This is part of an ongoing study of the book of Acts. If you’d like to catch up, you can read the previous studies here. Before you begin today, be sure to read the entire chapter of Acts 9 here, and don’t forget to sound off in the comments below.
The narrative of Acts begins to shift toward Paul (still called Saul) in chapter 9. We know that this happens because Luke travelled with Paul for several years, so much of Acts is him recounting Paul’s stories Luke himself witnessed first-hand and many others, like chapter 9, that Paul would have told him about.
Why the Lord chose to arrest Saul’s attention is a mystery. Experience generally tells us that when God arrests our attention, it is usually because we have been seeking Him. We have no indication of that here, so we are left to wonder if Saul was dissatisfied with his intense hatred and persecution of the church or if this was indeed a completely sovereign act on God’s part, which He has license to do, of course. Regardless of how God chose Saul, we immediately find that God has eternal purpose for him.
Who Are You Lord?
Paul correctly assumes that when a voice from heaven thunderously asks a question while simultaneously blinding you, it is probably the “Lord” as he answers. The fact that his traveling companions heard the voice harkens back to the story when Daniel was visited by an angel and his friends were terrified, but did not see or hear what was said (Daniel 10:7).
Prophetic leading is everywhere in this chapter as God preempts a devout man named Ananias to take Saul in. Ananias argues with God over the wisdom of dealing with Saul, but quickly gives into God’s command. This is an important point to understand. In the same way where Mary asked Gabriel, “how can this be?,” Ananias similarly questions God to be answered honestly. We can always ask God honest questions, even in dramatic encounters, if our hearts are set on His goodness. There is a big difference between doubt and an honest question. Ananias raises honest concerns and the Lord answers them with an interesting statement.
“This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Hard Words Up Front
How many people’s conversion story begins with such a statement, yet this reminds us more of Jesus’ words to “count the cost” of discipleship more than the more common and modern conversion experience. Many people view this hard calling for Saul as God’s retribution for his persecution of the church, but it is just the opposite. When God lays out a difficult task for us, Him preempting us with an honest, up-front assessment of how difficult things will be is actually a gracious blessing. When we prophetically know something will be hard going into it, we are much more empowered not to quit. Saul probably fell back on that first prophetic word from Ananias many times through his life when he struggled and doubted. Paul would always know that his path was ordained by God.
We know from Paul’s words in Galatians that some considerable time passes during this chapter. Luke writes as if Saul immediately began teaching in Damascus and then went straight to Jerusalem, but in Galatians 1:13-20 Paul says he went to Arabia and then back to Damascus for three years before finally going to Jerusalem as Luke describes here. It is likely that Saul did begin preaching and experienced the persecution Luke describes and then went to Arabia. However the timeline worked out, we know that Luke is summarizing a multi-year time period here.
Some suggest that Luke is incorrect, but to the contrary, he is simply taking license with Paul’s story to shorten it to the pertinent portions. We may understand the same about many of the stories in Acts. Luke is not giving us every detail of every story, but a very broad overview of many events, especially in the first half of the book that he himself was not an eyewitness to.
When Saul did go to Jerusalem, he was not immediately accepted. Now we find out why Luke has already told us about a disciple named Barnabas. He will be the person who assures everyone of Saul’s genuine conversion. He set Saul free to fellowship so that Saul could also begin debating the Hellenistic Jews, which we have discussed before, of which he was one. Things quickly got too dangerous for Saul there, so the church sent him back to his hometown of Tarsus, and there he stayed for several years.
Chapter 9 shifts back to Peter in Saul’s absence, and begins the story of the most important transition in the book of Acts. Peter leaves Jerusalem for the first time to visit parts of Judea. This is interesting because it seems that Peter was beginning to obey Jesus’ words to preach the gospel first in Jerusalem, then Judea. Even though others had left Jerusalem to share the gospel, the apostles stayed there, facing certain death, because they must not have felt prophetically released to travel yet. This is an example of extreme obedience to Jesus’ command in the face of difficult odds.
So Peter traveled throughout Judea, preaching the gospel. While near the coast in Lydda and Joppa, we see two dramatic miracles of healing and raising the dead. Because of Peter’s raising of Tabitha back to life, he was given the opportunity to stay in Joppa for some time to preach the gospel. This will set up chapter 10 and the most dramatic turn of events in Acts.
Questions for Chapters 9
- Why was Saul going to Damascus?
- Why was Ananias afraid of Saul? Would you have been afraid?
- How long must a new convert wait before he/she preaches the gospel?
- Why did the church in Jerusalem reject Saul? Why did they send him away?
- Do you think Peter and the apostles should have witnessed outside of Jerusalem earlier?
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