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(1) Yet breathing out threatenings.—The “yet” implies a considerable interval since the death of Stephen, probably coinciding with the time occupied by the mission-work of Philip in the previous chapter. During this interval the persecution had probably been continuing. The Greek participle, literally, breathing-in, is somewhat more emphatic than the English. He lived, as it were, in an atmosphere of threats and slaughter. It was the very air he breathed. Patristic writers and their followers have not unnaturally seen a half-prophetic parallelism between the language of Jacob, “Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf: in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil” (Genesis 49:27), and this description of one who gloried in being of that tribe (Philippians 3:5), and bore the name of its great hero-king.
Went unto the high priest.—It will be remembered that the high priest (whether we suppose Annas or Caiaphas to be meant) was a Sadducee, and that Saul gloried in being a Pharisee of the straitest sect (Acts 26:5). The temper of the persecutor, however, does not shrink from strange companionship, and the coalition which had been formed against our Lord (Matthew 26:3) was renewed against His followers. If, as is probable, the admission of the Samaritans to the new community had become known at Jerusalem, it would naturally tend to intensify their hatred. It would seem to them as if the accursed people were now allied with the Galileans against the Holy Place, and those who were zealous for its honour.
(2) And desired of him letters to Damascus.—We learn from 2 Corinthians 11:32-33, that Damascus was at this time under the government of Aretas, the king of Arabia Petræa. How it came to be so, having been previously under Vitellius, the Roman president of Syria (Jos. Ant. xiv. 4, § 5), is not clear. It is probable, however, that in the war which Aretas had declared against Herod Antipas, in consequence of the Tetrarch’s divorcing his daughter in order that he might marry Herodias (see Notes on Matthew 14:3; Luke 3:14), he had been led, after defeating the Tetrarch (Jos. Ant. xviii. 5, § 1), to push his victories further; and, taking advantage of the absence of Vitellius, who had hastened to Rome on hearing of the death of Tiberius (A.D. 37) had seized on Damascus. In this abeyance of the control of the Roman power, Aretas may have desired to conciliate the priestly party at Jerusalem by giving facilities to their action against the sect which they would naturally represent as identified with the Galileans against whom he had been waging war. The Jewish population at Damascus was, at this time, very numerous. Josephus relates that not less than 10,000 were slain in a tumult under Nero (Wars, ii. 25), and the narrative of the Acts (Acts 9:14) implies that there were many “disciples of the Lord” among them. Many of these were probably refugees from Jerusalem, and the local synagogues were called upon to enforce the decrees of the Sanhedrin of the Holy City against them. On the position and history of Damascus, see Note on next verse.
If he found any of this way.—Literally, of the way. We have here the first occurrence of a term which seems to have been used familiarly as a synonym for the disciples of Christ (Acts 19:9; Acts 19:23; Acts 22:4; Acts 24:14; Acts 24:22). It may have originated in the words in which Christ had claimed to be Himself the “Way,” as well as the “Truth” and the “Life” (John 14:6); or in His language as to the “strait way” that led to eternal life (Matthew 7:13); or, perhaps, again, in the prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3) cited by the Baptist (Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3), as to preparing “the way of the Lord.” Prior to the general acceptance of the term “Christian” (Acts 11:26) it served as a convenient, neutral designation by which the disciples could describe themselves, and which might be used by others who wished to speak respectfully, or, at least, neutrally, instead of the opprobrious epithet of the “Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). The history of the term “Methodists,” those that follow a distinct “method” or “way” of life, offers a partial but interesting analogue.
Whether they were men or women.—The mention of the latter has a special interest. They too were prominent enough to be objects of the persecution. It is probable that those who were most exposed to it would have fled from Jerusalem, and among these we may think of those who had been foremost in their ministry during our Lord’s life on earth (Luke 8:2), and who were with the Apostles at their first meeting after His Ascension (Acts 1:14).
Might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.—The mission implied that the offence, as being against the Holy Place and the Law, as involving what would be called, in modern language, sacrilege and heresy, was beyond the jurisdiction of the subordinate tribunals, and must be reserved for that of the Council. (See Notes on Matthew 5:22; Matthew 10:17.)
(3) And as he journeyed.—The route by which the persecutor and his companions travelled was probably that taken by the Roman road, which extended from Jerusalem to Neapolis (Sychar, or Shechem), thence to Scythopolis, and so by the shores of the Sea of Galilee and Cæsarea Philippi, and thence under the slopes of Hermon, to Damascus. On this supposition Saul would traverse the chief scenes of our Lord’s ministry, and be stirred to madness by the progress which the new sect had made in the cities of Samaria. It is, however, possible that he may have taken the road by the Jordan valley by which Galilean pilgrims sometimes travelled in order to avoid Samaria; but the former was beyond all question the most direct and best frequented road.
He came near Damascus.—The city has the interest of being one of the oldest in the world. It appears in the history of Abraham (Genesis 14:15; Genesis 15:2), and was, traditionally, the scene of the murder of Abel. David placed his garrisons there (2 Samuel 8:6; 1 Chronicles 18:6), and, under Rezon, it resisted the power of Solomon (1 Kings 11:24). Its fair streams, Abana and Pharpar, were, in the eyes of the Syrian leper, better than all the waters of Israel (2 Kings 5:12). It was the centre of the Syrian kingdom in its alliances and wars with those of Israel and Judah (2 Kings 14:28; 2 Kings 16:9-10; Amos 1:3; Amos 1:5). Its trade with Tyre in wares, and wine of Helbon, and white wool is noted by Ezekiel (Acts 27:16; Acts 27:18). It had been taken by Parmenion for Alexander the Great, and again by Pompeius. It was the birth-place of Nicolaos of Damascus, the historian and rhetorician who is conspicuous as the counsellor of Herod the Great (Jos. Ant. xii. 3, § 2; xvi. 2, § 2). At a later period it was the residence of the Ommiyad caliphs, and the centre of the world of Islam. The beauty of its site, the river which the Greeks knew as Chrysorrhoas, the “Golden Stream,” its abounding fertility, the gardens of roses, made it, as Lamartine has said, a “predestined capital.” Such was the scene which met the bodily eye of the fanatic persecutor. The historian does not care to dwell on its description, and hastens to that which met his inward gaze. Assuming the journey to have been continuous, the approach to Damascus would come on the seventh or eighth day after leaving Jerusalem.
