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Commentary on Acts - part 5

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

The Expansion of The Church As A Result of Persecution (8.1-12.25).

How thrilled the Apostles must have been at this stage at the progress of the church. Through the first few years of the infant church they had suffered a few minor discomforts, but they had come through those triumphantly, and the church had continued to grow and grow. Jerusalem was ‘filled with their teaching’ and the work of caring for all the true people of God was now being successfully administered.

And then came the shock waves. It was like a spiritual earthquake. It seemed that Satan was not asleep or held fully in check after all. Suddenly there was devastation among the people of God. Many were being dragged off to prison, others recognised that they had no alternative but to flee for their lives and the lives of their families, and the carefully erected administration had collapsed. The Apostles now bravely remained in Jerusalem so as to care for the few who were left, and to visit in prison those who were being held in captivity. And as they looked around at the people that they now had to cater for, and the numbers crowded in the prisons, it must have appeared as though all their dreams were in tatters. It must have seemed as though they had to begin all over again.

But in truth the situation was the very opposite, for it was now that the expansion of the church began apace. As a result of the martyrdom of Stephen the Christians, who were now established and taught in the faith, were driven out of Jerusalem in all directions in accordance with Isaiah 2.3. When Jesus had originally sent out His disciples He had told them that if they were not received in one town, they had to go on to the next. For there was so much work to be done that it would never be finished before the Son of Man returned (Matthew 10.23). And now, in this situation, that was precisely what God was making them do. Within a few short months the Good News, which up to this point had been almost limited to a Jerusalem which must surely have been becoming Gospel saturated, would spread to all the neighbouring countries round about, and would establish a platform for reaching out to the rest of the world. And all as a result of this heart numbing catastrophe combined with the power of the Holy Spirit and the sovereign activity of God. It was the signal that Jerusalem had had its opportunity. Now it was time for the ends of the earth to know.

The sections that follow deal with the initial spread of the word, which divides neatly up into the following pattern:

  • a Scattered Christians preach in all directions, including Judaea and Galilee (8.4).
  • b Philip goes to the Samaritans, followed up by Peter and John - a distinctive outreach (8.5-25).
  • b Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (8.26-39).
  • b Philip is found at Azotus (formerly Ashdod), where passing along the coastline he preaches the Good News to all the cities, until he comes to Caesarea (8.40). These cities would include Jamnia, Joppa, and Apollonia. And when he comes to Caesarea he settles down (21.8). It was of mixed Jewish and Gentile population and the seat of Roman government, and presented great opportunities for evangelism.
  • c Saul is converted in Damascus and proclaims the Good News there (9.1-26).
  • c Saul returns to Jerusalem and proclaims the Good News in the Hellenist synagogues at Jerusalem (9.27-30).
  • b Peter’s ministry is successful in Lydda where he heals the lame (9.32-35).
  • b Peter’s ministry is successful in Joppa where he raises the dead (9.36-43).
  • b Peter goes to the Gentiles and converts Cornelius and his household, and those in Jerusalem rejoice because God is reaching out to the Gentiles - a distinctive outreach (10.1-11.18).
  • a Scattered Christians preach successfully in Phoenicia and Cyprus to Jews only, but then in Syrian Antioch, first to Jews and then to Gentiles. The work in Antioch is confirmed by Barnabas who calls in Saul (11.19-26).

Note the carefully worked out pattern, which could be even more particularised. It consists of a general description followed by three ministries of Philip, commencing with the ministry to the Samaritans (a new distinctive outreach), then central is Paul’s conversion and new ministry, then come three ministries of Peter, possibly following up on Philip’s ministry in 8.40, finalising in Peter’s ministry to Gentiles (a new distinctive outreach), and then another general description.

This is all then followed by a description of events in and around Jerusalem, while the word of God grew and multiplied (11.27-12.25).

The complexity of the construction of Acts, and the warning lest we too glibly divide it up into our patterns comes out in that the above analysis overlaps into what might be seen as two sections ending in their summaries (see introduction to chapter 1). Luke has a number of strands going at the same time. We do him an injustice not to recognise the fact.

A further interesting part of the pattern is found in the descriptions of the conversion of three vital figures, the Ethiopian eunuch, Saul of Tarsus, and Cornelius the Centurion. Note the huge contrast, the powerful minister of state, the devoted Pharisee and student of Gamaliel, and the officer in the army of occupation, and yet all in their own way men who were earnestly seeking righteousness and truth. In each case Christian men are directed to go to them. In each case those to be converted are chosen men. In each case a vision or equivalent is involved. In each case they are led to Christ by God’s chosen instrument. In each case they are baptised. And yet the differences are many too. They are not just reproductions. But they do bring out that God is at work not only on multitudes, but on individuals, as he expands the Kingly Rule of God.

The Consequences of the Death of Stephen.

The result of the death of Stephen was that Christians had to flee from Jerusalem, and this certainly included Philip, one of the Hellenists appointed along with Stephen. Indeed the six who remained of the original seven were probably targeted as known associates of Stephen. It must be seen as quite probable that the Hellenistic Christian Jews were the most prominent target of the persecution, a persecution probably largely pursued by their antagonists in the Hellenistic synagogues (compare 9.29), as well as especially by Saul, who was himself one of the Hellenists, although a very Hebrew one. They wanted to demonstrate to their Hebrew brethren that they too were true Jews (the Hellenists who had come to live in Jerusalem, and who had not already been converted, would tend to be those most fanatically gripped by Jewishness).

But behind the flight of the people of God was God Himself. Without that flight the impetus to spread the Good News widely would have been absent. They had felt it necessary to concentrate mainly on Jerusalem, but it was now His purpose that the word might spread far beyond the walls of Jerusalem. He was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 2.3, ‘Out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem’.

This was taking place some years after the crucifixion during which time the church had become well established in Jerusalem. This is evident from the fact that the events of the previous chapters of Acts require such a length of time for their fulfilment. How far the Apostles were involved in the persecution we do not know, although we do know that they remained in Jerusalem (verse 1). Perhaps they were seen as still under the protection of the Sanhedrin’s edict that they be left alone. And perhaps their known loyalty to the Temple, (for they met there regularly), marked them off as giving full respect to the Temple and as not following the heresy of Stephen. It might have been argued that, while they were known Messianists, they had never been heard to speak against the Temple and the Law. They may have been seen as dutiful in following their religious responsibilities so that the Pharisees had nothing against them, for there were many priests and Christian Pharisees among their number who would maintain their Jewishness. Thus they may have been left alone. With their reputations it is certainly difficult to see how the Apostles could have remained hidden. They were still no doubt performing signs and wonders, and people would still be seeking them out. But there was still a strong sense of Jewishness among the early Judaistic church and that probably helped them. (Consider how the Apostles are later called to task by Hebrew Christians when they are thought to have erred from a Judaistic emphasis - 11.2).

