Thursday, July 07, 2022

Acts 9:1-31

Acts 9:1–31: The Conversion of Saul, Saul Proclaims Jesus in Synagogues, Saul Escapes from Damascus, Saul in Jerusalem


A lot happen in this section of Acts, but I consider it all under the story of “Saul’s Conversion,” even though the ESV further breaks it down into smaller bits.

As the focus of Acts shifts back to Saul (whom we normally think of as Paul, since he more commonly goes by that name in the New Testament), who is still going after the Christians—or, as verse 1 puts it, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” He goes to the high priest asking for a letter that he can bring with him to the synagogues in Damascus, giving him permission to imprison members of “the Way” (which is what Christianity is being called at the time) to bring them back to Jerusalem, presumably for trial.

He must be given such a letter because he sets out for Damascus, but he doesn’t get that far:

Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (verses 3–9)

Meanwhile, Jesus sends a disciple, Ananias, to go restore Saul’s sight, and Ananias is initially less than thrilled with the assignment:

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about 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.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened. (verses 10–19)

I don’t know what is meant by “scales,” but the wording seems to indicate something physical: something fell off of Saul’s body, and I guess it resembled the scales of a fish. As the ESV Study Bible notes point out:

Acts 9:18 something like scales fell from his eyes. This physical event was also a symbol that Saul’s spiritual blindness had been overcome and he could now see and understand the truth (cf. 2 Cor. 3:14 for a related image). (Note that the change of Saul’s name to Paul which will be first reported in [Acts 13:9] is not connected with his conversion; he continues having a right to both names, the first Jewish, the second Roman; Paul continues to call himself and to be called Saul until his ministry in Cyprus [13:9].) was baptized. Through baptism Saul made an immediate public declaration of his faith in Jesus as the Messiah.

They mention baptism, which indicates that Saul is now a Christian, though I don’t know the exact moment that he’s converted: The moment he’s struck blind? The moment Jesus speaks to him? Sometime during the days he spends awaiting Ananias’ arrival? When the “scales” actually fall from his eyes? Not that it’s important, it just always struck me what a complete change in Saul’s entire belief system is taking place here, so either:

  • He needs time to figure a bunch of stuff out, or
  • There was already a seed of doubt in him even while he was persecuting Christians, and Jesus has just caused that seed to sprout.

Regardless of the exact timing, Saul is definitely a Christian at this point. He spends some days with the disciples in Damascus and is immediately going to the synagogues to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God—the very synagogues, some people point out, where he was originally heading to imprison Christians for doing this very thing:

And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. (verses 21–22)

(Part of the reason I quote that passage is that I just like the phrase, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem … ?”)

This goes on for many days, until “the Jews” hatch a plot to kill him, and are even watching the city gates to capture him. (The ESV footnote makes it clear that when the text says “the Jews,” it’s not a general word for any Jewish person: “The Greek word Ioudaioi refers specifically here to Jewish religious leaders, and others under their influence, who opposed the Christian faith in that time.”) However, Saul finds out about it, and his fellow disciples sneak him out of the city, bypassing the folks who are watching the gates.

He decides to go join the disciples in Jerusalem, but they have the same hesitancy that Ananias had had: they don’t believe he’s actually a disciple, and are afraid to let him join their ranks. A man named Barnabas, whom they seem to trust, brings Saul to them, tells about Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, and talks about all of the preaching Saul has been doing in Damascus. They seem to accept this because he starts freely moving among them, and, once again, preaching the name of Jesus boldly.

One group he disputes against is the Hellenists (that is, Greek-speaking Jews), who hatch another plot to kill him! When the Christians hear about this they send Saul off to his home town of Tarsus.

Finally, this section of Acts closes with another indication that things are going well for the Church, in general:

So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied. (verse 31)


This passage doesn’t introduce Saul/Paul, he’s already been mentioned, but it does tell the story of how he ended up becoming the preeminent thinker in Christian theology in the 1st Century. I keep talking in one form or another about how Saul/Paul wrote significantly more of the New Testament than any other writer, and it all started here, on the road to Damascus.

Saul’s Conversion as a Metaphor

Saul’s conversion is such a famous event that it has found its way into the modern lexicon; to this day we talk about people “seeing the light,” or “having a Damascus moment,” or “the scales falling from someone’s eyes.” We use the phrase to refer to people finally understanding something they hadn’t understood before, but there are undertones of religious experience as well, even if only facetiously. So maybe someone used to exclusively read the Bible in the NIV translation and then decides to switch to the ESV; someone might say that “So-and-so finally ‘saw the light’ and switched to the ESV.” It’s an implication (in this case jokingly) of more than just a decision, but of some sort of higher power granting access to hitherto unreached knowledge.