There shined round about him a light from heaven.—As in Acts 26:13, “above the brightness of the sun.” Three accounts of the event that thus turned the current of the life of Saul of Tarsus meet us in the Acts. (1) This, which gives the writer’s report of what he could hardly have heard from any lips but St. Paul’s; (2) St. Paul’s narrative before the Sanhedrin (Acts 22:6-11); (3) that which he gives before Agrippa (Acts 26:13-18). They present, as will be seen, considerable variations, such as were natural in the records of a manifestation which was partial to some, and complete to one only. Those that were with him heard a voice but did not distinguish words (Acts 22:9). They saw, as stated here (Acts 9:7), the light, but did not perceive the form of Him who spoke. The phenomena, in this respect, stand parallel to those of the voice from heaven, in which some heard the words, ascribing them to an angel, while others, hearing only the sound, said it thundered (see Note on John 12:29). It is not possible in such a history to draw a hard and fast line between the objective and the subjective. The man himself cannot say whether he is in the body or out of the body (2 Corinthians 12:2-3). It is enough for him that he sees what others do not see, and hears what they do not hear, while they too hear and see enough to prove both to themselves and to him that something has occurred beyond the range of ordinary phenomena. Nothing in the narrative suggests the thought of a sudden thunderstorm, which has seemed to some writers a probable explanation of the facts. In that case, the gathering gloom, the dark rolling clouds, would have prepared the traveller for the lightning-flash. If this hypothesis be at all entertained—and as it does not necessarily exclude the supernatural element, and presents analogies to the divine manifestations on Sinai (Exodus 19:16) and Horeb (1 Kings 19:11-12), it may be entertained legitimately—we must think of the storm, if we take such a view, as coming with an almost instantaneous quickness, the first flash and crash striking all with terror, while the full revelation of the Christ was made to the consciousness and conscience of the future Apostle.
(4) Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?—It is remarkable that here only, in the original Greek, and in Acts 9:17, as in the reproduction of the words in Acts 22:27; Acts 26:14, do we find the Hebrew form of the Benjamite name. It is as though he, who gloried in being above all things a Hebrew of the Hebrews, heard himself claimed as such by Him who spoke from heaven, called as Samuel had been called of old (1 Samuel 3:4-8), and having to decide whether he would resist to the end, or yield, saying with Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth.” The narrative implies that the persecutor saw the form of the Son of Man as well as heard His voice, and to that visible presence the Apostle afterwards refers as a witness to him of the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 9:1; 1 Corinthians 15:8). If we ask as to the manner of the appearance, it is natural to think of it as being such as had met the gaze of Stephen. The martyr’s words, “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56), had then seemed to the fiery zeal of the Pharisee as those of a blasphemer. Now he too saw the Son of Man in the glory of the Father stretching forth His hand, not now, as He then had done, to receive the servant who was faithful even unto death, but, in answer to that servant’s dying prayer, to transform the persecutor into the likeness of his victim.
(5) Who art thou, Lord?—The word “Lord” could not as yet have been used in all the fulness of its meaning. As in many cases in the Gospels, it was the natural utterance of respect and awe (John 5:7; John 9:36; John 20:15), such as would be roused by what the persecutor saw and heard.
I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.—Some of the best MSS. give “Jesus of Nazareth”; or better, perhaps, Jesus the Nazarene. It is probable, however, that this was inserted from Acts 22:18, where it occurs in St. Paul’s own narrative. Assuming the words to have been those which he actually heard, they reproduced the very Name which he himself, as the chief accuser of Stephen, had probably uttered in the tone of scorn and hatred (Acts 6:14)—the very Name which he had been compelling men and women to blaspheme. Now it was revealed to him, or to use his own suggestive mode of speech, “in him” (Galatians 1:16), that the Crucified One was in very deed, as the words of Stephen had attested, at the right hand of God, sharing in the glory of the Father. The pronouns are both emphatic, “I, in my Love and Might and Glory, I am the Jesus whom thou, now prostrate and full of dread, hast been bold enough to persecute.” It was not the disciples and brethren alone whom Saul was persecuting. What was done to them the Lord counted as done unto Himself (Matthew 10:40).
It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.—There is a decisive preponderance of MS. authority against the appearance of these words here, and the conclusion of nearly all critics is that they have been inserted in the later MSS. from Acts 26:14. As they occur in the English text, however, and belong to this crisis in St. Paul’s life, it will be well to deal with them now. In their outward form they were among the oldest and most familiar of Greek proverbs. The Jew who had been educated in the schools of Tarsus might have read them in Greek poets (Æschylus, Agam. 1633; Pindar, Pyth. ii. 173; Eurip. Bacch. 791), or heard them quoted in familiar speech, or written them in his boyhood. They do not occur in any collection of Hebrew proverbs, but the analogy which they presented was so obvious that the ploughmen of Israel could hardly have failed to draw the same lesson as those of Greece. What they taught was, of course, that to resist a power altogether superior to our own is a profitless and perilous experiment. The goad did but prick more sharply the more the ox struggled against it. Two of the passages cited apply the words directly to the suffering which man is sure to encounter when he resists God, as e.g.—
“With God we may not strive:
But to bow down the willing neck,
And bear the yoke, is wise;
To kick against the pricks will prove
A perilous emprise.”
—Pind. Pyth. ii. 173.
We ask what lesson the words brought to the mind of Saul. What were the “pricks” against which he had been “kicking”? The answer is found in what we know of the facts of his life. There had been promptings, misgivings, warnings, which he had resisted and defied. Among the causes of these, we may well reckon the conversion of the friend and companion of his youth (see Note on Acts 4:36), and the warning counsel of Gamaliel (Acts 5:34-39), and the angel-face of Stephen (Acts 6:15), and the martyr’s dying prayer (Acts 7:60), and the daily spectacle of those who were ready to go to prison and to death rather than to renounce the name of Jesus. In the frenzy of his zeal he had tried to crush these misgivings, and the effort to do so had brought with it discomfort and disquietude which made him more “exceedingly mad” against the disciples of the Lord. Now he learnt that he had all along, as his master had warned him, been “fighting against God,” and that his only safety lay in the surrender of his own passionate resolve to the gracious and loving Will that was seeking to win him for itself. In his later retrospect of this stage of his life he was able, as by a subtle process of self-analysis, to distinguish between the element of ignorance, which made forgiveness possible, and that of a wilful resistance to light and knowledge which made that forgiveness an act of free and undeserved compassion (1 Timothy 1:12-13).
