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THE BOOK OF ACTS: PART FIFTEEN

SERMON DELIVERED ON 07-28-18

       Today we will continue our journey through the book of Acts with sermon number 15 in this series.  Last time we discussed Philip encountering the Ethiopian eunuch and the events that ensued from that encounter.  We discussed why it is that Acts 8:37 is missing from most modern translations and yet is alluded to in ancient writings that predate the Greek manuscripts of the NT currently extant.

       We moved on to identify the Philip of Acts 8 as one of the seven men ordained a deacon as recorded in Acts 6 and not the Philip that was one of the twelve Apostles.  We concluded last time with a discussion of what it means to be an evangelist and how the term evangelical came to be and how that term is presently used within the Christian community. With that we finished Acts, chapter 8 and will today begin with Acts 9.

       Acts 9 begins with an account of Saul still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. The fact the writer says he was still breathing out threats indicates he had been doing this for a time and was probably doing it beginning with his appearance at the stoning of Stephen.

       As you may recall, Saul is first mentioned in Acts 7:58 as a young man standing guard over the apparently shed clothes of those who were stoning Stephen.  According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, The Greek word translated as “young man” means someone between the age of 24 and 40.  So the best we can do is speculate that Paul was somewhere between 24 and 40 when he appears on the scene in the NT.

       You will see chronologies of the life of Saul on the internet where his birth is identified as around 2 BC. It this is the case, he would have been somewhere in his 30’s when he appears on the seen as we know Jesus was around 33 when he was crucified. However, the reality is that there is no record of when Saul was born so we really don’t know how old he was when he appears for the first time in NT Scripture.

       We see Saul mentioned for the second time in Acts 8:1-2 where it is recorded that Saul was at the stoning of Stephen and giving approval to his death. It is recorded that on the day Stephen was stoned, a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.  It is very likely Saul was a ring leader in this persecution of the church at Jerusalem.     

       In Acts 9:2, Saul is seen as going to the high priest in Jerusalem and asking him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus.  These apparently were letters providing approval from the high priest to take as prisoners to Jerusalem any followers of Jesus found to have infiltrated the Damascus synagogues.  Saul apparently got these letters and was on his way to Damascus.

       It is apparent Saul was a recognized leader in the Jewish religious community.  Not just anyone could go to the high priest and receive permission to take Christians prisoners.  Saul must have been somebody.  We know from Acts 22:3 that Saul was educated as a Pharisee by the well-respected Rabbi Gamaliel.  It is apparent Saul was a very devout Pharisee and was a leader in that religious party.  Acts 22:3 reveals that he was thoroughly trained in the law of the fathers and was zealous for God.

       It is apparent Saul was a zealous proponent of the Pharisaic interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures and believed the Christian belief system presented a serious threat to the Jewish religious system he was devoted too.  He was out to destroy this new belief system before it did any more damage.  This, however, was all about to change.

       Acts 9:3-7:  As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"  "Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked.   "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.

       There are a few things to be noted here.  When reading commentaries on this passage, it will sometimes be said Saul fell off his horse. As you can see, nothing is said here about a horse.  Saul could have been riding a horse from which he fell or he could have been walking and simply fell to the ground.  All we are told is that a light from heaven flashed around him and he fell to the ground.

       It should also be noted that the account of Saul seeing a light from heaven, falling to the ground and hearing from Jesus is recorded twice more in the Book of Acts.  In Acts 21 we see the Jews trying to kill Saul necessitating him being arrested by Roman troops largely for his own protection.  He then is permitted to speak to the people and present a defense.  He explains to them how he was a persecutor of Christians until his experience on the road to Damascus.  He then recites to them the details of how Jesus appeared to him.

       Acts 22:6-9: "About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, `Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?' "`Who are you, Lord?' I asked.  "`I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,' he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.

       Here it is added that Saul’s companions also saw the light and as we will see in the third account of this event as recorded in Acts 26, not only Saul falls to the ground but so do his companions.  Yet it is apparent Saul’s companions were not blinded by this light as was Paul for we see his companions leading him to Damascus as recorded in Acts 22:11. It is possible Saul looked directly into the light and was thus blinded while his companions only saw the light as it reflected off of things around them.  Or it may have simple been in the providence of God to have Saul blinded and not his companions.   

