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Bible kevinroosecomThe 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 9:26-31

Saul in Jerusalem

26 And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists.[a] But they were seeking to kill him. 30 And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.

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Last week’s post discussed the ministry of Saul of Tarsus — St Paul — in Damascus after his conversion.

That entry says that after his Damascene conversion, Paul immediately went out to preach in Damascus, then he went to nearby Arabia for a few years prior to returning to Damascus. By then, the Jewish leaders there — possibly in Arabia, too — were out to kill him. Fellow converts managed to get Saul safely outside of the city by lowering him in a basket through a hole in the wall surrounding Damascus. Saul was small, by the way. His Roman name, Paul, means ‘little’.

Fleeing Damascus, Saul went to Jerusalem. Matthew Henry posits that a case could be made for the possibility that Saul made another trip there, although we cannot know for certain (emphases mine):

This is thought to be that journey to Jerusalem of which he himself speaks (Galatians 1:18): After three years I went up to Jerusalem, saith he, to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But I rather incline to think that this was a journey before that, because his coming in and going out, his preaching and disputing (Acts 9:28,29), seem to be more than would consist with his fifteen days’ stay (for that was no more) and to require a longer time; and, besides, now he came a stranger, but then he came, historesai Petron–to confer with Peter, as one he was intimate with; however, it might possibly be the same.

In Jerusalem, Saul attempted to join the disciples, but the converts feared him (verse 26). It is no wonder, considering that Saul viciously terrorised converts and was involved in the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr (read here and here). He was on his way to Damascus to round up converts to bring back to the temple in Jerusalem for trial on heresy charges. That was his idea, by the way, not something that came from the Jewish leaders, although they gladly went along with his plan.

So, Saul, a Pharisee, was a particularly bad hombre, which explains why his Damascene conversion was such a brutal one. It had to be:

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)

Matthew Henry thought that the disciples in Jerusalem should have been kinder to him, but I am on their side. Paul had form. This is Henry’s argument:

They knew what a bitter persecutor he had been, with what fury he went to Damascus some time ago; they had heard nothing of him since, and therefore thought he was but a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The disciples of Christ had need to be cautious whom they admit into communion with them. Believe not every spirit. There is need of the wisdom of the serpent, to keep the mean between the extremes of suspicion on the one hand and credulity on the other; yet methinks it is safer to err on the charitable side, because it is an adjudged case that it is better the tares should be found among the wheat than that the wheat should any of it be rooted up and thrown out of the field.

Saul found a sponsor in Barnabas, who introduced him to the Apostles and explained his conversion story to them (verse 27).

John MacArthur did not have much to say about this passage, but Henry gives us possible reasons why Barnabas was convinced Saul was a legitimate convert:

How Barnabas came to know this, more than the rest of them, we are not told; whether he had himself been at Damascus, or had had letters thence, or discoursed with some of that city, by which he came to the knowledge of this; or whether he had formerly been acquainted with Paul in the Grecian synagogues, or at the feet of Gamaliel, and had such an account of his conversion from himself as he saw cause enough to give credit to: but so it was that, being satisfied himself, he gave satisfaction to the apostles concerning him, he having brought no testimonials from the disciples at Damascus, thinking he needed not, as some others, epistles of commendation, 2 Corinthians 3:1.

Henry’s conclusion is worth noting:

Note, The introducing of a young convert into the communion of the faithful is a very good work, and one which, as we have opportunity, we should be ready to do.

The life of St Barnabas is interesting. He was born a Levite, a priestly class from the Old Testament. In order to be a Levite, one’s mother has to be Jewish and one’s father must be a Levite.

Barnabas was born in Cyprus. Saul came from Tarsus, in modern-day Turkey. The Jews from that part of the world were called Hellenists. (Hellas is the Greek name for Greece.)

Barnabas was born Joseph. When he converted, he gave his worldly goods to the church in Jerusalem and the Apostles gave him his new name, which means ‘son of the prophet/consolation/encouragement’. He first appears in Acts 4:36-37:

36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

It is possible that both he and Saul studied together under Gamaliel in Jerusalem.

Acts 11 describes his ministry in Antioch. Before his arrival, Antioch already had so many converts that the Apostles despatched Barnabas to oversee the church there. Barnabas was gratified by the number of new converts, but as he added even more souls, he realised he needed help and called on Saul, who stayed there for a year to minister with him.

A John Mark — who might or might not be St Mark, the Gospel author — is thought to have been related to Barnabas either as a cousin or a nephew. Wikipedia describes his involvement, Barnabas and Paul’s work and how Acts refers to them:

The successful preaching of Christianity at Antioch to non-Jews led the church at Jerusalem to send Barnabas there to oversee the movement (Acts 11:20–22). He found the work so extensive and weighty that he went to Tarsus in search of Paul (still referred to as Saul), “an admirable colleague”, to assist him.[10] Paul returned with him to Antioch and labored with him for a whole year (Acts 11:25–26). At the end of this period, the two were sent up to Jerusalem (AD 44) with contributions from the church at Antioch for the relief of the poorer Christians in Judea.

They returned to Antioch taking John Mark with them, the cousin or nephew of Barnabas.[11] Later, they went to Cyprus and some of the principal cities of Pamphylia, Pisidia, and Lycaonia (Acts 13:14). After recounting that the governor of Cyprus Sergius Paulus believed, the Acts of the Apostles 13:9 speaks of Barnabas’s companion no longer as Saul, but as Paul, his Roman name, and generally refers to the two no longer as “Barnabas and Saul” as heretofore (11:30; 12:25; 13:2, 7), but as “Paul and Barnabas” (13:43, 46, 50; 14:20; 15:2, 22, 35). Only in 14:14 and 15:12, 25 does Barnabas again occupy the first place, in the first passage with recollection of 14:12, in the last two, because Barnabas stood in closer relation to the Jerusalem church than Paul. Paul appears as the more eloquent missionary (13:16; 14:8-9, 19-20), whence the Lystrans regarded him as Hermes, Barnabas as Zeus[12] (14:12).

There is more at the link, however, this is to give you some insight as to how important these ministries were. St Barnabas is considered to be the founder of the Cypriot Orthodox Church and the patron saint of Cyprus. His feast day is June 11. He was martyred on that day in 61 AD in Salamis, Cyprus — the city of his birth. The Jews there were furious with his preaching:

Church tradition developed outside of the canon of the New Testament describes the martyrdom of many saints, including the legend of the martyrdom of Barnabas.[3] It relates that certain Jews coming to Syria and Salamis, where Barnabas was then preaching the gospel, being highly exasperated at his extraordinary success, fell upon him as he was disputing in the synagogue, dragged him out, and, after the most inhumane tortures, stoned him to death. His kinsman, John Mark, who was a spectator of this barbarous action, privately interred his body.[16]

Wikipedia also puts forth the case for Barnabas and John Mark having been among the original 70 disciples:

Although many assume that the biblical Mark the Cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10) is the same as John Mark (Acts 12:12, 25; 13:5, 13; 15: 37) and Mark the Evangelist, the traditionally believed author of the Gospel of Mark, according to Hippolytus of Rome,[19] the three “Mark”s are distinct persons. They were all members of the Seventy Apostles of Christ, including Barnabas himself. There are two people named Barnabas among Hippolytus’ list of Seventy Disciples, one (#13) became the bishop of Milan, the other (#25) the bishop of Heraclea. Most likely one of these two is the biblical Barnabas; the first one is more likely, because the numbering by Hippolytus seems to indicate a level of significance. Clement of Alexandria (Stromata, ii, 20) also makes Barnabas one of the Seventy Disciples that are mentioned in the Gospel of Luke 10:1ff.

Back to today’s reading. With Barnabas’s introduction, Saul preached boldly for Christ in Jerusalem (verse 28). Not surprisingly, this angered the Jews, particularly the Hellenist Jews, the group from which Saul came. He was able to scripturally out-debate them which led them to become so hate-filled that they wanted to kill him (verse 29).

John MacArthur reminds us:

The Hellenist Jews. He was one of them. And you know who was the last guy to preach to them? Stephen. He picked up the mantle of Stephen and took off right at the point Stephen quit. He went right back to the Hellenist Jews. Went right back to their synagogues and started debating with them again. Boy just having gotten over the shock of Stephen, it must have been something to try to handle this guy.

Recall that the Lord told Ananias in Damascus, whom He sent to baptise Saul:

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

This happened in Damascus — and possibly in Arabia — and, now, once again, in Jerusalem. Saul, the persecutor, was becoming by divine intent, Saul the persecuted.

When his brothers in Christ heard of this plot by the Hellenists to kill him, they got Saul out of the city, took him to Caesarea — a port on the Mediterranean Sea — and shipped him back home to Tarsus (verse 30).

Matthew Henry examines the reasons why:

They remembered how the putting of Stephen to death, upon his disputing with the Grecians, had been the beginning of a sore persecution; and therefore were afraid of having such a vein opened again, and hastened Paul out of the way. He that flies may fight again. He that fled from Jerusalem might do service at Tarsus, the place of his nativity; and thither they desired him by all means to go, hoping he might there go on in his work with more safety than at Jerusalem. Yet it was also by direction from heaven that he left Jerusalem at this time, as he tells us himself (Acts 22:17), that Christ now appeared to him, and ordered him to go quickly out of Jerusalem, for he must be sent to the Gentiles, Acts 9:15. Those by whom God has work to do shall be protected from all the designs of their enemies against them till it be done. Christ’s witnesses cannot be slain till they have finished their testimony.

Verse 31 has several nuances. The Church was once more at peace. Saul, the chief persecutor, had been converted. He, the powerful persecutor turned convincing convert, had also fled the Hellenists in Jerusalem. The Hellenists were not interested in anyone else. Preaching continued and more Jews converted. Because all were walking in the way of the Lord and filled with the Holy Spirit, the Church grew and grew.

MacArthur adds a historical note about what was going on in Rome at this time and an instructive principle of the growth of Christianity, then and now:

… at this point in history a very interesting footnote comes out that you must understand. At this point, the emperor of Rome was Caligula. And Caligula attempted to set up idols in Jerusalem. And this got the Jews so angry that the Jews concentrated their fight against Caligula and consequently left the Christians alone for a period of time. That occurred at the same time. So Paul’s leaving and the Jews preoccupation with Caligula’s efforts to set up idols gave the church rest and as a result of the rest of the church it says “the church was edified and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit it was,” what, “multiplied.”

First it was edified and then it was multiplied. You want to know the pattern for church growth? People say to me, how do you build a church? You don’t build a church, you build a believer and the church will build itself. There it is, first edify, what kind of growth is that? Spiritual. Then multiply, what kind of growth is that? Numerical. You people who are here today aren’t here because we had a contest to get you here. You’re here in most cases, in fact, if not in all cases, because some Christians’ lives were changed and they touched your life. That’s the only way God ever intended the church to grow. And it grew.

MacArthur also tells us what Paul did next:

They put him on a boat and Galatians 1:21, he says, “Afterwards, I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.” Tarsus was in Cilicia. What do you think he did there? It’s terrific. The indication of what he did is in Chapter 15:23 of Acts

It says, “The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting,” … “unto the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Syria and Cilicia.” Guess what he did? He went all over the place founding churches. He was absolutely inexhaustible. There was no stopping the man. He was a human preaching machine. You couldn’t stop him. He got to Syria and Cilicia and even in Antioch and he took off preaching Jesus. Over in verse 41, he went through Syria and Cilicia later on confirming the churches that he had established. Fantastic. And he didn’t worry about anything. He was fearless. It didn’t matter what was going on. If they tried to kill him or not try to kill him, he was so bold.

The story continues next week.

