In our last essay we studied Acts 9:1-9, which gave Luke’s account of the conversion of Saul. In this essay we are studying Acts 9:10-31. In verse 10 we are told that a Christian disciple named Ananias lived in Damascus. He apparently was a very special disciple, because God chose him for a very special task. Since Ananias apparently knew of Saul only through hearsay (v. 11), scholars generally believe that he was not a Jerusalem disciple who had been scattered because of the persecution there. Rather they suggest that Ananias may have become a believer due to earlier evangelism that emerged from Galilee rather than Jerusalem. To me, it is an open question.
In any case, the Lord spoke to Ananias in a vision and told him to go to the home of a man named Judas on Straight Street, where he would find a man from Tarsus named Saul (vv. 10-11). Whatever the origin of Ananias’ conversion, he had heard about the role of Saul in the Jerusalem persecutions. He also knew that Saul had come to Damascus to persecute Christians there (v. 14). So we understand not only why Ananias was astonished by the Lord’s command, but also why he was reluctant to obey it and go to Saul.
Interestingly, to this day Straight Street is one of the main east-west thoroughfares in Damascus. And its name obviously came from the fact that it actually was a straight street, a rather unusual thing in those days. Except where the Romans had built some straight streets, the streets in ancient cities generally tended to be quite crooked. Absolutely nothing more is known about this Judas.
The Lord overcame Ananias’ reluctance by telling him how important Saul was to the fulfillment of God’s plans: The Lord said, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (vv. 15-16).
This is an important and revealing statement. Therefore let’s unpack it a bit. First, it is clear that God chose Saul to be a major Christian spokesman. Some Reformed theologians would interpret this to mean that Saul had little choice in the matter. But God never takes away our free choice.
Second, the statement clearly shows that Saul was commissioned as an apostle both to Gentiles and Israel. In Acts 22:21 and 26:16-18 Paul makes it clear that he understood his commission to be primarily to Gentiles, but he normally began his ministry in any given town or city with a witness to Jews.
Finally, third, the statement predicts the suffering that Saul would undergo during his apostolic ministry. And that prediction certainly came true in a pronounced way. In 1 Cor. 11:22-29 Paul lists his apostolic sufferings, and it is quite an impressive list.
So Ananias obeyed the Lord and went to the house of Judas (v. 17). In the meantime Saul had a vision in which he saw a man named Ananias coming to lay hands on him so that he would regain his sight (v.12). That is so cool! This man, Saul, was so important to God’s plans for his people that the Lord worked miraculously on both ends of the encounter between Saul and Ananias. He gave both of them visions to prepare them for the event.
As Ananias lays hands on Saul, he calls him brother Saul. In other words, all of Ananias’ doubts about Saul are now gone. He welcomes Saul into the Christian fellowship as a brother. Notice what Ananias says to Saul: “Brother Saul, the lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Thus Ananias reveals two purposes for his visit to Saul. Saul is to regain his sight, and he is to be filled with the Holy Spirit. This is important. Saul needed his sight to be able to do all that God was calling him to do. And he had to be filled with the Spirit to be effective as an apostle. The latter point is true of the rest of us as well. We cannot be completely effective as Christians in ministry unless we are filled with the Spirit.
At that moment “something like scales” fell from the eyes of Saul, and his eyesight was restored. Then he got up and received baptism. Some scholars want to debate when Saul was converted during this whole process. In my opinion that is a useless debate. The information is not adequate to pinpoint the exact moment. However we do know that he was converted by the time Ananias finished praying for him, because Saul ended his fast and was baptized. In my opinion, he probably also was filled with the Spirit by then.
Next, we see Saul’s ministry in Damascus. In 19b-20 we see that Saul immediately after his baptism began to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God in Damascus. Interestingly, he did it in the very synagogues that he had come to cleanse of all Christians. Saul’s preaching created quite a stir of amazement (v. 21).
The title “Son of God” would include the idea that Jesus is the Messiah. We know from Mark 14:61 that the Jews of the day considered the two titles to be equivalent. The context in Mark 14 was the high priest’s questioning of Jesus during his hearing before the Sanhedrin. The high priest asked Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Of course the “Blessed One” is God. So you can see the equivalence.
In verse 22 we are told that Saul became “increasingly more powerful,” literally “was more filled with power,” which means the power of the Holy Spirit. And he confounded the Jews with whom he debated by proving to them, probably from Scripture, that Jesus is the Christ.
In verse 23 we are told, “After some time had passed” the Jews plotted to kill him.” Literally the Greek reads, “After many days had passed.” That’s a rather vague expression of time. We must ask ourselves how long “many days” would represent.
Well, we learn from Gal. 1:18 that it was three years. In Gal. 1:15-24 Paul begins to tell the Galatians about his early apostolic ministry. He refers to his Damascus Road experience in verses 13-15. And he specifically says that he did not go up to Jerusalem but went to Arabia and then returned to Damascus (verse 17). Then he says in verse 18, “Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit with Cephas.”
Now for some reason, many scholars say that Saul spent the three years in Arabia. Neither Luke nor Paul ever says that. What Luke says is that Saul went to Arabia and came back to Damascus (Gal. 1: 17). Then Paul says in Gal. 1:18 that after three years he went to Jerusalem. Saul undoubtedly went to Arabia shortly after his conversion, but we have no idea how long he stayed.
Now coming back to Acts 9:23-25, we see that after the three years, the Jews plotted to kill Saul, and he had to flee for his life. One night his friends in Christ lowered him down in a basket from an opening in the wall (Paul says it was a window (2 Cor. 11:33) so he could escape without going through a gate.
In verses 26-27 we learn that the disciples at Jerusalem didn’t want to have anything to do with Saul, because they didn’t believe he was actually a convert; and they feared him. But Barnabas acted as Saul’s sponsor, and Saul was accepted. You will remember Barnabas. He was a disciple from Cyprus who back in chapter four (vv. 37) sold a field and gave all of the money to the church.
But Saul upset the Hellenistic Jews so much that they wanted to kill him. So once again he had to flee for his life. His fellow believers sent him to Caesarea, where he could get passage to his hometown of Tarsus. Do you see a pattern here? Saul apparently was run out of Arabia, since the Arabians were trying to kill him at Damascus (Col. 11:32-33). He was run out of Damascus; and he was run out of Jerusalem. Obviously Saul’s witness was extremely abrasive.