Paul: The Long Road from Damascus
September 1975

“Paul: The Long Road from Damascus,” Ensign, Sept. 1975, 57

Special Issue: New Testament


The Long Road from Damascus

In the opening verses of Luke’s treatise on the activities of the apostles after Jesus’ resurrection, Luke records the Savior’s charge to take the gospel from Jerusalem to all the world. The next few chapters, however, do not tell how the Twelve went on missionary journeys. Instead, the narrative in chapters 1–12 concentrates on Peter, John, Stephen, and the church in and around Jerusalem. Two significant incidents in the first half of Acts form the basis for the rest of Luke’s great work (Acts 13–28). The first is the conversion of a young Jewish leader named Saul (Acts 9), and the second is the great vision Peter received in which the Lord revealed that the time had come for the non-Jewish nations to receive the gospel (Acts 10).

The reader’s first introduction to Saul is brief and very unattractive. The executioners of Stephen “laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul” (Acts 7:58), who “was consenting unto his death.” (Acts 8:1.) Saul, not simply a passive observer of such activities, is described a few verses later as one who was trying to destroy the church, “entering into every house” and dragging men and women off to prison. (See Acts 8:3.) Some years after his conversion Paul referred in some of his letters to his persecution of the Christians before his conversion. (See 1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13, 23; Philip. 3:6.)

Saul’s official position in Judaism is most clearly seen by the fact that he received authority from the high priest (likely Caiaphas) to represent the Sanhedrin in persecuting the Christians as far away as Damascus. (See Acts 9:1–2; Acts 22:5.) In Acts 26:10 Saul says he “gave my voice” (cast my vote) against certain followers of Christ, suggesting the possibility that he had even been a member of the Sanhedrin.

His reputation among the Christians as a persecutor was so great that for some time after his conversion he had difficulty meeting with Christian leaders; and even when he returned to Jerusalem three years after his conversion, he was able to gain fellowship with the church only through the assistance of Barnabas. (See Acts 9:26–28.)

Saul had indeed been a destructive missionary, a powerful persecutor. Every Bible student knows of his journey, with a company of men, toward Damascus to continue his persecution there. And everyone knows of the vision of the resurrected Jesus that came to Saul on the road to Damascus. It is noteworthy that the learned Saul did not debate with Jesus the reality or significance of the vision; he simply asked two questions: “Who art thou, Lord?” and “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:5, 6.) Jesus, who knew that Saul would become a great missionary to the gentile nations, to kings, and to Israel (see Acts 9:15), gave a simple answer to the second question: “Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.” (Acts 9:6.)

So far as Saul knew, he was not making a transition from leadership in Jewish society to leadership in Christian society, but was giving up all that he had previously attained—and was doing so without argument. Stripped of his power as a persecutor, Saul had moved into a no-man’s land where the persecuted generally did not trust him and the other persecutors soon tried to kill him. (See Acts 9:23, 29.) Nevertheless, there is no hint of complaint on Saul’s part. To the contrary, he “straightway … preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.” (Acts 9:20.) Throughout his life, Saul was characterized by complete and unswerving obedience and dedication to his convictions—a quality of commitment both before and after his conversion that made him a valued servant to the Lord as soon as his convictions were founded on correct principles and understanding. It is not hard to understand why Ananias, the Damascus Christian whom the Lord instructed to find Saul and heal him, was rather reluctant to immediately do as he was told. He recalled the evil he had heard of Saul and mentioned it to the Lord. The Savior responded that Ananias need not be concerned, calling Saul “a chosen vessel.” (Acts 9:15.)

Many have not understood that Saul joined the Church in addition to gaining a testimony of Christ, and was consequently obedient to church authorities as well as to the Savior; many mistakenly assume that the two allegiances can conflict. These people think that Saul was independent from the church and had sufficient authority from his vision to perform his new duties.

Instead, we see that after being healed, Saul submitted to baptism (see Acts 9:18), later went to Tarsus as commanded by “the brethren” (see Acts 9:30), went to Antioch under the direction of Barnabas (see Acts 11:26), and went on his missionary journey after being set apart and commissioned by the church authorities.

