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Acts 9

Scripture: Acts 9:1-43

Highlights:

  • Saul’s doing his thing–persecuting christians–when he encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus
  • There’s a blinding light and Jesus tells Saul that he is the one whom Saul is really persecuting, and that Saul should go into Damascus and await instructions
  • Saul is blind for three days and doesn’t feel like eating
  • God tells Ananias (one of his disciples in the area) to go and heal Saul
  • Ananias is (understandably) reluctant to go. Word has it that Saul isn’t a very nice guy
  • God tells Ananias to go anyway ‘cuz he’s got plans for Saul, so Ananias goes and heals Saul
  • Saul starts preaching about Jesus immediately, which ticks off the Jews in Damascus
  • The Jews look for a chance to kill Saul, but he gets smuggled out of the city by his friends, then shipped off to Jerusalem
  • The disciples in Jerusalem don’t want anything to do with Saul (word had it that Saul wasn’t a very nice guy), but Barnabas takes him under his wing and introduces him around
  • Saul argues with the Hellenistic Jews, which ticks them off, and yet another group of people want him dead
  • Saul gets sent home to Tarsus
  • Meanwhile, Peter’s in Lyddia and heals a paralyzed man named Aeneas
  • Elsewhere, in Joppa, a disciple named Tabitha dies
  • Peter is called in and brings Tabitha back from the dead. Back. From. The. Dead.
  • Peter sticks around the area awhile, staying at the house of Simon the tanner

Historical Context:

Paul:

Paul was born in Tarsus, a city in eastern Asia Minor, which was known for its university.  “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.” (GCI)

Paul was the son of an orthodox Jewish father, quite possibly a Pharisee — a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3), “a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees” (Acts 23).  At an early age Paul was sent to Jerusalem to study at the school of Gamaliel. He was apparently a good student. Paul would claim: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1) He quite possibly stayed with his sister in Jerusalem (Acts 23).

Growing up in Tarsus would’ve allowed Paul to learn “Classic Greek”, Greek philosophy, and Koine Greek which was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire, spoken by the common people. (Wikipedia)

“Paul is a Hellenistic or Grecian Jew, like Stephen. He knows Greek culture, and is as comfortable in the Hellenistic world as he is in strict Judaism. But he is also part of the Jewish world in Jerusalem, speaking Aramaic like a native. He may have been in the Hellenistic Jewish ‘Synagogue of Freedmen,’ where he heard Stephen speak. Like many Freedmen, Paul was more fanatically Jewish than many Jews native to Jerusalem. Paul may be a member of the Sanhedrin, or perhaps a younger assistant, and if so, he heard Stephen speak before it.” (GCI)

The Way:

“The Way” was a name used by the early Christian community to designate itself (Acts 18, 19,22, 24). It was used to proclaim that they knew the way to salvation, or an understanding of what was needed to walk the pathway to salvation. It was also an acknowledgment of Jesus’ designation of himself as “the way, the truth and the life”.

It is interesting to note that the “Essene community at Qumran used the same designation [The Way] to describe its mode of life.” (NCC)

However, outsiders did not refer to the church as “the Way” but as “the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24; 28), or as “Christians” (Acts 11).*

Observations:

