But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
–Acts 9:1-9 (ESV)
This is part of the book of Acts generally referred to as “the Conversion of Saul,” and from a traditional Christian point of view, records the event of the Jewish Pharisee Saul, hater of all Christians and followers of Jesus, converting and becoming Paul the Christian, and Apostle to the Gentiles in the diaspora.
If you’ve been reading my blog for very long, you know that I’m not likely to accept the exact understanding most Christians have of this event, but I must say things have been illuminating. A new teacher is taking over the Sunday school class I’m attending and he’s coming in with a different style. It’s not particularly unusual, though. He assigns “homework” for the upcoming Sunday school class, in this case on the aforementioned Acts 9, and presents a series of questions that we students are supposed to research (he provides the relevant scriptures) and answer, and then bring our answers to the next class, which for me, is later today.
I debated within myself (and with God) whether or not I should even write about my Sunday school assignment. After all, my first impression upon receiving my assignment by mail several days ago and taking a look at it, was that it’s rather traditional Christian fare in terms of its content and perspective. I was wondering if there was anything I could learn from it (I know that sounds arrogant on my part, but I’m pretty familiar with how Christian tradition views Saul/Paul). I was also wondering what the rest of the class could learn, since the lesson seems relatively elementary, and I recently discovered that several members of the class are on the church’s board of elders, and thus are likely long-term Christians, well established in their faith and knowledge of the Bible.
I can’t speak for them of course, but I learned a few things.
I tend to think and write thematically, and while I am detail oriented, some of the finer points of scripture escape me at times, or at least don’t make it from short-term to long-term memory. According to Galatians 1:16-19, after Paul’s “conversion,” having his sight restored, and his escape from Damascus (Acts 9:23-25), Paul spent three years in Arabia (presumably it was Arabia) before going to Jerusalem. According to Galatians 1:18-19, once Paul returned from Arabia and journeyed to Jerusalem, he spent fifteen days in the Holy City (Acts 9:26-30) before leaving again (apparently in haste to escape the “Greek-speaking Jews” who were trying to kill him).
I did find it ironic that Paul most likely discovered that the shoe was on the other foot as he found himself being lowered in a basket, through an opening in the exterior wall of Damascus to escape those trying to kill him.
For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.
When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.
–Acts 9:19-25 (ESV)
Compare that to what we read here:
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
–Acts 1:1-2 (ESV)
In Acts 9:23, when it says the Jews plotted to kill him, the word translated into English as “Jews” is the Greek word “Ioudaioi,” which specifically refers to the Jewish religious leaders and their supporters, not all Jewish people in general. Paul was a representative of the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, and only a short time before, he was the one who was seeking to imprison and kill the Jewish believers belonging to “the Way.” Now, he was in the exact position of those he formerly sought to harm, and his opponents were the ones who only a tiny march of days before, would have been his allies. It must have been like facing a reflection of his former self as he was before encountering the Master on the road to Damascus. His “Damascus experience” had changed and completely reversed itself from what he thought it was to be when he originally left Jerusalem.
Jesus, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.
And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
OK, let me get this straight. After an absence “off the grid” of three years, Paul returns to Jerusalem and attempts to make contact with the Apostles. They are naturally dubious, since the last time they heard about Paul, he was an enemy of the Way and had made it his “mission” to persecute the movement and eradicate its followers. Now he’s claiming to be one of them, to have had a vision of the Master himself, and that Jesus had given Paul a completely different mission, one of announcing the good news of Messiah to the Gentiles of the nations. It sounds like a bad joke.
Fortunately, Barnabas was there to back Paul up and to verify everything Paul was saying. Scripture doesn’t record how the Apostles reacted, but I guess it was favorably enough to allow Paul to go “in and out among them at Jerusalem” and to preach “boldly in the name of the Lord.” However, for whatever reason, Paul found it necessary to speak and dispute against the Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews) in Jerusalem, which resulted in said-Hellenists wanting to kill him. Again, we don’t have the details, but commentary suggests that these Hellenistic Jews were not believers (as were the “Hellenists” we find in Acts 6:1), however, they may have been some of these guys.