Although Saul represented the gentile churches as their leader in the Jerusalem Council (see Acts 15), he was obedient to the counsel of the apostles, and was appointed by them to take their answer in a letter to the churches in “Antioch and Syria and Cilicia.” (Acts 15:23.) While it is clear that Saul would stand up for his beliefs even to the president of the church (see Gal. 2), there is no evidence that he sought to advance his own position at the expense of the other apostles or considered that his vision removed the necessity for priesthood direction. Later, Saul was obedient to the leaders in Jerusalem who requested him to purify himself in the temple with four Jews of the Jerusalem church. (See Acts 21:18–25.) There can be no question that Paul was obedient to the constituted authorities of the church.

Another aspect that many readers seem to miss is concerned with Paul’s preparation to represent the Lord. There is a nine-to-ten-year period from Paul’s conversion until the time of his so-called first missionary journey. Obviously, it was as necessary for Paul to mature and season in the gospel, grow and develop, as it is for the rest of us. Even so, considering the fervent zeal of this famous convert, we can assume that Saul was very involved in missionary efforts from the time of his conversion, wherever he was. But the first detailed reference to a mission is in Acts 13, when he is called to accompany Barnabas to Cyprus and some Asia Minor cities. For the first part of the journey, Luke implies that Barnabas is the leader, and Saul continues to use his Jewish name. However, when the missionary company meets the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus, Saul seems to take the lead in preaching to him and in pronouncing a curse of blindness upon the interfering Jewish magician, Elymas. Including the incident with Paulus, several events signal a change in leadership. Paul was a Roman citizen; the missionaries were entering a predominantly gentile phase of their journey; and John Mark returned to Jerusalem (he may not yet have been prepared to proselyte among the gentile nations). Paul may simply have been the one best equipped to lead the group during that phase of their travels. From this time onward, Luke never refers to Saul by his Jewish name, but instead calls him Paul (probably his Roman cognomen) and refers to the group as “Paul and his company.” (Acts 13:13.)

Although Paul is known in history as the apostle to the gentiles, he always began preaching at the Jewish synagogues in the towns he visited. Paul never felt that he had forsaken Judaism by becoming a Christian, and it is to be expected that he would go first to those of his own race and background. Problems often accompanied him in those synagogues, however; divisions and dissension multiplied because of his preaching. His experience after one week in Pisidian Antioch, his first major stopping place in Asia Minor, is a good example of what usually happened when Paul preached to the Jews:

“And the next sabbath day came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God.

“But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming.

“Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles.” (Acts 13:44–46.)

The Jews barred Paul from the synagogue, stirred the townspeople to riot and thus caused Paul to leave town to save his life, all of it part of the pattern of Paul’s later missionary work.

After being expelled from Antioch and Iconium, stoned and left for dead in Lystra, and reaching the limit of his journey in Derbe, Paul’s willingness to return through those same towns and strengthen the converts is remarkable evidence of the strength of his own character and testimony. Far from complaining about personal sufferings and privations, Paul often counseled the saints that persecution presented opportunities for growth and for proving worthy of heavenly blessings. (See Rom. 5:2–5; 2 Cor. 1:3–11; Philip. 3:8–14; Philip. 4:11–13; 1 Thes. 3; 2 Tim. 1:6–12.) One can only wonder how often the memory of his own earlier actions as a persecutor caused him to bear tribulations willingly and to grieve at the misunderstanding of those who now persecuted him.

As the gospel was preached to the gentiles and Christianity grew from a Jewish sect into an international religion, it was inevitable that tensions grew between Jew and gentile. A gentile who wished to become a full convert to Judaism had to be circumcised (if he was male), offer sacrifice, and undergo a ritual bath (baptism). Many declined circumcision and otherwise maintained a somewhat loose relationship to Judaism; they are referred to as “God-fearers” in the New Testament; Cornelius was apparently such a man. (See Acts 10:1.) However, as the gospel spread to the gentiles the question of circumcision had to be reviewed, for many Christians of Jewish lineage perceived their new faith primarily as a fulfillment and an extension of Judaism. From their viewpoint, gentile converts were still entering Judaism and were therefore subject to Jewish laws and ordinances.

Returning from their missionary journey to Asia Minor, Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to seek the advice of the apostles on this weighty controversy. The resulting council in Jerusalem (reported in Acts 15) demonstrates how thoroughly decision-making in the Church was grounded in revelation and order.

