Acts 1:8 provides the project from Jesus to the eleven: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit was poured out in commencement of a new era in the work of God in this world: the Spirit was not limited to people in special offices such as the prophet, priest and king but that all who believe in the name of Jesus would be saved and receive the Holy Spirit. Peter proclaimed the name of Jesus first in Jerusalem and thousands believed his message.
The church grew and the apostles organised 7 men to look after the distribution of money to those in need in the church. These were godly men filled with the Holy Spirit. When Stephen, one of the seven, was persecuted and stoned to death, the church scattered from Jerusalem and into the world. Philip, one of the seven, went to Samaria and preached the word there and the disciples came to investigate and preach also. Philip also took the gospel message to an Ethiopian man by the power of the Spirit. So, the Acts 1:8 plan was being fulfilled.
While Stephen was stoned to death in chapter 7, we are told that a young man named Saul looked on and minded the persecutors’ coats (Acts 7:58) and he “approved of their killing him” (Acts 8:1). While chapter 8 explores what happens as a result of church persecution, chapter 9 returns to the character of Saul.
Chapter 9 opens with the fiery hate of Saul aimed at the growing disciples of the Lord: members of “the Way”.
- 1-2 – The hatred of Saul against the Way
- 1-9 – Saul’s vision with Jesus
- 10-16 – Ananias’ vision with Jesus
- 17-19 – Saul is born again!
- 20-22 – Saul’s gift for preaching
- 23-25 – Saul’s own persecution
- 26-30 – The apostles’ embrace Saul
- 31 – A time of peace and strengthening for the followers of Jesus.
Verses 1-2 The hatred of Saul against the Way
“Meanwhile” – the persecution against the followers of Jesus did not cease while the happenings of chapter 8 occurred. Saul’s energy was being spent in direct opposition and was not taking a break – it seems he was just getting started!
“…against the Lord’s disciples…who belonged to the Way…” Little gems like this are easy to miss because we might forget that “the church” was still in its infancy and actually still operating as a unity within Judaism rather than as a church-plant. How would Saul find the followers of Jesus? Would he go to their church? No, he would approach the Jewish community both in Jerusalem and in Damascus and seek them out. But! How would he recognise them? He is looking for people who have believed that Jesus is Lord. They are the Lord’s disciples – apparently referred to as members of “the Way”.
Saul had hate for anybody who placed Jesus in the position of God. It was blasphemy to him. People who mingled among Jews calling Jesus Lord and calling Jesus the Way the Truth and the Life ought to, according to Saul, be locked up in prison.
“breathing out murderous threats.” The NIV translation is fine but a clunkier translation might read “still breathing threat and murder toward the disciples of the Lord.” I think the nuance here is that he was openly threatening the disciples even with murder. They were not just empty words but full of literal intent.
Saul had absolute disgust and violent feelings toward Jesus and anyone associated with him. To Saul, they were a plague.
Verses 3-9 Saul’s vision with Jesus
This little section begins with Saul ready and able to take down the disciples in Damascas (he had successfully scattered them out of Jerusalem) and ends with Saul disabled. What changed him? – the voice of the Lord!
When Jesus speaks with Saul, he reasons with him. I’ve spoken to a man who claims to have had amazing visions and signs from God but he was only ever left with impressions of God’s power and holiness (a bit like Ezekiel). When Saul has an encounter with the ascended Jesus, he appeals to Saul’s reason. “Why?” asks Jesus, “are you persecuting me?”
Notice how bound up we are to Jesus. He is our Lord and the Way and we are his body. Saul experienced first hand what it means to attack the body of Christ. Jesus is not saying that he loves these disciples so much that he’s willing to look out for them – he is saying that when you attack them, you attack Christ.
There was a light and a voice from heaven which Saul saw and heard. Those travelling with him heard something but did not see what Saul saw. Did they hear the voice and the conversation? That is not clear and the point is that the voice was directed to Saul. Jesus confirms that Saul is not fighting against a heresy but against the very Word of God. “The Way”, that Saul was fuming against, was not a band of new thinkers but the product of God’s mission into the world – they were followers of the Truth.
Saul is left speechless, sightless and unable or willing to eat for three days. He quite effectively experiences a death before his resurrection to new life with Christ – something he will say we all do according to Romans 6:1-4. On the third day, he would receive sight!
10-16 – Ananias’ vision with Jesus
Ananias means “Yahweh has dealt graciously”. Names are sometimes just names but imagine how Saul might have understood the events of the past few days when received and healed by a man named Ananias. This man, living in Damascas, was the very one Saul was charged to hunt down and put in prison, but now, Ananias is charged by God to find Saul and restore his sight.
“In a vision.” God has communicated to people in this world through visions right through the bible. This does not mean that He did this daily and to everybody. The bible is full of unusual events. It is worth noting that the New Testament does not instruct us to look out for visions from God, but it does command us to listen to the Word of God. Saul was to become one of the great writers of the New Testament so that we could hear God’s voice and know how we must live.
“This man is my chosen instrument.” God is a great story teller. While there was a man in Damascas named Ananias who was already a faithful disciple of the Lord and who was willing to listen to the voice of God and respond in obedience – that man was not the one God chose to proclaim His name to the Gentiles and kings and people of Israel – effectively the world! No, God’s choice was the very man who, at the beginning of the narrative, hated Jesus and everybody who calls on His name. Abraham was an old and childless man when called by God to be the father of many. Moses was a reluctant, stammering murderer when he was called to lead the people of Israel to freedom. David had no mighty look about him like Saul did when God set him apart to be the man after his own heart. The disciples were just fishermen and Galileans. Mary and Joseph were poor. While we have a tendancy to raise up and train the “right” people for God’s work – God chooses the weak and foolish to do his work (1 Cor 1:27).
