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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary
Acts 9



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Verse 3


‘And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven.’

Acts 9:3

The story of the conversion of St. Paul is repeated three times in the Acts of the Apostles. It is told in chapters 9, 22, and 26. We may well be thankful for his ‘wonderful conversion.’ For think how large a part of our New Testament came from the pen of St. Paul. He wrote thirteen Epistles, and was besides the foremost of the missionaries of the Gospel.

I. What sort of a man was this St. Paul before his conversion?—He had been brought up in the strictest of Hebrew homes, and was an earnest professor of religion (Acts 22:3). He acted up to the light of his conscience (Acts 26:9). As far as his outward conduct went he was blameless (Philippians 3:6). Doubtless he had a good deal to do with the murder of St. Stephen, because in Acts 7:58, it is stated the ‘witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet whose name was Saul’ (see also Acts 8:1; Acts 22:20). St. Paul also confesses that he compelled the Christians to blaspheme (Acts 26:11). It is bad enough to sin oneself, but to cause others to sin is the very worst of sins. It is bad enough to be a drunkard, or a swearer, or a thief; but to teach others to drink and swear and steal is a thousand times worst. Besides which, not only men, but women also he caused to be imprisoned (Acts 8:3; Acts 9:2; Acts 26:11); and tearing up happy homes, what misery it must have caused to helpless women and children! Take two texts, and you will see what a bitter persecutor of the Christians Saul was. (a) ‘Saul … made havoc of the Church’ (Acts 8:3). (b) His own confession: ‘I compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceeding mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities’ (Acts 26:11. Cf. also 1 Corinthians 15:9). Put these thoughts together, and you will have a true picture of Saul of Tarsus when his Lord met him.

II. And now we come to the most thrilling part of the story.—Breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of Jesus, Saul is riding on his way to Damascus. His mission is to bring the Christians who were there bound to Jerusalem. But as he draws near the city, suddenly there shone round about him a light out of heaven above the blaze of the fiery eastern sun; and he heard a mysterious voice which must have struck his ear like a funeral knell, ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest Me?’ And there and then he learned for the first time how Christ identified Himself with His people. Those journeying with him heard a voice or sound (Acts 9:7), i.e. a confused noise, but not the voice of Him that spake (Acts 22:9). When that voice speaks it is done! It possesses resistless authority. Ask yourselves, How did all this come about? How was this man made a gentle, child-like Christian? ‘But by the grace of God I am what I am.’ If we believe in a God, why should we doubt the fact of grace? For ‘grace is the magnetism of heaven.’ And so Saul’s hard heart was softened by the grace of God stealing down into it like the dew.

III. And that one day turned all Saul’s gains into losses.—‘What things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Philippians 3:7-8). The only true standard by which to measure men is their knowledge of and devotion to Christ. And judged by that standard, who is like St. Paul? ‘I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die … for the name of the Lord Jesus’ (Acts 21:13). And he was as good as his word. He did die at last for the Name of Christ. He was a martyr as well as a missionary.

—Rev. F. Harper.


‘It is high noon. The sun is nearly right overhead. Its hot rays strike upon the burning sand, and seem to bound up on the scorched face of the traveller. The palm tree’s shadow does not stretch long and thin upon the ground, as when the sun sets, but lies a small round circle, at the bottom of the stem. At a little distance, the white buildings of beautiful Damascus, surrounded by groves of dates, and palms, and oranges, and plums, look like “a pearl among emeralds,” as beautiful as it looked two thousand years ago. You may catch a sight of its rivers, as they run, glistening like threads of silver, through its groves. It is a sight which at once fills the eye of the traveller, as he first sees it, with intense pleasure. But it seems to have no power over this traveller, who is rapidly approaching it at the head of his company. He heeds not its green groves. He thinks not of its cool, shady roads, over which the trees throw their boughs that meet in the midst, loaded with their sweet cooling fruits. The glorious prospect has no charm for him. What is this? What is this sudden torrent of unearthly brightness that has burst upon this band, as if ten thousand lightnings had fallen in one cataract of light, so intense, so overpowering in its brightness as to make the very noonday Syrian sun look pale and dim? It has struck them all down! Leader and followers, they are all fallen to the earth, helpless and motionless. From the midst of that blaze of unearthly glory sounds are heard. The men all hear, but they cannot understand them. Yet there are words. Saul hears, and—though it would seem as if one glance into that tremendous glory would paralyse the very nerve of sight, and burn up the daring eye that ventured but to look towards it—yet Saul looks up; and there, glory streaming from His Body, His Face shining above the brightness of the sun in his strongest might, he sees a Man, and the look of His countenance is that of unutterable love and deepest pity. It is Jesus, the blasphemed, looking on His chief blasphemer.’

