When Paul encounters the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he immediately goes to the synagogues in Damascus (Acts 9:19-25). Other than a short time of recovery after his encounter, there is no indication that Paul spent any significant time “on retreat” thinking about his experience of Jesus. The synagogues Paul visits are likely the very ones which informed the Sanhedrin that Hellenistic Jews were proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah and were expecting Paul to arrive and argue against the Hellenists who have recently arrived from Jerusalem with this new idea that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah.
The content of Paul’s message is that Jesus was in fact the Son of God (Acts 9). This is a messianic title drawn from Psalm 2. Jesus was the long awaited son of David, the ultimate heir of the Davidic Covenant. That Paul preaches Jesus is as the Son of God is significant because it is the first time such language has appeared in Acts; it will appear a second time in Acts 13:3. This is likely a clue that the synagogue speech in Acts 13 is intended as representative of Paul’s speech before Jews in a synagogue. Paul’s presentation in the synagogue was the exact opposite of expectations – It is little wonder that there was a strong reaction in the synagogues against Paul!
After his encounter with Jesus, we might have thought Paul would have returned to Jerusalem and immediately confronted the Sanhedrin and the High Priest, the very people approved of Paul’s mission to Damascus in the first place. But he does not return to Jerusalem for three years and, according to his own testimony on Gal 1:16-17, when he did go up to Jerusalem, it was only for a short visit of fifteen days. As Martin Hengel points out, Jerusalem is where the apostles are to be found, not Galilee or elsewhere in Judea. If Jerusalem was the focal point of the messianic preaching of the apostles, why did Paul not immediately go there and work with Peter and John in the Temple courts. he could have gone back to the Synagogue of the Freedmen and reasoned with the Hellenists there. But rather than go to Jerusalem, Paul goes into “Arabia” for three years.
Hengel and Schwemer suggest three reasons for Paul’s activities immediately after his conversion. First, Paul was a zealous persecutor of the church and he transferred that zeal into preaching the gospel. He met a resurrected and glorified Jesus who commissioned him as the apostle to the Gentiles. It is only natural that he would want to immediately begin this new task, given to him by his Savior.
Second, belief in an imminent return of Jesus mean that evangelistic activity needed to cover as wide an area as possible. Evangelism in Jerusalem was already underway and the apostles were stationed there to continue their work. Later in his career Paul will constantly move out into un-reached areas of the world, creating strategic bases in larger cities from which the local churches can continue the work of evangelism. For Paul, Arabia was an unreached area and he was uniquely suited to the task as a Hellenistic Jew.
Third, it would have been extremely dangerous to return since he has “switched sides” and now was a passionate supported of Jesus as the Messiah. While Paul is not described as avoiding persecution, he may have thought that it would be better to have success elsewhere rather than go and be executed by his former masters!
It is possible there are other reasons for Paul’s three years in Arabia. I think that Hengel and Swchemer are certainly correct that Paul’s zeal was channeled from persecution to evangelism and that Arabia was an “unreached” area. I think that Paul’s calling to be the “light to the Gentiles” is a motivating factor as well. He immediately acted on that calling by attempting to do evangelism in the Nabatean kingdom.
What else may have motivated Paul to avoid Jerusalem for so long after his conversion?
Bibliography: Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer, Paul Between Damascus and Antioch (Louisville: Westminster / John Knox, 1997), 94.