Seek God Now, Not Later.

An oracle concerning Damascus.

Behold, Damascus will cease to be a city
    and will become a heap of ruins.
The cities of Aroer are deserted;
    they will be for flocks,
    which will lie down, and none will make them afraid.
The fortress will disappear from Ephraim,
    and the kingdom from Damascus;
and the remnant of Syria will be
    like the glory of the children of Israel,
declares the Lord of hosts.

And in that day the glory of Jacob will be brought low,
    and the fat of his flesh will grow lean.
And it shall be as when the reaper gathers standing grain
    and his arm harvests the ears,
and as when one gleans the ears of grain
    in the Valley of Rephaim.
Gleanings will be left in it,
    as when an olive tree is beaten—
two or three berries
    in the top of the highest bough,
four or five
    on the branches of a fruit tree,
declares the Lord God of Israel.

In that day man will look to his Maker, and his eyes will look on the Holy One of Israel. He will not look to the altars, the work of his hands, and he will not look on what his own fingers have made, either the Asherim or the altars of incense. – Isaiah 17:1-8 ESV

DamascusWith the opening of chapter 17, Isaiah delivers God’s oracle against Damascus, the capital city of Syria. As verse three reveals, Israel is included in this oracle, referred to by the name of Ephraim, the largest of the ten tribes that made up the northern kingdom. Israel had formed an alliance with Syria in order to attack the southern kingdom of Judah (see chapter seven).

As has been the case with each of the other oracles, God is speaking a word of warning aimed directly at His own people, the divided nations of Israel and Judah. Their repeated attempts to seek help from foreign nations rather than trust in Him were going to bring His judgment. He has already told what will happen to Babylon, Philistia, Moab and Assyria. Now, He turns His attention to Syria, located to the northeast of Israel. And He cuts to the chase, describing the Syrian capital as “a heap of ruins.” He predicts the utter devastation of the fortified cities of Syria and Ephraim, which would include the Israelite capital of Samaria.

The fortress will disappear from Ephraim,
    and the kingdom from Damascus;
and the remnant of Syria will be
    like the glory of the children of Israel,
declares the Lord of hosts. – Isaiah 17:3 ESV

Syria would share Israel’s fate. Both nations, because of their arrogance, would suffer greatly under the hand of God Almighty. But God’s primary judgment seems to be directed at the children of Israel. He states that their former glory will be greatly diminished, and He describes it is stark terms:

…in that day the glory of Jacob will be brought low,
    and the fat of his flesh will grow lean. – Isaiah 17:4 ESV

Once again, we see God promising to humble the proud and destroy bring low the self-sufficient. Israel had reached the point in their downward spiritual spiral where they no longer believed they needed God. Under the leadership of their king, Jeroboam, they had long ago created their own gods and set up their own places of worship.

Jeroboam then built up the city of Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and it became his capital. Later he went and built up the town of Peniel.

Jeroboam thought to himself, “Unless I am careful, the kingdom will return to the dynasty of David. When these people go to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Temple of the Lord, they will again give their allegiance to King Rehoboam of Judah. They will kill me and make him their king instead.”

So on the advice of his counselors, the king made two gold calves. He said to the people, “It is too much trouble for you to worship in Jerusalem. Look, Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of Egypt!”

He placed these calf idols in Bethel and in Dan—at either end of his kingdom. But this became a great sin, for the people worshiped the idols, traveling as far north as Dan to worship the one there. – 1 Kings 12:25-30 NLT

And a long line of kings who succeeded Jeroboam continued the idolatrous trend, leading the people of Israel further and further away from God. But God does not leave sin unpunished. He cannot and will not overlook the rebellion of His people. So in 732 BC, the Assyrians fulfilled God’s word by destroying Damascus. And then years later, they would destroy Samaria, the capital city of Israel.

And the aftermath of the Assyrian conquest will leave the land looking “like a grainfield after the harvesters have gathered the grain. It will be desolate, like the fields in the valley of Rephaim after the harvest” (Isaiah 17:5 NLT). It is a picture of desolation and devastation. All the glory is gone. Everything the people had placed their hope in and based their pride upon would be gone. Only a remnant of the people of Israel would remain in the land.

“Only a few of its people will be left,
    like stray olives left on a tree after the harvest.
Only two or three remain in the highest branches,
    four or five scattered here and there on the limbs,”
    declares the Lord, the God of Israel. – Isaiah 17:6 NLT

This image stands in stark contrast to the promise God had made to Abraham.

“Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” – Genesis 15:5 ESV

God had kept His promise to Abraham and had made of him a great nation. While the Israelites had lived in Egypt for 400 years, their numbers had grown to such a degree that the Pharaoh had become fearful of their presence in the land. So he began to treat them as slaves, keeping them under intense subjection so that they might not rise up against the Egyptians. But God had delivered them from their slavery and had brought them to the land of Canaan, where He had given them victory over their enemies and provided them with land, villages and houses in which to live.

But the people of Israel had proved unfaithful to God. Over the centuries, they had repeatedly disobeyed God by worshiping the false gods of the Canaanites. They had intermarried with the nations, failing to maintain their ethnic purity but, more importantly, their spiritual identity as the chosen people of God. They had been set apart by God and commanded to live according to His laws. They were to be a living example of how sinful man can live in covenant community with a holy God. But they had failed.

And the core issue here is not the litany of sins the people of Israel committed, but their lack of belief in God. The goal of Satan is not so much to get mankind to commit sins as it is to get them to doubt God. That’s the tactic he took in the garden with Adam and Eve. He came to the woman in the guise of a beautiful serpent and said, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?” (Genesis 3:1 NLT). Notice that he raised doubts about God’s command. And Eve correctly responded, “It’s only the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God said, ‘You must not eat it or even touch it; if you do, you will die’” (Genesis 3:3 NLT). Then Satan did what he always does, he contradicted the very word of God. “You won’t die!” (Genesis 3:4 NLT). And he followed that up with a compelling lie: “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil” (Genesis 3:5 NLT).

Eve and her husband listened to the lies of the enemy. But it was not the eating of the fruit that was the cause of their fall. It was their rejection of the word of God. They failed to believe what God had said. The enemy replaced the truth of God with a lie, and they accepted it. They took the bait. Satan’s promise sounded more plausible and appealing than God’s offer of life in the garden with Him. And mankind has been taking the bait of Satan ever since.

The fellowship with God that Adam and Eve had once enjoyed came to an abrupt end. Sin broke the bond. It severed the relationship they had enjoyed. They were cast out of the garden and away from the presence of God. And, as time passed, they and their descendants would find themselves moving further and further away from God – physically, as they journeyed away from the garden, and spiritually, as they allowed sin to separate them from Him.

But God describes a day when the fall of Israel would leave His people calling out to Him once again. In their devastated and demoralized state, they would find themselves without hope and devoid of any other source of help.

Then at last the people will look to their Creator
    and turn their eyes to the Holy One of Israel.
They will no longer look to their idols for help
    or worship what their own hands have made.
They will never again bow down to their Asherah poles
    or worship at the pagan shrines they have built. – Isaiah 17:7-8 NLT

It is amazing how easy it is for the people of God to turn their backs on Him until they find themselves in a state of hopelessness and helplessness. In those moments of trial and trouble, when they no longer have any other options or tricks up their sleeves, they tend to turn back to God for help. When their man-made gods no longer come through for them, they decide to give God one more try.

And the same is true of us as God’s people. While our false gods to be more sophisticated, they are still man-made and poor substitutes for the one true God. Yet, we find it so easy to place our trust in anything and everything but God, until those things fail to come through for us. When all the money in the world can’t heal us from cancer, we turn to God. When our intelligence proves insufficient for the crisis we face, we turn to God. When all our possessions fail to bring us the happiness they promised to deliver, we turn to God. And while it is true that “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble” (Psalm 46:1 NLT), He longs for us to seek Him at all times. He desires that we make Him our first and only option. Which is why Jesus said, “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:33 NLT).

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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Appointed by God.

“As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ 11 And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.

12 “And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, 13 came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him. 14 And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; 15 for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’

17 “When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ 19 And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. 20 And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.’ 21 And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ Acts 22:6-21 ESV

Paul had been on his way to Damascus, on a self-appointed mission to seek and destroy Christians.

3 I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today. And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison. The high priest and the whole council of elders can testify that this is so. For I received letters from them to our Jewish brothers in Damascus, authorizing me to bring the followers of the Way from there to Jerusalem, in chains, to be punished. – Acts 22:3-5 NLT

 He clearly believed he had been doing God a favor by eliminating this radical religious sect called The Way from the face of the planet. He saw his efforts as God-honoring, but the problem was that they were not God-appointed. God had not asked him to do what he was doing. He had not been commissioned by God to persecute, arrest and murder Christians. That had all been Paul’s idea. Yes, God had been sovereignly orchestrating the events surrounding Paul’s life and, according to Paul’s own testimony, God had chosen him for salvation and for his role as an apostle, long before Paul was even born.

