Acts 9:19b–31 . . .
“Saul in Damascus and Jerusalem”
Reviewing our study focus over the past two weeks, Saul had gained a reputation as the ringleader of the movement to make Christianity extinct. A devout Hellenistic Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, Saul was a member of the Pharisees and was taught by none other than Gamaliel, whom we've already met (5:34–40). However, Saul disagreed with Gamaliel on how to deal with the Christians. Saul sought the arrest, trial, conviction, and punishment of those in Jerusalem. His career as a persecutor of Christians seems to have begun with Stephen, but it quickly spread to all of Christians in Jerusalem (7:58–8:3). Saul wasn't content to punish some and drive the rest from the “holy city” and he didn't want to merely contain Christianity or to drive it from Jerusalem; he wanted to rid the earth of Christianity and its followers. Thus, his opposition to Christ and the church took on a “missionary” spirit. He went to other cities to arrest Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. Damascus, a city ±150 miles northeast of Jerusalem, was one such city. Word was that Saul would soon arrive there.
Saul’s Preaching in Damascus Leads to Opposition (9:19–25)
In Damascus, Saul, already converted, immediately began preaching Christ in the synagogues! Because he was a skilled student of the great rabbi Gamaliel, he could take advantage of the synagogue custom that invited an able Jewish man to speak on the Scriptures at synagogue meetings. The unconverted Jews were amazed, for they recognized him as the man who'd arrested Christians. Some tried to argue with him, but like Stephen, Saul wasn't easily beaten in debates; he utterly confounded those who opposed him. Saul was doing what the Lord wanted him to do, to start witnessing for Christ without delay, which proved the reality of his conversion. This also furthered the humbling process, for to proclaim in the synagogues that Jesus was the Son of God was a public admission that formerly he'd been dead wrong — that what he'd denied passionately was absolutely true. Saul was about to begin the second phase of his training: He had to be reeducated in the Scriptures.
What an amazing time this must have been, with Saul enjoying the fellowship of fellow believers in Damascus. Remember, these are the same people he'd intended to identify, arrest, and carry off to Jerusalem. Such a miracle was followed up with yet another miracle: Saul immediately went to the synagogues and began to preach that "Jesus is the Son of God." Those synagogues were expecting Saul to come and rid them of those troublesome Jesus followers. Instead, he came as one of them, and he preached to them that Jesus was the Messiah. No wonder folks were amazed at what they heard. Saul’s reputation preceded him in that they knew who he was and why he'd come. So in v. 21, those in the synagogue who heard Saul asked about him, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name?" People were genuinely amazed at Saul's conversion; it was hard to believe just how powerfully Jesus could change a life. Years later, Saul, who'd soon be renamed "Paul" would write: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new (2 Corinthians 5:17). Paul lived up to that verse long before he wrote it!
It didn't take long for the converted Saul to preach to the Israelites that Jesus was the Messiah. He was maturing as a strong Christian, as Luke highlights for us in v. 22: "Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah." Having been an expert in Old Testament Scriptures, he could easily see how Jesus was the Messiah who'd been promised in the Scriptures by many prophets.
Luke begins v. 23 by telling his readers, "After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him." Regarding what might have happened during those "many days" that passed, Paul elaborates by describing how he went to Arabia for a period of time, and then returned to Damascus (Galatians 1:13–18). After his return to Damascus, Paul went to Jerusalem, where he spent a total of three years, and in Arabia (Galatians 1:18); truly those were "many days." Reading that "there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him," this essentially begins the account of "how much he must suffer for my name" that the Lord spoke of in Acts 9:16. Once being the persecutor, Saul had become the persecuted!
Let's look at the details Luke provides regarding how, after "many days" after arriving in Damascus, Saul met violent opposition. Some unbelieving Jews had heard enough of Saul’s teaching and plotted jointly to kill him. But he learned of their plot to wait for him to leave the city so they could capture him. His enemies had enlisted the support of a powerful figure, the local governor appointed by King Aretas. No doubt, because Saul had gone into hiding to escape arrest, the governor, who anticipated Saul’s upcoming attempt to flee, put all the gates of the city under constant watch. And because Saul already had some followers who'd come to faith as a result of his preaching, they helped him by taking him in the cover of darkness and lowering him in a basket through an opening in the wall so he could escape. Such a life-or-death experience for Saul might have been God’s plan to give him a taste of persecution that he'd face the rest of his life.
As Luke goes on about this plot, he begins v. 24 by saying, "but Saul learned of their plan." It's interesting to realize that, if Saul would learn what he was to be persecuted for his faith, he'd also learn and prize highly the mighty deliverance that God offered him so graciously. Saul would enjoy divine protection until his ministry for the Lord had eventually been completed. Reading next that Saul's "followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall" (v. 25), Saul did indeed receive divine protection in the midst of persecution. Plus, he learned that God's deliverance often comes in humility; there's nothing hearty about sneaking out of a city by night hiding in a large basket!
