“Well,” you may say, “so what? This man Paul got hit by some kind of lightning bolt, and thought he had a mission. So what?”
The proof of the pudding, as always, is in the eating. Paul was born some time in a 20 year period around the birth of Christ. His Damascus Road experience can be pinpointed between 31 and 36AD, so he was approaching middle age when his real career began. He was executed by Emperor Nero in Rome around 65 AD, by which time he was at least in his late 60s. For over thirty years, then, he traveled the Mediterranean, by boat and on foot, preaching the Gospel and setting up and supporting groups of believers which were called ‘churches’, but because of the dangers of the times they were really house groups.
He was the subject of enmity from the Jewish priests and their followers, from expatriate Jews, from followers of pagan religions, from business owners who saw his message as a threat to their livelihood, from the Roman authorities, and from people in his churches who tried to steal his standing with those he had converted.
Many of the passages in his letters that seem strange to us on first reading become clear when we appreciate that not only was he dealing with the specific qualities of the locality (eg troublesome Corinth – a wealthy, bustling, cosmopolitan city where surplus meat from pagan sacrifices could end up for sale in the market), but also with countless disagreements between individual followers, and serious attacks on his own integrity.
St Paul the apostle Orthodox icon.
Here is his account of some of the trials that befell him during those years:
“Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes less one: (40 lashes was a death penalty) three times I was beaten with rods: I was stoned once, shipwrecked three times; I passed a day and a night on the sea. I traveled continually, endangered by floods, robbers, my own people, the Gentiles; imperiled in the city, in the desert, at sea, by false brothers; enduring labor, hardship, many sleepless nights; in hunger and thirst and frequent fastings; in cold and nakedness.”
(2 Corinthians 11: 24-27)
He was also imprisoned three times, and traveled in chains from Jerusalem to Rome.
So – from being the Persecutor, he became the Persecuted. From being the highly educated fount of knowledge, he became the troublemaker. From being securely established in his understanding of ‘the Law’, he entered the swirling waters of dispute and backbiting to convert and then nurture souls in a brand new concept of faith.
How many people would gladly make that change, take on that role, pursue it so long, and suffer that fate without some very strong conviction?