Chapter 9. The Conversion of Saul And His Preliminary Ministry.
Having gone forward and seen the result of the persecution in Jerusalem in terms of the successful activities of the men who were driven out, we are now brought back to Jerusalem and made aware what a difficult time the Jerusalem church was having, but only in order that we may see the next advance of the word.
Saul had filled the prisons, and now found that all whom he sought had otherwise fled, and he was so filled with angry zeal that he was determined to pursue them. When news came from the synagogues of Damascus that many had fled there and were spreading their teaching, he went to the High Priest for his authority to haul them back to Jerusalem for trial. Although the High Priest had no jurisdiction over the synagogues in Damascus, he did have the authority to request that ‘criminal’ elements who had fled from Jerusalem might be returned there. The letters that Saul therefore obtained would be to give him official authorisation to arrest any fugitives from Jerusalem so as to bring them back for trial.
It may seem surprising that a man of his calibre would partake in such vicious activities, but in view of the fact that he saw the attitude of believers as blasphemous he had plenty of precedents. Moses had ordered the slaying of idolaters at Mount Sinai (Exodus 32:27-28), and at Baal-peor (Numbers 25:1-5). Phinehas was commended for promptly slaying the Simeonite chieftain, thus turning away God’s wrath from Israel (Numbers 25:6-15). It may well have been clear to Saul therefore that such prompt action was now required again, and that he was the righteous man to do it. He had a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2).
But what he did not realise was that he was a marked man. The God of his fathers whom he was seeking to serve in such a vicious way had chosen him for a task that he could not even have dreamed of. He was to be the spearhead of the taking of this new message of the Kingly Rule of God to the world.
Thus on the road to Damascus, which would become one of the best remembered roads in the whole world precisely because of this incident, the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him and basically informed him that from now on he must serve Him. He who was going to arrest others found himself divinely ‘arrested’. He would be led, blind, into Damascus to learn his future. It was symbolic of the condition of his own heart.
Humanly speaking we can understand why he was chosen. As a Jew and a prominent Pharisee he knew Judaism inside out, and had a sister prominent in Jerusalem’s priestly circles, as a Roman citizen from birth he would grow up familiar with the Easternised culture of Rome, as a Jew of Tarsus, a university city, he would be fully familiar with the more broadminded Hellenistic ideas relating to Judaism, and his background in Greek ideas, which he could hardly have avoided as he grew up, rounded him off as a man of wide experience and knowledge. Furthermore he would reveal that he had a brilliant mind, and was a man of unceasing zeal.
His conversion brings to mind that of another like him. Sadhu Sundar Singh the Indian mystic was seeking ‘God’ with all his heart and in total despair spent what might have been his last night on earth in deep prayer, determined that if he could not find God he would commit suicide. His hope was for one of his gods to appear. But the One who appeared to this desperately seeking soul was the last person Whom he had imagined. He too saw the Lord Jesus Christ, and he too became as a result a dedicated servant of His. In both cases they were men of deep religious desire, and in both cases they were seeking in the wrong direction. And to both Christ unexpectedly appeared. There were no deeply psychological reasons in either case why they should see the unexpected. It happened because it was so.
But why God should choose him to ‘oust’ the Apostles, making him the central determining figure who would direct the future of Christianity, second only to our Lord Himself, can only be a mystery. For even Peter pales into relative insignificance in contrast with this mighty figure.
When we commence the Acts of the Apostles and read the first chapter we think that we will find before us a description of how these men went to the ends of the earth with the Good New. And at first our wish is fulfilled. For the first few chapters they and their appointees dominate the scene. Their effectiveness in Jerusalem cannot be doubted, and even their outreach to the surrounding area. But once we get to chapter 9 the book is almost hijacked by Paul. From then on it is he who is seen to be the gigantic figure who spreads the Good News as far as Rome, building on Peter’s initial outreach to local Gentiles. And not only so, but it is his letters which become foundational to understanding the doctrines of the Christian church.
And yet none can doubt that God was right. Not only did he establish the church from Jerusalem to Rome, but he provided the finest possible explanation of the teaching and significance of Jesus that is known to us, provided revelation from God which illuminated Who and What Christ is, and bestrode the Christian world of his day. And yet he accomplished it all acting humbly under the auspices of the Apostles. His rise to superiority could well have happened had he wished it, but never did he seek to replace them or diminish them. He always treated them with the greatest respect, acknowledging their right to act as final arbiters, and describing himself as ‘the least of the Apostles’, although few others would have looked at him in that way.
Jesus as Saviour, Redeemer and Lord, and as both God and Man, was the centrepiece and focus of the Christian message. Paul was to be the magnifying glass that brought His glory and significance to light not only to the Hellenistic Jews but also in the eyes of the whole Gentile world. He was supremely the ‘Apostle to the Gentiles’.
However, having said that the Apostles undoubtedly played their part nobly. They did found the work on Christ, they did establish the infant church in its first roots, Peter did use the ‘keys of the Kingly Rule of God’ to open the way first for the Jews and then for the Gentiles, and they did ensure the preservation of the Tradition of Jesus and its final recording in the Gospels, and while they lived they were the final source to which men went for the truth about Jesus’ life and teaching. They were ‘the living voice’ as Papias makes clear. When the early church set in parallel Peter and Paul, Peter represented the whole Apostolate, but Paul represented (in the best possible way) himself.
However, when we are first introduced to him here it is under his Jewish name of Saul of Tarsus.
‘But Saul, yet breathing threatening and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, and asked of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any that were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.’
The language is very forceful. His rage was not yet satisfied and he had gained a taste for the blood of heretics. ‘Threatening and slaughter’ may carry within it the idea of initial warning, followed by harsh sentence if the warning was not heeded (see introduction to chapter 4). The legal rules could not totally be ignored. It is possible that Saul’s activity resulted in his promotion at this stage to the Sanhedrin for he later speaks of ‘giving his vote’ against believers (Acts 26:10).
Unable to bear the thought that some had escaped his blood lust (a sad reflection on what had happened to him), and full of determination to pursue them and haul them back to Jerusalem to be dealt with, he now went to the High Priest (with whom his family may well have had connections (Acts 23:14-16)), this time seeking letters giving him authority to arrest any fugitives who had fled to Damascus, both men and women, and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial. The High Priest did not have full jurisdiction over the synagogues, but his letter would carry great weight and he did have rights of extradition on religious grounds as a religious head of state.
Damascus was on the main trade routes, which would be why the news about the activities of newly arrived believers would arrive back in Jerusalem fairly rapidly. There would be constant contact between synagogues, especially Hellenistic synagogues, and Damascus contained many synagogues. Their message to their fellow Hellenists in Jerusalem of the activities of certain people who had arrived from Jerusalem declaring Jesus to be the Messiah would arouse strong feeling. Damascus was in the province of Syria, but had municipal freedom and was one of the ten cities of Decapolis, and contained many thousands of Jews. The arrival of the Hellenistic Christian believers from Jerusalem was clearly causing a stir.
