Besides Peter, the most prominent leader in the early church was Paul, a man from the Greek city of Tarsus. His conversion is a cornerstone in Acts, where Luke describes the event three times (Acts 9.1-9; 22.3-21; 26.1-23). Through his vision on the Damascus road, Paul became a witness of Christ’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15.3-11) and an apostle with a special commission to proclaim the gospel among the Gentiles (Galatians 2.7-8). From both Acts and Paul’s letters, we can develop his life and teachings.
Peter describes Paul as a “dear brother” who wrote many letters but whose message was distorted by some within the churches (2 Peter 3.15-16). Echoes of his teaching can be heard in other New Testament letters, such as 1 Peter and Hebrews, and the leaders of the postapostolic church recount many of the traditions surrounding his life, including his martyrdom in Rome under Nero.
Paul’s influence on theology has been enormous. He offers the clearest and most detailed exposition of the Christian faith. Although he worked hard and suffered severely for the gospel, he refused to seek honor for himself since he knew that his efforts were divinely empowered: “To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1.29).
Zeal for God
The zeal Paul demonstrated in persecuting the church is not simply religious fanaticism. Paul saw his devotion for God and His law as a part of a noble history in Israel, which lauded those who showed outstanding courage to defend and avenge what was holy.
For example, Scripture remembered Phinehas’s zeal, which led him to violence against an Israelite man and a Midianite woman indulging in sexual sin and the worship of Baal (Numbers 25.1-15). Later, 1 Maccabees 2.54 recalled that event, “Phinehas our ancestor, because he was deeply zealous, received the covenant of everlasting priesthood.” According to Sirach 45.23, “Phinehas son of Eleazar ranks third in glory for being zealous in the fear of the Lord.”
Paul understood his persecution of the church as a part of that tradition. His righteous zeal was the source of his greatest sin (1 Timothy 1.12-14). Yet precisely at this point Paul realized he became the recipient of God’s grace: “I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
– The New Testament in Antiquity, pp. 250-51