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.”
–Acts 6:8-14 (ESV)
That’s just speculation and the interpretation I found in my ESV Bible, but it’s as good as anything, lacking further information. All this does suggest something though.
The main understanding I’ve gained here is that not all Jews were against Paul, against following Jesus as the Messiah, or against the Way. There were obviously believers in Damascus, and Ananias, who was directed by Jesus to restore Paul’s sight (Acts 9:10-16) is thought by Christian tradition to have been the leader of the Jewish believers in that city. It is in the same city after his sight was restored, that Paul (amazingly, given who he was just a few days before) began to proclaim the Master in the local synagogues (Acts 9:19-22) and he did so for “many days” (v 23), and only when the non-believing Jewish religious leaders (as opposed to the Damascus Jews in general) tried to kill Paul (presumably for reasons similar to why Stephen was stoned in Acts 6), that he had to leave in secret.
Similarly, after his three-year absence, Paul returned to Jerusalem to find Jews who were Apostles and followers of Jesus and Jews who were not. The believing Jewish Apostles cautiously supported him (small wonder, given his former reputation) while other Jews, because he spoke against them (the reasons aren’t clear), opposed him and wanted to kill him (a recurring theme in Paul’s life).
The upshot is that “the Jews” as a people and a nation, did not “reject Jesus.” Opinions between Jewish sects varied widely on theological grounds, but the most likely reason why the “official” (that is, established and supported by Rome) Jewish religious leaders wanted to kill Paul (and other members of the Way) was because they were rocking the political boat and upsetting the status quo of a corrupt and invalid leadership that was firmly in Rome’s back pocket.
Even studying for Sunday school, using a traditional Christian Bible and only consulting accepted Christian commentary, I still find that many, many Jews, including one of the (former) chief opponents of the Way, firmly accepted the Gospel message and were loyal and devoted disciples and Apostles of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Yes, other Jewish sects had reasons not only to disbelieve Jesus was Messiah but to passionately oppose the Jewish sect of the Way, but they didn’t represent all Jews everywhere. Paul spent “many days” in Damascus preaching the message of Messiah among all of the local synagogues (not just those belonging to Christ’s Jewish followers), so obviously he had a Jewish audience who wanted to repeatedly hear what he had to say (we see this again in the latter part of Acts 13 which I’ll introduce tomorrow).
Paul only spent fifteen days in Jerusalem before some of the Jewish believers heard of the plot to kill Paul and helped him escape (Acts 9:30), but he continued to speak boldly in the Master’s name. And even after leaving Jerusalem, we can see the effect of his subsequent journey.
So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.
–Acts 9:31 (ESV)
While this translation of the Bible speaks of “the church” throughout all Judea and the Galilee and Samaria, who were the believers living in those regions? Jews and Samaritans. Probably lots of Jews and Samaritans. The first Gentile we know who became a disciple of Jesus was Cornelius, and Peter had yet to encounter him (see Acts 10). The Jews and Samaritans were not Christ’s enemies, at least not all of them. Many desired to hear the message of hope and they believed. Luke’s chronicle in the early chapters of Acts records this clearly. Those Christians who doubt this because of our own traditions may want to re-examine the scriptures with open eyes and see what is actually there.
Jesus said, “salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22 ESV). Paul said, “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16, 2:10 ESV). If we in the church ignore or worse, cut off our root, we separate ourselves from the only source of our faith, our hope, and our salvation.
Oh, one more thing.
And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
–Acts 9:4-5 (ESV)
I knew of the extremely close association between Jesus and his people Israel and particularly his Jewish disciples, but I didn’t know it was also revealed here. Jesus didn’t ask, “Why are you persecuting my people” or “my disciples” but “Why are you persecuting me.” The better part of a year ago, I painted similar portraits of the Master as the Son of Israel in Minister of Peace and Gift of the Firstborn of Israel. Jesus revealed this part of his nature to Paul as well, and I hadn’t even realized it.
Now I wonder how much of this I should share in Sunday school?