 

13 You know what I was like when I followed the Jewish religion—how I violently persecuted God’s church. I did my best to destroy it. 14 I was far ahead of my fellow Jews in my zeal for the traditions of my ancestors.

15 But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace. Then it pleased him 16 to reveal his Son to me so that I would proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles. – Galatians 1:13-15 NLT

But God had not made Paul, then known as Saul, persecute the church. He had not forced Saul to do the things he did. God does not entice anyone to commit acts of evil. James, the half-brother of Jesus reminds of this very important fact: “And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, ‘God is tempting me.’ God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else” (James 1:13 NLT). And John echoes those same sentiments: “Remember that those who do good prove that they are God’s children, and those who do evil prove that they do not know God” (3 John 1:11 NLT). What Paul had been doing had been his idea, not God’s. But unbeknownst to Paul, God had been using his ungodly actions to accomplish the divine plan of redemption. Paul’s efforts to destroy the church had actually resulted in the scattering and dispersion of the believers and to the spread of the gospel message.

But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison.

But the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went. – Acts 8:3-4 NLT

And Paul had been heading to Damascus to carry out his self-appointed mission as a bounty-hunter for God, when his will ran head-on into God’s. He testified, “As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me” (Acts 22:6 ESV). Paul had his eyes set on Damascus, but he had an unexpected and unplanned encounter with the risen Lord. This had not been on his agenda for the day. He had not scheduled this meeting in his appointment book that morning. When he had set out that day on his seek-and-destroy mission, he had not planned on meeting the crucified and resurrected Jesus. In fact, he didn’t believe such a person existed. Oh, he believed there had been a Jesus, but He had been put to death. And yet, Paul was in for the shock of his life. Jesus was alive and well, and knew him by name. He saw a blinding light and heard a voice calling out to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Whoever this was knew him. but Paul wasn’t able to put two and two together. He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” and Jesus responded, “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.” Can you imagine what went through Paul’s mind as he heard those words? He was hearing the voice of a dead man. The martyred leader of The Way was speaking to him from the grave. The recognized leader of the sect Paul had been trying to destroy was somehow communicating with him, and accusing Paul of persecuting Him.

Now, what happens next is fascinating. Just think of all the questions that must have been swirling through Paul’s mind at that moment. Imagine how his thoughts would have been reeling as he stood there, unable to see, but clearly hearing the voice of a man he had never met before and who was supposed to be dead. And yet, the only thing Paul could say was, “What shall I do, Lord?” Paul was a religious man. He was a devout Jew and a well-educated Pharisee, so he knew this was a divine encounter of some kind. It is doubtful that he fully understood what was going on or that he realized that the voice he heard truly was that of the resurrected Jesus. But he knew he had been physically accosted by a power greater than his own, that had left him blind and totally incapacitated. So, he asked for directions. He wanted to know what he was supposed to do next. And Jesus accommodated Paul’s desire for next steps by providing him with specific instructions: “Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.”

That word, “appointed” is important. The Greek word Luke used is tassō, and it means “to ordain, order or appoint; to assign to a certain position or lot.” Paul was about to find out what he was really supposed to be doing. He had been on a mission, but it had not been the one God had in store for him. And while Paul had been zealous to honor God in all that he did, he was not doing any of it according to God’s will. He had been well-intended, but well off the mark when it came to his true life’s calling.

Paul was led by the hand into Damascus, and later received a visitor, sent to him by God. Ananias was a believing Jew who had received a vision from God, commanding him to go to Paul, restore his sight and deliver to him a message. But Ananias had been somewhat reluctant to follow God’s orders. He had felt compelled to remind God just who this man Saul was and why it was probably not a good idea for him to go and meet with him.

13  “I’ve heard many people talk about the terrible things this man has done to the believers in Jerusalem! 14 And he is authorized by the leading priests to arrest everyone who calls upon your name.” – Acts 9:13-14 NLT

Paul’s reputation had preceded him. And Ananias was justifiably reluctant to have a one-on-one encounter with a known and renowned persecutor of the church. But God calmed Ananias’ spirit by providing him with insight into what was going on. God had a plan for Paul’s life. “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” (Acts 9:15-16 ESV). God had hand-picked Paul for a special assignment and had preordained the purpose for and outcome of his life.

