Before I continue with my Forbidden Bible Verses series, I would like to explore the story of Saul’s — St Paul’s — conversion.

The first half of Acts 9 is in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship, but one wonders how good the sermons are on it.

This is one of the most dramatic and significant episodes in the New Testament. There is also much history to explore here.

Commentary is taken from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur. The verses below are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Acts 9:1-9

The Conversion of Saul

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

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Recall that Saul was the most violent persecutor of Christians in Jerusalem. I wrote about Acts 8:1-3 in May. Those verses introduce Saul and say that he approved the martyrdom of Stephen, one of the first deacons. He was probably present at and involved with Stephen’s stoning.

After Stephen was stoned, many new converts — of which there were thousands — fled Jerusalem for neighbouring areas. Samaria was one of them. Damascus (Syria) was another. The Apostles remained in Jerusalem, but the disciples — including Hellenist (Greek) Jews — fled with the other converts to Gentile areas.

Acts 9 introduces Paul — as Saul. From this point on in Acts, Paul is the dominant figure, although Peter is still mentioned occasionally.

Because there is much to read here, this post will cover only the first two verses.

Matthew Henry provides background on Saul. This is important to note because it will come in handy as we progress through the rest of the Book of Acts (emphases mine below):

His name in Hebrew was Saul–desired, though as remarkably little in stature as his namesake king Saul was tall and stately; one of the ancients calls him, Homo tricubitalis–but four feet and a half in height; his Roman name which he went by among the citizens of Rome was Paul–little. He was born in Tarsus, a city of Cilicia, a free city of the Romans, and himself a freeman of that city. His father and mother were both native Jews; therefore he calls himself a Hebrew of the Hebrews; he was of the tribe of Benjamin, which adhered to Judah.

Tarsus is in present day Turkey.

Saul was highly intelligent, very well educated — and a Pharisee:

His education was in the schools of Tarsus first, which was a little Athens for learning; there he acquainted himself with the philosophy and poetry of the Greeks. Thence he was sent to the university at Jerusalem, to study divinity and the Jewish law. His tutor was Gamaliel, an eminent Pharisee. He had extraordinary natural parts, and improved mightily in learning.

Gamaliel was a well-known and highly respected man. You can read more about him in my discussion of Acts 5:33-42. He served on the temple council in Jerusalem and warned his fellow council members against persecuting the Apostles in case they (the council) were unknowingly opposing God.

MacArthur says:

At the age of approximately 13, no doubt, Saul was packed off to Jerusalem. The Jewish heritage was motivation enough for him to have good Jewish training. So he was off to Jerusalem, and he sat under a great teacher by the name of Gamaliel. Gamaliel was called “the beauty of the law” because of his marvelous ability to teach. Gamaliel was also so revered that when he died, the people said that the reverence for the law died with Gamaliel. And so Saul studied under this brilliant man.

The course of his study would involve memorization of great portions of the entire Old Testament. So he became quite scholarly in terms of his knowledge of the Old Testament. He also would sit in question and answer sessions with his tutor, and so he was a familiar man in terms of Jewish history and theology.

Henry tells us that Saul came to become a tent-maker because, as strange as it might seem to us, that is what men of his religious and social status did:

He had likewise a handicraft trade (being bred to tent-making), which was common with those among the Jews who were bred scholars (as Dr. Lightfoot saith), for the earning of their maintenance, and the avoiding of idleness. This is the young man on whom the grace of God wrought this mighty change here recorded, about a year after the ascension of Christ, or little more.

MacArthur has more:

in the city of Tarsus one of the very large industries was the industry of tent-making. And so the young Saul apparently learned this trade. He was able to weave cloth from the black hair of goats. They would weave the cloth into strips, then tie the strips together to make tents. And it really isn’t any different today in the East. You can see the very same kind of tents if you go there right now.

MacArthur fills in the gap between Saul’s education and his persecution of Christians:

since it is never mentioned that he met Jesus, it is likely that he, having studied in Jerusalem, then went back to Tarsus, and perhaps was the master teacher in the synagogue at Tarsus. Later on, however, he returns to Jerusalem, and on his return Jesus has already disappeared from the scene, and he confronts this man Stephen. And Stephen was dynamic. He was bold. He was dramatic. He was powerful. Saul couldn’t handle him in life. The only thing he could do was get rid of him, so they killed him. But, as I said, I think the death of Stephen planted a time bomb in the brain of Saul that exploded finally on the Damascus Road in conjunction with God’s invasion of his life

… he, back in Jerusalem, is still furiously pursuing the killing of Christians and their incarceration and jail. However, he apparently has accomplished something of what he set out to do in the city of Jerusalem, because he’s now bent on leaving town and finding little pockets of Christians anywhere he can find them and rooting them out.

Christians know that Paul was on fire for the Lord Jesus. However, as Saul of Tarsus — before his Damascene conversion — he was equally as zealous in persecuting His followers. We see this in verse 1: ‘breathing threats and murder’.

