Paul: Apostle to the Gentiles

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Apostle to the Gentiles

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The Roman soldiers brusquely prepared Paul for scourging. This vicious lashing was a fast and effective way to get to the truth of the dispute between the apostle and some Jews in Jerusalem.

As the Roman soldiers yanked the clothes from his back, Paul asked the centurion overseeing the punishment, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” (Acts 22:25 Acts 22:25And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said to the centurion that stood by, Is it lawful for you to whip a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned?
American King James Version×
, New International Version).

Paul’s question about the rights of a Roman citizen immediately thwarted the soldiers’ intentions. The rights of a Roman citizen could open doors throughout the empire and automatically nullify this kind of abuse of position by petty officials.

The centurion scurried to his commander to warn him of the possibility of illegally mistreating a Roman citizen, a serious offense anywhere in the empire.
The garrison commander approached Paul cautiously. Could this man, who had somehow so provoked the local Jewish leadership, really be a Roman citizen? The officer knew he had better tread carefully.

He asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” (verse 27). Paul responded that indeed he was.

The officer had to accept Paul’s answer at face value for several reasons. First, he had already made the mistake of not conducting an inquiry of his prisoner beforehand. Second, if his prisoner were a Roman citizen, he ran the risk of losing his position and—in a worst-case scenario—his life.

But then he made an erroneous assumption. Seeing that Paul was a Jew, he assumed Paul was in no better position than he when it came to Roman citizenship. Looking at the manacled prisoner, he said, “I had to pay a big price for my citizenship.”

Paul responded, “But I was born a citizen” (verse 28, NIV).

At the time, Roman citizenship was a valuable privilege conferred on those of high standing, those who had performed exceptional service for the empire or those who had paid for citizenship through what amounted to a bribe. The officer had bought his citizenship at great cost. Paul had been born a citizen, probably because an ancestor had been honored with Roman citizenship for service to an administrator or military commander.

Hearing Paul’s response, his questioners withdrew. They were in enough hot water for their abuse of Paul’s rights as a Roman. The commander realized his dilemma. But what he didn’t know was the entire scenario lay in the hands of God and that Christ’s apostle, Paul, would serve as a witness for Him not only to the highest levels of government in Rome but to us 2,000 years later.

Profiling Paul

We have many ways of approaching a profile of the apostle, and it is difficult to squeeze into one article even the highlights of a tumultuous life that fills most of the book of Acts and much of the rest of the New Testament.

In this article we concentrate on understanding why and how Paul conducted himself within the diverse cultures of the Roman Empire. We’ll gain an overview of the many cultural, educational and religious factors that shaped a powerful servant of God.

When you read the book of Acts and Paul’s letters, this perspective can serve as a backdrop and perhaps help you better understand why Paul was “all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22 1 Corinthians 9:22To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
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).

Paul’s formative years

In the New Testament, more of Paul’s writings were preserved than those of any other writer. But who was he? Where did he come from? What was his family background, his education? What did he look like?

Reading a little of the context pertinent to these questions can help us understand God’s work with His disciples in general, and Paul in particular.

Paul had been a Pharisee, a member of one of the strictest Jewish sects. He considered himself the most zealous, rigorous and careful of all Pharisees.

His given name was Saul, the same as Israel’s first king more than 1,000 years earlier. Like that Saul, the apostle was from the Israelite tribe of Benjamin. He later became better known by his other name, Paul. Many factors in his background—his family, intelligence, hometown, Roman citizenship, education and zeal—appear to have marked him for God’s use.
The city of Tarsus, where Paul was brought up, was the capital of Cilicia, then a part of the province of Syria. It was a metropolis of its time and in many senses a free city of the Roman Empire. It was situated on both sides of the River Cydnus, built on a spacious plain bounded by rolling hills. Beyond the hills rose the majestic snow-covered Taurus Mountains.

Tarsus was one of the great cities of the empire. The Greek geographer Strabo said that, when it came to philosophy and general education, Tarsus was more illustrious than either Athens or Alexandria. At the crossroads where East meets West, Tarsus was home of major gentile communities as well as a considerable Jewish colony.

Family and education

Paul was not merely a resident of the distinguished city of Tarsus, he was a Roman citizen. “To the Roman his citizenship was his passport in distant lands, his talisman in seasons of difficulties and danger. It shielded him alike from the caprice of municipal law and the injustice of local magistrates” (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1986, Vol. 3, “Paul, the Apostle,” p. 2273).

Paul’s family apparently had lived in Tarsus for generations because his ancestors “had been planted in Tarsus as part of a colony with full municipal rights” (ibid.). The Jews’ dispersion and subsequent migrations dated back some 500 years, through the successive empires of Babylon, Persia, Greece and finally Rome.

His cultural environment outside the Jewish colony in Tarsus was awash in Greek thought and education and ruled by the Romans, who themselves incorporated much Greek culture into their own.

Paul was educated. His schooling probably began in a room attached to a synagogue and culminated in Jerusalem, where he sat at the feet of the renowned Jewish teacher Gamaliel (Acts 22:3 Acts 22:3I am truly a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as you all are this day.
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).

The learned Rabban (an eminent title) Gamaliel was Paul’s tutor in the law. Gamaliel had a great reputation among all the people of Jerusalem. He showed the capacity to rise above the bigotry of the Pharisees (Acts 5:34-39 Acts 5:34-39 34 Then stood there up one in the council, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people, and commanded to put the apostles forth a little space; 35 And said to them, You men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do as touching these men. 36 For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nothing. 37 After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed. 38 And now I say to you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nothing: 39 But if it be of God, you cannot overthrow it; lest haply you be found even to fight against God.
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). Paul’s training in Jerusalem under Gamaliel helped equip Paul to serve God.

Paul spoke Aramaic, Hebrew and likely Greek and possibly Latin. “The city [Tarsus] gave him a schooling in his social, political, intellectual, moral, and religious life, but in varying degrees. It was because Tarsus was a cosmopolitan city with ‘an amalgamated society’ that it possessed the peculiar suitability to educate and mold [Paul’s] mind” (ibid.).

Paul was, in effect, a citizen of the world, equipped to mix with Jew or gentile.

Unimpressive in appearance

Indications are that Paul was not a man of impressive size. His Roman name, Paul, means “little.” A secular and unflattering tradition has it that he was baldheaded, bowlegged and short but strongly built, with eyebrows that met over a large nose.

The Bible, however, isn’t clear about Paul’s physical appearance since God focused more on His servants’ spiritual condition, teaching and service. Paul was a giant in those areas.

At Lystra, after Paul’s participation in a miraculous healing, the natives took Barnabas for Zeus and Paul for Hermes because Paul “was the chief speaker” (Acts 14:12 Acts 14:12And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker.
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). Apparently Barnabas had the more impressive appearance. In Malta, the natives first thought Paul was a murderer, then changed their minds, thinking he was a god since he didn’t die after a serpent bit him (Acts 28:4-6 Acts 28:4-6 4 And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffers not to live. 5 And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. 6 However, they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.
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).

Enemies at Corinth sneered at Paul’s bodily presence, which apparently was in contrast to his powerfully written letters (2 Corinthians 10:10 2 Corinthians 10:10For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.
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). Their reaction to Paul indicates his looks were anything but impressive. Besides his natural appearance, he probably had suffered scars and other disfigurements from his many beatings (2 Corinthians 11:23-27 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 23 Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. 24 Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. 25 Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 In journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by my own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brothers; 27 In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
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).

A thorn in the flesh

In 2 Corinthians 12:7 2 Corinthians 12:7And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
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Paul mentions his “thorn in the flesh,” referring to an infirmity, mental or physical, that causes a person trouble. Although Paul doesn’t explain what this was, it might have been poor eyesight.

Paul apparently refers to a vision problem in his letter to the Galatians. “For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me” (Galatians 4:15 Galatians 4:15Where is then the blessedness you spoke of? for I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me.
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).

In the same epistle he writes, “See with what large letters I have written to you with my own hand!” (Galatians 6:11 Galatians 6:11You see how large a letter I have written to you with my own hand.
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).

Although some argue that “large letters” refers to a long epistle, the original Greek wording denotes sprawling, untidy letters, written by someone who was not a scribe by trade. Also, the letter to the Galatians is not long.

If poor or deteriorating eyesight was the problem Paul alluded to, such a condition must have frustrated him, given his zeal for God and his drive to spread the gospel of Christ.

But Paul, with his faith in God and Christ, bore up under his infirmities: “From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus” (Galatians 6:17 Galatians 6:17From now on let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.
American King James Version×
).

From a spiritual standpoint, God was pleased with the way Paul appeared, for God looks on the heart, not the outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:7 1 Samuel 16:7But the LORD said to Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.
American King James Version×
). Based on the record we have of Paul’s life, we can safely say his outward scars showed monumental inward faith in God.

Paul’s natural abilities

Paul was known for his zeal. As a young man he was a formidable foe of the early Church. The hard-hitting Pharisee traveled far and wide to bring Christians to Jerusalem for imprisonment, interrogation and even death (Acts 26:10-11 Acts 26:10-11 10 Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. 11 And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even to strange cities.
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).

God, however, had other plans. He channeled Paul’s zeal to His service. In God’s service Paul served as scholar, sage, statesman, seer and saint. He had heart, imagination, sensitivity and a strong will. He was courageous, sincere, subtle, humorous and tactful. He had vast leadership abilities and a gift of expression.

Paul was also a gifted thinker. He examined ideas and opinions logically, often with questions and answers, to determine their validity. He was keenly analytical and an expert expositor of the Scriptures.
His sharp mind caught the attention of many, including rulers and other government officials. Nowhere is this more evident than when he was accused of the Jews while a prisoner in Caesarea (Acts 25-26). During that time he was restrained in bonds, the Jews hoping to have him delivered to their judgment in Jerusalem. Instead, God allowed him a day in court with Felix, the governor—and later with his successor, Festus, as well as King Agrippa and Queen Bernice.

All of these rulers, and especially the latter, were at least partially persuaded to consider the truth of God’s Word through Paul’s inspired explanations of the Scriptures. King Agrippa replied to Paul’s incisive exposition, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian” (Acts 26:28 Acts 26:28Then Agrippa said to Paul, Almost you persuade me to be a Christian.
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).

Paul’s gifts from God

Paul had his share of spiritual gifts. He understood prophecy and could explain it well. God granted him visions and other revelations, including a vision of “the third heaven,” to God’s throne in “Paradise” (2 Corinthians 12:1-4 2 Corinthians 12:1-4 1 It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knows;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knows;) 4 How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.
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).

God worked miracles by the hands of Paul (Acts 14:8-10 Acts 14:8-10 8 And there sat a certain man at Lystra, weak in his feet, being a cripple from his mother’s womb, who never had walked: 9 The same heard Paul speak: who steadfastly beholding him, and perceiving that he had faith to be healed, 10 Said with a loud voice, Stand upright on your feet. And he leaped and walked.
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; 16:18; 19:11-12; 28:8-9). He even raised a young man to life after he had died in a fall (Acts 20:9-12 Acts 20:9-12 9 And there sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus, being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead. 10 And Paul went down, and fell on him, and embracing him said, Trouble not yourselves; for his life is in him. 11 When he therefore was come up again, and had broken bread, and eaten, and talked a long while, even till break of day, so he departed. 12 And they brought the young man alive, and were not a little comforted.
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).

Among Paul’s spiritual gifts, few were as dear to him as his calling (Acts 9:15 Acts 9:15But the Lord said to him, Go your way: for he is a chosen vessel to me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel:
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). Paul reported he had seen the resurrected Christ (1 Corinthians 15:8 1 Corinthians 15:8And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.
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).

Paul was also a gifted teacher. He wrote at least 13 epistles preserved in the New Testament. His insights give us broad understanding of the rest of the Scriptures and reveal deep spiritual principles.

When studying Paul’s writings we should consider them in the context of the entire Bible. After all, as Jesus said, we are to live by every word of God (Matthew 4:4 Matthew 4:4But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.
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). Many well-meaning Bible students have difficulty understanding Paul’s writings. The apostle Peter called his writings complex and easy to “twist,” and some people had come to erroneous and dangerous conclusions because they were unskilled in the truth (2 Peter 3:15-16 2 Peter 3:15-16 15 And account that the long-suffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given to him has written to you; 16 As also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction.
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).

Apostle to the gentiles

A major part of Paul’s service to God included his calling as an apostle to the gentiles (Romans 11:13 Romans 11:13For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify my office:
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; Ephesians 3:8 Ephesians 3:8To me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ;
American King James Version×
). Although the other apostles carried the gospel primarily to the descendants of the tribes of Israel, Paul was chosen for the huge responsibility of taking God’s truth to gentiles.
Most Bible students know that God’s truth and the gospel first went to the “Jew”—or, more broadly, to the Israelite—and then to the gentile (Romans 1:16 Romans 1:16For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God to salvation to every one that believes; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.
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). With Paul, God began to carry out His original intention for peoples to know Him, His truth and His laws and ultimately to experience God’s peace and prosperity. Although relatively few are called and understand His truth now, God’s original intent will not come about until Christ returns and establishes the Kingdom of God on earth—when peace will begin to pervade the world (Isaiah 2:2-4 Isaiah 2:2-4 2 And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. 3 And many people shall go and say, Come you, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
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; Hebrews 8:10-12 Hebrews 8:10-12 10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, said the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: 11 And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. 12 For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.
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; Zechariah 14:8-9 Zechariah 14:8-9 8 And it shall be in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem; half of them toward the former sea, and half of them toward the hinder sea: in summer and in winter shall it be. 9 And the LORD shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one LORD, and his name one.
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, 11).

God specifically chose Paul to begin the work of making all people into spiritual Israelites (Romans 2:28-29 Romans 2:28-29 28 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: 29 But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
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; Galatians 6:15-16 Galatians 6:15-16 15 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision avails any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. 16 And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and on the Israel of God.
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). God drafted His great plan before He began the age of man on earth (2 Timothy 1:9 2 Timothy 1:9Who has saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began,
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). God didn’t send just anyone to the rest of the world, beyond the scattered nation of Israel. He sent a converted Israelite, skilled in the ways of God, who had grown up in the understanding of the gentiles’ culture as well. God used Paul as an instrument to open doors to gentiles in a much broader way. As a result, all peoples have the opportunity and privilege to become spiritual Israelites. God used Paul, although Paul acknowledged the credit goes to God.

A faithful servant awaits his crown

The disputes that brought Paul into conflict with Jewish religious and Roman civil authorities eventually brought Paul to Rome, the heart of the mighty empire. He wrote several of his epistles while a prisoner there. He was first held under house arrest but was free to receive visitors (Acts 28:16-31 Acts 28:16-31 16 And when we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard: but Paul was suffered to dwell by himself with a soldier that kept him. 17 And it came to pass, that after three days Paul called the chief of the Jews together: and when they were come together, he said to them, Men and brothers, though I have committed nothing against the people, or customs of our fathers, yet was I delivered prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans. 18 Who, when they had examined me, would have let me go, because there was no cause of death in me. 19 But when the Jews spoke against it, I was constrained to appeal to Caesar; not that I had ought to accuse my nation of. 20 For this cause therefore have I called for you, to see you, and to speak with you: because that for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain. 21 And they said to him, We neither received letters out of Judaea concerning you, neither any of the brothers that came showed or spoke any harm of you. 22 But we desire to hear of you what you think: for as concerning this sect, we know that every where it is spoken against. 23 And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening. 24 And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not. 25 And when they agreed not among themselves, they departed, after that Paul had spoken one word, Well spoke the Holy Ghost by Esaias the prophet to our fathers, 26 Saying, Go to this people, and say, Hearing you shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing you shall see, and not perceive: 27 For the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. 28 Be it known therefore to you, that the salvation of God is sent to the Gentiles, and that they will hear it. 29 And when he had said these words, the Jews departed, and had great reasoning among themselves. 30 And Paul dwelled two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in to him, 31 Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.
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). Even under those circumstances he could exercise considerable influence, to the point that some in the emperor’s household were converted to Christianity through his teaching (Philippians 4:22 Philippians 4:22All the saints salute you, chiefly they that are of Caesar’s household.
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).

His captors eventually released him, but he was imprisoned again. His situation grew increasingly grim as Christians began to experience persecution throughout the empire. This time he was held in prison and sentenced to death.

At one point Paul thought Jesus would return in his lifetime (1 Thessalonians 4:15 1 Thessalonians 4:15For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain to the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.
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, 17). Later he realized Christ would not return in his day. Yet he was confident that a crown of life was reserved for him, to be given him at his resurrection to eternal life.

Paul’s words to Timothy remain a great source of encouragement for Christians of all ages: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8 2 Timothy 4:7-8 7 I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: 8 From now on there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but to all them also that love his appearing.
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, NIV).

When you read Paul’s letters in the Bible and the account of his ministry in Acts, remember this thumbnail sketch of Paul to better understand why he could be all things to all men.

Keep in mind why God chose and used Paul. It was because He knew Paul was capable of remaining a faithful servant to the end: “…He is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15 Acts 9:15But the Lord said to him, Go your way: for he is a chosen vessel to me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel:
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).