An Up and Coming Young Man
After Stephen’s death, Saul led a campaign of persecution against the church. While conducting it, he personally cast into prison many Christians (Acts 26:10), both men and women (Acts 22:4). For punishment he put them on public display in synagogues and compelled them to blaspheme by renouncing their Lord Jesus (Acts 26:11). Soon, his reputation among Christians was that he had "destroyed" (literally, "made havoc of "1 or "spoiled"2) the church in Jerusalem (Acts 9:21). Many years later, he confessed that he had been responsible for some Christians being killed (Acts 22:4; 26:10). The text here affirms that the intent of his campaign was "slaughter."
We can imagine that Saul was a man consumed with self-importance. He could not see the truth of the gospel because his eyes were blinded with pride, and pride is the greatest sin. It was the sin that brought down Lucifer, who fancied that he could rise to the place of the Most High (Isa. 14:12-14), and it was the sin that brought down Adam and Eve, who also desired to become equal with God (Gen. 3:5). No wonder that when Paul looked back upon his career of persecuting the church, he said of himself, "This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief" (1 Tim. 1:15).
The persecution he unleashed scattered believers far and wide. They had to flee for their lives. But God in His great wisdom had a good purpose behind the trouble, for everywhere that Christians went, they preached the gospel. One place offering safety was Damascus, a leading city in Syria. The church already there was perhaps founded by Jews who had been converted at Pentecost, but now its ranks were doubtless swollen by refugees from Jerusalem.
Their presence in Damascus came to Saul’s attention, and he obtained authority from the high priest to seize them and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial. The Romans recognized the right of the high priest to prosecute Jews accused of violating Jewish law. If these Jews fled to places outside Judea, Roman policy allowed the high priest to carry out extradition, using local synagogues to deliver the accused into the custody of agents sent from Jerusalem.4 So, armed with letters from the high priest to the synagogues in Damascus, Saul started on his way.
The Vision That Changed the World
With him on the road were several companions. At midday, as they drew near Damascus, a brilliant light stronger than the sun suddenly engulfed the whole company (Acts 22:9; 26:13). It must have seemed as if the sun itself had leaped toward the earth. Under the impact of this sudden blaze, the whole company fell to the ground (Acts 26:14). Saul’s companions were greatly frightened (Acts 22:9). After a while they rose, but stood motionless and speechless, unable to comprehend what was happening. They heard a sound coming from the light, but they could not make out exactly what the heavenly speaker was saying (Acts 22:9).
Unlike his companions, Saul had no difficulty understanding the majestic voice. Moreover, he had a clear picture of the person who stood regally in the midst of the overpowering radiance, for in later years he listed himself among those who had seen the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:8). The Christ he saw was not, however, in the humble state He assumed when He walked the roads of Palestine, but in His glorified state, as He was when John saw Him on the Isle of Patmos (Rev. 1:12–16).
The voice said, "Why persecutest thou me?" Although Saul was conversant in the language being spoken, which was Hebrew (Acts 26:14), the accusing words left him confused. He knew that he was in the presence of a being so exalted that he must address Him as Lord. Yet he did not immediately grasp how he, the best of the Pharisees, had offended the Lord God of Israel. In his complete bewilderment, he called out the pointless question, "Who art thou, Lord?" It was pointless because it gave the answer. The voice was indeed the Lord's. Perhaps Saul's question betrayed a dawning realization that he was in the presence of Jesus. Whom else had he been persecuting? Yet he wanted to confirm the speaker's identity.
The Lord answered Paul with two statements designed to turn Saul’s life in a new direction. He said, "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest." Saul’s suspicion was therefore correct. The Lord speaking to him was the person Jesus. And now Saul perceived with horror that his tireless work to extinguish the new church was nothing less than blasphemy, for he was desecrating a work of the Lord. The Lord continued, "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks" (Acts 26:14). He was referring to goads—the sharp sticks used to get a horse or ox moving.5 Only an especially stubborn and stupid beast would respond by kicking the goads and thus calling for more pain to be inflicted upon itself.
Saul’s heart melted. The presence of a glorious Christ shriveled up all his layers of pride and left him a naked soul. Seized by the shock of utter astonishment, he found himself trembling. For the first time in his life he uttered words that were entirely humble: "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" (Acts 22:10). In other words, "I acknowledge who you are, Lord, and I submit to your leadership. What is your will?"
Many years later, when Paul stood before the Roman rulers of Palestine, he revealed how Christ answered the question. As he lay on the road, Christ said to him, "Rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me" (Acts 26:16–18). Then Christ told Saul to proceed into Damascus, where he would receive further instructions.
Before Saul could be a useful vessel in God’s service, he had to undergo extensive training. God’s program of education for Saul had three parts.
- He had to be thoroughly humbled.
- He had to be reeducated in the Scriptures.
- He needed several years of seasoning.
Encounter with Ananias
Now began God’s work of humbling Saul, moving him from self-reliance to total dependence on God. The first step in this work was to strike Saul with blindness. When he rose from the ground, he could not see. Years later he remembered the blindness as a lingering effect of the dazzling light he had beheld (Acts 22:11). For the rest of the journey, his companions led him by the hand. A man full of ambition to lead was forced to let others lead him. How humiliating! His dependence on others did not cease when he reached Damascus, for the blindness continued three days. It was a divine teaching tool, not only reducing his pride by lowering his station among men, but also illustrating his true spiritual condition in the past. He had long been blind to the truth in Christ.
Upon the arrival of Saul's company in the city, his companions arranged for him to stay in the house of a certain Judas on a street called Straight. There, while Saul waited for further instructions from the Lord, he had a vision revealing that a man named Ananias would soon come and heal his blindness. The visitor would accomplish this miracle simply by the touch of his hand.
In the meantime, the same Ananias, a faithful disciple in Damascus, also had a vision. He saw the Lord, and the Lord directed him to help Saul. Ananias balked, knowing perfectly well who Saul was—that his purpose in coming to Damascus had been to arrest believers like Ananias. But the Lord patiently explained that He had chosen Saul for an important ministry reaching both Jews and gentiles. Also, to arouse sympathy for this former enemy of the church, the Lord foretold that in serving God, Saul would undergo great suffering.
Ananias, a good man, immediately dropped his objections and obediently set out to fulfill his assigned task. To approach someone who had been a ruthless persecutor of believers took great confidence in the Lord’s word as well as great courage. But Ananias had no need to be afraid. When he came to the house on the street called Straight, Saul received him gladly.
Then, in obedience to the Lord, Ananias laid his hands on Saul, with the immediate effect that the Lord had promised. Saul fully regained his sight. Ananias's role as healer was another measure intended to teach Saul humility. He had to accept help from the kind of man he formerly despised. On his way to Damascus, he viewed followers of the Way as his inferiors. Now he was a learner sitting at their feet for instruction. God must have wanted Saul to understand that his future usefulness depended on esteeming others like Ananias as better than himself (Phil. 2:3).
In the moment before Saul's sight returned, it seemed as if scales fell from his eyes. We will indulge in some speculation here. Perhaps an angel had covered his eyes with small shields so that he might look upon the glorified Christ without damage to his vision, although they would also prevent sight under normal conditions. It was in this sense that the light left him blind—not because it impaired his sight, but because it required that he wear blinders, as it were.
When we fit together the various accounts of Ananias’s visit, we discover that he had a dual purpose; not only to restore Saul's sight, but also to lead the man to salvation who would show much of the gentile world how to be saved. He told Saul, "And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16). Although Saul had turned away from the folly in hating Jesus and instead viewed him as Lord, he had not yet dealt properly with the load of sin still on his back. He had yet to comply with the first gospel appeal ever proclaimed—the one culminating Peter's triumphant sermon at Pentecost: "Repent . . . in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38). Only by confessing his sin and seeking cleansing through Christ could Saul truly become Christ’s disciple.
Saul was eager to meet whatever requirement the Lord set before him. Although no account of the drama on the street called Straight says that Saul repented and called on the name of the Lord, we need not doubt that he readily heeded Ananias's counsel to take these steps. Then the other benefit that Ananias promised when he arrived must have been granted—the filling of the Spirit. Peter had spoken of the same benefit, saying that all who truly repent "shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:38). Now with his sight restored and with a joyful sense of the Spirit flooding his heart, Saul did not delay in taking the last step that Ananias advised, also found in Peter’s sermon: "Be baptized" (Acts 2:38). To show that he understood the urgency of pleasing the Lord, Saul underwent baptism even before he took food to relieve his hunger.
