Acts 9:19-31

Acts 9:19–31
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.

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

As you read this account or hear it read, how much time do you think passes between Saul’s conversion and going to Jerusalem?

There are two phrases that indicate the passage of time. “Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus.” And then, “After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy.”

How many days is “several” and how many days is “many”?

The impression I get when I read this account in Acts is that the events took place over a few months. But when you take into account what Paul said about this time in his Galatians letter and his Corinthians letters, the events in this passage took place over more than three years.

So let me walk you through the events and then we will get to some questions that are raised by this passage.

On the road to Damascus Saul met the resurrected and exalted Jesus, was blinded, given instructions to go into Damascus, made his way to the home of Judas, was healed and baptized by Ananias. That is where we left off last Sunday.

In verse 19 Luke writes
Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus.

How many days is several days? Maybe five to nine days. Maybe two weeks. So Saul was in Damascus for maybe a week or two.

At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.

Saul wasted no time and that day or perhaps the day after his baptism, he went to the synagogues that had been expecting him, and preached what they had not expected him to preach.

But then in verse 23 there is a phrase that says more than it seems to say.
After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him,

How many days is many days?

If you read Paul’s letter to the Galatians, it becomes apparent that this was a much longer time than it seems when you read Acts 9. In Galatians 1 Paul gave a chronology of the first years of his Christian life. (Galatians 1:15–18)
But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. 17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.
18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days.

So it becomes clear that Saul spent several days after his baptism in Damascus, left that city for the Arabian Peninsula, stayed there for at least two years, came back to Damascus for an extended period of time, and then three years after his conversion, he went to Jerusalem.

I mentioned last Sunday that when my oldest sister came home for Christmas after her first semester in university, she came home with the news that she had become a follower of Jesus. She expected us to have a positive response to her news but instead of welcoming her news, we rejected her news.

I don’t know what response Saul anticipated, but over the first three or four years of his being a follower of Jesus, he had to flee for his life three and maybe four times because of the gospel he preached.

Saul was baptized by Ananias and filled with the Holy Spirit. The scaly flakes on his eyes fell off and he was no longer blind. And then the Holy Spirit helped him to understand the scriptures he had studied all his life in a new way and he was no longer spiritually blind.

Saul did not have to go to seminary. He knew the scriptures already. He had studied the scriptures under the tutelage of Gamaliel. Remember that there was no New Testament. There was only what we call the Old Testament and Saul knew these scriptures backwards and forwards. When he was filled with the Holy Spirit he understood the scriptures in a whole new way.

So with this new understanding of the scriptures, Saul went to the synagogues who were waiting for him.

Can you imagine the shock of the rabbis in the synagogues when Saul came to them? They may have heard about Saul’s strange experience on the road leading to their city. The temple guards who were with Saul had shared their story with the people in Damascus. Word spread rapidly through the city. This was big news.

For a couple days people wondered what this meant and then Saul showed up at the synagogue. The tradition was that a visiting teacher would stand after the reading of the Scriptures and begin to teach. This is what Jesus did when he began his public ministry in Capernaum.

So Saul entered the synagogue, sat on the bench, and waited for the Scripture to be read. Then he stood up. Think about it. This was Saul who had so effectively persecuted the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. The High Priest had given him his authority to do the same in Damascus and now the members of the synagogues expected that the followers of Jesus who had been growing in number would finally get what was coming to them. Saul had come and would cleanse their city of these heretics. So even if nothing had happened to Saul on the way to Damascus, the attention of the men in the synagogue would have been riveted on him.

But something strange had happened to him. He had been led blind into the city and now his sight had returned. This was going to be an interesting morning – how interesting it would be, they had no idea.

The Scriptures were read and Saul stood up. Every eye was riveted on him, expecting to hear his brilliance as he defended Torah against the heresy of the followers of Jesus.

And then Saul began to preach that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah. What a shock! This was a magnitude 9.0 earthquake! Can you imagine the furor that resulted? Mouths hanging open in stunned amazement as Saul preached. Was he joking? Was he serious? Was he out of his mind?

It is like a US Western movie when the town hires a good guy to come with his gun to get rid of the bad guys and then when he gets off the train and they welcome him, he pulls out his gun and robs them of everything they have.

