Paul’s “Desert Years”

To fully understand Paul’s knowledge of the mystery and how he could claim to not have received it from the Twelve, we need to do a little detective work.  We already know about the miraculous appearance of Christ to Paul on the road to Damascus.  We know that immediately thereafter he argued “many days” so successfuly that Jesus was the Christ with the Jews in the synagogues in Damascus that they tried to kill him.  He escaped from Damascus and immediately went to Jerusalem, where he tried to associate with the church there, and continued to debate with the leaders of the synagogues with much the same result.  Christ appeared to him in a vision again, and insisted that he “get out of Dodge.”  This was apparently not what Christ had in mind, for He told Paul that He would send him “far away to the Gentiles.”  The brethren then sent him back to his home town of Tarsus for his own safety.  But how did he get to Antioch, and how long was it before he departed with Barnabas on his first missionary journey?

Here we must be careful. Luke’s record in Acts gives some details for the next “many days”, but by 9:32 his narrative shifts back to Peter and his visit to Cornelius. Paul doesn’t reappear until the end of the 11th chapter, and Luke’s full focus doesn’t return to Paul until the 13th chapter. A lot transpires in Paul’s life in the meantime. Where is Paul during that time, and what is he doing?

Here’s an outline of the details from these passages.  As always, you should check my work for yourself against the Scriptures as the believers in Berea did!

  • Jerusalem persecution following Stephen’s death drove Gospel to  Phoenecia, Cyprus and Antioch
  • Gospel was spoken to the Jews only, not to Gentiles
  • Some Jewish believers from Cyprus and Cyrene began preaching to Gentiles in Antioch
  • The Lord approved and gave them success among the Gentiles
  • News of Gentile acceptance reached the church in Jerusalem
  • The church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch to investigate
  • Barnabas saw that the Gospel among the Gentile believers in Antioch was approved by God
  • Barnabas encouraged them
  • Many believers were added to the church in Antioch
  • There were so many new believers that Barnabas needed help teaching them, and he went to Tarsus to find Saul
  • Barabas brought Saul back to Antioch with him
  • They taught the new believers in Antioch for a whole year
  • The prophet Agabus (and others) came from Jerusalem and predicted a world-wide famine
  • The believers in Antioch took up a collection for the poor in Judea
  • Barnabas and Saul delivered the collection to the elders in Jerusalem
  • They were apparently in Jerusalem when Herod beheaded James and tried to imprison Peter, and when Herod died (12:1-24)
  • Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch when they had delivered the collection, bringing John Mark with them

We are so used to reading through this passage without thinking that we have lost all sense of the amount of time that must have passed.  While Saul was pursuing the persecution to Damascus, believers were fleeing as far as the islands of Cyprus and Cyrene, the regions to the northwest of Galilee (Phoenecia, and the cities of Tyre and Sidon), and to Antioch in Syria, far to the north of Jerusalem and Israel.  Although this exodus from Palestine may have been sudden, it certainly would have taken at least weeks to accomplish.  It needed time to “take hold” in Cyprus and Cyrene before they would be ready and able to send missionaries to Antioch.  Once they had preached in Antioch to Gentiles, time passed before the news would have reached Jerusalem.  Anywhere from six months to two years could have elapsed before the Jerusalem church decided to send Barnabas to investigate.  Where was Paul all this time?  Escaping from Damascus and Jerusalem, and living in Tarsus!

It’s important to note here that the believers who were scattered under the persecution begun when Stephen was martyred preached the Gospel only to fellow Jews.  They were operating under the Great Commission, according to Israel’s prophetic promises and program!  Once they began preaching to Gentiles, do you think they altered their message according to the revelations Paul had received?  No!  They hadn’t even met Paul yet!  These new Gentile believers were under the same program as the Jerusalem church, unaware of the mystery that would be revealed through Paul.  They were, in effect, a new breed of Jewish proselyte — they were what I will call messianic proselytes.  It isn’t until Chapter 15 that we find these Gentile believers released from the Jewish rules and rituals of the Jerusalem church, at Paul’s urging.

Once Barnabas arrived (a two-week journey at least), he had to remain there long enough to really grasp what was happening and understand that it was God at work in the midst of these Gentiles.  Then he had to be there long enough for their numbers to grow sufficiently that he realized he needed help.  With that realization, he had to travel to Tarsus and back, with Saul in tow, probably another two-week journey.  And it could have taken a week in Tarsus to find Saul.  Potentially another two months has passed.  Then both Barnabas and Saul remained in Antioch teaching the new Gentile believers for an entire year. 

Sometime toward the end of that year, Agabus came from Jerusalem predicting world-wide famine.  More time was required for the Antioch church to get the idea of gathering a collection for the poor in Judea, and then more time was needed to actually gather it.  (Has your church ever gathered a collection for a specific mission project?  Is it as simple as passing the offering plate once on a given Sunday morning?  Usually not!)  Then Paul and Barnabas would have taken up to three weeks to deliver the offering to the elders in Jerusalem.  If Luke’s order of events implies that Barnabas and Saul were in Jerusalem during Herod’s activity, they may have been there for a week or two, and the return journey to Antioch might have taken another three weeks.

All of a sudden it becomes apparent that the events described by Luke in a mere 13 verses actually occurred over a span of two to three years!  The 13th chapter opens with the Holy Spirit setting Barnabas and Saul apart for the first missionary journey.  There is an implied, unspecified time gap between the end of Chapter 12 and the beginning of Chapter 13.  Luke’s language suggests that he is embarking on a whole new series of events.  There is no suggestion that “immediately upon their return from Jerusalem” the Holy Spirit told them to set Barnabas and Saul apart.  So here is a potential gap that is difficult — if not impossible — to estimate.  But here is one line of reasoning…

In addition to Luke’s historical accounts in the Book of Acts, Paul himself alludes to revelations he received in the 11th and 12th chapters of II Corinthians. The Corinthian believers were being turned against Paul by some self-aggrandizing leaders, and he was forced to defend his apostleship to people who should have known better – much against his humble desires.  In this two-chapter passage, Paul gives the Corinthians three validations of his apostleship, each greater than the previous: (1) his scholastic credentials as a pharisee, (2) his labors for the Gospel in spite of dangers, and (3) direct revelations received from Jesus Christ in person.  It is this second validation, the dangers he faced, that is of immediate interest to us.

Paul’s labors for the Gospel listed in this passage are interesting because most of them had to have taken place before the writing of the second letter to Corinth. Written near the end of his third missionary journey in about AD 58, the events and dangers Paul lists all had to have happened before the events of his arrest in Jerusalem, imprisonment in Judea, and transport to Rome. Luke only accounts for one stoning in Lystra (Acts 14:9), and being beaten with rods and imprisoned once.  What’s more, Paul begins his third validation, a man “caught up to the third heaven”, by setting the time at “fourteen years ago.” If Conybeare and Howson’s reckoning of when II Corinthians was written (AD 58) is reasonably correct, the experience Paul described would probably have happened in AD 44.  If Jesus was crucified at the age of 33 and was born in about 2 BC, Stephen’s martyrdom had to happen in about AD 32.  Paul’s vision, related in II Corinthians, had to take place twelve years after Paul’s conversion.  If it happened after the physical dangers Paul described in II Corinthians, there is a twelve year gap between Acts 12:25 and Acts 13:1!

What was Paul doing during those twelve years?  We simply don’t know, other than the fact that at the start of the first missionary journey he is still in Antioch and is still with Barnabas — and John Mark – and that he has experienced extensive revelations directly from the Risen Lord.  In the next post we’ll take a closer look at those revelations.

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