(6) And he trembling and astonished . . .—The words stand, as far as textual authority is concerned, on the same footing as the foregoing, but, for the same reason, will be dealt with here. We note (1) the use of the word “Lord,” now, we must believe, with a new meaning, as applied to the Nazarene whom he had before despised. (2) The entire surrender of his own will to that of Him whom he thus recognised as commanding his allegiance. At that moment Christ was formed in him (Galatians 1:16); the new man came to life. He lived in Christ, and Christ in him. “Not I, but Christ that liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20) was henceforward the axiom of his life.
Arise, and go into the city.—In the narrative of Acts 26:16 there appears a fuller manifestation of the divine purpose as made at this time; but there St. Paul, in his rapid survey, is obviously combining, in one brief summary, the whole sum and substance of the teaching that was associated with that great turning-point of his life. We may trace in the command actually given a stage in the divine discipline appointed for his spirit. Silence and submission, and acquiescence in ignorance of the future, and patient expectation, and prayer for light—these were needed before he could be ready for the great work which was to be committed to his charge.
(7) Hearing a voice, but seeing no man.—We are told by St. Paul himself (Acts 22:9) that they “did not hear the voice.” What is meant is clearly that they did not hear the words—could attach no meaning to the sounds which for Saul himself had so profound a significance. So, in like manner, they saw the light, but did not see the form. In Acts 26:14, they also are said to have fallen on the ground in terror.
(8) He saw no man.—The blindness was that of one who has been dazzled with excess of light (comp. Acts 22:11), the natural result of the vision of the supernatural glory, a witness to the man himself that the vision was not a mere play of imagination. Traces of its permanent effect on his powers of sight have been found in his habit of dictating rather than writing letters (see Note on 2 Thessalonians 3:17), in the large characters traced by him when he did write (see Note on Galatians 6:11), in his not recognising the high priest who commanded him to be struck. (See Notes on Acts 23:2-5.) Of the many theories as to the mysterious “thorn in the flesh” (see Note on 2 Corinthians 12:7), there seems most reason for accepting that which connects it with some affection of the eyes, involving, perhaps, attacks of agonising pain. On this assumption, the eager wish of the Galatians, if it had been possible to have plucked out their own eyes and given them to him, receives a special and interesting significance. (See Note on Galatians 4:15.) For Saul himself, the blindness may well have had a spiritual significance. He had looked on himself as a “guide of the blind,” boasting that he saw clearly (Romans 2:19). Now, for a time, till inward and outward light should shine in on him, he had to accept his blindness. The new-born soul had to be as
“An infant crying for the light,
And with no language but a cry.”
They led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.—The mission on which Saul had come was already known at Damascus, and his arrival expected with alarm. Now he came, and the mission fell to the ground. The letters to the synagogues were not delivered.
(9) He was three days without sight.—It is natural to think of this period of seclusion from the visible world as one of spiritual communion with the invisible, and we can hardly be wrong in referring the visions and revelations of the Lord, the soaring as to the third heaven, and the Paradise of God, of which he speaks fourteen or fifteen years later, to this period. (See Notes on 2 Corinthians 12:1-4.) The conditions of outward life were suspended, and he lived as one fallen into a trance—in the ecstacy of an apocalyptic rapture. (Comp. the analogous phenomena in Ezekiel 8:1-4.)
(10) A certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias.—In Acts 22:12 St. Paul speaks of him as a “devout man” (the same word as in Acts 2:5; Acts 8:2) “according to the law,” well reported of by all the Jews who dwelt at Damascus. The name was so common that any identification must be in some measure uncertain, but the account which Josephus gives (Ant. xx. 2, § 4) of the conversion of Izates, King of Adiabene, to the faith of Israel by a Jewish merchant who bore the name of Ananias, and who taught that it was enough for men to worship the God of Israel without being circumcised, suggests, as probable, the thought that he too was a preacher of the gospel of Christ as St. Paul preached it. The arrival of another teacher, Eleazar of Galilee, who worked on the young king’s fears and compelled him to be circumcised, presents a striking parallel to the manner in which the Judaisers followed on the track of St. Paul in Galatia and elsewhere (Galatians 2:4; Galatians 4:17). The narrative here leaves it uncertain whether this Ananias had been a disciple during our Lord’s ministry or had been converted since the Day of Pentecost. In relation to St. Paul the name had a two-fold significance. He had come from one Annas, or Ananias, the Sadducean high priest, he was to be received by another. The meaning of the name—identical with that of Jochanan, Joannes, John, “the Lord is gracious”—was itself an omen and prophecy of pardon.
To him said the Lord in a vision.—It is clear from Acts 9:16 that the writer is speaking of the Lord Jesus. The ready acceptance of the command seems to imply either personal discipleship or previous visions of the same nature.
(11) The street which is called Straight.—A street answering to this description still runs from the Eastern Gate to the palace of the Pacha, and is known locally as the “Street of Bazaars.” Somewhat curiously, the house shown by guides as that of Judas is not in it. A piece of ground surrounded by trees, and used as a Christian burial-place, is pointed out as the scene of the Conversion; but this is on the east side of the city, and St. Paul must have approached from the south or south-west.
Saul, of Tarsus.—The passage is memorable as the first mention of the Apostle’s birth-place. For an account of the city, see Notes on Acts 7:58 and Acts 9:30.
Behold, he prayeth.—The thoughts which the words suggest belong to the preacher rather than the commentator. We can but think of the contrast between the present and the recent past—between the threatening and slaughter which the persecutor breathed out as he drew near to Damascus, and the prayer of humble penitence in which he was now living. Estimating that prayer by that which came as the answer to it, we may think of it as including pardon for the past, light and wisdom for the future, strength to do the work to which he was now called, intercession for those whom he had before persecuted unto the death.
