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 Main Index : Commentaries : PNT : PNT Vol. 2 : Introduction to the Epistles of Paul

INTRODUCTION TO THE EPISTLES OF PAUL.



A BRIEF SKETCH OF THE LIFE OF PAUL.

      Much more than half of the Scriptural text in this volume is from the pen of Paul the Apostle, the great Evangelist of the Gentile world, and it is fitting that a brief view of the life and work of one who fills so large a space in the sacred record should be given as a general introduction to the thirteen Pauline Epistles.

      The diligent student of Acts of the Apostles is already acquainted with the sources of most of his public history. The statements in the Epistles from his own pen furnish almost all the remaining data which we possess. Had the great men of God, who set to work the forces which wrought the religious revolution of the world, suspected how great a place they were to fill in history, and how eager future ages would be to learn the details of their lives and the trials of their work, perhaps they would have left on record something more than the meager hints which are all that we possess.

      We are informed concerning the place of the birth of Saul of Tarsus, and of his tribe and religious training, but we do not know the date of his birth. As he was a "young man" at the time of the death of Stephen, but old enough to have an official position, he must have been between thirty and forty years old. Hence, it is held that he could not have been born earlier than A. D. 7. Tarsus, the place of his birth, is situated a short distance from the bay of Cilicia, on the river Cyndus, within plain view of the snow-covered heights of the Cilician Towers. The city was capital of a province, a "free city," a center of Greek culture only less renowned at that period than Athens and Alexandria, was the seat of a considerable Jewish colony and of a synagogue. The father of Saul had in some unexplained way, either by purchase, inheritance, or by his services, secured the Roman citizenship, so that Paul was a Roman, "free born." The family belonged to the Tribe of Benjamin, which probably explains why the son received the name of the Benjaminite king, were Pharisees of the strictest type, and the son was trained in the rigid notions and practices of that sect.

      His education was completed, as the son of orthodox and prosperous Hebrews should have been, at Jerusalem. At what time the young Saul went to the Holy City of his race, whether he had returned a second time when we first meet with him on the death of Stephen, or whether he had in Tarsus taken a course in Grecian literature, are matters of pure conjecture. The facts known are that he had a thorough knowledge of the Greek, that he quoted the Greek poets, with the familiarity and correctness of a cultured Greek, that he showed an intimate acquaintance with Greek philosophy, and that he entered the school of the renowned Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel, and was "brought up at his feet." This language, compared with what he know of the custom of the Rabbinical schools, implies that he must have spent three or four years, at least, under the great Master of the Law in Jerusalem.

      It is in the persecution which began with the death of Stephen that he first appears in history. In some respects there is a complete contrast between Saul of Tarsus and Paul the Apostle. One is the unconverted Jew, the other is the consecrated Christian. [7] The first is a deadly enemy of Christ and of Christianity, a pitiless and tireless persecutor, but at the same time a devout, conscientious, but mistaken man. His hatred of Christians was due to the fact that he believed them enemies of God and of religion. Blinded by his unquestioning zeal for Judaism, for the time a bigot filled with rage, he spread havoc among the saints and became the terror of the church. "Consenting to the death of Stephen," whatever that may mean, acting as the accomplice of those who stoned him, seizing and imprisoning others, at last he was sent with the commission of the Sanhedrim to stop the progress of the new faith in the great city of Damascus. On the way, near the city, the persecutor underwent a wonderful transformation. Three accounts have been given of this remarkable change; two by Paul himself, and one by the historian of Acts. The essential facts are that the Lord himself appeared to the conscientious but mistaken zealot, that the honest persecutor surrendered as soon as he saw his mistake, that the Lord appeared to him that he might be a witness, and at once called him to an apostleship as the missionary to the Gentile world. He was led blind into Damascus, received his sight after three days, and was baptized by a disciple, and shortly after began his work. After spending a considerable period in Arabia (Gal. 1:17), possibly in study and preparation for his great mission, he returned to Damascus, where he at once experienced the bitterness of persecution (2 Cor. 11:32), but escaped to Jerusalem, where he found himself an object of suspicion to the church on account of his former persecuting fame. Vouched for by Barnabas, he met Peter (Gal. 1:18), but tarried only fifteen days, and then departed to Tarsus to escape the plots of the infuriated Jews. There is silence concerning several years of his history, but he was evidently not idle, and the "churches of Cilicia" spoken of soon after, were, no doubt, planted at this time. After this interval, at the request of his old friend Barnabas, he returned to Antioch, to enter upon the career of missionary activity which distinguished the rest of his life.

      The historian Luke names three great missionary tours in which he was engaged. About A. D. 45, he and Barnabas were set apart by the church at Antioch, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, and at once set out. During this tour he traveled the island of Cyprus its entire length, planting churches, and then landed at Perga on the mainland, a city of Asia Minor, where they were deserted by John Mark, who had hitherto accompanied them. Laboring at Antioch in Pisidia, Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, with great success, they stirred up the enmity of the Jews, and these tireless enemies stirred up the populace at Lystra, so that Paul was stoned until supposed to be dead. Returning they visited the churches planted, and finally returned to Antioch.

