By CLIFFORD YEARY, Little Rock Scripture Study | Published March 13, 2009
Paul probably never thought of himself as being a convert to Christianity.
Paul’s own words tell us he never swerved in his zeal to serve the God of his Jewish forbears. “(God), who from my mother’s womb had set me apart and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:15-16a).
If not a conversion, his encounter with the risen Christ on the way to Damascus was an equally profound calling. In the years to come, conversions would come to the many Gentiles who would respond to Paul’s preaching.
Paul’s calling led him, a Jewish rabbi, to serve God in a radically new way, proclaiming to non-Jews what God had done for them in Jesus Christ.
Our New Testament would be almost unrecognizable without his influence. Human history is radically different because he answered his call. Yet Paul was neither the first nor the only missionary to the Gentiles. In Acts, we read it was Peter who first preached the Gospel to a Gentile, the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:1-49).
After his baptism in Damascus, Paul visited “Arabia” (we don’t know exactly where that was) and Jerusalem (Galatians 1:15-18). Paul eventually went to Antioch, where there were already a number of Gentile converts. In Antioch the followers of Jesus were being called by a new name: “Christian” (Acts 11:20).
Long after Paul began his missionary work, he would write the Christians of Rome, many of whom were Gentiles, asking them if he might visit them for the very first time (Romans 1:13). The Christian faith had spread to many places in the Roman Empire and had been accepted by large numbers of Gentiles without hearing anything from Paul, “the Apostle to the Gentiles.”
Paul’s greatness lies in far more than his being unique as a missionary to the Gentiles. Paul’s determination to be an apostle for the Gentiles earned his enduring influence on the Christian faith. For Gentiles to become followers of Jesus, a conversion was truly required. Gentiles of the Roman Empire were, for the most part, polytheists who worshipped idols and the large pantheon of gods in Greek and Roman mythology.
The big question for many Jewish Christians was whether faith in Jesus was enough to really include a Gentile in their movement. They might be baptized, but shouldn’t the men also be circumcised? After all, Jesus was a good Jew and he had been circumcised just as Jewish law required (Luke 2:21).
Paul’s unshakeable faith in Jesus as the risen Messiah (the Christ) made him equally certain the God of Israel was now calling all humanity into a covenant forged on the cross. This new relationship with God, along with the promise of salvation and eternal life, are made available through Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. Nothing in Moses’ Law could confer this gift — it came through faith in Christ alone.
Paul was certain that any suggestion that Gentiles needed to adopt Jewish practices in order to become followers of Jesus ultimately meant that there was an insufficiency in Jesus’ death and resurrection. This was unthinkable to Paul. For Paul, once the Messiah appeared, the Law became null and void (Galatians 3:15-27).
In the book of Acts we read that Peter and Paul and a council of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem all came to an agreement that the Gospel could be preached to the Gentiles. If they avoided sexual relations outside marriage and if they refused to eat meat either offered to idols or killed in an offensive manner, they could be baptized and enjoy full fellowship in the Christian assembly (Acts 15:1-31).
It might seem that the matter was settled, but opposition by both Jewish and Gentile Christians to Paul’s radical dismissal of Mosaic Law would only increase throughout his life.
Perhaps in order to keep his Gospel message as unsullied as possible, Paul determined to preach only where no one else had (Romans 15:20-21), with the one known exception of Rome. At least three different times, to spread the Gospel where it had never before been heard, Paul made arduous journeys through parts of Asia (modern Turkey) and twice on to Europe (modern Greece and Italy).
A fourth journey took him as a prisoner of faith from Jerusalem to Rome. It was his great desire to carry the Gospel as far as distant Spain. Did he actually reach Spain? His message has, in fact, gone throughout the world. Wherever Gentiles proclaim the name of Christ, they remember St. Paul.
This article was originally published in the Arkansas Catholic Aug. 16, 2008. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved.
This is the third in a series of 13 columns on St. Paul and his teachings, written by the directors of the Little Rock Scripture Study (Diocese of Little Rock, Ark.) for the Jubilee Year of St. Paul. The Jubilee marks the 2,000-year anniversary of the apostle’s birth.