Gal 5:11 And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased.
Paul, in his earliest known letter, describes exactly why he is persecuted. He claims it is because he does not preach “circumcision”. Circumcision, itself, is a strange and obscure Jewish tradition that stretched back to the time of Moses. It was an action in which the foreskin was removed from newborn boys on the 8th day after they had been born. But the term meant more than that to Paul. Paul, throughout his letters, equates circumcision as the law and uses the terms interchangeably. Paul’s persecutions were primarily because he taught grace without the law.
Modern Christianity likes to paint a picture of Paul being persecuted by the Romans for teaching a personal salvation through the man Jesus Christ. The modern picture shows Paul exalting Jesus as God, and a multitude of accusers decrying alternative gods to the Roman state. The facts could hardly be further from the truth. While, sometimes the Greeks rioted, the majority of Paul’s persecution came from religious Jews. Paul’s gospel was legally protected in the Roman land.
Paul’s first persecution is described in Acts 9:
Act 9:22 But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ.
Act 9:23 And after that many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel to kill him:
Paul (Saul) was teaching that Jesus was the Messiah (Christ) to Jews in Damascus. The Jews were expecting a Messiah that would deliver their people from the Romans. To them, Jesus was a stumbling block. He was not the Messiah they expected. For this reason, they took great offense to the notion that Christ was an obscure criminal crucified by the Romans. In Acts 9, God fearing Jews seek to kill Paul for teaching them Jesus is the Christ.
Paul continues his ministry in Antioch in Pisidia (there are multiple Antiochs in the Bible). In Acts 13 Paul teaches that Jesus is Christ and that people are saved from their sins through Jesus:
Act 13:23 Of this man’s seed hath God according to his promise raised unto Israel a Saviour, Jesus:
Act 13:38 Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins:
Act 13:39 And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.
The God fearing Gentiles (who attended the synagogue) were very receptive to this message:
Act 13:42 And when the Jews were gone out of the synagogue, the Gentiles besought that these words might be preached to them the next sabbath.
This might not be very surprising considering the reason that they are still Gentiles and not Jews is because a full conversion includes circumcision. Paul seems to be offering them a way out. The Gentiles then tell their friends and a large host arrives for the next synagogue meeting:
Act 13:45 But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming.
Religious Jews here are the ones persecuting Paul. It seems they were prepared to hear him out, just seeing large crowds convinced them it would not be a good idea. Perhaps they wanted to maintain a certain image with the people, and Paul was destroying it. They might have suspected he was a threat before and didn’t want to risk his message reaching the masses. Paul reprimands those Jews and informs them that they are hell-bound. Then after he then spreads his teaching (Jesus is Christ and can forgive sins) throughout the entire land, they persecute him:
Act 13:50 But the Jews stirred up the devout and honourable women, and the chief men of the city, and raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them out of their coasts.
Paul goes to Iconium and gets similar results:
Act 14:1 And it came to pass in Iconium, that they went both together into the synagogue of the Jews, and so spake, that a great multitude both of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed.
Act 14:2 But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles, and made their minds evil affected against the brethren.
Unbelieving Jews most likely refers to Jews who did not believe Paul rather than secular Jews who did not believe in God. Like has happened a few times before and will happen in the future, God fearing Jews reject Paul’s Gospel of “Jesus is Christ” and “salvation from sins by faith”.
Paul moves on to Lystra where he heals a lame man. He does this in front of Greek cultists. They immediately claim that Paul is Mercury and Barnabas is Jupiter. The Greeks are not hostile until Jews from Iconia arrive and convince them to stone Paul:
Act 14:19 And there came thither certain Jews from Antioch and Iconium, who persuaded the people, and, having stoned Paul, drew him out of the city, supposing he had been dead.
Jews from Antioch and Iconium are persecuting Paul for this Gospel preaches earlier in Paul’s ministry, but this time it seems they stir up Pagans to do the stoning. Presumable the Greeks would try to execute him for atheism (not believing in the Greek gods).
Paul then has a confrontation with believing Jews about the need to be circumcised to be saved:
Act 15:1 And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.
Act 15:2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.
Notice that the men saw the apostles and elders as authorities, whose words would determine what is right and wrong. Believing Jews wanted the law preached as well. Upon getting to Jerusalem, Paul confronts more believing Jews who want the same thing:
Act 15:5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.
After the matter is brought to the apostles a decision is made (Paul’s ministry of faith without the law is affirmed by the apostles). Paul then travels to Philippi and the Gentiles beat him after he casts out a demon of a fortune teller. The reason the crowd beat him is due to his teaching:
Act 16:20 And brought them to the magistrates, saying, These men, being Jews, do exceedingly trouble our city,
Act 16:21 And teach customs, which are not lawful for us to receive, neither to observe, being Romans.
Act 16:22 And the multitude rose up together against them: and the magistrates rent off their clothes, and commanded to beat them.
This is the first time religious Jews are not involved in Paul’s persecution. Paul was teaching customs, this was not the customs of the Jewish law but the customs refraining from pagan gods. It does not say anywhere that Paul taught to Jews here. Philippi might not have had a large Jewish congregation. Contrast how this city is treated to the next city they visit, Thessalonica:
Act 17:1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews:
Act 17:2 And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures,
Act 17:3 Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.
Act 17:4 And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few.
Act 17:5 But the Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people.
Here again Paul is preaching to religious Jews and God-fear Gentiles. Again the gentiles are receptive but the Jews seek to harm him. He the flees to Berea where the Jews and Gentiles are both receptive, but then Jews from Thessalonica come and stir up the people:
Act 17:10 And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews.
Act 17:11 These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.
Act 17:12 Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few.
Act 17:13 But when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was preached of Paul at Berea, they came thither also, and stirred up the people.
Paul goes to Athens, where no persecution takes place, and then goes to Corinth and preaches for a year and six months until religious Jews seek to have him disposed via the legal system:
Act 18:12 And when Gallio was the deputy of Achaia, the Jews made insurrection with one accord against Paul, and brought him to the judgment seat,
Act 18:13 Saying, This fellow persuadeth men to worship God contrary to the law.
Act 18:14 And when Paul was now about to open his mouth, Gallio said unto the Jews, If it were a matter of wrong or wicked lewdness, O ye Jews, reason would that I should bear with you:
Act 18:15 But if it be a question of words and names, and of your law, look ye to it; for I will be no judge of such matters.
Act 18:16 And he drave them from the judgment seat.
Act 18:17 Then all the Greeks took Sosthenes, the chief ruler of the synagogue, and beat him before the judgment seat. And Gallio cared for none of those things.
Their complaint was that he taught contrary to the law. This was the Old Testament law, as Gallio makes clear when he finds no criminal violations in Paul. He then turns Paul over to the Jews, who beat him. Paul goes on preaching and eventually winds up at Ephesus. At first he preaches in the synagogues but eventually is forced out and disputes instead in the school of Tyrannus. Eventually everyone in Asia has heard of his message, so much so that the idol crafters begin fearing for their jobs and decided to start a riot.
Act 19:29 And the whole city was filled with confusion: and having caught Gaius and Aristarchus, men of Macedonia, Paul’s companions in travel, they rushed with one accord into the theatre.
Although Paul was not present in the theater, his companions were in danger because his teachings threatened the idol craftsmen. The crowd is finally dispersed by an official who explains they haven’t done anything illegal and the riot might look unfavorably on them from Rome.
Paul goes to Greece (Ephesus is in Turkey), and there again religious Jews wish him harm:
Act 20:3 And there abode three months. And when the Jews laid wait for him, as he was about to sail into Syria, he purposed to return through Macedonia.
After he returns to Jerusalem for the final time, the religious Jews target him and attempt to kill him:
Act 21:27 And when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews which were of Asia, when they saw him in the temple, stirred up all the people, and laid hands on him,
Act 21:28 Crying out, Men of Israel, help: This is the man, that teacheth all men every where against the people, and the law, and this place: and further brought Greeks also into the temple, and hath polluted this holy place.
Act 21:29 (For they had seen before with him in the city Trophimus an Ephesian, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple.)
Act 21:30 And all the city was moved, and the people ran together: and they took Paul, and drew him out of the temple: and forthwith the doors were shut.
Act 21:31 And as they went about to kill him, tidings came unto the chief captain of the band, that all Jerusalem was in an uproar.
Here religious Jews from Asia (they had heard his preaching abroad although he was not preaching in Jerusalem) are leading a mob to kill Paul due to past teachings against the law. Paul is saved by the Roman authorities, but the Jews keep plotting to kill him. The form pacts (Acts 23:12). They draw up plans (Acts 23:15). They influence the Romans to keep Paul imprisoned (Acts 24:27). They attempt to get Roman authorities to go along with murder (Acts 25:2-3).
Paul is bound by the Romans for 4 years, not due to Roman law, but because the Jews wished him bound. Unwritten in Acts is Paul’s subsequent meeting with Nero, Nero’s plan to scapegoat the Christians for a fire in Rome, and Paul’s execution on false charges.
Paul was primarily persecuted by religious Jews who were offended that he taught:
1. Jesus was the Christ
2. Not to follow the works of the law
3. That gentiles and Jews were equal
Here also had a couple confrontations with Christian Jews concerning the law. Notice that they were believers and zealous for the law. Notice also the other apostles were not persecuted (because they taught circumcision).
The few times Paul was persecuted by gentiles were due to money troubles. First the demon possessed fortune teller and then the idol craftsmen. Paul’s final persecution was at the hand of Nero as a scapegoat.