To most modern people using these phrases it’s only facetious or tongue-in-cheek, but the original event to which we are referring (whether we know it or not) is quite dramatic. A man who has made it his mission to hunt down all Christians (or members of “the Way”) has now, himself, become a Christian. I don’t think anyone reading this passage can blame Ananias for being hesitant about going to see Saul, or blame the disciples in Jerusalem for being initially hesitate to bring him amongst themselves. It was such an extreme about-face that it took the Lord Jesus miraculously blinding Saul and speaking to him in order for Saul to… ahem… “see the light.”

Saul: The Perfect Apostle

I’m 100% sure that I’ll talk about this again—perhaps multiple times, across much of the New Testament—but I’ve often thought that God set Saul up as the perfect person to spread the Gospel and explain its inner mysteries to other Christians. Up until now he has devoted his life to the study of the Scriptures; he’s a Pharisee, and probably knows the law better than most (if not all) of the people around him. He’s intimately aware of the most minute details about worship and the Law of God. When he has his eyes opened and understands that Jesus really is the Messiah, and has a chance to put it all together, he’s the perfect person to now explain how all of that Old Testament Scripture points to the Christ: Jesus.

It’s no wonder that so much of the New Testament is written by this man. He may be the Apostle who best understands how all of history has led to the arrival of Jesus: the problem Jesus solved for us, why He came to solve that problem, and how we should live in light of that.

At this phase in Saul’s life I think he’s still coming to grips with all of that, yet already, even here, he’s immediately going to the synagogues to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. (And, given what a powerful symbol it is for Jesus to convert this particular man to Christianity, it’s no wonder the Jewish leaders want to kill him, just as they wanted to kill Jesus himself!)

That being said, I’ve always been struck by this part of what Jesus tells Ananias:

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (verses 15–16, emphasis added)

Firstly the highlighted part: “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Yes, Saul is the perfect person to articulate fully and precisely why and how Jesus came, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy for him! (2 Corinthians 11:16–33 gives a good summary from Saul himself of some of the suffering he goes through for the sake of Jesus.)

But also interesting is the fact that Jesus has specifically chosen Saul to carry His name before the Gentiles. (That is, people who aren’t Jewish.) You’d think that Saul’s intimate and detailed knowledge of the Scriptures would make him the perfect person to bring the Gospel to the Jews, who will be able to follow Saul into the deep intricacies of the Law and understand how it’s all fulfilled in Jesus, but that’s not Jesus’ plan: He’s going to send Saul to the Gentiles. Which goes to show that Saul’s detailed knowledge of the Scriptures—all of the rules and regulations about worship, the sacrificial system, the detailed laws that were handed down to the Israelites—when viewed in light of Jesus’ work on the cross, will lead him to see God caring for everyone, not just the Israelites!

The Old Testament is not a historical document that had relevance to a particular set of people at a particular point in time; it’s a testament to God’s love for His people—all of His people—across all time.

I was going to say “pun intended” in calling it a testament, but I kind of think that’s exactly why we call it the Old Testament, so it’s not a pun at all, it’s just the base meaning!

Going Home to Tarsus

Saul is described to to Ananias as “a man of Tarsus,” so when the disciples send him to Tarsus he’s actually being sent home. Acts doesn’t tell us much about this time, but Saul is going to spend almost a decade there:

Acts 9:30to Tarsus. This corresponds to Gal. 1:21, where Paul says he went to “Cilicia,” the province in which Tarsus was located. Paul would be based in Tarsus and minister in Syria-Cilicia for the next eight years (c. A.D. 37–45). Some of the events of 2 Cor. 11:23–27 perhaps occurred during this time, and probably also his intense vision of heaven (2 Cor. 12:2–4). Saul is not mentioned again in Acts until Barnabas goes to Tarsus to find him in Acts 11:25. …

It could very well be that Jesus is giving him some time to really think and firm up his beliefs around Jesus’ work and accomplishments. Not that Saul is saying anything wrong at this point, the passage we’ve been looking at seems to indicate that he’s being a very effective preacher, but I wonder if his letters would have been as full of doctrine and pastoral guidance if Saul didn’t have this time in his hometown to think things through even further.

No comments: