howell and her husband, James, visited her college to drop off several more cases of Redeemed Unredeemable (a book she co-wrote with Thomas Horn in 2014 that tells the stories of seven notorious murderers’ post-incarceration conversion stories the prison ministries department of the college had distributed to the students who had begun their Bible studies in detainment). In a chance meeting, Howell bumped into Professor Otto at the base of the elevator. As they waited for the door to open, Otto—instead of standing in awkward silence—smiled widely and boldly stretched out his hand to meet her. After a brief introduction wherein Howell acknowledged that she had been his most recent student, his eyes lit up, and he asked her to come visit his office. When they arrived, Howell noticed his office shelves were packed with an unimaginable number of missionary materials, including expert analyses of nearly every world religion, especially Islam (and these books would, upon his death, be donated to the library at Global Initiative and the Asia Pacific Theological Seminary at Bagio, Philippines).
This chance meeting led to lunch at a buffet in town, where Donna, James, Otto, and his wife, Edith, broke bread together and talked about the mission field, followed by Otto and Edith laying hands on Donna and James in the parking lot to pray over their future in ministry. It was a meeting the Howells will never forget. To this day, it is frequently brought up in conversation, and this missionary couple is remembered as the most gracious hosts of an unplanned lunch they insisted on paying for!
On their way home, Donna and James thought about these friendly people and marveled at their dedication. Donna immediately saw the similarities between Otto and Paul—a missionary who, by the power of the Spirit of God, was supremely dedicated to not only teaching his students about the doctrines of Christ and how they differ from dominating local religions, but to discipleship following those lessons. Otto, like Paul, refused to mentor his students with a quick, pat answer. Instead, this professor took advantage of the time he had on earth to pour himself heart and soul into those who sought his council so their takeaway would be an eternal one bathed in growth and Christian maturity.
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Years before Otto married, he had prayed that the Lord would send him a missionary wife with whom to share his life of godly servitude, and God brought him Edith. Their child was named—of all names—Paul. As only a very recent update to the lives that have been touched (through the continual work of Edith) since his passing: In July and August of 2021, Edith kept in touch long-distance with 886 people from all over the globe. Out of that number, 539 people gave their hearts and lives to the Lord, and in only two months! Edith, in her September 2021, “General Prayer Letter # 139” newsletter through the college, writes: “[God] gives me songs of joy for each one I correspond with… I keep a record of all those I correspond with and pray over them that God will raise up an army for the Lord in these last days.” This source goes on to report: “…the responders [are] telling us that we have presented the Gospel to 45 million individuals in 242 countries and territories. In the last few days I have corresponded with those from Morocco, Liberia, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Philippines, Uganda, Ukraine, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, Kenya, and Nepal.” That is quite the list from just a “few days”! And that’s hardly all Edith has to report of the work she and Otto were committed to. During the pandemic lockdown in India, students associated with this couple’s work planted an average of three churches per day! Modestly, Edith writes that this is only possible through the prayers of those who support this beautiful ministry.
Paul certainly set the standard, didn’t he? His ministry was marked with the utmost love for all people (Romans 9:1–4; 2 Corinthians 11:28–29; Philemon 12–19). Despite his legalistic past, after he was touched by his encounter with the Risen Christ, he was blessed with an unparalleled servant’s heart (Acts 21:17–26; 1 Corinthians 9:19–23; 2 Corinthians 6:3–10), and he “ran his race” (served the Lord in the area he was called) with incomparable diligence (1 Corinthians 9:24–27; 2 Corinthians 11:23–33; Philippians 3:13–14).
It is to his writings that we will now turn, as well as those other early Church letters written by his contemporaries. A few more details of Paul’s missionary journeys will be brought up in these studies.
UP NEXT: The Epistles
[i] Acts of Paul 3.3; cf. W. M. Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire (London, 1893), 31–32, as quoted in: Bruce, F. F., The Book of the Acts, 273.
[ii] Bruce, F. F., The Book of the Acts, 124–125.
[iii] Acts of Paul 3.3; cf. W. M. Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire, 31–32, as quoted in: Bruce, F. F., The Book of the Acts, 271.
[iv] Bruce, F. F., The Book of the Acts, 180.
[v] Ibid., 183.