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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Acts 9

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-43

Chapter 9

SURRENDER (Acts 9:1-9)

9:1-9 But Saul, still breathing out threat and murder to the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters of credit to Damascus, to the synagogues there, so that if he found any of The Way there, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. As he journeyed he came near Damascus. Suddenly a light from heaven flashed round about him. He fell on the ground and he heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He said, "Who, are you, sir?" He said, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise; go into the city, and you will be told what to do." His fellow-travellers stood speechless in amazement, because they heard the voice but saw no one. So Saul rose from the ground but when his eyes were opened he could see nothing. So they took him by the hand and led him into Damascus. And for three days he could not see, nor did he eat or drink anything.

In this passage we have the most famous conversion story in history. We must try as far as we can to enter into Paul's mind. When we do, we will see that this is not a sudden conversion but a sudden surrender. Something about Stephen lingered in Paul's mind and would not be banished. How could a bad man die like that? In order to still his insistent doubt Paul plunged into the most violent action possible. First he persecuted the Christians in Jerusalem. This only made matters worse because once again he had to ask himself what secret these simple people had which made them face peril and suffering and loss serene and unafraid. So then, still driving himself on, he went to the Sanhedrin.

The writ of the Sanhedrin ran wherever there were Jews. Paul had heard that certain of the Christians had escaped to Damascus and he asked for letters of credit that he might go to Damascus and extradite them. The journey only made matters worse. It was about 140 miles from Jerusalem to Damascus. The journey would be made on foot and would take about a week. Paul's only companions were the officers of the Sanhedrin, a kind of police force. Because he was a Pharisee, he could have nothing to do with them; so he walked alone; and as he walked he thought, because there was nothing else to do.

The way went through Galilee, and Galilee brought Jesus even more vividly to Paul's mind. The tension in his inner being tightened. So he came near Damascus, one of the oldest cities in the world. Just before Damascus the road climbed Mount Hermon and below lay Damascus, a lovely white city in a green plain, "a handful of pearls in a goblet of emerald." That region had this characteristic phenomenon that when the hot air of the plain met the cold air of the mountain range, violent electrical storms resulted. Just at that moment came such a lightning storm and out of the storm Christ spoke to Paul. In that moment the long battle was over and Paul surrendered to Christ.

So into Damascus he went a changed man. And how changed! He who had intended to enter Damascus like an avenging fury was led by the hand, blind and helpless.

There is all of Christianity in what the Risen Christ said to Paul, "Go into the city, and you will be told what to do." Up to this moment Paul had been doing what he liked, what he thought best, what his will dictated. From this time forward he would be told what to do. The Christian is a man who has ceased to do what he wants to do and who has begun to do what Christ wants him to do.

A CHRISTIAN WELCOME (Acts 9:10-18)

9:10-18 There was a disciple in Damascus called Ananias, and the Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He said, "Here am I Lord." The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called 'Straight'; inquire in Judas' house for a man called Saul, a man from Tarsus. For, look you, he is praying; and he has seen a man called Ananias coming and putting his hands on him so that he may get back his sight." Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man. They have told me all the hurt he has done to the saints at Jerusalem. They have told me too how he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon your name." The Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen instrument for my work. He is chosen to carry my name before peoples and kings and before the sons of Israel. I will tell him all he must suffer for my name's sake." So Ananias went away and came to the house. He put his hands on him and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord--Jesus who appeared to you in the way on which you were going--has sent me that you may get your sight back and so that you may be filled with the Holy Spirit." Thereupon things like scales fell from his eyes and he got his sight back again. He rose and was baptized; and he took food and his strength increased.

Beyond doubt Ananias is one of the forgotten heroes of the Christian Church. If it be true that the Church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen, it is also true that the Church owes Paul to the brotherliness of Ananias.

To Ananias came a message from God that he must go and help Paul; and he is directed to the street called "Straight." This was a great street that ran straight from the east to the west of Damascus. It was divided into three parts, a centre part where the traffic ran, and two side-walks where the pedestrians thronged and the merchant-men sat in their little booths and plied their trade. When that message came to Ananias it must have sounded mad to him. He might well have approached Paul with suspicion, as one doing an unpleasant task; he might well have begun with recriminations; but no; his first words were, "Brother Saul."

What a welcome was there! It is one of the sublimest examples of Christian love. That is what Christ can produce. Bryan Green tells that after one of his campaigns in America he asked at the last meeting that people should stand up and in a few words say just what the campaign had done for them. A negro girl rose. Not a good speaker, she could only put a few sentences together and this is what she said, "Through this campaign I have found Christ and he made me able to forgive the man who murdered my father." He made me able to forgive...that is the very essence of Christianity. In Christ, Paul and Ananias, the men who had been the bitterest enemies, came together as brothers.

WITNESSING FOR CHRIST (Acts 9:19-22)

9:19-22 Paul remained with the disciples in Damascus for some time. And immediately he began to preach Jesus in the synagogues, and the burden of his preaching was, "This is the Son of God." Everyone who heard him was astonished and kept saying, "Is not this the man who at Jerusalem sacked those who call on this name? He came here too to bring them bound to the chief priests." But Saul's power grew ever greater, and he confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus, by proving that this is God's Anointed One.

This is Luke's account of what happened to Paul after his conversion. If we want to have the chronology of the whole period in our minds we must also read Paul's own account of the matter in Galatians 1:15-24. When we put the two accounts together we find that the chain of events runs like this. (i) Saul is converted on the Damascus Road. (ii) He preaches in Damascus. (iii) He goes away to Arabia (Galatians 1:17). (iv) He returns and preaches in Damascus for a period of three years (Galatians 1:18). (v) He goes to Jerusalem. (vi) He escapes from Jerusalem to Caesarea. (vii) He returns to the regions of Syria and Cilicia (Galatians 1:21). So we see that Paul began by doing two things.

(i) He immediately bore his witness in Damascus. In Damascus there were many Jews and consequently there would be many synagogues. It was in these Damascus synagogues that Paul first lifted up his voice for Christ. That was an act of the greatest moral courage. It was to these very synagogues that Paul had received his letters of credit as an official agent of the Jewish faith and of the Sanhedrin. It would have been very much easier to begin his Christian witness somewhere where he was not known and where his past did not stand against him. Paul is saying, "I am a changed man and I am determined that those who know me best should know it." Already he is proclaiming, "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ."

(ii) The second thing he did is not mentioned by Luke at all--he went to Arabia (Galatians 1:17). Into Paul's life had come a shattering change and for a time he had to be alone with God. Before him stretched a different life and he needed two things: guidance for a way that was totally strange and strength for an almost overwhelming task that had been given to him. He went to God for both.

ESCAPING BY THE SKIN OF HIS TEETH (Acts 9:23-25)

9:23-25 After some time the Jews formed a plot to murder him; but Saul was informed of their plot. Night and day they kept continuous watch on the gates to murder him. But the disciples took him by night and, by way of the wall, let him down in a basket.

This is a vivid example of how much a few words in the biblical narrative may imply. Luke says that after some time in Damascus these things happened. The period dismissed in that passing phrase was no less than three years (Galatians 1:18). For three years Paul worked and preached in Damascus and the Jews were so determined to kill him that they even set a guard on the gates lest he should escape them. But the ancient cities were walled cities and the walls were often wide enough for a chariot to be driven round the top of them. On these walls there were houses whose windows often projected over the walls. In the dead of night Paul was taken into one of these houses, let down with ropes in a basket and so smuggled out of Damascus and set on his way to Jerusalem. Paul is only at the gateway of his adventures for Christ but even here he is escaping with his life by the skin of his teeth.

(i) This incident is a witness to Paul's courage. He must have seen the great gathering against him in the synagogues. He knew what had happened to Stephen, he knew what he had intended to do to the Christians and he knew what could happen to him. Clearly Christianity for him was not going to be easy but the whole tone of the incident shows to him who can read between the lines that Paul revelled in these dangers. They gave him a chance to demonstrate his new-found loyalty to that Master whom he had persecuted and whom now he loved.

(ii) It is also a witness to the effectiveness of Paul's preaching. He was so unanswerable that the Jews, helpless in debate, resorted to violence. No one persecutes a man who is ineffective. George Bernard Shaw once said that the biggest compliment you can pay an author is to burn his books. Someone else has said, "A wolf will never attack a painted sheep." Counterfeit Christianity is always safe; real Christianity is always in peril. To suffer persecution is to be paid the greatest of compliments because it is the certain proof that men think we really matter.

REJECTED IN JERUSALEM (Acts 9:26-31)

9:26-31 When he arrived in Jerusalem he tried to make contact with the disciples. They were all afraid of him because they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and told them the story of how, upon the road, he had seen the Lord and that he had spoken with him, and that in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. He went in and out with them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and debated with the Greek-speaking Jews but they tried to murder him. When the brethren got news of this they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

So the Church all over Judaea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace as it was being built up; and, walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it was constantly increased.

When Paul arrived in Jerusalem he found himself regarded with the gravest suspicion. How could it be otherwise? It was in that very city that he had made havoc of the Church and had dragged men and women to prison. We have seen how at crucial moments in his career certain people were instrumental in winning Paul for the Church. First, the Church owed Paul to the prayer of Stephen. Then the Church owed Paul to the forgiving spirit of Ananias. Now we see the Church owing Paul to the large-hearted charity of Barnabas. When everyone else was steering clear of him, Barnabas took him by the hand and stood sponsor for him.

By this action Barnabas showed himself to be a really Christian man.

(i) He was a man who insisted on believing the best of others. When others suspected Paul of being a spy, Barnabas insisted on believing that he was genuine. The world is largely divided into those who think the best of others and those who think the worst; and it is one of the curious facts of life that ordinarily we see our own reflection in others and make them what we believe them to be. If we insist on regarding a man with suspicion, we will end by making him do suspicious things. If we insist on believing in a man, we will end by compelling him to justify that belief. As Paul himself said, "Love thinks no evil." No one believed in men as Jesus did and it should be enough for the disciple that he be as his Lord.

(ii) He was a man who never held anyone's past against him. It is so often the case that because a man once made a mistake, he is forever condemned. It is the great characteristic of the heart of God that he has not held our past sins against us; and we should never condemn a man because once he failed.

In this passage we see Paul taking characteristic action; he disputed with the Greek-speaking Jews. Stephen had been one of these Hellenists; and in all probability Paul went to the very synagogues where once he had opposed Stephen in order to witness to the fact that his life was changed.

Here again we see Paul in peril of his life. For him life had become a thing of hairbreadth escapes. Out of Jerusalem he was smuggled to Caesarea and thence to Tarsus. Once again he is following the consistent policy of his life, for he goes back to his native city to tell them that he is a changed man and that the one who changed him is Jesus Christ.

THE ACTS OF PETER (Acts 9:32-43)

9:32-43 In the course of a tour of the whole area, Peter came down to the saints who lived at Lydda. There he found a man called Aeneas who had been bed-ridden for eight years. He was paralysed. So Peter said to him, "Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you. Rise and make your bed." At once he stood up and all who lived at Lydda and at Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.

In Joppa there was a disciple called Tabitha--Dorcas is the translation of her name. She was full of good works and of deeds of charity which she never stopped doing. It happened that at that time she fell ill and died. They bathed her body and placed her in an upper room. Now Lydda is near Joppa and the disciples heard that Peter was there. So they sent two men to him to invite him, "Do not fail to come to us." Peter rose and went with them. When he had arrived they took him to the upper room. And all the widows stood by in tears, showing him the coats and tunics that Dorcas used to make when she was with them. Peter put them all out and knelt down and prayed. He turned to her body and said, "Tabitha, rise." She opened her eyes and she saw Peter and sat up. He gave her his hand and raised her to her feet. He called the saints and the widows and set her before them alive. This event became known throughout the whole of Joppa and many believed on the Lord; and Peter remained some time in Joppa, staying with a man Simon, a tanner.

For a time Paul has held the centre of the stage; but once again Peter commands the limelight. This passage really follows on from Acts 8:25. It shows Peter in action. But it shows more than that. In the most definite way it shows us the source of Peter's power. When Peter healed Aeneas, he did not say, "I heal you"; he said, "Jesus Christ heals you." Before he spoke to Tabitha--Tabitha (Greek #5000) is the Hebrew for a gazelle (see tsebiyah, Hebrew #6646) and Dorcas (H) is the Greek for the same word--Peter prayed. It was not his own power on which Peter called; it was the power of Jesus Christ. We think too much of what we can do and too little of what Christ can do through us.

There is one very interesting word in this passage. Twice the Christians at Lydda are called saints (Acts 9:32; Acts 9:41). The same word is used earlier in the chapter by Ananias to describe the Christians at Jerusalem (Acts 9:13). This is the word that Paul always uses to describe the church member, for he always writes his letters to the saints that are at such and such a place.

The Greek word is hagios (Greek #40) and it has far-reaching associations. It is sometimes translated holy but the root meaning of it is different. Basically the Christian is a man who is different from those who are merely people of the world. But wherein does that difference lie? Hagios (Greek #40) was specially used of the people Israel. They are specifically a holy people, a different people. Their difference lay in the fact that of all nations God had chosen them to do his work. Israel failed in her destiny. She was disobedient and by her actions she lost her privileges. The Church became the true Israel; and the Christians became the people who are different, their difference lying in the fact that they were chosen for the special purposes of God.

So then we who are Christians are not different from others in that we are chosen for greater honour on this earth; we are different in that we are chosen for a greater service. We are saved to serve.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Acts 9:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/acts-9.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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