The conversion of Paul (Acts 9)
Persecution threatened in other cities (9:1-2)
Luke’s account now switches to describe the conversion of Paul, who will dominate the rest of Acts. While making Paul the focus of his interest, Luke never loses sight of the fact that the Holy Spirit, and hence God, is the true center of his story.
However important Paul turns out to be, he is not Luke’s main character. He is but one of the human characters who enact the larger drama of God’s fidelity to his promises. Luke’s concern therefore is for the more properly religious dimensions of the event: how this unexpected turnabout was caused by the direct intervention of the risen Jesus in history, and how the “conversion” of Paul was in reality the call of a prophet. [Johnson, 167.]
Luke begins his description of Paul’s conversion in chapter 9 by continuing the story of his persecution of the church. “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples,” says Luke of Paul’s campaign of persecution against the church in Jerusalem (9:1).
Paul even travels to other towns, Damascus in particular, in order to round up Christians. As he later tells King Agrippa, “I even hunted them down in foreign cities” (26:11). To Paul, stamping out the Christians is a necessary part of doing God’s will. They are teaching a blasphemous heresy that threatens the people of God (the Jews) and the sanctity of the law and temple. It is surely God’s will that such people should be silenced.
Paul can justify his actions against the church by looking to the heroes of Israel’s history. Phinehas killed an Israelite man and Midianite woman who were defying the law of God (Numbers 25:6-15). Elijah killed the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:40). Mattathias, the father of the Maccabees, used violence to root out the enemies of God and apostates among the people (1 Maccabees 2:1-28, 42-48).
Thus it is that Paul sets out toward Damascus with the zeal of an avenging prophet. He has letters from the high priest with authority to extradite any Christians he finds in the synagogues of Damascus. Paul will capture them and return them to Jerusalem for trial and punishment (9:2). Most likely those being hunted down are the Hellenistic Christians who fled Jerusalem, not those who lived permanently in Damascus. So far as we know, the high priest has no direct authority over the latter, since they are not in his immediate jurisdiction.
Later, Paul explains that the entire council signed the order of extradition he was given (22:5). Luke is pointing out that the Jewish leaders continue to be in the forefront of trying to eradicate the new sect of Jesus believers. Some questions have arisen over exactly what powers of extradition the letters from the high priest gave Paul. Two centuries earlier, Rome had decreed that Jews who fled to Egypt could be extradited to Jerusalem (1 Maccabees 15:15-24). They were then to be punished according to Jewish law.
Whether this authority to extradite exists in the time of Paul is not known. It’s possible the high priest still holds the power of extradition from the Roman authorities. If not, the Sanhedrin may be relying on its clout with local synagogues to cooperate in this matter. The political situation in Judea is unstable, with the Roman governor not wanting to intervene in “Jewish matters.” Thus, the council may hope to punish as many Christians as possible without the advance knowledge or intervention of the Roman authority.
“The way” (9:2)
In his account, Luke refers to the threatened Christian community as “the Way” (9:2). It seems to be a name by which the church identifies itself. Luke uses the term several times in Acts (19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). The name recalls the words of Jesus when he said, “I am the way” (John 14:6). The Qumran community also refers to its mode of life as “the way.” To them “the way” points to the community’s strict obedience to the Law of Moses. However, the Christians stress faith in the salvation brought by Jesus, who was “the Way.”
It’s easy to see why the word “way” or “road” is a Christian metaphor for “manner of life.” It has to do with the believers’ understanding that a person needs to walk in the path of God’s salvation, in obedience and faith to him. Opponents, of course, think that the church is walking the wrong path. Outsiders refer to the church not as “the Way” but as “the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5, 14; 28:22).
Interestingly, the church does not seem to refer to itself as “Christian” very often. The term was coined at Syrian Antioch (11:26), by outsiders, and the name appears only twice more in the New Testament (Acts 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). “Christian” is at first an outsider name for the disciples, not one the community uses for itself.
On the road to Damascus (9:3)
When Luke turns to Paul’s conversion experience, he places him on the highway, near Damascus. Paul has traveled about 150 miles (242 kilometers) from Jerusalem. Damascus is one of the cities of the Decapolis, which is a league of self-governing cities in eastern Syria and the area east of the Jordan river (Matthew 4:25; Mark 7:31). Damascus is a thriving commercial center, part of the Roman province of Syria since 64 B.C. The city has a large Nabatean Arab population, a fact that might figure later into this part of Paul’s life. (The Nabatean kingdom stretched from the desert southward to the Red Sea, and its capital was Petra.) Damascus also has a large Jewish population. Josephus says that 10,500 Jews were killed in the city when the Jewish-Roman war broke out in A.D. 66. [Wars 2:561; 7:368.]
