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The Conversion of Saul
Saul was raging against the new sect, as Christendom was seen in the beginning. With this he thought he was offering a service to God (Jn 16:2-3). The Lord allowed this, because He wanted to make him, the greatest enemy of the church, the greatest witness and apostle of His sovereign grace of the church. The history of his conversion is told three times in Acts, once by Luke (here) and twice by the converted Paul himself (Acts 22:1-16; Acts 26:1-18).
Stephen’s death had only increased Saul’s urge to destroy the church. The fact that he ‘breathed’ threats and murder indicates that he breathed it out. It came from within. Wherever he went, he breathed death for the Christians and in his anger he spat out his venom against them. In his insatiable thirst for the blood of these enemies of the religion of the fathers he did not limit himself to the persecution of them in Jerusalem and surroundings. He also sought after them in the foreign cities (Acts 26:11). Damascus was also on his list.
Damascus had a large Jewish community with several synagogues. Among them there could be some who had become Christians, but were not yet separated from the Jews. The high priest in Jerusalem still had spiritual authority over these synagogues. The jurisdiction of the Council also applied to synagogues in foreign cities. The governments of those countries allowed a certain authority because they believed that this would benefit the peace in their country.
The new movement, Christendom, is here called “the Way” (Acts 9:2; Acts 19:9; 23; Acts 22:4; Acts 24:14). It shows the dynamics of Christendom, how it develops. It points especially to the Lord Jesus who said: “I am the way” (Jn 14:6). Saul’s intention with his journey to Damascus was to take away men and women who were captivated by the “Way” and bring them to Jerusalem. There they could be brought before the Council to be sentenced.
But on the way to Damascus, what happens to him is completely unforeseen and completely unwanted, yes, even the most hated. Suddenly a light shines around him from heaven, causing him to fall to the ground. Saul must have travelled on foot. A Pharisee on horseback is not very likely. The distance between Jerusalem and Damascus is about two hundred kilometers. The journey would therefore have taken days. It is also understandable that the news of his arrival rushed ahead and the Christians in Damascus were aware of it (Acts 9:14). In the light of the sun shining upon him, the Lord Jesus appears to this son of Abraham (Acts 9:17; cf. Acts 7:2).
From the words the Lord speaks to Saul at His appearance, it appears that He declares Himself one with His own on earth. By persecuting His own on earth, Saul is in the process of persecuting Him. That complete unity between the glorified Lord in heaven and the church on earth will be the content of the service of Saul, later Paul. To him the mystery of Christ has been revealed, that is, the unity of the church as heavenly people with Christ glorified in heaven (Eph 3:3-11).
The authority of the Person Who speaks is undeniable. Saul directly addresses Him as “Lord”, even though he did not yet know Who He was. Then he asks Who He is. These are the first words of a Saul who has been stopped and thrown down. The answer given to him by the Lord also brings him spiritually to the ground. “Jesus” spoke to him!
Jesus, thought to be dead, appeared to be alive and to be the Lord of glory. What a shocking discovery! On top of that, ‘Jesus’ is not only the Lord of glory, but He also acknowledges the disciples that Saul wanted to capture as one with Him. The defenseless sheep he persecutes have a Defender, a Guardian in the Lord Jesus. He also discovers that zeal for Judaism means zeal against the Lord.
The conversion of Paul is an example of the conversion of Israel when they also come face to face with Him Whom they have rejected (Zec 12:10). Also, his conversion is a model for every other sinner: if he who calls himself the greatest sinner (1Tim 1:15) is saved, there is hope for every other sinner who must necessarily be a smaller one.
The Lord Jesus has begun a work that will make the greatest opponent of the Christian faith the most fervent advocate of it. In order to continue this, He gives Saul the order to stand up and enter the city. There he will be told what to do. The Lord has personally brought him to a standstill in his rage against Him. He will now call upon others to further form Saul.
Saul did not travel alone. There were men with him, presumably to help him carry out his mission. It is obvious that they were police officers of the Sanhedrin. These men had also fallen to the ground by the sudden light that also radiated over them (Acts 26:13-14). They also heard the voice, but they saw no one. It was an inexplicable phenomenon for them, for which they had no words.
