31 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 9:26-31 ESV
This little pericope regarding Saul’s life is bookended by two contrasting passages. The first is found at the beginning of chapter eight.
1 And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. – Acts 8:1-3 ESV
The second is found in verse 31 of chapter nine.
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.
Notice the differences. In the first passage, the church is mentioned as being located in Jerusalem only, and it is suffering great persecution. And, as a result of that persecution, its congregants were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samara. Then, by the time Luke closes out his introduction to Saul, his conversion and ministry, we find the church is now located throughout all Judea, Galilee and Samaria. Not only that, it is experiencing peace, spiritual and numerical growth, as well as the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. God was at work. His will was being accomplished. Persecution by the high priest, the Sanhedrin or even Saul himself, could do nothing to stop the sovereign will of God from being fulfilled just as He had planned. He knows the schemes of men, even before they do. He knows the thoughts of men, even before they’ve had a chance to think them. King David wrote about this all-knowing aspect of God’s nature.
1 O Lord, you have examined my heart
and know everything about me.
2 You know when I sit down or stand up.
You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
3 You see me when I travel
and when I rest at home.
You know everything I do.
4 You know what I am going to say
even before I say it, Lord. – Psalm 139:1-4 NLT
So, despite the best laid plans of men, God’s will was being accomplished. His church was growing and prospering, even in the face of opposition and adversity. And God had taken one of the primary instigators of persecution against the church and miraculously transformed him into His chosen instrument, a powerful tool for the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church.
According to Galatians 1:15-20, Saul spent three years in Damascus before he ever attempted to make the journey to Jerusalem, home of the original congregation of believers and headquarters of the 11 original disciples of Jesus. And when he finally arrived in Jerusalem, he was met with fear and skepticism. Even after three years time, they doubted whether he was really a changed man. Even after that length of time, his former reputation preceded him. But Barnabas brought Saul to the apostles and told them all that had happened on the road to Damascus and how Saul had become a powerful proclaimer of Jesus throughout that entire region. If you recall, Barnabas, also known as Joseph, was a Levite from Cypress, who had sold a portion of his land and had given the proceeds to the apostles in order to care for the needs of the poor within the church family. So, he was well known to the apostles and had a good reputation among them. They had even nicknamed him Barnabas, which means, “Son of Encouragement.” His endorsement of Saul played a vital role in securing their acceptance of this former enemy of the church, and it opened up the opportunity for Saul to minister freely among them, preaching the gospel and debating with the Jews who still refused to accept Jesus as their Messiah. And Luke records that Saul also disputed with the Hellenists or Greek-speaking Jews. In doing this, Saul was carrying on the work of Stephen, the young man whose death he had approvingly observed as recorded in chapter six. Stephen had been a Hellenist, as Saul was, and now Saul was picking up where Stephen had left off, debating with the Greek-speaking Jews and boldly defending the deity of Christ and the truth regarding His claims to be the Messiah, the Son of God. But it seems that he fared no better than Stephen, because Luke tells us, “they were seeking to kill him” (Acts 9:29 ESV), and so, he was forced to leave town, escaping to Tarsus, by way of Caesarea.
Luke gives us the impression that Saul fled from Jerusalem at the insistence of his fellow disciples and they, no doubt, feared for his life. But Saul would later testify that his departure from Jerusalem had been commanded by Jesus Himself.
17 “After I returned to Jerusalem, I was praying in the Temple and fell into a trance. 18 I saw a vision of Jesus saying to me, ‘Hurry! Leave Jerusalem, for the people here won’t accept your testimony about me.’
19 “‘But Lord,’ I argued, ‘they certainly know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. 20 And I was in complete agreement when your witness Stephen was killed. I stood by and kept the coats they took off when they stoned him.’
21 “But the Lord said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles!’” – Acts 22:17-21 NLT
So, it would appear that Saul had not fled for his life, but under direct orders from Jesus, and with the clear intent to take the gospel to the Gentiles. Saul also revealed that his was in keeping with the word spoken to him by Ananias immediately after his blinding encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Ananias had given him the following message from Jesus: “For you are to be his witness, telling everyone what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:15 NLT). And now, that commission from Jesus was going to be fulfilled. He was going to take the gospel to the Gentiles. And, as we will see, he would end up taking the gospel to places it had never been heard before, among people who knew nothing about Judaism, the Messiah, or the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And what a perfect candidate Saul made for this assignment. He was a Jew, but hailed from Tarsus, a Greek-speaking province. He was also a Roman citizen, a former Pharisee, and a serious student of the Hebrew Scriptures. He had the perfect blend of attributes and a personality profile that was well-suited for what Jesus had commissioned him to do. On top of that, he now had the Spirit of God living within him, guiding, directing and empowering him for the task at hand. And he would prove to be a formidable force for the gospel for many years to come.
We are not provided with any details regarding Saul’s activities during his time in Tarsus, but we can easily assume that he continued to do what he had done before: To preach boldly in the name of Jesus (Acts 9:28). We do know from chapter 11, that it would be about six years before Barnabas arrived in Tarsus, seeking out Saul, in order to take him to Antioch in Syria. Here is Luke’s record of the reunion between these two men.
19 Meanwhile, the believers who had been scattered during the persecution after Stephen’s death traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch of Syria. They preached the word of God, but only to Jews. 20 However, some of the believers who went to Antioch from Cyprus and Cyrene began preaching to the Gentiles about the Lord Jesus. 21 The power of the Lord was with them, and a large number of these Gentiles believed and turned to the Lord.
22 When the church at Jerusalem heard what had happened, they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw this evidence of God’s blessing, he was filled with joy, and he encouraged the believers to stay true to the Lord. 24 Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and strong in faith. And many people were brought to the Lord.
25 Then Barnabas went on to Tarsus to look for Saul. 26 When he found him, he brought him back to Antioch. Both of them stayed there with the church for a full year, teaching large crowds of people. (It was at Antioch that the believers were first called Christians.), – Acts 11:19-26 NLT
No doubt, the six years that Saul spent in Tarsus, where the inhabitants were predominantly Greek-speaking and non-Jews, he had ample opportunity to practice his preaching of the gospel to Gentiles. He would have had plenty of chances to debate and dispute with those who found his message unconvincing. It is also likely that he would have spent time pouring over the Hebrew Scriptures, studying the Old Testament passages for any and all references to the Messiah. So, by the time he was summoned by Barnabas to accompany him back to Antioch, Saul would have been well-prepared for the task at hand.
Everything was falling into place. The divine plan for Saul’s life was happening just as God had ordained it. There was not a single aspect of his life that was outside of God’s will or devoid of God’s divine influence. He was God’s chosen instrument and God was preparing him for a long and fruitful ministry.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.