The Jews of Damascus were stunned and it took them awhile to think and begin to make plans for how to rid themselves of this traitor.

It was not healthy for Saul to stay longer in Damascus. Rumors flew about attacks that were to be made against him. He needed to get away to consider how he would fulfill his call to preach the gospel of Jesus. And in addition, he needed time to study and think and develop further the implications of this dramatic turn in his life.

Damascus was not the place for solitude and study. I imagine he was not given any time for rest. The Pharisees and rabbis came to him to see what was going on. They argued with him. They berated him. And the followers of Jesus also came to him.

Saul needed solitude and time to think more thoroughly about what he now believed so he left for the quiet of the Arabian Peninsula, the desert area east of Damascus.

It is interesting to note that Saul did the same thing Jesus did after his baptism. Jesus needed to be alone to consider what it meant that he had heard God tell him, (Matthew 3:17)
“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Jesus needed to be by himself and Saul also needed to be by himself.

What did Saul do in the two plus years he spent in this wilderness area? Certainly he studied, prayed, meditated. In II Corinthians 12 he refers to an experience, a vision, in which he was
caught up to the third heaven … was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.

I have no idea what it means to be caught up to the third heaven. I don’t think anyone knows, even those who say they know what it means. All that is clear is that Saul had a unique vision of the glory of heaven – and his teacher was Jesus himself.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul emphasized that he had been taught directly by Jesus (Galatians 1:11-12)
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

This vision of Saul and the teaching from Jesus took place in these years in the Nabatean Kingdom in the Arabian Peninsula. Damascus was located just west of the Nabatean Kingdom that encompassed modern day Saudi Arabia and most of the surrounding countries.

Saul wanted to study but he did more than have visions, learn, and think. It seems that he also preached in the Jewish communities of the Nabatean Kingdom. This is apparent from the personality of Paul as we know him. It was impossible for him not to preach. But it is apparent also from a little historical detail.

In II Corinthians 11:32-33 when Paul is talking about his sufferings, he mentions his escape from Damascus.
In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. 33 But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.

Who was King Aretas? He was king of the Nabatean Kingdom which covered the wilderness where Saul spent the two plus years after his conversion. He was king of the Arabs.

Why was he trying to arrest Saul? Saul had obviously been stirring up trouble by his preaching to the Jewish communities in his kingdom. Saul had studied and prayed and received visions but he had also preached – and his preaching stirred up trouble.

Saul preached the gospel of Jesus to the Jewish communities in the Nabatean Kingdom and also in Damascus.

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. 

Saul had been zealous in his protection of the Torah and he was now just as zealous for Jesus. His brilliant mind made a convincing argument that was backed up by his own example. He had persecuted the followers of Jesus until he met the resurrected Jesus and now he was an evangelist for Jesus. How could the sudden change in his life be understood without his experience with Jesus being true? No wonder the Jews living in Damascus were baffled.

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. 

“After many days,” two to three years passed and there was now a combined effort by the Jews living in Damascus and King Aretas to kill Saul. Synagogues were losing members and the money that came with them. King Aretas saw dissension arising in his kingdom which threatened him. Both felt threatened by the success of Saul’s arguments.

With the Jews of Damascus trying to kill him and the soldiers of King Aretas of the Arabs waiting at the city gates to arrest him, Saul was lowered in a basket over the wall and slipped away to Jerusalem.

Three years had passed since Saul left Jerusalem but he had not been forgotten. It seems obvious that word of Saul’s conversion had made its way back to Jerusalem, but the ferocity of Saul’s attack on the followers of Jesus was so intense that fear greeted Saul when he returned. The believers in Jerusalem had a difficult time believing that Saul had genuinely converted. They must have suspected that this was simply a ruse to get them to relax so he could more effectively destroy their community.

But as Ananias had introduced Saul to the followers of Jesus in Damascus, Barnabas introduced Saul to the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem.

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. 

Jesus taught his disciples that they would be persecuted. Saul learned this at the very beginning of his life with Jesus when he was told how much he would suffer for the name of Jesus. Saul had to flee for his life from Damascus, perhaps from the Nabatean Kingdom, and from Jerusalem. If Saul wondered if the words Jesus spoke to him about persecution were metaphorical, he quickly learned they were literal.

