“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.”
Church historians usually date the death of Paul at the year 68 or 69, during Nero’s main phase of persecution against the Christians. This assumes that Paul obtained an acquittal from the charges pending against him at the end of the book of Acts, and that he made one or two subsequent missionary journeys. Early historical writings suggest that Paul died (beheaded by the Romans) in the city of Rome, and today there is a large Catholic church supposedly built on top of Paul’s tomb. The earliest historical writings about the death of the Apostle Paul, however, are from hundreds of years later. No one from his generation wrote a biography of the Apostle Paul describing his death.
The Bible itself never mentions Paul’s physical death. Instead, there runs a consistent theme throughout the New Testament that Paul “died” when he converted to Christianity and saw the resurrected Christ. Paul was a strict Jewish Rabbi before his conversion - he was part of a group called the Pharisees, and had been openly hostile to Christians. After his conversion experience, Paul devoted himself to his new faith, changed his name from Saul (his original Jewish name, which means “great one”) to Paul (a Latin word meaning “a little”). For the rest of his life, Paul would often say and write that he “died” when he met the resurrected Jesus. He died to himself and to his old way of life; he died to his previous religious beliefs and practices; he died to worldly pleasures and entertainment. Even the book of Acts, which is mostly a narrative of Paul’s conversion and early ministry efforts, ends abruptly with Paul awaiting trial in a Roman prison, as if suggesting that the physical death of Paul was not important - because he had already “died” years before (Acts 28:30-31).
Paul died the day he met Jesus. This was not in a physical sense, but rather he died to his own will, his own pride. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me…” (Galatians 2:20) His motivation after that was to live for Christ, to please him, to carry on his work. Many Christian leaders today boast about their credentials as ministers. Paul, in contrast, renounced everything in which he had taken pride.
Paul restated this theme on many occasions: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.“ (Galatians 6:14). The world was no longer appealing to him - instead it was crucified to him, something ugly and dying. He was crucified to the world as well. This attitude enabled him to work tirelessly for the Lord, and God could speak to Paul and guide him everywhere he went - because the Lord knew Paul would obey fully.
Paul was the kind of person God wants us to be. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Philippians 1:21-25). Paul writes as if he could go to heaven anytime he wanted. He really desired, however, to see God’s other servants grow in their faith.
“And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Corinthians 5:15) Paul understood that as Jesus died for him, he should die to himself, stop living for himself and his own ambitions, and start living for Christ. It is easy for people to talk about “living for God,” even though it does not affect their behavior much. For Paul being “crucified with Christ” meant giving up his wealth and reputation. He never again tried to be an impressive, showy preacher (1 Corinthians 2:1-5) or to show off his spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14:18-19). Paul set aside such motives.
Paul died to himself and lived for Christ alone. His conversion to Christianity was not just adopting a new set of beliefs or opinions - instead, he changed ultimate motivation for everything he did. Many people change their religion because they become convinced of the truth of the new one. For Paul, it was much more than this. It was death and new life.