The moment of encounter (9:3)
Acts 9 gives us the first of three accounts of Paul’s conversion. The story is also told as part of Paul’s speech before a Jerusalem crowd (22:5-16) and his testimony before Agrippa and Festus (26:12-18). This is one of the most significant events in the early church’s history, and it’s not surprising that Luke gives us three versions of it. Paul himself writes of the importance of his encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road: “God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me” (Galatians 1:15-16).
The three accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts show some minor variations, mostly in what each adds or omits from the basic story. We’ll refer to a few of these differences (which don’t affect the main story) as we make our way through the account here in chapter 9, and also when we discuss chapters 22 and 26. [A comparison of these three accounts is posted at https://www.gci.org/acts/harmony.]
The disagreement in detail between the three versions…is less significant than what the repetition tells us about Luke’s perception of the event. The turning of a Pharisaic persecutor into the apostle of the Gentiles is a paradox so profound that it requires multiple retellings, with each version bringing out some further nuance of significance. [Johnson, 166.]
As Luke’s story begins, Paul is nearing Damascus when a light suddenly flashes around him. The shock causes him to fall to the ground. That’s when he hears a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (9:4). The men traveling with him, perhaps temple police, stand speechless, as “they heard the sound [Greek, phone] but did not see anyone” (9:7). Luke doesn’t indicate whether Paul’s companions saw the light, but they did not see Christ manifested (9:7).
In the other accounts later in Acts, we find that the bright light flashed, not at night, but at high noon. To Paul it is brighter than the sun, which makes it all the more surprising (26:13). In Acts 22, Paul says the men with him see the light, which chapter 9 doesn’t mention. In this later account, Paul says that the men do not hear the sound, presumably meaning that they do not “understand the voice,” as the NIV puts it (22:9). The Greek word phone can mean either “sound” or “speech.” What apparently happens in this case is that the whole group hears a sound but only Paul understands it as spoken words. Similarly, the group sees the light but only Paul perceives the risen Jesus.
“Why do you persecute me?”
The voice addresses Paul in Aramaic, something we learn from Paul’s account of the event given before Agrippa (26:14). (Is it because this is the language Jesus spoke, or the one Paul spoke as a first language?) “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” the voice asks (9:4). The double name is used for emphasis, and is found in other stories of divine calling, including Abraham’s, Jacob’s and Moses’ (Genesis 22:11; 46:2; Exodus 3:4).
Paul is confused. He doesn’t see himself as persecuting God. Paul thinks he is doing God a service, defending his way against the apostate Christians. Saul then asks, “Who are you, Lord?” Saul doesn’t yet know it is Jesus. He seems to understand his vision as a revelation from God. As the account shows, Paul is open to God’s self-revelation, even though he is unaware of his purpose.
The figure standing before Paul shocks him greatly when he answers, “I am Jesus” (9:5). It is not directly stated in this verse that Paul actually sees the risen Christ, but only that he hears his voice. But it is confirmed soon afterwards, when Luke introduces Ananias (9:17) and Barnabas (9:27) into the account. Ananias refers to “Jesus, who appeared to you” (9:17). It’s clearly stated in the versions of this event Paul gives to Agrippa (26:16) and a Jewish crowd (22:14) that he sees Christ.
When the risen Christ tells Paul he has been persecuting him, he is making an important point. Paul is not rejecting human beings, but by his actions, he is rejecting Christ himself (Luke 10:16). In persecuting the church Paul is persecuting the body of which Jesus is the head. [Romans 12:4, 5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-17; Ephesians 5:30; Colossians 1:18.] Christ and his church are one, and he has a tangible presence on earth through his believers. Paul learns that these Nazarenes — these followers of Jesus whom he despises — are not confused heretics. They, rather than he and the Sanhedrin, are the people of God, and Paul is the one who is confused.
Saul could not escape the fact that the Jesus whose followers he had been persecuting was alive, exalted, and in some manner to be associated with God the Father, whom Israel worshiped. He, therefore, had to revise his whole estimate of the life, teaching, and death of the Nazarene because God had beyond any question vindicated him. Thus he came to agree with the Christians that Jesus’ death on the cross, rather than discrediting him as an imposter, fulfilled prophecy and was really God’s provision for man’s sin and that Jesus’ resurrection confirmed him as being the nation’s Messiah and mankind’s Lord. [Longenecker, 371.]
This Messiah, the glorified Christ, has now appeared to Paul himself. Paul later stresses the importance of this revelation. He sees the risen and glorified Christ, and this is as real as Christ’s appearances to his disciples after the resurrection. [1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8-9; Galatians 1:11-12, 15-17.] It is a proof of Paul’s apostleship and of his witness to Christ and the gospel.
Saul taken to Damascus (9:7-9)
The stunned and shaken Paul struggles to his feet, but he has been blinded by the light (9:8). The men with Paul recover their composure and escort him to a house in Damascus. For the next three days the blind Paul fasts, no doubt meditating on the meaning of his encounter with Jesus.
In Luke’s account in chapter 9, there is no indication that Paul is told anything else about his future commission by the risen Christ on the Damascus road. The later account in Acts 22:10 supports this. There, Paul says he is told to get up and go into Damascus. “There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do,” said Jesus. That’s where a man named Ananias enters the stage. The account in Acts 26, however, telescopes the entire incident as though all of Paul’s instruction comes at the time he is struck down (26:18). Paul’s commission to the Gentiles is stated in the following words: “to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (26:18).
Ananias has a vision (9:10-12)
Luke now introduces Ananias as the person through whom God will restore sight to Paul and explain his future. Ananias is a Jewish believer in Jesus who lives in Damascus. Paul calls him “a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there” (22:12). Ananias has a vision from God in which he is told to go to the house of a man named Judas who lives on Straight Street in Damascus (9:11). This street is still one of the main thoroughfares of Damascus, the Darb al-Mustaqim. Tradition says that Judas’ house is at its west end.
Ananias is told that he will find Paul in this house, and he will be praying. Luke portrays Paul as a man of prayer (16:25; 20:36; 22:17) even as Jesus was in his earthly ministry. [Luke 3:21; 6:12; 9:18, 28; 11:1; 22:41.] Luke also emphasizes that the church itself is a praying body. At crucial points in their personal lives and in the life of the church, the disciples pray for God’s guidance and intervention. [Acts 10:2, 9; 13:2-3; 14:23; 20:36; 21:5; 28:8.]
Afraid of Paul (9:13-16)
Ananias is quite hesitant about going to meet Paul. He has heard reports about him and knows that he came to Damascus with authority from the chief priests to arrest Christians. Ananias refers to the Christians as “saints” (hagioi). This is the first time Luke uses the term in describing the church community (also in 9:41 and 26:10). The saints or holy ones are those whom God sets apart for his service. All Christians are saints. They are not “saints” because of their own goodness but because of what God does to them, making them his own. Christians are commonly called saints in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s letters. [See, for example, Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 6:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; 8:4; and Ephesians 1:1.] Even though Paul has persecuted the saints, the Lord insists that Ananias visit Paul. Ananias is told: “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (9:15).
Once Paul receives his commission, he continues to regard himself as someone who has been “set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). [See also Galatians 1:15-16 and Ephesians 3:7-9 for Paul’s understanding of his distinctive election to special service.] Paul’s threefold witness before Gentiles, kings and the people of Israel amounts to a programmatic prophecy for his life’s mission. Luke describes Paul’s work in Acts in terms of this commission. 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). At almost every turn Paul begins his preaching in the Jewish synagogue (14:1; 17:2; 18:19). However, while Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews (“the circumcision”), we must not draw too hard a line on this division of labor. After all, Peter opens the way to the Gentile world by preaching the gospel to the Gentile Cornelius. And Paul regularly preaches to Jews.
Paul’s calling will not be filled with personal glory, however. He is forewarned that he will have a life of pain and distress. In the words of Jesus, delivered to Paul through Ananias: “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (9:16).
Ananias visits Paul
With this understanding about Paul’s future role, Ananias goes to the house of Judas, meets Paul, and places his hands on him. He says: “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” (9:17). By laying his hands on Paul and calling him brother, Ananias is welcoming him into the community of believers. Immediately, something falls from Paul’s eyes, and he can see again. Ananias now leaves the story as mysteriously as he enters it.
