This is a paper that I wrote for my Acts class in the spring of 2009. The reasons that I will post some of my own work for classes are two fold: 1. My writing needs to be critique and challenged. I will never become a better writer, arguer, and thinker if people don’t question my reasoning and point out my errors in writing. So please, if you read these let me know where you disagree with me with precision, not just a  general “I don’t like.” Let me know what you don’t like and why you don’t like it. This would be a help to me to interact with you and hopefully sharpen both of our thinking. 2. Because what things I do study need to be passed on to aid others. Not that I have a lot of deep, spiritual things to say. But I want to aid in pointing people to Christ in any way I can. So enjoy!

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CONVERSION OF SAUL: ACTS 9:1-9

Introduction

In Acts 9:1-9 we have the dramatic conversion of Saul. At the beginning of this narrative he was bound and determined to squelch the belief of “the Way” (other wise known as Christianity) and its followers. Then, however, we witness the intervention of a sovereign God who converted the one whom He had set apart before he was born (Gal 1:15) so that Paul would preach him among the Gentiles (Gal 1:16).  Like the prophets of old, God summoned Saul to himself and gave him a message to proclaim to others.[1] I believe the emphasis that colors this narrative is that it is Christ himself who brought about this change[2] that would bring the kingdom of Christ to the Gentiles. Even though evil men try to stand against this coming kingdom, they find themselves no match for the sovereign Christ who subjugated the most evil of these men and made him a vessel for the further increase of this kingdom.

Historical Background

There are two areas that we can look at to help us understand the happenings here in this text. The first one is the person of Saul: who he was and what was his mission. And the second will be the context leading up to this passage.

The Person of Paul

Saul was born, raised, and educated at the city of Tarsus as revealed in verse 11. Tarsus was a wealthy university city that was famous for being a center of learning.[3] There Paul studied under the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), the same Gamaliel that stopped the Jews from killing the Apostles in Acts 5:33. Now there is an obvious difference between the reaction to the new belief of Christianity between Gamaliel and his student Saul.[4] Gamaliel responded by a peaceful action and wanted to leave the outcome of this group to the judgment of God (Act 5:38-39), Paul resorted to terrorizing and persecuting the church (Acts 8:1-3). N. T. Wright points out that there were two main camps of the Pharisees: the Shammaites and the Hillelites. These groups debated on the strictness of personal observance of the Torah in the midst of Israel being ruled from outside forces.[5] The Hillelites believed in a policy that was fine with foreign rule as long as they could freely practice Judaism where as the Shammaites believed that the Torah demanded that Israel be free from foreign rule. And this freedom could be accomplished by any means necessary—even violence.[6] It seems to me that Gamaliel was of the Hillelite thought, as Wright points out, his action in Acts 5:34-39 portray a pacifist attitude regarding the Christian movement.[7] Yet, this Hillelite’s pupil, Saul, resorted to violence to fend off the Christian movement (Acts 8:1-3, 9:1-2). Probably, Saul began to see the danger of the Christian movement and it’s ever increasing strength. He saw them growing so much that he left the example of his teacher and followed the path of the Shammaites to deal with the followers of “the Way.”[8] Saul (who would be named Paul at the time of writing these things) would later testify to his passion in persecuting the church as “zealous” (Gal 1:14, Phil 3:6). It could be said that Saul began seeing himself in the same heroic line as Phinehas (Num 25:1-9) and Mattathias (1 Macc 2:23-26) who displayed their zeal for God by slaying those that openly defiled God’s commandments.[9] Thus, when Paul is shown in the first part of this narrative he is “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). For his passion against those that defiled the Torah is great enough that he used violence to set things right. And in his mind the Christians called for such a response.