One need only compare this council with the wrangling conventions of the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. to appreciate how necessary inspiration and authority are to Christianity. In the Jerusalem Council, there was an answer. In the later councils there was only compromise. In the earlier council there was unity when a decision had been accepted, but in later councils only strife and division.

Paul and Barnabas were chosen to take the letter bearing the decision of the council not to bind converts to Judaism to the churches of Asia Minor; this occasioned the journey described in Acts 15:40 through Acts 18:22. Because John Mark had returned to Jerusalem without completing the first journey, Paul refused to take him on the second journey. Therefore, Barnabas took John Mark and went to Cyprus while Paul and a new companion, Silas, went to the cities of Asia Minor where he had preached on his earlier journey. In Lystra Paul also called another young man, Timothy, to go with him, and Timothy became Paul’s closest missionary companion in later years, beloved to the point where Paul called him son. (See 1 Tim. 1:2, 18; 2 Tim. 1:2–6; 2 Tim. 2:1.)

As Paul and his companions left the cities previously visited, he evidently desired to go to Ephesus, the leading city in the Roman province of Asia, but was “forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia.” (Acts 16:6.)

The reader observes that Paul is told what not to do by the Spirit, rather than what he ought to do; and even after traveling to Mysia, Paul and his company desired to turn northeast to Bithynia, but were again forbidden to do so by the Holy Spirit. Finally, after arriving in Troas, Paul received a vision where his direction was made clear: a man of Macedonia begged him to “come over into Macedonia, and help us.” (Acts 16:9.)

In the very next verse, Luke stops saying “they” and starts saying “we.” Although scholars have differing explanations for this change, the most common suggestion is that Luke joined Paul and his companions. The text reverts to “they” when Paul leaves Philippi, a Macedonian city, a short time later, indicating that Luke stayed there. Toward the end of the third journey, when Paul passes through Philippi on his way to Jerusalem, the story becomes “we” again (see Acts 21:5–6) and remains so until the end of Acts.

One could conclude that Luke became one of Paul’s most constant and trusted companions, an opinion supported by Paul’s later writings. In prison at Rome, Paul wrote to the saints at Colossae (approximately 100 miles southeast of Ephesus in Asia Minor) and included the following greeting: “Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas, greet you.” (Col. 4:14.) The epithet “beloved” is uncommon in Paul’s writings, and indicates an especially close bond between the apostle and his doctor. Possibly Luke provided necessary medical attention to Paul, who speaks of being afflicted with a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7–10), which might refer to some chronic ailment or infirmity. That Luke remained with Paul to the end of the apostle’s life is indicated in 2 Timothy, which Paul wrote just prior to his martyrdom. Paul recounts how many of his associates either had forsaken him or had gone on errands, and concludes with: “Only Luke is with me.” (2 Tim. 4:11.) Alone and facing death, Paul doubtless found Luke’s presence of more than medical comfort.

But apparently Luke was not with him during the middle stage of that second missionary journey. From Macedonia, Paul traveled to Athens where he addressed some followers of the most popular philosophies of the day, Stoicism and Epicureanism. Athens was a great educational center during this time, and Luke characterizes Athenian society as a place where men “spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.” (Acts 17:21.) Paul’s attempt to begin his talk with a reference to the religious heritage of Athens—“I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious” (very religious)—was politely received, but the crowd mocked him and dispersed when he turned to the resurrection. (See Acts 17:22–32.)

Soon afterward Paul went to Corinth, a prosperous commercial center with a proverbial reputation for immorality. Paul preached in the synagogue for some weeks, but was finally forced to leave. He established the church in the home of a gentile convert and apparently planned to leave Corinth soon afterward, for the Lord appeared to him by night and suggested that he remain for a time, saying “I have much people in this city.” (Acts 18:10.)

Obediently, Paul remained a full year and a half, then sailed toward Jerusalem in haste to attend an unnamed feast there, probably the Passover. (See Acts 18:21.) He made a quick stop in Ephesus, promising to return for a longer time if the Lord desired it. From Ephesus, Paul and his companions sailed to Caesarea and arrived in Jerusalem to conclude the second journey.

The question of why Paul felt he needed to conclude his mission so quickly brings up a related subject his ecclesiastical position. Apostle means “one who is sent,” and in the New Testament may refer either to the calling of a missionary or to one of the Twelve. In the absence of records, Christian scholars disagree whether Paul was ever ordained to fill a vacancy in the Twelve (as was Matthias in Acts 1) or whether he was an apostle outside the Quorum of Twelve. Perhaps more important than trying to determine the specific nature of his apostolic calling in the absence of convincing evidence are indications that he received that office at the end of his second journey.

This controversy, however, is a modern one, not an ancient one, for the apostolic fathers and the early Christian apologists in the centuries immediately after New Testament times make no distinction whatever between Paul and the other apostles. Paul himself obviously considered his authority equal to that of the other apostles (see 1 Cor. 9:5, for example), and Elder Bruce R. McConkie points out that many witnesses of Christ’s resurrection clearly existed. Stephen among them, who were not called apostles. Thus, the implication is that “apostle” was “reserved for those who were ordained to the office of apostle in the Melchizedek Priesthood and therefore that Paul and Barnabas were members of the Council of the Twelve, having filled vacancies in the normal course of events.” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Bookcraft, 1971, 2:131. See also ibid. 2:332, and Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Bookcraft, 1956, 3:153.)

The New Testament gives no record of Paul’s ordination, yet there are strong indications that he received his office at the end of his second journey. Although Barnabas and Paul are called apostles in Acts 14:4 and Acts 14:14, the term there likely refers to a missionary calling, since they were set apart by men who were not members of the Twelve. In his two letters to the Thessalonian saints, written from Corinth during the second journey, Paul does not refer to himself as an apostle in the introduction. Beginning with the correspondence of the third journey, however, Paul begins his epistles with “Paul, an Apostle of Jesus Christ” or some similarly worded phrase. (The exceptions are Philippians and Philemon, written from Rome during Paul’s imprisonment.) Further evidence may be seen in the Corinthian letters, written during the third journey, in which Paul defends his apostolic calling to a church that may still remember him as not being an apostle during his 18-month Stay in the second journey.

Thus, as an apostle, Paul returned to Antioch and set forth on another missionary journey. After visiting the cities of his previous two missions, Paul went—unhindered by the Spirit this time—to Ephesus, where he preached and taught for three years. (See Acts 20:31.) Finally taking his leave of Asia, Paul traveled through Macedonia giving “much exhortation” (see Acts 20:2) and went south to Corinth for a three-month stay.

Because some Jews plotted to assassinate Paul as he was about to sail to Syria and Jerusalem, he quickly changed his plans and returned through Macedonia and Asia Minor, picking up Luke in Philippi. Paul’s company bypassed Ephesus on their journey (because they wanted to be in Jerusalem for Pentecost), but when their ship put in at Miletus a little south of Ephesus, Paul sent for the priesthood leaders of Ephesus and gave them much counsel, warning them especially of an upcoming rebellion in the church.

Just as Jesus had told his disciples during the Last Supper that one would betray him, so Paul now warned these leaders that some of them would speak false doctrines and lead the saints astray. However sobering that message must have seemed to them, Luke mentioned that they were the most sorrowful when Paul said that they would never see him again. The company sailed after a sad farewell and reached Jerusalem via Tyre, Ptolemais, and Caesarea.

Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem sparked an emotional explosion about the regulations for gentile proselytes. Many Jewish members in Jerusalem thought that Paul had been preaching against Moses and the commandments—even to Jews. (See Acts 21:20–21.) James, the Lord’s brother, who was by then one of the apostles, requested on behalf of the church leaders that Paul show his obedience to Jewish law by purifying himself in the temple with four other men. At the conclusion of the ritual period, some Jews from Asia (perhaps Ephesus) falsely accused Paul of taking some Greeks into the inner courts of the temple precinct. The punishment for such a crime was death, and an angry crowd mobbed Paul. A Roman garrison quartered in the Antonian fortress at the northwest corner of the temple precincts barely rescued him. He was chained and carried on the shoulders of the soldiers back to the stairs leading to the fortress, where he sought permission to address the crowd.

The people were surprisingly quiet and attentive as Paul recounted the experience of his conversion, but almost certainly most in the crowd did not know they were supposed to be punishing a blasphemer (see a similarly confused crowd in Acts 19:29, 32) until he uttered the word gentile. That word inflamed the crowd and Paul was carried into the fortress for his own protection.