‘Any that were of the Way.’ It is clear that the Christian church was now thought of in terms of ‘the Way’ (compare Acts 19:9; Acts 19:23; Acts 22:4; Acts 24:22). It may well have been a name that they gave themselves. This would presumably be because they were saw themselves as walking in God’s way, and following a way of life different from all others, although it may also have connection with Jesus’ claim to be ‘The Way’ in John 14:6. Alternately it may be a title applied to them by observers, who noted their punctilious way of life, a title which they then took over for themselves.
The idea of ‘the way of holiness’ can be found in the Old Testament, especially in Isaiah 35:8-9; compare Isaiah 26:7-8; Isaiah 30:21; Isaiah 42:16; Isaiah 43:19; Isaiah 48:17 The idea that it represents is that of walking before the Lord in cleanness and purity, and in following the Law, in this case in terms of the teaching of Jesus (compare Isaiah 2:3), steadfastly and truly. Those who walk in that way desire only to please Him. It was thus a very suitable title.
‘The disciples of the Lord.’ The term ‘disciples’ is commonly used in Acts of the followers of Jesus (see Acts 6:1-2). The use of the ‘the Lord’ of Jesus occurs from the beginning in Acts 1:6; Acts 1:21; Acts 1:24; Acts 2:34; Acts 2:36; Acts 2:47; Acts 4:33; Acts 7:59; Acts 8:16, and also possibly in other places where ‘the Lord’ is spoken of referring to God..
Saul’s Experience on the Damascus Road (9:1-19).
‘And as he journeyed, it came about that he drew near to Damascus, and suddenly there shone round about him a light out of heaven, and he fell on the earth, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Making his journey as rapidly as possible it would only be a few days before he saw Damascus ahead of him (Damascus was about one hundred and forty miles north of Jerusalem). And we can imagine the impatience that was filling his heart at the thought of their slow progress. He was a man in a hurry. And he could not wait to exercise his authority. And then suddenly a light shone from heaven which surrounded him, and he fell to the ground, hearing a voice which said to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
The idea of a light from Heaven revealing the glory of God occurs regularly in the Old Testament and is implicit in His revelation of Himself through fire (Exodus 13:21; Psalms 27:1; Psalms 78:14; Psalms 104:2; Isaiah 2:5; Exodus 19:18; Exodus 24:17; Exodus 40:38 etc.), and God as light is also central in the New (1 Timothy 6:16; James 1:17; 1 John 1:5-7; Revelation 21:23; Revelation 22:5). But the New also reveals that Jesus has come as the Light of the world, bringing God’s light to man (Luke 2:32; John 1:9; John 3:19; John 8:12; John 9:5; John 12:35-36; John 12:46; Matthew 17:2). Furthermore Judaism thought of God as revealed in the Shekinah glory, brilliant and yet veiled. Both ideas are in mind here. Saul could hardly see the light as other than the Shekinah glory through which God revealed Himself to His people, especially when it was accompanied by a voice, which would appear to be the ‘bath qol’ (daughter of a voice) of Pharisaic thought.
‘And heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” ’ From the midst of the light came the voice. Unknown at this stage to Saul it was the voice of Jesus. And the Voice questioned Saul as to why he was persecuting Him. The implication is that what Saul was doing to the His people he was doing to Jesus, because He and His church were one.
This voice too would throw Saul into turmoil. To a Pharisee a voice from heaven was the voice of God, the ‘bath qol’, especially when accompanied by blinding glory. Who then was this Who spoke from heaven? It could only be the Lord. But how could he be thought of as persecuting the Lord? He had come here to defend the Lord’s name. He realised therefore that he had to identify who was speaking.
‘And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but rise, and enter into the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” ’
Saul had been humbled to the ground and now he humbled himself in spirit and asked who it was who was speaking. His reference to ‘Lord’ was an expression of humility before divine authority. He wanted ‘the Lord’ to identify Himself. How could he be persecuting God when his whole life was given to His service? ‘Lord’ was later to become for him a recognised way of acknowledging Jesus, when it would take its full significance as Lord, Creator and Redeemer.
The reply came that ‘He’ was Jesus. In a blinding flash Saul was being made to face up with the One against Whom he was venting his anger and hatred, the One in Whom these people he was persecuting believed, and it was in a way that was revealing His divine nature. He had thought Him a charlatan, and now here He was speaking to him from heaven in this blinding glory. It turned his world and his theology upside down. The whole of his opposition to Jesus could only crumble at His feet. The conclusion smote him with irresistible force. Jesus really had risen! Stephen had been right after all when he had spoken of seeing the Lord Jesus in His glory.
It need hardly be pointed out that the last person he would have expected to hear from was Jesus. To him Jesus was just a dead body in a grave. He had not had the slightest conception that he would experience Him as alive. This was no hallucination brought on by pious hope. He was not seeing what he expected to see. It was a contradiction against everything that he had expected. Those who do not want to believe him will desperately weave unsatisfactory explanations about it. They will have to. For otherwise they will have to believe in the physical resurrection from the dead of the Lord Jesus Christ. But they will believe anything rather than that. However, none of their explanations will be based on reality. For the reality was that he knew from then on that he had met the risen Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:8; Galatians 1:16).
The psychological condition of Saul has spawned a whole host of literature. But little of it ties in with what he himself tells us about his experience. He was unaware of any conscience over Stephen. Rather he speaks calmly, if guiltily, about how intractable he had been towards him. He simply lets us know that he had been quite contentedly pursuing his heartfelt belief in Pharisaic teaching until the moment when it was all torn apart by meeting Jesus on the Damascus Road.
We are only given here the briefest description of what the voice said. He was to arise, and enter the city, where he would be told what to do. But in Acts 26:15-18 we are given more of the substance for there he is also told, “But arise, and stand on your feet, for to this end have I appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness both of the things in which you have seen me, and of the things in which I will appear to you, delivering you from the people, and from the Gentiles, to whom I send you, to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light (Isaiah 42:6-7; Isaiah 49:6) and from the power of Satan to God (Zechariah 3; Isaiah 49:24-25; Luke 11:20-22; Colossians 1:13; Mark 3:27), that they may receive remission of sins (Acts 2:38; Acts 5:31; Acts 13:38; Luke 24:47; Mark 1:4) and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in me (Acts 20:32; John 17:17; Matthew 5:5; Matthew 22:1-14; Matthew 25:34).” He was being commissioned to fulfil the work of the Servant in Isaiah 49:6, compare Acts 13:47.
‘And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing the sound (voice), but beholding no man.’
The men who travelled with him apparently heard ‘of the sound’ (the same word means sound or voice) but did not understand what it was saying (compare for a similar situation John 12:28-30). And they saw no one but Saul. But the fact that they were ‘speechless’ suggests that they experienced more than the sound. It is clear that something happened that filled them with awe, which suggests even here that they were also aware of the light. But here Luke wants us to concentrate on the light and Saul meeting together face to face. He wants us to appreciate the intensity of the confrontation. Here this is to be seen as between Saul and the Lord. This incident is described three times in Acts and different emphases are place in each case. When they are put together we can understand the whole of what happened.