      Next, about A. D. 50, Paul and Barnabas attended the council at Jerusalem, brought about by the efforts of Judaizing teachers to compel Gentile converts to accept Judaism. Of this conflict we fill find many traces in the Epistles of Paul. The next year, without Barnabas, attended by Silas, and a part of the time by other companions, he started on his second missionary journey, visiting churches previously founded in Syria and Cilicia, and planting new ones in Phrygia and Galatia. At Troas, on the coast of the Ægean Sea, at the call of a heavenly vision, the missionaries crossed over into Europe, and planted their first church on European soil at Philippi, "a chief city of Macedonia," where they also were scourged and imprisoned, but honorably discharged when the magistrates found out they were Roman citizens. Then churches were planted at Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and at the great commercial metropolis of Corinth, where Paul remained at this time for a year and a half. In the year 54, probably, Paul returned to Antioch, by way of Ephesus, Cæsarea and Jerusalem. [8]

      The same year the great Apostle began his third missionary journey. Starting from Antioch he went to Ephesus, which he had before visited. He now remained about three years and planted a great church in this metropolis of western Asia. At last, on account of the disturbance caused by Demetrius and his fellow-craftsmen, he left and continued his journey to Macedonia and to Corinth. From thence he started in the following spring to Jerusalem, meeting the elders of the Ephesian church at Miletus. Arriving in Jerusalem, he was assaulted in the temple by a mob, rescued by a Roman officer, removed to Cæsarea, where he was imprisoned for two years, and where he appealed to Cæsar, as a Roman had a right to do. It was on the way to Rome that he was shipwrecked on the Island of Malta and remained three months. In the spring of A. D. 61, he landed at Puteoli, in Italy, and from thence proceeded to Rome. Here we have a view of him for two years as a military prisoner, in his own hired house, engaged in teaching, and there the history of Acts leaves him. There is good reason for believing that he was released in A. D. 63, visited Antioch, Ephesus, Nicopolis, and possibly Philippi, Corinth and Spain. It was after this release that the Pastoral Epistles were written, the last, Second Timothy, being written after he had again been confined at Rome and shortly before his death. It was somewhere about A. D. 66-68 that his busy career ended, and that he received the crown of martyrdom in Rome.

      The details I have given are enough to show how laborious, and how full of suffering was his eventful life. Yet we know that the history of Acts only touches upon his hardships, sufferings and sacrifices. Compelled, in his Second Letter to the church at Corinth, in self-defense, to speak of his labors, he says: "In labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of mine own countrymen, in perils of the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness." The world had never before seen an example of one who gave up so much, voluntarily accepted such trials and sorrows, and so consecrated himself to a work in behalf of mankind. The transformation of Saul of Tarsus the Persecutor, into Paul the Apostle, is a miracle not less wonderful than the resurrection of the Lord. Dr. Baur, the most learned of German rationalists, confessed at the end of his life, that no rational explanation can be given of the transformation of Paul from "a most vehement adversary into the most resolute herald of Christianity," and that he felt constrained to call it a miracle.


CHRONOLOGY.

      Some of the dates in the life of Paul can be fixed with certainty, and others are only approximate. The following are accepted by the best authorities.

Conversion A. D. 37.
First Visit to Jerusalem after Conversion " 40.
Second Visit to Jerusalem " 44.
Beginning of First Missionary Journey " 45.
Council at Jerusalem (Third Visit) " 50.
Second Missionary Journey Begun " 51.
Fourth Visit to Jerusalem " 54.
Third Missionary Journey Begun " 54.
Fifth and Last Visit to Jerusalem " 58.
Imprisonment at Cæsarea " 58-60.
Voyage to Rome " 60, 61.
First Imprisonment in Rome " 61-63.
Release from Imprisonment " 63.
Second Imprisonment. Date Uncertain, from " 65 to 67.
Martyrdom.                     "           "         " " 65 to 68.


ORDER OF THE EPISTLES.

      The Epistles of Paul are not arranged in the New Testament in the order in which they were written. The following table gives their chronological order, and the approximate date at which each was written. I give the general results reached by scholars, but omit the reasons from lack of space:

1 Thessalonians. Written at Corinth. Between A. D. 52 and 54.
2 Thessalonians.       "             " " " 52 and 54.
Galatians.       "     probably at Ephesus, or in Macedonia   " 56 or 57.
1 Corinthians.       "           "               "   " 57.
2 Corinthians.       "     in Macedonia.   " 57.
Romans.       "     at Corinth.   " 58.
Colossians.       "     at Rome.   " 62.
Ephesians.       "     at     "   " 62.
Philemon.       "     at     "   " 62.
Philippians.       "     at     "   " 62.
Hebrews.       "     in Italy, probably at Rome.   " 65.
1 Timothy.       "     probably in Macedonia. About " 66-67.
Titus.       "           "                 " " " 66-67.
2 Timothy.       "     in his Prison at Rome. " " 66-68.

      These were all written in the Greek language, the common language of the educated world in the first century, and indeed the language of church literature for three centuries. Its general diffusion all over the East enables Christians everywhere to read and understand writings in that tongue. Paul was no doubt acquainted with it from childhood, preached in it everywhere, and wrote it with the force and fluency of a native Greek. [10]




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