David Guzik’s weekly devotional, based on a verse or two from the Bible.
And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. (Acts 9:26-27a)
A few years after he was wonderfully converted, Saul (also known as Paul) made a visit to Jerusalem. The visit didn’t go as he had hoped, at least not at first: he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him. It seems strange that Christians in Jerusalem were so suspicious of Saul even three years after his conversion. They perhaps thought that he was part of an elaborate and extended plot. Maybe they were reluctant to embrace such a dramatic conversion without seeing it with their own eyes. Simply, they did not believe that he was a disciple.
That had to hurt. At this point, some people might turn their back on Jesus Christ. We could imagine Saul saying, “I’ve been serving the Lord for three years, preaching Jesus Christ, enduring assassination attempts and death threats. Now you don’t want to accept me as a Christian? Do you call this the love of Jesus? Forget it!”
But Saul had a greater heart of love for Jesus and Jesus’ followers. It no doubt hurt, but he understood that the disciples in Jerusalem remembered the Christians that Saul had killed and persecuted before Jesus changed his life. If the disciples in Jerusalem lacked a little in love, Saul added a little more love to make up for it.
Yet in Acts 9:27 we read something wonderful: Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. Barnabas simply extended the love of Jesus to Saul, and as Saul (Paul the Apostle) would write later, love believes all things (1 Corinthians 13:7). Barnabas said, “I believe you, Saul. I believe you had a terrible past and I know Christians were really afraid of you. But I believe Jesus has changed your life, and for three years you’ve lived as a changed man.”
Thank God for people like Barnabas, who will welcome people into the family of God with simple friendship.
Many of us know what it is like to be hurt in the church, among God’s people. Some of us have known this pain very deeply. It seems like many people experience times when they are rejected, abused, neglected, or put out by God’s people. Some of us get treated the way that many of the Jerusalem disciples treated Saul.
If that is you, please don’t despair. You’re in good company, and God is big enough, wise enough, and sovereign enough to bring blessing and good even out of a painful season.
Here’s my prayer for you: that if you are in that painful place, God would send you a Barnabas – someone to hear you, help you, and love you in the name of Jesus. I also pray that God would help you to be a Barnabas to someone else.
Now after many days were past, the Jews plotted to kill him. But their plot became known to Saul. And they watched the gates day and night, to kill him. Then the disciples took him by night and let him down through the wall in a large basket. (Acts 9:23-25)
Saul of Tarsus – who is more commonly known by his “Roman” name, Paul – was radically changed by Jesus Christ when Jesus revealed Himself to Saul on the road to Damascus. The changes were dramatic, but they were not all pleasant or exciting. Some of them were humbling.
That’s what we read about here in Acts 9:23-25. The many days mentioned were indeed many days, probably a period of about three years, in which Paul also spent some time in obscurity, out of the spotlight, in Arabia. After the time in Arabia he came back to Damascus (this is described in Galatians 1:13-18).
In this period of time, the Jews plotted to kill him. This essentially began the many things he must suffer for My name’s sake the Lord spoke of in Acts 9:16. Saul went to Damascus as a persecutor, but he left that city as someone persecuted.
To escape the danger of death, the disciples took him by night and let him down through the wall in a large basket. Paul made an interesting reference to this event in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33: in Damascus… I was let down in a basket through a window. Paul wrote about this in 2 Corinthians 11 to describe one of the first real perils or hardships he faced for Jesus’ sake. Some 20 years after his escape from Damascus, Paul remember the basket event as his “apprenticeship” in persecution. It was as if he said, “This is how my ministry began and this is how it continues.”
In other words, there was a sense in which – humanly speaking – Paul’s ministry began in weakness and continued in weakness. Is there anything more descriptive of weakness than being let down in a basket over a wall?
This was a powerful 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 escaped Damascus humbly – by hiding in a basket.
The basket over the walls of Damascus taught Paul that God would protect him when he suffered persecution. But he also learned that God’s deliverance often comes in humble ways. There is nothing triumphant about sneaking out of a city by night hiding in a large basket.
In a way, I suppose that Paul came to love that basket. It brought deliverance in a way that most people would think was humble or ridiculous. In this way, it was a small picture of the great deliverance Jesus won for His people on a humble cross, crucified as the ultimate demonstration of God’s love.
God’s deliverance has come to you in a humble way – don’t ever despise it!
Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. Then all who heard were amazed, and said, “Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ. (Acts 9:20-22)
Once Saul was changed by the power and presence of Jesus, he did not sit still. Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues. Because Saul was a skilled student of the great rabbi Gamaliel, he took advantage of the synagogue custom that invited any able Jewish man to speak from the Scriptures at synagogue meetings. He took advantage of this opportunity immediately.
When he spoke in the synagogues, he preached the Christ. The message of Saul was all about Jesus. He knew they needed to know Jesus in truth, that He is the Son of God.
Some people think when Jesus is called the Son of God it is a way of saying He is not God, but something less than God. But in those days, to be called the “son of” something meant you were totally identified with that thing or person, and their identity was your identity. When Jesus called Himself the Son of God, and when others called Him that, it was understood as a clear claim to His deity.
To preach that Jesus is the Son of God is also to preach the perfection of His life, and especially His work for us on the cross. It proclaims how God saves us through the work of Jesus. Saul also focused on proving that this Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. As a rabbinical expert, Saul could easily see how Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Hebrew Scriptures.
People were amazed at Saul’s conversion. They heard Saul and said, “Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name? It was hard to believe just how powerfully Jesus could change a life – but it was true!
All the while, Saul increased all the more in strength. Saul’s work for God so soon after his conversion should not surprise us. Often, that is the best time to serve the Lord, and especially to tell others about Jesus. It is true that young Christians shouldn’t hastily be put in positions of authority in the church (1 Timothy 3:6), but you don’t need a position of authority to serve God and to tell others about Jesus.
Saul’s willingness to serve the Lord helped as he increased all the more in strength. As we serve, God brings more strength to us.
Saul had a strong message – that Jesus is the Son of God and the Christ, the Messiah. That message can give us strength, if we will believe and walk in it – something we can do today!
And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized. (Acts 9:17-18)
The disciple Ananias boldly entered the house where Saul of Tarsus waited in the darkness of his blindness, and he welcomed Saul into God’s family by laying his hands upon him and calling him brother. Saul was then filled with the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this was the actual moment that Saul was born again.
Then, Saul received his sight and then he was baptized. When Saul could see – both physically and spiritually – he immediately wanted to identify with Jesus and with the disciples of Jesus by being baptized. Maybe Saul had seen Christian baptisms (such as on Pentecost, Acts 2:41). Yet we know that God spoke directly to Saul about many things during his time waiting for Ananias, including even the name of the man who would come and pray for him and restore his sight (Acts 9:12).
Saul (Paul) regarded his conversion experience as a pattern for all believers: However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. (1 Timothy 1:16).
If Paul’s conversion is a pattern, then in some way we can share his experiences.
– First, Jesus must confront us with Himself, with our sin and rebellion against Him, even the sins done in ignorance. Then as we put our faith in Him, we must humbly wait for the work within us that only He can do.
– Saul’s conversion reminds us that at its core, salvation is something God does in us. What we do is only a response to His work in us.
– Saul’s conversion reminds us that God finds some who, by all appearance, are not looking for Him at all. This encourages us to believe that God can reach the people that we think are very far from Him. We often give up on some people and think they will never come to Jesus; but the example of Saul shows God can reach anyone.
– Saul’s conversion reminds us that God looks for people like Ananias as instruments in His work of the conversion of others, even when they are not necessary, only as a demonstration of the importance of the family of God.
– Saul’s conversion reminds us that it isn’t enough that we become broken before God, though that is necessary. God wants to only use brokenness as a prelude to filling.
Remember that God has arranged your brokenness, but He has arranged to be the beginning of your filling.
…He is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake. (Acts 9:15-16)
This was a great call upon the life of a man specially used by God. In all history, there were not many people given the special call to bear the name of Jesus before those who have never heard His name (the Gentiles), before kings, and before the children of Israel.
With such a great call, we might believe that Saul of Tarsus (whom we also know as Paul the Apostle) was a “special favorite” of God. We might believe that as a “special favorite,” God would take special action to spare Paul pain and suffering.
That was not the case at all. When God gave Paul this great calling, He also called Paul to great suffering: I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.
This was a sobering addition to the great call God put upon the life of Paul. Paul would leave a life of privilege to embrace this higher call, but it was a call with much suffering.
In 2 Corinthians 11:23, Paul described some of these things he must suffer for the sake of Jesus’ name: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. He continued the description of his hard, stress-filled life in some following verses (2 Corinthians 11:26-28):
– In perils of waters: Paul crossed many dangerous rivers.
– In perils of robbers: Travelers in the ancient world were in constant danger of violent robbers.
