Pastor David B. Curtis

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From Persecutor To Preacher

Acts 9:20-31

Delivered 02/08/2009

In our last couple of studies in the book of Acts we have seen Saul, the great persecutor of the Church, knocked to the ground by the glory of Christ while on his way to arrest those of "The Way." The Jesus that he thought was dead was not dead. And not only was He not dead, but He was the living Lord of the universe. Saul is blinded by the Lord Jesus Christ and spends three days in total darkness. He didn't eat or drink for three days as he watched his whole world turn upside down. In our last study we saw scales fall from Saul's eyes. All through Scripture, blindness is a spiritual metaphor, and it is used to represent the spiritual inability to see God's truth. This is Saul's salvation­he sees the Light. Paul had a paradigm shift in Damascus. His whole world view changed. Now he was one of the Christians that he hunted, tortured, and killed.

We ended last week with verse:

and he took food and was strengthened. Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, (Acts 9:19 NASB)

Paul is now spending time with those who just three days prior had been the object of his hatred. His presence must have made the believers in Damascus a little uneasy.

Saul is a believer, so now what? Verses 19-31 give us the story of the first three years of Saul's Christian life. What do you think Saul was doing with the disciples for those several days? I'm sure they were discussing Scripture. Notice what happens next:

and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." (Acts 9:20 NASB)

Saul immediately went to the synagogues one by one and proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God. The plural for synagogues would suggest that this took place over a period of several weeks at least.

If you are using the YLT, KJV or the NKJV translations, you will notice that it has "Christ" instead of "Jesus."

Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. (Acts 9:20 NKJV)

The best manuscripts replace "Christ" with Jesus. Adam Clark writes, "Jesus, is the reading of ABCE, several others of high importance, together with the Syriac, Coptic, AEthiopic, Armenian, Slavonic, and Vulgate." You may be thinking so what's the difference? Christ is a title, it means: "Messiah." All the Jews believed that Christ, the Messiah, was the Son of God, but Paul was preaching that Jesus, the Nazarene, was the Messiah­the Son of God. The man Jesus that they had crucified and buried was alive, He was glorified in heaven with the Father and He is the Christ.

Saul stood up in the synagogues as a new and independent witness of the resurrection and glorification of Jesus. He had seen Him alive and arrayed in divine glory. He had conversed with Him face to face.

It's interesting that in our text of Acts the last words we hear coming out of Saul's mouth before his conversion are, "Who are you, Lord" (v. 5); and the first words we hear coming out of his mouth after his conversion are, "Jesus is the Son of God."

Now, the term "Son of God" is very important because it designates Jesus as deity. Jesus the man is God. This is the only time "Son of God" is used in the book of Acts.

What did Saul mean by calling Jesus, "Son of God"? In the First Testament that title was used in several ways. Angels are called sons of God. Israel as a nation is also called the son of God. Out of Egypt I have called my son. Kings were also called sons of God. As the concept of Messiah developed, it was made clear that He was to be the Son of God.

Saul was proclaiming what the Angel Gabriel; then Mary, the mother of Jesus; followed by John the Baptist; and finally what the disciples of Jesus Himself believed, as the Scriptures record, that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. At Jesus' birth the angel said to Mary:

"He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; (Luke 1:32 NASB)
And the angel answered and said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God. (Luke 1:35 NASB)

At Jesus' baptism, a voice from heaven proclaimed:

and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, "Thou art My beloved Son, in Thee I am well-pleased." (Luke 3:22 NASB)

As the disciples observed the miracles of Jesus, they said:

And those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, "You are certainly God's Son!" (Matthew 14:33 NASB)

At Jesus' trial, responding to the high priest's question He said:

And they all said, "Are You the Son of God, then?" And He said to them, "Yes, I am." (Luke 22:70 NASB)

The Jews who sat listening to Saul in those synagogues in Damascus fully understood the nature of his claim to mean that Jesus was divine, that he was the true Representative of the Israel of God, the true Vine, the Servant of Yahweh, God's anointed King. They understood Saul to be saying that Jesus the Nazarene, the man who was accused of blasphemy by the high priest, the One who was taken outside the city walls and crucified by the Romans, was the very Son of God. Saul was making what was, to the Jews, an incredible claim: The Jesus who was crucified was co-equal with God Himself.

On two occasions when Jesus called Himself the Son of God, He was accused of blasphemy, of calling Himself God (Matthew 26:63-65):

But He answered them, "My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working." 18 For this cause therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God. (John 5:17-18 NASB)

Everybody knew what Jesus meant in calling Himself Son of God, and everyone knew what Saul meant when he preached that Jesus is the Son of God. This is the corner stone of Christianity­Jesus Christ is God.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. (John 1:1-3 NASB)

The "Word" here is referring to the Lord Jesus Christ. Notice His deity­"the Word was God." The "beginning" is before all beginnings, prior to the beginning of Genesis 1:1. The phrase could be rendered "from all eternity." John, in this verse, establishes the preexistence of Christ in eternity past. He already "was" when the beginning took place.

Jesus Christ is 100% God and 100% man. This is where we get the theological term "theanthropic," which comes from theos, which means: "God," and anthropos, which means: "man." Jesus Christ is the God-Man. He is One person with two natures.

Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons deny the deity of Christ, and because of that, they have no Savior, they are damned. Doubting Thomas called Jesus, "My Lord, and my God." The separating line between the saved and the damned is what they think of Jesus. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is God.

We have to smile when we consider Saul's first entry into the synagogue after his conversion. Here was the high priest's official representative, bearing the high priest's authority, and as he walked in, he would be led to the special seats at the front. All would know why he was there. And then during the course of the gathering he would be asked to speak by the ruler of the synagogue, possibly even to read the Scriptures. And then he looked around at the gathered and expectant people­and began to proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God. Notice the response:

And all those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, "Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?" (Acts 9:21 NASB)

The crowd was amazed! Saul had been the most determined enemy of the Christians; being exceedingly mad against them, he persecuted them to strange cities (Acts 26:11). He shut up many of the saints in prison (Acts 8:3; 9:14; 26:10). He persecuted them unto death and gave his voice against them that they might be destroyed. He breathed threats and slaughter. Saul was in Damascus to arrest Christians, and now he had become one. He was now preaching the very message that he was trying to stomp out.

What can you say about Christianity when its most outspoken and zealous opponent suddenly claims to have seen the risen Christ and to have trusted in Him as the Messiah? The conversion of Saul of Tarsus and his subsequent conduct is an irrefragable proof of the truth of Christianity.

But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ. (Acts 9:22 NASB)

Luke says, "Saul kept increasing in strength"­I think that this increase in strength was due to a trip that Paul made to Arabia. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul fills in the details for us:

nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus. (Galatians 1:17 NASB)

What we learn here that Luke doesn't tell us is that Paul left Damascus, went to Arabia, and then back to Damascus. After Saul's conversion, he needed some time and space for quiet reflection and communion with God. He had to rethink the Scriptures, receive new understanding from the Lord, and revise his Pharisaic theology. So as Moses, Elijah, and Jesus before him, he retired into the wilderness.

For the better part of three years, Paul went away to the desert. We have no details concerning this trip. What do you suppose that Paul did for three years in the desert? We can only guess, but I have a strong suspicion that Paul spent that time in solitude going over the Scriptures.

Paul was a Pharisee. He was an expert in the law. Paul probably understood Judaism better than all of these false teachers put together. Somebody did the calculations of Paul's education and said he basically had the equivalent of two Ph.D.'s by the time he was 21 years of age. He was absolutely brilliant. He most likely had the whole Tanakh memorized. He understood what the Scriptures said, but he didn't understand what they meant. Saul had been blind spiritually. But now that Christ had been revealed to Paul, the veil had been taken away, and now when he read the Scriptures, he could see Christ in them. For example:

And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel." (Genesis 3:15 NASB)

"Her seed" is an expression used nowhere else in Scripture. Only one time in the history of the world did a woman ever have a seed, which normally is ascribed to the man.

"Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14 NASB)

Paul now saw that this virgin born seed was Jesus, Immanuel­God with us.

And Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, "My father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." And he said, "Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" 8 And Abraham said, "God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together. (Genesis 22:7-8 NASB)

Now Paul understood this text and the resurrection of Christ the Lamb of God.

"Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, 'On the tenth of this month they are each one to take a lamb for themselves, according to their fathers' households, a lamb for each household... then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to kill it at twilight. 7 'Moreover, they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. (Exodus 12:3-7 NASB)

Now that the veil was gone, Paul could see that the Lamb of God was the Lord Jesus Christ, Whose sacrificial death paid our sin debt. With his new eyes, Paul poured over the Scriptures and cried as he saw for the first time that everything in them pointed to Christ.

Paul, once blinded, has now had Christ "revealed" to him. And now, as he goes over the Scripture, he sees Christ all through them. Paul now understood the truth that Jesus had told the Jews:

"You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me; (John 5:39 NASB)

Understanding that the Scriptures, both First and Second Testaments, are the very Word of God, and that in them Christ is revealed, doesn't it make you wonder why we don't spend more time in them?

Spurgeon wrote:

In our raw state as young Christians, it may not be injurious to receive truth from pastors and parents, and so on; but if we are to become men in Christ Jesus, and teachers of others, we must quit the childish habit of dependence on others, and search for ourselves. We may now leave the egg, and get rid of the pieces of shell as quickly as may be. It is our duty to search the Scriptures to see whether these things be so; and more, it is our wisdom to cry for grace to appropriate each truth, and let it dwell in our inmost nature. (Charles Haddon Spurgeon, April 25th, 1890)

After Paul's time of study, he returned to Damascus where his Christian experience had begun. He wrote, "I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus."

But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ. (Acts 9:22 NASB)

Why didn't Luke mention the visit to Arabia? Luke abbreviates his narrative in order to concentrate on what he wishes to emphasize, and he is concerned with the spreading of the Word. He is not writing a life of Paul.

Luke states that Paul was "proving that this Jesus is the Christ." Proving is from the Greek word sumbibazo. The verb means: "to bring or put together"; hence to compare and examine, as evidence, and so to prove. This implies that the prophetic Scriptures were put alongside their fulfilment in order to prove that Jesus was the Messiah.

He would have shown them that Jesus is the Passover Lamb of Exodus; the Atoning Sacrifice of Leviticus; the Prophet to come of Deuteronomy; the Sheep led to slaughter of Isaiah; the Savior of Obadiah; the Branch of Righteousness of Jeremiah; the Resurrection and Life of Jonah; the Son of Righteousness of Malachi.

On his returning from Arabia, he continued his ministry so effectively that in the end, the Jews from the various synagogues came together and determined that they must get rid of him:

And when many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him, (Acts 9:23 NASB)

Just as they did with Stephen, Saul's opponents realized that the only way to silence him was to kill him. They could not out-argue him. They could not prove him wrong from the Scriptures. So they decided to kill him.

but their plot became known to Saul. And they were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death; 25 but his disciples took him by night, and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a large basket. (Acts 9:24-25 NASB)

The city was walled, and the gates were the only way in and out. So they watched the gates day and night to kill him. The local Jews arranged this attempt on his life, and their Nabatean governor supported them according to what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 11:32. At this time Damascus was under the government of Aretas, king of Arabia, who was now at war with Herod, his son-in-law, who had put away his daughter in order to marry Herodias, his brother Philip's wife. As Herod was supported by the Romans, Saul's enemies might intimate that he was in league with them or Herod; and so the gates of the city were constantly watched to capture Saul.

"His disciples"­these are Saul's disciples. He now has a following of Christians. He is now teaching and building up the Church instead of trying to destroy. The disciples found someone who lived on the wall and had a window. So they got a basket and a rope and let Saul down. A basket would be a large woven or network bag or basket suitable for carrying such things as hay, straw ,and bales of wood. The only other way of escape was through the gates. Saul's plans for persecuting Christians in Damascus took a strange turn; he had entered the city blind and left in a basket!

