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Acts 9:1-20 Biblical Commentary:
The first disciples experienced considerable opposition at the hands of Jewish leaders. The priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees arrested Peter and John and tried them before the council (4:1-22). The high priest arrested and flogged the apostles. He would have had them killed, except for Gamaliel, who counseled caution lest they be found to be opposing God (5:17-42).
Then Jewish leaders arrested Stephen and executed him by stoning (6:8 – 7:53). “The witnesses placed their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul” (7:58) and “Saul was consenting to his death” (8:1a).
Then we have a brief account of Saul “ravaged the assembly, entering into every house, and dragged both men and women off to prison” (8:1b-3).
Then there is a mention of “those who were scattered” (8:4)—Jerusalem Christians who fled to safer places, going “abroad went around preaching the word” (8:4). Philip went to Samaria, where the people listened eagerly to his proclamation of the Messiah (8:5-6). Hearing of that, the apostles in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to Samaria, where they laid hands on the converts so that they might receive the Holy Spirit (8:14-24). Thus we have the beginnings of the spread of the Gospel.
Then Philip, at the direction of an angel, went to the wilderness road that connected Jerusalem and Gaza, where he met and converted an Ethiopian eunuch—the first conversion of a Gentile (8:26-40).
Then we have the story of Paul’s conversion (chapter 9—our text), followed by the story of Peter’s vision, which resulted in his opening the doors of the church to the Gentiles (chapter 10).
The most prominent apostle throughout the first twelve chapters of the book of Acts is Peter. However, beginning with chapter 13, Saul becomes dominant. We hear of Peter only once more in this book, when Peter defends the ministry of Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles (15:7-11).
At 13:9, Luke notes that Saul (his Jewish name) is also known as Paul (his Roman name), and without further explanation Luke thereafter uses the name Paul instead of Saul—the exceptions being occasions where Paul tells of Jesus calling “Saul, Saul” on the Damascus road (22:7, 13; 26:14).
The lectionary makes verses 7-20 an optional part of this lection, giving the preacher the option of a shorter reading, verses 1-6. The shorter reading is not appropriate if the preacher chooses to base his/her sermon on this Acts text. Verses 1-6 tell only the beginning of the story of Saul’s conversion and leave us hanging. Verses 7-19a tell the rest of the story of his conversion, and verses 19b-20 tell briefly of his preparation for ministry (v. 19a) and the beginning of his preaching (v. 20). The preacher who chooses to base his/her sermon on this Acts reading is strongly advised to use the full reading.
ACTS 9:1-2. SAUL, STILL BREATHING THREATS AND SLAUGHTER
1But Saul, still breathing threats and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, 2and asked for letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, that if he found any who were of the Way (Greek: hodou), whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
“But Saul, still breathing threats and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (v. 1a). Saul is “still breathing threats and murder.” Earlier, he was present at the stoning of Stephen (7:58) and “ravaged the assembly” by entering Christian homes and imprisoning Christians (8:3).
Saul is “breathing threats and slaughter against the disciples” because he believes them to be enemies of God. He is determined to root out false teaching and to imprison false teachers. There is much in the Hebrew Scriptures to justify killing those who would lead people astray. Saul is just being zealous to defend God’s interests.
“went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus” (vv. 1b-2a). The high priest’s authority does not extend to Damascus, which is located in Syria, about 60 miles (95 km) northeast of the Sea of Galilee or 140 miles (225 km) from Jerusalem—a journey that would take a week on foot.
However, Saul asks for letters to synagogues rather than civil authorities. Even though the high priest’s legal authority does not extend to Damascus, his moral authority would hold considerable sway with the large Jewish population in Damascus. Saul needs their help to root out Christians who have fled Jerusalem.
“that if he found any who were of the Way (hodou), whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem“ (v. 2b). Hodos is the word for road or path. Early Christians adopted “the Way” as the name for their movement, because Jesus spoke of being “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6)—meaning that he was the path to God and salvation.
Saul is not asking for authority to execute Jesus’ followers. He wants only to arrest them and bring them to Jerusalem where they can be properly tried.
Did the high priest have power of extradition outside his usual jurisdiction? Scholars disagree. Bruce says yes (Bruce, 180-181; see also Chance, 146), but Walasky says unlikely (Walasky, 91; see also Williams, 167). However, as noted above, Saul is asking for letters to synagogues rather than civil authorities. He is asking, not for authority to extradite, but for assistance in rounding up Christians. Apparently he anticipates that civil authorities will not stand in his way when he is ready to transport his prisoners to Jerusalem for trial.
ACTS 9:3-6. SUDDENLY A LIGHT FROM THE SKY SHONE AROUND HIM
3As he traveled, it happened that he got close to Damascus, and suddenly a light from the sky shone around him. 4He fell on the earth, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5He said, “Who are you, Lord?” (Greek: kyrie) The Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But rise up, and enter into the city, and you will be told what you must (Greek: dei) do.”
“As he traveled, it happened that he got close to Damascus, and suddenly a light from the sky shone around him” (v. 3). In recounting this story later, Paul will say that this incident took place at midday (22:6; 26:13)—the time of day when the sun is most intense. This light from heaven would have to be bright to be noticed so dramatically in the presence of the noonday sun. Paul will describe it as “brighter than the sun” (26:13).
Light is a recurring motif throughout Luke/Acts. Luke presents the Gospel as shedding light “on those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79)—and as “a light for revelation to the nations” (Luke 2:32). When Jesus died, “The sun was darkened” (Luke 23:45). When an angel came to rescue Peter from prison, “a light shone in the cell” (Acts 12:7). Later, Paul will say that God has called him to be “a light for the Gentiles” (Acts 13:47).
“He fell on the earth, and heard a voice” (v. 4a). This account tells us only that Saul heard the voice, but Barnabas will later tell the apostles that Saul “had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him” (v. 27). In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul will include a list of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. He will conclude that list by saying, “and last of all, as to the child born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also” (1 Corinthians 15:8).
Rabbis, conscious that there had been no prophetic voice in Israel for centuries, talked of a “bat qol“—(a daughter of a voice)—an echo of God’s voice that some person might hear on occasion—a means by which God could reveal his will. Bruce sees this verse as a “bat qol” (Bruce, 182).
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (v. 4b). In Hebrew scripture, God often uses a name twice to get the attention of a person whom he is calling for a special role (Genesis 22:11; 46:2; Exodus 3:4; 1 Samuel 3:4, 10).
Later, in his report of this incident to Agrippa, Paul will expand Jesus’ wording by adding, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (26:14).
“Who are you, Lord?” (kyrie) (v. 5a). Kyrie can mean “Sir” (a term of respect for another person) or “Lord” (meaning God). The ambiguity is appropriate here. Saul knows that there is only one God, so he would not ask God who he is. On the other hand, Saul knows that this voice from heaven is either God or a messenger of God—certainly not a mere mortal.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (v. 5b). Christ identifies with his disciples so that persecuting disciples is tantamount to persecuting Christ.
Jesus reply hit Saul like a ton of bricks. Saul’s mission in life has been stamping out the sparks of the budding Christian movement lest those sparks light a fire that might get out of control. Now Saul learns that, instead of doing Godly work as he intended, he has been opposing God, as Gamaliel earlier warned might be possible (5:38-39).
“But rise up, and enter into the city, and you will be told what you must (dei) do” (v. 6). Jesus does not yet empower Saul for mission, but simply orders him to go to Damascus to await orders.
The little word, dei, can be translated “it is necessary.” It appears in the New Testament more than one hundred times, and suggests divine necessity or God’s will.
ACTS 9:7-9. WHEN HIS EYES WERE OPENED, SAUL SAW NO ONE
7The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the sound, but seeing no one. 8Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened, he saw no one. They led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. 9He was without sight for three days, and neither ate nor drank.
“The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the sound, but seeing no one” (v. 7). There appears to be a conflict between this verse and Paul’s later report that “Those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they didn’t understand the voice of him who spoke to me” (22:9). However, it seems likely that they heard the sound without understanding the voice—and saw a light without being able to determine its meaning.
“Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened, he saw no one” (v. 8a). Saul “now discovers on a literal level what readers already know to be true about him on a spiritual/metaphorical level: he is blind” (Chance, 147).
“They led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus” (v. 8b). In his blindness, Saul is completely helpless. He cannot even walk to town without assistance.
God often comes to us in our weakness. In his epistles, Paul will talk of Christ dying for the ungodly “while we were yet weak” (Romans 5:6)—and “chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27)—and “whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10)—and “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
“He was without sight for three days, and neither ate nor drank” (v. 9). We don’t know the meaning of Saul’s fasting. Perhaps he is fasting in repentance for having persecuted the Messiah. Perhaps he is simply in shock at the sudden turn in his life. Perhaps he embraces fasting as a spiritual discipline to make himself vulnerable and open to the Lord’s working in his life.
ACTS 9:10-12. NOW THERE WAS A DISCIPLE NAMED ANANIAS
10Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias!” He said, “Behold, it’s me, Lord.” 11The Lord said to him, “Arise, and go to the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judah for one named Saul, a man of Tarsus. For behold, he is praying, 12and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in, and laying his hands on him, that he might receive his sight.”
“Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias” (v. 10a). This is not the earlier Ananias who died after trying to deceive the church (5:1-5) or the high priest, Ananias (23:2; 24:1). Paul will later identify this Ananias as “a devout man according to the law, well reported of by all the Jews who lived in Damascus” (22:12), but we know nothing more of him. The Lord brings him onstage long enough to perform a simple but important task, and then he disappears.
That should encourage those of us who live ordinary lives and enjoy only ordinary accomplishments. God often uses ordinary people in significant ways—sometimes, as here, only once in a lifetime. But we can be assured that God will use each of us in some important way, even if we happen not to know it at the time. And we can be assured that there will be something of eternity at stake in the moment that God chooses to use us.
“The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias!’ Behold, it’s me, Lord’” (v. 10b). This is a typical call and response sequence in Hebrew scripture (Genesis 22:1; 1 Samuel 3:6, 8; Isaiah 6:8).
“The Lord said to him, ‘Arise, and go to the street which is called Straight’“ (v. 11a). There is, in modern Damascus, a street called Straight that might be the same street referenced in this verse. It begins at the East Gate and moves west from there.
“in the house of Judah” (v. 11b). We know nothing more of this Judah (sometimes translated Judas), but note the specificity of the directions that the Lord gives to Ananias.
“and inquire in the house of Judah for one named Saul, a man of Tarsus” (v. 11c). Tarsus is located on the southern coast of modern-day Turkey about 12 miles (19 km) from the Mediterranean—but it is a port city by virtue of its location on the Cydnus River. In Paul’s time it was not only an important commercial center, but was also known as a center of intellectual activity—in particular the study of Stoic philosophy.
Tarsus is mentioned only five times in Acts (9:11, 30; 11:25; 21:39; 22:3) and nowhere else in scripture. Paul mentions being from Tarsus on two occasions (21:39; 22:3), but never mentions Tarsus in his epistles. He does mention a visit to Cilicia (Galatians 1:21) which is the province where Tarsus is the capital city.
“For behold, he is praying” (v. 11d). We learned in verse 9 that Saul was fasting. Now we learn that he is praying. Fasting and prayer are complementary spiritual disciplines.
“and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in” (v. 12a). Keep in mind that the Lord is speaking to Ananias in a vision (v. 10)—and is reporting that Saul has also seen a vision. The Lord is preparing both of these men for the meeting that he has in mind for them.
“and laying his hands on him, that he might receive his sight” (v. 12b). In the Old Testament, Moses laid hands on Joshua to commission him (Numbers 27:18-23). In the New Testament, the apostles laid hands on people to heal them (Matthew 9:18; Acts 28:8), to impart the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17; 19:6), and to ordain them for a particular work (Acts 6:6; 13:3; 2 Timothy 1:6).
This is an example of laying on hands to heal—“so that (Saul) may receive his sight.” But Ananias will tell Saul that the laying on of hands is “so that you may receive your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (v. 17). This laying on of hands is unusual in that Ananias is not an apostle and has no other credentials other than his devout life and good reputation (22:12). However, the Lord chooses to call him to lay hands on Saul, and the Lord’s call is all the credential Ananias needs.
ACTS 9:13-16: GO, FOR HE IS MY CHOSEN VESSEL
13But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he did to your saints at Jerusalem. 14Here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15But the Lord said to him, “Go your way, for he is my chosen vessel (Greek: skeuos) to bear my name before the nations and kings, and the children of Israel. 16For I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake.”
“Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he did to your saints at Jerusalem” (v. 13). As noted above, Luke has told us of Saul having “ravaged the assembly” (8:3) and “breathing threats and slaughter against the disciples (9:1). He doesn’t tell us how Ananias knows Saul’s reputation, but Christians seeking refuge in Damascus have surely told local Christians about the ongoing persecution in Jerusalem and Saul’s role in it. Ananias protests strongly, because he knows Saul as an enemy.
It is not unusual for people to protest a call from the Lord. Moses said, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11) and “O Lord, I am not eloquent, …for I am slow of speech, and slow of a tongue” (Exodus 4:10). Gideon asked, “O Lord, how shall I save Israel? Behold, my family is the poorest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house” (Judges 6:15). Isaiah said, “Woe is me! For I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of Armies” (Isaiah 6:5). Jeremiah said, “Ah,Lord Yahweh! Behold, I don’t know how to speak; for I am a child” (Jeremiah 1:6).
“‘Here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name’” (v. 14). Ananias not only knows of the things that Saul has done in Jerusalem, but is also aware of Saul’s intentions for disciples found in Damascus.