But having said all that danger had to lurk for them. While the persecution may have majored on the Hellenistic Christians, the Hebrew Christians would be drawn in by association. They certainly had no certainty that they would be spared. And the impression given is that Saul was determined to hunt down any Christians that he could find. Thus it took a great deal of courage to remain in Jerusalem. But now full of the Holy Spirit that was not something that any of the twelve Apostles lacked.

However, while devastating at the time the persecution accomplished what the passage of time had failed to accomplish, not only the spreading of the Good News, but also the gentle separating of the Jewish church from its extreme Jewishness. Christian Jews were being faced up with a choice of adherence, whether to the Jewish authorities, or to the wider church. And the persecution would help them to make up their minds. The grip of Judaism was being slowly relaxed.

The Persecution of the Church Causes The Word To Go Out (8.1-4).

8.1a ‘And Saul was consenting to his death.’

This verse, already commented on at the end of the last section, is a link between the two sections. It not only concludes the martyrdom of Stephen, but prepares for verse 4. It probably means more than just that he agreed with what happened. He was also giving his official consent and publicly putting himself forward as someone who was ready to do something about it. He was declaring that he was ready to take a positive stand against this new movement.

But who was this Saul? As he stood there disdainfully watching the deserved death of the heretic Stephen he was proud of the fact that he had been ‘circumcised on the eighth day’, that he could trace his descent to Benjamin, that both his parents were Jews, that he had influential relatives (23.16-22 - his nephew moved in circles that meant that he knew of the plot, and chief captains do not listen to just anyone), that he was a dedicated Pharisee, that all held him blameless in keeping the whole Law in accordance with his Pharisaic principles (Philippians 3.5). He was also a man born free, a Roman citizen of Tarsus in Cilicia (21.39), a city with its own school of philosophy, and was a disciple of Rabban Gamaliel, that righteous and respected teacher of the law. He had the best of educations and had everything going for him. But above all he had a zeal for God which meant that he was already planning to root out more of these vile heretics. He was now a man with a mission. And he clung to all that was the very opposite of all that Stephen stood for. Little did he realise that it was all shortly to come crashing down and that he would soon be a hunted man himself.

8.1b ‘And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church which was in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered abroad (‘sowed as seed’) throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except for the apostles.’

The consequence of Stephen’s martyrdom was a clear recognition that these followers of their Messiah had become a menace and were enemies of Judaism. What might have been tolerated elsewhere could not be tolerated in Jerusalem, especially in such numbers. The result was that action was instigated in order to arrest all who followed Stephen’s pernicious ideas, and the Christians soon recognised that if they did not seek refuge outside Jerusalem they would all be put in prison. Thus they scattered throughout Judaea and Samaria. The persecution was not organised on a large enough scale to reach out as far as that. It was limited to religious minded Jerusalem. And as they went, they went everywhere preaching the word.

‘Except for the Apostles.’ The Apostles remained in Jerusalem. It was certainly brave of them, but they had probably decided that for the sake of those in the infant church in Jerusalem who could not flee they must be there to give them support. And there were also those in prison who had to be attended to. Jesus Himself had taught them the importance of visiting those in prison (Matthew 25.36, 39-40). The flourishing church had needed them. The sorely wounded church needed them more.

However, it may well be that as recognised figures who had themselves for years caused no trouble as they went about Jerusalem, they were not in quite the same danger as the Hellenistic Christians. They had after all not drawn down on themselves the wrath of the Hellenistic Jewish synagogues. Yet unquestionably some of the backlash would fall on them, for they could hardly avoid some of the blame resulting from the behaviour of men whom they had appointed to responsible positions in the church. On the other hand the authorities would probably think twice before they actually attacked these twelve men who were so popular among the people because they continually healed and cast out evil spirits. Indeed it is significant that no attempt seems to have been made at this stage to arrest the Apostles themselves.

8.2 ‘And devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him.’

Meanwhile some very brave and devout men obtained the body of Stephen for burial. For ‘devout men’ compare 2.5. They may have been supporters of Stephen, or of those pious Jews who like Joseph of Arimathea sought to disassociate themselves from the acts of their fellow Jews on such occasions (compare Luke 23.50-53), on a similar basis to that of the Jewish women who saw it as their duty to provide wine to executed criminals (Mark 15.23). To make great lamentation over a recognised heretic who had been stoned for blasphemy required great bravery. Public mourning for such was probably even at this time forbidden (as it certainly was later). Thus in ‘coming together to bury’ him they were taking both their reputations and their lives in their hands. But Luke wants us to recognise that Stephen was honoured in his death, and was deeply mourned. For these mourners, whether they knew it or not, were acting on behalf of the whole church. His body was not tossed onto the burning rubbish heap outside Jerusalem in the valley of Hinnom. It was given decent burial. And the man it represented was deeply mourned.

8.3 ‘But Saul laid waste the church, entering into every house, and, dragging men and women, committed them to prison.’

There is a deliberate contrast here. While ‘devout men’ were burying the fiery Stephen, Saul, the equally fiery disciple of Gamaliel, was determined to bury the whole church. Not one to wait around he had followed up his actions at the stoning by seeking authority from the High Priest to act against the new church (26.10; compare 9.2 which confirms that he also later obtained the sanction of the High Priest to go to Damascus). Then taking with him a band of men, possibly temple police, he began to enter the houses of the new people of God and drag men and women to prison. He also arranged for many of them to be examined and beaten in synagogues (22.19) and sought to get them to blaspheme, possibly by cleverly making the simpler Christians say things which they did not understand, but which were seen as blasphemy, or possibly by making them renounce Christ (26.11). It appears that at this stage a number were put to death for blasphemy (26.10). He was a man driven by an awareness that,, with all that he was, it was not good enough for God. He had not done enough to deserve His favour. He must do more.

‘Laid waste, treated shamefully.’ A strong word used of savaging by wild beasts. He was behaving like a wild beast himself. Here was religious zeal in its most twisted form. And yet it was the same zeal that would shortly make him the church’s champion. His behaviour may well have denoted the wrestlings of his own conscience. Men often fight their own doubts by trying violently to prove to themselves that they are right.

8.4 ‘They therefore who were scattered abroad, went about preaching the word.’

The violence and inexorability of the persecution resulted in the scattering abroad of the church. But what seemed to be a setback became an opportunity. God had decided that it was now time for the church to expand. All over Judaea appeared men proclaiming the Kingly Rule of God (verse 12) and the new Messiah (verse 5) and His teaching.

‘Preaching the word.’ Literally ‘proclaiming the good news of the word’.

The Ministry of Philip in Samaria.

One such was Philip who now proclaimed Christ in Samaria where he was well received. As a refugee from persecution in Jerusalem he would be especially welcomed. At this time the Samaritans looked fairly equably on Jews as long as they were not connected with Jerusalem.

The Samaritans were as a whole despised by the Jews as ‘half breed’ Jews, but they too believed in the Law of Moses, having their own version of the Pentateuch, and in general observed the laws of cleanliness. They also awaited a ‘Coming One’, the Taheb, the deliverer, an idea based on Deuteronomy 18.15. Thus they were seen as a kind of half-Jew. While the Pharisees and Sadducees would not want to have dealings with them, they were not seen as total outcasts like the Gentiles, and feelings between Jews and Samaritans rose and fell like a barometer. The impression we have is that at the time of Jesus’ ministry there was a level of tolerance, at least from the Samaritan point of view, as long as the Jew was not involved with Jerusalem (Luke 9.52-53; 10.33; 17.11, 16; John 4). Thus a man who was fleeing from persecution in Jerusalem would be doubly welcome.

They were centred around Shechem, and ‘the city of Samaria’ may be Shechem itself. The chief city of the area was Sebaste, but that was mainly of foreign population. While it is not certain where the Samaritans came from they may well have been made up of a population which resulted partly from the Israelites left in the north after the northern exile, who separated themselves off in order to keep their religion pure, although possibly intermingling with foreigners by marriage, although their exact source is not known. They had at one stage erected their own Temple on Mount Gerizim, but that was destroyed by John Hyrcanus in 2nd century BC, something for which they never forgave Jerusalem. Their feelings about this were indeed so intense that when Herod offered to rebuild their Temple they refused as soon as they learned that he would also be rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple. This brings out their intense hatred of Jerusalem. We learn from the Gospels that once they had learned that Jesus was bound for Jerusalem they had refused to receive Him (Luke 9.52-53), while at a time when He was leaving Jerusalem they welcomed Him gladly (John 4).

However, unknown to Philip these Samaritans held in awe one Simon, who proclaimed himself the Great One, who had continually impressed them with his magic and sorceries. And he held them in his thrall. But now a greater than Simon was to be introduced to them.

8.5 ‘And Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and proclaimed to them the Christ.’

‘He proclaimed to them the Christ.’ The spread of the Good News went further than Judaea, it reached into Samaria. Such an action would have Jesus’ seal of approval on it as all knew (John 4). While Jews might avoid the Samaritans, Jesus had made quite clear that they should be welcomed under the Kingly Rule of God. So Philip boldly went among them proclaiming that the Messiah had come, and calling on them to respond to Him, thus fulfilling the command in 1.8.

‘The city of Samaria.’ It is not quite certain what city this involves. It was almost certainly not Sebaste, the very Romanised capital city of the region filled with foreigners. It might have been Sychar which Jesus had evangelised (John 4) with the article pointing to the city known from Christian tradition, or it may have been Shechem, where the Samaritans were centred, or it may be just be a vague description indicating that he preached in Samaritan cities.

8.6-7 ‘And the multitudes gave heed with one accord to the things which were spoken by Philip, when they heard, and saw the signs which he did. For from many of those who had unclean spirits, they came out, crying with a loud voice, and many who were palsied, and who were lame, were healed.’

His message was supported with signs and wonders beyond anything that they had seen before. Unclean spirits were cast out, and paralysed and lame people were healed. This went beyond anything that Simon could do. Thus they took notice also of Philip’s message, and responded to it.

8.8 ‘And there was much joy in that city.’

Joy was one of the fruits of the new message (2.28; 13.52; 15.3; 20.24 compare Galatians 5.22). The Holy Spirit was already at work.

8.9-11 ‘But there was a certain man, Simon by name, who before that time in the city used sorcery, and amazed the people of Samaria, giving out that he himself was some great one, to whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is that power of God which is called Great.” And they gave heed to him, because that of long time he had amazed them with his sorceries.’

Living among them was a man named Simon who had wooed them with sorcery, and had claimed to be a god-like figure. His powers were such that he had mesmerised the people into following him and calling him ‘the Great One, the Power of God’. In Judaism God was sometimes called ‘the Great One’. But he had clearly been unable to do anything like Philip did. Note that it is repeated twice that he ‘amazed’ the people and that they ‘gave heed’ to him. His grip was strong. But it was not sufficient to prevent them from turning to the Messiah Whom Philip proclaimed. For here they recognised was a greater power.

‘That power of God which is called Great.’ The description may suggest that Luke is quoting his source without fully comprehending what the religious significance of the title was.

Later church history would speak a great deal about a Simon Magus who was a great heretic and was supposed to have founded a Gnostic sect, but there is no certainty that it was this Simon. Simon Magus’ name first occurs in the writings of Justin Martyr, who was himself a Samaritan. But Justin does not make any identification with Acts. His name then occurs in Irenaeus, Hippolytus, the Acts of Peter with Simon, and other fictional works. He may well have been a totally different Simon whose life history became intermingled with this ones, for the Simon here in Acts does seem to be portrayed as becoming a genuine, if somewhat mixed up, believer.

8.12 ‘But when they believed Philip preaching good tidings concerning the kingly rule of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women.’

