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Bible readingThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 9:23-25

Saul Escapes from Damascus

23 When many days had passed, the Jews[a] plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall,[b] lowering him in a basket.

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Last week’s entry discussed Saul of Tarsus preaching to converts in Damascus in their synagogues.

They had already been converted. He was originally going to the Syrian city to arrest them and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial on charges of heresy.

On the way, Christ made sure Saul had his Damascene conversion, described in the posts below:

Part 1 of Acts 9:1-9: Saul’s — St Paul’s — conversion

Part 2 of Acts 9:1-9: Saul’s — St Paul’s — conversion (includes interesting info from John MacArthur on his own conversion)

Acts 9:10-19 — when scales fell from the eyes of Saul of Tarsus (final part of St Paul’s conversion story)

After his three days in spiritual solitary confinement, he immediately went to preach to the converts there.

Verse 23 tells us that ‘many days had passed’, then Saul had to leave Damascus.

How long a period of time is that? In Greek — St Luke’s language, and Luke wrote Acts — it was a very long period of time. For whatever reason, Luke omitted Paul’s three-year stay in Arabia, near Damascus.

Matthew Henry explains (emphases mine):

Luke here makes no mention of Paul’s journey into Arabia, which he tells us himself was immediately after his conversion, Galatians 1:16,17. As soon as God had revealed his Son in him, that he might preach him, he went not up to Jerusalem, to receive instructions from the apostles (as any other convert would have done, that was designed for the ministry), but he went to Arabia, where there was new ground to break up, and where he would have opportunity of teaching, but not learning; thence he returned to Damascus, and there, three years after his conversion, this happened, which is here recorded.

John MacArthur also refers to this period, similarly mentioning Galatians 1:16-17:

He says after his conversion, “neither went I up to Jerusalem to them who were apostles before me, but I went into Arabia and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter and abode with him fifteen days.”

MacArthur describes this part of Arabia:

What was he doing in Arabia? Well, God sent him there, no question about it, but there’s several things to consider. That part of the world had an Arabia that’s a little different than the Arabia we know today. It’s much north of that and it was called Nabatean Arabia. And it is very likely that at this particular time in history Nabatean Arabia had actually included the city of Damascus. According to some geographical indications, Damascus would have actually been in what was known as Arabia. So that Damascus would be a city on the very frontier of Arabia which would be to the east of it.

We discover in verse 23 that the Jews plotted to kill him. Recall Saul’s powerful personality which made him a great Apostle, although he was not part of the original Twelve nor the replacement for Judas (that was Matthias, Acts 1).

Whatever happened in Arabia, his robust personality and fervent preaching sparked opposition from powerful people. Our commentators have their own theories.

Henry thought the Jews in Arabia were out to get Saul because he — a Pharisee and one of the best — converted to Christianity. Recall from last week’s reading that Saul did not preach about his conversion but Christ alone, saying that He is the Son of God. The more Saul preached, the greater his faith and sermons grew. The Jews did not want people seeing that. Saul was the greatest walking advert ever for Christianity.

Henry’s commentary tells us:

The Jews took counsel to kill him, being more enraged at him than at any other of the preachers of the gospel, not only because he was more lively and zealous in his preaching than any of them, and more successful, but because he had been such a remarkable deserter, and his being a Christian was a testimony against them.

MacArthur thinks differently, that Saul got under the skin of Aretas, who ruled over Nabatean Arabia:

Now this Nabatean Arabia as it’s called was ruled by a king by the name of Aretas. That’s indicated to us in 2 Corinthians 11:32. It tells us that. And Aretas, it says in that same verse, had put a governor in Damascus and put a garrison to guard the city. Now that’s interesting. Aretas lent his soldiers to the Jews to catch Saul. Now why? What does Aretas care about Saul? Why does he want to give a garrison of soldiers to stand at the gates to capture Saul? The only answer that I can come across in my own thinking and this is my own thinking, is that somewhere along the lines Saul has irritated Aretas.

However, by saying that Aretas lent his soldiers to the Jews, MacArthur makes Henry’s point. Aretas could have exercised his own power here. After all, these were his troops. Instead, MacArthur says he lent them to the Jews.

Saul discovered the plot against him and we discover that ‘they’ — the Jews — were watching the city gates around the clock (verse 24). Henry tells us:

they incensed the governor against him, as a dangerous man, who therefore kept the city with a guard to apprehend him, at his going out or coming in, 2 Corinthians 11:32.

It would appear then that the Jewish leaders goaded Aretas into lending them his troops to apprehend Saul.

As the Jewish leaders did with Jesus, so they were doing with Saul. The leaders in Jerusalem during Jesus’s time and those in Damascus during Saul’s time saw both as temporal threats to their authority and privilege. No doubt Aretas worked hand-in-glove with the Jewish hierarchy the way the Romans did in Jerusalem.

To recap, Saul left Damascus soon after his conversion to go to Arabia. He stayed three years. He had to leave because of the tension he caused to the Jews during that time, who then got the ruler involved. He returned to Damascus. The Jewish leaders were watching the gates continuously, with military guards, to capture Saul.

However, disciples in Damascus helped Paul to escape the city (verse 25). Saul crouched in a basket, and they let him down through an opening in the city wall.

In the final part of the conversion story, the Lord, in summoning Ananias, told him of his purpose for Saul (Acts 9:16):

16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

The Lord did not let Saul of Tarsus off easily. Saul had terrorised converts in Jerusalem and arranged for them to die by stoning (e.g. Stephen, the first martyr). He was now going to let Saul get a taste of his own medicine.

However, the Lord was merciful to Saul in making him aware of the plot — possibly through someone notifying him — and in delivering him — with other men’s help — safely outside the city walls.

God sends help in human form when we need it.

This reminded me of the story about the man trapped in a severe storm who needed to be evacuated. He prayed, ‘God, please rescue me!’ A rescue boat came by. The man refused to get in. The prayer-rescue offer-refusal cycle happened twice more before the man prayed once again, ‘Why, Lord, did you not rescue me?’ The Lord replied, ‘I sent you three boats and you still didn’t get in.’

Saul, on the other hand, knew the Lord was sending him help in getting out of Damascus. May we all have such discernment.

Next time: Acts 9:26-30

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