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.

As I read through these verses, there are two questions and an observation that came to mind that I want to address this morning.

What makes the gospel so offensive?
Why was Saul’s preaching so convincing?
From whom did Saul receive support?

First, what makes the Gospel so offensive? Why did Saul meet such opposition?

Evil comes in three forms: the world, the flesh, and the devil and the offense of the gospel of Jesus can be understood by looking in these three areas.

First the world’s opposition to the gospel. The majority of the people in any culture defend the status quo. It doesn’t matter what the culture believes, the majority of the population will defend that belief. Someone who grows up in a country dominated by Buddhism will likely be Buddhist and defend that belief. Someone who grows up in a country dominated by Hinduism will likely be Hindu and defend the tenets of Hinduism.

When a country is divided, like India, then there are the Hindu areas and the Muslim areas. If Hindus move into a Muslim area and begin gaining converts to Hinduism, opposition will be the natural consequence. Because the status quo is defended, anything that threatens to upset the way things have always been will be resisted.

My youngest sister married a man from Somalia and converted to Islam. As a consequence, she no longer celebrated Christmas or Easter which was upsetting to the larger family. Even my sister who is a devotee of the Guru Sai Baba from southern India complained that she did not participate in the family celebrations around those two holidays. (Yes, I do have an interesting religious diversity in my family.)

If Islam were to gain in numbers in the US, a large part of the opposition to the growing number of Muslims would be the threat to the culture. The religious components of Easter and Christmas are not as large as the secular components of those two holidays. More people come to church on those Sundays than normal, but the population as a whole thinks of those holidays as the time of Santa Claus and reindeer and Christmas trees and presents and the Easter Bunny and coloring eggs and getting baskets of candy.

To deny that Jesus is the Son of God is one thing, but to take away the cultural observances is a far greater offense to a Christian culture. If church bells ringing out were replaced with the call to prayer, there would be a huge uproar.

If Christianity were to grow in this country, think about how it would disrupt the observance of Ramadan, Eid al-Kabir and other religious holidays. The world finds the gospel offensive because it disrupts the existing cultural observances.

There is another part of the world’s opposition to the gospel of Jesus. Saul, as a follower of Jesus, was a challenge to a Jewish world where the religious leaders had control of a system that worked for them. He brought the gospel of Jesus to a Roman world with an established order.

Whenever there is opposition or conflict, look for a financial root and this is true with resistance to a change in religious beliefs. The followers of Jesus no longer looked for guidance from the rabbis, Pharisees, and Sadducees who controlled the synagogues and the Temple. They no longer gave money to the synagogues. The followers of Jesus did not any longer make sacrifices at the temples to the Roman gods. It was not just the culture that was threatened but the pocketbooks of those controlling the culture. Remember the silversmiths in Ephesus who rose up against Paul because their trade of little statues of Artemis was threatened.

The rise of Christianity in Jewish and Roman cultures threatened the financial establishment and the financial establishment struck back at Christianity in an effort to preserve itself.

The world does not like to see the status quo disrupted.

The flesh also resists the gospel.

It is much easier to follow an external code of law than to obey an internal purity. The Jews at the time of Jesus had 613 laws derived from the ten commandments given to Moses. Muslims have five pillars to obey. But while there are guidelines for Christians, Christianity has a focus on an internal purity. Jesus taught this in the Sermon on the Mount
Matthew 5:21-22
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.
Matthew 5:27
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

As a Christian, it is not enough to comply with a set of rules. It is not enough to not commit adultery, I must guard my heart against lust. It is not enough to not kill someone, I must not allow resentment and bitterness to find a home in my heart.

The rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked him, (Matthew 19:16-22)
“Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

Jesus told him he needed to keep the commandments and this very moral man replied
“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

If we had talked with this man, we would have been jumping all over ourselves to encourage him to come join us, but Jesus saw into his heart and dealt with his heart issue. From the outside, he had a wonderful report card with all top grades. In his heart he was failing and this is where Jesus’ concern focused.

Our flesh likes being able to live a life that appears moral but keeps what is in the heart hidden. Being in a relationship with Jesus brings what is in the heart to the surface and some people resist Jesus because they prefer to keep hidden things in the dark.

Our flesh likes to hold on to pleasures and resists having to make sacrifices.

Some years ago I had Christmas dinner with a member of the church who was married to a Moroccan. There were a few others from the church at that dinner as well. In the course of the dinner the host had a bit too much wine to drink and so did one of the members of the church. Toward the end of the meal the host said, “I just want to know what you Christians have against Mohammed,” and the member of the church who also had too many glasses of wine to drink began to talk about how bad Mohammed was.

The next day I called up the host and told him that he had asked a good question and deserved a better response. So we met in a café and I talked about how all religions are aware that there is distance between us and God. I talked about how different religions have things we must do to bridge that distance: karma, Five Pillars of Islam, Ninefold Path of Buddhism, the Law of Moses. And then I talked about how we fall short in each of these religious systems. We cannot be good enough to be with God.

I talked about what makes Christian faith unique. God knows that we are not able to be good enough so he was born as a man so he could take on himself the penalty for our not being good enough, the penalty for our sin. Jesus was born, Emmanuel, God with us. And then Jesus died on the cross, making it possible for us to enter into God’s kingdom.

And then I told him that Mohammed had the Hebrew scriptures and the Christians scriptures in front of him when he wrote the Koran and rejected these two precious gifts God had given us. He took the birth of Jesus and the death of Jesus and threw them into the trash. He discarded them and returned us to the tyranny of the law, having to work to try to be good enough to be with God. I told him that is why we have problems with Mohammed.

This man understood what I said. He saw what I said was true, but he was not able to make the decision to become a follower of Jesus. This man was a very social man with many friends and he knew that if he became a follower of Jesus he would lose these friends. That was too great a sacrifice for him to make.

The world resists Christianity because it demands change, sometimes very uncomfortable changes, in our lives. It threatens our inner life that we prefer to keep hidden from the world.

The world and the flesh resist the gospel of Jesus and so does the devil.
I Peter 5:8
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

In every generation the battle begins anew for the souls of that generation. God uses his unlimited creativity, love, and power to encourage men and women to chose to follow him.

The devil works to destroy any relationship between God and men and women. When the gospel comes to an area where the gospel has been blocked for centuries, the spiritual warfare is intense.

When you encounter opposition to the gospel, it helps to understand the roots of that opposition so you know in what direction to direct your energy and prayers. But do not be discouraged. From the beginning the gospel has been opposed and look where it is today. It has spread from Jerusalem to every continent in the world. Christians now number one third of the world’s population. All this has happened despite the opposition it has encountered over the ages.

Why was Saul’s preaching so convincing?

From the very start, Saul made a powerful defense of faith in Jesus as Lord.
Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.

What allowed him to do that? Well to start, he was completely familiar with the Scriptures. He did not have to read a new book. As I said earlier there was not yet a New Testament, only the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, and Saul knew these Scriptures better than most.

When Saul received his vision of Jesus and was filled with the Holy Spirit, he suddenly understood these Scriptures in a new way. It was as if he picked up a pair of glasses and for the first time saw clearly the truth he had missed when he heard Stephen teaching. Over the next few years he went deeper in his understanding of what it meant that Jesus rose from the dead. But Saul was able to preach effectively right at the beginning because he already knew the Scriptures.

When we come to faith, we need to read and study to learn about our faith. Saul had the advantage of already having studied the Scriptures.

But it was not just his Biblical knowledge that made him so powerful. It was his changed life that communicated so profoundly.

How could the dramatic turn in Saul’s life be explained except that what he said was true? The fact that he was standing in the synagogues preaching that Jesus was Lord proved that something dramatic had happened to him. The dramatic change in his life put the possibility into the minds of those who heard him that what Saul said might be true. Perhaps he had seen Jesus on the road outside Damascus.

If we are to be effective in sharing our faith in Jesus, we need to have a knowledge of the Scriptures. We need to know what we believe and why we believe it. If you are not in a Bible study, you need to be. You need to grow in your knowledge of the Old and New Testaments. You need to be able to articulate your faith.

But what will be most convincing is not what you know but how what you know changes you. Your changed life will communicate far more powerfully than anything you learn.

So let your study and prayer change who you are. Let it change you to make you more patient and more loving. Let it make you wiser and less fearful. Let it work in you to transform you.

And now to an observation: From whom did Saul receive support?

Notice a couple verses in the text. When Saul escaped from Damascus, he was lowered in a basket through an opening in the wall. Who lowered him?
But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.

Saul preached in Damascus, left to study and preach in the Arabian Peninsula and then returned for a period of time to Damascus and already he had followers who recognized in him the gifts and call Jesus had given to him. Saul had a solitary encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, but he soon became part of a community that protected and encouraged him. Developing a team to work with him was a life long pattern for Paul.

Saul went to Jerusalem and the followers of Jesus did not want to meet with him. They feared this was a tactic to get better inside information and then he would continue his persecution of the church. Saul could not convince them but Barnabas could.

Barnabas met Saul in Damascus and brought him to Jerusalem. It was Barnabas who convinced the Jerusalem followers of Jesus that Saul could be trusted. Later Barnabas invited Paul to be one of the teachers in Antioch. Barnabas and Paul set out together on Paul’s first missionary journey.

Saul continued preaching the gospel of Jesus in Jerusalem and as in Damascus, the leaders of the Hellenistic Jews could not refute what he said. So they put down the debate and picked up the sword.
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.

Once again it was the brothers and sisters who learned of the threat to his life and who took him and sent him off to safety. This became the pattern for Paul’s life who had a team who worked with him in preaching and visiting the churches he planted.

Paul is a hero in our Christian faith, but look at the long list of amazing men and women who worked with Paul. Ananias, Barnabas, Luke, Timothy, Titus, Priscilla, Aquilla, Lydia. The list goes on and on.

I want to encourage you to know that God does not intend that we move through our Christian live alone. We are meant to be part of a community. Saul did not set out on his missionary journeys until the community in Antioch sent him. It was a community decision. Saul worked to develop a team to work with him. There were always fellow Christians who worked with Paul and supported Paul and encouraged Paul.

You need to be part of a community of believers who support you in your Christian life and who encourage you in the use of the spiritual gifts God has given to you.

If you are leading a ministry, who are the people who work with you, support you, encourage you. If you are not leading a Bible study or outreach group, you still have a ministry to your friends, your neighbors, your family. You need a team of people to support you and encourage you as much as anyone else.

If you are not meeting with people each week to pray together, why not? If you are not meeting with people to study the Bible and share what is happening in your life, why not? None of us are super-Christians. We all need support and encouragement.

Women, it seems, are better at this than men. Over my years at RIC women have consistently met for prayer, for bible study, for support and encouragement. Men have only done this sporadically. It has been difficult to get men to take the time to meet. But men need this as much as women do.

If you are not in a group that supports you and encourages you, why not?

I said last week that the greatest miracles in the history of the church are when people turn from serving their own agendas and begin following Jesus, putting him first in their lives.

And I said that when someone begins to follow Jesus and holds on even when persecution comes, holds on even when it is not convenient or comfortable to follow Jesus, I am in awe.

I am in awe of Paul. I am in awe of the many people in our church community who have been following Jesus for many years, who have persisted despite obstacles.

Some of you are starting out on your Christian journey, others of you have been traveling for some time now. Don’t be surprised when you encounter opposition to sharing your faith. Pray and analyze from what area the opposition is coming and then persevere. Pray specifically against the origin of the opposition, whether it is coming from the world, the flesh or the devil.

Cooperate with the Holy Spirit in the transformation of your life. Soak yourself in the Scriptures and allow them to transform you. Your knowledge backed up by your transformed life will have power in the lives of those around you. Don’t give up in praying for those you love and desire to accept God’s gift of eternal life. None of us are perfect, but even with our warts, the changes in our life that come from our study of the Bible will communicate loud and clear.

Make sure you are not alone in this. In your Bible studies, make sure you pray for and encourage each other. Make sure you have accountability relationships in which you share deeply and intimately and invite others to speak directly into your life to ensure you stay in obedience to Jesus. Make sure there are others encouraging you and praying with you for the burdens God has placed on your heart.

May God bless you as you live your life in service to him.