Next time: Acts 9:32-35

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

Bible spine dwtx.orgThe 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 9:19b-22

Saul Proclaims Jesus in Synagogues

For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

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Last week, I wrote three lengthy posts on Paul’s conversion based on the first half of Acts 9. These are important, because only by carefully studying his Damascene conversion can we come to appreciate and understand how the Holy Trinity worked through Paul and made him such a pivotal Apostle, even though he was not of the original, or even replacement (Matthias, Acts 1), Twelve:

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)

People say that Paul was much ‘greater’ than Peter. He certainly left his stamp on the Church and the New Testament. That said, God gave the two men different types of ministries.

Peter actually had the blessing of being with Jesus for three years. Paul did not.

Whilst foolhardy at times during Jesus’s ministry, Peter did not commit the sins that Paul did, requiring a brutal conversion. If Paul did not actually participate in murdering Christians, he certainly engineered and approved of it e.g. Stephen (Acts 7 and 8). He was pure evil before the Light of Christ struck him off his horse.

Ultimately, both died together as martyrs in Rome at the same time although in different ways, which is why their names are so often linked together. Their feast day is June 29 in the Western Church. They are the patron saints of Rome.

Now on to today’s verses. After he received the Holy Spirit and was baptised, Paul — still Saul — immediately began his ministry in Damascus (verse 19b). The city had a large Jewish population, possibly up to 20,000, and the Christian converts — ex-Jews — there, as elsewhere at that time, worshipped in the synagogues. So he had many new Christians to address.

Wherever he went in the city, Saul preached that Jesus is the Son of God (verse 20). He did not talk about his own dramatic testimony, only Christ and Christ crucified.

Matthew Henry elaborates:

When he began to be a preacher, he fixed this for his principle, which he stuck to ever after: We preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus our Lord; nothing but Christ, and him crucified. He preached concerning Christ, that he is the Son of God, his beloved Son, in whom he is well pleased, and with us in him, and not otherwise.

Martin Luther emphasised that principle and it holds true today.

John MacArthur clarifies what the words Son of God mean (emphases mine):

Jesus is God, He is very God of God in human flesh. He is only called Son in the sense that as the second person of the Trinity He came to earth. He is a Son in the sense that He was born. He is not a Son in terms of rank in the Trinity. He’s not less than the Father. He’s only a Son in an incarnate sense. Before His incarnation He was God the second person of the Trinity. The title Son belongs to His incarnation …

He is not a Son in the sense of inferiority to God the Father in any way, shape, or form. And I only say that because you’ll run into some people who’ll deny that He is God because He’s called the Son of God. Since we only know Christ from our standpoint in terms of incarnation, we call Him the Son of God and so did Saul, because we know Him in His incarnation. We call Him Jesus too, but that’s an incarnation name as well. We call Him Christ and that’s an incarnation name as well. So he began to preach that he is the Son of God.

The alternative to preaching Christ and Him only is a subjective testimony. MacArthur warns:

Now there’s nothing wrong with your testimony, it’s just that your testimony is relatively inconsequential in terms of the importance of the presentation of who Christ is, you see? Your testimony as a supplement is fine. Your testimony as a witness itself isn’t any good at all because it’s got to be more than that. All good preaching and witnessing is doctrinal. And really, you know, the church has gone overboard on people’s testimonies and people’s experiences and we have created, what I’m afraid, is almost a subjective approach to Christianity.

Now subjectivism is a curse that man has had to live with for a long time. Ever since the Garden of Eden when man sinned, immediately God started looking for man and man started looking at man. He ran in the Garden, I’m naked, I better cover myself. Man became man centered or subjective. God’s always been looking at man. Man’s always been turning inside. And man creates religions that are totally subjective. It’s all experiential. And even today the cultured philosophical men of our world have found an experiential religion, you know. The leap of faith. The upper story, whatever you call it.

But religion is subjective, but not Christianity. Romans 10, “Faith comes by hearing a speech about Christ.” Did you hear that? “Faith comes by hearing a speech about Christ.” Not a subjective analysis of what’s going on in me. Now it’s all right to talk about your own experience in certain context and it’s all right to include your testimony in terms of presentation, but never to the exclusion of the actuality of the presentation of Jesus Christ.

It is interesting that Saul’s own testimony, being so dramatic, rarely entered into his preaching. It did briefly later on, as documented in Acts 22 and 26. However, from the start — immediately upon beginning his ministry — he did not take that route.

Bear in mind that, from an early age, as a Pharisee, Saul was educated in Scripture and philosophy in Tarsus. Later, in Jerusalem, he continued his studies under the famed Gamaliel. He was blessed with a gift for sound logic and argumentation. Now he was using that blessing to preach to new Christians. MacArthur imagines the sermons:

And boy I imagine he unlocked that Old Testament, and it was exciting. And that’s how he became known his whole life as a preacher of Jesus Christ.

Recall that Saul originally went with his men to Damascus to round up Christian converts and take them back to the temple in Jerusalem for trial on charges of heresy. Now he is preaching to them, full of the Holy Spirit and knowledge of Christ.

It is no wonder then that the people were ‘amazed’ at hearing Saul before them preaching to them (verse 21). No wonder they were abuzz asking, ‘Isn’t this the man who was persecuting converts brutally in Jerusalem?’ And, as verse 21 tells us, they knew he was coming for them.

Yet, now he was one of them.

Matthew Henry says that the people would have found his conversion as a massive proof that Jesus is the Messiah:

Doubtless this was looked upon by many as a great confirmation of the truth of Christianity, that one who had been such a notorious persecutor of it came, on a sudden, to be such an intelligent, strenuous, and capacious preacher of it. This miracle upon the mind of such a man outshone the miracles upon men’s bodies; and giving a man such another heart was more than giving men to speak with other tongues.

St Luke, the author of Acts, wanted us to know that the more Saul preached, the stronger he became in faith and oratory (verse 22). As such, he was able to argue his case with Jewish opponents. ‘Confound’ in that verse means to frustrate.

Henry explains:

He grew more bold and daring and resolute in defence of the gospel: He increased the more for the reflections that were cast upon him (Acts 9:21), in which his new friends upbraided him as having been a persecutor, and his old friends upbraided him as being now a turncoat; but Saul, instead of being discouraged by the various remarks made upon his conversion, was thereby so much the more emboldened, finding he had enough at hand wherewith to answer the worst they could say to him. (2.) He ran down his antagonists, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus; he silenced them, and shamed them–answered their objections to the satisfaction of all indifferent persons, and pressed them with arguments which they could make no reply to. In all his discourses with the Jews he was still proving that this Jesus is very Christ, is the Christ, the anointed of God, the true Messiah promised to the fathers. He was proving it, symbibazon–affirming it and confirming it, teaching with persuasion. And we have reason to think he was instrumental in converting many to the faith of Christ, and building up the church at Damascus, which he went thither to make havoc of. Thus out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong sweetness.

Saul must have known it would not be long before he would be hunted down and persecuted.

More on that next week.

Next time — Acts 9:23-25

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.

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.

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.

Bible read me 2The 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 8:1-3

Saul Ravages the Church

And Saul approved of his execution.

And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

——————————————————————————————

Acts 7 related the apologetic and death of Stephen, the first martyr.

Only his final words and his stoning are in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.

Over the past few weeks, I have discussed what he said to the temple court and why.

Stephen, one of the first deacons, was also divinely given the gift of ‘doing great wonders and signs among the people’ (Acts 6:8). He also spoke openly about Jesus in Solomon’s Portico (Porch) at the temple. For this, he was arrested on charges of blasphemy: blaspheming God, Moses, the law and the temple. Acts 7 contains his address and the council’s action against him.

Stephen first got the council’s attention by saying he had revered the same traditions as they and respected the history of the people of Israel. He related the story of Abraham, then of Joseph.

At that point, he accomplished two objectives: holding his audience’s attention and defending himself against the charge of blaspheming God.

As Stephen related his scriptural knowledge of the early patriarchs, he also indicted his audience for rejecting Jesus. His reason for mentioning Joseph was to get them to realise that Joseph’s brothers treated him the same way the Jews treated Jesus.

Stephen went on to discuss Moses scripturally, to show that he had not blasphemed him. He began with Moses’s childhood, then his early adulthood, which included self-exile to Midian. After 40 years, an angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush and told him he would be going to Egypt to deliver the Israelites.

He then discussed the next part of the apologetic: the Israelites’ rejection of Moses and their turning to idolatry, which was part of their way of life for generations to come. God had left them to their own devices.

What Stephen did throughout his entire apologetic — case for, defence of religious doctrine — was to demonstrate that God’s chosen people had rejected those He sent to them. Similarly, they had rejected Jesus. Stephen exhorted them to consider those rejections very carefully.

Finally, Stephen had to defend himself against charges that he blasphemed the temple. He ended his apologetic by accusing the Jews of rejecting the Holy Spirit. That enraged them and they took him outside of Jerusalem to be stoned.

Among them was Saul, later Paul the Apostle. Acts 7 ends with this (emphases mine):

58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Matthew Henry’s commentary has this analysis:

Now, the stoning of a man being a laborious piece of work, the witnesses took off their upper garments, that they might not hang in their way, and they laid them down at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul, now a pleased spectator of this tragedy. It is the first time we find mention of his name; we shall know it and love it better when we find it changed to Paul, and him changed from a persecutor into a preacher. This little instance of his agency in Stephen’s death he afterwards reflected upon with regret (Acts 22:20): I kept the raiment of those that slew him.

Before I begin with today’s verses, it is also useful to look at the King James Version, which adds to the drama of the reality in Jerusalem.

I will be returning to these in the commentary below:

And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.

And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.

As Acts 8 opens, St Luke tells us that Saul approved of this execution (verse 1). We know how on fire the converted Saul — the Apostle Paul — was for Jesus Christ. He dominates the letters of the New Testament. Therefore, just imagine what he was like pre-Damascene conversion. I’ll return to this later, but he was a powerful man, both as Saul and as Paul.

For now, both Matthew Henry and John MacArthur believed that Saul had a lot to do with Stephen’s death.

MacArthur says:

He was involved from the very beginning of this conflict with Stephen …

And Saul was the leader, and it may have been that right there at the death of Stephen, he got the whole deal organized. “At that same time” it says. He might have pulled that mob around him, and the very seed of bloodshed was Stephen was dying, was the thing that really spawned the group of people that followed this man Saul around to kill Christians.

Henry’s commentary tells us that Paul probably asked Luke, the author of Acts, to insert the part about consent in the first verse as an expiation for his subsequent guilt:

We have reason to think that Paul ordered Luke to insert this, for shame to himself, and glory to free grace. Thus he owns himself guilty of the blood of Stephen, and aggravates it with this, that he did not do it with regret and reluctancy, but with delight and a full satisfaction, like those who not only do such things, but have pleasure in those that do them.

Saul wanted to ensure the Church died, hence St Luke’s mention of ‘a great persecution’ against Her in Jerusalem. MacArthur explains:

Now we don’t have any of the gory details of what Saul did specifically, we only have some general terms. But whatever it was, it resulted in the people being scattered all over everywhere and being driven out of the city. He just drove them out, and I am sure that the ones who were driven out were dominantly the Hellenistic Jews, the Grecian Jews who didn’t really belong there. And it may have been in these early times that the whole movement was still associated with Stephen as a Grecian Jew.

They fled to Judea and Samaria.

Only the Apostles stayed in the city. There were many converts in Jerusalem and they needed the Twelve. No doubt, they were also intent on converting more Jews. It could be that, as the Apostles came from the area near Jerusalem and spent the feast days there that there was a certain comfort level. It is possible that the converts who had lived in or near Jerusalem all their lives felt the same way.