They shared in all the outward characteristics associated with their leader’s encounter with the Lord of Glory, but they had no part in it whatsoever. The Lord Jesus did not appear to them, nor did they understand His words to Saul. They were blind and deaf to Him and His words.
In Saul’s case, the effect of the encounter is all the more impressive. There is no response, his will is broken, his heart overwhelmed, his spirit defeated. He submits himself completely to the voice that speaks to him. In God’s presence there is no apology or self-justification. How very differently he had imagined his arrival in Damascus. How his plan was thwarted.
Without having anything to say about it, he was taken by the hand and brought into Damascus to be joined by the company he wanted to exterminate. The hater and destroyer of the church has become like a gentle lamb that allows itself to be led willy-nilly. He cannot help but surrender to the leadership of others, for he is blind. In this state of blindness, nothing can distract his mind. His blindness also shows him that from now on he should no longer have an eye for the splendor and pomp of the Jewish religion which, after all, is focused on appearance.
In the light of the distress of his soul, the needs of the body also disappear. He does not eat or drink anything. In these days of blindness, the terror of his rage against the Lord will have sunk in to him (1Tim 1:12-17). We read nothing of companions who visit him and want to comfort him. But the Lord is busy with him.
Conversation Between the Lord and Ananias
After His own work, which no man could do, the Lord is now going to use disciples for the further formation of Saul. It is not Peter who is sent to Saul, but a simple disciple, hitherto unknown to us. Everything the Lord does with Saul is outside Jerusalem. Ananias means ‘Yahweh is merciful’. This is apparent from His whole dealings with Saul.
We would never have heard of Ananias if God had not wanted to use him in connection with Saul. He is an ordinary disciple, inconspicuous to humans, but useful to God when He needs him. So many hidden disciples have been used by God. They stand in the background of many prominent servants and have influenced their service and formation.
The Lord speaks with Ananias as a man speaks with his friend. As soon as He speaks to him, there is an immediate willingness to listen. With the words “here I am, Lord” he immediately makes himself available to the Lord. He does not seem to be frightened by the voice of the Lord, accustomed as he is to a personal relationship with Him.
The Lord tells Ananias where to go and who to look for. He gets an address and the name of the owner of the house. There he must look for the man who comes from Tarsus and listens to the name Saul. Because he has to look in that house, the house of Judas is probably an inn with several guests. The name of the street, the Straight, contrasts with the twisted road that Saul has gone down until then. That seemed like a straight road to him, but its end would lead him into death (Pro 14:12; Pro 16:25).
Ananias receives an additional description by which he will be able to recognize Saul and that is what Saul is doing: he is praying. So he doesn’t have to be afraid of a threatening attitude with Saul. He is as gentle as a lamb. It is the first expression of the new life we hear from Saul. The dependence expressed in prayer will characterize his whole service. The Lord also tells Ananias that He has prepared Saul for his coming. He informed him in a vision of the person who will come to see him, what he will do with him and that he will be able to see him again.
After the assignment and the extensive information about it, Ananias still has reservations. With remarkable boldness he speaks with the Lord about Saul completely confidentially and openly. The Lord allows him to express his objections, without interrupting him. With due respect Ananias speaks to Him as “Lord” and then tells Him what he has heard about Saul. He has heard from reliable sources how much evil this man has done to the believers in Jerusalem. He speaks about the believers in the Lord as “Your saints”. This is a company which belongs to Christ and which He has separated from the world for Himself (1Cor 6:11).
Ananias also knows that Saul has authority from the chief priests to bind all those who pray to the Lord Jesus as God. It is the great annoyance of the Jews that the Christians acknowledge the Messiah as God. For sure, it is an annoyance to see in the despised Jesus the Messiah, but it gets much worse when they also see the Messiah as God. For the orthodox Jew, the Messiah is a human being, a special human being indeed, but no more than a human being.