In Acts 22:9 we are told, ‘those who were with me beheld the light, but they did not hear the voice of Him Who spoke with me’. This confirms why they were filled with awe, because of the blinding light, and it confirms that while they heard ‘of’ some strange ‘sound’, they were not aware that it was an intelligible voice and did not comprehend what the voice said to Saul. In Acts 26:14 we learn that all eventually fell to the earth under the compelling light. The initial shock which initially made them stand there rigid, eventually drove them to their knees. Alternately it may be that all initially fell to the ground (especially if their horses buckled under them) but that they, unlike Saul, then stood up. But here in chapter 9 Luke wants us to see Saul and the Lord in solemn face to face confrontation. He alone was blinded by the light.
‘And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw nothing; and they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.’
Then when Saul picked himself up and opened his eyes he realised that he was blind. And the result was that he had to be led into Damascus by the hand. He was blind both physically and spiritually. All that he had believed in had gone. He saw nothing.
‘And he was three days without sight, and did neither eat nor drink.’
The condition of blindness lasted ‘three days’. In accordance with usual custom this could mean anything from one and a half days upwards (‘three days’ often signifying part of a day, a day, and part of a day). During that time he did not eat or drink. We can understand that he was traumatised, and that his mind had to take its time to adjust itself to this remarkable experience which had turned all his thinking upside down, for it was no longer possible for him to see Jesus as a charlatan. The idea took some getting used to. Rather he now recognised Him as Someone to be reckoned with. And he wanted to be left alone to think about it without being pestered with food. The fasting was clearly his own choice as he thought his way through what he had experienced. His life was, as it were, beginning again.
Luke may well have intended us here to compare how Jesus was in the grave for three days, after which He partook of food (Luke 24:41-43). Here Saul is, as it were, seen as being ‘crucified’ with Him and rising again with Him (Galatians 2:20).
‘Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias, and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias”. And he said, “Behold, I am here, Lord.”
Meanwhile a believer in Damascus who was named Ananias, had a vision in which a voice spoke to him by name, to which he replied that he was there and listening. Here ‘Lord’ refers to the Lord Jesus as is apparent from what follows. In Acts it is gradually made apparent that Jesus is ‘the Lord’, raised to the rank of Godhead.
‘And the Lord said to him, “Arise, and go to the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one named Saul, a man of Tarsus: for behold, he is praying. And he has seen a man named Ananias coming in, and laying his hands on him, that he might receive his sight.”
He is told to go to a street name ‘Straight’ (Straight Street) where in the house of Judas he would find Saul of Tarsus. He was informed that Saul was praying and was awaiting his coming so that he may lay hands on Saul so that he could receive his sight. Normally Ananias would have obeyed unquestioningly, but at the name of Saul of Tarsus he stiffened. That name was too well known among Christians for any other response. He probably at first only half considered the remainder of what had been said. He belonged to a church on the alert.
‘Behold he is praying.’ In Luke’s writings prayer is emphasised (Acts 16:25; Acts 20:36; Acts 22:17). Compare also of Jesus - Luke 3:21; Luke 6:12; Luke 9:18; Luke 9:28; Luke 11:1; Luke 22:41. One who prays rightly is close to God.
We know nothing about who this Judas was but he would clearly be no friend of the Christians, and it may be assumed that the temple police were also staying in his house. It was in the main thoroughfare through the city, a street with great porches and gates at each end and colonnades for commerce running along each side. And Judas was probably a very important man. His house was not a place that Christians in general would want to approach. But it could well be that Ananias was a man of prestige and had some kind of access, and he was held in high favour among the Jews. However, when he heard the name Saul of Tarsus even his blood curdled.
‘But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many of this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” ’
We learn here that Ananias was not one of the fugitives from Jerusalem but was presumably a resident of Damascus for he speaks only of what he has ‘heard’. Nevertheless he is obviously in touch with what is going on, suggesting that he was an influential person. For the Lord chose his representative well. He was ‘a devout man. according to the Law, well reported of by all the Jews who dwelt there’ (Acts 22:12). Here was one Christian who could safely enter ‘the house of Judas’ in which lay the High Priest’s representative. It was the house of Jewish authority in Damascus, but Ananias would be welcome there.
The anticipated arrival of Saul of Tarsus with his temple police was clearly well known in Damascus, together with the reason for his coming. Judas would have been sent details of his coming, and it is probable that disciples in the know had travelled post haste to Damascus with a warning to the church. So Ananias, naturally unaware of what had happened to Saul on the way to Damascus, explains to the Lord what he knows about him. He has done much evil to the Lord’s work in Jerusalem among ‘the saints’. This is the first use of the term ‘saints’ in Acts (see also Acts 9:32; Acts 9:41; Acts 26:10) but it appears regularly in the Old Testament to indicate the true people of God, and is regularly used by Paul in his letters. It brings out Ananias’ Jewish background. Furthermore, he explains that the Damascus believers have received the intelligence that Saul’s purpose in coming there was to bind all who ‘call on the Lord’s name’ (worship Him and seek His mercy) by the authority of the chief priests in Jerusalem.
Ananias is not here trying to give God information, he is rather protesting about the task given him. It not one that he fancies and he wants reassurance.
‘But the Lord said to him, “Go your way, for he is a chosen vessel to me, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings, and the children of Israel, for I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” ’
The Lord patiently makes it clear that He is aware of all the circumstances, but that nevertheless He has chosen Saul as one who in His Name will go to the Gentiles and before kings as well as to the children of Israel where he will suffer for His name’s sake. Lying behind this description are God’s words to the Servant in Isaiah in Isaiah 49:6-7 also partly cited in Acts 13:47. There also Gentiles, kings and Israel are mentioned. Like the church he is to become one with God’s chosen Servant in fulfilling this responsibility. But it is also a summary of Paul’s future. Note that unusually the witness to the Gentiles comes before that to Israel. The burden of his life is being represented. He is primarily to be the Apostle to the Gentiles, even though he will also go to the children of Israel. The witness before kings will come out later in Acts. And then, both included in this and following this, he must suffer greatly for Christ’s sake.
‘And Ananias departed, and entered into the house, and laying his hands on him said, “Brother Saul, the Lord has sent me, even Jesus, who appeared to you in the way which you came, that you may receive your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” ’
Ananias immediately accepts correction and responds. He leaves his home and enters the house of Judas where he lays hands on Saul. Note how Luke only cites the essentials. The Lord’s will is being done. The courtesies of life, such as being invited in and explaining why he has come are ignored.
Note also in the reply the emphasis on the fact that Jesus is ‘the Lord’. It is He Who appeared to Saul in the way in which he had come, and it is He Who has sent Ananias so that Saul might receive his sight and be filled (pimplemi) with the Holy Spirit. There is a double implication in the words ‘receive your sight’ emphasised by the fact that he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He is to receive both physical and spiritual sight.
The laying on of hands was probably for healing. But it also identified Saul with the new people of God, for it is as clear as anything can be without saying it that Ananias must have been an elder in the Damascus church. And the result was a unique filling of the Holy Spirit, ‘by prophecy and the laying on of hands’ (1 Timothy 4:14), that is specifically God-ordained and received as a member of the body of Christ.
‘Filled (pimplemi) with the Holy Spirit.’ This phrase is only ever used of those who are to speak inspired words, usually with an explanation attached as to its result. The use of the term without an explanation of what will result being added, is only found here and in Luke 1:15 In both cases it is for men for whom God has a vital prophetic ministry. This use must therefore be seen as distinctive. This is not the same as that described in earlier descriptions in Acts. This is a special permanent enduement for a special and unique ministry.
In the case of John the Baptiser he was ‘filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb.’ Right from the commencement John the Baptiser’s life was uniquely Spirit-filled. That could not be said of Saul/Paul. But Paul makes clear that he had been set apart from his mother’s womb (Galatians 1:15), it was just that his filling had to be delayed until he had first experienced what was necessary for the fulfilment of his life work. But from now on he is to be a Spirit-filled proclaimer of the truth in accordance with the words spoken by Jesus on the Damascus Road, ‘to appoint you a minister and a witness both of the things in which you have seen me, and of the things in which I will appear to you, delivering you from the people, and from the Gentiles, to whom I send you, to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive remission of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
So both John and Paul experienced something unknown to most others, although we may rightly see Jesus’ breathing on His disciples in the Upper Room on the same terms (John 20:20-22) as filling them with the Holy Spirit for their life’s work.
‘And immediately there fell from his eyes as it were scales, and he received his sight, and he arose and was baptised, and he took food and was strengthened. And he was certain days with the disciples that were at Damascus.’
Immediately he had spoken these words Saul’s eye were opened and his sight was restored. And with that he arose and was baptised. We may reasonable assume that this was after further words of explanation. Then he took food and was strengthened. However, the mention of baptism first would suggest that Saul was eager for it to take place as soon as possible, even before he had eaten. With his usual impatient zeal he could not wait to be made one with Christ. ‘Took food and was strengthened’ is again probably intended to be seen as meaning both physically and spiritually. Preparation is taking place for his soon coming ministry. Saul is going through a kind of ‘resurrection experience’
Then he spent a number of days with the disciples in Damascus finding his feet and becoming acquainted with his erstwhile enemies. How differently he saw them now.
‘And at once in the synagogues he proclaimed Jesus, that he is the Son of God.’
Saul immediately went to the synagogues one by one and proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God. The plural for synagogues suggests that minimally this took a period of weeks. He began a carefully planned tour of the synagogues on the Sabbaths that followed. Outside Acts ‘Son of God’ or its equivalent is a title he regularly uses of Jesus (1 Thessalonians 1:10; Galatians 1:16; Galatians 2:20; Galatians 4:4; Galatians 4:6; Romans 1:3-4; Romans 1:9; Romans 5:10; Romans 8:3; Romans 8:29; Romans 8:32; 1 Corinthians 1:9; 1 Corinthians 15:28; 2 Corinthians 1:19; Ephesians 4:13; etc.). Galatians 1:16 suggests that the fact was vividly brought home to him by his experience on the Damascus Road. It was closely related to the idea of the Messiah (Psalms 2:7; Psalms 89:26; Matthew 16:16; Matthew 26:63; Mark 14:61), and the glory revealed to him there might well have brought home to him that Jesus was more than only the Messiah, something of which the Apostles must have been already aware, even though they had not yet worked out the detail (compare also Stephen’s vision). He was the glorious Messiah, connected so closely with God that it gave new meaning to the term ‘Son of God’, as Stephen had previously recognised. He was putting into words what Stephen saw.
It is important to recognise that the historical Jesus is central to his proclamation (Acts 9:27; Acts 17:7; Acts 17:18; Acts 19:13; Acts 20:21; Acts 28:23; Acts 28:31). He does not just think in terms of some mystical figure. And while in Acts he does not elsewhere use the term Son of God (but see Acts 13:33), Saul does consistently argue for Jesus' Messiahship and constantly stresses that he is the only source of salvation (Acts 13:23; Acts 16:31; Acts 17:3; Acts 18:5; Acts 19:4; Acts 26:18).
We have to smile when we consider his first entry into the synagogue. Here was the High Priest’s official representative, bearing the High Priest’s authority, and as he walked in he would be led to the special seats at the front. All would know why he was there. And then during the course of the gathering he would be asked to speak by the ruler of the synagogue, possibly even to read the Scriptures. And then he looked around at the gathered and expectant people - and began to proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God.
Saul’s Ministry in Damascus (9:20-25).
With his usual enthusiasm Saul could not wait to get to grips with those who had once been his supporters, and it was not long before he was in the synagogues proclaiming the Good News which had so profoundly affected him. Thus began a ministry in the synagogues that amazed all as they recognised that this Jewish teacher who was proclaiming Christ was the same one who had persecuted the Christians in Jerusalem and had come to Damascus for the same purpose as the official representative of the High Priest. His ministry continued for some time although seemingly interrupted for a while by a visit to Arabia of unknown duration (Galatians 1:17), possibly because of the feelings that he sensed were arising, or possibly because he felt in need of rest and thought (he had had a very busy period in his life) and to get back to the roots of his religion (Mount Sinai was seen as being in ‘Arabia’ (Galatians 4:25). He then returned to Damascus and continued his ministry until at length such feelings were aroused that he had to escape in order to avoid martyrdom.
We cannot but recognise the irony of the situation. When Stephen saw the heavens opened and cried out concerning what he saw of the Lord Jesus, he was hauled off and stoned, and a severe young man watched over the coats and consented to his death. Now that same young man was declaring how he had seen the heavens opened, and what he had seen of the exalted Lord Jesus. No wonder that they were intending to martyr him too.
The description of Saul’s ministry in Damascus is a part of Luke’s ongoing description of the spread of the Good News since Pentecost. Saul’s conversion is ‘the incident’ and this ministry is the consequence (see introduction to chapter 2). It also represents one of the two ministries of Saul which come between Philip’s and Peter’s (see introduction to chapter 8). It is an essential and important part of the narrative.
‘And all who heard him were amazed, and said, “Is not this he who in Jerusalem made havoc of those who called on this name, and who had come here for this purpose, that he might bring them bound before the chief priests?” ’
His appearance in this mode astonished all who saw him. They could not believe that the persecutor had become the disciple. Why, he had come to Damascus to arrest the believers in Jesus, and now here he was proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah and more, and declaring that he had seen the heavens opened and had received confirmation that the Lord Jesus was risen and exalted. What on earth could have happened?
‘But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is the Christ.’
Meanwhile the more he preached, and the more he studied, the more he increased in effectiveness, and the more he was able to confound the Jews in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.
But it is more than likely that after a short period of such preaching and debating he recognised his need to understand more deeply what he was speaking about. He had his whole theology to sort out again. He realised his need for a period of reflection so that he might sort out his what he should teach, and prepare himself for dealing with their questions by a careful consideration of the Old Testament text which he probably knew by heart. He had to build on his testimony, and the few Scriptures that he had at hand, which he could not just go on repeating for ever. This would explain why he took a short break to study in Arabia. It was the visit of unknown duration described in Galatians 1:17. Note his words there. He did not go to Jerusalem to see the Apostles, he went to Arabia. He wanted to consult with God. And there in the deserted wilderness, possibly of ‘Mount Sinai in Arabia’ (Galatians 4:25), he thought through his whole doctrine in the light of the Scriptures which now had such new meaning for him. It was possibly then that he came to realise that the true Jerusalem is above and is not a place of binding Law but of glorious freedom (Galatians 4:26), that the true descendants of Abraham and Sarah are the children of promise (Galatians 4:28), that with freedom Christ has made us free, so that we might stand fast and not be entangled again in the bondage from which we have been freed (Galatians 5:1), that those who seek to be justified by the Law have fallen away from the whole concept of grace (Galatians 5:4). Three years later he would go to Jerusalem in order to discuss it all with Peter, but that was later. Now he had to sort things out between himself and God. And once he had done so he returned to Damascus.
It was probably partly as a result of this visit that he ‘increased the more in strength’, having now clarified his thinking. Galatians assumes a time away from Damascus, followed by a return there resulting in further ministry, with the whole covering in all ‘three years’ (eighteen month upwards). But there is absolutely no reason why Luke should have mentioned the visit to Arabia. We have already seen how he abbreviates his narrative in order to concentrate on what he wishes to emphasise, and he is concerned with the spreading of the word. He is not writing a life of Paul but a description of the outreach of the Good News with regard to which description the visit to Arabia was irrelevant. So Paul’s conversion here is described as a part of the ongoing work of spreading the word followed by the initial ministry of three years that resulted from it, which was so effective that he had to flee. What Luke was interested in here was the ministry in Damascus which continued the expansion of the word of God (Acts 9:31).
‘And when many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel together to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. And they watched the gates also day and night in order that they might kill him, but his disciples took him by night, and let him down through the wall, lowering him in a basket.’
On his returning from Arabia he continued his ministry so effectively that in the end the Jews from the various synagogues came together and determined that they must get rid of him. This High Priest’s representative was doing them no good. We may assume that they did not wish to cause an uproar by trying to stone him when it would be among those who would support him and stand up for him. They knew that he had very popular. So knowing that he would try to leave because he knew of their intentions they arranged for the gates to be watched day and night so as to prevent his escape, and so that they could stone him once he tried to do so. 2 Corinthians 11:32 suggests that this was when Aretas, the king of Nabataea, an Arabian king, had jurisdiction over Damascus, and that the governor or ethnarch who was under Aretas, was in the plot. It is even possible that Aretas’ soldiers assisted in this attempt to apprehend Saul. (We know that Nabataean kings possibly had jurisdiction over Damascus a number of times around this period If this was so here the governor or ethnarch would be responsible to him). What Saul had been preaching in Arabia may have played a part in his decision, for he would take every opportunity to present the Good News. Saul was learning from the other side of the fence what it meant to be hated and persecuted for His name’s sake everywhere he went.
Saul, however, learned of the plot, and not one to court martyrdom for the sake of it, was lowered in a basket from one of the windows in the city wall and escaped. He recognised that this would as much assist the infant church as save himself. His presence could only mean trouble for the people of God as a whole (especially if it partly resulted from his activity in Arabia).
‘His disciples.’ This need not mean official disciples, but those who had gathered around Saul’s ministry in order to learn from him.
‘A basket.’ This would be a large woven or network bag or basket suitable for carrying such things as hay, straw and bales of wood.
So for eighteen months or more Saul had successfully proclaimed Christ in Damascus, apart from when he took his break in Arabia. Due to that break, and to the fact that he had moved from synagogue to synagogue, the severe opposition would have taken time to build up. Now it had crystallised and it was clearly time to move on. But the fact that he then immediately went back to Jerusalem clears him of any charge of cowardice. He knew that he was going out of the frying pan into the fire. There he would have to face the opposition of those who had once trusted him, and would be furious at having been betrayed. But now he felt that it was time for him to confirm to himself that his teaching conformed to that of the Apostles.
Saul’s Ministry in Jerusalem (9:26-30).
‘And when he was come to Jerusalem, he sought to join himself to the disciples, and they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.’
But when he arrived in Jerusalem he discovered that it was not going to be that easy. Everyone knew his past reputation and they were afraid of him. When he tried to mingle with the people of God he found that they withdrew from him. They did not believe that he was truly a disciple.
‘But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared to them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.’
Then Barnabas, who all knew as a godly disciple, who had sold his field in order to support the believers in the church in Jerusalem (Acts 4:36-37), came forward, introducing Saul to the Apostles, and declaring how Saul had seen the Lord in the way, and how the Lord had spoken to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. And from then on he was accepted. It would seem that Barnabas had contacts in Damascus who had brought him news of all the happenings there, while the Apostles, being more in the Hebrew Christian community, were more isolated from work outside their purview.
In Galatians Paul tells us that he saw no Apostles other than Peter, with whom he met up a period of fifteen days, meeting also with James, the Lord’s brother, and no doubt discussed the things concerning the Kingly Rule of God and, we may assume, they agreed together (Galatians 1:18-19). How then is this to be reconciled with the above? The answer probably lies in the fact that ‘to the Apostles’ was seen as fully satisfied by presenting him to Peter and James, the Lord’s brother. Their sanction would be sufficient to satisfy the whole of the twelve. What Luke is pointing out is not that all the Apostles were there, but that Saul had the full sanction of the Apostles as a whole.
We should note in this regard the differences in emphasis between the two passages. Luke is concerned that we should see that Paul was fully accepted by the Apostolate. Paul was concerned to demonstrate that he was not dependent on the Apostles, and that the source of his revelations was God. Thus Luke is all embracing, while Paul is exact.
‘And he was with them going in and going out at Jerusalem.’
So he walked in full fellowship with the church in Jerusalem, and went about with many of its members, being one with them in all that they did for the short while that he was there.
‘Preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Grecian Jews, but they were seeking to kill him.’
And with the boldness imparted by the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:31) he went out and proclaimed the Good News in the name of the Lord. Furthermore he did not forget the past and he went to the Hellenistic synagogues which had proved to be the death of Stephen. Perhaps they would listen to him. With the exodus from Jerusalem of the Hellenistic Christians evangelism to them had probably been neglected. And there he disputed with the Hellenistic Jews. But nothing had changed them and they began to plan his death.
‘And when the brethren knew it, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus.’
Once the members of the Jerusalem church recognised what was happening they immediately took him to Caesarea where he would be relatively safe. They were not to be caught unprepared again and they did not want to upset the status quo in Jerusalem. But in Acts 22:17-21 we learn also that God had informed Saul, while he was praying in the Temple, that this was in accordance with His will. For His purpose for Saul was that he might go to the Gentiles. And from Caesarea they sent him back home to Tarsus. But we must not read this negatively. Their sending of him was a sign of their oneness with him and participation in his future activities. He was not ‘sent’ to Tarsus to get rid of him but so that the Good News might reach outwards to Tarsus. The expansion goes on (compare Galatians 1:21).
There is an indication in all this that Stephen’s open challenge had been God’s final offer to Jerusalem as a whole, so that now, while the work still continued there, concentration was elsewhere. The church in Jerusalem was now operating more quietly. As we will have noted, of the Apostles only Peter was in Jerusalem. The remainder were ministering elsewhere.
‘So the church throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria had peace, being edified, and, walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, was multiplied.’
The return of Saul to Tarsus forms a conclusion to this part of the narrative which now ends with a summary of the advances made up until now. Judaea, Galilee and Samaria have been evangelised, and the ‘one church’ of Jesus Christ was growing both in numbers and in understanding. All was now again at peace. The persecution had died down. And the true people of God walked in the fear of the Lord and in the ‘comforting and strengthening and encouragement’ (paraklesis) of the Holy Spirit. And it continued to multiply. Note the threefold emphasis, continually edified so as to build up their spiritual lives, fearing the Lord and receiving comfort from the Holy Spirit, emphasising their lives in relationship to God, and multiplying, emphasising their continual witness to the world.
Note the singular ‘church’ signifying the one ‘church’ (ekklesia - those gathered) consisting of all believers throughout all the regions. There was a strong sense of oneness and unity throughout the whole, for they recognised that they were all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). It was ‘the church throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria’. There were no differences here, whether Jew, or Galilean, or Samaritan, all were one, a remarkable oneness in a divided world.
The summary makes clear that the work in ‘Jewish’ territory is now satisfactorily under way, fulfilling the first part of Jesus command (Acts 1:8) preparing for the new outreach which will reach to the Gentiles. Interestingly this is the only mention of ministry in Galilee. In spite of the summary the next section must be seen as an intrinsic part of what has gone before. As well as Luke’s divisions there is also a constant flow.
The Continuing Ministry of Peter (9:32-11:18).
In preparing for the Gentile ministry of Paul, a preparation which has included what we have just considered concerning his conversion and ministry to Jews, Luke goes back to considering Peter’s ministry. Along with the other Apostles he is continuing the oversight of the church and here, at least to some extent, following in the steps of Philip along the Judaean coast. In Acts 3:1 onwards he had brought the Good News to the ‘lame’ and now he does a similar thing again to the paralytic (Acts 9:32-35). Luke does not want us to think that Peter has faded out of the picture, nor that the work of God does not go on apace. This is then followed by a raising from the dead of a believer (Acts 9:36-43). Does this raising of the dead to some extent parallel the life-giving coming of the ‘breath’ of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 coming on all believers? Jesus had paralleled the resurrection with the raising of the dead in the story of Lazarus. And Luke then finalises this series of Peter’s activity with the description of the opening of the Good News to Gentiles, which will result in the spread of the word to ‘the uttermost parts of the earth’ (Acts 10:1 to Acts 11:18 - paralleling Acts 1:8?). Note also the build up of ideas. A paralysed man healed, the dead brought to life, the Good News goes to the Gentiles. The advancement in idea is clear.
This sequence also to some extent parallels that in Luke’s Gospel where the healing of the paralytic (Luke 5:18-26), is followed by the raising of the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17) and of Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:41-46), between which is the healing of the centurion’s son and Jesus’ express admiration for the centurion’s faith (Luke 7:1-10), although here in Acts the story of the centurion’s faith necessarily follows the raising of the dead in order to stress its importance and lead in to what follows.
While at the same time we might see this as Peter’s taking an interest in and following up Philip’s ministry to the cities along the coastline (Acts 8:40), we should note that that is not Luke’s specific intent for he stresses that Peter is going ‘throughout all parts’.
The Activity of Peter Results in Gentiles Being Welcomed And Welcoming The Lord, But The Rejection Of The Messiah Is Confirmed By Jerusalem Who Commence a Process of Elimination of His Chief Representatives (9:32-12:24).
The first part of this section is all positive as God’s work moves forwards with signs and wonders and the raising of the dead through Peter, God revealing that it is His desire that the Good News goes to the Gentiles through Peter, that desire being vindicated when carried out by Peter, and the forming of a new church in Syrian Antioch minister to by Barnabas and Saul.
But the second part of the section is negative and deals with the final rejection of the Messiah by the king and people of Jerusalem. This comes about as the result of the rise of a new ‘king of Israel’ who is totally sympathetic to the people and enjoys their confidence. This results in an open attack on the Apostles, the martyrdom of James the Apostle, the imprisonment and enchaining of Peter with the same end in view, his release by an Angel of the Lord and forsaking of Jerusalem, and the judgment on the king of Israel for blasphemy.
It can be analysed as follows:
a Peter comes to Lydda and Joppa, in the area of Caesarea, and heals the paralysed man but Tabitha sickens and dies. God raises her from the dead (Acts 9:32-43).
b The angel of the Lord comes to Cornelius resulting in the salvation of his house (Acts 10:1-48).
c Peter is challenged concerning his activity and is vindicated (Acts 11:1-18).
d The Good news is welcome by the Gentiles in Antioch which is to become the new centre for evangelisation (Acts 11:19-30).
d The Good news is rejected by the king and people in Jerusalem which will cease to be the centre of evanglisation (Acts 12:1-2)
c Peter is seized and put in prison and left in chains (Acts 12:3-6).
b The angel of the Lord comes to Peter resulting in the death of his guards, the rejection of Jerusalem and the humiliation of Herod (Acts 12:7-19).
a Herod comes to Caesarea and he sickens and dies. The angel of the Lord causes him to be eaten by worms (Acts 12:20-23).
‘And it came about that, as Peter went throughout all parts, he came down also to the saints who dwelt at Lydda.’
‘As Peter went through all.’ This is a continuation phrase linking with the previous verse, stressing his oversight of ‘the church -- throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria’. Events may have been happening elsewhere but the work of God in Palestine goes on apace. And during this process he arrives at Lydda, where the church may well have been founded by Philip, or some other Hellenistic believers scattered by the persecution, or it may have been by believers returning after Pentecost.
Lydda was twenty five mile north west of Jerusalem at the intersection of the road from Jerusalem to Joppa, and the road from Syria to Egypt. It was thus a buzzing commercial centre. Josephus tell us that it was not as large as a city, but it would later for a while become a rabbinical centre, and played a prominent part in Christian activity.
Peter Heals a Paralysed Man and Ministers in Lydda (9:32-35).
In Acts 2-3 the coming of the life of God and of the Risen Jesus to His people is followed by the ministry to ‘the lame’. Here that sequence is reversed. First a paralysed man is healed, which will be followed by a raising from the dead, and the giving of life. A problem that many of us have here is that we are so used to the power of Jesus and of His Apostles that we have ceased to wonder and easily pass over the instances. But these were not just of passing interest, they were remarkable events. And they emphasise that the work of God goes on as it had at the beginning, and continues to bring healing and life, something which will be expanded as a result of Peter’s climactic meeting with Cornelius and his followers.
It is no accident that causes Luke to describe the work in this area at this point. It was mixed Jewish and Gentile territory, and he is preparing for the great leap forwards. With Judaea, Galilee, and Samaria evangelised, the next stage must be to the Gentiles, and this was a beginning. It is to Peter’s credit that he was found labouring here for it was only half Jewish, but we can compare how in Jesus ministry, He also had eventually moved out into such areas, which Peter had no doubt not forgotten. How else could the world be reached?
‘And there he found a certain man named Aeneas, who had kept his bed eight years, for he was paralysed.’
The mention of a specific miracle in the light of the ‘many signs and wonders’ performed must always be seen as having a specific purpose. So the point here is that, as at the beginning (Acts 3:1-10), the lame and paralysed are restored. Here it was Aeneas, and yet we are also to see Aeneas as a picture of mankind, paralysed and awaiting restoration. This was what the continuing ministry of the Apostles was accomplishing, and the stress is on the fact that it was indeed continuing. Nothing could stop the onward movement of the power of the Spirit. Here was another who had been long in need, and now his need was to be met, as was the need of a world which had waited even longer.
‘And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Messiah heals you, arise and spread your mattress.” And immediately he arose.’
Peter approaches the paralysed man, and calling him by name, calls on him to arise. The healing is carried out in the name of Jesus the Messiah (compare Acts 3:6), and Aeneas immediately rises. It is Jesus the Messiah Who now offers hope to all, and can relieve the paralysis of the world.
‘And all that dwelt at Lydda and in Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.’
And the result was that the people of Lydda and in the plain of Sharon round about responded almost as one, and turned to the Lord as they saw the paralysed man walking among them. They had been spiritually paralysed and now they were healed. Note the dual implication of the fact that they turned ‘to the Lord’. They came back to God and responded to Jesus Christ.
‘Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, (which by interpretation is called Dorcas). This woman was full of good works and works of charity which she performed.’
In Joppa (modern Jaffa) there was a godly woman named Tabitha, a Christian woman whose life was the product of her faith. She was full of good works and works of charity, a woman renowned and respected for what she did. Tabitha is Aramaic for ‘gazelle’, for which the Greek is ‘Dorcas’.
‘Which she performed.’ It was no outward pretence or made with the intention of obtaining publicity. She carried them through.
Peter Raises the Dead and Ministers In Joppa (9:36-43).
But the new ministry offered not only healing but life. In the bringing of the Good News the life of God has been made available for the people of God (Acts 2:1-4), and here this is now depicted in the raising of the dead. The Spirit of life was active through Peter. It is a reminder of Pentecost, and that the Spirit’s work there continues. But it is also a pointer to what is to come. Just as Peter is here urgently called to raise the dead, so will he be urgently called to a seeking centurion who is also longing for life (Acts 9:43 to Acts 10:48), and is himself symbolic of a whole Gentile world lying in darkness and awaiting life.
‘And it came about in those days, that she fell sick, and died, and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper chamber.’
But Tabitha fell sick, and died. They did all they could for her. They washed her, and laid her in the upper room, in the guest chamber. We note here that although ‘signs and wonders’ were feature of the early church, they could not be performed by just any group of Christians. The church in Joppa had been unable to prevent her from dying. But they were not satisfied with is. They wanted to see her come alive again.
‘And as Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him, begging him, “Do not delay from coming to us.”
So when the followers of Christ in Joppa learned that Peter was at Lydda, they sent two men to him urgently pleading with him to come to them at Joppa. They were confident that he could raise her from the dead. We can compare with this how Cornelius, when he hears from an angel that Peter is at Joppa, similarly sends two men with equally urgent pleading. What is about to happen in Joppa will be multiplied in the household of Cornelius. Those who are dead will live.
‘And Peter arose and went with them. And when he had come, they brought him into the upper chamber. And all the widows stood by him weeping, and showing the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them.’
At their plea Peter went with them. And when he came to Tabitha’s house and entered the death room he found may weeping widows, and the fruit of Tabitha’s good life laid out for all to see. The widows would be among those who would most miss her ministry, for they benefited by it. They were ‘naked and she clothed them’ (Matthew 25:36).
‘But Peter put them all forth, and kneeled down and prayed, and turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up.’
Reminiscent of Jesus dealings with Jairus’ daughter Peter put everyone from the room. As far as we know he had never tried to raise the dead before. And then he kneeled and prayed, and turning to the body said, “Tabitha, arise”. The parallels with the healing of Jairus’ daughter are such as to give us confidence that this incident has brought that one to Luke’s mind (Luke 8:51-56), and yet the differences are potent too. Jesus had not needed to kneel and pray (although He did it at other times). This is not just a carbon copy of that. Jesus had had authority over death. Peter was a suppliant.
‘She opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up.’ All the symbolism of what happened here must not take away from us the wonder that has been performed. Like his Master Peter raises the dead. Death has no mastery in the presence of one who comes in the name of Christ. ‘She opened her eyes.’ All knew that when some one died it was necessary to close their eyes. Only Christ could open them. And that was why he had come to open men’s eyes in a deeper sense (Acts 26:18).
Interestingly ‘Tabitha kumi’ (the Aramaic for ‘Tabitha arise’) is little different from the ‘Talitha kumi’ of Jesus with Jairus’ daughter, but as Luke does not draw the similarity out he would not expect his Gentile readers to realise it. On the other hand they would note the similarity between ‘Maid arise’ and ‘Tabitha arise’.
‘And he gave her his hand, and raised her up, and calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive.’
Then Peter gave her his hand, and raised her from her lying in wait, and calling in the people of God, and especially the widows, he presented her alive. Once more the Christians are called ‘saints’, those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:2).
‘And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed on the Lord.’
This mighty work could hardly fail in its effect, and it became known throughout Joppa, resulting in the fact that many believed. The Giver of life was at work and was now offering life to all.
But mightier still was what was to happen at the hand of Peter. For shortly the representative of a dead world would call on him, and at God’s command he would go to him and then would commence the bringing of life to the Gentiles.
‘And it came about that he abode many days in Joppa with one Simon a tanner.’
The account is introduced by this indication of the whereabouts of Peter. It is significant in itself. No tanner would be allowed to ply his trade within the walls of Jerusalem or within 50 cubits of them. And that applied to all fully Jewish cities. A specific distance from the city was required for his trade premises (which would usually also be his home). There would, however, be a large number of tanneries around Jerusalem, outside the strict limits, as there was a large scale requirement for them in view of the abundance of hides that the priests obtained from all sacrifices that they offered (for the hide went to the officiating priest) and from the hides received by landlords from Passover visitors, for the hide was seen as a kind of rental for the ‘free’ use of the premises. So while such tanners were looked down on, it was a useful trade that (in the usual hypocritical way that man has) all knew was required, even though it was one in which no ultra-respectable Jew would engage. Of course those who were brought up to the trade saw it differently through familiarity.
This requirement to be outside the city might not strictly apply in Joppa, for it was a multinational society, and such a provision might not have been enforceable, but it does serve to demonstrate that the trade was seen as ‘unclean’, and this was mainly because it meant constant association with dead matter, and because of the methods used for tanning (dipping in urine). No respectable Jew would become involved with it, and there would be strict regulation and control applied to Jews who did, and a certain level of ostracism by the ‘more religious’ who were fastidious about ‘uncleanness’. Furthermore if a damsel became betrothed to a tanner without being made aware of his trade, the betrothal could be nullified on her learning of it. She could not be forced to marry a tanner.