In Acts 22, Luke gives a fuller account of Ananias’ part in the conversion. There, he describes Paul’s commission in these words: “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth” (22:14). The title “the Righteous One” refers to the Messiah. This is the title Stephen uses in his Sanhedrin speech when he accuses the council of rejecting their Messiah (7:52). Paul, who may have heard the speech, is now faced with accepting the One he rejected, and whose messenger he approved of killing.
Ananias also tells Paul that he will be a witness to all people of what he has seen and heard. Finally, Ananias tells Paul: “Now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (22:16). Paul responds immediately. He is “baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength” (9:18-19). Though Luke doesn’t directly say so, Paul receives the Holy Spirit. That, after all, is a major reason why Ananias is sent to Paul — to lay his hands on him so he might receive the Spirit (9:17). “That Saul should have received the filling of the Spirit through the imposition of the hands of such an obscure disciple as Ananias shows clearly that Luke did not reckon the imposition of apostolic hands to be necessary for this.” [Bruce, 188.]
Paul’s early preaching
After spending a few days with the disciples in Damascus, Paul begins “to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God” (9:20). The fact that Paul wastes no time in beginning his witness demonstrates that he is to perform a vital mission. But we should note that he preaches to Jews, not Gentiles. Paul almost always begins his preaching in a synagogue. He goes to a synagogue first, and then moves to other places only after he is rejected and expelled. [Acts 13:5, 13-16; 14:1; 16:13, 16; 17:1; 18:4, 19; 19:8; 28:17.]
The substance of Paul’s initial preaching is a basic and simple gospel of Jesus’ Messiahship, as understood by the church. Jesus died and was resurrected. He fulfilled the role of the hoped-for Messiah, and Jews should put their faith in him because he represents salvation for his hearers. Luke says that Paul preaches that “Jesus is the Son of God” (9:20), without explaining how this term is understood; this is the only time in Acts that this title appears. In his own writings, Paul uses the title “Son of God” and “Son” 15 times. These are scattered throughout several of his epistles. [Some examples are Romans 1:3-4; 1 Corinthians 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:19; Galatians 2:20.]
Paul is now preaching the very things about Jesus that he persecuted others for saying. Naturally, the unconverted Jews are astonished at the almost unbelievable turnaround in Paul’s attitude toward Jesus and the church. The man who was the sworn enemy of the Christians is now preaching Jesus. Luke records the bewilderment of those who hear him: “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?” (9:21).
But Paul grows more powerful in his preaching and baffles “the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah” (9:22). The verb “proving” used here literally means “placing together,” “bringing together,” or “comparing.” That is, 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.
Paul escapes (9:23-25)
It is only a matter of time before Paul becomes the target of persecution. Luke tells us that after Paul preaches for “many days” in Damascus, the Jews conspire to kill him (9:23). Paul somehow learns of the plot, but getting out of the city will be difficult. Jewish spies are watching the city gates night and day in hopes of spotting Paul and killing him. But the disciples devise a plan of escape. “His followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall” (9:25; see also 2 Corinthians 11:33). Houses were often part of the city wall, and their upper-floor windows opened to the outside of the city. This is apparently what Luke means by “an opening in the wall” (9:25). Note that Paul now has “followers” — he had become a leader in the Damascene Christian community and probably led a number of people to faith in Jesus.
Paul’s preaching in Damascus and his escape take place “after many days had gone by” (9:23). In Galatians, Paul gives a more exact time, saying the escape and his first trip to Jerusalem occur three years after his conversion (1:18). Paul also adds something to Luke’s story of his escape in another letter. The extra details show the extent of the conspiracy against him. He said that “the governor under King Aretas” had Damascus guarded (2 Corinthians 11:32-33). This means that the Jews of Damascus are in league with a pagan political ruler in trying to track down Paul, just as the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem allied with pagan rulers in the crucifixion of Jesus. After his escape, Paul returns to Jerusalem.
Preaching in Arabia?
The king Paul mentions is Aretas IV (9 B.C.-A.D. 40), the ruler of the Nabatean kingdom, or “Arabia.” Paul’s mention of King Aretas is important because of what it tells us about his movements during the three years between his conversion and first trip to Jerusalem. From Luke’s account in Acts 9 it appears that Paul stays the entire three years in Damascus, preaching in the synagogues, before his escape to Jerusalem. But according to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he goes “into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus” (1:17). Since Aretas was king of “Arabia,” we may have a reason why the king’s representative in Damascus is involved in the plot to arrest and execute Paul. Why would a Nabatean king and his agent be involved in a plot against Paul? That is to say, why would an Arab ally himself with Jews over matters of interest only to Judaism?