Philip proclaimed the Kingly Rule of God and the name of Jesus Messiah, and the Samaritans, both men and women, heard and believed, with the result that they were baptised, declaring by this the desire to participate in the new age of the Spirit. But significantly they are portrayed as not ‘receiving the Spirit’. They are in a similar position to those whom John baptised (compare 19.1-6). God is deliberately ensuring that these Samaritans recognise that they are to be seen as one with the ‘Apostolic church’, and, until they are, withholds the new power of the Holy Spirit. They experience the same activity of the Holy Spirit as the disciples of John did (Matthew 21.31-32), but not the full experience of Pentecost. Had this not been the case they might well have seen no need for Apostles from the hated Jerusalem, even if they too were semi-refugees.

8.13 ‘And Simon also himself believed, and being baptised, he continued with Philip, and beholding signs and great miracles wrought, he was amazed.’

‘Also himself believed.’ Simon also believed and was baptised. If there had been any hint when Luke wrote this that his conversion was not genuine, Luke would surely have worded it differently. We must not find ourselves too persuaded by myths and legends just because they are ‘interesting’.

And just as the lame man in the Temple ‘laid hold’ of the Apostles, so Simon ‘continued with’ Philip. And he beheld the signs and great miracles that Philip wrought, and he was amazed. There is a deliberate comparison here with verses 9-11, which stresses how superior Philip was to Simon. The amazer was amazed.

8.14-17 ‘Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for as yet he was fallen on none of them, only they had been baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.’

News of the great work which was taking place in Samaria reached Jerusalem and the Apostles immediately despatched Peter and John in order to confirm the work. It was clear that the Apostles kept closely in touch with all that was happening among the scattered Christians, and sought to oversee it by sending different pairs of Apostles to any place where a work began to gain momentum. They were rightly concerned that the church remain as a unity. But the purpose in their going was to act as a strengthener to Philip, and to confirm the oneness of the people of God, not to replace him. They found Philip a little perplexed. There could be no doubt that these people had believed with all their hearts, but in spite of the fact that they had also been baptised, the signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit were lacking.

When the Apostles heard this they prayed that the believing Samaritans might receive the Holy Spirit. Then they laid their hands on them and the result was that they did receive the Holy Spirit. The laying on of hands is always for the purpose of identification. Here the two Apostles were identifying these people with themselves in the church of God, and with the Jerusalem church, and simultaneously acknowledging Philip’s ministry. This laying on of hands was uniquely important here for it established the oneness between the new Samaritan church and the church in Jerusalem. Compare 13.3 where the laying on of hands was in order to identify Barnabas and Paul as representatives of the church.

Here the result of the laying on of hands was identification, and as prepared vessels, once the identification had take place, the Holy Spirit was received. But we should not see the Holy Spirit as communicated by the laying on of hands (that was Simon’s error). While the Holy Spirit came because of their identification with the church at Jerusalem He did not come from the Apostles, he came from the Baptiser in the Holy Spirit. As we learn of Timothy, his gift came ‘by prophesy and the laying on of the hands of the elders’ (1 Timothy 4.14). It was not just a case of the elders deciding to lay their hands on him. And shortly Cornelius and his colleagues will receive the Spirit without laying on of hands, as the disciples had at Pentecost.

‘Baptised into the Name of the LORD Jesus.’ This is Luke’s equivalent of Matthew 28.19-21. We have to remember in both cases that ‘the Name’ in the Old Testament was YHWH, which in the Greek Old Testament was translated as ‘the LORD’. Thus the Name into which believers are to be baptised in both Matthew and Luke is that of ‘the LORD’, which is why in both cases the baptism is ‘into (eis) the Name’. And although that Name is here defined as ‘the LORD, that is Jesus’, while in Matthew 28.19 it is ‘the Name (i.e. ‘the LORD’ - YHWH) which is the Name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit’, it is in both cases the same name (the LORD - YHWH).

Here, however, because Luke wants us to recognise that ‘the LORD’ can be equated with Jesus, he only connects Jesus with the Name (just as in Philippians 2.9-11 Paul tells us that Jesus has the Name which is above every name, the Name of ‘the LORD’, of ‘Yahweh’). Matthew stresses the equation of the Name (LORD -YHWH) with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But we should take note that this is not just baptism into the name of Jesus, it is baptism into the NAME.

Note on Baptism into the Name.

We should perhaps here list each of the references to baptism as they relate to ‘the Name’.

  • In 28.19 converts are to be baptised ‘into (eis) the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’.
  • In Acts 8.16; 19.5 people were baptised ‘into the Name of the LORD Jesus.’
  • In Acts 2.38 people are to be baptised ‘on (epi) the Name of Jesus Messiah unto forgiveness of our sins.’
  • In Acts 10.48 they are to be baptised ‘in (en) the Name of Jesus Messiah’.
  • In Acts 22.16 Paul is told, ‘arising be baptised and wash away your sins, calling on the Name of the LORD.’

It will be noted that there is a certain consistency here. When eis is used baptism is either into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (which must mean the NAME of YHWH, ‘the LORD’) or is into ‘the Name of the LORD Jesus’. Thus in all three cases emphasis is on ‘the LORD (YHWH)’.

When baptism is related to the Name of Jesus Messiah it is either ‘on’ or ‘in’, and in the case of the former the baptism is ‘into the remission of sins’. But we should here note that the Name of Jesus is said in Philippians 2.9-11 to be the name above every name, the name of LORD (YHWH). So even in these cases baptism is ‘in the LORD’.

End of Note.

At this point something happened which Simon ‘saw’. But there are only very minimal grounds for saying that this was the speaking in tongues. That had occurred only once, and then on an unusual occasion (2.5-11). There was no mention of tongues when the Apostles received the Holy Spirit in John 20.22. Nor has there been mention of tongues since Pentecost. Nor were any of the Samaritans likely to have needed the evidence of ‘other tongues’. They all spoke Aramaic. Thus what Simon saw may have been a new abounding joy (13.52), expressions of tumultuous praise, and spiritual prophesying (19.6). What Simon saw was the burgeoning of their new faith which found expression in exalted praise and worship beyond the norm, gifts which would ensure the maintenance of the church once Philip had left them.

Note.

This interesting passage destroys all attempts to tie God’s activity in with man’s ordinances. The Holy Spirit came neither on their being baptised, nor on their first believing. Nor is He said to have been manifested in tongues. What then does it reveal? It reveals that God gives the Holy Spirit as He wills. This is not referring to being born of the Spirit, which comes as a result of believing, but seemingly rather refers to the special indwelling of the Holy Spirit by which we become part of His body, and of His Temple, the new special gift at Pentecost. At Pentecost it had come on those already born of the Spirit, and even on those who had ‘received the Holy Spirit’ in the Upper Room. And this, like that, was an unusual circumstance. It was at a time when the unity of the church as one had to be maintained. God did not want a fellowship of Samaritan believers which was not in fellowship with the fellowship of Jerusalem believers. (As we have seen the Samaritans hated Jerusalem. But now that they had learned that the church in Jerusalem were almost as hated in Jerusalem as they were, it was a different matter). Thus he ensured that the Samaritans recognised that their blessing only came once they were in fellowship with the church in Jerusalem.

End of note.

8.18-19 ‘Now when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power, that on whoever I lay my hands, he may receive the Holy Spirit.” ’

Simon had possibly gained great wealth by training up disciples and enabling them to practise what he practised, and he had probably himself also bought information on how to perform sorcery from other practitioners. (Many wonder workers travelled around the Roman world practising their arts, amazing people by their tricks, and in some cases genuinely believing that they had some supernatural power, and it was no doubt standard practise to charge for expertise). Thus when he saw that the Apostles were able to give the Holy Spirit simply by the laying on of hands, a gift which manifested itself in the exalting of men’s hearts to God, he naturally assumed that their ability could be bought and paid for. Here were wonder workers on a large scale. He therefore probably offered them a great deal of money. To his mind this was something worth having. He would not think that he was acting against God. Did he not want the gift so that he could serve God? But where he failed was in not recognising that God came under no man’s control. He had to be delivered from his mind set. He had to learn that what God gave was free for all who would rightly believe, and not within man’s control.

In the idolatrous world priesthoods could be bought and sold, along with the supposed influences that they exerted on the gods. And it is salutary to think that had he approached a much later church they would gladly have given him what they thought was this gift in return for money and submission to them. Like Simon the later church would try to control God’s activity and make it subject to their will. But in what happened to Simon here all future ‘sacerdotal priesthood’ is condemned. That had failed miserably in the Old Testament era. Now God gave freely and with no strings attached, in cooperation with those who were truly devoted to Him, because of the sacrifice offered once for all in Jesus Christ.

8.20-21 ‘But Peter said to him, “Your silver perish with you, because you have thought to obtain the gift of God with money. You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God.”

Peter replied in his usual forthright manner. The man who had had to declare, ‘silver and gold have I none’ (3.6) now revealed it for what it was. What Simon had done put him in danger of perishing, and his silver along with him. He was revealing himself as being totally earthly minded with no understanding of the things of the Spirit, and as thinking that he could barter and control the things of God. This revealed a heart that was not right in God’s eyes.

‘Your silver perish with you.’ Literally ‘may your silver be for destruction along with you.’ Similar curse formulae have been found among pagan magical papyri. It was clearly a recognised form of curse. However, Peter does not intend it as a definite curse but as a warning, and a reminder that the imperishable cannot be purchased with the perishable. If he does not repent the curse will stand.

‘You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God.’ (For the phraseology compare Deuteronomy 12.12). Peter is stressing that no one can have any part or lot in spiritual things unless their hearts are right in the sight of God. Without that all attempts to convey spiritual gifts or enjoy spiritual gifts would be in vain. The spiritual is only available to spiritual men (compare 1 Corinthians 2.9-16).

8.22-23 “Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray the Lord, if perhaps the thought of your heart shall be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.”

He therefore calls on him to have a full and genuine change of heart and mind on the matter, and to pray to God for forgiveness for the thought of his heart. But forgiveness would only be his if he truly had a change of heart, sufficient to satisfy God. No glib repentance would be acceptable.

‘I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.’ ‘The gall of bitterness.’ This has in mind Deuteronomy 29.18 where the man who in reality has a root in himself which bears gall and bitter wormwood, blesses himself in his heart because he thinks that he can have peace even though he walks in the imagination of his own heart. He deceives himself into thinking that God will overlook his rebelliousness. This was precisely what Simon was doing. ‘The bond of iniquity.’ Compare ‘loose the bonds of wickedness ‘ in Isaiah 58.6. Simon too must loose the bond of wickedness by genuine repentance.

(We note here that Peter does not suggest that he has the power to forgive sins, but rather the opposite. If he is to be forgiven God must forgive him).

8.24 ‘And Simon answered and said, “You pray for me to the Lord, that none of the things which you have spoken come on me.” ’

Simon then pleads with Peter to pray that none of these things come on him. He probably did not know the context of Peter’s quotations but recognised that they spelt awful calamity. Nothing is further said about the incident. This leaving an incident in mid-air is typical of the Bible elsewhere. When Scripture leaves something in the air like this it usually signifies that what was spoken of followed. Thus we have the right here to assume that Peter did pray for him, and that he was forgiven. He was after all new in the faith and had needed his thinking sorting out, and deliverance from what had previously gripped him. And his request for their assistance in prayer was understandable in the light of Peter’ strong language. He wanted Peter to remove the ‘curse’ he had put on him. And we may assume that as Luke remains silent on the matter he intends us to see that that is what happened.

Looking back at the New Testament we forget that many new converts had no background in the things of God. While the ministry was to Jews or even to Samaritans they had the background of the Law to call on, but Gentiles and men like Simon had no background in the word of God. Their thinking was fashioned by the pagan world around them. Thus when they were converted their first faltering steps would often reveal them to be at fault. Simon was no exception. The point therefore here is that he learned a valuable lesson which would hopefully completely alter his way of thinking, and was also a salutary lesson for all who would read Luke’s words.

8.25 ‘They therefore, when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, returned to Jerusalem, and preached the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.’

Then once Peter and John, impressed by the work among Samaritans, had further ministered to them and to Samaritans in other villages, they returned to Jerusalem, being satisfied that all was being done rightly. Meanwhile they also themselves took the opportunity to proclaim the Good News to many Samaritan villages. They approved of Philip’s ministry and desired to extend it. In view of the fact that they had been with Jesus at Sychar (John 4) they could hardly do any other.

And thus was healed by the message of Christ the first great division known to the Apostles, the division between Jew and Samaritan. Here was an outward declaration of the success of the ministry of reconciliation. Jews from Jerusalem and Samaritans from Samaria were seen as having fellowship as one. It could never have happened without Christ. But there is a subsidiary question. Could it ever have happened unless there had been persecution in Jerusalem? God knew precisely what He was doing.

The Ministry of Philip To The Ethiopian Eunuch (8.26-39).

Meanwhile God was now satisfied that the Samaritan church was sufficiently equipped to carry on and He calls Philip elsewhere to where there is a lonely searching soul. It was to a man, and a very important one, who had been visiting Jerusalem but was still unsatisfied. He held a high position under the queen of ‘Ethiopia’ (Nubia), and was at the minimum a God-fearer, a man who respected the Jewish Law and, without being ready to be circumcised (possibly prevented in his case by the fact that he was a eunuch), worshipped in the local synagogue along with the Jews. He may even have been a proselyte or a true-born Nubian Jew. If he was a God-fearer this would be the first known overt example of a Gentile coming to Christ, an indication by God of what was to come.

This is not just to be seen as an interesting account of an unusual conversion. It is an integral part of the depiction of the spreading of the Good News as a result of the persecution. It is made clear that, through Philip, God, having worked through him to the north of Jerusalem among Samaritans, now purposed through him to wing the Good News to North Africa, to the south of Jerusalem (‘to Samaria and to the uttermost part of the earth’ - 1.8).

As the Ethiopian high official travelled he was reading the book of Isaiah. To possess such a document demonstrated both how devout, and how wealthy and influential he was. And his heart was taken up with the description of the Servant of God that he found described there (Isaiah 53), a description which he found very puzzling, so that he looked to God for help. But there was no one who could explain it to him. Until from the desert a man came, almost like an angel from Heaven. Luke undoubtedly wishes us to see here that the Temple and all the glory of Jerusalem had been able to accomplish nothing, while light and truth came to him from the wilderness, just as Stephen had said (7.38, 44-49). And as he went back to Nubia his thoughts were now not on the Temple at Jerusalem, but on the Messiah to Whom he had been introduced in the wilderness.

8.26 ‘But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, “Arise, and go toward the south to the way which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. The same is desert.’

The ‘angel of the Lord’ tells Philip that he must rise and go south towards ancient Gaza, a city slightly inland which, in contrast with new port of Gaza, was mainly in ruins. It was on the road from Jerusalem to Egypt. And on the way which led there, in a place where the land tended to be deserted, he would learn what he must do. The description ‘the bit which is desert’ probably indicated a well know place on that road at the time. That the man was to be found there indicated pictorially the thirst that possessed his soul. Or it may mean that the old Gaza was like a desert, ‘Gaza the deserted’ (in contrast with ‘maritime Gaza’). Either way there is the hint that the man’s soul was needing ‘water’ and that his salvation would come from the wilderness, as had the living oracles and Tabernacle of old (7.38, 44-49).

‘An angel of the Lord.’ In the Old Testament ‘the angel of the Lord’ appears throughout, from Genesis to Zechariah, as representing God Himself in a kind of extended self. The description often indicates the actual appearance of Him in discernible form, but is regularly used of God making a communication with a specific person. Here it may simply be indicating that Philip was so conscious of a presence with him that he thought in such terms, something which went beyond his usual experience of the Holy Spirit.

8.27-28 ‘And he arose and went, and behold, a man of Ethiopia, a high official (or ‘eunuch’) of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was over all her treasure, who had come to Jerusalem to worship, was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah.’

Obediently Philip arose and went. And there in the place described he found a large and richly laden caravan travelling along the road, with, included within it, a splendid chariot or covered ox wagon, carrying someone who was clearly of great importance. He was to learn that the man came from Nubia, where he had overall control of the ‘Ethiopian’ treasury on behalf of the queen. He was her Minister of Finance. And he had visited Jerusalem in order to worship there.

Many such God-fearers sought at some time to make the trip to Jerusalem where they could be at the very heart of the religion that they respected and adhered to. To many it would be the trip of a lifetime, and they would remember their first glorious view of the Temple, the richly garbed High Priest, and the high emotional and religious atmosphere for ever. But it had probably not fulfilled all his expectations. Being the influential person he was he would probably have had personal contact with the hierarchy and may well have been shocked by their worldliness and political ambitions, having dreamed of meeting men of deep spirituality. He had had such hopes. He might well have been disillusioned. Thus as he left there he had in his heart a yearning for something more, and hungry of soul he was reading the Scriptures. Little did he realise that soon there would approach him a refugee fleeing from the High Priest, but who was the representative of the Angel of the Lord, and he would get to the root of his dilemma.

‘A high official/eunuch of great authority.’ Many men of high position were eunuchs, for it made them safe to be among the women of the court, and not a threat to the throne by producing children. And this man was of high position indeed. But if he was a eunuch it could only make him feel inferior in his relationship to the God of Judaism, for eunuchs were seen as restricted in their approach to God (Deuteronomy 23.1 as interpreted in 1st century AD). It may, however, be that the term here simply means ‘high court official’, as it often does.

‘Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.’ Or more probably of those in the region of Upper Nubia. ‘Candace’ would be her throne name. Nubian women rulers bearing this title during the Hellenistic period are well attested in ancient literature. She ruled on behalf of her son who as the child of the sun god was considered too ‘holy’ to be involved in mundane affairs. Her real name may have been Amanitare

8.29 ‘And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go near, and join yourself to this chariot.” ’

It was quite normal for solitary travellers to join themselves up with a travelling caravan for safety reasons, and so Philip’s approach would neither be resented nor suspected. Others would be walking with the caravan. But Philip knew that God had sent him here for a purpose, and sensing the prompting of the Spirit, he recognised that he had to approach The Man himself. Thus he attached himself to his conveyance and ran alongside.

8.30 ‘And Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” ’

The man was following the usual practise of reading aloud. And when Philip gathered that he was reading a well known passage in the prophet Isaiah he asked him whether he understood what he was reading. This was clearly intended to give the impression that he could help. Such a high personage would not expect some stranger to come up just for a chat.

8.31 ‘And he said, “How can I, except some one will guide me?” And he begged Philip to come up and sit with him.’

When the man saw that he was a Jew, and assumed from what he had said that he was also a teacher in the Scriptures who was offering assistance, he expressed his own helplessness and his need for a guide. And he begged Philip to join him in his chariot and explain it to him.