And when Ananias had arrived on the scene and restored Paul’s sight, he delivered a personal message from the Lord. “The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:14-15 ESV). There’s that word again: Appointed. But this time, Ananias uses the Greek word, procheirizō, which carries the meaning, “to appoint for one’s use” or “to choose.” In this case, Ananias was letting Paul know that God had made a decision to reveal His divine will to him, by allowing him to have a personal encounter with Jesus, the Righteous one, and to receive a message directly from the lips of the resurrected, living Messiah. And now, Paul was going to have a new life assignment: Telling anyone and everyone what he had seen and heard. 

And Paul indicates that the very next thing that happened to him was his own baptism. He received water baptism as a result of his faith in Christ. Nowhere in the text does Paul indicate exactly when he came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, but it was long before he was baptized, because the water baptism does not wash away sins. It is a post-conversion act of obedience, signifying that one has believed on the Lord Jesus Christ and received the gift of salvation, including forgiveness and cleansing from sin. Ananias had rather abruptly asked Paul, “What are you waiting for? Get up and be baptized. Have your sins washed away by calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16 NLT). The text makes it sound like Ananias was associating water baptism with the washing away of sins, but in the original text, the phrase, “calling on” is actually an aorist participle meaning “having called on.” Paul’s baptism was following his conversion. It was symbolic of the spiritual cleansing that had already taken place in Paul’s life.

Paul ultimately returned to Jerusalem, where he received a vision from Jesus, warning him to flee the city because they were not going to accept his testimony. Jesus had other plans for Paul. Because of his prior mission as a persecutor of the church, Paul thought his chances at having a successful ministry were shot out of the water. He was damaged goods. But Jesus let him know that his ministry was going to be to the Gentiles, telling him, “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles!” And that is exactly what Paul had been doing, up until the point that he had been nearly beaten to death in the temple courtyard. He had been faithfully carrying out the ministry appointed to him by Jesus, and just as Jesus has told Ananias, Paul had discovered what it meant to suffer for the name of Jesus.

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.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Misdirected Zeal.

37 As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, “May I say something to you?” And he said, “Do you know Greek? 38 Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” 39 Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.” 40 And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying:

1 “Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.”

And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet. And he said:

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.” Acts 21:37-22:5 ESV

At the close of chapter seven and the beginning of chapter eight, Luke introduced us to Saul for the very first time. Luke indicated that Saul “was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison” (Acts 8:3 NLT). He was a man on a mission. He was obsessed. And he honestly thought he was doing God a huge favor by ridding the world of any and all Christians he could get his hands on. In fact, in today’s chapter, he explains the mindset behind his passionate persecution of the church.

3 I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today. And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison. – Acts 22:3-4 NLT
He was highly motivated and demonstrated extreme eagerness to please and honor God through his actions. We know that when he had stood by and watched the stoning of Stephen, he not only held the coats of those who threw the stones, he “agreed completely with the killing of Stephen” (Acts 8:1 NLT). He was convinced that the killing of Christians was a good thing. He saw them as dangerous heretics and criminals who opposed the Mosaic law and the Jewish religion. But something had happened to Saul. He had a personal encounter with the resurrected Jesus and his life had been dramatically transformed and the trajectory of his life had been radically altered. He was no longer the same man.
And as he stood in the Court of the Gentiles, having been rescued by the Roman cohort, from a beating at the hands of the Jews, he recounted to the crowd just what had happened to change his life. He asked the captain of the Roman soldiers if he could be given a chance to address the crowd, the very ones who had been attempting to end his life. Paul saw this as a unique and unavoidable opportunity to share his story. And when the captain, having learned that Paul was not the radical Egyptian revolutionary he supposed him to be, allowed him to speak. And Paul addressed the crowd of Jews in their own language.
Not only did Paul address the crowd in their own language of Aramaic, he let them know that he was one of them, a Jew born in Tarsus of Cilicia. He was a Hellenistic Jew, born in the Roman-controlled region of Cilicia. Tarsus was a major city, located in what is today southern Turkey. Paul wanted the Jews in his audience to know that he was a Jew, not some upstart Greek-speaking troublemaker. And he proceeded to give them his curriculum vitae, explaining that he had a significant Hebrew heritage and a formal education that was more than a little bit impressive. Paul wasn’t bragging, but he was attempting to get his audience’s attention by highlighting his religious and educational resumes.
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel.” – Acts 22:3 NLT
He wasn’t a newcomer to Jerusalem or some kind of country bumpkin from the sticks. He had been raised in the capital city and trained under one of the most revered of all the Jewish rabbis and teachers of the day. He was well-educated and more than familiar with the religion of his forefathers. Paul had been a Pharisee. and he would later describe himself as having been one of the best of all the Pharisees.
I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. – Philippians 3:5-6 NLT
Paul had been a law-keeping, card-carrying Pharisee who had an impeccable record of human-based righteousness. He had Hebrew blood coursing through his veins and a no-holds-barred obsession with the Hebrew faith. If you looked up the word, “zealous” in the dictionary, you would have found Paul’s picture out beside it. In fact, Paul referred to himself as “being zealous for God.” The Greek word he used is zēlōtēs, and it refers to someone who burns with zeal for something, but also someone who defends and upholds something, vehemently contending for it with all his power. Paul had seen his pre-conversion mission as somehow God-ordained. But he had really appointed himself, having determined that he was doing the will of God, without having ever received his assignment from God. Paul was a self-appointed vigilante for God. He was kicking tail and taking names. His mission in life was to eliminate any and all Christians from the face of the earth – one at a time, if necessary. And Paul openly confessed, “I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison” (Acts 22:4 NLT). He had taken his job very seriously. And he had not been content to restrict his efforts to the city of Jerusalem. He had gone to the high priest and solicited formal documents that would allow him to take his little show on the road, seeking out Christians wherever he could find them.
Back in chapter eight, Luke recorded that “A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria. (Some devout men came and buried Stephen with great mourning.) But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison” (Acts 8:1-4 NLT). And he had received official papers giving him permission and power to search and destroy all Christians found in the city of Damascus.
I received letters from them to our Jewish brothers in Damascus, authorizing me to bring the followers of the Way from there to Jerusalem, in chains, to be punished. – Acts 22:5 NLT
And he challenged his listeners to fact-check his claim by talking to the high priest himself. He would corroborate the authenticity of his story.
But this is where his tale takes a dramatic turn. He had set them up. They were on pins and needles, having heard him share some insights into his life story that none of them would have ever guessed in a million years. Here was a former Pharisee and student of the famous Gamaliel, and he had just been accused of teaching against the law of Moses and of desecrating the temple by bringing uncircumcised Gentiles into the area reserved only for Jews. How could he have done such a thing? What had forced this Pharisee to abandon his Jewish faith and turn his back on his own people? At this point, the crowd is far less interested in beating Paul, as they are in hearing what he has to say. They were mesmerized and intrigued. And Paul was going to take advantage of their rapt attention to share the most dramatic and unexpected part of his story. He had been one of them. He had grown up in the same culture and under the same conditions as they had. He had been circumcised, taught in the synagogue, attended the various feasts and festivals, trained as a Pharisee, and emersed in the rights, rituals and religious rules of Judaism. So, what had happened? That’s where Paul will pick up his story:
“As I was on the road, approaching Damascus…” – Acts 22:6 NLT
Remember. He had been on a mission. He thought he was acting on behalf of God. He had truly believed he was doing God a favor. He was zealous and energetic in his efforts. He had been determined and disciplined to carry out his mission. And, like the people standing in the crowd, listening to his words, Paul had been convinced that he was right. He had fully believed that his agenda had been God’s agenda. But he was in for a big surprise and so were they.
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.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

A Changed Man.

 19 For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 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?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

23 When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25 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

Saul was a man of action. Once he got his sight and his strength back, he was back at it again. But this time, his mission in life had a distinctively different direction to it. He was a changed man. He had come to know Jesus, in a very real and personal way. The very one Saul had discounted as dead and had viewed as nothing more than a cause célèbre on which the disciples were building their religious revolution. No, he had discovered that Jesus was anything but dead. This Galilean whose name was causing so much trouble for the Jewish religious leaders, was actually alive and had appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul had been blinded by His glory and convicted by His words: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5 ESV). It is interesting to note that Jesus’ words to Saul were few in number. And what is particularly fascinating is what Jesus doesn’t say. He never claims to be the Messiah. He doesn’t offer Saul living water or eternal life. He doesn’t speak to Saul about his need to be born again. Once Jesus had introduced himself to Saul, He simply said, “But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” (Acts 9:6 ESV). Nothing more, nothing less. Short and sweet. But they made an impact on Saul. The whole experience left Saul more than just physically blind. He was spiritually rocked. His religious sensibilities had been shattered. All he knew to be true had been turned on its ears. And while he found himself unable to see, he had a new insight and spiritual eyesight he had never had before. 

The only other words we have recorded by Luke that reveal what was said to Saul are those spoken by Ananias.

“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.” – Acts 9:17 ESV

And the next thing we know, Saul is proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues of Damascus, giving proof that He really was the Son of God. His words confounded the Jews. His message confused them. They had a difficult time reconciling what Saul was saying with the reputation that had preceded him. Rather than defending Jesus as the Messiah, he should have been apprehending Christians. But Luke tells us, “Saul’s preaching became more and more powerful, and the Jews in Damascus couldn’t refute his proofs that Jesus was indeed the Messiah” (Acts 9:22 NLT).

In these verses, we get a glimpse into Saul’s personality. He was an intense individual who had a strong inner drive. He was determined and disciplined. It’s what made him so good at his job as a Pharisee and as a persecutor of the church. And now that he was a follower of Christ, he had the extra-added incentive of the indwelling Holy Spirit. God had taken this hard-driving, passionate, and self-motivated man and transformed him into a Spirit-filled, heat-seeking missile for the cause of Christ. Luke’s description of the early days of Saul’s conversion provide us with a teaser of what the rest of his life would look like. God had redeemed Saul’s zeal and inner drive. Those very same qualities that Saul had used to persecute Jesus and His church, God would now use to proclaim Jesus and build the church.

It didn’t take long before Saul found himself on the receiving end of the persecution he used to mete out. Now, he was the hunted. Luke simply tells us that “some of the Jews plotted together to kill him” (Acts 9:23 NLT). They wanted him dead and they set guards at all the gates of the city to watch for him so they could murder him. But Saul escaped. And he would later provide further details regarding his escape, revealing that the Jews had even enlisted the aid of the local city officials in their plot to have him killed.

32 When I was in Damascus, the governor under King Aretas kept guards at the city gates to catch me. 33 I had to be lowered in a basket through a window in the city wall to escape from him. – 2 Corinthians 11:32-33 NLT

What Luke provides us with in these verses is a summary or abridged version of Saul’s conversion. Later, Saul, writing under his Greek name, Paul, would provide more detail to all that had happened in those days.

15 But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace. Then it pleased him 16 to reveal his Son to me so that I would proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles.

When this happened, I did not rush out to consult with any human being. 17 Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to consult with those who were apostles before I was. Instead, I went away into Arabia, and later I returned to the city of Damascus.

18 Then three years later I went to Jerusalem to get to know Peter, and I stayed with him for fifteen days. 19 The only other apostle I met at that time was James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I declare before God that what I am writing to you is not a lie. – Galatians 1:15-20 NLT

 In his Acts account, Luke does not include Saul’s detour into Arabia. But according to Saul, after his conversion, there was a period of time when he went into the wilderness and then returned to Damascus. And it would be three years before he made his trip to Jerusalem, recorded by Luke in the following verses of this chapter.

It was most likely during his time in the wilderness of Arabia, that Saul received additional insight from the Holy Spirit regarding his mission and commission. Saul would arrive back in Damascus fully convinced that Jesus was the Messiah and he would be fully prepared to defend that belief, even if it cost him his life. And this determination would not fade with time. Luke states, “Saul increased all the more in strength” (Acts 9:22 ESV). He grew stronger in his faith. His assurance that Jesus truly was the Messiah and that He alone was the means by which men could be made right with God, grew stronger with each passing day. We aren’t told what happened during Saul’s days in the Arabian wilderness, but we can easily assume that it had been Spirit-directed and had been filled with further insight from Jesus Himself. Saul most likely wrestled with God, debating with Him about Old Testament passages and receiving direct insight from God regarding the many prophetic passages that spoke of the Messiah. Saul received a theological education from the Godhead. And when he showed back up in Damascus, he was fully convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. And his determination regarding that matter would grow stronger over time. Saul would not relent. He would never retreat from his belief that the good news of Jesus Christ was real and needed to be shared with any and all. Which is what he would later write in his letter to the Romans.

16 “For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. 17 This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” – Romans 1:16–17 NLT

Saul had met Jesus. He had received the Holy Spirit of God. He had been chosen as an instrument for God. And his life would never be the same again. He had a new mission in life. He had a new purpose for life. And all that had come before, all that he had accomplished up until that time, had all become futile and pointless. His Jewish citizenship, his membership in the sect of the Pharisees, his education and his many accomplishments were nothing when compared to his newfound knowledge of Jesus as his Savior.

5 “I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault.

I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” – Philippians 3:5-8 NLT

 

English Standard Version (ESV)
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.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

God’s Will. God’s Way.

Concerning Damascus:

“Hamath and Arpad are confounded,
    for they have heard bad news;
they melt in fear,
    they are troubled like the sea that cannot be quiet.
Damascus has become feeble, she turned to flee,
    and panic seized her;
anguish and sorrows have taken hold of her,
    as of a woman in labor.
How is the famous city not forsaken,
    the city of my joy?
Therefore her young men shall fall in her squares,
    and all her soldiers shall be destroyed in that day,
declares the Lord of hosts.
And I will kindle a fire in the wall of Damascus,
    and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-hadad.”

Concerning Kedar and the kingdoms of Hazor that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon struck down.

Thus says the Lord:
“Rise up, advance against Kedar!
    Destroy the people of the east!
Their tents and their flocks shall be taken,
    their curtains and all their goods;
their camels shall be led away from them,
    and men shall cry to them: ‘Terror on every side!’
Flee, wander far away, dwell in the depths,
    O inhabitants of Hazor!
declares the Lord.
For Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon
    has made a plan against you
    and formed a purpose against you.

“Rise up, advance against a nation at ease,
    that dwells securely,
declares the Lord,
that has no gates or bars,
    that dwells alone.
Their camels shall become plunder,
    their herds of livestock a spoil.
I will scatter to every wind
    those who cut the corners of their hair,
and I will bring their calamity
    from every side of them,
declares the Lord.
Hazor shall become a haunt of jackals,
    an everlasting waste;
no man shall dwell there;
    no man shall sojourn in her.”

The word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah the prophet concerning Elam, in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah.

Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Behold, I will break the bow of Elam, the mainstay of their might. And I will bring upon Elam the four winds from the four quarters of heaven. And I will scatter them to all those winds, and there shall be no nation to which those driven out of Elam shall not come. I will terrify Elam before their enemies and before those who seek their life. I will bring disaster upon them, my fierce anger, declares the Lord. I will send the sword after them, until I have consumed them, and I will set my throne in Elam and destroy their king and officials, declares the Lord.

“But in the latter days I will restore the fortunes of Elam, declares the Lord.” –  Jeremiah 49:23-39 ESV

Damascus, Kedar, Hazor, and Elam. Not exactly household names to most of us. But in Jeremiah’s day, they were cities of renown. They each were famous for their own reason. Damascus was the capital city of Aramea, and is even referred to by God as “That famous city, a city of joy” (Jeremiah 49:25 NLT). We are not provided with any details regarding the source of their fame, but Damascus located on a vital trade route known as the King’s Highway that extended from the capital city through Moab and Edom to the Gulf of Arabah. No doubt, Damascus was a cosmopolitan city, filled with the sounds of trade, the languages of many languages, and all the excesses that come with financial success. But God informs them that their destruction is immanent. Their fifteen minutes of fame are about to come to an end. And, according to God, their demise is as good as done.

Damascus has become feeble,
    and all her people turn to flee. – Jeremiah 49:24 NLT

The Arameans had long been a source of contention for the people of Israel. All the way back to the reigns of David and Solomon, the Arameans and a coalition of other city-states, had been a thorn in the side of the Istaelites. David would conquer and capture the city (2 Samuel 8:5-6), but they would later cast off Israelite sovereignty during the reign of Solomon. But the city of Damascus, known for its beauty, would become a wasteland, forsaken and forgotten.

“Her young men will fall in the streets and die.
    Her soldiers will all be killed,”
    says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
“And I will set fire to the walls of Damascus
    that will burn up the palaces of Ben-hadad.” – Jeremiah 49:26-27 NLT

And now God turns His attention to the people of Kedar and Hazor. What was the significance of these two relatively obscure cities? Well, it seems that they were not cities at all, but the names of two different Arabic tribes. If we turn to the book of Genesis, we find out that the Kedarites were actually the descendants of Ishmael, the half-brother of Isaac.

These are the generations of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s servant, bore to Abraham. These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. – Genesis 25:12-15 NLT 

We know little about the Hazorites, but must assume that they were yet another Arabic tribe that had partnered with the Kedarites to form a strategic alliance. Unlike the people of Damascus, the Kedarites and Hazorites were nomadic people who were, for the most part, sheep herders who dwelled in unwalled cities consisting primarily of tents. What part had they played in the life of the people of God that would warrant God’s wrath and their destruction? God refers to them as “the warriors from the East” (Jeremiah 49:27 NLT). They were part of an alliance of other nation states and tribes, including the Midianites and Amalekites, who joined forces to attack the people of Israel during the days of the judge, Gideon.

Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, marauders from Midian, Amalek, and the people of the east would attack Israel, camping in the land and destroying crops as far away as Gaza. They left the Israelites with nothing to eat, taking all the sheep, goats, cattle, and donkeys. These enemy hordes, coming with their livestock and tents, were as thick as locusts; they arrived on droves of camels too numerous to count. And they stayed until the land was stripped bare. So Israel was reduced to starvation by the Midianites. – Judges 6:3-6 NLT

And God makes it very clear what their punishment would be:

“Their flocks and tents will be captured,
    and their household goods and camels will be taken away.” – Jeremiah 49:29 NLT

They had harassed the people of God in order to feed their flocks and camels, leaving the Israelites in a state of starvation. Now, God was going to pay them back. He would bring King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, who would strip them of all their flocks and possessions. They would end up running for their lives in an attempt to escape the wrath of God in the form of the Babylonian forces. But they would fail.

Finally, God wraps up this oracle with a word concerning Elam. The Elamites occupied the land which is now part of modern Iran. They were the descendants of Shem, one of the sons of Noah (Genesis 10:22). They lived in the area known as Mesopotamia and it is not exactly clear why they are included in this oracle of judgment by God. But it is safe to say, that God had His reasons. One of the interesting facts is that the Elamites at one time conquered the land of Ur, the ancestral homeland of the Israel patriarch, Abraham. Perhaps this played a role in God’s decision. We don’t know and are not provided with details. We do know that they played a part in an attack on the city of Jerusalem and were known for their archers and chariots (Isaiah 22:6). Which is why God says, “I will destroy the archers of Elam—the best of their forces” (Jeremiah 49:35 NLT). According to the book of Isaiah, Elam was one of the places to which the people of Israel were exiled and from which they would return

In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time
    to bring back the remnant of his people—
those who remain in Assyria and northern Egypt;
    in southern Egypt, Ethiopia, and Elam;
    in Babylonia, Hamath, and all the distant coastlands. – Isaiah 22:11 NLT

Whatever their role had been, the Elamites would be held responsible by God. Their poor treatment of God’s people had not gone unnoticed and would they would go unpunished.

“I myself will go with Elam’s enemies to shatter it.
    In my fierce anger, I will bring great disaster
    upon the people of Elam,” says the Lord. – Jeremiah 49:37 NLT

But God makes an interesting disclosure at the very end of this oracle concerning Elam. He tells them that He will restore their fortunes in the days to come. We are not told why. But it provides a picture of God’s grace and mercy, even in light of the wickedness of the nations. There is a future point in time, at which God will restore things to their original state. He will send His Son a second time, this time to rule and reign on the earth as the King of kings and Lord of lords. He will set up His Kingdom in Jerusalem and restore the people of Israel to power and prominence. No longer will the nations rise up in opposition to Israel. Instead, they will bow down in submission to the God of the Israelites.

Turn to me so you can be delivered,
all you who live in the earth’s remote regions!
For I am God, and I have no peer.
I solemnly make this oath—
what I say is true and reliable:
‘Surely every knee will bow to me,
every tongue will solemnly affirm;
they will say about me,
“Yes, the Lord is a powerful deliverer.”’”
All who are angry at him will cower before him.
All the descendants of Israel will be vindicated by the Lord
and will boast in him. – Isaiah 45:22-25 NLT

God will win the day. His Son will rule the world. The nations will bow down before Him. And God’s promises and plans concerning the people of Israel will be fully and completely fulfilled. Why? Because God is faithful and true.  

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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.

Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson