Tag Archives: Acts 9

Sunday School Homework: Acts 9:1-31

paul-on-the-road-to-damascusBut 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).

paul-damascus-basketI’m not sure those details are important, but they were recorded by Luke and Paul so I suppose I should acknowledge them.

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.

Acts 9:26-30

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.

PaulFortunately, 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).

prince-of-peaceThe 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.

christian-coffee-cultureJesus 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?

Articulating an Encounter with God

saul-on-the-roadNow there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.

Acts 9:10-15 (ESV)

This is part of the section of Acts 9 Christians typically call “the Conversion of Saul” (Acts 9:1-19). It is what Pastor Randy’s message was about during last Sunday’s sermon, and it is what Charlie taught to the Sunday school class I attended after the worship service.

There’s just tons and tons and tons I could comment on, especially regarding the material and discussion in Charlie’s class, but I’m going to address almost none of it in this week’s “church report.” If I did, I’d probably start more of a messy debate than I really want to deal with. But rather than talk about the things I don’t always agree with the church about, I want to talk about something that actually “clicked” for me.

In fact, when I heard some of the folks in class mention this, I practically wanted to jump for joy. I’d never heard Christians talk like this before. It was as if they were reading my mind.

Let me explain.

Have you ever heard any Christian say something like, “And then the Lord told me to do such-and-thus?” How about this one: “I felt that it was a calling from the Lord for me to do such-and-thus?”

I’ve heard those phrases from time to time and I’ve always wondered about how those Christians could know that what they were experiencing was from God vs. a “message” they were telling themselves based on what they wanted to hear from God. When I’ve made such a statement before, I’ve usually been criticized for not understanding how the Holy Spirit moves in people’s lives. But get this…the members of my class who were vocal about it agreed with my assessment. One gentleman even said it gives him goosebumps in a “creepy” way when people talk like that.


I even felt comfortable enough to weigh in with my own opinion.

Now just to be clear, no one was saying that God doesn’t work in our lives, direct us in our actions, and require that we serve Him.

It’s just not based on a “calling” such as we see in Paul’s encounter with Jesus in Acts 9. An interesting opinion that’s been coming out of the church I attend for the past several weeks is that Acts is a “transitional” book and doesn’t describe what we can typically expect in a Christian life. We can’t expect to have a “Paul on the road to Damascus” encounter with Christ. We aren’t going to (probably) see a blinding white light or hear a Bat Kol from Heaven. And we aren’t going to receive an amazingly clear-cut calling to perform a specific set of actions from Jesus the way Paul received it.

Or for that matter, we won’t have an experience like this one, either.

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.

Acts 9:10-19 (ESV)

covering-eyesDon’t get me wrong. It would be great for Christ to talk to us and we could talk back, just like the conversation Ananias had with the Master, but such is not to be (to the best of my knowledge). It would be great if we could receive such specific information and even better if, like Ananias in verses 13 and 14, we could respond back, even questioning our instructions. Of course, that sort of communication presupposes that, again like Ananias, we would then respond in obedience, even if it was against our better (human) judgment, and do what we were told to do, That sort of communication presupposes that we would even act in obedience to restore the sight of someone who, up until a few days ago, had been a bitter enemy bent on imprisoning us and even killing us. It would mean we would have to obey the Lord and learn to address our enemy sincerely and with compassion as “brother.”

That doesn’t happen too often.

It must have been a difficult thing for Ananias to do, but he did it because he was a Jew and a disciple of the Master who was obedient to God.

But that doesn’t particularly mean what Paul and Ananias experienced transfers in any way to what we experience. Paul heard a voice from Heaven. When a modern-day Christian says, “the Lord spoke to me,” what do they “hear” if anything at all? We are not Paul. We are not Ananias. There’s no real evidence in New Testament scripture of Christians receiving a “calling” as many believers use the expression. I think the best we can hope for is this.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

1 Corinthians 12:1-11 (ESV)

The entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 12 describes how we are all different and all possess varying skill sets within the body of believers, but our gifts originate from a single Spirit and we serve One God.

I’m sure you have noticed what you’re good at and what you’re not so good at. I’m sure you have been in situations where what you’re good at can (and hopefully has) been applied to serving other people and serving God. Beyond specific skills, anyone can donate a can of food to their local foodbank. Anyone can visit a sick friend in the hospital. Anyone can listen to a friend who is going through a tough time tell you their troubles for an hour or so just because you don’t want them to feel alone.

But it doesn’t mean that God has “called” you to do this or that or such or thus.

So the question came up, how do you know you are where you are and doing what God wants you to do?

That’s a tough one. It really is. We tossed that one around in class for a bit. Some folks think that if they’re in a situation and there’s no adversity, then that’s where God wants them to be. Problem is, sometimes God puts you in a spot where you’re going to experience adversity, such as what Christian missionaries face in certain African countries. Just because there are problems doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong place to serve God.

My own litmus test (and this is just me) is that when I find myself doing something I never would have chosen for myself in a million years and it is something that is helping other people and serving God, then that’s where God wants me to be.

walking-side-by-sideNo, it’s not like God always puts me in uncomfortable and even miserable situations. In fact, on Saturday, I had a meeting with Pastor Randy to discuss some work I wanted to do for the congregation (yes, I met with him on Shabbos…if that bothers you, then you’re going to have to get past it). We ended up talking about a great many topics near and dear to my heart. I discovered that we have many attitudes and opinions in common and I even managed to bring up subjects with him that I thought might be premature, given how little time we’ve had to get to know one another.

I’ve had my doubts in the recent past that this church was where God wanted me to be. No, I haven’t heard even a single audible word from God for or against my being at this church, but the way things seem to be presenting themselves, I can see that there’s a fit between this church and me (no one was more surprised than I was).

Am I being “called?” Nah, probably not. But God does work in our lives in ways we can’t always explain or even understand. Beyond what I’m saying in today’s “church report,” I can’t really articulate the experience. I just know that like my bi-monthly coffee companion said not to long ago, I have encountered God in church.

Imagine that.