8.32-33 ‘Now the passage of the Scripture which he was reading was this, “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; And as a lamb before his shearer is dumb, So he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation his judgment was taken away. His generation who shall declare? For his life is taken from the earth.” ’

The passage he was reading came from Isaiah 53 LXX, the main chapter about the Suffering Servant. To seek, as some have done, to rid this quotation of its sacrificial significance is frankly incredible. A lamb led to the slaughter in the context of Isaiah 53 would for any Christian be a sacrificial lamb (compare John 1.29; 1 Corinthians 5.7). And all lambs led to the slaughter within the vicinity of Jerusalem had to be offered on the altar. Besides these were simply the verses that Philip heard him reading. Prior to Philip’s approach he would have read the previous verses. It is so extremely unlikely as to be impossible that in the context Philip would only expound on the verses he had heard him read, and avoid mentioning the verses he had previously read.

In context the picture expressed here is of One spoken of as being led like a sacrificial lamb to His death, having been wrongly judged, but silent like a sheep before his shearers in the face of his humiliation, with the result that His life was taken from the earth. And in the context this both refers back to His sufferings on behalf of ‘us’ (53.4-5) and His having laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53.6), and forward to His being made a guilt offering for sin (Isaiah 53.10). Scholars and the Ethiopian official may have had difficulty with these verses but we doubt whether either Philip or Luke had (see Luke 22.37).

8.34 ‘And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, “I pray you, of whom is the prophet saying this? Of himself, or of some other?” ’

The eunuch was neither the first nor the last to be puzzled by these verses. But he was astute enough to recognise that the words were about some individual. But who? That was what he wanted to know. Was it the prophet himself, or was it speaking of someone else?

8.35 ‘And Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture, preached to him Jesus.’

Then Philip took the chapter he had been reading and applied it to Jesus, and his explanation on this chapter is stated to have been only the ‘beginning’. We do not know how long his explanation went on for, but he had plenty of time in which to tell him of the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, and to draw attention to how it fulfilled the Scriptures, and to mention some of the teaching of Jesus contained in the tradition of the church, including such words as Mark 10.45, ‘the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many’ (compare Acts 20.28), applying it all to Isaiah 53 and other Old Testament Scriptures. The man was on a long and wearisome journey and Philip, having been sent here by God, had all the time in the world.

Much has been made by some of a suggestion that Luke fails in general to draw attention to the atoning significance of the cross. But this is in fact not a strictly accurate assessment of his writings, for there are certainly a number of occasions when he demonstrates that the atonement underwrites what he says. Some of these are as follows:

  • 1) Coming to the end of his Gospel he cites, ‘This is my body which is given for you’ and speaks about ‘the new covenant in His blood’ (Luke 22:19-20), the latter a reference with clear sacrificial and atoning significance (see Exodus 24.8; Zechariah 9.11). He would know that any ancient Israelite sacrifice, even a covenant sacrifice, included an atoning element. So Jesus had clearly there offering Himself as an atonement.
  • 2) In Luke 22.37 he specifically cites the words of Isaiah 53.12, ‘he was reckoned among the transgressors’ as referred by Jesus to Himself, and the atoning significance of this idea in the context of Isaiah could hardly be overlooked. Jesus was not just saying that He would be hung between two thieves, He was indicating the depths of what He was to face on behalf of others.
  • 3) In Luke 24.46-47 he informs us that Jesus pointed out that ‘the Messiah should suffer, and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all the nations’ (Luke 24.46-47). Here the ideas of His death and resurrection are connected with the possibility of forgiveness being available.

    So his whole Gospel is given atoning significance by these references (we would not really expect the body of the Gospel to contain much in the way of atoning references because it was only during and after the death of Jesus that such a significance was fully understandable).

  • 4) In Luke 23-24 he describes in full detail the events leading up to Jesus’ death and burial, an emphasis which can only confirm that he sees Jesus death as very significant, and when seen in the light of 1) to 3) above, atoning.
  • 5) In Acts itself he writes in 20.28 of the church of God as having been ‘purchased with His own blood’. Here he goes right to the heart of redemption, paralleling Mark 10.45.
  • 6) While he might not have seen the presentation of the doctrine of the atonement as his main purpose, except generally in his emphasis on the cross to which he devotes two chapters in Luke, in Acts he certainly proclaims that it is through the death and resurrection of Jesus that men find life (2.23-24, 33, 38)
  • 7) In 13.29-30 with 37-39 he declares that the death and resurrection of Christ are the means of men’s justification apart from the Law, and this in preaching which offered eternal life (13.46).
  • 8) In 15.10-11 he emphasises that salvation is by the grace of God and not through circumcision and legalism (15.10-11).

Furthermore in many other places the connection with atonement is simply assumed. Thus we can confidently say that while Luke does not put a great stress on the atonement, for that was not his purpose, he does make clear that it lies behind all he says. He tends to let his sources speak for him, but indicates that he is not shy of the atonement put in its baldest terms (20.28).

Luke thus undoubtedly would recognise that Philip not only proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, but did so in the context of atonement. That is the reason for mentioning Isaiah 53 at all. He was introducing Jesus as the Man of Sorrows and Saviour of the world.

8.36 ‘And as they went on the way, they came to a certain water, and the eunuch says, “Look, here is water. What hinders me from being baptised?’

The eunuch accepts Philip’s explanation, given by the power of the Spirit, as convincing and seeing an abundant spring of water with its surrounding pond he asks why, in that case, he might not baptised. Philip’s explanation would have included reference to baptism.

A later copier, seized with the idea of the need at baptism for a confession of faith, or possibly finding a marginal note to that effect which he felt must be a part of the text, adds here, ‘and Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart you may”, and he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God”.’ (Compare 9.20; 1 John 4.15; 5.5). The words are undoubtedly an addition but the intent is right. Philip would hardly have baptised the eunuch without being convinced of the genuineness of his faith.

8.37-38 ‘And he commanded the chariot to stand still. And they both went down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch, and he baptised him.’

Knowing that God had specifically sent him here, and seeing and hearing the man’s response, Philip could see no objection. So the conveyance was brought to a halt, and climbing down they went into the water and Philip baptised the eunuch. Here it is made quite clear that baptism has to be performed by a baptiser. This is never so in Jewish ritual cleansings, demonstrating that this is not a ritual cleansing but a portrayal of the pouring out like rain of the Holy Spirit in rivers bringing life and fruitfulness (see note on 22.16).

