Paul Sees the Light (Acts 9:1-9)

It is a challenge for us in biblical interpretation to truly put ourselves into the sandals of Bible characters. The effort to do that – to have an understanding of what they saw and knew (or didn’t know) – pays rewards in making a text come alive.

Yesterday we talked some about what Saul/Paul was thinking and how this was motivating him to action. He certainly believed this “Jesus teaching” was damaging to the Jewish nation and hopes of a messianic kingdom of God’s blessing being established. This Jesus crowd was irrational in exalting a character who was crucified as a criminal. They had to be stopped!

But even so, it goes beyond sensibility that the violent actions being entered into by Saul/Paul could have any justification whatsoever. But here is an additional angle that perhaps was a part of his thinking. Let’s recall what might seem like an obscure story from Numbers 25. As Paul was hoping Israel was on the cusp of entering into a time of a messianic kingdom, the Israelites of Moses’ day were on the cusp of entering the Promised Land. But there was an apostate faction in the camp who had immorally aligned themselves with Canaanite peoples and gods, bringing about God’s wrath …

Numbers 25:1 – While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, 2 who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. 3 So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.

4 The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the Lord’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel.”

5 So Moses said to Israel’s judges, “Each of you must put to death those of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.”

A grandson of Aaron the priest named Phinehas heard this and took the action of actually driving a single spear through a Jewish man and a Midianite woman. And this was applauded in stopping the curse …

Numbers 25:8-9 – Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.

Might it be that Paul saw his actions as analogous to this, and thereby justified? We don’t know, but putting all of this together within the full context of that era helps us to understand Paul a bit more. And looking again further into Acts chapter 9 …

9:1 – Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.

The background to this is that the Romans granted occasional authority to the Jewish religious leadership to enforce certain matters within their system of belief. The Romans believed this helped to maintain a modicum of order within conquered ethno-religious territories. Paul had gained such authority for arrests and extradition, and he was on his way to Damascus to enforce it.

3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

I can remember all of the way back to my high school days when attempting to share the gospel with people as to what struck me as the major obstacle. If we think of salvation as being “found,” then it was necessary for the person hearing the message to believe first that they were “lost.”  I have often said of evangelism that you have to get a person lost before you get them saved (meaning to get them to believe that they are lost and need a savior).

Paul did not have any sense that he was lost. Totally the opposite! He saw himself as standing strongly within the truth, privilege and blessing of being an Israelite. He needed a divine intervention!

Frankly, most people today don’t see themselves as being lost, therefore they see no need to be “found” by the gospel. But the reality of the biblical message that dates back to the very beginning of humanity is that we are terribly and totally lost. We are dead in trespasses and sins. There is no hope, no life, no spark, nothing that is capable of response. It is darkness; we are spiritually blind. And it is the grace of God in the truth of the resurrection of Christ that brings life … just as it did for Paul. And we’ll talk more about that tomorrow!

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The Miraculous Spread of the Gospel – Acts 9:32-43

Approaching today’s reading, let us recall that the purpose of Luke’s historical account of the Acts of the Apostles was written for this fellow named Theophilus – to describe for him the way in which the message of the Gospel had spread all over the Roman world. Throughout the book of Acts, we see read various summary statements of the results of this preaching ministry – 3,000 saved, then growing to 5,000, and everywhere stating (as in verse 42 today) that many people believed in the Lord.  To see something really cool, go to this link and watch the time-action way the Gospel spread to 364 places in the book of Acts.

Since the purpose of our series is a devotional one, I really wish to stay away from some of the controversial topics like tongues and healings, etc.  But it is just about impossible today to write much without getting into it a bit. Though my views on the subject are very standard for the Evangelical Free Church and the portion of the broader evangelical movement that is resourced by schools such as I have attended in Philadelphia and Dallas, I have many Christian friends and even family members who disagree with me. There are TSF people who do not think as I do upon this topic.

I’ll be as brief as possible to say that I believe the signs and wonders such as are seen in this passage and in numbers of other Scriptures in Acts (particularly on the occasion of the Spirit’s first coming to a group of believers) are miracles unique in the experience of the early church era. At a time when the Scriptures were far from complete, God validated the message and the messenger with very unique signs and gifts – miraculous abilities and activities that gradually ceased to be the normative experience of believers and church communities. Something better took their place:  the completion of God’s Word – the Bible. This is the final authority that, in the power of the Spirit, vindicates the message and messenger.