       Now the third recorded account of this event is much more comprehensive and bears a review.  This account is found in Acts 26 where we see Saul defending himself before King Agrippa.

       Acts 26:12-15: "On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, `Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.'  "Then I asked, `Who are you, Lord?'   "`I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,' the Lord replied.

       As I already explained, not only is Saul seen as falling to the ground but also his companions.  He also reveals that Jesus spoke to him in Aramaic.  Aramaic was the common language spoken by the Jews at the time. More significantly, however, we see Saul providing us with much more detail as to what Jesus said to him than what is recorded in Acts 9 or in Acts 21. 

       Acts 26:15-18: "Then I asked, `Who are you, Lord?'   "`I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,' the Lord replied. Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'

       So it is apparent that Jesus communicated a lot more to Saul than we see recorded in the original accounting of this event as seen in Acts 9. Jesus is seen as appointing Saul to bring the Gospel message to the Gentles so they, as was true of the Jews, may receive forgiveness of sins.  Jesus also advises Saul that He will rescue him from the Jews and the Gentiles, thus forewarning Saul of the troubles he was going to have.

       Continuing now in Acts 9, we see Saul get up from the ground and when he opens his eyes he sees nothing. He is then led by hand into Damascus.  This would indicate these men were walking and not riding horses.  It is recorded Saul was blind for three days and did not eat or drink anything.

       The Acts 9 account goes on to show there was a disciple named Ananias living in Damascus.   It is recorded that the Lord told him go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul and that this Saul was  praying and had seen in a vision a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.

       Ananias was sheepish about going to see Saul as he knew all about Saul’s mission to take Christians prisoners. But the Lord explained to Ananias that Saul was a chosen instrument to carry the name of Jesus before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.  The Lord also tells Ananias He will show Saul how much he must suffer for his efforts.  We pick up the narrative in verse 17.

       Acts 9:17-20: Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord--Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here--has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.   Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.

       It didn’t take Saul long to begin preaching that Jesus is the Son of God.  He must have received a crash course in Soterology.  Soterology is the name given by modern day Christian scholars to the study of salvation.  Paul, of course, was well educated in the Hebrew Scriptures.  He knew very well the prophecies pertaining to a coming Messiah who would bring salvation to Israel.  After encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus and spending several days with disciples of Jesus, Paul was convinced that the man who had been crucified as a false messiah was indeed the true Messiah. 

       This change of paradigm for Saul must have been shocking to him. He had to shift virtually overnight from being a Christian antagonist to a supporter of the Gospel message.  Not only was this a shock to Saul it was a shock to all who heard him.

       Acts 9:21-23:  All those who heard him were astonished and asked, "Isn't he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn't he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?" Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ. After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him.

       It is said that Saul baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving Jesus is the Christ which means Saul was able to demonstrate from the Hebrew Scriptures that the man Jesus was indeed the promised anointed one, the Messiah spoken of by the prophets.  The Greek word rendered “baffled” in the NIV is better rendered “confounded” and is so rendered in other English translations.  To confound someone is to bewilder, confuse, and perplex them.  

       Saul, no doubt, was demonstrating to these Jews that beginning with the virgin birth and culminating in the events leading to His death, the man Jesus fulfilled what is written in the Hebrew Scriptures about a coming Savior.  Remember, there were no NT Scriptures at this point in time.  Saul was using nothing but the Hebrew Scriptures and the testimony of the followers of Jesus who no doubt filled Saul in on events in Jesus’ life including His resurrection from the dead and His ascension to the Father.

       It is said the Jews were confounded by the proofs Saul presented to them which is to say they were bewildered, confused and perplexed.  Saul was turning their world upside down.  Even though Saul was providing sound evidence as to the Messiahship of Jesus, they could not accept what Saul presented as valid.  So they turned on Saul. The man who had once persecuted the Christians now became a persecuted Christian. The Damascus Jews concluded Saul must be destroyed before his teachings go any further.  So they conspired to kill him. 

       Acts 9:23-26: After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall. When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.

       The fact the city gates were guarded and Saul escaped through an opening in the wall shows that Damascus was a walled city.  Walled cities were common in the past. It was how cities protected themselves against invaders. Jerusalem was a walled city. The old city of Jerusalem is still walled in with a number of gates through which you can enter and leave the city.

       Apparently Saul had created such a stir in Damascus that the governing authority got involved in trying to apprehend Saul.  We see this in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church.

       2 Corinthians 11:32-33: In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.

       It is stated that the Jerusalem disciples were afraid of Saul and didn’t believe he had become a Christian.  I bet they were afraid of Saul.  Saul had cultivated a strong reputation as a persecutor of Christians.  Some probably thought Saul was using being a Christian as a guise to infiltrate the Christian community and destroy it.  Not only had he been a persecutor, he had been given authority by the high priest to imprison Christians. The entire Christian community feared Saul.  He had a lot of power. He and his henchmen were like a modern day Gestapo.  You can see why the Jerusalem disciples were suspicious. But here is where the disciple Barnabas steps in.

       Acts 9:27-31: But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.  So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him. When the brothers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.

       Who is this Barnabas?  Apparently he was a disciple of Jesus who was known to the apostles in Jerusalem and had been in Damascus at the time Saul was converted. We first read about him in Acts 4.  We previously read in Acts 4 about how the early disciples of Jesus sold their personal processions and pooled them together to be made available to those in need.  Barnabas was one of these disciples.

       Acts 4:36-37: Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet.

       As can be seen, the real name of Barnabas is not Barnabas but Joseph. Barnabas was a nick name given to this man and apparently it stuck and it became the name by which he was called.  Barnabas has the meaning of “Son of Encouragement.”  As you read through the NT you find that Barnabas was exactly that.  You see it in Acts 9 were Barnabas is the one who encourages the Jerusalem disciples to accept Saul as a disciple.  As we journey through Acts, you will see that Barnabas became a travelling companion of Saul but later on they had a falling out.  Acts 14:14 identifies Barnabas as an apostle.

       It’s recorded that Saul stayed with the Jerusalem apostles for a time and moved freely around Jerusalem preaching the Gospel.  He debated with Grecian Jews but apparently they vehemently disagreed with Saul and tried to kill him. Learning of the plot to kill Saul, the disciples took him to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.  Tarsus is where Saul was born and grew up.

       In Acts 9:32 it is recorded that after Saul was removed to Tarsus, “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.”

       It is instructive that once Saul is in a sense banished to Tarsus, the church throughout the region enjoys a time of peace.  How much the removal of Saul had to do with this is uncertain.  We know Saul was the prime mover behind the persecution of Christians.  But now he was converted and had become a Christian.  We see Saul aggressively preaching Christ and in the process stirring up a lot of resentment among the Jews.  This may have caused increasing conflict between Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews.  Once Paul was out of the area, things became more normal.

       We don’t know what all the dynamics were that generated the time of peace for the Church.  I am sure absence of the persecution led by Saul was one of those dynamics.  Saul being removed to Tarsus probably played a role as it removed a point of tension between believers and unbelievers.

       However, there is another issue that bears heavily on what is recorded here in Acts 9 and it is an issue we must address.  Let’s begin by reviewing what we read in Acts 9.

       We saw that Saul saw a great light that blinded him and that Jesus spoke to him as to what He intended for Saul to do.  We saw Ananias laying his hands on Saul to be filled with the Holy Spirit at which time Saul got his sight back.  Saul is then baptized and is seen as spending several days with the disciples at Damascus.  It is then recorded that “At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.”

       We then read from Acts 9:23-26 that the Jews in Damascus conspired to kill Saul and he escaped the city by being lowered in a basket at night through a hole in the city wall. It is then recorded that, “When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.”

       If you simply follow the flow of Luke’s narrative in Acts 9, it would appear after Saul’s conversion he spent several days with the Damascus disciples and then preached in the Damascus synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God which generated a death threat leading to Saul’s escape from Damascus. It then appears Saul traveled to Jerusalem and tried to join himself to the disciples in Jerusalem who were afraid of him.

       As we have already covered, Barnabas intervened and brought Saul to the apostles and explained to the apostles how Saul had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.  It is apparent this satisfied the apostles and they accepted Saul.

