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In order to better understand and appreciate St Paul’s ministry, it is helpful to read the first half of Acts 9 carefully.

My past two posts — here and here — went through the background and conversion of Saul of Tarsus in detail.

The painting at left depicts his dramatic Damascene conversion according to St Luke’s account in Acts.

Today’s post looks at what happened after he was blinded and the men around him led him by the hand into Damascus.

The passage below is from the English Standard Version of the Bible. Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 9:10-19

10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened.

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My previous posts discussed how Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee, devised a grand plan of travelling to Damascus to persecute Christians, only to find himself blinded by the light of Christ and toppled from his horse.

He travelled with a number of men in pursuit of converts whom Saul wanted transported back to Jerusalem for religious trial on charges of heresy. So much for that plan. Our Lord had other ideas, but, first, Saul had to be taught a lesson about his persecution of our Saviour.

Before being struck down, Saul of Tarsus was a nasty little piece of work. (Yes, he was of short stature. His Roman name Paul means ‘little’.) He went around persecuting Christians in Jerusalem. Man or woman, it did not matter. He was involved with the martyrdom of Stephen, after which the disciples (but not the Apostles) fled Jerusalem. Philip the Evangelist went to Samaria and made many converts there. Damascus was also a destination for evangelism, hence why Saul wanted to go there.

Saul and his companions found a place to stay in Damascus. Saul immediately spent three days contemplating his grave sins against Christ to the extent that he could not eat or drink. Physically, he was as helpless as a baby. Spiritually, he was growing: engaging in heartfelt prayer and increasing in divine grace. He was leaving his Pharisaical heritage behind and becoming a Christian.

Verse 10 tells us that the Lord appeared in a vision to a convert named Ananias. Matthew Henry tells us that Ananias was a native of Damascus, not a convert who fled Jerusalem, and that he had occasional visions from the Lord (emphases mine below):

it is said (Acts 22:12) that he had a good report of all the Jews who dwelt there, as a devout man according to the law; he had lately embraced the gospel, and given up his name to Christ, and, as it should seem, officiated as a minister, at least pro hac vice–on this occasion, though it does not appear that he was apostolically ordained

It is probable it was not the first time that he had heard the words of God, and seen the visions of the Almighty; for, without terror or confusion, he readily answers

The Lord told Ananias to go to a street called Straight and to the house of Judas (not Iscariot) where a certain Saul of Tarsus was praying (verse 11). John MacArthur says that Straight is the main avenue in Damascus:

It had a street that ran right straight through the middle of it from the eastern gate to the western gate, straight about three miles long. It’s still existing today. The street’s called Straight there, it’s called Darbal Mospakeem, different name of course. But it’s still there and the street called Straight, at one end of it was the house of Judas. Today some people say that there’s a spot where that house was and supposedly a closet where Saul was praying for those three days, but that’s conjecture.

One might wonder why the Lord did not send one of the Apostles to travel from Jerusalem to minister to Paul. It was no doubt more expedient to employ a local believer and that would also help the Church grow there. Furthermore, as Henry points out:

Surely, because Christ would employ variety of hands in eminent services, that the honours might not be monopolized nor engrossed by a few–because he would put work into the hands, and thereby put honour upon the heads, of those that were mean and obscure, to encourage them–and because he would direct us to make much of the ministers that are where our lot is cast, if they have ordained mercy to be faithful, though they are not of the most eminent.

As we discover in verse 12, the Lord had already given Saul a vision of a man named Ananias who would go to visit him and restore his sight. Saul’s expectations must have been high.

Ananias hesitated, telling the Lord that Saul was notorious for ‘evil’ — persecuting converts in Jerusalem (verse 13). Furthermore, he said that Saul was in Damascus to persecute Christ’s followers (verse 14). So, word had already reached the converts that Saul was going there under the authority of the chief priests in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the religious centre for Jewish authority, regardless of where Jews lived.

The Lord replied that He intended to use Saul as ‘a chosen instrument’ to minister to Gentile and Jew alike (verse 15). He added that Saul would suffer in His name (verse 16), which he did. He, the one who sought to imprison Christians, would himself be no stranger to confinement. He was instrumental in Stephen’s martyrdom in Jerusalem and would also die a martyr, along with the Apostle Peter, in Rome.

Ananias obeyed the Lord and spoke a precise message, identifying himself, describing Saul’s being struck down and announcing that he would regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit (verse 17).

Note that Ananias laid hands on him (verse 17) — healing hands on someone who had been a believer’s worst enemy. Ananias also addressed the man he was fearing as ‘brother’. What an experience that must have been for both men.