Do not hear me saying that miracles cannot and do not occur; but you may rightly understand me to say that they are not the normative experience that we should seek out, nor are they the evidence of gifts that I believe have also ceased, nor the evidence of a “baptism” of the Holy Spirit. The baptism of the Spirit – in my understanding of Scripture – happens at the moment of salvation and is not a gift to be sought afterward as a second blessing or second work of grace.

I also reject the interpretation that healing is in the atonement (quoting from Isaiah 53). I take that passage to say that the “stripes by which we are healed” refer specifically to the spiritual issue of sin, not physical well-being. We are fully healed spiritually and eternally by faith in Christ’s death, and we will be physically healed in our glorified bodies upon our exit from this world across the threshold of eternity. We are invited and obligated to pray for the healing and touch of God in the lives of people who are afflicted with the ailments that evidence the decay of our mortal flesh. And God may, and often does, honor these prayers with even incredible means of intervention. We should engage this resource more than we do!

Today’s passage tells the story first of a paralyzed person being healed after eight years of affliction, with the result that all who were nearby and aware of this miracle followed the Lord. And secondly, we see an actual miracle of a physical resurrection through the work of Peter – again with Luke noting that the outcome was not simply to help a person or bring someone back to life merely for their individual benefits, but that rather the act was one that God used uniquely to bring large numbers of followers to the faith. Geographically speaking, these towns are in the area to the northwest of Jerusalem, both near and along the Mediterranean coast.

Applicationally speaking – We should be faithful to pray for God to do great works through the power of His divine will in healing and restoring people to wellness in every way. The error of certain Pentecostal and Charismatic friends is to essentially assert that God is obligated to hear us and honor our requests, particularly if we arouse enough faith. But the error of the side where more of us (such as are in the EFCA) stand is to go ahead and pray out of some sense of obligation because we can’t deny we are told to do so, yet to honestly at our core doubt that God will consider doing something even miraculous. God is able, and He does heal.

Aeneas and Dorcas – Acts 9:32-43

32 As Peter traveled about the country, he went to visit the Lord’s people who lived in Lydda. 33 There he found a man named Aeneas, who was paralyzed and had been bedridden for eight years.34 “Aeneas,” Peter said to him, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and roll up your mat.” Immediately Aeneas got up. 35 All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.

36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. 37 About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. 38 Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!”

39 Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.

40 Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. 41 He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. 42 This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. 43 Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.

 

Barnabas: The Best Good Guy – Acts 9:19b-31

If you could be any person in the Bible, who would you want to be? Some folks might go right for the Apostle Paul – the mighty man himself. Others might want to be Solomon because of his wisdom, but remember that would include the issue of a thousand wives! Daniel or Joseph would be good choices, until you consider the years of trials that each endured as well as the years of blessing.

If I could be anyone, it would be Barnabas – the guy who actually gave Paul his start!  In my book, Barnabas is the best of the good guys. His name meant “son of consolation” and he was always encouraging people and seeing the best in them.

Today he makes his second appearance in the Acts narrative, though far from his last – we’ll be talking about him more in the coming weeks. In his first appearance, which was what I have a couple of times referred to as Luke’s style of giving main characters a brief “walk on” role early in the play, Barnabas was simply listed specifically as one of those who sold a property and deposited the assets at the feet of the Apostles. This was with a view toward contributing for the basic needs of the early church community – he was being an encouragement.

In our text today, we see that Saul immediately began to use open door opportunities to present the Gospel. He went into synagogues where he was welcomed to speak. We will see Paul use this same strategy later in the book throughout the ancient world. He was a highly-trained university dude – a sort of elite Harvard-educated fellow.

The synagogue folks in Damascus immediately recognize that this is the same guy who was condemning the preaching going on “among those who call on this name” – of Jesus. And here he is presenting the totally opposite point of view from what they anticipated relative to his recent press releases! And several times in this passage we see the Jewish default response, which is to stop it by killing the person doing it. So, Saul’s new friends help him escape by dropping him over the city wall in a basket. (Remember being a kid in VBS and doing the craft project related to this story?)

