Paul in Arabia: The Wilderness of Damascus


conversion_of_st_paul-400At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for 40 days, tempted by the devil.  He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. —Mk 1:12-13

“A veil of thick darkness hangs over Paul’s visit to the Arabia.” [1]  The Reverend George Rawlinson, a 19th-century professor of Ancient History at Cambridge University, wrote a book in which he described the external circumstances of the journey of Saint Paul from the day that he left Jerusalem with the high priest’s mandate (Acts 9:1) until he returned to Jerusalem three years later to confer with the Apostles (Gal 1:18).  Rawlinson did not presume to read the mind of Paul, even as Paul in the desert set out to known the mind of Christ. His was one of the greatest journeys in Christianity, an intense and focused time of discernment; he traveled through the desert with his feet planted on ancient sands and his mind, heart, soul, and spirit united with the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven (Acts 7:56).

The Apostle ascended Mount Sinai where he conversed with Moses and Elijah, the representatives of the Law and the Prophets. He walked on further to the shore of the Red Sea, the site where God liberated his people from Egypt (Ex chapter 14). Paul understood the magnum opus of Moses. Providentially Paul infiltrated the city of Petra where he evangelized the court of Aretas IV, ruler of the Nabataeans (see 2 Cor 11:32). Fleeing Petra, for the king did not like what he heard, Paul returned to Damascus where he entered the synagogue and ascended the pulpit to preach Christ crucified and risen (Acts 9:20).  The Ambassador for Christ escaped from the city (Acts 9:23-25) and returned to Jerusalem to take his place among the college of Apostles.

Why Arabia?  Neither the motive of the visit to the desert nor its duration are recorded in detail in the Scriptures.  Of this time the Apostle himself writes only “I went into Arabia” (Gal 1:17b) and nothing else.  The definition of Arabia is obscure, though the historicity of the event need not be debated.

Saint Jerome says that the one incident in Paul’s life that can be dated is his encounter with King Aretas. (2 Cor 11:32), circa AD 36-39. Paul’s visions were the unspeakable revelations to the prophet, sealed by the Spirit, which prevented Paul from making a full disclosure. Instead he speaks only of a “third heaven” (2 Cor 12:2).

The truth emerges from the lines of his letters. “I am the foremost of sinners, but I received mercy for this season, that in me, as the foremost of sinners, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for the ages” (1 Tm 1:16).  Paul knew his limitations; he let God provide what he lacked.  “For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain” (1 Cor 15:9-10).

Church doctors John Chrysostom (Ad 344-407) and Jerome (AD 347-420) believe that Paul journeyed to Arabia to preach the gospel to the inhabitants of a region in which the gospel had not yet penetrated. The Word of God is omnipresent in the world but what was lacking in the region to which Paul journeyed was a voice that spoke for God.  Paul filled that need; he broke open the Word.

Chrysostom praised the bravery of young Paul who put his life at risk for the sake of the gospel:

See how fervent was his soul: he was eager to occupy lands untilled; he forthwith attacked a barbarous and savage people, choosing a life of conflict and much toil.  He hurried forth into the wilds of Arabia, burning to impart to others the glad tidings that had so suddenly been burst upon himself. [2]

The Word of God was waiting for Paul when he arrived at the court of Aretas. The Nabataeans needed a prophet and a preacher to instruct the; Jesus sent them Paul.  In the Acts of the Apostles Saint Luke writes that the Spirit descended upon the city of Jerusalem; “Arabs” are among the nationalities Luke listed as being present in the City of David on the day of the Spirit (Acts 2:11).  Here was one one who came in the power and spirit of Elijah, another John the Baptist.  The Nabataean kingdom was situated east of Syria and south of Palestine, a long walk from Damascus but possible for one so determined as Paul.

During the “three years” following the saint’s conversion, Aretas (9BC—AD40) captured Damascus from Herod Antipas. Aretas fended off the Roman and took the city from Antipas, his former son-in-law. Herod divorced Aretas’s daughter and Aretas took his revenge — a full ten years after the insult.  Jesus told Paul to evangelize gentiles, Jews, and kings. He could not return to Jerusalem to visit Antipas; the Sanhedrin would arrest him on the spot. Instead Paul went to Petra, perhaps to broker peace by preaching the Word to the Aretas and his subjects.  The Spirit led Paul through the wilderness to explain the mysteries of the kingdom and the consciousness of the presence of God, ever the more clearer in the solitude of the sands, empowered Paul to speak boldly.  All he needed was an audience.  Jesus said to preach to kings: Paul went to Petra.

The experience of Saint Paul with the Nabataean government of Damascus was preceded by his retirement into Arabia immediately after his conversion, as he briefly relates in Galatians 1:17.  The region was what the Romans came to call Arabia Petraea, Trans-Jordan; he returned thence to Damascus.  There were ‘desert’ districts there in plenty to gratify his desire for solitude; again, one of the greatest souls of the True Religion started his career in the desert.  That this Arabian experience of the Apostle brought him actually to Sinai, in the footsteps of Moses and Elijah, has been advanced by some scholars. [3]

A definite desire caused him to enter unfamiliar territory for the purpose of gaining seclusion to meditate on the Revelation.  Paul saw the advantage of isolation outside the city in a region of deep and intense solitude. The voice and vision of God shook him to the core and reordered his priorities. Now a student of the gospel, what mattered to him as a Pharisee was no longer important. Not yet 30 years old, he reassessed his past and jettisoned plans for his future.  Enchanted by the voice, blinded by the light, Paul journeyed to a region that transcended time, one void of the distractions of the city. Prayer, communion with God, and solitude became imperative.  He left the city to listen for the voice he heard days earlier and prayed to see the face of the Lord again.

The answers to Paul’s question about his vocation remained hidden among the cliffs and wadis between Sinai and the great sand desert. … He went to Arabia to learn—from the risen Jesus.  Just as he claimed to have seen the Lord on the Damascus road, so he always claimed to have been taught by Him directly: The mystery was made known to me by revelation (Eph 3:3). [4]

East of Damascus, within 20 miles from the city, was the bare, treeless, trackless wilderness of sand and silence without settlements, “a wilderness and an solitary place” (Is 35:1).  Paul did not want to talk; he wanted to listen. The stirring of the desert wind filled his ears and at dawn he marched toward the object of his heart’s desire, the Light and the Voice.  He felt relieved to leave Damascus. No more observations and suspicions of the Damascene Jews. No more interrogations by Christians who disbelieved that Paul was a disciple. His best defense backed him into a corner. “Am I not free?  Am I not an Apostle? Have I not see Jesus our Lord? Is not my workmanship in the Lord?” (1 Cor 9:1).

Impatient with waiting around he started out toward the “wilderness of Damascus,” where the prophet Elijah hid from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel (1 Kgs 19:15ff). The same voice that assured Elijah of his redemption invited Paul to discern his vocation far from the busy haunts of men. To Paul, the desert became the school of the gospel and he studied diligently under the direction of the Teacher. In Arabia he entered a unique theological seminary—he the first and only pupil, Jesus the first and only teacher. … He fled to Arabia, not as a coward but as a weaponless man who would save his life for fiercer combat; the world’s salvation.  Paul wrestled with the perplexing problem that arose from his acceptance of Jesus. Fasting and excluding the world from his thoughts until he felt himself mystically alone, he sought the presence of the risen Jesus, a presence he enjoyed during his time with Christ among the sands. Praying as Jesus had done in the wilderness, the Apostle attained such states of religious ecstasy that he seemed to have passed into a divine atmosphere where peace took possession of his soul. Was that not what he wanted all along, following the mission of brutality and carnage against the saints of God? But what a marvelous gospel Paul brought forth from the lonely rocky wilderness of Arabia! A great universal and redemptive plan that brought God and man together … a gospel overflowing with love, hope, joy, peace, enthusiasm, victory and glory, a gospel that made life beautiful and desirable … a gospel that lifted religion to new and vastly grander heights. Christ had captured his will and his emotions on the Damascus road; in Arabia Paul’s thoughts were captured too.” [5]

Aretas, who hated the Jews on account of Antipas ordered of the arrest of the malcontent, a Hebrew who spoke vociferously about salvation and repentance.  To the king, Paul was another John the Baptist. Both preached the Word of God: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel” (Mk 1:15). Paul fled Petra and eventually returned to Damascus like Moses who emerged from the desert to confront Pharaoh, as Jesus emerged from the wilderness and entered the synagogue to preach the kingdom. Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights in fasting and prayer on Mount Sinai, or Horeb (Jerome says these are the same) with fasting and prayer, without eating or drinking, face to the ground, during the great theophany, which led to the reception of the Ten Commandments. Paul received the New Law of the Gospel and visions and the voice of God “unutterable.”

Elijah ate and drank the bread and water provided by angels and then hiked through the desert to Horeb, to resign his commission. When God spoke to Elijah in the still, small voice in the prophet’s heart, he carried out his mission and for his fidelity God took him into heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kgs 2:11c). In Arabia Paul’s spiritual instincts were honed and refined.  He was eager to complete his retreat so that he could preach the kingdom, to verbalize what Christ spoke directly to his heart and to his mind. “You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for your benefit, namely that the mystery was made known to me by Revelation …  The mystery was God’s resolve to deliver the gentiles along with Israel to the inscrutable riches of Christ” (Eph 3:2-3, 3:8).  These graces unfurled on him beneath the stars of Abraham.

Paul spent time in the wilderness to prepare himself for his ambassadorship and to meditate on the living Word.  He discovered that he was a prophet, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Elijah (Gal 1:11ff).  Paul’s kerygma, his life, his ministry, and his ambassadorship, all were wrought through the conformity of his will to the Holy Spirit, with whom he communicated back and forth through time. By the power of the Spirit, the Paul’s thought and vision were transformed in a way he never intended nor thought possible. His wilderness journey prepared him to assume the role of ambassador to Christ, as on entrusted with a message issued by a Higher Authority.

Regardless of the length of time that Paul spent in the desert, he returned to Damascus a new man, as one born again, as one raised from the dead, as a man recreated. He dwelt in the mystical presence of the Son of God and could now say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Eph 4:24).


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