February 26, 2014

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe

 

Topic #III: The Church Scattered into Palestine and Syria (8:4-12:25)    

Subtopic B. The Conversion of Saul (9:1-30).                                           

 

 

Lesson III.B.1: Paul Sees the Lord (9:1-9)

 

 

Scripture

 

1 And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest,

2 And desired of him letters to Damascus to the

3 And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:

4 And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?

5 And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

6 And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.

7 And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.

8 And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.

9 And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.

 

 

Introduction

 

Chapter 9 marks a distinct turning point in Acts. Up to now, Peter has held a position of prominence as he preached to the nation of Israel. From now on, the Apostle Paul will gradually become the foremost figure, and the gospel will increasingly go out to the Gentiles. In this chapter we begin to see the growth of the Christian Churches among those Asian cities which were largely under Greek influence. The movement seems more remarkable when we remember the antagonism between Hellenism and Hebraism.

 

 

It was not difficult in some senses for Christian Hebrews to evangelize Judea. Their brethren, after the flesh, dwelt in Judea, and while it is perfectly true that they were making slow progress in it, and did not set out at all to do it until they were driven from Jerusalem by persecution, still there was no revulsion produced in their minds as they preached the Gospel of Christ through Judea.

 

 

It was a little more difficult to preach in Samaria, because of the ancient traditions and prejudices of long standing which were expressed in the familiar words, “Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4:9). But under the conviction of the Spirit, a man full of the Spirit had gone down to Samaria and had preached, and Samaria had received the gospel, and the victory had been won.

 

 

But now the most difficult work by far awaited these men. Once they stepped over the boundary-line, and began to touch those ancient cities, with their Jewish customs and Greek influences, they were in a new atmosphere, and one far more difficult for them than any in which they had so far preached the gospel.

 

 

We must recognize the antagonism between the two ideals. The ideal of Hebraism was that of the moral, the righteous, the religious, and it insisted upon Law. The ideal of Hellenism was that of the culture and freedom of human life, the perfection of the powers of nature, the complete utilization of all the forces of individual life.

 

 

Turning to the time of Christ we find the opposing forces represented in two parties; the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Jewish nation had become largely Sadducean. The Sadducees were Hellenists. The Pharisees stood for Hebraism. There, in the last analysis, was the conflict between the Hebrew ideal, which the Pharisee represented, and for which he fought, and for which he made his traditions a safeguard; and the Greek ideal of culture and freedom, the glorification of human life, and the denial of the supernatural, for which the Sadducee stood. This then, was the atmosphere at this time. Far beyond Judea, Samaria, and Galilee lay these ancient cities that had been Hellenized, and in the midst of them were colonies of Jews, Hellenized Jews, and it is to them that the Gospel must be preached.

 

 

This introduction has been necessary to give us the background, so that we have a right understanding and appreciation of Saul of Tarsus. This man becomes the central figure     in the mission to the Gentile world. His Jewish name is Saul (Paul being his Greek name); and being from the tribe of Benjamin, it is quite evident that he was named after the first king of Israel, who came from the same tribe. In the very word Tarsus there is significance. He was born there, a Hebrew of Hebrews, as he tells us in one of his epistles. Both his father and mother were Hebrews; there was no mixture in his blood. Nevertheless, Saul was from Tarsus, a Greek city, the great university city of that time. He received his early religious education from his father and mother, Hebrews, not Sadducees, but Pharisees. This man, born in Tarsus, received his earliest and mightiest impressions in the atmosphere of Hellenism. At about fourteen years of age his parents were determined that he should not be educated under the Hellenizing influences of Tarsus; so they did not send him to the university there, but to Jerusalem; and he was brought up at the feet of Gamaliel. Being a descendent of Hillel, Saul’s teacher naturally followed the more liberal tradition in Judaism. This was a wonderful merging of life styles and philosophies; undeniably a coming together of opposing forces. The boy had spent his childhood in a Greek atmosphere, and had gained his earliest impressions there, the impressions that will stand for a lifetime. This man, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee, was also a Hellenist. Greece had touched him with its culture, its refinement, its poetry, and all its glory; and his zealous, godly, and much to be reverenced teacher, Gamaliel, was utterly unable to eradicate the poetry and passion of Greece, because he had been too long in Tarsus. He was generally regarded by the rabbi’s as one of the most promising young men in Judaism. As for zeal, he outstripped all his fellow Pharisees and Rabbis. He was a Roman citizen, a right he inherited from his father (Acts 22:8), and we will observe later that on occasion he appealed to his Roman citizenship in a crisis.