So Paul needs some more new friends and goes to Jerusalem to get connected with the church leadership there. His welcome is … ah … less than inviting and is rather filled with distrust. This would be about like Governor O’Malley becoming a Republican and showing up at the local Central Committee meeting and hoping to be invited to dinner. Ah… not today!

And then comes these great words, “But Barnabas” … the great encourager is the first to befriend him and sponsor him in communication with the others. The ice is broken and again Saul takes on a powerful work of preaching the gospel in Jerusalem. And again also, it is a Jewish element – this time the Hellenistic group of those adopting the Greek culture – who rises to meet this new threat by eliminating Saul. Apparently none of these folks were very good at keeping their plots secret, and so Saul is sent off. At this point of his career, he is sort of being sent down to the minor leagues to hone his skills for a while before coming back to be a star player in the early church.

But Barnabas … don’t you want to be like that guy? What does it involve? Well, certainly a lot of the same stuff we’ve been preaching at TSF for a while now. It is the counter-current theme of caring about people diverse from yourself in some way. It may be a difference of generation or cultural background or personal taste. Do you care about seeing other people grow to be all they can be in Christ as much as you care about just fellowshipping with your own natural affinity group? It is a hard sell – this “preference deference” stuff. But it is what Jesus did, and you’ll never be all you can be until you do it … and be a Barnabas type of person.

Saul in Damascus and Jerusalem – Acts 9:19b-31

Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “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?” 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.

23 After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, 24 but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. 25 But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.

26 When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28 So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews, but they tried to kill him. 30 When the believers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

31 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, it increased in numbers.

Scales from the Eyes – Acts 9:1-19a

As a political and news junkie, I am much familiar with the commentary in print and TV of Kirsten Powers. She does not come from anywhere near my point of view on the spectrum of issues, though lately I have found myself surprised several times by a different tone and perspective. It really has caught my attention and had me going “hmm… not what I would have expected her to say on that one.”

On this very day that I am writing this devotional article from today’s reading about the incredible conversion of Saul – known to us later as the Apostle Paul – literally, immediately before sitting down to write about this passage, I stumbled upon an article that gave the story of Kirsten Powers trusting in Christ. The full article about how this confirmed atheist was chased down by God and recently came to faith may be found by clicking HERE. Let me share a couple of the quotes:

“I was not looking to be a Christian. The last thing in the world I wanted to be was a Christian. … When I went away to college, whatever little faith I had, I lost. … All my friends were secular liberals. At this point, I really got even more deeply into an incredibly secular world because now, all my friends were basically atheists, or if they had any kind of spirituality, they were very hostile towards religion, Christianity in particular. So, I really didn’t have any interest in it.”

Through a friend who drew her to attend Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC where Tim Keller is pastor, she began to hear new truths and consider new ideas.

“Really, it was like God sort of invaded my life. It was very unwelcome. I didn’t like it. … It’s kind of hard to describe, but I did have this moment where the scales just fell off of my eyes, where I was saying, ‘this is just totally true, I don’t even have any doubt.’ … If I could have avoided it, I would have. There is nothing convenient about it in my life or in the world I live in. It’s not like living in the South where everybody is a Christian. I live in a world where nobody is a believer. But God pursued me.”

God pursued her. God pursued Saul. God pursued you! As I shared in the devotional writings in the previous sermon series called “Cross Words,” it might seem like we found God … as we talk about salvation in that way. But the reality is that God found us. We see, only because we are able to see because God has removed the “scales” from our eyes. It is all a work of grace. God is in the human reclamation business.

The other part of this story in Acts 9 that I so much like is that of this fellow named Ananias. He is given just about the worst assignment imaginable. Saul had become famous for his antagonism and harsh treatment of Christians. And God calls up Ananias and says that Saul of Tarsus would be ringing his doorbell. How would you feel if you found out that you were going to be visited by North Korean President Kim Jong-un? (I guess you could throw some NBA games on TV and he’d be happy, but you get the picture!)

God does not always give us easy assignments. But there is no safer place than in the center of God’s direction in your life through obedience to Him. God has a plan for all of us.

Saul’s Conversion — Acts 9:1-19a

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision,  “Ananias!”

“Yes, Lord,” he answered.

11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”

13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.