Studies in the Book of Acts
Paul is now preaching the very things about Jesus that he persecuted others for saying. Naturally, the unconverted Jews are astonished at the almost unbelievable turnaround in Paul’s attitude toward Jesus and the church. The man who was the sworn enemy of the Christians is now preaching Jesus. Luke records the bewilderment of those who hear him: “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” (9:21).
But Paul grows more powerful in his preaching and baffles “the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah” (9:22). The verb “proving” used here literally means “placing together,” “bringing together,” or “comparing.” That is, Paul is placing Old Testament references to the Messiah with each other — and alongside their fulfillment in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. This placing together is meant to lead Jews to see Jesus as the one who fulfilled what the Scriptures say about their hoped-for Messiah.
Paul escapes (9:23-25)
It is only a matter of time before Paul becomes the target of persecution. Luke tells us that after Paul preaches for “many days” in Damascus, the Jews conspire to kill him (9:23). Paul somehow learns of the plot, but getting out of the city will be difficult. Jewish spies are watching the city gates night and day in hopes of spotting Paul and killing him. But the disciples devise a plan of escape. “His followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall” (9:25; see also 2 Corinthians 11:33). Houses were often part of the city wall, and their upper-floor windows opened to the outside of the city. This is apparently what Luke means by “an opening in the wall” (9:25). Note that Paul now has “followers” — he had become a leader in the Damascene Christian community and probably led a number of people to faith in Jesus.
Paul’s preaching in Damascus and his escape take place “after many days had gone by” (9:23). In Galatians, Paul gives a more exact time, saying the escape and his first trip to Jerusalem occur three years after his conversion (1:18). Paul also adds something to Luke’s story of his escape in another letter. The extra details show the extent of the conspiracy against him. He said that “the governor under King Aretas” had Damascus guarded (2 Corinthians 11:32-33). This means that the Jews of Damascus are in league with a pagan political ruler in trying to track down Paul, just as the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem allied with pagan rulers in the crucifixion of Jesus. After his escape, Paul returns to Jerusalem.
Preaching in Arabia?
The king Paul mentions is Aretas IV (9 B.C.-A.D. 40), the ruler of the Nabatean kingdom, or “Arabia.” Paul’s mention of King Aretas is important because of what it tells us about his movements during the three years between his conversion and first trip to Jerusalem. From Luke’s account in Acts 9 it appears that Paul stays the entire three years in Damascus, preaching in the synagogues, before his escape to Jerusalem. But according to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he goes “into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus” (1:17). Since Aretas was king of “Arabia,” we may have a reason why the king’s representative in Damascus is involved in the plot to arrest and execute Paul. Why would a Nabatean king and his agent be involved in a plot against Paul? That is to say, why would an Arab ally himself with Jews over matters of interest only to Judaism?
Before we answer that question, we should acknowledge that it’s not clear what a representative of Aretas is doing in Damascus. Is he resident in Damascus to look after the interests of Arabs living there under Roman rule? Or is Damascus at this time under the control of Nabatea? Whatever the situation, the Nabatean official has some kind of jurisdiction and political power in Damascus. Commentators speculate that the reason he goes after Paul is tied to the reason Paul goes to Arabia. They surmise that Paul does not go to Arabia with the purpose of being in a solitary desert place so he can reflect on the meaning of his new life. Rather, Paul goes to Arabia to preach the gospel in its cities and town. Thus, he is fulfilling his commission to preach to the Gentiles.
Paul’s preaching would cause him to run afoul of the authorities and King Aretas. Thus, the king might instruct his agent in Damascus to enter an alliance with the Jews, since both of them want Paul out of the way. Aretas would cause his police and military to cooperate with the Jews, and together they would patrol the gates and city in hopes of capturing Paul.
It is commonly supposed that Paul’s sojourn in Arabia had the nature of a religious retreat: that he sought the solitude of the desert — perhaps even going to Mount Horeb as Moses and Elijah had done — in order to commune with God and think out all the implications of his new life, without disturbance. But the context in which he tells of his going to Arabia, immediately after receiving his commission to proclaim Christ among the Gentiles, suggests that he went there to preach the gospel. The hostile interest which the Nabataean authorities took in him implies that he had done something to annoy them — something more than withdrawal to the desert for solitary contemplation. [Bruce, 192.]
Of course, this scenario is only a possible reconstruction of the situation. Luke doesn’t give us enough details (and neither does Paul) to reach a definite conclusion. Luke is more interested in showing the genuineness of Paul’s conversion and how God leads him to fulfill his commission to preach the gospel. To summarize, we can reconstruct the three years of Paul’s life between his conversion and first visit to Jerusalem in the following way:
- Paul is converted in Damascus (9:1-19);
- he preaches in the synagogues of Damascus for a short time immediately following his conversion (9:19-22);
- he then goes on a prolonged trip into Arabia with the purpose of preaching to Gentiles (Galatians 1:17);
- he returns to Damascus and for the rest of the three-year period, and again preaches in the synagogues there (9:23-25);
- Jews and agents of the Nabatean king try to find and arrest Paul;
- Paul escapes from Damascus and travels to Jerusalem.