The Placing of the Narrative

In Chapter 7 we have the first martyr of the faith—Stephen. Stephen’s discourse in chapter 7 centers on the charge that the Jews had always rejected God and his messengers. And their present rejection of Jesus as the Messiah is the culmination of them being a stiff-necked people (Acts 7:51-52). The crowds became enraged (7:54) and proceed to stone Stephen to death (7:60). Then in the start of chapter 8 massive persecution breaks out against the church headed by Saul (8:1-3). Yet, in the words of John Calvin, “thus doth the Lord use to bring light out of darkness, and life out of death.”[10] For from this persecution came the spread of the gospel to places outside of Jerusalem (8:4). Thus we see Philip travel to Samaria and proclaim the gospel to crowds that are eager to listen (8:5-6). Then again God spread the message when he called Philip to meet the Ethiopian who was receptive to the gospel (8:26, 35-38).

So we have wicked men throwing violence against the church of Jesus. But what comes from this persecution and attempted squelching of the Christian message is an increase of believers in it! The reason is that this movement is not another cultic uprising that the Jews were familiar with. This was the very people of God! This was the church of the Messiah. And no gates of Hades could stand against it (Matt 16:18).

And so we come to chapter 9 having the church increasing because of the prosecutions. And Saul is all the more furious because if it.

Commentary

9:1-2. The passage begins with Saul continuing his persecution against the church. He was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. Even though God’s kingdom had triumphed over the first attack of persecutions it has not thwarted Saul’s resolve to stop this Christian movement. His hatred for Christians had increased to the point that his desire was for them to be murdered.[11] Thus to fulfill his desires Saul 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. Saul’s plan was to travel to Damascus and extract[12] the Christian Jews there and bring them to Jerusalem to be imprisoned.

Now here we have the Christians being titled as followers of “the Way”. “The term ‘Christian’ was first coined at Actioch of Syria,”[13] So early on other titles were given to the followers of Christ such as those of “the Way” or “the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5, 14; 28:22).[14] The term speaks about the way of life Christians are to believe in and live. As Longenecker clearly articulates, “it surely had something to do with the early believers’ consciousness of walking in the true path of God’s salvation and moving forward to accomplish his purposes.”[15] Thus, Paul moved out to find, capture, and export the followers of “the Way” back to Jerusalem so that more violence could be done against them. But next we see that no evil act of man can trump the purposes of God!

9:3-4. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. Without warning a light of intense magnitude flashed upon Saul. Such appearances of blinding light are comparable to the theophanies found in the Old Testament.[16] The only difference in this physical revelation from that of theophanies is that the Son is the one that is out rightly revealed.[17] Jesus was no new religious philosopher. He is the same God that existed before time and ruled over the people of Israel. And Saul was being blinded by His glories. And falling to the ground… Saul’s reaction is just like any other person at an event as this.[18] The light knocked him from his horse and onto the ground. he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, This doubling of names “indicates intense emotion.”[19] God cries out from the vision the question to Saul, why are you persecuting me?” This statement is rich in substance. The voice from heaven asks Saul why he is persecuting him (As we will see, Saul already new that this vision was of a heavenly and therefore divine making). Confusion may have been racking his brain as he attempted to piece together what was going on.[20] He was on a mission for God to end this heretical sect of Christ followers and now a divine manifestation has knocked him to the ground and declared that Saul is persecuting Him.

And there is a deeper theological and ecclesiastical truth conveyed here. This phrase “points to Jesus’s corporate solidarity with the church. To persecute the Way is to persecute Jesus.”[21] One of the theological truths presented here is the picture of the church being the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12. “The image [in 1 Cor 12:12] emphasizes that the church is the locus of Christ’s activity now just as was his physical body during his earthly ministry.”[22] Yet, there is even a deeper theological truth that acts as the foundation for this one. In his epistles Paul (the same person we are seeing converted in this narrative) would talk about Christians being “baptized (immersed) into Christ” (Rom 6:3, Gal 3:27), chosen and made perfect in Christ (Eph 1:4), and “hidden in Christ” (Col 3:3). This is what is called union with Christ. As John Murray explains,

Union with Christ is really the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation not only in its application but also in its once-for-all accomplishment in the finished work of Christ. Indeed the whole process of salvation has its origin in one phase of union with Christ and salvation has in view the realization of other phases of union with Christ.[23]

Here in this narrative we see an aspect of this union fleshed before our eyes where Christ takes the personal offense against evil actions against His church. So hidden is the believer in Christ that to persecute him is to, in actuality, persecute the living God!

9:5-6. After gathering himself Saul asks a question, And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” Some have made the suggestion that the Greek word for “lord” in this passage should better translated “sir” since it was common to use the term to address people respectfully. But the context of a divine vision calls for a greater meaning of the word than just “sir.”[24] Though, Saul still does not know that this is Christ so the term does not have Christological significance.[25] Thus Saul asks for the identification of the person of the heavenly vision—and he was answered. And he said, I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. What was revealed to Paul at this moment was of epic proportions. The heavenly figure that had knocked Saul to the ground in a unparalleled beam of light and who had accused Saul of persecuting his very being was none other than Jesus Christ! The one who he had probably considered a blasphemer was now in front of Him robed in the glories of God! The people who he once thought were heretics are now the true followers of God! Saul now understood that he was waging war against God Himself.[26] The truth was now right in front of Saul, a truth that had been articulated by the very one that taught him (Acts 5:39), that he was opposing God. And in the misted of his worldview being absolutely shattered, Jesus gives the command, But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do. Jesus commands Saul to continue to Damascus. Yet now, this is not the old Saul that was going to go in hatred for the church. He arose with “a new perspective on divine redemption, a new agenda for his life, and the embryonic elements of his new Christian theology.”[27] He had under gone a change, a change that “can only be attributed to God himself.”[28] Saul was now a believer in the true Messiah and willing to follow His commands.

9:7-9. The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Those accompanying Saul are dumbfounded at the experience. They heard a voice[29] but were unable to see anyone. 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. Saul finds himself having no sight even though he could open his eyelids. Thus, he was led into Damascus completely powerless. The once fierce Saul has been reduced to a handicapped status by the power of God! And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. All Saul could do was wait and think over the experience he had encountered.[30] And possibly he lived in penitence as he reflected on what he was truly doing when persecuting the church.[31]

Conclusion

John Calvin says it very well when expounding this passage, “And whereas such a cruel wolf was not only turned into a sheep, but did also put on the nature of a shepherd, the wonderful hand of God did show itself therein manifestly.”[32] Yes, here in this passage we do witness the wonderful hand of God in manifest! For we witness God’s power as He grows His church. Even though evil had purposed to over throw God’s plan of redemption it found himself being thrown to the ground by the brilliantly powerful glory of God! And not only was it defeated. But God sovereignly made this rebel into one of his own. And as John Calvin put it, not only did God turn a wolf into a sheep, but he made this sheep into a shepherd. A shepherd that would carry the gospel to the Gentile world and further increase Christ’s kingdom and God’s glory.

Application

No matter what evil or persecution sets themselves up against Christ’s kingdom they will find themselves utterly defeated and used for the further increase of that kingdom in the end. We live in country that is constantly tearing at the fabric of the church. Whether it be the post-modernism that screams violence when we proclaim that our story is the story, or the secularism that laughs at our “primitive” beliefs, the church has a scoffing world for her audience. And if the outside world is not bad enough there are the unceasing problems within the churches walls. Whether the problems resides in church members that hold a grudge against others or to churches that find other things to preach rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ, problems infect the church beyond quick cure. By looking at such things one could quickly draw the conclusion that the future of the church is pretty much doomed! Yet, as this passage displays before us, this church is not a lonely entity that tries to survive the changing years. There is a power behind this church that is none other then the one who sustains the universe by the word of His power! This is His bride that the Father drew to Christ. And His people are hidden in Christ. Their identities are so intertwined that Christ identifies Himself as the church! This is the redemption that He initiated and will see to completion! And evil itself, in the end, will be found as a means for the increase and furtherance of this redemption on earth! All praise and glory to the might of His name!

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Schreiner, Tom. Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ. Downers Grove Ill: InterVarsity Press,       2001.

Bruce, F. F. New Testament History. New York, NY: Doubleday Galilee, 1969.

Wright, N. T. What saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of  Christianity? Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Robertson, Archibald Thomas. Word Pictures in the New Testament. vol 3. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930.

Murray, John. Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans        Publishing Company, 1955.