Verse 4


‘And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice … Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.’

Acts 9:4; Acts 9:6

Of all the followers of Christ, surely none had a life so full of interest and none had so great influence for the cause of Christ as St. Paul.

I. His conversion.—The stoning of St. Stephen, no doubt, was a turning-point in the life of St. Paul. Augustine says that the Church owes St. Paul to the prayer of St. Stephen at that time. The spectacle of so much constancy, so much faith, so much love, could not possibly be lost. St. Paul went his way, but conscience began to work within him. To drown his conscience, he took up the cause of persecution, and sought for letters patent to enable him to go to Damascus to arrest those he found of this Way, whether they were men or women, and commit them to prison. But he could not go on like this for ever. He could not for ever stifle his conscience. In the very midst of his work, as he was journeying to Damascus, the Lord met him, and his conversion changed the whole course of his life. Instead of persecuting Christians, he was to teach the faith which once he denied.

II. His ministry.—Immediately after we find St. Paul going forth and speaking to the people of Damascus, proving that this was the very Christ. But he could not remain in Damascus. As soon as the Jews got over their first astonishment at seeing this man, on whom they had relied to exterminate the Christians, as soon as they found that he himself was a Christian, they began to persecute him. He went into Arabia, the mountainous country where God spoke to Moses and Aaron and Elijah. He dwelt in solitdue, conversing with his Lord and being instructed upon his future teaching. It was there that Christ taught him about the Holy Communion. It was there, perhaps, that he was caught up into the seventh heaven and heard things unspeakable, and therefore kept silence upon what he saw. It was there that he learned more fully to know Jesus Christ and was instructed in the doctrine in which he was to preach. As soon as that period was ended, he returned to Damascus, but not to remain long. He went back to Jerusalem, however, and taught. His mission was to the Gentiles, and he began a life of suffering; but he was always full of zeal, full of energy, preaching the Gospel of Christ, teaching others that Christ had died for them, and bidding them turn from their evil ways, showing them that a life of surrender and devotion to Christ’s service is the life to be desired on earth.

III. A pattern to us.—This true and noble service for Christ should inspire us to be more like St. Paul, and to be more earnest, more fervent, more zealous in our daily life in upholding the cause of Christ, in striving to live such a life that we may turn others to Christ, and let others take knowledge that we have been with Christ. May we grow daily more like St. Paul, devoting and surrendering our lives to the service of Christ.

Rev. W. N. Matthews.


‘St. Paul was born of God-fearing parents. He early learned to keep righteousness and to walk according to the Law. In his early days he showed great promise, and he was sent to Gamaliel to be trained and educated. The education of those days was different to that of our days. There was a prejudice against the use of any books except the sacred writings. At a meeting of learned men some passage of the Scriptures was taken as a text and made the subject of their conversation. Various interpretations were given, allegories were told and suggested, and the ancient writings on the subject quoted. At this discussion young students were present to listen and to ask questions, and it is probable that from this system of education St. Paul acquired his power of argument and his fluency of speech. We do not know of the social position of St. Paul’s parents. It is not possible to say whether they lived in affluent circumstances or whether they were people of humble origin. St. Paul speaks of his trade as being that of a tent-maker, but this does not necessarily imply that he had to labour with his hands for his living, for it was the custom amongst the Jews that every boy should be taught a trade. In the Talmud it says he that teacheth not his son a trade is doing the same thing as if he taught his son to be a thief. Intellectually, he had a mind logical and acute, and his memory was well stored. Morally he was a strict observer of the requirements of the Law, and while he lived a careful and conscientious life, after the example of his ancestors, he imbibed a spirit of fervent and, as it afterwards turned out, persecuting zeal. Probably after his education in Jerusalem was finished St. Paul returned to his home at Tarsus, and there he had abundant opportunity to become acquainted with Greek literature.

Verse 6


‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’

Acts 9:6

There is much to learn, and much to imitate, in these words, if you take almost each of them separately. But I want to fasten attention upon the general question. It is not so easy, in after years, to be always saying, ‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’ Therefore, the more cherish it, and honour it, and thank God for it, and hold it precious, and use it, when you have it.

Every one who wishes to labour in God’s vineyard, and who watches his opportunities, and the leadings of God’s hand, and listens for the inner voices, will not be left long without some open door, and some plain indication where his task lies.

