Today we begin this blog post with Acts 9:1-19. God is now ready to appoint a highly trained full-time missionary to the Gentiles. He selects Saul of Tarsus and changes his life to fit this role of Paul.
Most commentators will refer to Acts 9:1 -19 as The Conversion of Paul. Nothing could be more misleading or inaccurate; and, I’m sorry to say, while I don’t think it is meant that way, it is one of the most anti-Semitic Christian catch phrases that one could use.
In fact, Paul himself spoke out against the concept of conversion when a Jew or Gentile comes to faith in Christ.
In the dictionary and certainly in the sense of the word as we think of it today, to convert means to metamorphose. It means to become something entirely different. A caterpillar will transform, or metamorphose, to a butterfly. The result is that there is no longer any resemblance between a caterpillar and a butterfly; all traces of the caterpillar have disappeared, and an entirely new creature has emerged.
Paul did not metamorphose from a Jewish caterpillar to a Christian butterfly.
Rather Paul turned. That is, he turned away from wrong interpretations of the Law and the Prophets and turned towards the right interpretations.
Paul turned away from rejecting Yeshua as the Messiah that the Law and the Prophets pointed to and turned towards accepting Him not only as Savior but also as God.
Paul did not become a new creature; he was simply the same creature with a new understanding.
Paul did not cease being a Jew and instead became a gentile.
Paul did not stop obeying the Law of Moses and start following a new set of Laws that Yeshua supposedly created. He did not renounce Judaism and adopt Christianity, and he did not stop going to the Temple or the Synagogue and instead become a church-goer.
The chapter opens with Saul’s condition before he turns. He is working furiously to stamp out this new sect of Judaism that calls itself The Way. Paul does not intend to murder anyone personally; that wasn’t his job because he was an academic.
But no doubt, as with Stephen, he was hoping that by ferreting out and arresting Yeshua’s followers that the result would be the same. Thus in verse 2, we find that Paul goes to the High Priest and asks for letters of authorization to the Synagogue leaders to identify and hand over to Paul anyone in their congregations that might be Yeshua sympathizers.
Why go to the High Priest for permission? Because the High Priest was head of the Sanhedrin and Paul was operating in some official capacity for the Sanhedrin.
And why go to the Synagogues? Because especially in the Diaspora the Synagogue functioned the way Churches do in rural settings. That is they are typically the local meeting place; town hall and sanctuary rolled into one. The Synagogue was the social and religious hub of the Jewish communities operating in foreign lands, and this represented around 95% of all living Jews.
And this also shows that there was a separation of authority structure and operation between the Temple and the Synagogue. Since the Sanhedrin was the Jewish High Court, and the High Priest was the head of the Jewish High Court, then the Temple, of course, had authority in a certain sense over the Synagogue and those who attended.
Thus we find Paul on the road to Damascus with a letter of authority to round up Believers in any of the several Synagogues there. Damascus was in Syria, part of the Roman Empire, but of course outside of the Holy Land.
Since the Believers of Jerusalem fled after the execution of Stephen no doubt it was these fugitives that Paul was searching for.
It was a 130-mile journey from Jerusalem to Damascus, and somewhere along the route God; or better by Yeshua in spirit confronted Paul.
A bright light burst from the sky, and it was so terrifying and sudden that Paul fell to the ground in fright; a voice rang out from the clouds that asked Paul why he was persecuting him.
Luke claims that the words from Heaven said Sha’ul, not Paul, indicating that the language Saul heard was Hebrew. Sha’ul, of course, is puzzled and confused and asks whom it is that is speaking to him. The voice says it is Yeshua.
Clearly, the point of Yeshua identifying Himself with the persecuted Believers is to show full solidarity with them. But it also makes the point that from the spiritual perspective to reject and abuse a worshipper of Messiah because they are doing the will of the Messiah is the same as rejecting and persecuting the Messiah Himself.
The Complete Jewish Bible is correct to say that Paul’s response was
“Sir, who are you?” Unlike most versions that say, “Lord, who are you?”
When Sha’ul responded to Jesus, he did not mean lord in the sense of the Lord God, but rather in the sense of addressing a person of authority.
So “Sir” carries the best meaning. Yeshua responded by telling Paul to get up off the ground and complete his journey to Damascus. But when he got there someone would be sent to meet him with further instructions.
Verse 7 explains that Paul had companions traveling with him; they saw the light, they heard the voice, but they saw no one who was speaking. They were frozen with fear and could say nothing.
But Sha’ul was blind. It was not the intensity of the light that blinded him, or the other men would have been blind as well. Nor was Paul being punished for not believing.