  • Acts 9 records the first of three accounts of Paul’s conversion. The other two are in Acts 22 andActs 26.
  • Saul’s name was probably not changed to Paul when he converted  to Christianity. “The testimony of the book of Acts is that he inherited Roman citizenship from his father. As a Roman citizen, he also bore the Latin name of ‘Paul’—in biblical Greek: Παῦλος (Paulos),and in Latin: Paulus. It was quite usual for the Jews of that time to have two names, one Hebrew, the other Latin or Greek.” (Wikipedia). So it is likely that he changed his name to Paul as part of his missionary efforts to reach the Gentiles.
  • Paul had “letters to the synagogues in Damascus”  implying a “commission to bring them to Jerusalem for trial and punishment. From this, it seems that the sanhedrim at Jerusalem claimed jurisdiction over all synagogues everywhere. They claimed the authority of regulating everywhere the Jewish religion.” (Barnes)
  • Why Damascus? “It is not certainly known just who ruled Damascus during that period, but the eclipse of Roman authority for a time is proved by the fact that no coins with the image of Caligula or Claudius have been discovered there, whereas there have been found many with the image of Augustus or Tiberius who preceded them, and many with the images of emperors who succeeded them, thus leaving a gap, viewed by Wiesler as proof that during those two reigns Rome had no authority in Damascus.” (Coffman) In other words, it was likely highly populated by Jews and perceived by Saul as a stronghold for orthodox Judaism worth defending.
  • Jesus’ words to Saul on the road to Damascus (“…why do you persecute me?”) reveal “one of the profoundest doctrines of Christianity, namely, that Christ is still upon earth in the person of his followers who compose his spiritual body; and that whatever is done to Christ’s church is done to himself!” (Coffman). Christ and his church are one. He feels what we feel. It’s now wonder that Paul would go on to write about the church as Christ’s body in great length in his letter to the Corinthians.
  • “Luke describes Paul’s work in Acts in terms of [the words spoken by God to Ananias in Acts 9:15]. Paul will take the gospel to the Gentiles (13:46-47) and defend himself before kings such as Agrippa, and even Caesar (26:2-23; 25:12). Paul will also preach to the ‘people of Israel’ (9:15).” (GCI)
  • “Ananias, out of respect to what the Lord had revealed to him, referred to Saul as ‘brother,’ not merely a ‘brother Israelite’ but as a brother in Christ.” (Coffman)
  • Luke describes Saul’s method of preaching by using the verb “proving” which means “placing together,” “bringing together,” or “comparing.” “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.” (GCI)
  • in Jerusalem Paul debates the Hellenistic Jews, 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.” (GCI) “Jerusalem was the city where he had led the persecutions against the church; there he had stood consenting to the death of Stephen; there he was acquainted with those implacable foes of the Lord and of his kingdom who had formerly been his allies, friends, and fellow-persecutors. He knew their bitterness and their unwavering hatred of Christianity; and yet, to that city, before those people, and in the presence of those very same individuals, he boldly and unequivocally preached the gospel of the Son of God.” (Coffman)
  • “Tabitha is prepped for burial. There is no evidence that they expected that Peter would raise her up to life. the apostles had as yet raised up no one from the dead–as even Stephen had not been restored to life–we have no authority for assuming, or supposing, that they had formed any such expectation.” (Barnes)
  • Peter’s words to Tabitha to raise her from the dead (“Tabitha, get up”) are reminiscent of Jesus’ words to the dead girl in Mark 5 (“Little girl, get up!”), which in its Aramaic form Tabitha kumi would have differed in only one letter from Jesus’ command Talitha kumi [“Little girl, get up”]). [Longenecker, 382.]
  • The fact that Peter lodged with a tanner would have been significant to both the Gentile and Jewish Christians, for Judaism considered the tanning occupation unclean. (NCC)

Discussion:

  • When Jesus says that Saul’s persecution of the church is a persecution of himself, what does that say about our role as the church? What does that say about how God feels about what happens to the church and what the church does? What responsibilities does this convey for us?
  • It was very bold of Paul to go to the people he had wronged and request to be included, and even bolder still to go to the people he used to cavort with and tell them they were wrong. Would you do the same?
  • Why was Barnabas willing to take Paul at his word (that he had converted to Christianity) when the other disciples were so hesitant? Who is an “enemy of the faith” that you would have a hard time believing had truly had a change of heart?
  • Luke recounts Paul’s dramatic conversion story three times (Acts 9, 22, 26), but tells of the “testimony” of other people’s conversion very rarely. What does this tell us about the importance of our own personal testimony?
  • The account of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead is parallel to the account of Jesus raising Jarius’ daughter from the dead. Peter saw a situation that looked similar to one Christ had been in, and walked closely in his footsteps to achieve the same results. How can we recognize situations similar to those Jesus was in? How can we walk closely in his steps? What results can we expect?

References:

*Interesting side note (that will be taken up again in Acts 11): The term “Christian” was a derogatory term made up by the residents of Antioch (who apparently liked to make up these types of nicknames). “‘Christians’, or Cristianos in Greek, was coined to distinguish the worshippers of Christ from the Kaisarnarios, the worshippers of Caesar.” (Wuest, pg 19). Also, “The Hebrew equivalent of “Nazarenes”, Notzrim, occurs in the Babylonian Talmud, and is still the modern Israeli Hebrew term for Christian.” (Wikipedia)

Post Discussion Perspectives:

  • People without “dramatic” testimonies (like Paul’s) feel like they don’t have a story to share, but that it’s important to use “testimony” in discussing God’s effect on people’s life.
  • Testimonies of our encounter with God are meant to inspire hope and show God acting, not impress. If the focus is the convert, the story is ineffective.
  • The passion and hard-lined attitude that Saul had in persecuting Christians was the same zeal with which he advocated for Christ after his conversion.
  • Saul was trying to do the right thing by killing Christians–he was trying to preserve orthodoxy. How many people railing against the church now actually have the right intentions but the wrong perspective?
  • Saul gave up a promising career in the Sanhedrin, and a comfortable life in Jerusalem, to become a wandering preacher, hated, beaten and spending several years of his life imprisoned. What would you give up?
  • Paul was kind of a jerk, but God can use jerks (which should encourage all of us).
  • Interesting how the men with Saul, who had started on their journey with him to go and kill Christians, helped him after his conversion. They witnessed Saul’s conversion, what happened to their own beliefs? They didn’t proceed with a persecution in Damascus. What did they do, think, believe?
  • Luke’s choice of stories are interesting in that they often show a parallel between Peter and Jesus, and then Peter and Paul.
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