I don’t know that a complete biography of Paul is necessary to understand the contents of Romans, but at least some background is helpful, and I may as well let Paul introduce himself. When speaking to King Agrippa after one of his arrests, he said:
All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, which was spent from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem. They have known me for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest sect of our religion I lived as a Pharisee. … In fact, I myself was convinced that it was necessary to do many things in opposition to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. I actually did this in Jerusalem, and I locked up many of the saints in prison, since I had received authority for that from the chief priests. When they were put to death, I was in agreement against them. In all the synagogues I often punished them and tried to make them blaspheme. Since I was terribly enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities. (Acts 26:4, 5, 9-11)
Before the Bible introduces us to Paul in Acts 8—better known at the time as Saul from Tarsus (Ac 9:11)—he was a well-educated Jewish boy, trained at the feet of Gamaliel, who was the grandson of the renowned rabbi Hillel (Ac 22:3). Gamaliel himself had the notable reputation of being “the beauty of the law” because he personified Israel’s understanding of God’s law. Under Gamaliel’s mentorship in Jerusalem, Paul learned the strictness of the Jews’ ancestral law, becoming zealous for God as an adult.
Paul was born a citizen of Rome, which carried many benefits well beyond the borders of Israel (Ac 22:28). Once his education in Jerusalem was complete, he likely returned home to Tarsus and became a local synagogue leader. He was a Hebrew born of Hebrews, and regarding the law, a Pharisee (Php 3:5). In short, he was a staunch legalist entirely committed to every detail of God’s law, not to mention the Pharisees’ many traditions.
I suspect Paul was in Tarsus, not Jerusalem, during Jesus’s public ministry because he did not meet Jesus until after Jesus’s death and resurrection. If he had still lived in Israel at the time, he would have undoubtedly been involved in the controversies surrounding Jesus. Instead, Christ had already ascended into heaven before Paul arrives on the scene. The biblical narrative doesn’t mention him until the death of the church’s first martyr, Stephen. Luke writes:
Saul agreed with putting him to death.
On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and mourned deeply over him. Saul, however, was ravaging the church. He would enter house after house, drag off men and women, and put them in prison. (Acts 8:1-3)
Paul, however, didn’t stop at persecuting Christians in Israel. His hatred against the church was too intense.
Still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, he went to the high priest and requested letters from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1, 2)
Nearing the end of that 160-mile journey to Damascus:
a light from heaven suddenly flashed around him. Falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul said.
“I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting,” he replied. “But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the sound but seeing no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing. So they took him by the hand and led him into Damascus. He was unable to see for three days and did not eat or drink. (Acts 9:3-9)
Years later, Paul would look back on that experience and write:
I give thanks to Christ Jesus our Lord who has strengthened me, because he considered me faithful, appointing me to the ministry— even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an arrogant man. But I received mercy because I acted out of ignorance in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them. But I received mercy for this reason, so that in me, the worst of them, Christ Jesus might demonstrate his extraordinary patience as an example to those who would believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:12-16)
Once Paul regained his sight and was baptized, he began proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues (Ac 9:17, 20). Keep in mind that he was preaching Christ to the same men for whom he originally intended to persecute Christians in the area. They could hardly believe it, asking “Isn’t this the man in Jerusalem who was causing havoc for those who called on this name and came here for the purpose of taking them as prisoners to the chief priests?” (Ac 9:21). It wasn’t long before his former conspirators against the church were trying to kill him, so his disciples took him by night and lowered him in a large basket through an opening in the wall (Ac 9:25).
According to Galatians, Paul did not immediately go up to Jerusalem to those who had become apostles before him; instead, he went to Arabia, where he spent three years receiving “a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:17, 18, 12). In other words, he received similar training to that of the other apostles. Christ was his teacher.
Unsurprisingly, when Paul finally arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, since they did not believe he was a disciple (Ac 9:26). Though he disappeared for three years, his violent reputation was still fresh in the church’s mind. Barnabas, however, brought him to the apostles and persuaded them that his conversion was genuine (Ac 9:27).
Paul spoke boldly in the name of the Lord while he was in Jerusalem (Ac 9:28). He also conversed and debated with the Hellenistic Jews until they turned against him and began plotting his execution (9:29). The persecutor became the persecuted. When his Christian brothers found out about the conspiracy against Paul, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus, his home town (Ac 9:30).
Meanwhile, a large number of both Jews and Gentiles had believed and turned to the Lord in Antioch (Ac 11:21). The news prompted the church in Jerusalem to send Barnabas to teach and guide them, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith (Ac 11:22, 24). Soon after, Barnabas tracked down Paul in Tarsus, and together they returned to Antioch, met with the church, and taught large numbers for a whole year (Ac 11:25, 26).
With the Antioch church now established, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Ac 13:2). It was time for Paul to begin his Jesus-ordained mission to go to the Gentiles throughout the known world and open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified by faith in Christ alone (Ac 26:17, 18).
Paul certainly answered his calling. He became one of God’s most powerful instruments in the salvation of countless people from then until now. Paul would later describe his ministry to the church in Corinth this way:
Everything is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and he has committed the message of reconciliation to us.
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God.” He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-21)