The accounts of this period of Paul’s life in Acts, 2 Corinthians and Galatians agree in important essentials. The accounts in the epistles add some details to Acts and omit others. The accounts are complementary and not contradictory. Luke’s work is historically accurate — an independent account, not simply copied from Galatians or 2 Corinthians. The different purposes of Luke and Paul affect the selection and shaping of the facts of the Damascus-Arabia episode. In Galatians, Paul’s primary concern is to establish the fact of his apostolic authority as coming directly from Christ (Galatians 1:11-12). The details of his Damascus and Arabian missionary activities are irrelevant, though he mentions them in passing.
Luke is also interested in the nature of Paul’s conversion and commission. However, his concern centers more on how the gospel message spreads from Jerusalem, around the eastern end of the Empire, and then to Rome. He doesn’t mention Paul’s excursion into Arabia because it veers off the main geographical movement of the gospel that Luke wants to highlight. (For the same reason, Luke says nothing of the church’s mission to Galilee.)
Church suspicious (9:26)
When Paul arrives in Jerusalem, he finds that the church members are gravely suspicious of him. How can it be otherwise? The church still remembers, even after three years, how Paul dragged its members off to prison and had them flogged and beaten. Paul puts the feelings of the church regarding his turnaround in these words: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy” (Galatians 1:23). The church cannot deny Paul is preaching Christ, but perhaps they are not quite sure of his motives.
Still, some commentators are puzzled as to why the rank and file of the church should still be so distrustful of Paul. Surely, they heard of his dramatic conversion, his preaching activity and the persecution he suffered. Perhaps the church thinks that Paul’s “conversion” is only part of an elaborate plot, a scheme to penetrate its ranks to ferret out believers for punishment. Whatever the case, Luke tells us the disciples don’t believe he has really converted (9:26).
There’s an indication that even the apostles are somewhat apprehensive. That may seem surprising, but none of them know Paul personally, except as a fanatic enemy (Galatians 1:17). The apostles may wonder why Paul, if he is really converted, did not contact them or the Jerusalem church for three years.
Paul in Jerusalem (9:27)
Barnabas, whom Luke introduced earlier (4:36-37), now comes on the scene and saves the day for Paul. He brings Paul to the apostles and recounts to them his conversion and preaching in Damascus (9:27). One might wonder why Barnabas is the only person willing to vouch for Paul and take a chance in accepting him as a true believer. Whatever the reasons, Barnabas’ action is certainly in keeping with his character. [Acts 4:36-37; 11:22-30; 13:1-14:28; 15:2-4, 12, 22.] He seems to be a good judge of a person’s true self. Ironically, Barnabas will later show the same kind of take-a-chance generosity to Mark (15:37-40), whom Paul will reject as an unworthy ministerial aide. In the end, Paul will see that Barnabas was right in giving Mark another opportunity to minister (2 Timothy 4:11).
Barnabas brought Paul “to the apostles,” a phrase that at first look seems to refer to all of them (9:27). However, Paul says that on this occasion he stays with Peter for 15 days and “saw none of the other apostles — only James, the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19). Luke is apparently using a generalizing term. If someone sees Peter and James, the leading apostles, it is as though the person sees them all. If those two accept you, then the others will as well.
Luke says that during this visit to Jerusalem Paul “stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem” (9:27). Paul says in Galatians that he stayed with Peter, and saw James. Perhaps he also stayed with James for a time. This might account for Luke’s assertion that “Saul stayed with them.” We can take this as Luke’s use of another generalizing plural. We don’t know how long Paul stays in Jerusalem, but his visit probably amounts to weeks, not months. During part of his visit, Paul might also stay at his sister’s house in the city (23:16). That he sees none of the other apostles need not seem strange. They may be doing evangelistic work elsewhere.
In Galatians Paul makes another statement about his visit that seems to contradict what Luke writes. In his epistle, Paul writes that he is “personally unknown to the churches of Judea” (Galatians 1:22). Yet, Luke says Paul preached in public, moved about freely, and had meetings with Peter and James — even staying with Peter. The answer may be that Paul confines his public appearances to debates with the Jewish Hellenists in Jerusalem. Although Galatians says Paul does not meet with the disciples in the churches around Judea, it does not say he doesn’t meet any of the Jerusalem believers. The answer may be that Paul’s stay is confined to Jerusalem; he is therefore not known to Christian communities scattered about Judea. Because of the disciples’ suspicion and fear of Paul, they probably would not make any effort to see him anyway.
