Paul was most influential in the developing Church and his letters still have much meaning for us today. To get an idea of Paul's importance, open the New Testament and see the number of pages devoted to Paul.
Pope Benedict declared June 28, 2008 to June 29, 2009 as a jubilee year of Paul. Turkey, a Muslim secular country, is celebrating this year as the anniversary of Paul's birth also.
Although we don't know the exact date of Paul's birth, it was likely between the years 7 and 10. Paul was born in Tarsus and named after the great Hebrew King Saul. He also had the Roman name, Paul. He was a highly educated Pharisee and a Roman citizen.
We first meet Saul at the stoning of Stephen where witnesses laid their garments at Saul's feet (Acts 7:58). Following this killing, approved by Saul (Acts 8:1), he "ravaged the Church, dragging off men and women to prison" (Acts 8:3). Then, he headed to Damascus to continue persecuting.
From being an avid persecutor of Christianity, Paul became an equally tireless worker for Christ. What happened in between, as told in Acts and his epistles, is truly remarkable.
It's amazing to travel present-day Turkey and Greece and see the distances Paul travelled to bring Christ to Jews and Gentiles. With joy in Christ, he endured being rejected, imprisoned and tortured.
Paul's letters to the churches he had established deal with their questions and problems. Therefore, they are not systematic treaties of Church beliefs and teachings. However, they reveal profound insights about Christ and Christ's message, given to him by God.
In Romans, Paul set himself in succession to the great Old Testament men of God. He believed he was called by God as were Abraham, Moses and the prophets. He was henceforth to be a slave of God, the proudest title of these servants of God.
He saw himself as set apart by God and the Church as an apostle to the Gentiles for the service of others, not as the Pharisees who separated themselves in disdain for others. He was chosen, not for honours, but for a task. He received the free gift of grace, a gift he had not earned.
The risen Christ whom Paul encountered was the only reference point for his whole life after. He centred everything on Christ who continues to live through his presence and power.
Some recent commentators use Paul's lack of infancy narratives as proof that those in the Gospels aren't true. It is clear that these do not take into account the fact that Paul never met the earthly Jesus but he did meet the resurrected Christ "who lives in us and we in him," a phrase he used frequently.
I want to mention only a few of the many areas of Christian belief and life that Paul discussed. He insisted that God's grace is a free gift without any merit on humanity's part. He rejected, not the Law of Moses but the belief that by a rigid observance of the law (or by any other method) one can earn God's grace and salvation.
Paul spoke firmly of equality in Christ of Jew and Gentile, male and female. He stressed unity among Christians and the sharing of gifts that were given to build up the community, the body of Christ, his favourite image of the Church.
Paul focused on Christ's work in our salvation and the Holy Spirit in our sanctification. He often told his readers that he prayed for them. He admonished them to devote themselves to prayer, praying without ceasing. In Romans 8:26, he observed that we know not how to pray but that the Holy Spirit prays within us.
Members of Christ
Throughout his letters, Paul presented a positive view of the body as when he said that our bodies are "members of Christ" (1 Corinthians 6:15) and "temples of the Holy Spirit"(1 Corinthians 6:19).
Paul's letters convey beautifully his understanding of Christ's work in us. As they are our earliest New Testament writings, we learn who we are as Church through history. They merit reading and studying individually and in groups.
Take time to read and reflect, using commentaries and attending lectures to help your understanding. For an overview of Paul's missionary work, you might want to begin by reading the Acts of the Apostles.