 

[TL1] 

Saul’s conversion is related three times in Acts, here and in two speeches of Paul; before a Jewish crowd in the temple yard (22:3-21), and in his address to King Agrippa (26:2-23). There are minor differences between the three accounts, mainly due to the different audiences to whom they were addressed.

 

Commentary

 

1 And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest,

 

 

When the persecution broke out in Jerusalem, the church went underground. The apostles remained in Jerusalem, but many of the others were scattered—we found that Philip went up to Samaria and along the Mediterranean coast. The thing that triggered it was the stoning of Stephen and the persecution that followed.

 

 

The other religious leaders in Jerusalem were satisfied after they had run the Christians out of Jerusalem. They were willing to leave things as they were at that point. But not Saul of Tarsus! He was the one who was breathing out “threatenings and slaughter.” He actually thought he was doing God a service by persecuting the church. He hated Jesus Christ. I do not think that the Lord Jesus Christ ever had a more determined enemy than this man Saul of Tarsus. Yet he is the man who was to become Christ’s special instrument in carrying His Gospel to these cities under the influence of Greek culture. Saul was well prepared for this great purpose by his blood relationships, and all those years spent in Tarsus. The choosing of this man by the Holy Spirit was not impulsive.

 

 

There were previous glimpses of Saul in the eighth chapter. He was seen there holding the coats of the men who were hurling stones at Stephen. The next statement we have concerning him is that he was “consenting unto his (Stephen’s) death.” In that statement, which means that he voted in favor of putting Stephen to death, is a revelation of the fact that he was a member of the Sanhedrim. We are further told that “he laid waste to the church,” which made his name notorious wherever Christians were found.  If you would have asked him his reasons for persecuting the church, he might have said something like this: “Jesus of Nazareth is dead. Do you expect me to believe that a crucified nobody is the promised Messiah? According to our law anyone hung on a tree is cursed [Deut. 21:23]. Would God take a cursed false prophet and make Him the Messiah? No! His followers are preaching that Jesus is both alive and doing miracles through them. But their power comes from Satan, not God. This is a dangerous sect, and I intend to eliminate it before it destroys our historic Jewish faith!”

 

 

Let us go back to the sixth chapter, and to verses eight and nine: “And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people. Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen.” This means that Stephens’s conflict was with the Hellenists, not the Hebrews. His marvelous speech was against Hellenism. Stephen’s fight was not with Phariseeism. But we should be fair to Phariseeism. The imperfections of Phariseeism were its self-sufficiency, its boastfulness, and its contempt for others; but the heart of Phariseeism was spiritual, a defense of spiritual religion against rationalism. Stephen’s fight was with Sadduceeism. Saul had probably heard that great defense given by Stephen; and all his pharisaic sympathy would have been with Stephen. As he listened to Stephen, he heard a man emphasizing the spirituality of religion and charging the Sanhedrim and the Jewish nation with turning away from spiritual things. Yet he had consented to his death, and had seen him die; and the manner of his death, which showed the great depth of his faith created within him belief in the supernatural aspect of religion. He had seen a man bloody from the stones hurled at him, bruised and battered and beaten, the light of life leaving his body, with his face lit with a glorious light, and he heard his declaration that he had seen into the world beyond, where the living Son of God had watched the whole thing, as he stood by God the Father. This man was fighting against a strange upheaval in his mind in which was mingled mental questioning, enquiries, wonderings, and amazement.

 

 

The mental mood of Saul of Tarsus is revealed by the words, “Saul [was] breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.” We have the picture here of a fierce man filled with murderous desire and determined to stamp out the Nazarene heresy, a man definitely appointed as the public prosecutor of Christianity. Saul of Tarsus was probably in his early thirties at this time. He would certainly be bilingual, and able to converse in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic.