The Lord does not answer Ananias’ objection with stern authority, but gives a patient explanation, although of course Ananias must obey. He speaks to him as someone worthy of His trust and explains to him what He intends to do with Saul. Saul is a “chosen instrument [or: vessel]” for Him. With the word “vessel,” the Lord wants to say that He is going to use Saul as an instrument in His service. He is going to fill this ‘vessel’ with commands for Him.
The working out of these commands will make Saul a witness of the Name of the Lord Jesus, both for Gentiles, who are ordinary people, and for kings, who are high-ranking. He will also bear the Name of the Lord Jesus for the sons of Israel. It is remarkable that they are mentioned last.
The execution of his commissions will not go by itself, without effort, but it will cause him much suffering for the same Name. That suffering starts already with his first preachings (Acts 9:23; 29).
Ananias With Saul
After the Lord’s explanation of what will happen to Saul, Ananias goes to the house where Saul is. When he has entered, he lays hands on him, just as the Lord indirectly told him when He told him about the vision Saul had seen (Acts 9:12). The arrival of Ananias confirms Saul’s faith, because Ananias can tell him what happened to him, although he has not left the city.
Ananias lives in Damascus and was on Saul’s list as a candidate to be killed. Now he lays his hands on him, calls him “brother”, and thus retaliates evil with good. He does not lay hands on him to consecrate him for his service, not even to give him the gift of the Spirit. He lays hands on him to accept him as a brother and to declare himself one with him in faith.
It is also a testimony that being a Christian is not a purely individual matter. Christians visit each other and need fellowship. Here two men meet who have never met before, but they are brought together by the Lord after each of them has been informed about the other by Him.
A simple disciple takes care of him who will become the great apostle and lets him experience the first fellowship so characteristic of Christians. Through the hands of this simple disciple – and not of one of the apostles – Saul also regains his sight and is filled with the Holy Spirit. God is sovereign to use whom He wills. In this way, any human presumption in the vocation of this special servant is prevented.
Saul spends his first days as a Christian with the disciples in Damascus. By joining them, he also openly testifies that he believes what they believe. He will certainly have been cared for by them and thus have enjoyed the first benefits of the new company to which he has joined. He makes grateful use of the food they give him. In this way he regains strength, which he will use from now on to serve another Lord.
Preaching of Saul and an Attack
The effect of true conversion is a direct confession of the Lord Jesus (Rom 10:9-10). Saul “immediately” preaches Jesus as the Son of God, which is His personal glory. For confessing this truth, the Lord Jesus was condemned to death (Mt 26:63-66). He had already been preached by Peter as Lord and Christ, the Messiah (Acts 2:36), and Saul now preaches Him as “the Son of God”.
There is no real conversion if there is no confession that Jesus is the Son of God (1Jn 4:15; 1Jn 5:12). Jews do believe in the Messiah, but not that He is also God. To them, the Messiah is no more than a man, although a very privileged man. That is what Saul had believed until that moment, and he had fought with fire and sword the confession that this One is the Son of God.
Saul was called by God to preach the Lord Jesus as the Son of God. God wants to reveal His Son in him (Gal 1:16). It does not say ‘to’ him, but “in” him. This points to the inner and intimate connection that arises at the conversion between the believer and the Lord Jesus and continues thereafter. In the name ‘Son’ the entire riches of the gospel are enclosed. It is the content of his very first sermon. He proclaims a Person, not a doctrine. This Person is the eternal Son.
He proclaims Him in the synagogues. This shows what we will find in his service, that he first addresses the Jews and only then the Gentiles. Later on we regularly find that he acts in this way by first visiting the synagogue in a city where he comes.
The change that took place with Saul caused a general surprise. Likewise, any sincere conversion will cause amazement about the change it brings about. The change must be noticed, it cannot be hidden. The change with Saul is that he has joined with the Christians whom he first persecuted and that he brings to the Jews the message that he first tried to eradicate.
After an initially hesitant and cautious action, Saul becomes more and more powerful in his performance. It is possible that he has been in Arabia for three years now (Gal 1:17), has been taught by God and has now returned to Damascus. He repeats his preaching, but also adds to his preaching that Jesus is the Christ. Not only does he preach this, he also proves it.
With his thorough knowledge of the Old Testament and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, he is extremely able to provide these proofs. This confuses the Jews in Damascus. His public confession makes him grow in strength. Public confession of faith is also one of the conditions to grow in faith today.
When Saul is active for so many days, resistance also increases. The Jews he is trying to convince, join hands and plot to kill him. For them, Saul is an object of their hatred more than any other Christian because he is, in their eyes, an apostate Jew. From his second letter to the Corinthians, we can deduce that the Jews managed to make the ethnarch or governor their ally, probably by presenting Saul as a great danger to society (2Cor 11:32-33).
He soon shares in the fate of the Lord Jesus. It is a quick fulfillment of the words that the Lord spoke to Ananias about the suffering of Saul before the Name of the Lord (Acts 9:16). Saul, however, found out about their attack. Luke does not tell us how this happened. That is reason for him to flee. While the ethnarch or governor has the gates guarded, Saul escapes their attack.
The escape is not spectacular. The Lord could have blinded the guards and opened the gates as He did earlier at the deliverance of Peter and John from prison (Acts 5:19). Saul escapes in a classical way. He now has some disciples. One night they take him to a hole in the city wall through which they lower him in a large basket. In this way he, who will become the great apostle, dangles in a basket along the city wall, depending on his disciples. They let the rope go until he finally lands safely at the bottom of the wall and can make his way, as we may assume, towards Jerusalem.
Saul in Jerusalem
When Saul arrived in Jerusalem, he did not seek out his old friends, the Pharisees and chief priests, but wanted to join his new friends, the disciples. They are very suspicious, however, and it is not easy for him to join them. They know him as a persecutor and are afraid that he is playing a trick to get among them and then arrest them all. They simply do not believe that he has become a disciple. It seems that they have heard nothing of his conversion. And if they have heard anything about it, they have their reservations about it. Saul does not blame them for this attitude.
The Lord gives an outcome through one of His servants, Barnabas, of whom we have heard before (Acts 4:36-37). He is a true son of consolation who brings people together. He is always present when problems arise and brings a solution to them. He has an eye for the work of God and the work of the enemy.
Barnabas takes Saul with him and brings him to the apostles. He reports on Saul’s conversion because of his meeting with the Lord and that the Lord spoke to him. The proofs of his conversion are also mentioned by Barnabas when he recounts how Saul boldly spoke in the Name of Jesus in Damascus. Then Saul is taken up in their midst.
We are not told where Barnabas got his information, but he is a reliable and ‘good man’, so his testimony is believed. We learn from this that no believer can be accepted based on his own testimony, but on the basis of the conclusive testimony of others who can testify of an encounter with the Lord and give the proof of it. This can be done verbally, as here, but also in writing (Acts 18:27; 2Cor 3:1). Later, Paul will even write a whole letter, the letter to Philemon, in which he encourages others to accept a new convert, for whom there were no warm feelings either (Phlm 1:10-17).
The acceptance of Saul in the Jerusalem church means a lot more than just to celebrate the Supper of the Lord with them. He “is with them, moving about freely”. This indicates that he not only visited the meetings of the Christians, but also participated in the whole church life. How essential it is not to limit our fellowship as Christians to a few gatherings, but to live it constantly. Saul makes himself completely one with them, while still fulfilling his own specific mission. Unity is not uniformity.
Barnabas’ testimony of the frankness with which Saul spoke in Damascus is confirmed by Saul’s performance in Jerusalem. Despite the murderous spirit that this evoked among the Jews in Damascus, which forced him to flee that city, Saul also speaks boldly in the Name of the Lord in Jerusalem.
Through his earlier experience he knows that in Jerusalem his message will encounter even greater resistance. That is what is happening. He focuses especially on the Hellenistic or Greek-speaking Jews. He speaks with them and argues with them. In every way he wants to try to convince them of the Name of the Lord. But the truth reveals the hatred of the heart. They try to kill him. Before they can execute their plan, the Lord makes their plan clear to him (Acts 22:17-21) and tells him to leave Jerusalem.
Just as in Damascus, there are believers in Jerusalem who help him to flee. Again, ordinary means are used to escape an attack. The fact that they want to kill him in Jerusalem must have been a great disappointment for him. However, the Lord is in the process of carrying out His plan with him and in doing so He makes use of the enemies of the gospel. While Jerusalem wants to get rid of the presence of the preacher of Christ, just as they have got rid of Christ Himself, God uses this to send him to the nations.
Jerusalem thus loses its status as the center of world evangelism. This center is moved to Antioch, as we will see later (Acts 13:1-3). Accompanied by the “brothers” – a beautiful word of fellowship – he comes to Caesarea, from where they send him to Tarsus. God uses the brothers to take him to the next station in his service to his Lord. In this way Saul lets himself be led by the Lord and by the brothers.
The Church Has Peace and Increases
After the persecutions, a time of peace began in the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria. The gospel was preached there and as a result several churches were formed. Yet Luke speaks of the church and not of churches. (The fact that Luke does not do that here does not mean that it does not occur, see Gal 1:22; 1Thes 2:14).
In this way he emphasizes the unity of the one church, even though in practice we see that there are several local churches. Each local church is – at least it should be – a reflection of the total church.
According to the word of the Lord Jesus (Acts 1:8) the gospel has been brought to those regions, including Galilee, and the church is founded there. Before we leave that area to follow the work of the Spirit to the ends of the earth, Luke tells us some beautiful characteristics of the church in those regions. We can pray that the Lord will cultivate such characteristics in the local or regional church also today. The peace of the churches will have been the result of the conversion of Saul, which stopped the engine of persecution.
This peace will relate not only to the outer circumstances, but also, and above all, to the inner, to the peace in the hearts of believers. This time and mind of peace gives the opportunity for spiritual growth, for being built up through the teaching of God’s Word.
Times of peace must also in our days be used well by believers to build themselves up in faith (Jude 1:20). Teaching that is truly ingrained in the heart will, as it were, automatically result in a walk in the fear of the Lord. Walking in the fear of the Lord is not a walk in anxiety for the Lord, but a walk in reverence for the Lord.
The result of this in turn is increase of the church. A walk in reverence for the Lord attracts people. When people come to conversion and are added to the church, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. That work is presented here as “comfort”.
Healing of Aeneas
After Luke, led by the Holy Spirit, described Saul’s conversion and his first activities as a Christian, he again turns our eyes to Peter and his service. The two histories that follow at the end of this chapter stand between the conversion of Saul and that of Cornelius. The conversion of Saul is the beginning of the great harvest of which Cornelius is the beginning. The question could then arise: Has Israel come to an end? We see the answer in Peter’s two miracles from which we can learn that God has not rejected His people forever.
Peter travels everywhere to strengthen and encourage the new churches. On his roundtrip he also visits the saints who live in Lydda. The church there may have come into being through the work of the evangelist Philip, who has traveled through the country from Asdod to Caesarea, proclaiming the gospel to all the cities (Acts 8:40). Here the believers are called “saints” again, as in Acts 9:13; 41. The saints are the special company of people who no longer belong to the world, but to the Lord Jesus. They form a new and separate company in the world that has a new object of love: the glorified Christ.
Among the saints, Peter encounters a man named Aeneas who has been lying paralyzed in bed for eight years. We can see in him a picture of Judaism that has no power of itself to do what God asks in His Word. Peter speaks to the cripple as he did to the lame at the door of the temple (Acts 3:6).
He mentions his name and points to Jesus Christ Who heals him. Peter has no power to heal anyone. Only the Lord Jesus can do that. Peter also does not say ‘will heal you’, but ‘heals you’. Peter is only the instrument of the Lord’s power. The power comes through Jesus Christ, Jesus the Messiah. The Lord Jesus guarantees immediate and perfect health.
Peter commands him to get up and make his bed. Aeneas responds immediately and gets up. His healing is a clear testimony of the Name of the Lord Jesus. The result of his healing is that all who live in Lydda and Saron and see Aeneas are converted to the Lord. The wonder works that hearts are turned to the Lord and not to people.
Saron is a fertile coastal plain that stretches from Lydda to Mount Carmel. The fertility turns out to affect not only the soil, but also the spiritual fruit that can now be found there through the conversion to the Lord. Here we find a spiritual pre-fulfilment of the word of Isaiah: “Sharon will be a pasture land for flocks” (Isa 65:10a).
Resurrection of Dorcas
In Joppa, about nineteen kilometers from Lydda, there is also a church. That church had the privilege to have sister Tabitha in their midst. Her Aramean name means ‘gazelle’, just like the translation of her name into Greek, Dorcas. She was “a disciple”, which means that she was a follower of the Lord Jesus. That she was truly worthy of that name was evidenced by the testimony given of her. She was characterized by “labor of love” (1Thes 1:3). They were works of faith, the proof that she had faith. She was the opposite of Aeneas.
While she was engaged in her “labor of love,” she became ill and died. Busy with things that are pleasing to the Lord does not mean immunity to sickness and death. What seemed to be a blow for the church and for those she served with, her good works and blessings becomes a testimony to the Lord.
In the first place, we see faith in those who took care of her after she died. They wash her and then lay her in an upper room. Normally, after she had been washed, she would have been anointed and buried immediately afterwards. Yet they don’t do that, but put her in an upper room. Perhaps they thought of two Old Testament resurrections in which the dead were also laid down in an upper room (1Kgs 17:19; 2Kgs 4:21).
In any case, they show faith in the possibility that Tabitha will be resurrected, because the disciples send two men to Lydda to fetch Peter. They are two men to underline the reliability of the question (cf. 2Cor 13:1). They get the message to tell Peter to come immediately.
Luke does not mention that they have to tell Peter the reason of their request. We know that it was not to attend the funeral, but to prevent it. We also don’t read that Peter has to speak to the Lord about it first. He sees in the request a clear instruction from the Lord to go along. He lets himself being ordered to come and goes along.
As soon as he has arrived, he is brought to the upper room. There are all the widows that Tabitha has been serving. They have suffered a great loss because of her death. What they show to Peter are the proofs of true religion (Isa 58:7), the opposite of pious talk without providing for need (Jam 2:15-16). Through what the widows show of Tabitha’s works, we see that her works follow her (cf. Rev 14:13).
Peter knows what to do. To do so, he must be alone with the Lord, without anyone to distract him. Only with the body and the Lord does Peter kneel down and pray. This gives him the conviction of the will of God that he can speak the word of authority to Tabitha to arise. For this he turns to the body. After his commanding words to arise, Tabitha opens her eyes. She sees Peter and sits up. Tabitha is resurrected by prayer and the word of power.
Only when she is seated, Peter gives her his hand and raises her up. Then he calls the saints and the widows and presents her alive to them. Through the resurrection, she is able to serve again. It is an indication that our ability to serve God is not limited to this life, but that it continues forever after the resurrection (Rev 22:3-5). This is because of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Eternity is full of activity, there will be no boredom.
The result of the resurrection of Tabitha is that “many” in Joppa come to faith in the Lord. In Lydda, after a smaller wonder, “all” who lived in Lydda and Saron came to repentance. The wonder of the revival of Tabitha is bigger, but the number of conversions is smaller, because there are “many”, not “all”.
After the resurrection of Tabitha, Peter does not return to Lydda, but stays in Joppa for a considerable time. Servants do not always have to be on the road. Especially after a ‘successful’ service it is necessary to be alone with the Lord, to think and pray and wait for new directions from Him.
For his stay in Joppa, Peter, the great apostle of circumcision, takes up residence with a simple man, a tanner. The profession of tanner was considered impure by the Jews. Such a man was engaged in the processing of skins, especially to make leather water bags from them. Does Peter’s stay with this man suggest that God can turn something impure into something pure, such as a leather bag containing pure water?
Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
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de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Acts 9". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12