As Paul reflected back, this particular experience was humiliating to him in a way that taught him an important lesson:

If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness. (2 Corinthians 11:30 NASB)

This verse introduces the dominant theme running through this passage:

Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10 NASB)

When I am weak, I look to the Lord for His strength. I trust in, and am dependant upon, Him and not myself.

Before Paul gives his first illustration of "boasting in weakness," he puts himself under oath:

The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, He who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. (2 Corinthians 11:31 NASB)

Paul's credibility has been questioned; he takes this oath, appealing to God's omniscience, to ensure the Corinthians will hear him out and be more inclined to believe him.

In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, 33 and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his hands. (2 Corinthians 11:32-33 NASB)

How humiliating for this great "rabbi" to have to be lowered out of the city in a basket. No limo, no Suburban with smoked windows, no VIP treatment here! The toast of high rabbinic circles, this highly educated and sincere Pharisee, this man who had access to the highest officials in Jerusalem, crawls out of Damascus like a criminal, lowered like a catch of dead fish in a basket.

This Damascus escape in a basket illustrates with power the contrast between Saul of Tarsus and Paul the apostle. Saul of Tarsus traveled to Damascus full of man's power and authority, directed against God's people. Paul the apostle left Damascus humbly in a basket! Is there anything more descriptive of weakness than being let down in a basket over a wall to sneak away from the city?

I think this text helps us establish a Time line:

In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, (2 Corinthians 11:32 NASB)

Paul tells us that his basket escape happened under Aretas the king. This would put this escape from Damascus between A.D.37 and 39. So, taking into account the three years mentioned in Galatians 1:18, and that this incident happened at the end of those three years, we can surmise that Paul was converted sometime between A.D.34 and 36.

Let's go back to Acts:

And when he had come to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. (Acts 9:26 NASB)

"When he had come to Jerusalem"­How long had it been since Saul had left Jerusalem to arrest Christians in Damascus? According to Paul, it had been over three years (Galatians 1:17-18). He left as a self-righteous Pharisee and returned as a humble servant of Jesus Christ. Imagine what he felt when he saw the city and temple again. Its significance to him had totally changed. As he approached the gate of the city, he passed by the spot where Stephen was stoned and where he himself had stood, "consenting to his death." He was about to meet again, on the streets and in the synagogues, his old allies whom he had deserted and the disciples whom he had persecuted. His old friends would now be his enemies, and those he hated and tried to destroy, he would now give his life for.

After 3 years of pouring over the Scripture and realizing its true meaning, what do you think Paul experienced as he entered Jerusalem? It was possibly then that he came to realize that the true Jerusalem is above and is not a place of binding Law, but of glorious freedom (Galatians 4:26); that the true descendants of Abraham and Sarah are the children of promise (Galatians 4:28); that with freedom Christ has made us free so that we might stand fast and not be entangled again in the bondage from which we have been freed (Galatians 5:1); that those who seek to be justified by the Law have fallen away from the whole concept of grace (Galatians 5:4). Everything was now different, his eyes had been opened by the Lord Jesus Christ.

As Paul stood there looking at the massive beautiful temple, he now realized that it was only a type, and that Jesus was the anti-type:

Jesus answered and said to them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." (John 2:19 NASB)

Jesus replaces the temple itself. Jesus is the anti-type of the temple. The temple represented the presence of God among His children in the early days, so Christ is described in:

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 NASB)

The word "dwelt" here is skenoo, which means: "a tent." Jesus came and pitched His tent or tabernacled among us. Now notice what Peter says of Christ:

"He is the STONE WHICH WAS REJECTED by you, THE BUILDERS, but WHICH BECAME THE VERY CORNER stone. (Acts 4:11 NASB)

Jesus is the corner stone upon which the spiritual house of God was built.

"And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12 NASB)

If you don't build on the corner stone, Jesus, you don't have salvation. Paul now realized all this, and Jerusalem was a very different place to him.