8.39 ‘And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, and the eunuch saw him no more, for he went on his way rejoicing.’

The baptism completed it is made clear here that Philip was seen as having fully accomplished his mission. He was ‘snatched away’ by the Spirit. This need not mean on the instant of leaving the water, but certainly soon afterwards. The verb is used in the New Testament to signify ‘take by force’, ‘snatch away’, sometimes ‘take up’ (into heaven) It certainly forcibly indicates that Philip’s work was complete. He was no longer needed. The eunuch must now be left in God’s hands. Many therefore read it as a miraculous removal. But it need not necessarily signify a miracle, and thus others see it as signifying a forcible impression of the Spirit that made him go on his way immediately. But either way a life had been transformed and the eunuch went on his way rejoicing. Note again the connection of the work of the Spirit with rejoicing. Here was the evidence of the genuineness of his experience.

‘When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip.’ This may well be intended deliberately to imply that the Spirit was first present with them in the water. The suggestion may be that the Spirit had come on them both in the water, and that once they reached dry land the Spirit then constrained Philip to be immediately on his way, his task completed, (or it may even possibly mean ‘snatched him away’ as He had once with Ezekiel), while He sent the eunuch on his way rejoicing. That the snatching away follows the pattern of Ezekiel might be seen as supported by the unusual phrase ‘Spirit of the Lord’ with its Old Testament connotations, rather than ‘Holy Spirit’. (One ancient manuscript, A, reads, ‘the Holy Spirit fell on the eunuch, but the angel of the Lord caught away Philip’, but that is probably rather an interpretation. It does, however, demonstrate how the passage was early interpreted).

‘Went on his way rejoicing.’ Rejoicing is constantly an evidence of the work of the Spirit and this was intended to demonstrate that the Ethiopian Minister of Finance was truly converted and full of the Spirit. He had, of course, a solid background of knowing God’s Law, he had his copy of Isaiah, and may well also have had more Old Testament scrolls, and he had been given a thorough grounding in how those applied to Jesus the Messiah. And equally importantly he had the Holy Spirit with him, and would almost certainly find in Nubia other believers who had been converted on trips to Jerusalem. We are undoubtedly intended to gather that he would go back to his synagogue and his people with the new message, and the word would spread in Nubia.

The Ministry of Philip in Judaea (8.40).

8.40 ‘But Philip was found at Azotus, and passing through he preached the gospel to all the cities, till he came to Caesarea.’

Philip now moved on to the third phase of his ministry. He had established the work of God among the Samaritans, he had converted a man who would evangelise Nubia, now he moved back into Judaea and evangelised among the Jews, preaching the Gospel ‘to all the cities’ from Azotus (formerly Ashdod) along the coast to Caesarea. These cities would include Jamnia, Joppa, and Apollonia. On arrival at Caesarea he probably made his base there, for that was where he was later found as an evangelist (21.8). It was of mixed Jewish and Gentile population and the seat of Roman government, and presented great opportunities for evangelism.

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.

Saul’s Experience on the Damascus Road (9.1-19).

9.1-2 ‘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 (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 (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 19.9, 23; 22.4; 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 26.7-8; 30.21; 42.16; 43.19; 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 6.1-2). The use of the ‘the Lord’ of Jesus occurs from the beginning in 1.6, 21, 24; 2.34, 36, 47; 4.33; 7.59; 8.16, and also possibly in other places where ‘the Lord’ is spoken of referring to God..

9.3-4 ‘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; Psalm 27.1; 78.14; 104.2; Isaiah 2.5; Exodus 19.18; 24.17; 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; 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; 3.19; 8.12; 9.5; 12.35-36, 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.

9.5-6 ‘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 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; 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 (2.38; 5.31; 13.38; Luke 24.47; Mark 1.4) and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in me (20.32; John 17.17; Matthew 5.5; 22.1-14; 25.34).” He was being commissioned to fulfil the work of the Servant in Isaiah 49.6, compare Acts 13.47.

9.7 ‘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 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 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.

9.8 ‘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.

9.9 ‘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).

9.10 ‘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.

9.11-12 ‘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 (16.25; 20.36; 22.17). Compare also of Jesus - Luke 3.21; 6.12;9.18, 28;11.1; 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.

9.13-14 ‘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’ (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 9.32, 41; 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.

9.15-16 ‘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.

9.17 ‘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.

9.18-19 ‘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.

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.

9.20 ‘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; 2.20; 4.4, 6; Romans 1.3, 4, 9; 5.10; 8.3, 29, 32; 1 Corinthians 1.9; 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 (Psalm 2.7; 89.26; Matthew 16.16; 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 (9.27; 17.7, 18; 19.13; 20.21; 28.23, 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 13.33), Saul does consistently argue for Jesus' Messiahship and constantly stresses that he is the only source of salvation (13.23; 16.31; 17.3; 18.5; 19.4; 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.

9.21 ‘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?

9.22 ‘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 (verse 31).

9.23-25 ‘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).

9.26 ‘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.

9.27 ‘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 (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.

9.28 ‘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.

9.29 ‘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 (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.

9.30 ‘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 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.

9.31 ‘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 (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.

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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- PSALMS 1-50--- ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS

Philip,Samaria,Simon,Magus,Ethiopian,Eunuch,Damascus,Road,
conversion,Paul,Ananias,Aeneas,Lydda,Tabitha,Dorcas,Joppa,
Stephen,martyr,pentecost,problems,questions,speeches,
Servant,Holy,One,Righteous,man,prince,life,blotted,out,
holy,prophets,Sadducees,Jerusalem,council,Gentiles,kings,
earth,anointed,Annas,high,priest,Herod,Pontius,Pilate,wonders,
signs,prison,Temple,Saviour,Gamaliel,Pharisee,Hellenist,Hellenistic,
Grecian,Jews,Hebrews,Acts,Apostles,Luke,accuracy,reliability,
peter,pett,Jesus,Messiah,Stephen,James,John,Peter,faith,
facts,repent,Holy,Spirit,Apostles,God,Christ,Jesus,Lord,
Baptiser,Baptist,Psalms,Pentecost,man,kingly,rule,heaven,
kingdom,God,Heaven