Speaks boldly (9:28-29)
During his stay in Jerusalem Paul speaks “boldly in the name of the Lord” (9:28). He debates with the Grecian or Hellenistic Jews. This is the same group to whom Stephen preached, and which ultimately led to Stephen’s arrest, trial and death. In a sense, Paul is taking up the work Stephen began. In a bit of irony, Paul ends up at odds with the same group he represented, or even led, in its conflict with Stephen. Paul’s appearance before the Hellenists is actually a witness against them. One of their own — the most zealous one — had made a total about-face regarding Jesus. This dramatic change in Paul should alert the Hellenists to take another look at the facts about Jesus. But their minds are closed. Paul soon finds himself in the same difficulty as Stephen was in. Luke says tersely that the Hellenistic Jews “tried to kill him” (9:29).
Paul goes to Tarsus (9:30)
The Jerusalem church apparently does not want another round of persecution, such as what followed Stephen’s battle with the Grecian Jews. (We see from Acts 9:26 that the church, probably composed of Hebraic Jews, is still operating in Jerusalem.) When the disciples learn of the plot against Paul, they quickly escort him to Caesarea. He is put on a ship and sent home to Tarsus (9:30). On the surface, this would seem to be a rebuff to Paul. Granted, the church is concerned for his safety, as well as their own. Paul is someone who always takes advantage of a preaching opportunity regardless of any death threats. On the surface, it seems as though the church is telling Paul to “get out of town before sunset.”
We will learn later that Paul may be a “problem” to the Jerusalem church. The reason is because it wants to maintain good relations with the orthodox Jewish population in the city. But Paul is so hated by the Jews that his mere appearance in Jerusalem stirs up strife, for himself and potentially for the church. That is not to say the church would railroad Paul out of the city against his wishes. There is a more compelling reason for Paul’s departure, one Luke doesn’t mention in Acts 9. However, he does mention it in Paul’s speech before a crowd of Jerusalem Jews. In his defense at the time, Paul speaks of an occasion when he was in the temple praying, and he has a vision. Paul sees the Lord saying to him, “Quick!…Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me” (22:18).
Paul tries to argue, saying that his turn-around conversion is so dramatic that it will cause the Jews to listen. But the Lord tells him again to leave Jerusalem: “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (22:21). It can be inferred that the time of this vision is just before his hasty departure from Jerusalem (22:17). Paul’s quick exodus to Tarsus is based on a heavenly mandate, to which he is obedient.
Luke does not say anything about Paul’s long stay in Tarsus. He draws a curtain over Paul’s life for what may be as long as ten years. Paul refers to this interval only in passing. He says that after leaving Jerusalem he goes to Syria and Cilicia (Galatians 1:21, 23). More specifically, he is referring to Antioch in Syria and Tarsus in Cilicia. Tarsus is the leading city of Cilicia, and Paul’s hometown. It came under Roman control in 64 B.C., but is still a free city. Some estimate the population of the city in Roman times to be close to half a million. The historian-geographer Strabo says Tarsus is a leading center of philosophy, rhetoric and law. [Geography14.5.13.] Tarsus is also an important center of Stoic philosophy, so Paul would be familiar with the leading Stoics and their beliefs. We will see later that he can quote from Stoic poets.
Later, when Barnabas needs assistance in building the church in the Antioch area, he goes to Tarsus to find Paul, and brings him to Antioch (11:25-26). From then on, Paul becomes the central focus of Acts.
Church grows (9:31)
Luke’s first panel of material ended with a summary statement about the church and the progress of the gospel in Jerusalem (6:7). The second panel, in keeping with the programmatic prophecy given by Jesus (1:8), describes missionary work in Samaria, as well as parts of Judea. Luke ends the second panel with the following summary statement: “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, and it increased in numbers” (9:31).
Luke here gives the first and only indication that the church has spread to Galilee. But he gives no details about the Christian mission there, and writes little about the work in greater Judea. Yet, Luke’s brief summary statement tells us that the gospel is spreading and the church is thriving.
Peter preaches in Judea (Acts 9:32-43)
Peter heals Aeneas in Lydda (9:32-35)
Luke again takes up the story of Peter’s evangelistic work. He had left him in Jerusalem, after his tour with John through the Samaritan villages (8:25). We now find Peter on an evangelistic campaign in Judea (9:32). Philip has passed throughout the area of coastal Judea preaching the gospel on his way from Azotus to Caesarea (8:40). Peter may be following up Philip’s Judean missionary trip, even as he did for Philip’s work in Samaria.
Luke begins the account of Peter’s circuit around Judea with his trip to Lydda to “visit the saints,” that is, the believers (9:32). This is the Old Testament Lod. [1 Chronicles 8:12; Ezra 2:33; Nehemiah 11:35.] Lydda is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northwest of Jerusalem, at the edge of the central highlands. It sits astride two important highways. One runs from Egypt to Syria and the other from Joppa (on the coast) to Jerusalem.
In Lydda, Peter encounters a man named Aeneas who has been paralyzed and bedridden for eight years. Upon meeting him, Peter says, “Jesus Christ heals you,” and Aeneas immediately gets up and walks (9:34). Word quickly spreads of Aeneas’ healing, and it has a powerful influence on the community. With some exaggeration, Luke writes: “All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord” (9:35).