       So according to Luke’s account, it certainly appears that after his conversion experience in Damascus, he preached in their synagogues, the Jews tried to kill him, he escaped and traveled to Jerusalem where he hooked up with the apostles, circulated around Jerusalem for a time, and then was sent to Tarsus.  Now let’s look at what Saul (now known as Paul) wrote in his letter to the Galatians’

        Galatians 1:11-24: I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from birth  and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.  Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles--only James, the Lord's brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. Later I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: "The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy."  And they praised God because of me.

       Paul writes that upon being called to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, he did not consult any man, nor did he go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before him but he went immediately to Arabia and later returned to Damascus.  Then after three years he went up to Jerusalem and saw only Peter and James.  He further states that he was unknown to the churches in Judea and that these churches only knew of him as the man who formerly persecuted the church but is now preaching the gospel.

       What Paul writes to the Galatians presents what appears to be a different series of events following his conversion than what we see recorded in Acts 9.  Luke records Saul’s conversion, Saul immediately preaching in the Damascus synagogues, being threatened with death, escaping Damascus and then traveling to Jerusalem where Barnabas brings him to the apostles.  Luke records that Saul stayed with the apostles and moved about freely in Jerusalem speaking boldly in the name of the Lord until he locked horns with Grecian Jews who tried to kill him.  Luke records Saul than escaped to Tarsus.  Luke says nothing about a trip to Arabia and return to Damascus. Luke says nothing about three years passing by before Saul travels to Jerusalem.  So what’s going on here?  Needless to say, this appears rather perplexing.

      There are three schools of thought regarding this matter.  One perspective is that Saul did go directly to Jerusalem after escaping Damascus and briefly acquainted himself with the apostles but did not engaged in any theological discussion with them.  It is believed that after travelling to Tarsus as Luke records, he then went to Arabia.  Therefore, when Paul writes that he did not go to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before him what he meant was that he did not confer with the apostles about the gospel but learned it directly from Christ presumably while in the Arabian Desert.  Under this scenario, Paul could rightly say he was unknown to the Judean churches as he had not been in Jerusalem long enough before leaving for Tarsus for the churches to become acquainted with him.    

       A second perspective is that shortly after his conversion, Saul preached in the Damascus synagogues, and escaped Damascus as Luke writes but did not travel directly to Jerusalem. Instead Saul traveled to Arabia where he stayed for a time and then traveled back to Damascus.  After a total of three years, which included travel time, time spent in Arabia and time spent in Damascus after his return there, he departed for Jerusalem where he met with Peter and James.  It is believed Luke simply left out the information about the three year period involving Saul going to Arabia and returning to Damascus before going to Jerusalem.

       A third perspective is that after Saul’s conversion, he spent several days with the Damascus disciples and then immediately preached in the Damascus synagogues as Luke records.  Then at some point Saul departs Damascus and travels to Arabia for an undisclosed period of time after which he returns to Damascus.  Luke simply picks up on Saul’s activity after having returned to Damascus by showing he powerfully preaches the gospel and creates such a stir that the Jews want to kill him and, as we saw in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33, the governor of Damascus seeks to arrest Saul.  He then escapes Damascus and travels to Jerusalem.

       This third perspective differs from the second perspective in that Saul is seen as traveling to Arabia and back to Damascus before having to escape Damascus while the second perspective has Saul traveling to Arabia after escaping Damascus. I personally ascribe to this third explanation as it seems to best harmonize Acts 9 and Galatians chapter one. It appears that after his conversion, Saul preached to the Jews in Damascus and then traveled to Arabia for an undisclosed period of time and then traveled back to Damascus where he continued to preach the Gospel.  This created great opposition from the Damascus Jews necessitating Saul’s escape after which he traveled to Jerusalem.

       The fact Luke failed to report Saul’s visit to Arabia and return to Damascus, is not surprising.  There are other times Luke leaves out information that is covered by a different writer of Scripture.  For example, Matthew shows Joseph, Mary and Jesus leaving Bethlehem and traveling to Egypt to escape the killing of the children decreed by Herod and later returning to Nazareth. Luke says nothing about this and simply has the family returning to Nazareth some time after the birth.  You will see such selectivity in writing throughout the NT.

       Next time we will take a close look at Saul’s travel to Arabia and also discuss how Saul became Paul.

PART SIXTEEN