Saint Paul was a gifted exegete and a prophet. A man of many talents, he possessed an intimate knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. As such, he used the Law, the prophets, and the psalms when he preached to argue that Jesus was the Messiah.
Paul also viewed his own life through the prism of the Sacred Writings, and it was through the Word that he came to understand his own prophetic calling. Upon meeting Jesus face to face on the road to Damascus, he straightaway journeyed into Arabia to meditate on the Scriptures so he could understand the encounter he had had with the Risen One.
But when [God], who from my mother’s womb had set me apart and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; rather, I went into Arabia, and then returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem. … (Galatians 1:17-18)
The Holy Spirit led Paul into the desert to prepare him for his ministry as an apostle. And Paul was more than an apostle — he was a prophet, like the other great biblical prophets: Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist. They all went through a period of preparation and purification in the wilderness (at the urging of the Spirit) before they began their missions.
The Apostle was aware of the divine nature of his calling. In Galatians 1:15 he portrays himself to be like the prophet Jeremiah, set apart to preach the word of the Lord before he was conceived.
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you (Jeremiah 1:5).
Paul was more than a prophet. His calling by the Lord ordained him to be a missionary to the new people of God. Returning from Arabia, he stepped across the threshold of the synagogue in Damascus to preach Christ crucified and risen.
In essence, Paul was thinking: What should I do? Return to my former life in Judaism, as a Pharisee and respected religious leader? Or should I go into the religious houses of study and worship and proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God? I could go back to the High Priest in Jerusalem and work things out. I have committed no unforgiveable offense, did not break the law. I got ambushed out there on the road and sidetracked in my mission to arrest these men and women who follow the Way. Caiaphas and Annas will understand. What should I do?
The Acts of the Apostles reports Saint Paul’s answer to the great question on his mind: “He began at once to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God” (9:20).
What is God promising me? A life of persecution and mistreatment, of tireless preaching, peril, and temporal hungers, humiliation and persecution. How can I refuse?
Paul’s answer to his calling, his very own fiat, became the basis for the New Testament, the fundamental theology on which the entire Roman Catholic Church has been constructed. In that instance when he returned from Arabia to Damascus, Paul straddled his past and his future, even the fate of the world. This short period is one of the most important moments in history: the conversion of Saul from zealous persecutor of the Church to the Apostle and indefatigable evangelizer. Paul received religious instruction directly from Jesus, the source of love and life himself. Now he had only to pay his debt to Christ, to pass on the faith to everyone he met. He didn’t do this out of fear but out of obligation and out of love.
If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it! (1 Corinthians 16).
image: Statue of St. Paul, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, Rome.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared on CE in Aug 2010. It is republished in celebration of the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, which occurred this last Saturday.