The first article in this series of articles on the life of Paul considered his conversion and his call to be an apostle to the Gentiles. In this article I’ll consider the fourteen years between then and his commission to that mission, which is described in Acts 13:2-3 and which I’ll consider in my next article. The Bible says so little about those fourteen years that they are often referred to as the “missing years” in Paul’s life as a Christian.
My account of the “missing years” is based on Acts 9:19-30 and 11:25-26 and Galatians 1:17-24 and, as is the rest of the series of articles on the life of Paul that it is part of, follows the chronological table of Paul’s life given in F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 475. According to that table, Paul was converted in 33, made his first post-conversion visit to Jerusalem in 35, and was in Tarsus and Antioch in 35-46. I’ll give references for details derived from other passages.
Damascus and Arabia
In my last article, I said that after Paul had been healed and baptized, he ate and “began preaching in the synagogues of Damascus that Jesus is the Son of God and the Christ or Messiah…. His preaching was so effective that the Jews of Damascus eventually conspired to kill him and he had to flee from Damascus.” That would be correct if we had just Acts. However, Galatians tells us that Paul also went into Arabia and that three years passed before Paul returned to Jerusalem.
The Bible doesn’t tell us why Paul went into Arabia and what he did there. I think that he both reflected on the implications of Jesus’ being “the Lord” (Acts 9:17) and witnessed about him. That Paul did more than quiet contemplation is suggested by the hostility that Aretas, the king who ruled over the part of Arabia to which one would go from Damascus, displayed toward him after his return to Damascus–“At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands.” (2 Corinthians 11:32-33, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV).
Paul then went to Jerusalem to visit Peter and to learn more about Jesus from him. Not being welcome among his former associates and being suspected by Christians, he probably stayed with his sister (Acts 23:16). However, when Barnabas (Barnabas’ name was actually Joseph, but the apostles nicknamed him Barnabas or “son of encouragement”; Acts 4:36) took him to where Peter was staying and told Peter about Paul’s meeting Jesus and his witnessing in Damascus, Paul got to stay with Peter for fifteen days. Although Acts says Barnabas brought Paul to the apostles, Paul specifies in Galatians that the only apostle he saw besides Peter was James, the brother of Jesus who later became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He also went about Jerusalem, witnessing and debating with the Grecian Jews, but when they tried to kill him fellow Christians took him to the port of Caesarea and sent him to his hometown, Tarsus, in southeastern Asia Minor (Turkey).
Sometime during his visit to Jerusalem, Paul fell into a trance while he was praying in the temple and saw Jesus telling him, “Make haste, and get thee out of Jerusalem: for they will not receive thy testimony concerning me.” When Paul objected that they knew how he had persecuted Christians, Jesus said, “Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles.” (Acts 22:18-21) This suggests to me that although Jesus had called Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles three years earlier, he hadn’t yet commissioned him to that ministry.
Paul spent about ten years in Tarsus. All that we are told about what he did there is that he “was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, ‘He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me [Paul]” (Galatians 1:22-24). However, Biblical scholars suggest that the vision which Paul refers to in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 and some of the afflictions and hardships which he lists in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 may also have taken place in those years. As well, I think that it was while he was in Tarsus that Paul put together much of what he would later refer to as “my gospel” (Romans 2:16).
Paul’s stay in Tarsus came to an end when he had a visit from Barnabas. A revival had taken place among Grecians in Antioch, the capital of Syria, and the church in Jerusalem had sent Barnabas there. After seeing what was taking place and encouraging the Christians there, Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Paul. He brought Paul to Antioch, and the two of them spent the next year meeting with the church and teaching many people. Luke observes that it was in Antioch that “the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26).
When Paul ministered in Antioch with Barnabas, he may have thought that he was carrying out the mandate that Jesus had given him at his conversion to witness to the Gentiles. Nobody could blame him if he did–after all, fourteen years had passed since Jesus had given it. However, his ministry in Antioch, although important, was just another step in preparing Paul for the mission to which Jesus had called him–not the mission itself. As I observed at the beginning of this article, my next article will consider Paul’s commission to that mission.