Thus the fact that Peter willingly lodged with a tanner probably demonstrated the more casual approach to uncleanness followed by Galileans. A Judaean would have been much more wary of doing so. Nevertheless we can be sure that Peter carefully ensured that he did maintain a full level of ‘cleanness’ while he was there, and would be expected to by all. It does, however, serve to demonstrate that Peter was to some extent more open to being persuaded on such matters than, for example, an inhabitant of Jerusalem would have been.
Peter and Cornelius (9:43-10:48).
It is difficult for us to appreciate the huge step that is now about to be described. To us it may all seem like a great fuss about nothing. But it was bringing about a total change in the way that Christian Jews would see Gentiles. It was doing nothing less than opening the Gentile world to the possibility of their becoming Christians without being circumcised and having to observe all the ritual regulations of the Jews.
For centuries the Jews had seen themselves as separated from the Gentiles by the question of religious ‘cleanness’ and ‘uncleanness’. On the whole Jews were ‘clean’ and Gentiles ‘unclean’ by virtue of the nature of their lives. This was because of the regulations that all orthodox Jews followed, some to a greater extent than others. This covered such things as washings, types of food eaten, contact with dead things, partaking of blood, contact with skin diseases, contact with those who were ‘unclean’, and so on. That is why when Gentiles sought to become Jewish proselytes, and to become ‘members of the congregation of Israel’, and so able to enter the Court of Israel in the Temple and partake in the Passover, they had to initially ritualistically bathe themselves fully in order to remove the ‘uncleanness’ of the Gentile world, and be circumcised. After that they could be treated as full Jews.
‘God-fearers’, on the other hand, were people who worshipped the God of Israel as the one God, and respected the Old Testament and the moral teaching of the Jews, but were not willing to be circumcised. Nevertheless any of these who wished to mix and eat with Jews would certainly be required to observe the basic laws of ‘cleanliness’.
These laws are in part described in Leviticus 11-14, and include the necessity of avoidance for food purposes of ‘unclean’ animals, such as pigs, conies and camels, (any which did not both ‘cleave the foot and chew vigorously’), together with the avoidance of certain types of bird and fish, and of all creeping things, and included the necessity of avoiding the eating of blood, and of killing animals in such a way as to avoid this. And especially important was the avoidance of contact with what was dead or had had contact with death.
These were good laws which to some extent prevented them from eating things that could have done them harm, but, more importantly, they originally inculcated in them a taste for what was wholesome (see our commentary on Leviticus 11), and ensured a wholesome environment. It should be noted that the laws themselves were originally given in order to promote positive wholesomeness of life. It was only once Israelites began to live among other peoples that they necessarily resulted in a certain level of separateness and discrimination against them. And as so often with such things certain very religious people began to take them to extremes, and as a result even began to discriminate against fellow-Jews.
But as Jesus demonstrated, it was possible to observe these laws of cleanliness without discriminating against people to such an extent as to have nothing to do with them. No Pharisee ever criticised Jesus for failing to keep high Scriptural standards of ‘cleanliness’, and yet He still moved freely among tax collectors and ‘sinners’ (Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:27-32). He lived a disciplined life.
It was in order that Gentile Christians might be able to eat with Jewish Christians that the meeting of Apostles and elders at Jerusalem would later enjoin on Gentile Christians, even at that stage, the need to avoid ‘what is strangled, and blood’ (Acts 15:20). But those were the minimum limits which it was felt must essentially be applied even after the willing acceptance of Gentiles into the body of Christ, when prejudices had to some extent been broken down. This was partly as a result of what is about to be described. Even at that stage close contact with Gentiles as a whole was seen as not possible for a Christian Jew without careful regulation.
But at this stage in the life of the church things were not even as liberal as that. The general thought during the first chapters of Acts would be that if a Gentile wished to be accepted into the ‘community of Christians’ (something which rarely came up at that stage when the preaching was to Jews), it must be by becoming a proselyte, by an initial bathing to remove attaching ‘uncleanness’, followed by circumcision, for they would be seen as becoming members of the new Israel. They would then, of course, be expected to keep the laws of cleanliness in their lives and within their residences, in other words behave as Jews did as regards the laws of uncleanness. In this way no doubt a Gentile might be allowed to become a Christian.
But the thought of wholesale acceptance of Gentiles without following these conditions would have been anathema. Gentiles were of necessity ‘unclean’, for they made no attempt to avoid ‘uncleanness’, their lifestyles and homes were ‘unclean’, especially because they ate what was ‘unclean’ and allowed what had been involved with death into their homes, they were careless about contact with dead things, they partook of blood, and all in all it was necessary to keep them at a safe distance. (While we may criticise this we do well to remember that hygiene in Jewish homes was unquestionably superior to that in most Gentile homes).
We can thus imagine what Peter’s reaction would have been (and the reaction of all Jews who heard of it) if without any warning he had been invited into the home of a Gentile centurion, even a God-fearer. God-fearers remained on the fringe of synagogue life. They believed in the one God, admired the moral laws of Israel, and observed the Sabbath. Their contributions to the synagogue were gratefully accepted, and they were welcome to participate to some extent in synagogue worship, but they were in no way looked on as Jews. In order for that to happen they had to become proselytes, which would include circumcision. So even for Peter to visit such a God-fearer in their home would have been frowned on in normal circumstances.
Of course, he had been used to meeting such people when they had joined the crowds in order to hear Jesus, and where they had been welcomed by Him, but that was a very different situation from this. While many would go away believing in Jesus and seeking to follow His teaching they did not join any form of identifiable ‘community’. He also knew that Jesus had responded to the Syro-Phoenician woman, and to the former demoniac in Decapolis, and we can compare also Jesus contact with the Greeks brought to him by Philip the Apostle in John 12:20-26. But in none of these cases had there been the suggestion of too close a personal contact or of entering into their homes or of them becoming part of a ‘community’.
To Peter had been given the keys (the method of opening the door) of the Kingly Rule of God. In Acts 2 he had therefore opened that door to Jews at Pentecost, and he had constantly opened that door since, as had all the Apostles, together with, among others, Stephen, Philip and Saul. Now he was to take a step further and open it to God-fearers (who would in future prove for some time to be the most fruitful people to evangelise).
It was inevitable that at some stage this challenge as to what to do with God-fearers would come up, and that fairly rapidly, so that we should not be surprised to find reference to it here. In fact we might rather be surprised that the issue had not arisen for Peter earlier. They were already to a certain extent accepted within Judaism, and the Jewish church would therefore inevitably have to consider what they were to do about them once they showed an interest in Jesus as their Messiah. Indeed how the Christians would face up to them would certainly have to be decided as soon as Christian preachers went to mixed territory, as Peter was doing here. Peter could hardly have preached in the synagogues here, in a mixed Jewish-Gentile community without the question arising, ‘can we God-fearers be baptised?’ Perhaps even as this all happened he had been challenged on the matter and was puzzling about it in his own mind. But it is certainly no surprise that he would be faced up with the question. Luke is actually not dealing here with the question as to whether any believing God-fearers had already become one with Christ. That was between them and God. He is concerned with the question of what Peter did when he was faced up with the question (as at some stage he had to be) of whether he should enter their homes, and whether they could be baptised and accepted into the community of Christians without become proselytes, together with its consequences for the future.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Acts 9". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany