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

 

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Too Blind to See.

1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immeiately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord. Acts 13:1-12 ESV

At the close of the previous chapter, we saw that Peter had left Jerusalem for parts unknown, while Saul and Barnabas headed back to Antioch in Syria, with John Mark as their traveling companion. In the opening verses of chapter 13, we get a glimpse into how God communicated with His church in those early years. He had equipped the church with prophets, teachers and a variety of other leaders. Paul would later include these very same offices or positions in his list of those through whom God had gifted the church.

11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. 13 This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. – Ephesians 4:11-13 NLT

Both Barnabas and Saul are included in Luke’s list, indicating that they were each either a prophet or a teacher, or perhaps both. Some believe, because of the way the list is configured in the Greek, that there are two groups of individuals listed; one being the prophets in the church in Antioch, with Barnabas being one of them. The second group is made up of the two men with the gift of teaching: Manaen and Saul. It is impossible to know who had what gift, but it is clear that God was speaking to and through these men in order to give His divine directions for future ministry. We have already seen how God used the stoning of Stephen and the increased level of persecution against the church to spread the gospel by forcing the Christians to disperse from Jersusalem. We have also seen God use a dream to communicate His will to Peter, commanding him to go to Caesarea and minister to Cornelius and his household. Now, we see God speaking through men whom He had endowed with the gift of prophecy. But notice that there was not any one man who stood up and spoke up, acting as the voice of God and proclaiming His will to the rest in the room. It seems from the text, that these men were gathered together for prayer and had been fasting, most likely seeking God’s direction. And it would appear that God gave them a unified, corporate manifestation of His will by speaking to them through His Holy Spirit, who told them, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2 ESV). These two men, who were both part of the group that had gathered to pray and fast, were set apart by God for a specific task. This was the call of God, not that of men. Somehow, through the voice of the Spirit, God had communicated to these men that Saul and Barnabas were to being given a specific, God-ordained assignment, and Luke records, “after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3 ESV).

Both of these men had become huge assets to the church there in Antioch. But the leadership recognized the clear call of God on their lives and, in spite of the loss of their services, gladly sent them on their way, having commissioned them by the laying on of hands. They didn’t allow their own needs or desires to get in the way. I am sure they would have loved to have kept both Saul and Barnabas there in Antioch, but God had other plans. And Luke makes it clear that those plans were being directed by the Spirit of God. Their next destination was the island of Cyprus and, as would become their habit on the rest of their journeys, they made it their first priority to visit the local synagogue before they did anything else. While recognized as the apostle to the Gentiles, Saul never lost his deep desire to see his fellow Jews come to faith in Christ. Years later, in his letter to the Roman believers, he would write: “Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1 NLT). In that very same letter, he will go on to say:

13 I am saying all this especially for you Gentiles. God has appointed me as the apostle to the Gentiles. I stress this, 14 for I want somehow to make the people of Israel jealous of what you Gentiles have, so I might save some of them. 15 For since their rejection meant that God offered salvation to the rest of the world, their acceptance will be even more wonderful. It will be life for those who were dead! – Romans 11:13-15 NLT

And one of the most powerful indicators of his love for his fellow Jews and his deep desire to see them saved, is found in an earlier portion of his letter to the Romans:

I would be willing to be forever cursed–cut off from Christ!–if that would save them.
 – Romans 9:3 NLT

So, we will see Saul and Barnabas make it a habit to visit the synagogues within each city they visit, focusing a good portion of their efforts in attempting to persuade Jews to accept Jesus as their Messiah.

Having visited the local synagogue, the three men made their way across the island, eventually running into a man named, Bar-Jesus, described as a magician and a Jewish false prophet. It’s interesting to note that Saul and Barnabas are on the island of Cyprus because God spoke truth to men who were real prophets of God. Now, two of these men, Saul and Barnabas, one or both of whom were gifted by God as a prophet, run into a false Jewish prophet. This man is described by Luke as a magician, a fairly innocuous term that sounds a bit non-intimidating to us. But in that day and age, it had a far more robust meaning. A magician could refer to a wise man, teacher, priest, physician, astrologer, seer, interpreter of dreams, soothsayer, or sorcerer. In many cases, their so-called magic had direct ties to the occult. Like the magicians in Pharaoh’s court who had opposed Moses, Bar-Jesus most likely utilized demonic powers to perform signs and wonders. Interestingly enough, his name literally means, “son of a savior.”

Luke indicates that Bar-Jesus had some kind of relationship with the local proconsul, a man named Sergius Paulus, who held the distinction of being the highest-ranking Roman official on the island. Sergius Paulus, upon hearing of the arrival of Saul and Barnabas, summoned them to appear before him, but Bar-Jesus, also known by his nickname, Elymas (Sorcerer), tried to intervene, seeing these two men as competition. He had the ear of the Roman proconsul and was not interested in having Saul and Barnabas interfere by sharing “the faith.” But Saul, now mentioned as Paul for the first time in Luke’s account, confronts this man, declaring in no uncertain terms his disdain for Bar-Jesus and his unholy agenda. “You son of the devil, full of every sort of deceit and fraud, and enemy of all that is good! Will you never stop perverting the true ways of the Lord?” (Acts 13:10 NLT). Paul saw this man for what he was: an enemy of the gospel. Out of jealousy and motivated by selfish ambition, he was attempting to dissuade Sergius Paulus from hearing the good news of Jesus Christ. And Paul, under the indwelling influence and power of the Spirit of God, struck Bar-Jesus blind. This man, who supposedly had the power to provide insight and wisdom by way of his sorcery, was suddenly without sight. The one who claimed to be a Jewish prophet, with the power to see into the future and declare the will of God, could not see his own hand in front of his face. His physical blindness became an apt representation of his moral and spiritual blindness. No longer would he mislead people with his lies. Instead, he would have to be led by the hand just to make his way around the city of Paphos.

And while Paul’s display of Holy Spirit induced power left one man blind, it opened up the eyes of another. Sergius Paulus “believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord” (Acts 13:12 ESV). Paul had not just shut down Bar-Jesus, he had opened up the Scriptures to the proconsul, revealing to him the truth regarding Jesus and His offer of salvation. This Roman official believed. He heard the good news and received the gift of eternal life made possible through Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. There on the island of Cyprus, Luke records only the salvation of a single individual: a Roman proconsul. His emphasis seems to be less about how many were saved, than about who. The nature of the evangelistic efforts of the church was dramatically shifting. It was moving out of Jerusalem and Judea and away from the Jews. Bar-Jesus had been a Jew, but he had been struck blind because of his unbelief and opposition to the gospel. He is an apt representation of the entire Jewish nation at this point in time. He was mired in deceit, selfishness, idolatry and evil. He saw the gospel as competition, not a means of salvation. But Sergius Paulus, a pagan with no prior knowledge of Yahweh or any concept of who the Messiah might be, was miraculously converted to the faith. His eyes were opened and his life was irrevocably changed forever.

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

Rescued by God.

1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.

Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. 11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” Acts 12:1-11 ESV

In the preceding chapter, Luke mentioned the famine taking place in the land of Judea. This devastating natural disaster had left the congregation in Jerusalem in a state of great need and physical suffering. So much so, that an effort was made on the part of the new Gentile converts to raise funds to send to the church in Jerusalem to assist them in their time of need. Luke records that Barnabas and Saul made a trip to Jerusalem to deliver the generous gift of the Gentile church.

29 So the believers in Antioch decided to send relief to the brothers and sisters in Judea, everyone giving as much as they could. 30 This they did, entrusting their gifts to Barnabas and Saul to take to the elders of the church in Jerusalem. – Acts 11:29-30 NLT

But chapter 12 presents an even greater problem taking place back in Jerusalem. The persecution of the church was continuing to increase in magnitude and intensity. Now, Herod, the pseudo king of the Jews, who had been appointed by Rome, was getting in on the act. Herod Agrippa I was part-Jewish, but was greatly disliked by the Jewish people because of his close association with the Roman emperor Gaius, who had given him his position. In an effort to curry favor of the Jewish people, Herod used his political office to carry out attacks on the church, even going so far as to have James, the brother of John, executed. And when he saw how much this pleased the Jews, he made plans to do the same thing to Peter. The murder of James, one of the original apostles and a leader in the Jerusalem church, would have had a devastating impact on its members. And, while the news of his death would have been surprising and unexpected, Jesus Himself had predicted it. Years earlier, while Jesus was still on the earth, James and his brother, John, had come to Jesus with a request.

35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came over and spoke to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do us a favor.”

36 “What is your request?” he asked.

37 They replied, “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.”

38 But Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?”

39 “Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!”

Then Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup and be baptized with my baptism of suffering.” – Mark 10:35-39 NLT

Now, James was dead. And Peter was next. At least, that was Herod’s plan. It was as if his plan was to eliminate the leadership of the church, one man at a time. And he was serious about it, having Peter arrested and thrown in jail.

This entire section of the Book of Acts provides us with an important interlude or break that separates the spread of the church to the Gentiles, as recorded in chapter 11, with the trip of Saul and Barnabas to Cyprus, where they continued their evangelistic efforts among the Gentiles. As the gospel made its way into the world, the heat in Jerusalem was intensifying and the rejection of the gospel by the Jews was becoming increasingly volatile and violent. Yes, there had been thousands of Jews who had come to faith in Jesus, but as a nation, both politically and religiously, they were standing opposed to Jesus’ claim to be their Messiah. John, the brother of James, recorded the nature of Israel’s rejection of Jesus, illustrated in their corporate refusal to accept Him as their Messiah.

37 But despite all the miraculous signs Jesus had done, most of the people still did not believe in him. 38 This is exactly what Isaiah the prophet had predicted:

Lord, who has believed our message?
    To whom has the Lord revealed his powerful arm?”

39 But the people couldn’t believe, for as Isaiah also said,

40 “The Lord has blinded their eyes
    and hardened their hearts—
so that their eyes cannot see,
    and their hearts cannot understand,
and they cannot turn to me
    and have me heal them.”

41 Isaiah was referring to Jesus when he said this, because he saw the future and spoke of the Messiah’s glory. 42 Many people did believe in him, however, including some of the Jewish leaders. But they wouldn’t admit it for fear that the Pharisees would expel them from the synagogue. 43 For they loved human praise more than the praise of God. – John 12:37-43 NLT

Now, years later, and long after Jesus had been put to death by the joint efforts of the religious authorities of Israel and the Roman government, His disciples were facing the same threat of execution. But the hardness of the hearts of the people of Israel, while disappointing, had a purpose. It opened up the door to the Gentiles. Because of Israel’s rejection of Jesus as their Messiah, the gospel was taken to non-Jews, so that they might enjoy the righteousness and redemption provided by faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior. And Paul, himself a devout Jew, would later write that Israel’s rejection of Jesus would not be permanent in nature.

11 Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not! They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles. But he wanted his own people to become jealous and claim it for themselves. 12 Now if the Gentiles were enriched because the people of Israel turned down God’s offer of salvation, think how much greater a blessing the world will share when they finally accept it. – Romans 11:11-12 NLT

This was all part of God’s divine plan. Had the Jewish nation, as a whole, not turned its back on Jesus, the persecution and scattering of the church would not have taken place. But it did, because that was the way God had ordained it. Even Peter’s arrest, while clearly the decision of Herod, was part of God’s sovereign, preestablished will.

Luke tells us that when Peter was arrested, the rest of the church got busy lifting him up in prayer. They feared for the worst. James was dead, and they had no reason to expect that the same thing would not happen to Peter. So, they took their need to God. Luke doesn’t tell us what they prayed, but we can easily assume that they pleaded for God to spare Peter’s life and to deliver him from the hands of Herod. And God did just that. The story of Peter’s deliverance provides us with a startling, but often overlooked reminder of God’s power. Herod, the king of the Jews, who had the full authority of the Roman empire behind him, had placed Peter in jail and had every intent to put him to death. And Luke tells us that, on the very night he had determined to carry out his plan, God stepped in. And He did so in a dramatic and memorable way. Peter was sound asleep, chained to two Roman solders, when suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared, filling the cell with dazzling light. Luke doesn’t tell us what happened to the two guards, but they were either paralyzed or, perhaps, even killed by the angel. All we know is that Peter’s chains dropped off and, after having gotten dressed, he walked out of the prison a free man. And the whole time this was going on, Peter thought he was dreaming. It wasn’t until he had made his way out of the prison complex and the angel suddenly disappeared, that Peter realized that what had happened was real and not a dream.

“Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” – Acts 12:11 ESV

God had much more for Peter to do. His work on behalf of the kingdom was not yet complete. In John 21, we have Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s death, but this was not the time or the place. Herod, even as powerful as he was, stood powerless before God Almighty. His execution of James, could not have happened without God’s approval. We don’t know why God allowed James to die by the sword, any more than we know why God allowed Stephen to be stoned to death. And God is not obligated to explain Himself to us. But we can rest in the fact that God, in His sovereign will and almighty power, was in full control of all the circumstances surrounding His church. He was going to use each and every event – the good, the bad and the ugly – to accomplish His divine will for the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church. And as we will see later on in this same chapter, God would eventually deal with Herod, revealing that no one stands outside of or aloof from God’s sovereign hand and righteous judgment.

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

Just As He Had Planned It.

19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. 25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.

27 Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). 29 So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. Acts 11:19-30 ESV

In this section, Luke begins to introduce yet another phase of the church’s continuing spread and growth. Back in chapter eight, he had described one of the ramifications of Stephen’s martyrdom. It was the increased persecution of the church, in part, because of the efforts of Saul. Yet, in spite of the intensification of the persecution, he said, “the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went” (Acts 8:4 NLT). Then, by way of example, he chronicled Philip’s trip to the region of Samaria and all that happened as a result. Here in chapter 11, Luke picks up where he left off, letting us know that the persecution of the church had resulted in a dispersion of the Christians well beyond Samaria. The believers who fled Jerusalem “traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch” (Acts 10:19 ESV). But then Luke adds a telling detail, revealing that these Jewish believers kept their efforts to share the gospel restricted to their own people: The Jews. He says that they spoke the word to no one but Jews. This is significant because he shares it immediately after detailing the dramatic outcome of Peter’s journey to Caesarea, where Gentiles came to faith and received the anointing of the Spirit of God just as the disciples had on the day of Pentecost. This provides us with an important insight into the early days of the church. As the church continued to grow and the gospel made its way outside the confines of Jerusalem and Judea, the effort developed multiple fronts, each seemingly with its own emphasis and distinct motivation. Those Jewish believers who escaped and made their way to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch in Syria, were still under the impression that this new religion was little more than a new branch of reformed Judaism. It was a religion of Jews and for Jews. After all, Jesus had been a Jew and had claimed to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. So, it made sense that they would concentrate their efforts to share the gospel by focusing on fellow Jews. And, as Jews, the thought of sharing their new-found faith with a Gentile would never have crossed their minds. Remember, it had taken a vision and a word from God to get Peter to go to the home of Cornelius.

Cyprus, Phoenicia and Antioch were located hundreds of miles from Jerusalem and illustrate the ever-expanding reach of the gospel. Antioch, located in the region of Syria, was 300 miles from the city of Jerusalem and, at that time, would have been the third-largest city in the entire Roman empire. It was a bustling metropolis, made up of people from all walks of life and from all over the world. It is estimated that Antioch had a population of anywhere from 500,000 to 800,000 people, with a seventh of them being Jews. As a city, it had a reputation for decadence and its citizens’ love of pleasure. And yet, Antioch would become a major hub for Christianity in the coming years.

As the believing Jews made their ways to these various destinations, they faithfully shared the good news regarding Jesus Christ. Luke tells us that, in Antioch, they included Hellenistic Jews in their target audience. And he records that “a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21 ESV). Even though they were restricting their outreach to Jews, God was blessing their efforts. And when news of what was happening in Antioch got back to the leadership of the church in Jerusalem, they sent Barnabas to check it out. When he arrived, Barnabas was greatly encouraged by what he saw and spent time exhorting those in the church there “to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose” (Acts 11:23 ESV). He knew that the days ahead would be difficult. It was not going to be easy to live out their new faith in the midst of a culture like that in Antioch. These people, as Jews, were already in the minority. Now, as believers, they were going to face further rejection by their own people. So, Barnabas felt compelled to strengthen the fledgling church by remaining with them for a prolonged period of time.  And knowing he would need help, he traveled to Tarsus to enlist Saul in his efforts. This would begin an important new phase in the God-ordained ministry of Saul. And it is essential that we recognize God’s sovereign hand at work in all these details. Stephen’s martyrdom had resulted in persecution and the dispersion of the church. It had also resulted in Saul’s intensified efforts in that persecution, after he approvingly watched the stoning of Stephen. And yet, the resurrected Jesus had confronted Saul as he made his way to Damascus to arrest and round up Christians and, as a result, Saul had undergone a dramatic conversion. And some three years later, when Saul had traveled to Jerusalem, it had been Barnabas who acted as his host and sponsor, introducing him to the apostles and explaining the dramatic details behind Saul’s conversion. Now, when the leaders in Jerusalem felt compelled to send a representative to Antioch to investigate all that was going on, they just so happened to choose Barnabas. This was anything but a case of happenstance or blind fate. It was the hand of God. Barnabas was chosen because God had ordained it. And his arrival in one of the largest, predominantly Gentile cities in the Roman empire was something God orchestrated. Now, he would have Saul working by his side, a man whom Jesus had chosen to be His witness to the Gentiles. It’s important that we recall the words spoken by Jesus to Ananias, commanding him to go lay hands on Saul immediately after his Damascus road experience:

“Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. – Romans 9:15 ESV

Here in this chapter, we see God instigating what will be another new front in the war against sin and death. He is putting one of His primary weapons into the battle, sending Saul into an environment where his gifts and abilities would be used by the Spirit of God to accomplish great things for the Kingdom. It had probably been close to nine years since Saul’s conversion, and during that time, he would have been growing in his faith and honing his Spirit-given abilities as a messenger of the gospel. God had been preparing Saul for this very occasion.
Luke records that Saul and Barnabas spent a year in Antioch; ministering, evangelizing, and growing the fledgling congregation there. Interestingly, Luke provides us with the insight that it was at this point in the timeline of the church that believers came to be known and referred to as Christians. This was most likely about ten years after Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. A decade had passed and the church, formerly called “the way” was now known for the name of the One in whose name they believed and had placed their faith. This name is significant in that it contains three important characteristics. First of all, “Christ” is the Greek translation of Messiah. The Messiah was the Jewish Savior, promised by God in the Hebrew Scriptures. So, we have in the name “Christian”, an obvious link to the Jewish roots of Jesus. But Christ would become the primary name by which Gentiles would commonly refer to Jesus. It became like a second name for Him, much as we use it today. And the ending, “ians” is of a Latin derivation, the language of Rome and the predominate language of the empire. Luke’s inclusion of the seemingly insignificant fact that the name, “Christian” had become the primary means by which believers were described is more important than we might imagine. The faith was becoming universalized. It was making inroads into the various cultures of the day, and developing a reputation as a free-standing religion, separate and distinct from Judaism or any other pagan religion. It was slowly, but surely, becoming a fixture in the culture of the day.
Luke ends this chapter with what appears to be another interesting, and far from unimportant anecdote: A prophecy regarding an eminent worldwide famine. Once again, we have to look beyond the black and white nature of Luke’s reporting of Agabus’ prophecy. Why did Luke, under the inspiration of the Spirit, include this information at this point in his book? As we will see, this famine will play a significant part in the future of the church. And Luke provides some insight into how it will impact the ministry of Saul himself.
29 So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. – Acts 11:29-30 ESV
The church in Jerusalem would suffer greatly because of this famine. The Jews there, already suffering from persecution because of their faith, would find themselves living in relative poverty and barely able to exist. While there had been a time, in the early days of the church in Jerusalem, when the rich believers had been able to provide for the less-fortunate in their midst, after the arrival of the famine, that would no longer be possible. Now, the global church would provide for the needs of those in Jerusalem. And Saul would make it part of his life’s mission to raise funds from among the predominantly Gentile congregations to which he ministered, and to see that those resources made their way back to the church in Jerusalem. God would even use a famine to accomplish His will regarding the spread of the gospel and the unity of the church around the world. As it spread, God would see to it that it remained unified in its love and mission.
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

All On God’s Timetable.

26 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. 27 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. 28 So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. 30 And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

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. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 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.

O Lord, you have examined my heart
    and know everything about me.
You know when I sit down or stand up.
    You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
You see me when I travel
    and when I rest at home.
    You know everything I do.
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.

 

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

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

A Chosen Instrument.

10 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.” 11 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, 12 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.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15 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. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 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.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened. Acts 9:10-19 ESV

Why Saul? It’s virtually impossible to read the story of this man’s miraculous conversion and not wonder why God chose to use someone like him? After all, he was a card-carrying member of the Pharisees and a proud persecutor of the church, who took his job very seriously.

10 “I caused many believers there to be sent to prison. And I cast my vote against them when they were condemned to death. 11 Many times I had them punished in the synagogues to get them to curse Jesus. I was so violently opposed to them that I even chased them down in foreign cities. – Acts 23:10-11 NLT

And yet, here we have God referring to Saul as His “chosen instrument.” The Greek word, translated “chosen” is eklogē, and it means, “the act of picking out, choosing or electing” (“G1589 – eklogē – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). It is a variation of a similar word (eklektos) used by Peter  in his first letter when referring to the believers to whom he was writing.

1 I am writing to God’s chosen people who are living as foreigners in the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. God the Father knew you and chose you long ago, and his Spirit has made you holy. As a result, you have obeyed him and have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ. – 1 Peter 1:1-2 NLT

God had chosen Saul. He had hand-picked him for salvation. And that fact, coupled with Saul’s far-from-stellar track record, should remind us that salvation is not based on our human effort or any sense of merit. And no one understood the reality of that fact better than Saul himself, who would later pen these words:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV

For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time–to show us his grace through Christ Jesus. – 2 Timothy 1:9 NLT

…he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. – Titus 3:5 NLT

Saul, later writing under his Greek name, Paul, would repeatedly declare that God’s gracious act of redeeming men and women was solely based on the finished work of Christ on the cross. No one earned God’s favor. No one deserved His mercy. And Saul would become the poster boy for God’s saving grace. If anything, he deserved God’s wrath. He merited God’s anger and retribution for persecuting the children of God and, as Jesus had pointed out to Saul, the Son of God Himself. And yet, God had plans for Saul. But His decision to save Saul must not be seen as some kind of knee-jerk reaction on God’s part, a last-minute hail-Mary pass heaved up in the hopes of staying in the game. God had not been caught off guard by Saul’s activities. He had not been surprised by Saul’s determination to persecute the followers of “the Way.” In fact, Saul himself would come to recognize that his calling by God had been anything but reactionary. His calling by God had been preordained and predetermined by God, long before Saul had been born.

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 1:15-16 NLT

Saul, prior to His Damascus-road encounter with the resurrected Christ, was just another man living his life apart from God, trapped in his own sinful state and deserving of condemnation by God for his rebellion against him. Sure, Saul was religious and even zealous to try and please God. He would even state that, prior to his coming to faith in Christ, “I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault” (Philippians 3:6 NLT). But he was lost. He was an enemy of God. And it wasn’t because he persecuted the church. It was because he was born in sin and shared in the condemnation announced by God against Adam. It is clear that Saul understood this reality just by reading what he wrote in his letter to the Romans.

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. – Romans 5:12 NLT

…everyone died—from the time of Adam to the time of Moses—even those who did not disobey an explicit commandment of God, as Adam did. – Romans 5:14 NLT

For Adam’s sin led to condemnation…  – Romans 5:16 NLT

For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. – Romans 5:17 NLT

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone… – Romans 5:18 NLT

It wasn’t Saul’s persecution of the church that got him in trouble with God. He was already condemned because of his association with Adam. He had inherited not only Adam’s sin nature and predisposition toward sin, but Adam’s guilty status as a sinner against God. He was born with a death sentence leveled against him, before he had committed a single indiscretion against God. But God, in His grace, had chosen Saul for salvation. He had predetermined to make Saul His chosen instrument, and to transform him from a condemned sinner, whose sinful state showed up in a misguided attempt to earn favor with God through persecuting the church, to a fully justified and forgiven servant of God who would himself endure persecution on behalf of God.

And God told a reluctant Ananias, “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16 NLT). Saul’s choice by God was not going to result in a trouble-free life. He would not discover himself enjoying a painless, sin-free existence, devoid of problems and characterized by unending joy and abounding blessings. No, he would serve and suffer. He would obey and undergo persecution. He would experience God’s blessing and, at the same time, know what it was like to experience ridicule and rejection. And Saul would never lose sight of his own unworthiness before God. He would never get over the fact that his salvation was undeserved and unmerited. He would later write:

For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church. – 1 Corinthians 15:8 NLT

But this man, chosen by God, was redeemed by God and re-purposed to live a life that brought glory to the cause of Christ and the Kingdom of God.

None of this makes sense to us. It seems an odd way for God to accomplish His divine will. Even Ananias was a bit surprised and confused by God’s determination to send him to meet with Saul. He even attempted to bring God up to speed on Saul’s most recent activities.

13 “But Lord,” exclaimed Ananias, “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

But, ultimately, God convinced Ananias that He knew what He was doing and Ananias went, somewhat reluctantly, and did what God had commanded. And Luke records that when Ananias laid his hands on Saul, “Instantly something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized” (Acts 9:18 NLT). Saul was not only having his physical sight restored, he was having his spiritual eyes opened for the very first time. This extremely religious, well-educated young man was, for the first time in his life, able to truly see, to discern the ways of God and to accept the offer of salvation made possible through Jesus Christ. He was living out exactly what the apostle John wrote in the opening to his gospel.

The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. 11 He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. 12 But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. 13 They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. – John 1:10-13 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

Blinded By the Light.

 1 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.. – Acts 9:1-9 ESV

Luke first introduced us to this latest character back at the end of chapter seven, at the stoning of Stephen.

His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul.
– Acts 7:58 NLT

And in the very next chapter, Luke made mention of the fact that, before Stephen’s body had been long in the grave, Saul had begun his intensive persecution of the followers of Christ.

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 8:3 NLT

And if we fast-forward to chapter 21, Luke provides a detailed account of a speech that Saul gave to the crowd that had gathered as a result of his arrest by the Roman authorities in Jerusalem. Saul provided a first-hand explanation of his role as a persecutor of the church of Jesus Christ.

4 “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 22:4-5 NLT

It is not clear whether Saul set out on his mission to rid the world of Christians on his own, or whether he had been commissioned by the high priest and the Jewish council from the get-go. It is obvious that at some point, he received orders and official paperwork from the high priest and the Sanhedrin, sanctioning his efforts as a self-proclaimed bounty hunter. Saul had taken his work seriously. He saw the followers of “the way” as nothing but religious radicals and troublemakers. As a devout Pharisee, he was determined to protect the religious way of life that had been passed down for generations. He would not tolerate what he believed to be a threat to Judaism, and so he had made it his mission in life to eradicate any and all Christ-followers from the face of the earth. And that had been his objective when he had set out for the city of Damascus that fateful day.

But Saul’s plans were about to run headlong into God’s providential will for his life. He set out that day with one goal in mind: To arrest and imprison Christians. But God had a different outcome in store for him. Saul had plans to arrest Christ-followers, but God had a plan to arrest Saul’s efforts and make him a follower of Christ. What is so fascinating about the story of Saul’s conversion is how it so radically displays the sovereign work of God in this man’s spiritual transformation. At no point in the story do we see Saul portrayed as a seeker or displaying any interest whatsoever in having a relationship with Jesus Christ. Saul despised Jesus, and he hated all those who believed in His name, preached about His resurrection or claimed that this man could provide forgiveness for sins and everlasting life. Saul wanted nothing to do with Jesus. He wasn’t seeking salvation. He wasn’t interested in having his sins forgiven or his life made right with God. As a Pharisee, he would have seen himself as righteous before God because of his status as a Jew, his obedience to the Mosaic law, and his zeal for the ways of God. Luke provides us with a glimpse into what the mindset of Saul was prior to his conversion.

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today.” – Acts 22:3 NLT

“As the Jewish leaders are well aware, I was given a thorough Jewish training from my earliest childhood among my own people and in Jerusalem. If they would admit it, they know that I have been a member of the Pharisees, the strictest sect of our religion.” – Acts 26:4-5 NLT

“I used to believe that I ought to do everything I could to oppose the very name of Jesus the Nazarene. 10 Indeed, I did just that in Jerusalem. Authorized by the leading priests, I caused many believers there to be sent to prison. And I cast my vote against them when they were condemned to death. 11 Many times I had them punished in the synagogues to get them to curse Jesus. I was so violently opposed to them that I even chased them down in foreign cities.” – Acts 26:9-11 NLT

Saul had been a self-righteous, law-abiding Pharisee. He had not been looking for a Savior when he set out for Damascus. He had been on a mission to seek and destroy Christians. But again, Luke’s recounting of Saul’s conversion provides us with a powerful reminder of the sovereign work of God in the redemption of men. In fact, Saul himself would later write in his letter to the Romans, quoting from the Old Testament Scriptures:

10 “None is righteous, no, not one;
11     no one understands;
    no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
    no one does good,
    not even one.” – Romans 3:10-12 NLT

Saul had not been a God-seeker that day. He had been a God-pleaser. In his mind, he thought that what he was doing would bring glory and honor to God. He was attempting to earn favor with God by doing everything in his power to honor God through his actions. But he was blind to the truth. What he believed to be righteous deeds, done to please God, were actually nothing more than proof of his sinful, hopeless condition. And it was going to take God Almighty to alter the trajectory of Saul’s life. In his letter to the Romans, Saul would go on to quote from the psalms, most likely recalling his own pre-salvation condition.

15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16     in their paths are ruin and misery. – Romans 3:15-16 ESV

The path on which Saul had set out was going to end in ruin and misery, not just for those he sought to arrest, but for himself. His current life plan was going to end poorly. But then Jesus Christ stepped into his path.

As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” – Acts 9:3-4 NLT

Saul had an unexpected, unplanned encounter with the risen Lord. And Luke makes it clear that Saul had run smack-dab into the one individual he least expected to find.

“Who are you, lord?” Saul asked.

And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” – Acts 9:5-6 NLT

Saul had set out that day looking for Christians, not Christ. He had made plans to find and arrest followers of Christ, but had no expectations that he would run into Christ Himself. But as the proverb so aptly states: “We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps” (Proverbs 16:9 NLT). God had Saul right where He wanted him. And none of it was what Saul had planned. His self-made goals for his day and his life were suddenly disrupted by Jesus. He would eventually make it to Damascus, but totally blind and in need of assistance just to find his way around. The great persecutor was suddenly powerless and helpless. He found himself to be no match for the risen Lord.

But at this point in the story, Saul had no idea exactly who it was that was speaking to him. He simply asked, “Who are you, lord?” And when Jesus responded, it had to have left Saul in a state of extreme confusion. In his mind, Jesus was dead. How could he be hearing a dead man speak? Saul was left speechless. He didn’t have a rebuttal or any further questions. He was at a complete loss as to what was going on. So, all he could do was listen to the directions given to him by Jesus and allow himself to be led by the hand into the city, where he was to await further instructions.

Luke tells us that Saul had lost his sight, his appetite, and the objective of his original mission. There would be no man-hunt for Christians and no arrests made. Saul’s life, as he had come to know it, was over. Something new was about to begin and it would all be because of the sovereign work of God. Saul’s life was about to take a dramatic and diametrically different turn. His days of denying Christ were over. His self-important plans to eliminate Christ and His followers were done. And the reality of the words he would later pen in one of his letter to the Corinthians were about to set in.

…anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! – 2 Corinthians 5:17 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

A People of Faith.

54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

1 And Saul approved of his execution.

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. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. – Acts 7:44-8:3 ESV

Stephen had called out the high priest and the Sanhedrin. These powerful and influential religious leaders of the Jews were the guilty culprits, not him. They were supposed to be the spiritual shepherds of Israel, but Stephen had exposed them for what they were: stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, who always resist the Holy Spirit. They were just like their ancestors, whose rebellion against God Stephen had just outlined for them in great detail. These men were supposed to be man of faith, like Abraham, Joseph, Moses and David. They should have expected the unexpected from God. Of all people, they should have known what the Scriptures said and how God had repeatedly told of new things to come. The author of Hebrews provides further proof that Abraham, Joseph, Moses and David were men of faith.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. – Hebrews 11:8-10 ESV

Abraham, whose only possession in the land of Canaan was the tomb in which he buried his wife, believed God and kept waiting for the promise of God to be fulfilled.

22 By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones. – Hebrews 11:22 ESV

Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his own brothers, kept faithfully trusting in God, eventually being appointed the second-highest ranking official in the land of Egypt. But he was so convinced of God’s promise concerning the promised land, that he made his brothers swear to return his bones there after his death.

24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. – Hebrews 11:24-26 ESV

Moses gave up the privileges that came with being the adopted son of Pharaoh, instead risking it all in order to faithfully serve God. He obeyed God, leading the people of Israel out of Egypt and all the way to the land of promise. And then the author of Hebrews sums up his recounting of those patriarchs who exhibited faith in their God.

32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Hebrews 11:32-34 ESV

All of these individuals led lives of faith. They placed their trust in God, never knowing quite how things were going to turn out, but leaving the outcome up to God. But the men to whom Stephen had just delivered his message were men of little faith. They no longer expected God to do great things. They were content with the Mosaic Law, the Temple and their own status as spiritual leaders of Israel. It didn’t seem to bother them that they were under oppressive Roman rule and that the spiritual climate within Israel was at an all-time low. Stephen had clearly pointed out that they were just like their ancestors, who had rejected the leadership of Moses and the prophetic warnings of the prophets. The high priest and the Sanhedrin had rejected the Righteous One of God, and were now rejecting His Spirit-filled apostles. They wanted nothing to do with the gospel. They rejected the words of Peter, John, and Stephen, refusing to believe that Jesus was the Messiah and had been resurrected from the grave. In fact, it is when Stephen claims to see a vision of the resurrected Lord that these men lose it.

55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 56 And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!” – Acts 7:55-56 NLT

That was all it took. Stephen’s Spirit-inspired vision of the risen Lord left the Jewish religious leaders seeing red. They immediately assaulted Stephen, dragging him outside the city, where they stoned him to death. And in doing so, they revealed that their faith was in something other than God. They worshiped the status quo. They had made idols out of the Mosaic Law and the Temple. They were not interested in what God was doing in their midst, but only in what God had done in the past. These men had no expectation that God would do great things in their midst. Their faith was in what they could see and touch, including their own status as religious leaders and the bricks and mortar of the Temple itself. They took comfort in the law, even though they failed to keep it. They sought salvation through their own self-effort and saw no need for a Savior. In their minds, they were already righteous before God because they were the chosen people of God, the keepers of the law of God, and the proud occupants of the Temple of God.

So, like their ancestors before them, they killed the messenger of God. And in doing so, they refused the message God had proclaimed through him. And this tagic event brought a dramatic change to the atmosphere within Jerusalem. No longer would the city be a safe and inviting environment for the followers of Jesus. Luke points out that “there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1 ESV). And he drops the name of a man who would play a vital role in both the church’s persecution and the gospel’s proclamation: Saul. He is only given a mention in these verses, but in a relatively short period of time, Saul would become a key player in the ongoing drama surrounding the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ.

There are a number of things presaged in these verses. First of all, the future role of Saul as both a persecutor of the church and as its poster-boy for conversion stories. His presence at Stephen’s stoning and his approval of his death, provide us with a glimpse into what was to come. God was at work. He was moving behind the scenes in ways that even the apostles could not have foreseen. Little did they know that the escalating tension between the Jewish religious leaders and the church was going to have a positive impact on the spread of the gospel. We must always recall what Jesus had said to His disciples just prior to His ascension. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV). Yet, up until this point in Luke’s account of the church’s growth and spread, the gospel had yet to make it outside the city walls of Jerusalem. But what does he say happened as a result of Stephen’s death and the subsequent persecution of the church? “…and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1 ESV). The new believers were forced to flee for their lives, vacating the confines of Jerusalem and heading out into the surrounding regions, even as far as Samaria. God was using what appeared to be a tragic event to accomplish His divine will for the church. What the people of God had been unwilling or unready to do, He made happen. He used the persecution by the religious leaders to force His own people to do what Jesus had commanded them to do. And this new era in the life of the church was going to take faith. No longer would they be able to remain in the close community they had established and enjoyed in Jerusalem. Unlike the Jews, God was not satisfied with the status quo. The gospel was meant to be spread. The community of faith was meant to be shared. The good news of Jesus Christ was intended for any and all who would hear it and accept it, regardless of race or creed.

Saul, who would later become known to us as Paul, would one day pick up the mantel of Stephen and take the good news to the Gentiles. It was he who wrote, “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” (Romans 1:16 NLT). The man who held the coats of those who stoned Stephen and approved of their actions, would one day face stoning himself, for preaching the gospel boldly and without apology. He would become a man of great faith, who willingly suffered for the sake of Christ, because he had placed his hope in the future promises of Christ. Which is why he could say, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV).

Stephen, a man of great faith, died at the hands of men of little faith. But the God in whom Stephen had placed his faith, was not done. His church, while facing persecution, was far from finished. It would continue to grow. The Spirit would continue to move. Men and women would continue to place their faith in a faithful God who was doing new and exciting things in their midst. And while Saul was busy ravaging the church, our faithful God had plans for Saul would radically revolutionize his life and forever alter the trajectory of the gospel.

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

Seeking the Face of God.

Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the Lord. And the Lord said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel but of the remnant of the Amorites. Although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had sought to strike them down in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah. And David said to the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?” The Gibeonites said to him, “It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put any man to death in Israel.” And he said, “What do you say that I shall do for you?” They said to the king, “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel, let seven of his sons be given to us, so that we may hang them before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the Lord.” And the king said, “I will give them.”

But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Saul’s son Jonathan, because of the oath of the Lord that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul. The king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab the daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite; and he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them on the mountain before the Lord, and the seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest.

Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it for herself on the rock, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell upon them from the heavens. And she did not allow the birds of the air to come upon them by day, or the beasts of the field by night. When David was told what Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done, David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the men of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hanged them, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa. And he brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan; and they gathered the bones of those who were hanged. And they buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of Kish his father. And they did all that the king commanded. And after that God responded to the plea for the land. – 2 Samuel 21:1-14 ESV

These closing chapters of the book of Second Samuel function as a kind of appendix, presenting six unrelated stories and in no chronological order, but intended to provide us with an historical overview of the life of David. The first involves a famine, which probably took place early in David’s reign. It had lasted three years and brought much devastation to the people of Israel. But it was not until David sought the face of God that he became aware of the cause of the famine. It is significant to note that, early in David’s reign, he seemed to have been more prone to seek the face of God when faced with a difficulty. But he had still waited three years to ask God what was going on. And God told him, “The famine has come because Saul and his family are guilty of murdering the Gibeonites” (2 Samuel 21:1 NLT). Now, before we move on in the story, it is important that we look back at how all of this happened. All the way back in Joshua 9, we are told of an incident concerning the people of Israel as they were attempting to take possession of the land of Canaan, promised to them by God. Joshua was approached by some Gibeonites, disguised as weary travelers and representing themselves as representatives of a distant nation. They were seeking to make a treaty with the Israelites. The Gibeonites, who were actually local occupants of the land, had heard what Israel had done to the cities of Jericho and Ai, and knew they were next. So, they had come up with the plan to deceive the Israelites into making a treaty with them. And it worked. But what’s important to note is that it worked because Joshua  “did not ask counsel from the Lord” (Joshua 9:14 NLT). Instead, he signed a treaty with the Gibeonites, vowing not to attack them. Even when the Israelites discovered they had been deceived, they could not do anything about it, because they had “had sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel” (Joshua 9:18 NLT). Why is this even important? Because it reveals a powerful lesson regarding the danger of the people of God failing to seek the wisdom and direction of God. We have seen over and over again, what happened to David when he failed to seek God. It never ended well. And this incident with the Gibeonites is yet another reminder that failure to seek God may not have immediate consequences, but it will inevitably come back to haunt you.

Years later, when Saul had become king of Israel, he broke the very same covenant with the Gibeonites by killing some of them. the details of this incident are not recorded in the book of First Samuel, but David does not attempt to dispute that it happened. First of all, because it was God who had said that it had happened. Secondly, because the Gibeonites had confirmed it. There is little doubt that Saul had not sought the will of God when he had committed this violation of the covenant. And his sin was now having its inevitable consequences. As a result, David was forced to put seven of Saul’s sons to death as a form of retribution, and in order to satisfy the demands of the Gibeonites. The famine would not end until this situation was made right and justice was served. But one of the lessons we must take away from this story is the residual nature of our sins. Joshua had failed to seek God and had made a covenant that went directly against the will of God. He had commanded the complete destruction and elimination of the occupants of the land. No treaties were to be made. And Joshua’s failure to listen to God would leave the Gibeonites in the land. Then Saul would end up putting some of them to death, breaking the covenant Joshua had made with them. And then the people of Israel would suffer through a three-year famine, all because Saul had violated a treaty with the Gibeonites, sworn before God Himself. One sin had led to another and then David had been left with the unpleasant task of having to remedy the whole situation by having seven men put to death.

Sin always has consequences. What can easily be overlooked in this story are the thousands of innocent people who suffered from the famine. Many had probably lost loved ones due to starvation.  Innocent children suffered. Animals died. The entire community was forced to go through three years of God-ordained punishment because of the sins of two men. And we see the sorrow of Rizpah, one of the mothers of the slain men, as she stays beside the bodies, mourning their deaths and protecting them from scavengers. Her grief was the direct result of someone else’s sin.

And the story comes to a conclusion with David gathering the bodies of the seven slain sons, along with the bones of Saul and Jonathan, and burying them all in the land of the Benjamites. Saul and Jonathan had also died as a result of sin against God. Saul deserved what happened to him, but Jonathan was yet another innocent casualty of sin’s devastating impact. Time and time again, in the Scriptures, we see latent and lingering influence of sin. It has a long shelf life. Our sins can be forgiven, but their consequences can last for generations. That is why it is so important that we seek the Lord. It is when we fail to seek Him, and leave ourselves vulnerable to our own sin natures and the influence of the enemy, that we risk doing those things that come back to haunt us. We tend to wrongly assume that our sins are personal and harm no one but ourselves. But the Scriptures are full of sobering stories like this one that prove that conclusion painfully wrong – dead wrong.

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