(12) And hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias.—The coincidence of the two visions has seemed to some critics, as afterwards in the history of Cornelius, to betray something like the skill of the artistic historian. To those who reject the supernatural altogether, this may, of course, seem a short and easy explanation. To those who have not brought themselves to that point of denial, it will not seem strange that there should be in the work of the highest Designer the same unity of purpose and convergence of varied means which rouse our admiration in works of human skill. For Ananias what he was now told was an implied command that he should fulfil the vision thus reported to him.
(13) Lord, I have heard by many of this man.—The words are of interest as showing both the duration and the character of the persecution in which Saul had been the leader. The report of it had spread far and wide. The refugees at Damascus told of the sufferings of the brethren at Jerusalem.
Thy saints at Jerusalem.—This is noticeable as the first application of the term “saints” to the disciples. The primary idea of the word was that of men who consecrated themselves, and led, in the strictest sense of the word, a devout life. A term of like import had been taken by the more religious Jews in the time of the Maccabeans. The Chasidim, or Saints (the word occurs in Psalms 16:3), were those who banded themselves together to resist the inroads of heathenism under Autiochus Epiphanes. They appear in the books of Maccabees under the title of Assideans (1Ma. 2:42; 1Ma. 7:13; 2Ma. 14:6). The more distinctive name of Pharisees (Separatists), which came to be attached to the more zealous Chasidim, practically superseded this; and either by the disciples themselves, or by friendly outsiders, the Greek equivalent of the old Hebrew word—and probably, therefore, in Palestine, the Aramaic form of the word itself—was revived to describe the devout members of the new society. The fact that their Master had been conspicuously “the Holy One of God” (the same adjective is used of Him in the quotations from Psalms 16:10, in Acts 2:27; Acts 13:35), made it natural that the term should be extended to His followers, just as He had been spoken of as the “Just One” (Acts 3:14; Acts 7:52); and yet that name was applied, in its Greek form, to James the brother of the Lord, and, in its Latin form of Justus, to the three so named in Acts 1:23; Acts 18:7; Colossians 4:11. It is significant that its first appearance in the New Testament should be as used by the man who was sent to be St. Paul’s instructor, and that it should afterwards have been employed so frequently by the Apostle himself (Romans 1:7; Romans 15:25; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 1 Corinthians 6:1-2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1, et al.). The “devout man according to the Law,” may well have been among the Chasidim even prior to his conversion to the faith of Christ. The term appears in inscriptions from the Catacombs in the Museum of the Collegio Romano at Rome—“N. or M. resteth here with the Saints”; but probably in the later sense, as attached to martyrs and others of distinguished holiness.
(14) All that call on thy name.—Here again we have to trace the growth of a new terminology. The description of the disciples of the Lord Jesus as those who called upon or invoked His name, had its origin in the words of Joel cited by St. Peter (Acts 2:21), and afterwards by St. Paul (Romans 10:13). It is used again in Acts 9:21, and afterwards in 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Timothy 2:22. It may be noted further (1) that the same word is used of calling upon the Father (1 Peter 1:17), and of calling on Christ (here and Acts 7:59); and (2) that this also, like the term “saints” discussed in the fore going Note, passed from Ananias to St. Paul.
(15) He if a chosen vessel unto me.—Literally, a vessel of election. The term has nothing directly analogous to it in the Old Testament, but it is Hebrew in its form; the second noun being used as a genitive of the characteristic attribute, and so equivalent to an intensified adjective. So in Isaiah 22:7, we have in the LXX. “valleys of election” for the “choicest valleys” of the English version. The term “vessel” is used in the Old Testament of arms (Genesis 27:3), of garments (Deuteronomy 22:5), of household goods (Genesis 31:36-37). In the New Testament its range of meaning is yet wider, as in Matthew 12:29; Luke 8:16; John 19:29; Romans 9:22; 2 Corinthians 4:7. Here our word “instrument” or “implement” comes, perhaps, nearest to its meaning. The persecutor had been chosen by the Lord as the “tool” with which He would work out His gracious will for him and for the Gentiles. In this sense it was used by classical writers of useful and trusty slaves, just as we speak of one man being the “tool” of another. Possibly, however, the words may be interpreted as containing the germ of the parable of the potter’s vessel on which St. Paul dwells in Romans 9:21-23, and implied that the convert was not only chosen, but moulded, for his future work. The word “election,” which occurs here for the first time in the New Testament, and is afterwards so prominent in the teaching of St. Paul (Romans 9:11; Romans 11:5; Romans 11:7-8; 1 Thessalonians 1:4), affords yet another instance of the influence exercised on the Apostle by the thoughts and language of the instructor through whom alone he could have learnt what is here recorded.
To bear my name before the Gentiles.—The mission of the Apostle was thus revealed to Ananias in the first instance. He is one who welcomes that expansion of the kingdom on which even the chief of the Apostles would have entered, but for the voice from heaven, with doubt and hesitation (Acts 10:13; Acts 10:28). He is taught to see in the man of whom he had only heard as the persecutor, one who had been trained and chosen as fitter than all others for the work of that expansion.
And kings.—The words find their fulfilment in the speech before Agrippa (Acts 26:12); possibly in one before Nero (2 Timothy 1:16).
(16) For I will shew him how great things he must suffer . . .—The words are spoken as by One who knows “what is in man” (John 2:25), their secret motives, and springs of action. With characters of a lower type, the prospect of what they will have to suffer in any enterprise tends to deter them from embarking on it. With such a one as Saul of Tarsus, now repenting of the sufferings he had inflicted on others, that prospect would be welcome as enabling him, so far as that was possible, if not to atone for the past, at least to manifest fruits worthy of his repentance.
(17) Putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul.—The correspondence of the act with the vision spoken of in Acts 9:12, would be the first step in the identification of the visitor. The words would tend to remove all doubt and misgiving. The man who came as the representative of the disciples of Jesus welcomed the persecutor as a “brother.” It may be noted that he uses the same Hebrew form of the name as St. Paul had heard in the heavenly vision.
That thou mightest receive thy sight . . . .—Better, regain thy sight. The narrative clearly implies that here, as in Acts 8:17, the being “filled with the Holy Ghost” was connected with the laying on of hands as a condition, and it is so far a proof that that gift was not one which attached exclusively to the Apostles. It was, we may well believe, manifested in this instance as in others, by the ecstatic utterance of “the tongues” (comp. Acts 19:6; 1 Corinthians 14:18), and by the gift of prophetic insight.