Before we answer that question, we should acknowledge that it’s not clear what a representative of Aretas is doing in Damascus. Is he resident in Damascus to look after the interests of Arabs living there under Roman rule? Or is Damascus at this time under the control of Nabatea? Whatever the situation, the Nabatean official has some kind of jurisdiction and political power in Damascus. Commentators speculate that the reason he goes after Paul is tied to the reason Paul goes to Arabia. They surmise that Paul does not go to Arabia with the purpose of being in a solitary desert place so he can reflect on the meaning of his new life. Rather, Paul goes to Arabia to preach the gospel in its cities and town. Thus, he is fulfilling his commission to preach to the Gentiles.
Paul’s preaching would cause him to run afoul of the authorities and King Aretas. Thus, the king might instruct his agent in Damascus to enter an alliance with the Jews, since both of them want Paul out of the way. Aretas would cause his police and military to cooperate with the Jews, and together they would patrol the gates and city in hopes of capturing Paul.
It is commonly supposed that Paul’s sojourn in Arabia had the nature of a religious retreat: that he sought the solitude of the desert — perhaps even going to Mount Horeb as Moses and Elijah had done — in order to commune with God and think out all the implications of his new life, without disturbance. But the context in which he tells of his going to Arabia, immediately after receiving his commission to proclaim Christ among the Gentiles, suggests that he went there to preach the gospel. The hostile interest which the Nabataean authorities took in him implies that he had done something to annoy them — something more than withdrawal to the desert for solitary contemplation. [Bruce, 192.]
Of course, this scenario is only a possible reconstruction of the situation. Luke doesn’t give us enough details (and neither does Paul) to reach a definite conclusion. Luke is more interested in showing the genuineness of Paul’s conversion and how God leads him to fulfill his commission to preach the gospel. To summarize, we can reconstruct the three years of Paul’s life between his conversion and first visit to Jerusalem in the following way:
- Paul is converted in Damascus (9:1-19);
- he preaches in the synagogues of Damascus for a short time immediately following his conversion (9:19-22);
- he then goes on a prolonged trip into Arabia with the purpose of preaching to Gentiles (Galatians 1:17);
- he returns to Damascus and for the rest of the three-year period, and again preaches in the synagogues there (9:23-25);
- Jews and agents of the Nabatean king try to find and arrest Paul;
- Paul escapes from Damascus and travels to Jerusalem.
The accounts of this period of Paul’s life in Acts, 2 Corinthians and Galatians agree in important essentials. The accounts in the epistles add some details to Acts and omit others. The accounts are complementary and not contradictory. Luke’s work is historically accurate — an independent account, not simply copied from Galatians or 2 Corinthians. The different purposes of Luke and Paul affect the selection and shaping of the facts of the Damascus-Arabia episode. In Galatians, Paul’s primary concern is to establish the fact of his apostolic authority as coming directly from Christ (Galatians 1:11-12). The details of his Damascus and Arabian missionary activities are irrelevant, though he mentions them in passing.
Luke is also interested in the nature of Paul’s conversion and commission. However, his concern centers more on how the gospel message spreads from Jerusalem, around the eastern end of the Empire, and then to Rome. He doesn’t mention Paul’s excursion into Arabia because it veers off the main geographical movement of the gospel that Luke wants to highlight. (For the same reason, Luke says nothing of the church’s mission to Galilee.)
Church suspicious (9:26)
When Paul arrives in Jerusalem, he finds that the church members are gravely suspicious of him. How can it be otherwise? The church still remembers, even after three years, how Paul dragged its members off to prison and had them flogged and beaten. Paul puts the feelings of the church regarding his turnaround in these words: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy” (Galatians 1:23). The church cannot deny Paul is preaching Christ, but perhaps they are not quite sure of his motives.
Still, some commentators are puzzled as to why the rank and file of the church should still be so distrustful of Paul. Surely, they heard of his dramatic conversion, his preaching activity and the persecution he suffered. Perhaps the church thinks that Paul’s “conversion” is only part of an elaborate plot, a scheme to penetrate its ranks to ferret out believers for punishment. Whatever the case, Luke tells us the disciples don’t believe he has really converted (9:26).