MacArthur explains the meaning in Greek. Paul was entirely consumed by his persecution mission:

You notice the term “breathing out.” In the literal Greek, it’s “breathing in.” It’s not so much the idea that he’s sort of expelling air as it is the idea that he’s inhaling it. He lives in an aura of threat and slaughter. He breathes the very air of slaughter. This man is totally encompassed, his whole lifestyle, his very life breath, is threat and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord. And what it means is that that’s all that occupied him. He was consumed in this thing. This is not just a Saturday afternoon hobby. This was the consuming passion of his very existence, to exterminate every Christian he could find.

Having finished much of his work in Jerusalem, Saul set his sights on Damascus. He asked the high priest in Jerusalem for letters addressed to the synagogues that he could take with him (verse 2). The plan was that synagogue leaders would then inform on any Christians worshipping there. Saul would then round them up and take them as prisoners to Jerusalem, where they would go on trial at the temple.

MacArthur adds:

Now, we don’t know how he got the information about Damascus, but we know that he got it. There were probably 150,000 minimum people in Damascus. At least 20,000 were Jews. We know that because it wasn’t too long after this that Damascus was sacked and about 20,000 Jews were massacred. So there had to be at least that many there.

The church in Jerusalem worshipped at Solomon’s Portico (Porch) at the temple, and new converts in other areas worshipped at their synagogue. House churches had not yet arisen. This is why Paul went to the synagogues. MacArthur explains:

Christianity began in the synagogue and went from there, you see. So in every area, really, where it began, it began with a group of Jews who then saw the new covenant and moved away from that, but they didn’t necessarily move out of the synagogue.

He says this brought with it problems. Some Jewish converts — Judaisers — did not want to break with the old customs. This is part of the reason why I will be covering the Book of Hebrews after completing the Book of Acts. MacArthur goes on to say:

that’s the problem on which the Book of Hebrews is based, the fact that you had Jews who had come to Christ but who maintained their involvement in all of the rigmarole of the Jewish synagogue. And so that was what the Book of Hebrews was really written to do, was to detach the Christians from the traditions that were so much a part of their former life.

MacArthur describes Damascus, which already existed in Abraham’s day. It is a very ancient city — and was beautiful when Saul was on his way there. It also had buildings made out of white stone:

Damascus was a very beautiful city. It was situated about 2,200 feet above sea level, 60 miles inland from the coast, about 160 miles northeast of Jerusalem, I’d guess. It was such a beautiful area that one of the Oriental writers said that “Damascus was like a handful of pearls in a goblet of emerald,” which’ll give you a little idea. Lush, green and a beautiful white city. In fact, the historians called it the paradise of the earth.

Now, Damascus was an ancient city. It was the capital city of Syria, and it was very old. In fact, if you go back into Genesis, you’ll find that Abraham had a servant who came from Damascus, which means that Damascus predated Abraham. So it’s an old, old city, and yet it still remained, and now with a great Jewish population.

It is also important to know that the temple in Jerusalem had jurisdiction over all synagogues, including those in other countries. Henry explains that Jerusalem then was like a Jewish Vatican. The Jewish high priest was akin to a pope:

The high priest and sanhedrim claimed a power over the Jews in all countries, and had a deference paid to their authority in matters of religion, by all their synagogues, even those that were not of the jurisdiction of the civil government of the Jewish nation … By this commission, all that worshipped God in the way that they called heresy, though agreeing exactly with the original institutes even of the Jewish church, whether they were men or women, were to be prosecuted

This was a very big deal, on the order of the Spanish Inquisition.

Note in verse 2 that Saul was looking for men and women in Damascus who belonged to ‘the Way’. MacArthur explains:

Just go through the Book of Acts and even through the New Testament and find all the uses of the term “way” as a description of Christianity. That became…that became the popular name for Christianity, “the way.” “The way.” Even Saul was pursuing people of “this way.”

Jesus, you remember, had said, “I am,” what? “The way, the truth and the life.” And over and over and over again He had isolated Christianity as the only way to God, you see. So Christianity became known as “the way.” It’s interesting, because there probably couldn’t be a more apropos term than that. In Acts 18, the Bible says that it’s the way to God. In Hebrews, chapter 9 and chapter 10, it’s the way to the holiest. In Revelation 3:17, it’s called the way of peace. In II Peter 2, it’s called the way of truth and the way of righteousness.

Christianity is the way. There’s only one way to God, and it’s through Jesus Christ. And Christianity became known as “the way,” and indeed it is. “Now, there is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” Isaiah said this. “This is the way. Walk ye in it.” Jesus said, “It is a narrow way and,” what? “Few there be that find it.” And Saul was after those few.

I remember back in the 1970s that ‘the Way’ was often used by Evangelicals in the United States to describe Christianity, as in ‘Do you follow the Way?’ My mother thought that was strange, but it makes sense, especially as Jesus referred to Himself as the Way.

As these first two verses required context, the next entry will look at Saul’s brutal yet grace-filled conversion.

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