His Roman citizenship saved him from the scourging that was administered to slaves and non-Romans—often with a metal- or bone-tipped whip to aggravate the pain—and he was simply held to face his Jewish accusers in a hearing on the following day. (See Acts 22.)

In that hearing Paul cleverly claimed to be a Pharisee called into court over the issue of resurrection of the dead, thus bringing the Sadduccees who denied the resurrection into opposition with the Pharisees who accepted that teaching and splitting the council. But the ensuing melee was so great that he was nearly dismembered before he was again rescued by the Roman soldiers. The Jews plotted to ambush Paul the next day; Paul’s nephew warned the military tribune, who sneaked Paul from Jerusalem to Caesarea during the night—with a military escort of 470 soldiers! (See Acts 23:1–23.)

Paul’s next court appearance was before the procurator, Felix, nearly a week later. Since Felix decided to simply keep Paul under house arrest, Paul obviously was not guilty of any charges; but Felix kept him under restriction, hoping to receive a bribe for Paul’s freedom. (See Acts 24:25–26.)

The deferred judgment lasted for two years, until Felix was replaced by Porcius Festus. Festus, anxious to conclude the case according to Roman law, desired Paul to go to trial in Jerusalem. Paul, fearing that the new procurator would conciliate the Jews by surrendering him, exercised his right as a Roman citizen to appeal to the emperor. Some time later Agrippa, vassal king of Chalcis and some territory around the Sea of Galilee, visited Festus and desired to hear Paul. After Paul’s famous speech to Agrippa, Luke reports that both Festus and Agrippa agreed that Paul was really innocent. (See Acts 26:31–32.) Nevertheless, Paul had taken the matter out of Festus’ jurisdiction by his appeal to the caesar, then Nero, who ruled from A.D. 54–68.

A steady traffic of grain ships traveling between Egypt and Italy during the sailing season supplied passengers’ needs; and Paul, under guard, booked passage to Rome. (Acts 27:6, 38.) Historians of Rome have long noted that Luke’s description of this exciting journey is one of the most important primary sources available on ancient seamanship. Students of Paul’s life cannot help but be impressed with his spiritual leadership and unfailing trust in the Lord under the most trying circumstances.

Paul’s arrival in Rome brings the reader to the end of the book of Acts, but not necessarily to the end of the life of the apostle. Luke concludes: “And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him.” (Acts 28:30.)

Why doesn’t the account continue? If Paul had lost his case—and his life—before the emperor, an account of his martyrdom would have been a most appropriate seal for his testimony and ministry. However, he may not have died at this time. Neither Felix, nor Festus, nor Agrippa deemed Paul guilty of crime, let alone worthy of death. Furthermore, Paul is rather optimistic about his own future in the so-called “prison epistles” written during this time from Rome. (See Philip. 1:21–26; Philip. 2:23–24; Philem. 1:22.)

A number of other evidences hint that Paul was acquitted and traveled for some time before another imprisonment and death. Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus do not fit into the chronology of Acts, and therefore must have been written later. From these epistles one notes that Paul visited Ephesus (see 1 Tim. 1:3; 1 Tim. 3:14–15), Miletus (see 2 Tim. 4:20), Troas (see 2 Tim. 4:13), Corinth (see 2 Tim. 4:20), Nicopolis (see Titus 3:12), and Crete (see Titus 1:5). The prison epistles show that Paul also intended to travel to Philippi (see Philip. 1:26; Philip. 2:24) and Colossae (see Philem. 1:22) if he was acquitted. In Romans 15:24, 28, Paul writes of a planned trip to Spain; and Clement, bishop of Rome at the end of the first century A.D., spoke of Paul traveling “to the limits of the west,” which would certainly refer to Spain. [Rom. 15:24, 28] (See 1 Clement 5:7.) Tradition is substantially uniform, however, in stating that some time in the later part of Nero’s reign Paul was executed in Rome. Behind him he left the rich treasures of his epistles and the record of his faithful friend Luke, which portrays an example of devoted service and missionary zeal that 20 centuries of time have only burnished brighter.

  • Dr. C. Wilfred Griggs, an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, serves as high councilor in the BYU Fourth Stake.

Illustration by James Christensen