There’s an indication that even the apostles are somewhat apprehensive. That may seem surprising, but none of them know Paul personally, except as a fanatic enemy (Galatians 1:17). The apostles may wonder why Paul, if he is really converted, did not contact them or the Jerusalem church for three years.
Paul in Jerusalem (9:27)
Barnabas, whom Luke introduced earlier (4:36-37), now comes on the scene and saves the day for Paul. He brings Paul to the apostles and recounts to them his conversion and preaching in Damascus (9:27). One might wonder why Barnabas is the only person willing to vouch for Paul and take a chance in accepting him as a true believer. Whatever the reasons, Barnabas’ action is certainly in keeping with his character. [Acts 4:36-37; 11:22-30; 13:1-14:28; 15:2-4, 12, 22.] He seems to be a good judge of a person’s true self. Ironically, Barnabas will later show the same kind of take-a-chance generosity to Mark (15:37-40), whom Paul will reject as an unworthy ministerial aide. In the end, Paul will see that Barnabas was right in giving Mark another opportunity to minister (2 Timothy 4:11).
Barnabas brought Paul “to the apostles,” a phrase that at first look seems to refer to all of them (9:27). However, Paul says that on this occasion he stays with Peter for 15 days and “saw none of the other apostles — only James, the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19). Luke is apparently using a generalizing term. If someone sees Peter and James, the leading apostles, it is as though the person sees them all. If those two accept you, then the others will as well.
Luke says that during this visit to Jerusalem Paul “stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem” (9:27). Paul says in Galatians that he stayed with Peter, and saw James. Perhaps he also stayed with James for a time. This might account for Luke’s assertion that “Saul stayed with them.” We can take this as Luke’s use of another generalizing plural. We don’t know how long Paul stays in Jerusalem, but his visit probably amounts to weeks, not months. During part of his visit, Paul might also stay at his sister’s house in the city (23:16). That he sees none of the other apostles need not seem strange. They may be doing evangelistic work elsewhere.
In Galatians Paul makes another statement about his visit that seems to contradict what Luke writes. In his epistle, Paul writes that he is “personally unknown to the churches of Judea” (Galatians 1:22). Yet, Luke says Paul preached in public, moved about freely, and had meetings with Peter and James — even staying with Peter. The answer may be that Paul confines his public appearances to debates with the Jewish Hellenists in Jerusalem. Although Galatians says Paul does not meet with the disciples in the churches around Judea, it does not say he doesn’t meet any of the Jerusalem believers. The answer may be that Paul’s stay is confined to Jerusalem; he is therefore not known to Christian communities scattered about Judea. Because of the disciples’ suspicion and fear of Paul, they probably would not make any effort to see him anyway.
Speaks boldly (9:28-29)
During his stay in Jerusalem Paul speaks “boldly in the name of the Lord” (9:28). He debates with the Grecian or Hellenistic Jews. This is 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. Paul’s appearance before the Hellenists is actually a witness against them. One of their own — the most zealous one — had made a total about-face regarding Jesus. This dramatic change in Paul should alert the Hellenists to take another look at the facts about Jesus. But their minds are closed. Paul soon finds himself in the same difficulty as Stephen was in. Luke says tersely that the Hellenistic Jews “tried to kill him” (9:29).
Paul goes to Tarsus (9:30)
The Jerusalem church apparently does not want another round of persecution, such as what followed Stephen’s battle with the Grecian Jews. (We see from Acts 9:26 that the church, probably composed of Hebraic Jews, is still operating in Jerusalem.) When the disciples learn of the plot against Paul, they quickly escort him to Caesarea. He is put on a ship and sent home to Tarsus (9:30). On the surface, this would seem to be a rebuff to Paul. Granted, the church is concerned for his safety, as well as their own. Paul is someone who always takes advantage of a preaching opportunity regardless of any death threats. On the surface, it seems as though the church is telling Paul to “get out of town before sunset.”
We will learn later that Paul may be a “problem” to the Jerusalem church. The reason is because it wants to maintain good relations with the orthodox Jewish population in the city. But Paul is so hated by the Jews that his mere appearance in Jerusalem stirs up strife, for himself and potentially for the church. That is not to say the church would railroad Paul out of the city against his wishes. There is a more compelling reason for Paul’s departure, one Luke doesn’t mention in Acts 9. However, he does mention it in Paul’s speech before a crowd of Jerusalem Jews. In his defense at the time, Paul speaks of an occasion when he was in the temple praying, and he has a vision. Paul sees the Lord saying to him, “Quick!...Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me” (22:18).