John MacArthur explains that a whole host of dynamics were at work at this time, good and evil. Stephen’s death was a turning point for the Church, and Acts 8 demonstrates that. The Church was now largely leaving Jerusalem — God’s chosen who had rejected His Son — for the Gentile world. Also observe that what Jesus said quickly came true:

Here’s what Jesus says to be the pattern of the expansion of the church: “But ye shall receive power after the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be witness unto Me.” Now here comes the pattern. “Both in Jerusalem and all Judea.” Now, Jerusalem was a city in which, which was in Judea, as a province or country. And so He said “In Jerusalem and all Judea, then in Samaria, and then the outermost part of the earth.” Now there you have the outline of the book of Acts. First in Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, then the world. And so in 8, we’re beginning to move out of Jerusalem, into Judea and Samaria; the gospel extending. And the Samaritans, I think, in the mind of God, formed a perfect bridge to the Gentile world, because the Samaritans were half-breeds. They were part Jewish, part Gentile. And so it was a little extension, then to go smack into the Gentile situation … So chapter 8, then, is the beginning of the church moving out. And it’s a sad thing in a sense, as well as a great thing, to see the gospel move out. It’s a sad thing to see the door shut on Jerusalem.

Therefore, although the Church remained there, Jerusalem was no longer the main focus. It was now time for the Church to expand elsewhere, to more favourable audiences. As we have seen in the preceding chapters in Acts, whenever there was a setback, God and the Holy Spirit gave the fledgling Church more grace and fortitude to move forward.

Here’s MacArthur’s take. I like his analogy of fire, very much befitting a discussion of the Holy Spirit:

The Holy Spirit is in the business of turning negatives into positives, of taking disasters and turning them into miracles. You can’t blockade the Holy Spirit. He likes to take those kind of tragedies and turn them into victory.

If you’ve been with us in our study of the book of Acts, you know what He’s done with Peter and John. Every time they got in a hopeless situation, it just was a greater opportunity to preach the gospel. Every time they got into a negative scene, the Spirit of God turned it into a positive. Every time the persecution arose, the preaching followed right on its heels. And God allowed the gospel to reach into areas and the hearts of people who could never otherwise be reached, other than through persecution. It’s kind of like trying to stamp out a fire, and the harder you jump on it, the more you scatter the embers and start fires all over everywhere. And that’s exactly what happened. They started jumping all over the church in Jerusalem and all they did was send the embers all over the world, because that’s how the Holy Spirit works.

Verse 2 tells us that Stephen had a dignified, religious burial. Our two commentators differ in their interpretation of ‘devout men’.

MacArthur thinks that the ‘devout men’ were, in fact, pious Jews who thought that his stoning was wrong. He reasons this from the wording:

If they were referring to Christians, it would have said “believers,” or “the brothers,” or something. But it says “devout men”. That’s a term that has to do with pious Jews. And what it says is this: “There were some Jews in Jerusalem, though not Christians, who still believed that the murder of Stephen was wrong.” That’s kind of nice to know. There was still some fertile soil for the gospel in Jerusalem. The apostles stayed; devout men carried Stephen.

Under Jewish law, criminals had to be buried, although Jews were not allowed to lament over them. Yet, these men openly and emphatically lamented him:

So in a very real sense – and incidentally it was probably very public. What they were doing there was reacting by protest to the murder of this man. Now here’s some fertile soil for the apostles to reach for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Henry surmised that they would have been fellow converts, which I am more inclined to believe, since Stephen was very holy and had been very visible at the temple during his brief ministry. Also, what Christians would have disowned such a man? Here is Henry on the devout men:

Stephen’s death bewailed by others (Acts 8:2)– devout men, which some understand of those that were properly so called, proselytes, one of whom Stephen himself probably was. Or, it may be taken more largely; some of the church that were more devout and zealous than the rest went and gathered up the poor crushed and broken remains, to which they gave a decent interment, probably in the field of blood, which was bought some time ago to bury strangers in. They buried him solemnly, and made great lamentation over him. Though his death was of great advantage to himself, and great service to the church, yet they bewailed it as a general loss, so well qualified was he for the service, and so likely to be useful both as a deacon and as a disputant. It is a bad symptom if, when such men are taken away, it is not laid to heart. Those devout men paid these their last respects to Stephen, (1.) To show that they were not ashamed of the cause for which he suffered, nor afraid of the wrath of those that were enemies to it; for, though they now triumph, the cause is a righteous cause, and will be at last a victorious one. (2.) To show the great value and esteem they had for this faithful servant of Jesus Christ, this first martyr for the gospel, whose memory shall always be precious to them, notwithstanding the ignominy of his death. They study to do honour to him upon whom God put honour. (3.) To testify their belief and hope of the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

It could have also been a mix of new Christians and empathetic Jews attending to Stephen’s burial.

Verse 3 brings us back to Saul and his vigilance and violence in going house to house to rout Jerusalem of Christian men and women.

The King James Version mentioned above says that Saul ‘made havock’, which means laying violent waste and ruin to something, in this case, the Church. Saul wanted to achieve the wanton destruction of Christ’s holy Bride.

Henry gives us a chilling description of Saul, a Pharisee, by the way:

Paul owns that at this time he persecuted this way unto the death (Acts 21:4), and (Acts 26:10) that when they were put to death he gave his voice against them …

He aimed at no less than the cutting off of the gospel Israel, that the name of it should be no more in remembrance, Psalms 83:4. He was the fittest tool the chief priests could find out to serve their purposes; he was informer-general against the disciples, a messenger of the great council to be employed in searching for meetings, and seizing all that were suspected to favour that way. Saul was bred a scholar, a gentleman, and yet did not think it below him to be employed in the vilest work of that kind. (1.) He entered into every house, making no difficulty of breaking open doors, night or day, and having a force attending him for that purpose. He entered into every house where they used to hold their meetings, or every house that had any Christians in it, or was thought to have. No man could be secure in his own house, though it was his castle. (2.) He haled, with the utmost contempt and cruelty, both men and women, dragged them along the streets, without any regard to the tenderness of the weaker sex; he stooped so low as to take cognizance of the meanest that were leavened with the gospel, so extremely bigoted was he. (3.) He committed them to prison, in order to their being tried and put to death, unless they would renounce Christ; and some, we find, were compelled by him to blaspheme, Acts 26:11.

MacArthur says that Saul genuinely believed he was doing the right thing:

Galatians 1:13 proves that: “Just as you heard of my manner of life in time past, in the Jew’s religion. How that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God and wasted it. And profited in the Jew’s religion above many my equals and mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers. I thought I was pleasing God. I was so zealous for my religion.” But he was wrong.

MacArthur calls our attention to the KJV word ‘haling’, the antiquated form of ‘hauling’:

He just hauled them out of the houses. It means dragging, literally. It’s used in John 21:8 of dragging the fishnet in with all the fish. Remember when Peter caught so many fish he just dragged them? That’s what he did. He grabbed them, dragged them out into the street, and threw them in jail.

From this, we can better understand the violence of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9. It had to be that way.

Acts 8 goes on to follow the ministry of Philip in Samaria, which we will encounter next time.

As there are special Sundays coming up for the next few weeks, Forbidden Bible Verses will resume in June 2017.

Next time: Acts 8:4-8

Over the past few weeks I have been running a series of posts on Percy Dearmer‘s 1912 volume, Everyman’s History of the Prayer Book, published by Mowbray.

These are the previous posts in the series:

Percy Dearmer on the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles of Religion

Percy Dearmer on the title page of the Book of Common Prayer

Percy Dearmer on the title page of the Book of Common Prayer – part 1

Percy Dearmer on the title page of the Book of Common Prayer – part 2

Percy Dearmer on the earliest church service manuscripts

That last post referenced Chapter 4 of Dearmer’s book. That chapter has so much information in it that it will be the subject of my next few Sunday night posts.

What caught my eye — and is the subject of today’s entry — is Dearmer’s sound interpretation of St Paul’s instruction regarding prophecy and tongues from 1 Corinthians 14. (I use the ESV.)

Dearmer defines both terms for us.

Prophecy:

probably resembling the utterances and prayers which break the silence of a Quakers’ meeting (or of those “quiet meetings” which are now happily being revived in the Church of England), as it is mentioned in 1 Cor. xiv. 1, 29, 1 Thess. v. 20, and in 1 Cor. xi. 4 …

Tongues:

which we see by 1 Cor. xiv. 23-39, were already becoming somewhat of a babel, and are unfavourably compared by St. Paul with Prophecy …

For each, Dearmer went on to explain what St Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 14:34:

the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.

This passage is contentious, especially today with the contrast between certain fundamentalist notions of ‘federal’ (‘male’) headship and women’s active participation in church services, particularly those who have been ordained in certain denominations.

Dearmer provides suitable historic explanations, particular to the Corinthians.

With regard to prophecy (emphases mine):

This passage is interesting because it shows that the Apostle’s injunction, “Let your women keep silence in the churches” (1 Cor. xiv. 34), did not mean that they were not to take any part in the service, but referred to a habit which had grown up amongst the women, of chattering during service time

The men then joined in with tongues:

the men, it seems from the context, interrupted by babbling with “tongues,” or by all prophesying at once

One exacerbated the other:

and then the women increased the confusion by asking questions about what they meant — which is not to be wondered at

Paul gave the Corinthians specific instructions on both in 1 Corinthians 14.

Paul valued prophecy over tongues (verse 5), because prophecy built up, encouraged and consoled the whole congregation (verse 3).

He told those speaking in tongues that they needed to be ready to interpret what they had just uttered, so that the rest of the congregation could understand (verses 13-17).

This is interesting:

18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Remember that, in Acts 2:12-13, about which I wrote in December 2016, the 70 who received the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost began speaking in foreign languages — tongues. Some of the Jews ridiculed them because they did not understand the languages spoken. They said these holy followers of Jesus were intoxicated on new wine.

With that in mind, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to be mindful of what they say and how they say it (verse 23):

If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?

Paul made a clear distinction between tongues and prophecy. Each was for a different audience. Tongues, he said, were for unbelievers’ ears (verse 21, citing Isaiah 28:11, Deuteronomy 28:49). Prophecy was for the believers. Paul says that both, done properly, would have a dramatic effect on the listener:

24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

That is what happened in the early chapters of Acts and what Paul wanted the Corinthians to achieve.

He wanted them to speak in an orderly fashion and maintain silence rather than speak idly (‘Oooh, I wonder what that was about?’):

27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.

40 But all things should be done decently and in order.

1 Corinthians 14 also gives us an idea of the worship of Paul’s converts:

26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.

From these early practices — ‘done decently and in order’ — a liturgy began developing which became fuller and more structured as the Church matured. An orderly worship benefited everyone in the congregation.

Next week’s post will describe New Testament Christian worship in more detail.

Holy Spirit as dove stained glassOn May 15, 2016, Christians celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, which is the Church’s birthday.

We call it the Church’s birthday because on the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and enabled them to spread the Good News from Jerusalem to Samaria. St Paul, who was not among the original number because he had not yet been converted, later called people to Christ in Asia Minor and Rome. These conversions, accompanied by miracles, are in Acts. Other apostles, such as Sts John and Peter, wrote letters to their converts. St John also wrote Revelation. Christ’s chosen spread the Gospel message far and wide throughout the known world at that time. Not all of it is included in Scripture.

Past posts on Pentecost are as follows:

Pentecost — the Church’s birthday, with gifts from the Holy Spirit

Lutheran reflections on Pentecost

Thoughts on Pentecost: the power of the Holy Spirit

Reflections for Pentecost — a Reformed view

This year we are in Year C of the three-year Lectionary used in public worship. The Epistle for Pentecost in 2016 is Romans 8:14-17:

8:14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.