Saul’s Testimony for Christ in Damascus
Saul remained "certain days" with the church in Damascus. Immediately he began to preach Christ in the synagogues. The unconverted Jews were amazed, for they recognized him as the man who had come to arrest Christians. Some tried to argue with him, but like Stephen, Saul was not easily beaten in debate. He utterly confounded those who opposed him.
Saul was doing what the Lord wanted him to do. The Lord wanted him to start witnessing for Christ without delay. This proved the reality of his conversion. Also, this furthered the humbling process, for to proclaim in the synagogues that Jesus was the Son of God was a public admission that formerly he had been dead wrong—that what he had denied passionately was true absolutely.
In our chronology of the Book of Acts, we propose late AD 34 as the likely date of Saul's conversion (see Appendix 1). Immediately afterward, he endured the humbling that God intended as the first phase of his training. Then, having completed this course of character-building, he was ready to enter the second phase. He had to be reeducated in the Scriptures.
Saul’s Sojourn in Arabia
In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul recollects that after his conversion, he did not seek an interview with the apostles back in Jerusalem, but instead he went to Arabia (Gal. 1:15–17). Most readers in the past believed that he must have gone there to confer with the Lord.6 Many scholars today insist that Arabia was his first field of evangelism,7 but, in agreement with other recent scholars, we believe that the older view, assuming that he spent his time there in prayerful solitude, achieves a better fit with the rest of his life story.8 Also, Paul explains his trip to Arabia as a choice to confer "not with flesh and blood" (Gal. 1:16). He implies that he decided instead to win the benefit of a divine tutor.
Yet Saul’s training was not finished. He still needed a few years of seasoning.
Saul’s Further Witness in Damascus
The next step of preparation for his life’s ministry was to go back to Damascus. There he met violent opposition. A plot against his life forced him to flee, but leaving the city was risky. His enemies had enlisted the support of a powerful figure, the local governor appointed by King Aretas (2 Cor. 11:32). No doubt because Saul had gone into hiding to escape arrest, the governor, anticipating that Saul’s next move would be an attempt to flee, put all the gates of the city under constant watch.
Escape through the gates was now impossible. So at night, probably on a dark night, Saul’s friends put him in a basket and, through a window in the city wall, lowered him to the ground outside (2 Cor. 11:33). God’s purpose was no doubt to give Saul a taste of the persecution that he would face all his life.
Saul’s Visit to Jerusalem
Next, Saul went straight to Jerusalem. In the brief memoir we find in Galatians, Paul sets the time as three years after his conversion (Gal. 1:18). If, as we have surmised, his conversion fell in 34, then his subsequent visit to Jerusalem after three years (by inclusive reckoning) fell in 36 (see Appendix 1). We infer that his sojourn in Arabia was of long duration. It may have lasted one or two years, with shorter stays in Damascus at both ends of the interval. Or it may have essentially filled the whole three years. Perhaps the Lord kept Saul in the remote school of Arabia for this protracted term so that no one could view his training as less thorough and authoritative than Jesus had furnished the disciples, who also spent three years with a divine teacher.
In Jerusalem Saul tried to join the band of disciples, but naturally they were afraid of him. Perhaps they thought that he was infiltrating their ranks to find out who were Christians. Barnabas, one of the leaders, believed in Saul’s sincerity and brought him before "the apostles." Paul later remembered that these were Peter and James the Lord’s brother (Gal. 1:18–19). Barnabas told them of Saul’s wonderful conversion as a result of seeing the Lord, and of his bold witness for Christ in Damascus. Suspicion then gave way to welcome. Saul was received as a brother and allowed to fellowship freely with everyone in the church. In the following days he joined in all their comings and goings. We may suppose that he put many questions to them about Jesus’ ministry, and that their answers taught him much of great value.
As he had done in Damascus, he began to confront unbelieving Jews with the gospel, probably in their synagogues. Coming from a Greek city in Asia Minor, he knew Greek and Greek learning, so he directed his witness especially to Greek-speaking Jews, the same ones that Stephen had tried to reach, only to suffer rejection. They had conspired against his life and brought about his execution. Preaching to Greek-speaking Jews was good practice for Saul, since his calling in life would be to evangelize the Greek world. But his efforts came to the same result as Stephen’s. The Greeks sought to slay him.
At this time Saul had the encounter with the Lord that he recalled many years later, during his last visit to Jerusalem (Acts 22:17–21), when he tried to share his life story with a throng of angry Jews. He told them that during his first visit to the city after his conversion, he went to the Temple and prayed, falling into a trance. The Lord then appeared to him and commanded him to depart from the city with all speed. "Make haste, and get thee quickly out of Jerusalem: for they will not receive thy testimony concerning me. . . . Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles." If, after coming away from this vision, Saul reported it to church leaders, it probably served as confirmation of their own concern for Saul's safety. They may have heard rumors of what his enemies were plotting. So, it was not long before they all came to a common mind on the right course of action. Saul should leave Jerusalem at once. And he did, only fifteen days after he arrived (Gal. 1:18).
A team of believers conducted him away to the port city of Caesarea, and from there he sailed to his home city, Tarsus, in the southeast corner of Asia Minor. Then for a time—probably little shy of ten years—Saul played no part in events recorded in the Book of Acts.
The Wisdom in God's Choice
History remembers Paul as the man who took Christianity beyond the bounds of the Jewish nation and made it primarily a gentile religion. If we measure success by visible results, he was the greatest of the apostles. Why did God choose Paul for this role?
1. By every measure, Paul was an unusual man.
He himself wrote that "not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called" (1 Cor. 1:26). Yet Paul was all these. He had the best Jewish education available in his day, giving him wisdom after the flesh. He was mighty, for he possessed enough political clout to wage a campaign of persecution against the church. And since in his lineage he came from a Jewish family with the unusual rank of Roman citizens (Acts 22:25–28), he was noble as well.
God in His wisdom molded such a man to be His apostle to the gentiles. In that role he would write much of the New Testament, a task that would employ his education. His background in the Sanhedrin, if he was indeed a member, prepared him to stand before rulers, even governors and kings. His last trial before he was beheaded by the Romans was in Rome, so it is possible that the emperor himself, the vile Nero, sat in judgment upon Paul and heard him speak. Paul’s high birth fitted him to reach all classes of society, the nobility as well as the common people.
2. Before he became a witness for Christ, Paul was a persecutor of Christ.
The suffering that he caused fellow believers left a lifelong grief in his heart. We see evidence of this lingering grief in his statement that he was the chief of sinners. But it was good for him to remember how wicked he had been. He was so important in the work of God that he could easily have fallen into the snare of pride. The memory that he had once been a pitiless persecutor helped to keep him humble.
The same memory also helped him to accept his sufferings for Christ. The catalog of all his trials and tribulations is sobering to read. "Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches" (2 Cor. 11:23-28).
It is amazing that a human body could endure so much punishment. He must have had an iron constitution. Yet all this suffering was bearable partly because he could look on it as a sort of justice—as exactly what a man deserved who in days past had tormented and killed the godly.
Release from Persecution
Saul’s conversion ended the persecution that scattered believers throughout the region. Suddenly the pressure upon them to hide was removed, and they could freely do the work of the church. The result is that many grew stronger in their Christian faith and practice.
Now they walked only in the fear of God instead of walking also in the fear of man. And now too they especially enjoyed the encouragement and counsel of the indwelling Holy Spirit. These powerful motivators working in combination—fear of God serving as a negative incentive, the Spirit’s encouragement as a positive incentive—roused believers to pursue the Great Commission with new zeal, and they won many to Christ. The churches multiplied throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria.
The leading apostles understood that it was their responsibility to help all the churches. Just before His ascension, the Lord told Peter to feed His sheep (John 21:15–17). He wanted Peter to make sure that the whole church of God received adequate spiritual nourishment. Thus, after Philip’s mission to Samaria, Peter and John went there not only to give them the Holy Spirit, but also to disciple them in sound doctrine. Sometime later, Peter took a tour of all the churches, coming at last to Lydda, a city on the road from Jerusalem to Joppa on the Mediterranean coast. The date was probably in the late 30s (see Appendix 1).