Then, a supernatural event took place: ‘something like scales’ fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see once more (verse 18). This has a double meaning, one that is physical and one that is spiritual.

Did a scale-like substance really fall from Saul’s eyes? MacArthur says no:

Now this is Luke. Luke is a physician and so naturally he chooses a little metaphor that would be medical. He didn’t really have scales as it were as jose in the Greek, not to be confused with the Spanish jose. But it means as if. It was as if he had some medical problem and scales dropped of his eyes. 

Henry takes the verse literally:

Saul is delivered from the spirit of bondage by receiving sight (Acts 9:18), which was signified by the falling of scales from his eyes; and this immediately, and forthwith: the cure was sudden, to show that it was miraculous.

You’re welcome to interpret that as you like. Personally, I would like to think that there was a physical manifestation of a scale-like substance as God’s way of demonstrating to Saul how spiritually blind he had been for the following reason. Recall that Saul was born and raised a Pharisee. Recall how often Jesus told the Pharisees of their blindness — spiritual blindness. I think this was a physical manifestation, a divine way of driving home a point to Saul.

Henry offers this analysis:

This signified the recovering of him, [1.] From the darkness of his unconverted state. When he persecuted the church of God, and walked in the spirit and way of the Pharisees, he was blind; he saw not the meaning either of the law or of the gospel, Romans 7:9. Christ often told the Pharisees that they were blind, and could not make them sensible of it; they said, We see, John 9:41. Saul is saved from his Pharisaical blindness, by being made sensible of it. Note, Converting grace opens the eyes of the soul, and makes the scales to fall from them (Acts 26:18), to open men’s eyes, and turn them from darkness to light: this was what Saul was sent among the Gentiles to do, by the preaching of the gospel, and therefore must first experience it in himself.

The removal of scales would also signify that Saul’s time in judgement and terror had ended:

[2.] From the darkness of his present terrors, under the apprehension of guilt upon his conscience, and the wrath of God against him. This filled him with confusion, during those three days he sat in darkness, like Jonah for three days in the belly of hell; but now the scales fell from his eyes, the cloud was scattered, and the Sun of righteousness rose upon his soul, with healing under his wings.

Ananias then baptised Paul. Baptism is very important. I have read notional Christian websites that say it isn’t, but the New Testament has several mentions of baptism, beginning with Jesus in the Gospels and continuing in Acts. If it were unimportant, these mentions would not exist.

Henry tells us:

He was baptized, and thereby submitted to the government of Christ, and cast himself upon the grace of Christ. Thus he was entered into Christ’s school, hired into his family, enlisted under his banner, and joined himself to him for better for worse. The point was gained: it is settled; Saul is now a disciple of Christ, not only ceases to oppose him, but devotes himself entirely to his service and honour.

MacArthur says:

Baptism is so important people. If you haven’t gotten that message through the book of Acts you haven’t been listening. See? Baptism is critically important. Why? Because it’s a public confession of your identification with the body of believers.

I knew a lady who had strayed from the Church for many years. She married an unbeliever. She never had her daughter baptised. By the time I met her, she had returned to the Church and her daughter was an adult. This lady regretted never having had her daughter baptised as an infant because, later on, it was too late! She broached the subject with her daughter, but the young woman replied, ‘Why? I don’t even believe!’ Baptism confers grace. The lady knew it and regretted depriving her daughter of that grace, thinking it would persuade her to become a believer. But I digress.

In verse 19, St Luke tells us that Paul ate and was strengthened. MacArthur thinks it was a large Christian meal. He says in jest:

And if you know anything about how Christians feed, you can imagine the poor guy was almost sick when it was over.

Quite possibly!

Saul being Saul, he wasted no time in going out into Damascus to preach in Jesus’s name. Christ’s divine intervention transformed the zeal he had in persecuting converts to passionately preaching in His name.

More on that when Forbidden Bible Verses returns at the weekend.

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Yesterday’s post introduced Saul — later, Paul — whom Christ brought to the ground and, with that fall, accomplished the most dramatic conversion in Christian history.

That post has much information on Saul’s background. It is important to know, as it helps reveal the man who wrote so many letters to his converts — Epistles which we hear most Sundays — and, other than Jesus, contributed the most to Christian theology.

The painting at left shows what happened as described in Acts 9:1-9.

Yesterday’s post covered Acts 9:1-2. Today’s will cover the next seven verses.

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

I’ve used the English Standard Version below:

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.

Saul, journeying from Jerusalem to the ancient city of Damascus to round up Christian converts, probably travelled there with a retinue of men. All were likely to be on horseback, as it was a long journey.

Yesterday’s post explained that Saul was on a religious mission that he devised himself. He asked the high priest for letters to the synagogues in Damascus to reveal their Christian members. The temple in Jerusalem had jurisdiction over all Jews, wherever they might be. The temple was like the Vatican, all powerful in matters religious. Christians were to be brought back to Jerusalem for trial on grounds of heresy, akin to the Spanish Inquisition.

John MacArthur describes the journey as follows (emphases mine below):

he probably had really a large entourage of people going along with him to bring these prisoners back. So this whole gang is going north.

And what’s a fantastic note is this. Just think about this. To go north to Damascus, 160 miles, he’s got to go right through Samaria. Now … you know what’s going on in Samaria. And if he was irritated already, you can imagine how irritated he was by the time he got through Samaria, because who had just finished going through Samaria? Philip, who was immediately followed by Peter and John. The gospel was preached all over Samaria. People were turning to Jesus Christ by the thousands. A revival was going on in Samaria. That must have really irritated him.

I wrote about Philip the Evangelist’s powerful ministry, as documented in Acts 8, here, here and here. Acts 8 ends with Philip’s conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, a man well placed in Queen Candace’s household.

MacArthur continues:

But he didn’t seem to stop at any point. He made his way through, infuriated, no doubt, at what he saw, but intent on getting to Damascus, and figuring he’d mop this area up later. It normally took a caravan six days to get there, so it was a pretty good trip. Well, on that sixth day, as they got near town, something fantastic happened, and that, in verse 3, begins the conversion of Saul of Tarsus.

For such a long trip, the men were securely and comfortably saddled. That is important to keep in mind.

Matthew Henry gives us a bit of history about Damascus and its significance in Saul’s conversion:

Some observe that he who was to be the apostle of the Gentiles was converted to the faith of Christ in a Gentile country. Damascus had been infamous for persecuting God’s people formerlythey threshed Gilead with threshing instruments of iron (Amos 1:3), and now it was likely to be so again.

Also important to keep in mind is that Saul was a well educated man, a knowledgeable and rational thinker. Although short in stature — his Roman name Paul meant ‘little’ — he was probably physically powerful, very determined and rarely frightened.

As they approached Damascus, then, a shaft of light from heaven shone around him (verse 3). It shone only on him, although the men around him, particularly those nearest him, saw it, too, although it did not envelop them. Henry explains:

… the Lord Jesus was in this light, and appeared to him by the way. He saw that just One (Acts 22:14), and see Acts 26:13. Whether he saw him at a distance, as Stephen saw him, in the heavens, or nearer in the air, is not certain. It is not inconsistent with what is said of the heavens receiving Christ till the end of time (Acts 3:21) to suppose that he did, upon such an extraordinary occasion as this, make a personal visit, but a very short one, to this lower world; it was necessary to Paul’s being an apostle that he should see the Lord, and so he did, 1 Corinthians 9:1,15:8. (1.) This light shone upon him suddenly–exaiphnes, when Paul never thought of any such thing, and without any previous warning

Also:

It was a light from Heaven, the fountain of light, from the God of heaven, the Father of lights. It was a light above the brightness of the sun (Acts 26:13), for it was visible at mid-day, and outshone the sun in his meridian strength and lustre, Isaiah 24:23. (3.) It shone round about him, not in his face only, but on every side of him; let him turn which way he will, he finds himself surrounded with the discoveries of it. And this was designed not only to startle him, and awaken his attention (for well may he expect to hear when he is thus made to see something very extraordinary), but to signify the enlightening of his understanding with the knowledge of Christ. The devil comes to the soul in darkness; by this he gets and keeps possession of it. But Christ comes to the soul in light, for he is himself the light of the world, bright and glorious to us, as light.

Paul — prepared, determined, fearless and, likely, secure in his saddle — fell to the ground. However, the Lord saw that he broke no bones. Henry describes the scene:

It is probable that he was mounted, as Balaam, when he went to curse Israel, and perhaps better mounted than he; for Saul was now in a public post, was in haste, and the journey was long, so that it is not likely he should travel on foot. The sudden light would frighten the beast he rode on, and make it throw him; and it was God’s good providence that his body got no hurt by the fall: but angels had a particular charge concerning him, to keep all his bones, so that not one of them was broken. It appears (Acts 26:14) that all that were with him fell to the earth as well as he, but the design was upon him.

MacArthur reminds us of what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane, hours before His death:

if you read further, in chapter 22 and chapter 26, you’ll find that those two chapters also record this same event, and they fill in a lot of details. What happened was, the light shone and the whole crowd hit the ground. They just completely fell over. They were face to face with Jesus Christ. They did the same thing, you remember, the soldiers in the Garden? Jesus walked out, and the whole army went just like that. And they all hit the ground. Apparently, as you put the narratives together, some of the soldiers started picking themselves back up again, and they were dumb with amazement. They couldn’t figure out what was going on.

Saul heard Christ’s voice from heaven asking why he was persecuting Him. Up to now, Saul no doubt knew about Jesus’s ministry on earth but, for him, the story stopped with the Crucifixion. Saul considered Jesus’s followers heretics.

However, being surrounded by a ray of light brighter than the noonday sun, which, in that part of the world is startlingly bright, Saul’s recognition of Jesus came instantly.

Now, the all-powerful Saul was prostrate on the ground, lying defeated, immediately addressing Christ as ‘Lord’ (verse 5)!

What a moment that must have been.

Henry offers this analysis:

This may be considered, (1.) As the effect of Christ’s appearing to him, and of the light which shone round about him. Note, Christ’s manifestations of himself to poor souls are humbling; they lay them very low, in mean thoughts of themselves, and a humble submission to the will of God … (2.) As a step towards this intended advancement. He is designed not only to be a Christian, but to be a minister, an apostle, a great apostle, and therefore he must thus be cast down. Note, Those whom Christ designs for the greatest honours are commonly first laid low. Those who are designed to excel in knowledge and grace are commonly laid low first, in a sense of their own ignorance and sinfulness. Those whom God will employ are first struck with a sense of their unworthiness to be employed.

That unworthiness is a continual theme in Paul’s letters to his flock. For that reason, he was vigilant in exhorting others to see their own sinfulness and repent.

Note that Jesus told him that, by persecuting His followers, Saul was persecuting Him (verse 5). That was emphasised in the previous verse when He used Saul’s name twice. MacArthur explains that the double use of a name in Luke’s Gospel and here in Acts, also by Luke, denotes a warning:

… in Luke’s writing, the repetition of a name refers to a rebuke or a warning, whether Luke says, “Martha, Martha,” “Simon, Simon,” or “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” and here, “Saul, Saul.” In Luke’s mind, that’s rebuke and warning. And it was.

Henry’s assessment agrees but further posits that Saul was so stunned that Jesus had to call him twice:

First, The deep sleep that Saul was in; he needed to be called again and again, as Jeremiah 22:29, O earth, earth, earth. Secondly, The tender concern that the blessed Jesus had for him, and for his recovery. He speaks as one in earnest; it is like Martha, Martha (Luke 10:41), or Simon, Simon (Luke 22:31), or O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Matthew 23:37. He speaks to him as to one in imminent danger, at the pit’s brink, and just ready to drop in: “Saul, Saul, dost thou know whither thou art going, or what thou art doing?”

As for Christ’s asking Paul why he was persecuting Him via His followers, Henry explains:

Christ never complained so much of those who persecuted him in his own person as he did here of those who persecuted him in his followers. He complains of it as it was Saul’s sin: “Why art thou such an enemy to thyself, to thy God?” Note, The sins of sinners are a very grievous burden to the Lord Jesus. He is grieved for them (Mark 3:5), he is pressed under them, Amos 2:13.

It was more powerful for Jesus, in His infinite wisdom, to ask than to tell:

Those have no knowledge who eat up God’s people, Psalms 14:4. Why persecutest thou me? He thought he was persecuting only a company of poor, weak, silly people, that were an offence and eye-sore to the Pharisees, little imagining that is was one in heaven that he was all this while insulting; for surely, if he had known, he would not have persecuted the Lord of glory. Note, Those who persecute the saints persecute Christ himself, and he takes what is done against them as done against himself, and accordingly will be the judgment in the great day, Matthew 25:45.

Henry says we would do well to remember this story in light of our own sins:

It is convincing language: “Why dost thou thus: Canst thou give any good reason for it?” Note, It is good for us often to ask ourselves why we do so and so, that we may discern what an unreasonable thing sin is

If God contend with us for our sins, we are not able to answer for one of a thousand, especially such a one as the sin of persecution. Convictions of sin, when they are set home with power upon the conscience, will silence all excuses and self-justifications.

Jesus told Saul to enter Damascus and to await further instructions (verse 6).

Although he was still on the ground, Saul’s travelling companions were now standing, startled. They could hear Christ’s voice but could see no one (verse 7). Henry tells us that Acts 22 describes this further:

… when they were up, (1.) They stood speechless, as men in confusion, and that was all, Acts 9:7. They were going on the same wicked errand that Paul was, and perhaps, to the best of their power, were as spiteful as he; yet we do not find that any of them were converted, though they saw the light, and were struck down and struck dumb by it. No external means will of themselves work a change in the soul, without the Spirit and grace of God, which distinguish between some and others; among these that journeyed together, one is taken, and the others left. They stood speechless; none of them said, Who art thou, Lord? or, What wilt thou have me to do? as Paul did, but none of God’s children are born dumb. (2.) They heard a voice, but saw no man; they heard Paul speak, but saw not him to whom he spoke, nor heard distinctly what was said to him: which reconciles it with what is said of this matter, Acts 22:9, where it is said, They saw the light and were afraid (which they might do and yet see no man in the light, as Paul did), and that they heard not the voice of him that spoke to Paul, so as to understand what he said, though they did hear a confused noise.

Saul rose, but he was blinded (verse 8) — blinded by the Light. He was now helpless. His men had to lead him by the hand into Damascus. He, who was to lead a sweeping mission against Christians and Christ, could not do a thing.

Henry describes Saul’s condition at that point. A divine plan was at work:

(1.) He arose from the earth, when Christ commanded him, but probably not without help, the vision had made him so faint and weak, I will not say like Belshazzar, when the joints of his loins were loosed and his knees smote one against another, but like Daniel, when upon the sight of a vision no strength remained in him, Daniel 10:16,17. (2.) When his eyes were opened, he found that his sight was gone, and he saw no man, none of the men that were with him, and began now to be busy about him. It was not so much this glaring light that, by dazzling his eyes, had dimmed them–Nimium sensibile lædit sensum; for then those with him would have lost their sight too; but it was a sight of Christ, whom the rest saw not, that had this effect upon him. Thus a believing sight of the glory of God in the face of Christ dazzles the eyes to all things here below.

This is essential to understanding Saul’s loss of sight and why Saul remained not only blind but also unable to take any food or drink for three days (verse 9):

Christ, in order to the further discovery of himself and his gospel to Paul, took him off from the sight of other things, which he must look off, that he may look unto Jesus, and to him only

So far from this that we have reason to think he was all this time rather in the belly of hell, suffering God’s terrors for his sins, which were now set in order before him: he was in the dark concerning his own spiritual state, and was so wounded in spirit for sin that he could relish neither meat nor drink.

We find out that they went to the house of a man named Judas in the street called Straight, nothing more. The important thing is that Saul was reduced to nothing for three days. In Damascus, he planned to persecute many — and violently. Now he was in spiritual lockdown — a spiritual prison — to ruminate on and repent of his sins in order to fully acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord.

The number three is significant in Holy Scripture. Bible Study tells us, in part:

The number 3 is used 467 times in the Bible. It pictures completeness, though to a lesser degree than 7. The meaning of this number derives from the fact that it is the first of four spiritually perfect numerals (the others being 7, 10 and 12)

There are 27 books in the New Testament, which is 3x3x3, or completeness to the third power.

Dr Richard D Patterson has much more, with a list of all the occurrences of the number 3, except for Saul’s conversion story. That said, his detailed essay is well worth reading, especially as his general theme for the number 3 is one of not only completion but also expectation of a future event.

In this case, that event is Paul’s magnificent ministry, unequalled in the Church.

In closing, MacArthur gives in his sermon a few interesting details about his own conversion. You might find these events from his youth as surprising as I did:

Some people God gently calls. And some people hear the still, small voice. But there are other people who are making so much noise that God’s got to make a lot of racket to get through, see. You know, I think about my own life, and the years and years that I was in a Christian home, and went to church so many years, and all this stuff. And I was in…I knew everything. I had seven zipper Bibles from the graduation from every department, and, you know, and I always had sticker stains on my head from turkeys and gold stars. I’d been in Sunday School since the year one. And I knew all of the things there were to know, and God continually spoke to my heart, and I continued to rebel in my own heart about really committing my life to Him.

And so, finally, going 75 miles an hour, a car flipped, He threw me out, I hit the pavement, slid 100 yards on my…and after it was all over, God could communicate. I said, “You know, I can only go so far, Lord. If you’re going to do it like this, I can’t fight it.” But it was one of those kind of things in my life where God had to get dramatic

If you’re a sinner here and you die and go to hell, it won’t be because you lied. I’ve lied, and I’m not going to hell. It won’t be because you stole something. I stole something. Even got put in the Glendale City Jail. But I’m not going to hell. If you go to hell, it won’t be because you went out and got drunk, because you took drugs. I’ve never done that. I’ve done a lot of other things. If you go to hell, it’ll be because you didn’t acknowledge Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. That’s the only reason.

The next part of this series concludes with what happened next to Saul in Damascus.

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