Might his visual blindness be a living metaphor that exposed his spiritual blindness? Yes, I think so. There were previous events in Israel’s history that essentially accomplished the same thing.
One was when Miriam spoke out against her brother Moses and questioned his authority. She instantly broke out in Tzara’at, a nasty skin disease that is divinely caused and thus Miriam’s spiritual health was revealed; she was spiritually unclean on the inside even though she looked so pious on the outside.
Sha’ul’s companions had to lead him by the hand the remainder of their journey to Damascus, and he stayed blind for a time after he arrived.
During this period he neither eats nor drinks. Paul was blind, not ill, so very likely he was fasting and realized he had encountered God and because of Christ’s instructions Paul knew he was about to hear more from God through someone else.
Fasting to prepare for God’s oracle was Biblical, and prayer invariably accompanies it.
There was a particular disciple of Christ in Damascus named Hananyah (Ananias). Hananyah is a Hebrew name, so this person was a Jew originally from the Holy Land, likely one of the fugitives Paul was seeking to arrest.
The Lord comes to Hananyah in a vision and calls his name. Hananyah replies, “Behold, here I am Lord.” We don’t find the word “behold” in the CJB, but it ought to be there because the Greek says “idou,” which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew word hineni.
Hineni is a word that characterizes obedience, attentiveness and a readiness to act with zeal upon whatever comes next and is often associated with God’s prophets.
God tells Hananyah to go to a particular house and ask about a man from Tarsus and that this man will be praying (this ties in with Sha’ul fasting).
And while praying God has readied Paul for this encounter with the help of a vision of Hananyah coming to him, laying hands on him, and restoring his sight.
But Hananyah was skeptical of Yeshua’s instruction to go to Paul because Paul’s mission to harm the Believers was well known. Yeshua doesn’t chastise Hananyah because He knows things that Hananyah doesn’t.
So He patiently explains that Paul has been chosen for a special mission, to carry the Good News to the Gentiles, to Gentile kings, and even to the sons of Israel.
This reference to the sons of Israel means the Diaspora Jews who live among the Gentiles but no doubt is also intended to include the scattered ten tribes of Israel most of whom had forgotten their Hebrew heritage.
But more, Yeshua tells Hananyah that Paul is also going to find out that this mission is going to require great suffering. And indeed it did as, for example, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 11: 24-28 CJB:
Five times I received “forty lashes less one” from the Jews.
Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. I spent a night and a day in the open sea.
In my many travels I have been exposed to danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the desert, danger at sea, danger from false brothers.
I have toiled and endured hardship, often not had enough sleep, been hungry and thirsty, frequently gone without food, been cold and naked.
And besides these external matters, there is the daily pressure of my anxious concern for all the congregations.
One can only imagine what was going through Hananyah’s mind as he contemplated Christ’s words that Paul would take the Jewish Gospel to Gentiles. And this had to be perhaps the most incomprehensible (probably the most upsetting) part of what he heard in his vision.
Why would the gentiles want a Jewish Messiah and why would the Jews want to share their Messiah with their oppressors? Nonetheless, Hananyah obeyed, went in and laid his hands on Paul, and Paul’s sight returned. His blessing upon Sha’ul was in the name of Yeshua, the same one who took Paul’s sight away from him a few days earlier.
But now comes an issue; Hananyah’s laying on of hands also resulted in Paul receiving the Holy Spirit. So we are left to assume that Paul had already come to believe in Yeshua (although we are not directly told this), probably during his prayer and fasting.
So sometime after coming to faith, but before immersion, the Holy Spirit comes to indwell Paul but only with the laying on of hands. And along with the indwelling of the Spirit comes healing.
My belief is that the end of his physical blindness was a real and living witness to the end of his spiritual blindness; otherwise, the physical blindness doesn’t seem to have had a discernable purpose.
We have discussed the issue of the connection between faith, baptism and the Holy Spirit before. But the point I want to draw today is that while Christian denominations will often insist upon an individual authorized sequence of baptism and how the indwelling of the Holy Spirit MUST happen and does happen.
In fact, what we have seen up to now in the Book of Acts, and will discern in upcoming chapters, is that there is no consistent divine formula or sequence; it can happen in any number of ways.
- Sometimes long intervals can occur between steps;
- Sometimes it all happens immediately.
- Sometimes it involves the intervention of another;
- Sometimes it all happens in private.
The Lord is sovereign, and He will deal with us as individuals and on His terms.
The healing Paul experiences are as though scales fell from his eyes. There is no reason to take this as an expression; some flaky substance covered over his eyes for several days and then all at once fell off.
The healed, saved, prepared Paul is now ready for God to begin to mold him and shape him. Paul ends his fast and starts eating and drinking again to regain his strength.