 

 

2 And desired of him letters to Damascus to the

 

 

Why did Saul choose the city of Damascus over all other cities” Was it because a larger number of Christians fled to that area? At the beginning of the revolt in a.d. 66, 18,000 were massacred by the Damasceenes. From the time of Pompey, who took possession of the city in 63 b.c., Damascus had been in the Roman province of Syria. It has been estimated that there were thirty to forty synagogues in the city. The fact that there were already believers there shows how effective the church had been at getting out the message. Some of the believers may have fled the persecution in Jerusalem, which explains why Paul wanted authority to bring them back. Believers were still identified with the Jewish synagogues, for the break with Judaism would not come for a few years. (See James 2:2, where “assembly” is “synagogue” in the original Greek.)

 

 

As the official prosecutor of Christianity, he had obtained letters from the high priest, and was on his way to Damascus to arrest men and women and put them in prison; but he was “kicking against the pricks*,” he was fighting against conviction. His objective was to apprehend the Christians living in the city of Damascus, however, God can take the worst intentions of men, and make them work for His purposes—He would apprehend Saul instead.

*Some versions have “goad,” a stick with a pointed end for driving cattle; kicking it would only drive it deeper.

 

The authority of the highest Jewish council was behind him—“As also the high priest doth bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders: from whom also I received letters unto the brethren, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished” (Acts 22:5). According to 1 Macc. 15:15, the Romans had granted to the high priest the right of extraditing to Jerusalem Jewish malefactors who had fled abroad. This would cover the case of Christians from Jerusalem, who had taken refuge in Damascus, and the reference here is probably to this group rather than the residents of Damascus.

3 And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:

Damascus, the capital city of Samaria, was located sixty miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea, and about 160 miles northeast of Jerusalem.

The first stage in the apprehension of Saul occurred when a light brighter than the sun shined out of heaven and enveloped him. The lightening-swift light, brighter than Syria’s noon-day sun, could only be the Shekinah glory, which is indicative of the divine presence. Tradition says that this incident occurred at a bridge near the city.

In order to appreciate Saul’s emotions at this time, it is necessary to remember that he was convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was dead and buried in a Judean grave. Since the leader of the sect had been destroyed, all that was now necessary was to destroy his followers. Then the earth would be free of this scourge. 

4 And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?

The second stage in the apprehension of Saul came in the form of an inquiry. A voice spoke, not in Greek, but in the Hebrew tongue, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” It was a voice out of heaven, out of the light, asking him, a man on earth, why he persecuted the One who spoke. What a strange thing, and what a startling thing! But there is another meaning in the words, “why persecutest thou me?” The Lord may have been implying, I am above you in the heavens; you cannot undo my work; that which you are fighting against is not the fanaticism of a mistaken fanatic; it is the march of God through human history. The question had even another great significance, because it shows the union of Christ with his church. The Lord did not ask, “Why do you persecute My church?” The reference to “Me” gave Saul his first glimpse into the doctrine of Christians being in Christ.

The men with him also “fell to the earth” (Acts 26:14) and heard the sound, but they could not understand the words spoken from heaven. They stood to their feet in bewilderment (v. 7). Some thirty years later, Paul wrote that Christ had “apprehended him” on the Damascus road (Phil. 3:12).

5 And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

We see here the ignorance of Saul. He was probably the most brilliant man of his day, but he did not know the Lord Jesus Christ. He asked, “Who art thou, Lord?” Dear reader, to know Him is life, and Saul didn’t know him. In spite of his great learning (Acts 26:24), Saul was spiritually blind (2 Cor. 3:12-18), and did not understand what the Old Testament really taught about the Messiah. Like many others of his countrymen, he stumbled over the Cross (1 Cor. 1:23), because he depended on his own righteousness and not on the righteousness of God (Rom. 9:30-10:13; Phil. 3:1-10). Many self-righteous religious people today do not see their need for a Savior and resent it if you tell them they are a sinner. The use of the word “Lord,” however, revealed his recognition of being in the presence of a manifestation of supremacy. When the light came, and the voice spoke, prejudices departed, and all the antagonism that heated the fever heat of his hostility ended. He was in the presence of supremacy and he admitted it as he said Lord.

Saul was astonished, because he couldn’t find a source for the voice. Oh, the revolution, the convulsion, the upheaval in the soul of Saul. Then the most fascinating thing occurred. The voice replied, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutes.” It is as though Christ had said to him, those men and women whom you have hauled off to prison have suffered; but it is I who has suffered in their suffering, Saul. The brutal stones that you saw hurled at Stephen, cut into his flesh and caused him pain, which reached Me, and caused Me pain. I felt every throb of Stephens’s pain. Pain inflicted on the members of the body on earth was felt by the Head of the body in heaven. That Saul both saw and heard this glorious Speaker is a fact expressly stated by Ananias (v. 17; 22:14), by Barnabas (9:27), and by himself (Acts 26:16); and when claiming apostleship he explicitly states that he “had seen the Lord” (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8).

Who was Jesus to Saul of Tarsus? He was a dead man, disgraced, and hated! But the Jesus he thought was dead had just spoke to him—He was alive; he had been raised from the dead. The Jesus he thought was disgraced was at the center of heavenly glory—He has been glorified at the right hand of God in heaven! It was this sight of the glorified Savior that changed the entire direction of his life. He realized now that not only all his religious views, but his whole religious character, had been an entire mistake that he was up to that moment fundamentally and wholly wrong. The Jesus that he hated spoke to him in the language of indescribable love. No wonder this man never looked back. It was a great arrest, a great apprehension.

 

6 And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.

Saul is right down in the dust on that road to Damascus. This is a remarkable conversion. He immediately reveals his conversion. This man who hated the Lord Jesus, who did everything he could against Him, now calls Him “Lord.” And he asks what the Lord would have him do. He is ready to do the bidding of the Lord. He has been completely changed. [“Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Mat. 7:20).]. It is readily apparent what has happened to this man.

He was then commanded to do one thing, and it was very simple: “Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.” That is always the master’s method. Was it a simple thing? No, it was a very difficult thing. They were expecting him in Damascus; those opposed to Christ were expecting him as their leader; and those with Christ were expecting him as their great enemy. Christ said, Go into the city and wait.

7 And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.

Who were “the men who journeyed with him?” They could have been fellow travelers who joined together for security against robbers, but it is more probable that they were men who would assist in locating and arresting the Christians in Damascus. They were employed by the Jerusalem synagogues, but answered To Saul.

Saul’s companions saw a light and heard a noise, but only Saul experienced the vision itself. Later on it says that they didn’t hear. Is this a conflict? No, they heard a voice but that was all. They couldn’t understand what was said. It didn’t make any sense to them. They didn’t see anyone. There was no one for them to see. They were speechless with amazement. We shall see this in more detail in Acts 22 and 26.

8 And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.

Saul was led by the hand into Damascus, for he was blind, defeated, and captured. If Saul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7) was eye trouble, this may have been the prelude of it. At any rate there is a sharp contrast between Saul in Acts 9:1 and 8. One moment he was storming up the road, determined to capture and imprison Christians. Soon thereafter, he was led like a child by the hand into Damascus. God’s grace is often displayed in powerful acts and in apparent catastrophes.

9 And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.

This man was blinded by the light he had seen from heaven. Here was a man who was puzzled as much as any man had ever been. Some men jump up and down when they are converted. Some jump for joy, and others cry. Not Saul of Tarsus. There never was a man as confused as he was. Had we met him on one of those three days in Damascus and had we asked him what had happened to him, his answer would have been, “I don’t know.” But he is going to find out.

Those were wonderful days, those three days of blindness. We are not surprised to read that he ate and drank nothing. What happened in his thinking? One little word in his Philippian letter gives us a clue—“But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ” (Phil. 3:7).What was it that he lost, and what did he gain? He lost his pride in his Jewish heritage, Hebrew birthright, Hebrew rite of circumcision, the observance of rituals, and Pharisee supernaturalism. He gained a new birth and a new life in Christ. I think that during those three days of blindness and fasting he was taking stock of his situation, and every hour there came to him a new consciousness, not of loss, but of gain. Now Saul understood that Christ truly lived, that he was indeed the risen Messiah. He had been saved by grace, not by Law, through faith in the living Christ. God began to instruct Saul and show him the relationship between the Gospel of the grace of God and the traditional Mosaic religion that he had practiced all his life.

Note: Paul is waiting; he has not yet received the message God had promised him (v. 6).

 

 [TL1]

Make a Free Website with Yola.