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The Apostle Paul
Lesson 1 from The Lives of Great Christians
By Professor William R. Cook
Lesson 1: Paul and the First Christian Missionaries
1. The first people to spread the good news about Jesus beyond those who had known him during his ministry were the apostles, especially Peter.
a. This story is contained in the first chapters of Acts of the Apostles, written by the author of the Gospel of Luke.
b. The conversion of an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8) is something of a prologue to the story of taking the good news beyond Palestine and its neighbors.
2. The person we most associate with the spread of the good news into what are now the nations of Turkey, Greece, and Italy was Saul, later called Paul, of Tarsus.
a. Paul was roughly a contemporary of Jesus.
b. He was a persecutor of “Jesus people”, who later became one of them.
c. Paul saw the claims that the Messiah had come as undermining the Law to which he, as a Pharisee, was devoted.
3. Following his conversion (described in Acts but never by Paul in his letters), Paul spent time in Damascus and soon undertook the first of a series of missionary trips that would occupy him for the next 30 years.
a. His first mission was apparently completely unsuccessful.
b. He returned to Damascus and, probably at that time, learned a trade – tent making – that he would be able to practice wherever he went to spread the good news.
4. Paul left Damascus and went to Jerusalem, where he spent time with Peter. He soon left, and we next find him doing missionary work in what is now southern Turkey.
a. Paul encountered mixed communities of Jews and Gentiles who believed in Jesus.
b. Paul struggled with understanding the role of the Torah for Christians and with how mixed communities should work.
5. Paul journeyed toward Europe on another missionary project.
a. He traveled with Silas and soon recruited Timothy.
b. His plan to go to Ephesus was blocked, but he did found a Christian community in Galatia.
i. Paul’s converts in Galatia were all Gentiles.
ii. Paul was possessive about his converts.
c. Paul’s first community in Europe was established in Philippi.
i. This was a small city with a small Jewish population.
ii. Paul used the home of a woman named Lydia as his center of operations.
iii. Other women became heads of house-churches in Philippi.
d. Paul went on to Thessalonica, but his converts were of a lower socioeconomic status than those in Philippi.
e. He had little success in Athens.
6. Paul established a community in Corinth, where he remained for 18 months.
a. His community consisted mostly of Gentiles.
b. While in Corinth, Paul wrote his first letter that we know of, I Thessalonians.
i. This is the first known Christian document.
ii. In this letter, Paul explains his teaching on the coming of the new age, which Christians there had misunderstood.
7. Upon returning to Asia, Paul learned of objections in Jerusalem to the idea of Gentile Christians.
a. Paul traveled to Jerusalem to confront the Judaizers.
b. James, Jesus’ brother, called a meeting of the leaders and issued a decision that men did not have to be circumcised in order to be Christians.
c. At Antioch, Peter reverted to the position of requiring circumcision.
i. Paul directly opposed Peter.
ii. Paul left Antioch, which had once been his missionary base.
8. Paul spent about a year in Ephesus, where he found a group of Jews who considered themselves followers of Jesus, but who knew nothing about the passion, resurrection, or descent of the Holy Spirit.
a. They had received the so-called “baptism of John the Baptist.”
b. Paul worked to explain to them what he regarded as the core teachings about Jesus.
c. Using Ephesus as a base, Paul was responsible for the establishment of several other Christian communities, for example, Colossae.
d. Here as elsewhere, Paul showed that he was a better missionary than administrator.
e. Paul’s success led to his arrest in Ephesus, and while in prison, he probably wrote several of his letters.
9. Once he was out of prison, Paul needed to focus on problems with the community in Corinth.
a. There were problems regarding differing beliefs, as well as moral transgressions.
b. Out of these problems came several letters, which today have been edited into what are known as I and II Corinthians.
10. When he was about the age of 60, Paul proposed a missionary trip to Spain to be launched from Rome.
a. There was already a Christian community in Rome.
b. To introduce himself to Roman Christians and to gain their support for his trip to Spain, Paul wrote what became his most important letter – Romans.
c. Before heading west, Paul took his final journey to Jerusalem to deliver money for the poor that he had helped to collect from his Christian communities.
d. While in Jerusalem, Paul was arrested and held for perhaps two years.
e. Given that he was a Roman citizen, Paul demanded that he be sent to Rome.
f. Paul probably did go to Spain via Rome. He was not well received by the Christians of Rome, and his expedition to Spain was a failure.
g. After returning to the East, including a stop at Ephesus, Paul traveled to Rome a second time.
i. This was about the time of the great fire in Rome that some accused Nero of setting.
ii. Paul was one of the Christians arrested in the aftermath of the fire.
iii. It was probably during his time in prison that he wrote his last letter, today known as II Timothy.
11. Paul was executed in Rome, by tradition at the place where today stands the Church of St. Paul Outside the Walls.
1. Paul’s letters, especially Romans, and Acts of the Apostles, beginning with chapter 9.
2. Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul.
3. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Paul: His Story.
1. What was the basis of Paul’s faith, which saw him through such hardships, setbacks, and rejections?
2. Why is the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians so important in the earliest years of Christianity?
3. Is Paul’s greatness largely due to the fact that he was the first Christian writer we have, or because of his commitment, insights, and perseverance?
Read the Lesson 2 Outline and Handout and be prepared to discuss.
Next Week’s Lesson:
An Apostle Admired and Despised