– In perils in the city: Paul experienced many hostile mobs in the cities where he preached.
– In perils in the wilderness: Paul spent many dangerous days and nights in the wilderness.
– In perils in the sea: Paul endured many shipwrecks and difficulties at sea.
– In perils among false brethren: Paul had the danger of those who said they were brothers and his friends but were false brethren instead.
– In weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness: Paul simply lived a hard life as a missionary, traveling and preaching the gospel.
It wasn’t the mere fact of a hard life that made Paul fulfill his calling. Many people have hard lives but are in no way servants of Jesus. But for Paul, all these perils and hardships were freely chosen because he could have lived differently if he wanted to. But he didn’t want to. He wanted to serve Jesus, and if these hardships were part of serving Jesus, he would accept them. Paul lived this life, this calling – and he was happy in Jesus Christ.
God can make you happy in your life, your calling – even it means some suffering along the way. The same God work worked this in Paul can work it in you.
Then Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.” (Acts 9:13-15)
Saul of Tarsus was a famous man among the early followers of Jesus, famous in the worst way: they knew that Saul was a zealous and brutal persecutor. So, it isn’t a surprise that when God told Ananias to visit and help Saul, Ananias objected: Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. Certainly, Ananias had heard that this angry and violent persecutor named Saul of Tarsus was on his way from Jerusalem. The disciples in Damascus must have anxiously prepared for the coming persecution.
In fact, Ananias knew a great deal about the mission of Saul. He knew how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. He also knew that Saul was coming with authority from the chief priests to bind the followers of Jesus It was apparently widely known.
I think the objections Ananias had were logical and well founded. But since God clearly told him to do this, it was almost as if Ananias thought that God needed instruction or a bit of counsel. Ananias almost asked, “God, do you know what kind of guy this Saul is?”
God did know who Saul was. All Ananias and other Christians could see was “Saul the Persecutor,” but God saw that he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name. Christians looked at Saul and said, “there is a vicious persecutor.” God looked at Saul and said, “he is a chosen vessel of Mine.”
God considered Saul His chosen vessel long before there appeared anything worthy in Saul to choose. God knew what He could make of Saul, even when Saul or Ananias didn’t know.
God had a call upon the life of Saul, a calling that was unknown to Saul at the time. God seems to have told Ananias first. God even told Ananias the broad outline of Saul’s calling: to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.
This describes the future work of the broken, blind, and afflicted man Ananias would soon meet. God called him to bring His name to Gentiles, to kings, and to the children of Israel. It was a glorious calling of man destined to make a huge impact on the world for the sake of Jesus and His kingdom.
Dear believer, there was only one Saul of Tarsus. God’s call on his life was not the same as His call on your life. Yet God has called you – ask Him for the wisdom and grace to be all God has called you to be.
Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” So the Lord said to him, “Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.” (Acts 9:10-12)
We don’t know anything about this man named Ananias from either before or after this meeting with Saul. We don’t know how he came to Damascus, or what happened to him afterward. From what we do know we can think of him as an average follower of Jesus – a certain disciple.
Ananias was an ordinary man – not an apostle, a prophet, a pastor, an evangelist, an elder, or a deacon. Yet God used him because he was an ordinary man. If an apostle or a prominent person had ministered to Saul, people might say Paul received his gospel from a man instead of Jesus. In the same way, God needs to use the certain disciple – there is a special work for them to do.
In theory, it wasn’t necessary that God use a man like Ananias for this work in Saul’s life. Being simply a certain disciple, we can say that God simply used Ananias because God loves to use people, and Ananias was a willing servant.
God spoke to Ananias in a vision, a completely different way than He spoke to Saul. Saul had a bold, almost violent confrontation from God, but Ananias heard the voice of God sweetly in a vision, where God called and Ananias obediently responded. To say, “Here I am, Lord” is a perfect response to God.
In the case of Ananias, the vision from God was specific. God told him about:
– A specific street (the street called Straight).
– A specific house (the house of Judas).
– A specific man (one called Saul of Tarsus).
– A specific thing the man was doing (he is praying).
– A specific vision the man had (in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias).
This specificity was necessary and important, because God asked Ananias to do something bold and dangerous in meeting Saul, the great persecutor. He needed confirmation along the way that God was guiding him, and God gave him ways to confirm this.
The change in Saul is clear in the words, behold, he is praying. One might say that Saul, the persecutor of Christians, had never really prayed before; he merely repeated formal prayers. Before this:
– His prayers were more mechanical than spiritual.
– He had never prayed with Jesus as mediator.
– He had never prayed in Jesus’ name.
– He had not prayed with a humble heart, near to God.
Saul had said many prayers, but he had never truly prayed. Have you truly prayed today?
Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 9:5)
Saul of Tarsus was a rising young rabbi in the Jewish community of the first century. His world radically changed one day as he traveled to Damascus. Not far from the city, Jesus revealed Himself to Saul, and Acts 9:5 records three essential truths Saul learned in one moment.
First, Jesus identified Himself to Saul: I am Jesus. At the time, Saul’s life was consumed with a hatred of the followers of Jesus. He though Jesus was a dead criminal who deserved to die. But when Jesus spoke to Saul from heaven, he learned the truth: Jesus Christ was alive, risen from the dead, just as the followers of Jesus claimed.
Second, Jesus told Saul who he was really attacking: I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Saul thought he fought against a group of deceived fanatics. He instantly discovered that he was attacking God Himself, the voice that spoke to him from heaven.
Finally, Jesus told Saul how futile and self-defeating his persecution was: It is hard for you to kick against the goads. This statement from Jesus was first recorded in Acts 22:10 and 26:14, and was probably added here by later copyists. The picture was powerful.
A goad was a long, extremely sharp stick used to get an ox going the way you wanted when plowing. One jabbed the hind legs of the ox with the goad until the ox cooperated.
Essentially, Saul was the ox; Jesus was the farmer. Saul was stupid and stubborn – yet valuable, and potentially extremely useful to the Master’s service. Jesus goaded Saul into the right direction, and the goading caused Saul pain. Yet instead of submitting to Jesus, Saul kicked against the goad – and only increased his pain.
Something was goading Saul’s conscience. Despite all his outward confidence, there was something bothering him inside. He kicked against it to be sure, but it was still there. The unease may have started with Stephen’s prayer (Acts 7:57-60).
It is not too much to say that if we will not ask the two great questions of these verses (“Who are You, Lord?” and “What do You want me to do?”) and will not obediently listen to God’s answers, then we act like stupid oxen.
We may complain that God compares us to oxen, and indeed it is an unfair comparison. After all, what ox has ever rebelled against God as we have? God almost owes an apology to oxen!
Yet, notice the compassion in Jesus’ words to Saul, and to us: It is hard for you. “Saul, this rebellions way is a hard path you have chosen. I have come to show you a better way.”
Jesus was the persecuted one, yet He cared that it was hard on Saul. Even when your sin makes it hard for you, Jesus cares – and calls you to a better path.
And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” (Acts 9:5-6)
When Saul the Persecutor heard a voice from heaven, he asked who it was speaking. The answer from heaven was clear: I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Those words came with a flood of meaning to Saul. In that instant, he knew that Jesus was in fact alive, risen from the dead – because a dead man doesn’t speak from heaven! Saul also knew that when he persecuted the followers of Jesus, he actually persecuted Jesus who spoke from heaven.
Most everyone has questions they would like to ask God. Several years ago a survey asked people to choose three questions they would most like to ask God. The top five responses were:
– Will there ever be lasting world peace?
– How can I be a better person?
– What does the future hold for my family and me?
– Will there ever be a cure for all diseases?
– Why is there suffering in the world?
It is strange that people would want to ask God these questions when, in some way, they are already answered in the Bible. But they really aren’t the most important questions for us to ask. Saul asked two rightquestions, questions that I believe each one of us should ask.
Question: Who are You, Lord? We must ask this question with a humble heart and ask it to God. Jesus showed us exactly who God is, and He can answer this question. Paul spent the rest of his life wanting to know more completely the answer to this question (Philippians 3:10). You can ask this question every day: “Lord, I want to know You more. Show me who You are, as revealed in Jesus, explained in Your word.”
Question: What do You want me to do? This is a question from a surrendered heart. Not enough people dare to really ask God this question, but when we ask it, we must ask it with submission and determined obedience.
When Saul asked this question, Jesus only told him what to do right at that moment – the next thing to do. This is often the character of God’s direction in our lives. He directs us one step at a time instead of laying out at once the details of His grand plan.
Saul’s question was personal. He asked the question with a “me”: “Lord, what do You want me to do?” We often are quite interested in what God wants others to do. But the surrendered heart asks, “Lord, what do You want me to do?”
Can you personally ask God these two important questions?