8:15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”

8:16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,

8:17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ–if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Earlier in Romans 8, we read that we have life in the Spirit. John MacArthur explains:

The Holy Spirit takes us all the way to glory … He does it by freeing us from sin and death.  We saw that in verses 2 and 3.  He does that by freeing us from sin and death through the wonderful work of…imputation, whereby our sins are imputed to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us.  He has delivered us from the law of sin of death, because Christ has paid the penalty.

With the Spirit’s guidance, we turn from what is worldly to what is holy (verses 5 – 8). The Holy Spirit must dwell in us in order for us to belong to Christ (verse 9). Even though we have fallen short through sin:

the Holy Spirit maintains our no-condemnation status by empowering us in that new nature for victory.  It is according to the Spirit, verse 13, that we are able to put to death the deeds of the body and, thus, to live. 

This brings us to today’s Epistle which describes our adoption into God’s family through the Holy Spirit. MacArthur has a lot to say about the meaning of adoption, especially in the ancient world during Paul’s time. Paul’s message must have been exciting news to the Romans, as we will see.

All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God (verse 14). This explains the importance of receiving the Holy Spirit. The oldest Christian denominations have the ordinance — for Catholics, the Sacrament — of Confirmation. Receiving the Holy Spirit and reaffirming our faith takes us to the point in our spiritual life whereby we recognise He guides us to do what is right and good.

More importantly, however, receiving the Holy Spirit makes us adopted members of God’s family. We can now, with confidence, call Him ‘Dad’ — Abba (verse 15). We recognise Him not as a fearsome Father but as a truly loving one.

When we think of adoption over the past few centuries, it appears to us as a mixed blessing. Orphanages have been and continue to be, in some cases, depressing and brutal places where children wait for parents to come rescue them. Over the past 40 years, psychotherapy has, perhaps mistakenly, encouraged adopted children to talk and write about finding their natural mothers and disparage their adopted families. There is often a tinge of sadness when we discuss adoption.

By contrast, in the ancient world, adoption was a tremendous, positive step for both the adopter and the adopted. It really did mean a new life not only in a family sense but also a legal one.

In ancient Greece, a man who had no sons would seek out a well-bred young man to adopt. The young man would then inherit his adoptive father’s estate and business concerns.

The same custom existed in Rome. A man who had no sons — or sons whom he thought were unsuitable to inherit his estate — went out in search of a young man whom he could adopt. The adopted son had a higher status than the natural sons did.

It was a tremendous privilege to be adopted during that era.

In Rome, fathers had power over their children throughout their lifetimes. They could even kill their sons or daughters. It was legal. Children were under their father’s control — patria potestas — until he died.

MacArthur describes how Roman adoption worked, given patria potestas (emphases mine):

Now obviously this…made adoption into another family very difficult and very serious unless the person was … an illegitimate child or an orphan.  And if a man saw a son that he wanted and that son belonged to another father he had to go through a very formidable operation to get that person to pass out from under patria potestas into his own control.  There were two stepsThe first one was called mancipatio from which we get the word emancipation.  And mancipatio was carried out about a symbolic sort of sale.  If the father would agree to let this son be adopted by another man there was this symbolic sale they went to; they had some scales and some copper and they used this symbolism to carry out sort of a transaction like I’m selling this young man to you.  They did it three times.  Twice the father symbolically sold the son and twice he bought him back and then the third time he didn’t buy him back and the patria potestas was broken.

After the sale there was ceremony called vindicatio and the adopting father went to the Roman magistrate and presented a legal case for the actual legal transference of the person to be adopted into his own patria potestas.  And when all this was complete the adoption was done. 

Adoption in the Roman world signified four things. We can reflect on them the way the Romans who heard Paul’s letter did and relate them to adoption by God the Father through the Holy Spirit. MacArthur says:

First thing that happened was the adopted person lost all relationship to his old family. Everything was gone and he gained all rights to the new family. It’s a beautiful picture of salvation, isn’t it?

Second thing, it followed that he became heir to all the father’s, the new father’s estate. And even if the other children were blood born, it did not affect his rights. He was inalienably the co-heir with them and perhaps even exceeding above them, if that was in the prerogative of the father.

The third thing that happened, according to Roman law, was that the former life of the adopted person was completely wiped out. All his legal debts were cancelled. They were wiped out as if he had never existed. And the adopted person was given a new name and it was as if he had just been born. Sound familiar? When you came to Jesus Christ and were adopted into the family of God, all your past debts were what? Cancelled, and you became a co-heir of all that the born son, the Lord Jesus Christ, possesses.

The fourth thing was in the eyes of the law the adopted person was literally and absolutely the son of his new father. And so, when we were adopted, all these things, no doubt, are in the mind of the apostle and the Spirit, and we know they took place in our adoption. We have cut the cord with the past. We have become co-heirs to God’s kingdom. All the old debts are wiped out and we are absolutely and legally and forever the son of God.

Verse 16 refers to regeneration via the Holy Spirit. MacArthur explains:

Adoption gives us the title to the inheritance. Regeneration gives us the nature of sons and gives us the fitness for that inheritance. Both are important.

This regeneration starts our path of sanctification as the Holy Spirit guides us to do what God wants us to do. We turn away from sin towards accomplishing His will and purpose for us.

Knowing we are full members of God’s family through adoption gives us assurance that we are heirs with Christ, our heavenly Brother. As marvellous as that is, with the promise of eternal life with Him, it also means that we may suffer in this transitory life. We may be called to suffer as He was called to suffer (verse 17). MacArthur tells us:

Suffering is a necessary part of the preparation for glory.

For some Christians this might mean physical persecution or, in the case of death for the faith, martyrdom. For most of us, however, it might mean losing family members or longtime friends. We might find it difficult keeping or finding a job if our managers are set against Christians.

Ultimately, however, we will be glorified as Christ was glorified because we are heirs to the kingdom of God. And the Holy Spirit is with us from now through to life eternal.

MacArthur leaves us with this reflection on the Holy Spirit as Romans 8 describes:

The Holy Spirit frees us from sin and death.  We looked at that in verses 2 and 3.  The Holy Spirit enables us to fulfill the law, verse 4.  The Holy Spirit changes our nature, verses 5 to 11.  The Holy Spirit empowers us for victory over sin, verses 12 and 13.  And then last time, the Holy Spirit adopts us into God’s family as sons, verses 14 through 16.  All of this is the ministry of the Holy Spirit for which we give Him praise and thanks

Now we come to the final point:  The Holy Spirit secures our eternal glory.

In the second half of Romans 8, Paul describes how the Holy Spirit accomplishes His work in us then tells us of God’s everlasting love. These verses are familiar ones:

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be[i] against us?

33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.

38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

May we reflect on these realities and powers of the Holy Spirit and give thanks, not only at Pentecost but every day.

Let us also remember to pray to the Holy Spirit for daily guidance. He will help us in all that we do.

Bartolomeo Montagna - Saint Paul - Google Art Project.jpgThe Epistle for Tuesday of Holy Week in Year C of the three-year Lectionary is 1 Corinthians 1:18-31:

1:18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

1:19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

1:20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

1:21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.

1:22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,

1:23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,

1:24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

1:25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

1:26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.

1:27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;

1:28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,

1:29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

1:30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,

1:31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

——————————————————————————————-

St Paul’s words are just as relevant today as they were at the time he penned them.

A growing number of people in the West find Christianity and its adherents low-information and stupid.

The ancient Greeks also considered it silly. How could Jesus’s death on the cross redeem mankind? It was antithetical to them, a people steeped in philosophy.

Paul cites Isaiah 29:14, which prophesied that God would thwart notional human wisdom and manmade discernment. Matthew Henry’s commentary explains:

They laughed at the story of a crucified Saviour, and despised the apostles’ way of telling it. They sought for wisdom. They were men of wit and reading, men that had cultivated arts and sciences, and had, for some ages, been in a manner the very mint of knowledge and learning. There was nothing in the plain doctrine of the cross to suit their taste, nor humour their vanity, nor gratify a curious and wrangling temper: they entertained it therefore with scorn and contempt. What, hope to be saved by one that could not save himself! And trust in one who was condemned and crucified as a malefactor, a man of mean birth and poor condition in life, and cut off by so vile and opprobrious a death! This was what the pride of human reason and learning could not relish. The Greeks thought it little better than stupidity to receive such a doctrine, and pay this high regard to such a person: and thus were they justly left to perish in their pride and obstinacy. It is just with God to leave those to themselves who pour such proud contempt on divine wisdom and grace.

When Paul was in Corinth, it wasn’t only the Greeks who found the significance of the Crucifixion incomprehensible. Jews also wanted further proof that Jesus was the Messiah.

Even Greeks and Jews who became Christians still carried remnants of the thought processes and views they had learned in their childhood. Greeks were searching for the intellectualism in their new faith and Jews were struggling to discard the idea that the Messiah would bring them a temporal kingdom.

This is why Paul wrote that the cross is a stumbling block to them, yet, the Crucifixion brought about salvation for both Jew and Greek. And what looked weak to them has divine, everlasting power behind it that man cannot comprehend (verse 25).

God took humiliating events and humble people to accomplish His divine purpose through Christ our Lord.

Jesus did not call effete elitists to become disciples. He called fishermen and a tax collector. He asked nobodies to spread the Good News.

To reinforce his message, Paul reminded his converts of their own humble beginnings (verse 26).

God’s ways are not man’s ways. He despises men who boast of their own abilities and learning:

The gospel is fitted to bring down the pride of both Jews and Greeks, to shame the boasted science and learning of the Greeks, and to take down that constitution on which the Jews valued themselves and despised all the world besides, that no flesh should glory in his presence ({cf 1Co 1:29}), that there might be no pretence for boasting.

God in His infinite love and mercy manifested divine wisdom and power in Christ Jesus, whose one and sufficient sacrifice delivers us from sin and brings us to life eternal.

Therefore, if we are going to boast, may we, as Paul wrote, boast in the Lord. Paul cited Jeremiah 9:23-24 to reinforce his point:

23 Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”

Henry’s commentary reminds us:

We are foolishness, ignorant and blind in the things of God, with all our boasted knowledge; and he is made wisdom to us. We are guilty, obnoxious to justice; and he is made righteousness, our great atonement and sacrifice. We are depraved and corrupt; and he is made sanctification, the spring of our spiritual life; from him, the head, it is communicated to all the members of his mystical body by his Holy Spirit. We are in bonds, and he is made redemption to us, our Saviour and deliverer. Observe, Where Christ is made righteousness to any soul, he is also made sanctification. He never discharges from the guilt of sin, without delivering from the power of it; and he is made righteousness and sanctification, that he may in the end be made complete redemption, may free the soul from the very being of sin, and loose the body from the bonds of the grave: and what is designed in all is that all flesh may glory in the Lord, {cf11ul 1Co 1:31}. Observe, It is the will of God that all our glorifying should be in the Lord: and, our salvation being only through Christ, it is thereby effectually provided that it should be so. Man is humbled, and God glorified and exalted, by the whole scheme.

Over the past few years, a socio-political trend has taken root whereby so-called educated and wealthy people complain about fellow citizens whom they label as poor, low-information people.

Similar verbiage appears in arguments between supposed wise, reason-driven atheists and ‘ignorant’, ‘stupid’ Christians.

Pride is a sin. May we never boast of our own power, wealth or abilities. May we boast, as the Bible says, only in the Lord.

We can use Holy Week as a time to pray for the unchurched and the unbelievers that they come to faith through divine grace.

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