“Go your way, for he is my chosen vessel” (skeuos) (v. 15a). Paul uses this word skeuos when speaking of the Gospel as a “treasure in clay jars” (skeuesin)—so skeuos can serve as a metaphor for pottery which has been shaped by the potter for a purpose. Here the Lord is telling Ananias that he has chosen and shaped Saul for an important purpose—proclaiming the Gospel to Gentiles (Williams, 171).
“my chosen vessel to bear my name before the nations and kings, and the children of Israel” (v. 15b). Saul intended to “bind all who call on your (Jesus’) name” (v. 14), but now Jesus will use Saul to proclaim his name to Gentiles, kings, and the people of Israel.
Paul (his Roman name) will become famous as the apostle to the Gentiles, but Acts also tells us about his appearance before Governors Felix and Festus (chapters 23-25) and King Agrippa (26:1-29)—and his preaching in the synagogues, where he would have been speaking to “the children of Israel” (13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:1, 10; 18:4, 19; 19:8).
“For I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (v. 16). He who intended to persecute those who invoke Jesus’ name will now suffer for Jesus’ name (v. 16). For a litany of Paul’s subsequent sufferings, see 2 Corinthians 11:23-28.
ACTS 9:17-19a. BROTHER SAUL, THE LORD SENT ME
17Ananias departed, and entered into the house. Laying his hands on him, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord, who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me, that you may receive your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18Immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he received his sight. He arose and was baptized. 19aHe took food and was strengthened.
“Ananias departed, and entered into the house. Laying his hands on him, he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord, who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me, that you may receive your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit’” (v. 17). Ananias’ greeting, “Brother Saul,” is remarkable given the opinion he so recently expressed about Saul (vv. 13-14).
Later, Paul, recounting this experience, will report that Ananias said, “The God of our fathers has appointed you to know his will, and to see the Righteous One, and to hear a voice from his mouth. For you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard. Now why do you wait? Arise, be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (22:14-16).
Ananias says that he is here, in part, so that Saul will “be filled with the Holy Spirit,” but the following verses do not record him receiving the Holy Spirit. They do, however, record that he was baptized (v. 18), so he apparently received the Holy Spirit as part of his baptism (as we all do).
“Immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he received his sight. He arose and was baptized” (v. 18). The healing is effected and Saul is baptized, presumably at the hands of Ananias. Thereafter, we hear nothing further of Ananias. His job is done, and Saul’s job about to begin.
“He took food and was strengthened” (v. 19a). Saul has not eaten for three days (v. 9), so he breaks his fast to regain strength for the work that lies ahead.
ACTS 9:19b-20. IMMEDIATELY SAUL PROCLAIMED THE CHRIST
19bSaul stayed several days with the disciples who were at Damascus. 20Immediately in the synagogues he proclaimed the Christ, that he is the Son of God.
“Saul stayed several days with the disciples who were at Damascus” (v. 19b). Apparently, Ananias told the Damascus disciples about his experience with Saul. At any rate, they seem to accept him as a brother, as Ananias did earlier (v. 17). Presumably, these disciples include some of the Jerusalem disciples who fled Saul’s earlier persecution.
Polhill offers the interesting suggestion that these Christians may have been instructing Saul in the faith during this time (Polhill, 238). That seems like a distinct possibility. Saul begins his preaching in the very next verse, and has a lot to learn.
“Immediately in the synagogues he proclaimed the Christ, that he is the Son of God” (v. 20). Saul will become the great missionary to the Gentiles, but he begins his ministry in the synagogues. In his Epistle to the Romans, he will speak of the Gospel as “the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes; for the Jew first, and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16). He will continue preaching in synagogues throughout the book of Acts (13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:1, 10; 18:4, 19; 19:8).
Luke introduced us to this title, Son of God, in the annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:35; see also Luke 3:38; 4:3, 9, 41; 22:70). At Jesus’ baptism, a voice from heaven announced, “You are my beloved Son. In you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). However, this is the only instance in the book of Acts where the title “Son of God” is mentioned.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bock, Darrell L., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)
Bruce, F. F., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Revised)(Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Campbell, Charles L., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Chance, J. Bradley, The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Acts (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2007)
Faw, Chalmer E., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Acts, (Scottdale, Pennsyvania: Herald Press, 1993)
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: The Acts of the Apostles (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Polhill, John B., New American Commentary: Acts, Vol. 26 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Wall, Robert W., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Walaskay, Paul W., Westminster Bible Companion: Acts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Williams, David J., New International Biblical Commentary: Acts (Paternoster Press, 1995)
Willimon, William H., Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Acts (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
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