Paul tries to argue, saying that his turn-around conversion is so dramatic that it will cause the Jews to listen. But the Lord tells him again to leave Jerusalem: “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (22:21). It can be inferred that the time of this vision is just before his hasty departure from Jerusalem (22:17). Paul’s quick exodus to Tarsus is based on a heavenly mandate, to which he is obedient.
Luke does not say anything about Paul’s long stay in Tarsus. He draws a curtain over Paul’s life for what may be as long as ten years. Paul refers to this interval only in passing. He says that after leaving Jerusalem he goes to Syria and Cilicia (Galatians 1:21, 23). More specifically, he is referring to Antioch in Syria and Tarsus in Cilicia. Tarsus is the leading city of Cilicia, and Paul’s hometown. It came under Roman control in 64 B.C., but is still a free city. Some estimate the population of the city in Roman times to be close to half a million. The historian-geographer Strabo says Tarsus is a leading center of philosophy, rhetoric and law. [Geography 14.5.13.] Tarsus is also an important center of Stoic philosophy, so Paul would be familiar with the leading Stoics and their beliefs. We will see later that he can quote from Stoic poets.
Later, when Barnabas needs assistance in building the church in the Antioch area, he goes to Tarsus to find Paul, and brings him to Antioch (11:25-26). From then on, Paul becomes the central focus of Acts.
Church grows (9:31)
Luke’s first panel of material ended with a summary statement about the church and the progress of the gospel in Jerusalem (6:7). The second panel, in keeping with the programmatic prophecy given by Jesus (1:8), describes missionary work in Samaria, as well as parts of Judea. Luke ends the second panel with the following summary statement: “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, and it increased in numbers” (9:31).
Luke here gives the first and only indication that the church has spread to Galilee. But he gives no details about the Christian mission there, and writes little about the work in greater Judea. Yet, Luke’s brief summary statement tells us that the gospel is spreading and the church is thriving.
Peter preaches in Judea (Acts 9:32-43)
Peter heals Aeneas in Lydda (9:32-35)
Luke again takes up the story of Peter’s evangelistic work. He had left him in Jerusalem, after his tour with John through the Samaritan villages (8:25). We now find Peter on an evangelistic campaign in Judea (9:32). Philip has passed throughout the area of coastal Judea preaching the gospel on his way from Azotus to Caesarea (8:40). Peter may be following up Philip’s Judean missionary trip, even as he did for Philip’s work in Samaria.
Luke begins the account of Peter’s circuit around Judea with his trip to Lydda to “visit the saints,” that is, the believers (9:32). This is the Old Testament Lod. [1 Chronicles 8:12; Ezra 2:33; Nehemiah 11:35.] Lydda is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northwest of Jerusalem, at the edge of the central highlands. It sits astride two important highways. One runs from Egypt to Syria and the other from Joppa (on the coast) to Jerusalem.
In Lydda, Peter encounters a man named Aeneas who has been paralyzed and bedridden for eight years. Upon meeting him, Peter says, “Jesus Christ heals you,” and Aeneas immediately gets up and walks (9:34). Word quickly spreads of Aeneas’ healing, and it has a powerful influence on the community. With some exaggeration, Luke writes: “All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord” (9:35).
Raised from the dead (9:36)
Peter next goes to Joppa (modern Jaffa, or Yafo). It is 35 miles (56 kilometers) northwest of Jerusalem, 10-12 miles northwest of Lydda. Today, Jaffa is part of greater Tel-Aviv. Joppa is the only natural harbor on the Mediterranean between Egypt and Ptolemais (Acco), to the north. Thus, it serves as a seaport for Jerusalem. Herod the Great built the artificial harbor of Caesarea Maritima, 30 miles north of Joppa, which is an important seaport in the first century, too.
Luke takes up the story of a much-loved disciple who lives in Joppa. In Aramaic her name is Tabitha, and in Greek, Dorcas (both names mean “gazelle”). Luke says she is a person “who was always doing good and helping the poor” (9:36). But suddenly Tabitha dies, and the church in Joppa is mourning its loss of a much-appreciated and needed servant.
When the church hears that Peter is nearby in Lydda, they send two men to urge him to come to see what he can do. When Peter arrives at Joppa, he is taken to the house where Tabitha is lying in preparation for her burial. Here all the widows are gathered. They are crying and showing Peter the clothing that Tabitha made for the poor. Peter goes upstairs where her body lays. He sends everyone out of the room, and kneels and prays. Finally, turning to the dead woman, he says, “Tabitha, get up” (9:40). He takes Tabitha’s hand, helps her to her feet and presents her to the others.
There are similarities between this account and the raising of Jairus’ daughter by Jesus (Mark 5:21-24; Luke 8:49-56). Some of the similarities include:
- the use of messengers to call the person who will raise the dead,
- the milling about of crying bystanders,
- the excluding of outsiders from the room,
- the call to the dead person to rise,
- the taking of the revived individual by the hand.
The most striking similarity is that both Jesus and Peter issued a command for the dead person to rise, a short sentence in each case. Jesus had said, “Talitha…get up!” (Mark 5:41), whereas Peter cried: “Tabitha, get up” (9:40).
As he had seen Jesus do in the case of Jairus’s daughter, he ordered the mourners out of the room and prayed. Then he spoke these words: “Tabitha, 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 parallel between Mark’s account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter and Peter’s raising of Tabitha is striking. Interestingly, Luke uses a different construction for Christ’s command (Luke 8:54), one that does not parallel his phrasing of Peter’s command to Tabitha. This suggests that Luke is not aware of the similarity. Yet, it is there nonetheless.
Both the raising of Tabitha and the healing of Aeneas mirror similar miraculous works performed by Jesus (Luke 5:17-26; 7:11-16). The accounts in Acts 9 also remind us of the power to heal and to raise the dead exhibited by Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:32:37). Taken together, these biblical accounts show God as one who continues to work through his servants — be they prophets or apostles or his own Son — to show his saving power. God brings his power to bear on behalf of the less-advantaged people of the world. Among those whom he liberates from death and sickness are widows like Dorcas and the poor and disenfranchised who have no one on whom they can rely.
Simon the tanner (9:43)
Almost as a footnote, Luke mentions that Peter stays in Joppa “for some time with a tanner named Simon” (9:43). The rabbis considered tanning an unclean trade [Mishnah, Ketubot 7.10.] because a tanner’s work often required contact with unclean animals. [The skins of clean animals were apparently not unclean. Scribes often wrote the Scriptures on parchment, which is the stretched-thin skin of a dead animal.] This suggests that Peter is not overly scrupulous in observing some of the Jewish ceremonial traditions. Yet, he professes to be careful not to eat meats considered ceremonially unclean (10:4).
Peter seems to have an open mind regarding Jewish beliefs and practices; this prepares us for what will come shortly. He will be tested in the next chapter on matters “clean and unclean,” but from a much broader perspective.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Paul Kroll in 1995 and updated in 2012. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
As an aside, we should note Luke’s tendency to provide details that do not add anything pertinent to the account. But such details do underscore the historical accuracy of Luke’s writing. Specifically, Johannes Munck observes that “it is characteristic of Luke in Acts that he gives an accurate address” for a number of places in which Paul lives or works during his life. [Johannes Munck, The Acts of the Apostles, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1967; now published by Yale University Press), 88.]
Luke thus shows his attention to detail and to giving accurate information even on what might seem to be unimportant matters. In this case, we are told that the Simon with whom Paul stayed was a tanner, and he had a house by the sea. Luke also notes that Paul stays in Judas’ house in the street called Straight in Damascus (9:11). In Corinth Paul preaches in the house of Justus who lives next to the synagogue (18:17). At Ephesus, Paul teaches in the School of Tyrannus (19:9). [See also 16:14; 17:5-7; 18:2-3; 21:8, 16; 28:7.]
With this short section, Luke informs his readers that the gospel has been preached in the province of Judea by the apostles, at least by Peter (after Philip did so). Now, the story of the gospel in Judea has been told. Peter, the servant of God, has entered the cities of the Plain of Sharon, and has done wonders in the name of Jesus Christ. Many see his work, give God thanks and are converted.
The Christian mission within the Jewish nation has widened from southern Judea to northern Judea. The reader is now prepared for the next leap of the gospel message that must be taken. The good news must be preached to Gentiles, and in areas beyond Judea.