Saul’s Journey to Jerusalem Leads to More Death Threats (vv. 26–30)
After escaping Damascus in a basket, Saul made his way to Jerusalem. Luke writes in v. 26 that Saul "tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him." In all likelihood, the word “disciples” isn't referring to Jesus' close apostles. These “disciples” are the new believers in Jerusalem, those folks who Saul sought to arrest and kill. No wonder they were apprehensive about welcoming him into their fellowship. His efforts to meet with them had all the earmarks of the kind of trap he'd have used on them before his conversion.
Why would Christian disciples in Jerusalem be so suspicious of Saul even three years after his conversion? They may have thought that Saul was part of an elaborate and extended plot; they may have wondered why he went off by himself for a while to Arabia; or just as likely, they probably were reluctant to embrace such a dramatic conversion without seeing it with their own eyes. Simply, they didn't believe that he was a disciple. But Saul had a great loving heart for Jesus and Jesus' followers. It no doubt hurt, but he understood that disciples in Jerusalem would long remember the Christians whom Saul persecuted and had killed. If those disciples might lack sufficient love, Saul would add a little more of his love to make up for their lack of it.
In v. 27, we're introduced to Barnabas, one of the leaders who believed in Saul’s sincerity. Thank God for people like Ananias and Barnabas, who'd welcomed people into the family of God with true friendship. Barnabas and Saul don't seem to have ever met until now. Barnabas was a man who was true to his character, as documented by Luke in 11:11–25. Being both “full of the Holy Spirit” and full “of faith,” he had the faith to believe that Saul could be saved. So when Saul arrived in Jerusalem, somehow the paths of both believers crossed. Barnabas not only knew the story of Saul’s conversion but he'd also heard reports of how he'd boldly proclaimed Jesus in Damascus. So "Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles." (Here, the "apostles" are those who've been with him from the beginning of his ministry.) Barnabas personally extended the love of Jesus to Saul.
From this point on, Saul was welcomed into the fellowship of the saints in Jerusalem. Luke tells us in v. 28: "Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. . . but they tried to kill him." Saul again faced persecution and assassination attempts. This would be a recurring pattern in his ministry. While proclaiming Jesus, he was engaged in debates by the Greek-speaking Jews (who seem to have taken over the cause of opposing Christianity). Soon, these unbelieving, Hellenistic Jews were planning to kill Saul, which was, in their opinion, the only way to silence him! His fellow-believers learned of those who were seeking to kill him so they took him to Caesarea for his own protection, sending him on ship from there to Tarsus, his home town, where he'd be safe. [Stay tuned: Twelve years will pass in the life of Saul before he returns actively to prominent ministry, being sent out as a missionary from the church at Antioch. At that time (shown throughout chapters 11–15), it will again be Barnabas who'll reach out to "Paul," remembering him and loving him.]
The Church Experiences Peace, Strength, and Edification (v. 31)
We learn in v. 31 of the health of the churches in the whole region. Saul’s conversion ended the persecution that scattered believers throughout the region. Suddenly the pressure upon them to hide was removed; they could freely do the work of the church, walking only in the fear of God, not in the fear of man. Now also they especially enjoyed the encouragement and counsel of the indwelled Holy Spirit. The result was that many believers grew stronger in their Christian faith and practice. The churches multiplied throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria.
In last week's summary, we saw that Acts 9 began with a zealous man "breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples" (v. 1). But God was more than able to turn that terrible threat into a great blessing. Now Luke wants us to know that God's work was not only continuing, but it was stronger, despite the great opposition it had faced. To be clear, when we read in the closing verse that "The church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace," it doesn't mean that all persecution had stopped; instead, it means that the church body felt a peacefulness in the midst of ongoing persecution.
Verse 31 ends with this inspiring afterthought: "Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, [the churches] increased in numbers." The word "encouraged" has the idea of being built up and edified. The churches in that region were growing in numbers and strength. Whenever God's people are living and walking "in the fear of the Lord" and are "encouraged by the Holy Spirit," you may expect that they'll also see their numbers multiplied. Which of these do you need more today? "The fear of the Lord" or to be "encouraged by the Holy Spirit"? Often, God wants those who feel most comfortable to be afflicted (thereby gaining a fear of the Lord) and the afflicted to be encouraged and comforted (as a direct result of the Holy Spirit's presence, power, and potential).
- Q. 1 Which do you need more today? The fear of the Lord or the encouragement of the Holy Spirit?
- Q. 2 How is the Story of Saul related to Acts 1:8?
- Q. 3 Who's been a Barnabas to you — encouraging you or helping you feel accepted? . . . To whom will you become a Barnabas today?
New International Version (NIV) [View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 9.]
† Watch this "Visual Bible" video clip: Acts 8:22–9:32, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke.
Saul in Damascus and Jerusalem
19Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 21All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.
23After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, 24but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. 25But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.
26When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29He talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews, but they tried to kill him. 30 When the believers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
31Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.