And when he had come to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. (Acts 9:26 NASB)

"He was trying"­this is in the imperfect tense, meaning: "he tried and tried" to join himself to the disciples. Everyone knew his past reputation, and they were afraid of him. When he tried to mingle with the people of God, he found that they withdrew from him. They did not believe that he was truly a disciple. They were living under the duress of persecution for their faith. All sorts of means were used to wreak havoc in the Church. The man most responsible for this was a Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus. Now this same man wants to be part of the fellowship of the Church! Was he legitimate or was he just infiltrating the Church so that he might kill more believers?

You would have to imagine that some of these people that were put to death were the husband, the wife, the children, the parents, the dear friends of these Christians. They probably not only were terrified of Saul, they probably hated Saul. This would have been packed with emotion.

But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. (Acts 9:27 NASB)

Then Barnabas, who all knew as a godly disciple who had sold his field in order to support the believers in the church in Jerusalem (4.36-37), came forward, introducing Saul to the apostles, and declaring how Saul had seen the Lord in the way, and how the Lord had spoken to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. And from then on he was accepted. It would seem that Barnabas had contacts in Damascus who had brought him news of what had happened there.

In Galatians Paul tells us that he saw no apostles other than Peter:

Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord's brother. (Galatians 1:18-19 NASB)

Paul and Peter must have had a lot to talk about:

And he was with them moving about freely in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 And he was talking and arguing with the Hellenistic Jews; but they were attempting to put him to death. (Acts 9:28-29 NASB)

Luke used the same Greek word for "arguing" here as in Acts 6:9. In that verse, the foreign Jews argued with Stephen. Luke didn't use this word anywhere else in Acts. Saul's preaching had the same effect on them as Stephen's.

When Stephen saw the heavens opened and cried out concerning what he saw of the Lord Jesus, he was hauled off and stoned, and a severe young man watched over the coats and consented to his death. Now that same young man was declaring how he had seen the heavens opened, and what he had seen of the exalted Lord Jesus. No wonder that they were intending to martyr him too.

One of the things that we need to understand is that over and over again in the first century, the antagonists, the opponents, simply could not dismiss the message of Christianity. They could not win the argument. Now, these were the contemporaries of Jesus. If the message of Jesus is not true, there were thousands of witnesses that could have testified to that. All you had to do was walk to the tomb and show the bones. It would not have been difficult to disprove it, if it wasn't true. But over and over and over there is this same pattern that the historical facts were so heavily weighted in favor of Christianity that they simply could not be disputed.

But when the brethren learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus. (Acts 9:30 NASB)

The church gets wind of the plot and gets Saul out of Jerusalem, to the seaport Caesarea and off by ship to Tarsus in Cilicia, East Asia Minor (22:3). The brothers that were slow to trust Saul now went to great effort to preserve his life.

In Acts 22:17-21 we learn also that God had informed Saul while he was praying in the temple that this was all in accordance with His will:

"And it came about when I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, that I fell into a trance, 18 and I saw Him saying to me, 'Make haste, and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about Me.' (Acts 22:17-18 NASB)

Now, what do you think Paul was going to do in Tarsus? In Galatians 1:21 he says:

Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. (Galatians 1:21 NASB)

Tarsus was in Cilicia.

So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and, going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase. (Acts 9:31 NASB)

Note the singular "Church" signifying the one Church consisting of all believers throughout all the regions. There was a strong sense of oneness and unity throughout the whole, for they recognized that they were all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

The Church enjoyed "peace"­Saul's conversion seems to have been directly related to the return of peace. Nobody would have dreamed it could happen--and happen so suddenly. Persecution, violence, conspiracy, suspicion, scattering--and then suddenly, out of the blue, Jesus turns things around, and there is peace.

Paul now leaves the stage. Until we get to chapter 13, we are going to find very little reference to him. In chapter 13 Paul returns and will dominate the rest of the teaching of Acts to the end. For ten years he will live in his hometown, perhaps teaching Bible studies, learning, listening, growing, working through his brokenness, and being made ready for something great that is yet to come.

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