At Lydda, Peter found Aeneas, a man with a severe affliction. For eight years he had been bed-ridden with a paralysis of the legs. Whether he was already a believer, we do not know. But Peter took compassion on him and declared that the Lord would make him whole. Peter's choice of words emphasized that the work would be instantaneous, not gradual.21
To perform a miracle always requires faith. On this occasion, Peter asked the man to show faith by making the effort to rise. As soon as he started to move, the palsy vanished, and he rose without difficulty. God not only cured him, but also took away the weakness of his legs after years of disuse. We may assume that Aeneas immediately obeyed Peter's command to put away his bed, so wrinkled and soiled after long use.22 The effort served as proof that his healing was complete, and the disposal of his bed was a visible sign that his healing would be permanent.
News of the miracle spread rapidly throughout Lydda and the neighboring region, here called Saron but better known as Sharon. The name refers to the coastal plain extending north from Joppa to Caesarea and beyond to Mt. Carmel.23 People throughout this wide area marveled. The healing of Aeneas was the first notable miracle done in their midst. They had not seen the many miracles that Christ and His apostles had done in Jerusalem and Galilee. Aeneas was someone nearby, not someone mentioned in accounts of God’s healing work in other places. From their own observation or from the testimony of his neighbors, they had no doubt that his affliction was severe and incurable. The miracle therefore had an electrifying effect. The writer reports that many unbelievers in Lydda and Saron accepted the gospel.
While Peter was staying in Lydda, a godly woman in the nearby city of Joppa died. This woman was greatly beloved by the church because of her good deeds. Like many people in Palestine, she bore two names, one Aramaic and one Greek. Both the Aramaic (Tabitha) and the Greek (Dorcas) signify a gazelle or any other deerlike animal.27 The writer calls our attention to her names because they must give us a true picture of the woman. She must have been gentle and graceful like a doe.
Two brethren in the church at Joppa hurried to Peter and pleaded with him to come quickly. It was the Jewish custom to bury a body on the very day of death, before corruption could set in (Acts 5:5–10).28 But if Dorcas was already dead, what did her friends expect Peter to do? They must have had faith enough to believe that Peter could bring Dorcas back to life. No doubt they had heard about all the great works that Christ performed. Besides healing the sick, He raised three from the dead. These were the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11–16), the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:49–55), and Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha (John 11:1–44). Jesus told His apostles that they too would do wonderful works, even greater than He had done (John 14:12). Therefore, the believers in Joppa believed that Peter could raise Dorcas, and Peter hurried to her bedside, confident that He could perform the miracle.
When Peter arrived in Joppa, he found all the widows weeping over Dorcas. To prove her death was a great loss, they showed Peter the clothing she had made for them. He then put the widows out of the room and knelt beside the body. After praying and satisfying himself that it was God’s will to raise this woman to life, Peter turned and said, "Tabitha, arise." Immediately she opened her eyes and sat up. Apparently she hesitated before rising further, so Peter gave her his hand to help her come all the way to her feet.
With a voice of happy triumph, Peter called in the believers waiting outside and presented Dorcas alive. You can imagine their reaction. Their mourning must have instantly turned into rejoicing and praising God. The believers did not keep her restoration a secret. They eagerly spread the news, and soon the whole city knew that a great miracle had been done. The result of this dramatic display of divine power was that many believed.
Simon the Tanner
Afterward Peter remained in Joppa for "many days." His likely purpose was to baptize and disciple all the new believers.
He stayed at the home of Simon the tanner. From this seaside house (Acts 10:6), Peter doubtless enjoyed a wonderful prospect of the waters bathing the edge of Joppa, which offered the only natural harbor along the coast between Egypt and Syria.29 For almost a thousand years before the Romans built Caesarea further north, Joppa was the seaport for Jerusalem, thirty-five miles to the southeast. There Solomon unloaded the beams of cedar shipped from Lebanon for construction of the Temple (2 Chron. 2:16).