Three things you have to consider and require in this matter.

I. First, that it be a real work.—By a real work, I mean that it be something which calls forth your energies, and exercises you in unselfishness and self-sacrifice.

II. Secondly, that it be a work for which you have a proper gift, determining it to be your own mission.

III. And thirdly, that it be God’s work—commenced because you love Him; carried on in dependence upon Him; and done that you may glorify Him.

If these three conditions meet, you may rest assured that you have found your own true sphere, and that your question has been answered, ‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’

Rev. James Vaughan.


‘When Christ said to St. Paul, “Go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do,” He meant no other than that He Himself would tell him, but not at that time. The answer was postponed, till St. Paul was ready to receive it; but the answer was wholly of God. There is often a misapprehension upon this verse. It teaches us that when a man is really seeking the truth, God will be sure Himself to show it to him; but he must not be surprised if, nevertheless, an interval elapse before he sees it. No doubt there was some misapprehension in St. Paul’s mind when he made that earnest inquiry. It is almost certain that, in accordance with his previous Pharisaic views, he was thinking rather of what he must “do” for God—than what God must “do” for him—that he might be saved. Therefore God Himself immediately changed the thought—“I will shew him how great things he must suffer.”’

Verse 16


‘For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for My name’s sake.’

Acts 9:16

God is revealing to Ananias His purposes concerning Saul, whom He had just called to his apostleship. He says that he is ‘to bear My name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel.’ And we are looking—after those words—to hear what great things he shall do in this mission, when lo! God changes it altogether, and does not say at all what His chosen servant shall do, but adds, ‘for I will shew him how great things he must suffer for My name’s sake.’

St. Paul’s sufferings appear to have begun at the time, when he began also to be a Christian; and if you watch it your own observation of life will often show you the same fact.

I. What is the solution of all this?—Rather, what is the solution of the fact, that a father does not correct a stranger’s child, but his own? What is the solution of the fact that when the gardener goes into his garden he does not put his pruning-knife to the dead branch, but to the living and fruitful one? What is the solution of the fact that you do not put a stone into your crucible, but the silver and the golden ore? And the more that father loves his child, the more does he lay out his severest regime to correct his faults, and to bring forth his powers. And the more promising is the branch, the more does the dresser prune it, and the deeper does he cut it. And the more precious is the metal, the hotter is the refiner’s fire—the fining-pot for silver, and the furnace for gold.

II. Therefore the discipline of life is chiefly in the Church.—Do not misunderstand it; do not stumble at it. From the moment that you give yourself to God, you are ‘out at school’ in this world, to prepare for your true home. The discipline is strict, but for a very little time; severe, but for a sufficient end. It will very soon be over, and you will go back to your Father’s home. For observe that word ‘must’—‘how great things he must suffer for My name’s sake.’ The disciple of the ‘Man of Sorrows’ must be as his Master.

III. But be your trials what they may—the little daily droppings, or the mighty water floods—there is one thought which endears, ennobles, sweetens all—the name of Jesus is in them. You are responsible if it is not. You may place it there, alike the lighter and the heavier grief, you may, by the spirit you throw into it, connect and identify it with Christ. You may take it from Christ, and bear it in Christ, and go through it with Christ, and come out of it to Christ. And what is too great to bear, or do, if you can indeed add—‘for Thy name’s sake’?

Verse 34


‘And Peter said unto him, Æneas, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole.’

Acts 9:34

The four Gospels tell us what Christ did up to His Ascension (Acts 1:1-2). The Acts of the Apostles carries on the story. It tells what Jesus did—by the Holy Ghost—through his disciples, after He ascended to heaven. St. Peter pointed Æneas to Christ as the Source of all healing (cf. Acts 3:6).

I. It is through His Cross the healing comes.—In our solemn Litany we beseech Him by the memory of His Cross and Passion to deliver us.

II. He knows the human heart.—He can put His hand just to the place where the pain is sorest (Psalms 139:1-4; John 2:24-25).

III. He possesses not knowledge only but sympathy (Hebrews 4:15).


‘“Curse God and die,” said the wife of Job, who was the Lady Macbeth of the Old Testament. That is certainly an extreme case, but the world can never give a peace it does not possess. At the death of his mother the late Professor Huxley wrote to his sister: “My dearest sister,—I offer you no consolation, for I know of none. There are things which each must bear as best he may with the strength that has been allotted to him.” In fact, all the philosophers of the world, from Plato to Herbert Spencer, can do nothing for us in the hour of our deepest need when the towers fall.’


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Acts 9:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 24th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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