What Paul received from Gamaliel was a thoroughly trained mind. He was overall the most gifted man of his time, not taking into account Jesus of Nazareth. Paul learned to think critically and to distinguish between things that matter—a true mark of an educated mind. His ambition led him to surpass many of his fellow pupils (Galatians 1:14).
Saul progressed well in his studies at Jerusalem, and soon came to a position of prominence there. Possibly Gamaliel looked at his prize student and saw him as his successor. Saul became so important that when Christians were being tried for their faith, he was in a position to ‘cast his vote’ against them, either in a synagogue assembly or in the supreme council of the Jews, the Sanhedrin. If a member of the Sanhedrin, he most likely became one after the crucifixion of Jesus since he makes no mention of casting a vote against Christ. Membership was not allowed before age thirty.
Saul, whose namesake was the first king of Israel and the most famous person of the tribe of Benjamin, might have taken a keen interest in “endless genealogies” and the family trees of the Jews of his time. He knew the pride of race, the heritage of a long and noble ancestry that reached far back into the distant centuries. The Jew had enough in his history to give him some right to be proud as reflected when the apostle wrote of the people of Israel:
Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen. (Romans 9:4-5).
Young Saul was proud and boastful! God was about to use these traits for His own glory. Other men have traveled and other men wrote, but none performed both these services to the new faith to the extend he did. Of all the followers of Jesus, none made so great a contribution to the thinking of mankind as Paul.
Saul was overwhelmingly devoted to Judaism, then to Jesus Christ. His tremendous commitment made him appear arrogant to others. His ministry was plagued with contention from Jews, pagans and sometimes from Christian congregations. Paul’s tenaciousness made his ministry possible and helped forge Christianity into the kind of revolutionary movement it became.
Saul’s family was probably small. He never mentions his mother and we only know of one sibling, a sister, for when he was arrested by the Romans in Jerusalem, a nephew of his, the son of his sister was residing there. He never married, believing singleness gave him a greater opportunity to serve Christ.
The only description of Paul comes from an early document (possibly of the first century) that describes him as:
Baldheaded, bowlegged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose, full of grace, for at times he looked like a man and at times he had the face of angel.
At Lystra the natives took Barnabas for Jupiter (the chief god) and Paul for Hermes (spokesmen of Jupiter), “because he was the chief speaker” (Acts 14:12), showing that Barnabas had more impressive appearance, while Paul was his spokesman. His enemies at Corinth sneered at the weakness of his bodily presence, saying, “In person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing” (2 Corinthians 10:9). Even Paul wrote, “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.” He also wrote in Galatians 4:13-14:
As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself (Galatians 4:13-14).
That Dr. Luke was a traveling companion of Paul might indicate he suffered from some physical infirmity that left his body scarred and deformed. Some scholars believe he was almost blind. One of the more fascinating descriptions comes 2 Corinthians 12:7:
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.
Whatever Paul lacked in physical attributes, he made up in determination. This Jewish-Roman citizen was a thinker of the first order, a man with a penetrating mind, well versed in the OT. A brilliant intellect and iron will made Saul of Tarsus relentless in his pursuits.
He was committed to the goal of taking hold “that which Christ took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12). In spite of tremendous obstacles (2 Corinthians 11:1-12:10), Paul testified near the end of his life:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7).
Like the Lord Jesus, the apostle could be tender and loving, yet bold and confrontive. He corrected, rebuked and encouraged with great patience and careful instruction. The tendency is to portray Paul as narrow, a chauvinistic zealot, an idealist more concerned with theology than with people. This image could hardly be more distorted. For Paul was a person who modeled, not just preached, Jesus’ transforming love—Christ lived in Him.
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).
While Paul mellowed in his old age, he never lost the boldness to confront friends and enemies. The very name of “Saul” struck terror into the hearts of the first Christians.