(18) There fell from his eyes as it had been scales.—The description suggests the thought that the blindness was caused by an incrustation, caused by acute inflammation, covering the pupil of the eye, or closing up the eye-lids, analogous to the “whiteness,” that peeled (or scaled) off from the eyes of Tobit (Tob. 11:13). Like phenomena are mentioned by Hippocrates, and the care with which St. Luke records the fact in this instance, may be noted, with Acts 3:7; Acts 28:8, as one of the examples of the technical precision of his calling as a physician.
Arose, and was baptised.—It is clear that both Saul and Ananias looked on this as the indispensable condition for admission into the visible society of the kingdom of God. No visions and revelations of the Lord, no intensity of personal conversion, exempted him from it. For him, too, that was the “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5), the moment of the new birth, of being buried with Christ (Romans 6:3-4). It may be inferred almost as a matter of certainty that it was at the hands of Ananias that he received baptism. The baptism would probably be administered in one or other of the rivers which the history of Naaman had made famous, and so the waters of “Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus” (2 Kings 5:12), were now sanctified no less than those of Jordan for the “mystical washing away of sin.”
(19) And when he had received meat.—Better, as elsewhere, food. The three days’ fast had obviously brought about a state of extreme prostration. In St. Paul’s account of his conversion in Galatians 1:17, he states that when it pleased God to reveal His Son in him, immediately he “conferred not with flesh, and blood,” but went into Arabia and returned again to Damascus. We have, it is obvious, no certain data for fixing the time, nor the extent of that journey. St. Luke does not mention it, and his “straightway” balances the “immediately” of St. Paul’s account. On the whole. it seems most probable that it was the first step taken by him after he had regained his sight and been baptised. Physically, rest and seclusion would be necessary during the period of convalescence after the great crisis of his conversion. Spiritually, that solitude was needed, we may believe, to prepare him for the continuous labour of the three years that followed. I place the journey to Arabia accordingly, with hardly any hesitation, after the “certain days” of fellowship with the disciples, and his reception at their solemn meeting to break bread in the Supper of the Lord, and before the “preaching Christ” in the synagogues. How far the journey extended we cannot say. “Arabia” was used somewhat vaguely as a geographical term; but the fact that Damascus was at this time occupied by the troops of Aretas, the king of Arabia Petræa, makes it probable that he went to that region. In St. Paul’s paronomastic reference to Hagar as a synonym for Mount Sinai in Arabia (Hagar and Sinai both admitting of an etymology which gives “rock” as the meaning of each), we may, perhaps, trace a local knowledge gained during this journey, and draw the inference that he had sought communion with God where Moses and Elijah had found it, on the heights of Sinai and Horeb. (Comp. Galatians 4:25.) He learnt, it may be, the true meaning and purpose of the Law, as arousing the fear of judgment, amid the terrors of the very rocks from which that Law had first been proclaimed to Israel.
(20) And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues.—The “straightway” as interpreted by the inference drawn in the previous Note, must be taken to refer to the Apostle’s first public appearance in the synagogues of Damascus after his return from Arabia. The tense of the verb implies that the work was continued for some length of time. What he had to proclaim was, first, that the Christ was actually and verily the Son of God no less than the Son of David; and, secondly, that Jesus of Nazareth had been shown to be the Christ. The better MSS., however, give the reading, preached Jesus. The line of reasoning we may assume to have been identical with that of Acts 13:16-41. It is not without interest to remember here also that the Samaritans had a synagogue of their own at Damascus, and that he may thus have preached to them, so following in the footprints of Philip and taking his first step in the great work of breaking down the barriers that divided Israel from the world.
(21) That destroyed them which called on this name.—Better, made havock of them. It is noticeable that St. Paul uses the same verb as descriptive of his own conduct in Galatians 1:13, where the English version has “wasted.” On “them which called on this name,” see Note on Acts 9:16.
And came hither.—More accurately, had come hither, as implying that the purpose of his coming had been abandoned.
(22) But Saul increased the more in strength.—The tense implies a continuous growth in power, obviously in the spiritual power which enabled the Apostle to carry on his work. A comparison of dates suggests the connection of this growth with the special vision of 2 Corinthians 12:8, when in answer to his prayer that the infirmity which he describes as “a thorn in his flesh, the minister of Satan to buffet him,” he received the comforting assurance from the Lord whom he served—“My strength is made perfect in weakness.” It is not without interest that in after years St. Paul once and again uses the same verb of himself—“I can do all things in Christ that strengthened me” (Philippians 4:13). It was Christ who “enabled him,” or, made him strong, for his ministry (1 Timothy 1:12); who “strengthened him” in the closing trials of his life (2 Timothy 4:17). By some commentators the words are connected with the journey to Arabia as following on his first appearance as a preacher in the synagogues; but see Note on the previous verse.
(23) After that many days were fulfilled.—We learn from the more definite statement in Galatians 1:18 that these few words cover a period of otherwise unrecorded work, extending over a period of three years. That period must have witnessed the growth of a Christian society at Damascus, with an order of discipline and worship based on the outlines of that at Jerusalem. It follows, however, from the subsequent history that, as yet, Gentile converts were not admitted to the Church as such. The special mission to them came later on (comp. Acts 22:21), and it was natural that one, with the intense affection for his brethren according to the flesh which characterised St. Paul (Romans 10:1), should, till that mission came, have given himself mainly, or even exclusively, to the work of labouring for their conversion. It is probable, however, from the bitter antagonism of the Jews, that his teaching had already pointed to the breaking down of “the middle wall of partition” (Ephesians 2:14), and the passing away of all on which they had prided themselves as being their exclusive privileges. From the first it might almost seem as if Stephen had risen from the dead, and was living again in the spirit and power of his persecutor.