Commentaries

Longenecker, Richard N. The Acts of the Apostles. in vol. 9 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Edited by Frank E. Garbelein. Grand Rapids, MI: Regency Reference Library, 1981

Bock, Darrell L. Acts. In the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.

Bruce, F. F. The Book of Acts. Rev. ed. In The New international Commentary on the New Testament. Edited by Gordon D. Fee. Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988.

Polhill, John B. ACTS. In The New American Commentary, vol. 26. Edited by David S. Dockery. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992

Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XVIII: John 12-21, Acts 1-13. Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books, 2005.

Marshall, I. Howard. The Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction and Commentary. Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998

Barrett, C. K. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Acts of the Apostles. Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1994

Theologies

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998

Schreiner, Tom. New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008

Dunn, J. G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids, MI: B. Eerdmans Publishing

Company, 2006.

Culver, Robert Duncan. Systematic Theology Biblical and Historical. Great Briton: Mentor, 2005.

Articles

Marshall, I. Howard. Acts. Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament. Edited by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic, 2007

Hamilton, James M., Jr, “The Center of Biblical Theology in Acts: Deliverance and Damnation  Display the Divine.Themelios 33:3 (2001): 34-47.


[1]Tom Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ (Downers Grove Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 47-49. C. K. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Acts of the Apostles. (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1994), 442

[2]Richard N. Longenecker, The Acts of the Apostles. In The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9. ed.

Frank E. Garbelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Regency Reference, 1981), 367.

[3] F. F. Bruce, New Testament History (New York, NY: Doubleday Galilee, 1969), 234

[4] Ibid, 238

[5] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 26-27.

[6] Ibid., 27.

[7] Ibid., 28. Darrell L. Bock and also agrees with Hillelian thoughts in Gamaliel. Bock says that Gamaliel was a student of  Hillel. Acts in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 249. Longenecker and Polhill would agree with Hillelian thought as well but say that Gamaliel was a relation to Hillel. Longenecker, The Acts of the Apostles, 322.  John B. Polhill, ACTS in The New American Commentary, vol. 26. ed David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 171. F. F. Bruce raises the fact that earlier traditions which would “reflect direct memory of Gamaliel…do not associate him with the school of Hillel.”  F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts rev. ed. in The New International Commentary on the New Testament. ed Gordon D. Fee. (Grand Rapids MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 114-115. Just because  Gamaliel is not listed does not, in my mind, force me to the conclusion that Gamaliel did not follow Hillelian views. His actions regarding the apostles in Acts 5:33-39 makes me agree with the view that Gamaliel was a Hillelite.

[8] Bock, Acts, 319.  Bruce, New Testament History, 238.

[9] Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 43. J. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle. (Grand Rapids, MI: B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 352.

[10] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XVIII: John 12-21, Acts 1-13. (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books, 2005), 328.

[11] Speaking of the phrase “breathing…murder”, Bock says, “It may not mean that he seeks to murder them himself, given that the execution remains in Roman hands, but it expresses what he hopes will be the result of his arrests” Bock, Acts, 354.

[12] Ibid., 355.

[13] Longenecker, The Acts of the Apostles, 370.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 370.

[16] Marshall, I. Howard. Acts. Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament. ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 576.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. see also C. K. Barrett,  A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Acts of the Apostles. (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1994), 449.

[19] Bock, Acts, 357. F. F. Bruce would see an allocution in the double use. Bruce, The book of Acts, 182

[20] Longenecker, The Acts of the Apostles, 371.

[21] Bock, Acts, 357.

[22] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 1047.

[23] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955), 161

[24] Bruce, The Book of Acts, 182-183. Longenecker, The Acts of the Apostles, 371. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, 450.

[25] Bock, Acts, 358.

[26] I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction and Commentary. (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 170.

[27] Longenecker, The Acts of the Apostles, 371.

[28] Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ. 44.

[29] Which probably means that they heard something that they understood at least to be a voice but they where not, however, able to understand what was being said. Thus in Acts 22:9 Paul can say that they did not hear the voice of the one speaking to me. Bock, Acts, 359.

[30] Ibid

[31] Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction and Commentary. 170

[32] Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XVIII: John 12-21, Acts 1-13. 367.

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