Chronology of the Apostle Paul's Life
The letter to the Galatians is an appeal by Paul to churches in the Roman province of Galatia to resist the movement to abandon the system of salvation that saves one by faith in Christ (expressed in repentance and baptism), and adopt a system of salvation whereby one is justified by the keeping of the Law (expressed in circumcision, ritual and food law).
The Judaizers were Jewish Christians, formerly Pharisees, who taught that salvation by the keeping of the Law in Jesus' name was the superior way and they were seducing non-Jewish Christians into believing this idea.
Paul is amazed that the Galatians are so quickly moved by this false teaching. He dismissed it as false and rebukes the teachers for having spread it.
The Judaizers claimed special status and tried to discredit Paul as an Apostle. In response, Paul describes his early life and contacts with Peter in order to establish his own credibility and relationship with Peter the Apostle whom the Judaizers accepted and respected.
In our outline we see Paul mentioning three meetings with Peter. These occur over a period of more than fifteen years. The meetings he mentions in Galatians are:
His first meeting with Peter alone to share his conversion experience when he returns to Jerusalem for the first time after becoming a Christian (Galatians 1:10-17).
The second meeting is during the Jerusalem conference to discuss the question of the "Circumcision Party" and a letter is written and sent by Paul to the churches (Galatians 2:1-10).
The third meeting occurs in Antioch when Paul challenges Peter for his hypocrisy in withdrawing his association with the Gentiles for fear of the Circumcision Party (which he condemned in Jerusalem before) (Galatians 2:11-14).
Today, I would like to fit these three meetings into the larger picture of Paul's life and try to reconstruct the events in order of appearance.
There is no orderly chronology of Paul's life in the New Testament. We have to piece together his life from different scriptures and matching historical data from the period.
But Paul said, "I am a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant city; and I beg you, allow me to speak to the people."
- Acts 21:39
Tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:3); Judah and Benjamin were the only two tribes in the southern kingdom. Because of their help to the Roman army, the citizens of the province of Celicia were all granted Roman citizenship. This was a right usually purchased by military people or slaves. It carried advantages of movement, freedom and special protection under Roman law.
This occurred approximately 100 years before Paul was born. This, then, is how Paul, a Jew, could at the same time claim Roman citizenship merely by mentioning the place of his birth. Paul was probably a little younger than Jesus.
"I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God just as you all are today.
- Acts 22:3
He came to Jerusalem at a young age and was educated and trained by Gamaliel. Gamaliel was the grandson of Hillel, a rabbi who held the more lenient view over divorce (School of Shammai was the other). He was a member of the Sanhedrin and argued in favor of the Apostles before the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:33). He was held in such high favor by the Jews that they conferred on him the title of "Rabban" which means our teacher, a higher title than "Rabbi" which means my teacher.
Paul rose in influence himself, having been taught by such a man.
He is the one holding the coats (perhaps in official capacity) when Stephen is stoned to death (Acts 7:54).
Saul begins to persecute the church following the death of Stephen (Acts 9:1-2). He wanted to return to the area which he came from to persecute the church and bring Christians back to Jerusalem for trial and punishment.
3As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; 4and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" 5And he said, "Who are You, Lord?" And He said, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, 6but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do." 7The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. 9And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." And he said, "Here I am, Lord." 11And the Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, 12and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight." 13But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name." 15But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; 16for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name's sake." 17So Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." 18And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized;
19And I said, 'Lord, they themselves understand that in one synagogue after another I used to imprison and beat those who believed in You.
- Acts 9:3-18; 22:19
Note that he heard Jesus' voice. He was blinded and then regained his sight. He learned through prophecy what the Lord was calling him to (preach to the Gentiles). Nevertheless was baptized on order to wash away his sins.
Some say that we, in the churches of Christ, focus too much attention on baptism, but Ananias insisted on it for Paul.
4. Escape from Damascus
19Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, 20and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." 21All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, "Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?" 22But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ.
23When many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him, 24but their plot became known to Saul. They were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death; 25but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a large basket.
- Acts 9:19-25
King Aretas (II Corinthians 11:32) who ruled the region during this time, dies in 40 AD and so we know approximately the time Paul was converted.
nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia,
- Galatians 1:17a
Desert region. Went there to meditate, pray, to be taught and also for safety's sake for he was a hunted man.
6. Return to Damascus
and returned once more to Damascus.
- Galatians 1:17b
7. First meeting with Peter in Jerusalem
Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days.
- Galatians 1:18
Three years after his conversion, he spent two weeks in Jerusalem. He met only with Peter and James to share his experiences but not to receive instructions from them.
After meeting with Peter he spent some time preaching in the area and debated with Hellenists (Jews reared among Greeks in other lands, Greeks who had converted to Judaism). It was the same group with whom Stephen originally debated and who brought him before the Sanhedrin (Stephen was also a Hellenist converted to Christianity). The ones he had plotted with before, he now debates with concerning Christ. These Hellenists begin to plot to murder Saul in the same way, and so he is brought out of the city in Cesarea and then back to Tarsus.
8. Syria and Cilicia
Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.
- Galatians 1:21
Paul remains in this area for about ten years. He preached in Tarsus. II Corinthians 11:22-27 talks about several things not mentioned in Acts that some believe may have happened during his time in Syria.
22Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. 23Are they servants of Christ? —I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. 24Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. 25Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. 26I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; 27I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.
- II Corinthians 11:22-27
Period of maturing and preparation for his great work among the Gentiles is largely done here.
9. Paul brought to Antioch by Barnabas
19So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. 20But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. 22The news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. 23Then when he arrived and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; 24for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. 25And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul;
- Acts 11:19-25
Gentiles receive Christ in the area and Apostles send Barnabas to work with this group. Barnabas goes to Tarsus and gets Paul to work with him. Paul is used to working with people in that area and culture, Barnabas serves as his mentor.
10. Relief trip for Jerusalem church
27Now at this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28One of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius. 29And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea. 30And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders.
- Acts 11:27-30
Time of persecution, Peter is in hiding (Acts 12:6-17).
11. Return to Antioch
And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, taking along with them John, who was also called Mark.
- Acts 12:25
Bring John Mark back with them from Jerusalem.
12. First missionary journey
Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.
- Acts 13:1
Churches in Galatia are established. Approximately thirteen years after his conversion. God calls, God prepares, God sends.
13. Second meeting with Peter
1Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. 2It was because of a revelation that I went up; and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain. 3But not even Titus, who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. 4But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. 5But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you. 6But from those who were of high reputation (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—well, those who were of reputation contributed nothing to me. 7But on the contrary, seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised 8(for He who effectually worked for Peter in his apostleship to the circumcised effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles), 9and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10They only asked us to remember the poor—the very thing I also was eager to do.
- Galatians 2:1-10
Fourteen years after his original two week visit in Jerusalem with Peter, he returns again to share the results of his work with the church, including Peter.
This was the occasion of the meeting talked about in Acts 15, when the Apostles sent a letter out concerning the Judaizers.
14. Third meeting with Peter
11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. 13The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. 14But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, "If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?
- Galatians 2:11-14
Paul returns to Antioch and some time later Peter visits and this is the conflict over Peter's hypocrisy concerning the Gentiles and the Judaizers.
15. Second missionary journey
After some days Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are."
- Acts 15:36
When he had landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church, and went down to Antioch.
- Acts 18:22
16. Third missionary journey – Acts 18:23-21:16
And having spent some time there, he left and passed successively through the Galatian region and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.
- Acts 18:23
Some of the disciples from Caesarea also came with us, taking us to Mnason of Cyprus, a disciple of long standing with whom we were to lodge.
- Acts 21:16
17. Paul's first imprisonment in Rome (61-63 AD) – Acts 21:17-28:31
After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly.
- Acts 21:17
preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.
- Acts 28:31
He was arrested in Jerusalem and sent to Rome for his hearing before Ceasare. Was then eventually released.
18. Brief freedom and final work with the church (64-66 AD)
5For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you, 6namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion.
- Titus 1:5-6
After his release he visited Crete with Titus and later writes to him to complete the work they had began there together (65 AD).
During this period, Paul did not go to Spain as he had hoped to do when writing to the Roman church years before (Romans 15:28). Instead he chose to revisit churches that he had previously established or encouraged:
- Crete – Titus 1:5
- Ephesus – I Timothy 1:3
- Corinth – II Timothy 4:20
- Miletus – II Timothy 4:20
- Troas – II Timothy 4:13
19. Second imprisonment and death
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.
- II Timothy 4:6
Historians record that the emperor, Nero, was responsible for starting the fire that destroyed the city of Rome in 64 AD (Tacitus – a roman historian eventually converted). He wanted an excuse to rebuild the city and played the fiddle in enjoyment while it burned. In order to divert blame from himself, he accused Christians of setting fire to the city because they considered it an unmoral place.
It was during the following years of persecution that Paul, as a visible Christian leader, was re-arrested and eventually beheaded in 66-67 AD (he died before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD).