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Jesus and Peter might start out the story, but it's Paul who takes center stage. From the moment he's introduced in Chapter 7, Paul grabs the spotlight and refuses to return it. Counting Acts, 15 of the 27 books of the New Testament are written by or about Paul, which makes him a serious contender for the second most important person in the Bible. So just who is this guy?
Acts tells us that Paul was actually born Saul. Scholars think he was probably a few years younger than Jesus, which means he was in his 30s when he first appears as a "young man" (7:58) in Acts. Paul was raised in a nice Jewish home in Tarsus, which is located in modern day Turkey (21:39). He tells a crowd that he was "brought up in [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to [Jewish] ancestral law." Later he tells the Sanhedrin that he's "a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees" (23:6). So, yeah. He's got some pretty sweet credentials.
Paul was part of the Jewish Diaspora around the Roman Empire. In addition to his great Jewish education, he would have also been exposed to Greek in the universities in Tarsus (source). In fact, Acts says that Paul speaks Greek (21:37) and Hebrew (21:40), which really comes in handy when trying to convert both Jews and Gentiles.
So in the beginning, Saul is a Jew who really loves God and all things Jewish. Naturally, when some guys start talking about how this crucified peasant is the Jewish Messiah, it really boils Saul's blood. In fact, the first time we meet Saul is during the stoning of Stephen. He's the guy in the back holding everyone's coats (7:58). We hope he at least had a tip jar out.
Saul might not have thrown the first stone, but Luke does say he "approved of their killing him" (8:1). And later on, he starts persecuting Christians full time (8:3, 9:1). It's not exactly the kind of thing you can do as a hobby. Dude, looks like it's a one-way ticket to damnation for you.
More than any other character in Acts, Paul changes. Big time. He goes from cracking Christian skulls to leading people to Christ. It's quite the turnaround. It's also probably one of the most famous conversion stories of all time.
It goes like this: one fine day, Saul is on his way to round up some Christian troublemakers in Damascus when he's blinded by a light on the road. He hears Jesus's voice say: "Saul, why do you persecute me?" (9:4). Um, good question. This sets in motion Saul's change of heart. He regains his sight, gets baptized, changes his name, and becomes one of Jesus's main men. Complete 180.
But despite Paul's new saintly appearance, the church in Jerusalem isn't quite convinced. Paul attempts "to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple" (9:26). Maybe they think he's trying to pull a Javert at the barricades. Luckily, Barnabas comes forward to vouch for Paul and all is well.
And—spoiler alert—turns out Paul was pretty sincere. He spent the next thirty years of his life traveling all around the eastern half of the Roman Empire spreading the good news about Jesus. The guy is a real frequent flyer (okay, more like frequent walker/sailor). Some of the more famous places he visits during Acts are: Antioch, Philippi, Galatia, Corinth, Thessalonica, Athens, and Ephesus. He event took the time to write some pretty well-received letters along the way.
Sure, Paul has a pretty cool conversion story, but what's so great about him? Well, not that much… at first. Paul starts out working the discipleship circuit in Antioch when suddenly the Holy Spirit tells everyone, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them" (13:2). That sounds pretty pressing.
So, aside from being hand-picked by the Holy Spirit, what else is Paul good at:
In fact, Paul is so amazing, that he has to stop the people of Lystra from worshiping him as a god (14:11). When's the last time you had to do that?
Another one of his claims to fame is the headway he makes with the Gentiles. In his letters he even casually mentions that some people like to call him "apostle to the Gentiles" (Romans 11:13). Not that he's bragging or anything. But because he's well educated and grew up around Gentiles, Paul really does have a knack for reaching out to them. And though Peter is the first one to actually convert a Gentile, Paul is the guy who really takes the ball and runs with it… halfway around the Roman Empire.
But it's not all globetrotting and miracles for Paul. Nope. There's also lots of danger along the way. Even God says that Paul will have to "suffer for the sake of my name" (9:16). Gulp.
It doesn't help that Paul is so polarizing. Some people love him and want to listen to him talk for hours. And some people want to rip him limb from limb. There's no in-between when it comes to Paul. People plot to kill him (9:24) and try to stone him (14:19), and the guy is in and out of jail so much you'd think he was a really bad pickpocket in a Dickens novel or something.
For his part, Paul really embraces this suffering. He's totally cool with the fact that he's probably gonna become a martyr for Jesus. Paul's suffering and devotion set the example for all believers. Christians should be willing to follow Jesus even if it means death. There is no halfway when it comes to the kingdom of God.
So Paul is willing to suffer and die if that's what God wills for him. Hey, that sounds like someone else we know! It's true. Luke is drawing some strong parallels between Jesus and Paul throughout Acts:
Okay, so Luke really wants us to get that Jesus and Paul are tight. No, Paul isn't up to Jesus's divine level (remember what happened in Lystra?), but he's following the correct path of a disciple of Christ. Paul is an example. This is what all Christians should be acting like. So, if you're not busy riling up non-believers, you're doing it wrong.
Acts end with Paul being arrested in Jerusalem and enduring lots of really, really long trials. After a couple of years, he is finally transferred to Rome to have his case heard by the emperor. This is the really big show. Paul is hanging out in Rome, converting folks, and loving life, when—bam—the story ends.
So, what happened in Rome? Was Paul executed there? Was he released? Did he live to a ripe old age playing pinochle in his living room with other disciples of Christ?
No one actually knows. The Bible is silent on the subject and church tradition says that Paul was beheaded in Rome in 64 CE when Nero decided to start persecuting him some Christians. Lots of religious icons and paintings show Paul holding a sword, though we can't imagine he would have been too excited about carrying it around. That's because, if Paul was a Roman citizen (22:27), he would have been entitled to a quick and (relatively) painless death by beheading.
Of course, it's also possible he wasn't a Roman citizen (Paul never says so in any of his letters). If he were an average Joe, he could have died like the other Christians in that persecution. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the Christians were "covered with the skins of beasts […] torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired" (source 15.44.4).
The sword thing is looking pretty good right now.