(24) They watched the gates day and night to kill him.—A somewhat fuller account of this episode in the Apostle’s life is given by him in 2 Corinthians 11:32. There we read that the governor—literally, ethnarch—of the city, under Aretas, King of Arabia Petræa, with Petra as his capital, the father of the wife whom Herod Antipas divorced, in order that he might marry Herodias, took an active part in the plot against Paul. On the manner in which Aretas had gained possession of a city which was properly attached to the Roman province of Syria, see Note on Acts 9:2. It is noticeable that there are coins of Damascus bearing the names of Augustus and Tiberius, and again of Nero and his successors, but none of those of Caligula and Claudius, who succeeded Tiberius. Caligula, on his accession, reversed the policy of Tiberius, who had been a friend and supporter of Antipas against Aretas, and it is probable that, as in other instances, he created a new principality, or ethnarchy, in favour of Aretas, to whose predecessors Damascus had belonged (Jos. Ant. xiii. 15, § 2). The ethnarch apparently wished to court the favour of the large Jewish population, and, looking on St. Paul as a disturber of the public peace, took measures for his arrest and condemnation. Troops were stationed at each gate of the city in order to prevent his escape.
(25) Let him down by the wall in a basket.—The basket is the spuris of Matthew 15:37, where see Note. In 2 Corinthians 11:33 St. Paul describes it by another word (sarganè), which gives the idea of a wicker or rope-work hamper. It seems to follow, from the tone in which the Apostle there speaks of this adventure, that it had been made matter of ridicule. It is connected in his thoughts with the “infirmities” (probably with his smallness of stature) of which he was content to boast. The escape was effected, like that of the spies from the house of Rahab (Joshua 2:15) and of David from his own house (1 Samuel 19:11), through an opening or “window” in the town wall. Such a window is still shown in the wall of Damascus as the traditional scene of the escape.
(26) And when Saul was come to Jerusalem.—His journey probably took him, as before, through Samaria (see Note on Acts 9:3), and so laid the foundation of the interest in the Samaritan Church, which shows itself later on in the history in Acts 15:3, when he and Barnabas journeyed “through Phœnice and Samaria.”
He assayed to join himself to the disciples.—The reader may note the use of the word “assay,” which has since been confined to a purely technical meaning, in the wider sense of trying or attempting. The verb for “join” is that which is always used of close and intimate fellowship, such as that of husband and wife, of brothers, and of friends. (Comp. Acts 10:28; Matthew 19:5; Luke 15:15; 1 Corinthians 6:16.) He was seeking, in the language of a later time, full communion with the disciples. It was not strange that his motives should be at first suspected. Might he not be coming to “spy out” their weak places, and in time appear again as a persecutor? The difficulty which at first presents itself in understanding how the Church at Jerusalem could have remained ignorant of what Saul had done at Damascus as a preacher of the faith, is adequately explained by the political incidents to which attention has been already drawn. The occupation of the city by Aretas, and his enmity against the Herodian house, may well have stopped the usual intercourse between it and Jerusalem, then under the rule of Agrippa, and so the reports that reached the Apostles would come in uncertain and fluctuating forms, which were not sufficient to lead the disciples to trust in the conversion of the persecutor.
(27) But Barnabas took him.—What, we ask, made Barnabas more ready than others, not only to receive the convert himself, but to vouch for his sincerity? The answer is found in the inference that the Levite of Cyprus and the tent-maker had been friends in earlier years. The culture of which Tarsus was the seat, would naturally attract a student from the neighbouring island, and the eagerness of Barnabas to secure Saul’s co-operation at a later stage of his work (Acts 11:25) may fairly be looked on as furnishing a confirmation of the view now suggested. He knew enough of his friend to believe every syllable of what he told him as to the incidents of his conversion.
Brought him to the apostles.—In the more definite account in Galatians 1:18-19, we find that his primary purpose was to exchange thoughts (ἱστορῆσαι = to inquire, the word from which we get our “history”) with Peter, and that the only other leading teacher that he saw (we need not now inquire whether he speaks of him as an Apostle or not) was “James, the Lord’s brother.” It may, perhaps, be inferred from this, either (1) that the other Apostles were absent from Jerusalem at the time, or (2) that the new convert did not attend any public meeting of the Church.
(28) Coming in and going out.—The words, like the kindred phrase in Acts 1:21, are used to imply a certain undefined frequency of intercourse. From Galatians 1:18 we learn that the whole duration of the visit was not more than fifteen days.
(29) Disputed against the Grecians.—It will be remembered that it was as the leader of the Hellenistic-Jews of the synagogue named in Acts 6:9 that Saul had first appeared in the history of the Church. Now, it would seem, he sought to undo the evil that he had then wrought, by preaching to them the faith which he had then opposed, and presenting, we may well believe, the very aspects of the truth that had been most prominent in Stephen’s teaching, and which, therefore, now, as then, roused them to a passionate frenzy. Twice, within a few weeks, the Apostle’s life was in danger.
(30) They brought him down to Cæsarea.—The fact that the brethren at Jerusalem took these measures for the Apostle’s safety may be noted as a proof of their friendship. At Cæsarea he would probably, as afterwards in Acts 21:8, find Philip, and the friend and the accuser of the proto-martyr met face to face as brethren. In returning to his home at Tarsus, from which he had been absent at the least for four years, and possibly for a much longer period, it would be natural for him to resume his old employment as a tent-maker. (See Note on Acts 18:3.) Thence, as from a centre, he did his work as an Evangelist in the regions of Cilicia (Galatians 1:21), where, in Acts 15:41, we find churches already organised, which had not been founded in what we call the first mission journey of Paul and Barnabas, and must therefore have been planted by the former at an earlier period. Here, for the present, we lose sight of him. It need hardly be said that the Cæsarea here spoken of is that on the sea-coast. Cæsarea Philippi is always distinguished by its special epithet.
(31) Then had the churches rest.—The better MSS. have “the Church” in the singular. The tranquility described may have been due, partly to the absence of any leading men among the opponents of the new society; partly, perhaps, to public excitement being diverted to the insane attempt of Caligula to set up his statue in the Temple at Jerusalem—an attempt from which he was only dissuaded by the earnest entreaties of Herod Agrippa, whom he had raised to the dignity of King of Judæa, but who happened at the time to be at Rome, and of Petronius, the Prœses of Syria. The latter was influenced by great showers of rain falling from a clear sky, after a long drought, in answer to the prayers of Israel (Jos. Ant. xviii. 8, § 6). Such prayers, made at a crisis in which believing and unbelieving Jews felt an equal interest, may, probably, have suggested St. James’s allusion to the old historical parallel of Elijah (James 5:17).
Throughout all Judæa and Galilee and Samaria.—Brief as the notice is, it is every way significant. It is the first intimation since the opening of the apostolic history of the existence, not of disciples only, such as had gathered round our Lord during His personal ministry, but of organised religious communities, in the towns and villages of Galilee. We may think of such churches as formed in Capernaum and Tiberias, in Chorazin and the two Bethsaidas, perhaps even in Nazareth. The history is silent as to the agency by which these churches had been founded; but looking to the close relations between St. Luke and St. Philip, and to the probability that the latter made Cæsarea his head-quarters for the work of an Evangelist, we may legitimately think of him as having worked there as he had worked in Samaria. It is not improbable, however, that here also, as in that region, he may have been followed, after he had done his work as an Evangelist, by the Apostles to whom it belonged to confirm and organise. (See Note on Acts 8:14.) The mention of Samaria in like manner indicates the extent and permanence of the result of Philip’s work there, followed up as it had been by the preaching of Peter and John.
Were edified; and walking. . . .—The more accurate construction of the sentence gives, The Church . . . . had peace, being edified and walking in the fear of the Lord, and was multiplied by the counsel of the Holy Ghost. The passage is noticeable for the appearance of the word “edified,” or “built up,” in the sense in which St. Paul had used it (1 Corinthians 8:1; 1 Corinthians 14:4), as describing orderly and continuous growth, the superstructure raised wisely upon the right foundation,
Walking in the fear of the Lord.—The phrase, so common in the Old Testament, is comparatively rare in the New, being used only by St. Luke here, and in 2 Corinthians 5:11, where it is wrongly translated “the terror of the Lord.” What it describes, as interpreted by its Old Testament use (Job 28:28; Psalms 111:10; Proverbs 1:7, et al.), is the temper of reverential awe; the scrupulous obedience to the commandments of God, which had been described of old as “the beginning” of wisdom.
The comfort of the Holy Ghost.—It was natural that the gift of the Spirit who had been promised as the Paraclete, or Advocate (see Excursus G on the Gospel of St. John), should be described by the kindred word of paraclesis, and equally natural that this connection should re-appear in the two English words of “comfort” and “Comforter.” “Comfort “is, however, somewhat too narrow; the Greek word including (see Note on Acts 4:36) counsel and exhortation, so as to be very nearly equivalent to “prophecy.” What is meant here is that the words of counsel which came from the Holy Ghost, speaking through the prophets of the Church, were, then as always, far more than signs and wonders, or human skill of speech, the chief agents in its expansion.
(32) As Peter passed throughout all quarters.—The plan of the writer, arranging his materials, leads him from this point of Acts 12:18 to dwell entirely on the personal work of Peter. So far this section of the book may be described as the Acts of Peter. On the other hand, it is obvious that he only gives those acts as part of his general plan, not caring to follow the Apostle’s course, as in a biography, but confining himself to tracing the steps by which he had been led to the part he played in the great work of the conversion of the Gentiles. The “all quarters” may well have included Galilee.
He came down also to the saints which dwelt at Lydda.—On the term “saints” see Note on Acts 9:13. Lydda, the Lud of the Old Testament (1 Chronicles 8:12; Ezra 2:33; Nehemiah 7:37; Nehemiah 11:35), was a town in the rich plain of Sharon, one day’s journey from Jerusalem, founded originally by settlers from the tribe of Benjamin, and retaining to the present day its old name as Ludd. It is mentioned by Josephus (Wars, iii. 3, § 5) as transferred by Demetrius Sotêr, at the request of Judas Maccabeus, to the estate of the Temple at Jerusalem (1Ma. 10:30; 1Ma. 10:38; 1Ma. 11:34). Under the grasping rule of Cassius, the inhabitants were sold as slaves (Jos. Ant. xiv. 11, § 2). It had, however, recovered its former prosperity, and appears at this time to have been the seat of a flourishing Christian community. In the wars that preceded the destruction of Jerusalem, it was partially burned by Cestius Gallus A.D. 66 (Jos. Wars, ii. 19, § 1), all but fifty of the inhabitants having gone up to the Feast of Tabernacles at Jerusalem, and was again occupied by Vespasian A.D. 68 (Jos. Wars, ii. 8, § 1). When it was rebuilt, probably under Hadrian, when Jerusalem received the new name of Ælia Capitolina, it also was renamed as Diospolis (= city of Zeus), and as such was the seat of one of the chief bishoprics of the Syrian Church. It was, at the time when Peter came to it, the seat of a Rabbinic school, scarcely inferior to that of Jabneh, and retained its fame after the scribes of the latter city had migrated to Tiberias. Gamaliel, son of the great Rabbi who was St. Paul’s master, and himself honoured with the title of Rabban, presided over it, and was succeeded by the great Tarphon (Lightfoot, Cent. Chorogr. c. xvi.). The question which we naturally ask, who had planted the faith of Christ there, carries us once more on the track of Philip the Evangelist. Lying as it did on the road from Azotus to Cæsarea, it would lie in his way on the journey recorded in Acts 8:40, as he passed “through all the cities;” and we may believe, without much risk of error, that here also he was St. Luke’s informant as to what had passed in the Church with which he was so closely connected.
A certain man named Æneas.—The Greek name (we note the shortened vowel Ænĕas of the later form of the word), perhaps, implies that he belonged to the Hellenistic section of the Church. Had the fame of Virgil’s poem made the name of the Trojan hero known even in the plains of Palestine? In the care with which St. Luke records the circumstances of the case, the eight years of bedridden paralysis, we note a trace of professional exactness, as in Acts 3:7; Acts 9:18; Acts 28:8. The word of “bed,” used commonly of the couches of the lower class (see Note on Matthew 2:4), suggests the thought that poverty also was added to his sufferings.
(34) Jesus Christ maketh thee whole.—Better, Jesus the Christ. We note the same anxiety to disclaim any personal power or holiness as the cause that wrought the supernatural healing as in Acts 3:12; Acts 4:9-10. In the assonance of the Greek words (Iësus iâtai se) we may, perhaps, trace a desire to impress the thought that the very name of Jesus testified that He was the great Healer. Such a paronomasia has its parallel in the later play upon Christiani and Chrestiani = the good or gracious people (Tertull. Apol. c. 3), perhaps also in St. Peter’s own language that the Lord is not Christos only, but Chrestos = gracious (1 Peter 2:3). The command seems to imply a reminiscence of the manner in which our Lord had wrought His work of healing in like cases (Matthew 9:6; John 5:8).
Make thy bed.—More accurately, make, or, arrange for thyself. He was to do at once for himself what for so many years others had done for him.
(35) All that dwelt at Lydda and Saron.—The latter name indicates a district rather than a town. The presence of the article with it, and its absence from Lydda, indicates that men spoke of “the Saron”—the plain—the woodlands (so it is rendered by the LXX.: 1 Chronicles 5:16; 1 Chronicles 27:29; Song of Solomon 2:1; Isaiah 35:2)—as we speak of “the weald.” It lay between the central mountains of Palestine and the Mediterranean, and was proverbial for its beauty and fertility (Isaiah 33:9; Isaiah 65:10).
(36) There was at Joppa. . . .—The Hebrew form of the name, Japho (pronounced Yapho), appears in Joshua 19:46, but the English version more commonly gives the better-known Joppa, as in 2 Chronicles 2:16; Ezra 3:7; Jonah 1:3). It was famous in Greek legends as the spot where Andromeda had been bound when she was delivered by Perseus (Strabo, xvi., p. 759; Jos. Wars, i. 6, § 2). The town stood on a hill so high that it was said (though this is not in conformity with the fact) that Jerusalem could be seen from its summit. It was the nearest port to that city, and though the harbour was difficult and dangerous of access, was used for the timber that, first under Solomon, and afterwards under Zerubbabel, was brought from Lebanon for the construction of the Temple (1 Kings 5:9; 2 Chronicles 2:16; Ezra 3:7). In the history of Jonah it appears as a port from which ships sail to Tarshish and Spain (Jonah 1:3). Under the Maccabean rulers the harbour and fortifications were restored (1MMalachi 4:5; 1Ma. 4:34). By Augustus it was given to Herod the Great, and afterwards to Archelaus (Jos. Ant. xv. 7, § 3; xvii. 11, § 4), and on his deposition, became part of the Roman province of Syria. It was at this time and later on notorious as a nest of pirates. Here also we may, as in the case of Lydda (see Note on Acts 9:32), see the work of Philip as the probable founder of the Church.
Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas.—Both the Hebrew and Greek names mean Antelope or Gazelle. The fact that she bore both implies some points of connection both with the Hebrew and Hellenistic sections of the Church. The Greek form occurs, in the curious combination of Juno Dorcas, on one of the inscriptions in the Columbarium of Livia, now in the Capitoline Museum at Rome, as belonging to an Ornatrix of the Empress. Was the disciple of Joppa in any way connected with the slave, whose very function implied skill in needlework? If, as is probable, the Church at Joppa owed its foundation to Philip (see Note on Acts 8:40), we may trace in the position which she occupied, in relation to the “widows” of the Church, something of the same prudential wisdom as had been shown in the appointment of the Seven, of whom he had been one.
Full of good works.—The form of the expression may be noticed as characteristic of St. Luke, and his favourite formula for conveying the thought of a quality being possessed in the highest degree possible. So we have “full of leprosy” in Luke 5:12, “full of grace” and “full of faith” in Acts 6:5; Acts 6:8. (Comp. also Acts 13:10; Acts 19:28.)
(37) They laid her in an upper chamber.—This implies some little delay in the usual rapidity of Eastern funerals. As Lydda was only nine miles from Joppa, the report of Æneas’s recovery might well have travelled from the one city to the other, and led to the hope that the power which St. Peter had thus put forth might extend even to the farther work of raising from the dead.
(38) Desiring him that he would not delay.—The better MSS. give the message somewhat more dramatically, “Delay not,” and “Be not reluctant to come.” It was, of course, necessary that he should come at once, as interment would have come, as a matter of course, on the following day.
(39) All the widows stood by him weeping.—We have apparently the same organisation of charity as that which prevailed in the Church at Jerusalem. The “widows” of the Church were the object of a special provision. (See Note on Acts 6:1.) The “coats,” were the close-fitting tunics worn next the body, the “garments” the looser outer cloaks that were worn over them. (See Note on Matthew 5:40.) These were now exhibited by those who were mourning over the loss of their benefactress. It is probable that the garments were for the use of men and boys, as well as women, and that the “widows” had been fellow-workers with her in making them. She was, as it were, at the head of a Sisterhood of Mercy.
Which Dorcas made.—More accurately, used to make.
(40) Peter put them all forth.—We may, perhaps, trace in Peter’s action his recollection of what our Lord had done in the case of the daughter of Jairus (see Notes on Matthew 9:23-24), at which he had been present. The work was one not to be accomplished by the mere utterance of a name, nor as by his “own power or holiness” (Acts 3:12), but by the power of the prayer of faith, and this called for the silence and solitude of communion with God. Even the very words which were uttered, if he spoke in Aramaic, must have been, with the change of a single letter, the same as the Talitha cumi of Mark 5:41. The utterance of the words implied the internal assurance that the prayer had been answered.
(41) And when he had called the saints.—See Note on Acts 9:13.
(42) Many believed in the Lord.—Here the word is obviously used definitely for the Lord Jesus as the specific object of their faith.
(43) Many days in Joppa with one Simon a tanner.—Either as bringing with it, through contact with the carcases and hides of dead beasts, the risks of ceremonial defilement, or being generally a repulsive and noisome business, the occupation was one from which the stricter Jews generally shrunk. The Rabbis held that if a tanner about to marry concealed his occupation from his intended wife, the concealment was of the nature of a fraud that invalidated the contract (Schöttgen, Hor. Heb., in loc.). In taking up his abode with one of this calling, Peter must accordingly have been taking one step in advance towards greater freedom. He had learnt, partially at least, the lesson which his Master had taught as to that which alone can bring with it real defilement (Mark 7:17-23), and was thus being trained for a fuller illumination. We have no data for determining the length of time implied in the “many days.” In Acts 9:23, as we have seen, the words covered a period of nearly three years.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Acts 9". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13