“I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” In doing the work of God, Saul will be taking up his cross to follow. Two heresies are debunked by the conversion of Saul: 1) that God saves those who are seeking him – Saul was actively fighting the true God – and 2) that God saves people to bless them in this life – well, it depends on how you define or view blessing. The Christian walk is not for the faint hearted. Saul’s mission especially was to fight the good fight and run the race to the end and experience much suffering throughout. See 2 Corinthians 11:23-33 for Paul’s recital of his life of suffering for Christ.
17-19 – Saul is born again!
“Brother Saul” – here is the great thing about these verses: Ananias immediately calls Saul his brother! The Lord had conveyed quite clearly to Ananias that Saul was one of His. Who is Ananias to label Saul as anything other than a brother. He could have gone sheepishly to Saul and opened his eyes and then waited nervously to see if Saul would retaliate with hate, but he acts in faith that this man has been saved by God. Saul’s eyes are healed and he receives the Holy Spirit, he is baptised and then remains in the presence of the disciples for several days. Saul has been called out of darkness and into God’s wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9).
20-22 – Saul’s gift for preaching
Saul had the knowledge of the scriptures to argue that Jesus is the Son of God. He didn’t just speak from ignorance but from his knowledge and understanding. The difference in Saul’s mind is that he now sees that Jesus is the Messiah. The scriptures that Saul knew contained all the information that he needed for “proving that Jesus is the Messiah.”
23-25 – Saul’s own persecution
The persecution that Saul set out to hand to the disciples in Damascus is now being dealt out on him. Perhaps the Jews could not take him legally within the walls of Damascus, but outside the walls, he was anyone’s?
Note that in only days (although many but not so many that it would be called months!) Saul had gathered his own disciples! In verse 25 it was his own followers that lowered him down in a basket outside a wall. His impact for the gospel had been great. These may have been new converts or simply disciples who saw that Saul had depth of knowledge and passion for Christ that they wished to learn from. It should be noted that we are called to be disciple makers too (Matthew 28:19-20).
Saul was led down the wall in a basket. He would later refer to this moment as a key example of how his life was no longer great in the eyes of the world – if he is going to boast, then he will boast in the persecution and suffering that he has endured for Christ (2 Cor 11).
26-30 – The apostles’ embrace Saul
Saul’s reputation in Jerusalem was great and it took a little convincing for the disciples there to receive him. It was Barnabas, meaning one who encourages, who speaks for Saul to the disciples. It was the evidence that Saul had “preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus” that convinced the disciples that Saul was now one of them. This is the place of testing for all humanity – how you receive and talk of Jesus. Only the saved will boast of his Lordship and demonstrate that they truly believe this.
This narrative has come full circle, almost. The hater of the disciples has now become one of their key members. The one who sort to kill them is now being saved by them as they lead him out of persecution back to his home town of Tarsus.
31 – A time of peace and strengthening for the followers of Jesus.
The people of “the Way” are described as the church in this verse. See 5:11; 8:1, 3. They were the gathering of disciples and experienced peace and strengthening at the end of chapter 9. The church increased in number through this time of peace. Many have said that it takes persecution to grow a church, and there is truth in that! But here we see a time of peace and still growth. The ingredients was 1) living in the fear of the Lord and 2) encouraged by the Holy Spirit.
Living in the fear of the Lord – not to be confused with being terrified of God – this expression refers to those who treat God with awe and respect. He is our creator and King – not buddy and equal. We are saved by Jesus from judgement – we must remember that judgement is part of the message of the gospel. Living in the fear of the Lord is expressed in holy living and loving as God has first loved us. The opposite of fearing the Lord is to disregard his authority and live loosely in the presumption of his love.
Encouraged by the Holy Spirit – The task of the Holy Spirit, as described by Jesus, is to lead us into truth and to convict the world that Jesus is Lord. The Spirit does that secretly in the hearts and minds of believers and He does it blatantly through the reading of his word (2 Timothy 3:15-17). We must not think that the Holy Spirit is a whimsical experience that comes and goes like a party trick. He is our constant councilor to show us that Jesus is Lord and redeemer. Our encouragement from the Holy Spirit is through knowledge and conviction over the matter of Jesus. The Spirit sets our eyes on the King and the hope of our future.
“This man is my chosen instrument.” Christ chose Saul. Christ confronted Saul. Christ enlightened Saul. Christ put Saul to work. Saul became an instrument for Christ’s mission – his passion and drive was redirected from the powers of darkness and to the gospel of light. Ephesians 2:4-10 come to mind.
4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
- Examine in your heart who you think God is unable to save. Do you feel like there are people who are out of God’s reach? How does this passage convict you to change your mind?
- How has God been preparing you all of your life for his service? God didn’t give Saul a sudden depth of knowledge of the scriptures but drew on years and years of his knowledge to show him how it is applied now to Jesus. Are there ways that God has been shaping you from birth for a certain task for his kingdom?
- The disciples in Jerusalem lived in fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit. Consider how you can adopt these two approaches to life – a right and healthy view of Jesus and the growth in knowledge and understanding that comes by the Holy Spirit.