Acts Lesson Nineteen

Acts Lesson Nineteen: 9:1-31 – The Commissioning of Saul (Paul)

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. He went to the high priest and requested letters from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he traveled and was nearing Damascus, a light from heaven suddenly flashed around him. Falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” “Who are You, Lord?” he said. 

“I am Jesus, the One you are persecuting,” He replied. “But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” 

The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the sound but seeing no one. Then Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing. So they took him by the hand and led him into Damascus. He was unable to see for three days and did not eat or drink. 

10 There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. And the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias!” 

“Here I am, Lord!” he said. 

11 “Get up and go to the street called Straight,” the Lord said to him, “to the house of Judas, and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, since he is praying there. 12 In a vision  he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and placing his hands on him so he can regain his sight.” 

13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard from many people about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And he has authority here from the chief priests to arrest all who call on Your name.” 

15 But the Lord said to him, “Go! For this man is My chosen instrument to take My name to Gentiles, kings, and the Israelites. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for My name!” 

17 So Ananias left and entered the house. Then he placed his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road you were traveling, has sent me so that you can regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 

18 At once something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized. 19 And after taking some food, he regained his strength. 

Saul was with the disciples in Damascus for some days. 20 Immediately he began proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues: “He is the Son of God.” 

21 But all who heard him were astounded and said, “Isn’t this the man who, in Jerusalem, was destroying those who called on this name and then came here for the purpose of taking them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 

22 But Saul grew more capable and kept confounding the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that this One is the Messiah. 

23 After many days had passed, the Jews conspired to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. So they were watching the gates day and night intending to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and lowered him in a large basket through an opening in the wall. 26 When he arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to associate with the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, since they did not believe he was a disciple. 27 Barnabas, however, took him and brought him to the apostles and explained to them how Saul had seen the Lord on the road and that He had talked to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 Saul was coming and going with them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He conversed and debated with the Hellenistic Jews, but they attempted to kill him. 30 When the brothers found out, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. 31 So the church  throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace, being built up and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, and it increased in numbers. (HCSB)

Acts Lesson Nineteen: 9:1-25 – The Commissioning of Saul (Paul)

The narrative now switches from the mission work among the Samaritans and Gentiles by Philip to Saul, who I will call Paul from this point forward. Paul was a witness to the execution of Stephen and was likely aware of the evangelism efforts of the early church. Paul was so incensed by what he perceived as the blasphemous conduct of the Christian church that he became a one-man wrecking crew, trying to destroy the church by rounding up every believer he could find. However, on his way to Damascus to arrest any Christian he might find there, Paul had a one-on-one encounter with Jesus. I’ll break this lesson into three parts.

  • Paul’s encounter with Jesus, verses 1-9.
  • Paul’s encounter with Ananias, verses 10-19.
  • Paul’s in Damascus, verses 20-25.
  • Paul in Jerusalem, verses 26-31.

Paul’s encounter with Jesus – verses 1-9.

Before we dig into this passage, it can be neatly summarized in three points.

  • Paul saw a light.
  • Paul heard a voice.
  • Paul obeyed a call.

Every sinner lives in a world of darkness until the light of Jesus illuminates them to the truth of who Jesus is and how Jesus can take away their sins and restore their fellowship with God.

There is another interesting point regarding Paul and what would eventually be his calling to bring the Gospel to the lost. The church of Jesus is one united body made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Paul was both Jewish and Gentile. He was a Jew by birth but a Gentile by citizenship. Paul was trained in Old Testament scripture, well versed in Greek philosophy, and knowledgeable in Roman law. Paul was the ideal choice to bring the Gospel message as his life was an example of both Jew and Gentile being equal in Christ. 

Now let’s return to the passage. There is some debate about whether or not the Sanhedrin would have jurisdiction in this case, which involved individuals living outside of the Jewish nation. Historical records do indicate that the high priest had been given rights of extradition in earlier times. Therefore, it is possible that the Roman government still granted the high priest this same right. Paul also speaks, in 2 Corinthians 11:24, of receiving scourgings from synagogues. Regardless, Paul left Jerusalem with authorization letters from the Sanhedrin to arrest any believers he may find. The very idea that Paul would make that journey illustrates the level of zeal he possessed in rooting out the members of the young church. The distance between the two cities is approximately 150 miles, requiring a journey of around 10-14 days to complete. 

Historical records indicate that, at the time, Damascus had a sizeable Jewish population, with as many as 30-40 synagogues in the city. Since there were already believers there, it is apparent that the church was being effective in its evangelism efforts. It is also likely that some of the believers fled the persecution that was occurring in Jerusalem, which may have also factored into Paul’s desire to go to Damascus and bring the believers back.  

From the point that Paul experienced the blinding light, he is a broken man. Here is why he was broken.

  • Paul had relentlessly persecuted the followers of Christ.
  • Paul now has a one-on-one encounter with Christ, confirming His resurrection.
  • In persecuting the followers of Jesus, Paul now understands that he was persecuting the risen Lord.
  • Persecution against any believer is persecution against the church of Jesus.
  • In persecuting the risen Lord, Paul was an enemy of God.
  • The realization that he was an enemy of God completely flips his world. What he thought he was doing for God, he now realizes he was doing against God.

Jesus then instructs Paul to go into the city and wait for further instructions. Without even questioning what was asked of him, he obeys the command. 

Paul’s companion travelers were a witness to what occurred even though they didn’t receive the same revelation.

  • They could verify that a heavenly manifestation occurred.
  • However, they were not the recipients of it, but they could attest to the change that happened to Paul after the event.

There could be several reasons for Paul not eating or drinking for three days.

  • It could be an expression of repentance.
  • It could be because of shock and confusion.
  • It could be because of his broken spirit upon realizing what he had done against God.
  • It could be a combination of all of the above.

Paul’s encounter with Ananias – verses 10-19a.

The narrative now switches to a disciple named Ananias. Not only does Jesus appear to Ananias in a vision, but He also appears in a vision to Paul that Ananias would come to him, lay hands on him, and that he would regain his sight.

One has to wonder what went through Ananias’ mind as he was told to seek out the, at that time, biggest threat to the church, Paul. I believe it also gives a glimpse to Ananias’ standing within the Christian community in Damascus. Although it is possible that any believer could have been called to perform this task, it would make Paul’s acceptance into the Damascus Christian church easier if Paul’s advocate was a well-respected member, or possibly even someone in a leadership position.

Evidence of Ananias’ doubt and concern is evidenced by his statement that he’s heard how much damage Paul has inflicted on the church and that the purpose of Paul’s visit is known within the Christian community. 

There is a linkage between verses 15 and 16. Paul, once the persecutor, was now to become the persecuted as he shared the Gospel. 

From Ananias’ greeting to Paul, “brother,” it is clear that Paul was now part of the body of Christ. His spiritual conversion had occurred somewhere between the initial meeting with Jesus and his period of reflection while he waited for Ananias to lay hands on him. Ananias informs Paul that Jesus sent him, verifying the vision that Paul received, and Paul regained his sight. Ananias then baptized Paul and Paul began to eat and regain his strength. 

Paul in Damascus – verses 19b-25.

If there were any doubts about the validity of Paul’s conversion, his actions in proclaiming the Gospel in the synagogues would have dispelled those doubts. Still, his astounding conversion amazed the believers in Damascus. It would appear that his zeal in evangelism far surpassed his previous zeal in trying to arrest and kill Christians.

In verse 24, the Greek word that was translated into “proving” means to join or put together. From the context of the passage, it appears that what Paul was joining was Old Testament passages that pointed to Jesus and then explained how Jesus fulfilled them. Paul’s previous schooling under Gamaliel now bears fruit as Paul is able to articulate how Jesus is the fulfillment of numerous Old Testament prophecies and skillfully deflect any attempts by the Jews to prove otherwise. 

Eventually, this led to the Jews in Damascus hatching a plot to kill Paul. The phrase “after many days” is somewhat misleading, as Luke underplays the amount of time. We know from Galatians 1:17-18 that the time Paul spent in Damascus was three years. Once the plan to kill Paul was known, his disciples came up with a plan to ensure his escape.

Since the Jews were watching the gates, they had to come up with a plan that would avoid the use of the gates. Paul also mentions this event in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33. There he says that the governor under King Aretas, a Nabatean king, was guarding the city. Why would an Arabian king be looking for Paul? It is quite possible that during his time in Damascus, he also embarked on a mission trip to the surrounding Arab areas. The Jews likely joined forces with the Nabateans to capture Paul, with the Jews watching the gates and the Nabatean forces watching the surrounding areas. Regardless of the forces arrayed against Paul, he was able to make good his escape from Damascus and made his way to Jerusalem.

Paul in Jerusalem, verses 26-31.

Although Paul had been evangelizing in Damascus for approximately three years, he still wasn’t trusted or accepted in Jerusalem. The memory of what he had done to the believers previously in Jerusalem was still fresh in their minds. Undoubtedly, they believed that his “conversion” was a ploy to infiltrate and then crush the Jerusalem church. A few points about their rejection of Paul.

  • It would be reasonable to believe that the church in Damascus would have relayed the news about Paul’s work there. Therefore, their rejection is somewhat strange.
  • Possibly Paul’s disappearance for almost three years lent a feeling of suspicion to the validity of his conversion.
    • Where did he go?
    • What did he do?
    • Why did he wait so long to contact the elders in Jerusalem?
    • What right did he have to call himself an apostle?

It was the efforts of Barnabas that led to a breakthrough in the Jerusalem’s church acceptance of Paul. This is the same Barnabas from Acts 4:36-37, known as the “son of encouragement” to those around him. Because of Barnabas’ reputation, there is no reason to find a hidden meaning behind his support of Paul. It was through the effort of Barnabas that Paul was accepted into the Jerusalem Christian community. 

Paul now begins his preaching of the Gospel in Jerusalem. We don’t know how long it took, but eventually, the Hellenistic Jews plotted to kill Paul. Let’s look at this topic in more detail.

  • The Hellenistic Jews were the same ones plotted against Stephen, leading to his martyrdom.
  • Paul was a Hellenistic Jew and likely felt an obligation or responsibility to take up the mantle left by Stephen. Paul makes a reference to this in Acts 22:20.
  • The Hellenists were not going to let Paul become the new Stephen. 
  • To understand more fully what transpired, read Acts 22:17-21, where Paul gives a more detailed account of this event.
    • Jesus appears to Paul in a vision and tells him to leave.
    • The church leaders help Paul to leave Jerusalem and go to Tarsus.
    • The fact that they believed Paul’s vision demonstrates proof that the Jerusalem church had fully accepted and trusted Paul by this point.
  • Paul doesn’t appear in Acts again until Acts 11:25 when Barnabas brings Paul to the church at Antioch.
    • That places Acts 11:25 about seven to ten years after Paul left Jerusalem and ten to thirteen years after his conversion.
    • It is safe to believe that Paul used Tarsus as a base for reaching the Gentiles with the Gospel.
    • It is possible that some of the trials listed in 2 Corinthians 11:24-26 occurred during the seven years in question.
      • Only one Roman beating is recorded in Acts (16:22), with two others unaccounted for.
      • The five Jewish beatings are not recorded anywhere.
      • Only one shipwreck is recorded in Acts 27. leaving two unaccounted for.
    • Although Paul doesn’t appear for about seven years, it seems he was far from idle during that time.

Luke now inserts a summary verse.

  • The Gospel was being spread just as Jesus commanded.
  • The center would shift from Jerusalem to Antioch.
  • The key leader would shift from Peter to Paul.
  • The Gospel would be taken to the ends of the earth.
  • Although it was a time of peace for the church, it wasn’t a time of complacency.
    • They grew spiritually.
    • They grew in numbers.

Applications

  • If you have a clear word or instruction from God, are you obedient even when it may not make sense? Both Paul and Ananias were obedient even though Paul had to do a 180, and Ananias was called to go visit the very person he should’ve been avoiding.
  • Do you make an active effort to share the Gospel? Regardless of our spiritual gifting, Jesus commands all of us to bring the Gospel to the lost.
  • When you come in contact with others who are either sharing a false message, either purposely or because of lack of understanding, do you attempt to correct them? We should never condone false teaching in the church, even if our actions could harm us.

Acts Lesson Twelve

Acts 6:1-7  Chosen for Service

In those days, as the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint by the Hellenistic Jews against the Hebraic Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution. Then the Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching about God to handle financial matters. Therefore, brothers, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the preaching ministry.” The proposal pleased the whole company. So they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte from Antioch. They had them stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 

So the preaching about God flourished, the number of the disciples in Jerusalem multiplied greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith. (HCSB)

Before we look at this short passage in detail, it will be helpful to try and determine a timeline for the events that have taken place so far in Acts. There are various interpretations and positions on when these events took place, and it is impossible to know the dates exactly. However, a reasonable estimate is that the events that occurred at the beginning of chapter six took place anywhere from two to five years after Pentecost. This indicates is that the church had been in existence for a period of time now, was continuing to grow, and was starting to exhibit growing pains as the number of believers increased. Still, the leadership team, or at least the organizational structure, had not changed. We now see the church adapting and growing to meet the needs of the people.

Verse 1

The first thing to note in this verse is that the church was experiencing rapid growth. The Greek used here is plethyno. The Greek-English Lexicon defines it as: to increase greatly in number or extent—‘to grow, to increase greatly, to multiply. Whatever the number of believers was at this point, we can only estimate what that would be; the church had experienced significant growth. As with any organization, growth presents both opportunities and challenges. One of the biggest challenges is organizational structure. A similar situation occurs in Exodus, with Moses trying to administer to the entire nation of Israel as they travel to the promised land. Moses’ father-in-law advised him to set up a hierarchy to meet the needs of the people effectively. Although the circumstances surrounding the events here in chapter six are not on the same scale, they do represent a situation where more structure and workers are needed.

The second thing to note is there was a danger of a division occurring within the church. 

  • Hellenistic Jews were the Greek-speaking Jews who had moved to Palestine from other countries in the region. They may have spoken Aramaic as a second language, but it is reasonable to believe that many didn’t speak Aramaic. 
  • Hebraic Jews were the people who grew up in Israel and spoke both Aramaic and Greek. 

A few points to remember as we read this verse.

  • The Hellenistic Jews could be viewed as the “outsiders” in the young community of believers.
  • Those that were being overlooked were the “outsiders.”
  • The vast majority of believers were likely Jews. The exceptions would be the proselytes, Gentiles who converted to Judaism such as Nicolaus, but they were few in number as the mission to the Gentiles had not begun yet. The church could be viewed as a Jewish Christian community.
  • As with any large group, it is easy for “cliques” to develop. In this case, it is highly probable that Hellenistic Jews tended to meet with others from their cultural group, while the Hebraic Jews met with others from their group. This doesn’t mean there was disunity in the church, only the separation that is normal due to language and cultural differences.
  • This separation now became evident in how the charity was being practiced within the community. The Hellenistic widows were being overlooked in this. It is possible that there were a significant number of Hellenistic widows, as is alluded to in 1 Timothy 5.
  • There were two types of charity practiced by the Jews, and the early church probably followed the same practices.
    • Guppah – this was a weekly allowance for needy residents. It was given out every Friday and consisted of enough money to buy fourteen meals.
    • Tamhuy – this was a daily distribution for nonresidents and transient people. It consisted of food and drink delivered house-to-house where the needy were known to dwell.
    • It seems that the early church combined elements of both practices with a daily distribution to those in need.
  • From Acts 2:44f and 4:32f, it is apparent that the early church firmly believed that there should be no needy people in the family of Christ.

The Apostles were presented with a challenge to the unity of the church. How would they react to this potential threat?

Verse 2

They acted promptly to address the unintended slight to the Hellenistic Jewish community. They also understand that they had dropped the ball on this and needed to take responsibility to correct the situation.

A few points to note here.

  • The entire group of Apostles, all twelve, convened a meeting of all the believers. 
  • They wanted the entire community of believers to be aware of the situation and be involved in the solution to the problem. 
    • This would remove any perception of disunity or discrimination between the two groups of believers. They were equal in the eyes of the church’s leadership.
    • The voice of every believer was important in the decision the church would make regarding the situation.
  • The Apostles were not sending the message that taking care of the needy was beneath them. They were sending a very clear message that this was an essential part of ministry, but as leaders of the church, they were responsible for teaching and shepherding the flock.

Verses 3-4

The first question that begs to be asked is, “why seven men?” Here a historical/cultural review reveals that there’s nothing mysterious about this number. Jewish courts typically consisted of seven members. The early church was following what an accepted cultural practice was. The same reason applies for choosing only men; this would be the standard cultural practice. 

Next, the Apostles outline the requirements for those that would serve the community.

  • They needed to have a good reputation. This would be important for both serving those in the community as well as demonstrating a faithful witness to those outside the community.
  • They needed to be full of the Spirit. Being filled and led by the Holy Spirit was an integral component of the early church, especially those in leadership. The Spirit would need to work in and through them to carry out the ministry the Apostles were expecting of them.
  • They needed to be full of wisdom. Wisdom is essential when administering funds and ensuring that financial matters are handled above reproach.

Just as choosing the Apostles was a pivotal moment, choosing these seven men would also be a key moment. If mistakes were made in choosing one or more of them, it could potentially seriously harm the members of the church as well as tarnish their high standing within the local community. This could have given a timely opportunity for Satan to damage the church from within. However, this didn’t occur.

The result of appointing seven men to carry out this ministry function would enable the Apostles to continue concentrating on their primary task; evangelism, teaching, and shepherding the church.

Verse 5

There are two important points in this verse. 

  • First, the proposal from the Apostles to the congregation was pleasing to the “whole” company. It wasn’t a majority decision; it was a unanimous decision to support the proposal.
  • Second, the congregation chose the seven who would serve. Although the Apostles set out the requirements to fill the function, it was the members who would make the decision on who would fill them.

We could speculate as to why the seven men were all Hellenistic Christians, but there is nothing significant to be gained by that discussion. It could be as simple as the problem involved the Hellenistic widows, the Hellenistic Christians wanted to serve them, and the Hebraic Christians saw no reason not to let them serve in this manner.

Although we have some further information on several of the men chosen, others are never mentioned again.

  • Stephen – being listed first is really not a surprise as he will be the primary character in chapters six through eight.
  • Philip – he would also play a significant role in the story of the expanding Christian witness as outlined in Acts 8:5-40.
  • Prochorus – early tradition connects him with the Apostle John. In particular, it is thought that he was the writer who took dictation from John when the fourth Gospel was written. He later became the bishop of Nicomedia in Bithynia and was martyred in Antioch.
  • Nicanor/Timon/Parmenas – nothing further is known about these men.
  • Nicolaus – some scholars believe he may have been Luke’s primary source of information about the Hellenists, especially what is noted in Acts 11:19-21. It is also likely that the Gnostic sect known as the Nicolaitans borrowed his name to gain authority for their teaching. However, there is no evidence that Nicolaus himself had any connection to them.

Verse 6

The selection of the men to fulfill the responsibilities outlined earlier in the passage is now followed by a simple installation ceremony. The men were brought before the Apostles, who prayed over them and laid hands on them. This simple act signified that the Apostles confirmed the selections made by the congregation. 

The question begs to be asked as to whether the practice of laying on of hands is a prescriptive or descriptive practice for the church? The idea of a commissioning ceremony with the laying on of hands goes back to Old Testament practices in Exodus 18:13-27 (without laying on of hands) and Numbers 27:16-23 (with laying on of hands). Therefore, from a cultural standpoint, it was an accepted practice. Additionally, Luke uses the practice of laying on of hands to illustrate different concepts in the book of Acts.

  • 9:17 – healing.
  • 8:18 – giving of the Holy Spirit.
  • 13:3 – commissioning to a task.

The overwhelming emphasis is on the designation for a task and not for an appointment to an office.

Another issue that crops up with this passage is the assumption that this is the first designation of the office of deacon within the church. However, that is an incorrect understanding of the passage. The Greek word used in verse one (daily distribution) and verse four (preaching ministry) is diakonia. The proper understanding of this word in verse two is, “a procedure for taking care of the needs of people—‘provision for taking care of, arrangement for support.” In verse four, the meaning is “the role or position of serving—‘ministry, task.” In both cases, the emphasis is on the action, serving, and not an office. The Greek word for a deacon, diakonos, never occurs in this passage. However, it does occur in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8, where deacons are explicitly discussed. Therefore, we should not understand this section of the passage as the inauguration of the office of deacon within the church. We should understand it as the selection of seven men to function as faithful servants for the needs of the church, which would free the Apostles to continue their responsibility as teachers and shepherds to the young church.

Verse 7

Luke continues the good news in verse seven. 

  • First, the Apostles could concentrate on evangelism, and the Gospel message was spreading because of their efforts. 
  • Second, the church continued to multiply in Jerusalem. The Greek word used for multiply is the same one that was used in 6:1. The was continuing to experience exciting growth.
  • Third, a large group of priests became followers of Jesus. Some clarification is needed on this point.
    • We should identify these “priests” with the members of the Sanhedrin from Acts 4:1.
    • Priests served in rotational “teams” throughout the year.
    • The service included all the tasks that were required to be completed, not just the function of the Sanhedrin and the high priests family.
    • At this particular point in history, it is estimated that there were as many as 8,000 priests and 10,000 Levites who were involved in temple functions.
    • The majority of these men were considerably poorer and likely practiced sincere piety and devotion to God.
    • The message of a risen Messiah would have attracted them.
    • We don’t have an estimate of how many priests became followers, but it would appear to be a significant number since Luke mentions it here.

As we review this passage, lets’ consider some characteristics that identified the early church.

  • They were able to synthesize the matters of spiritual and material concerns. It was not just an evangelism center; it was a congregation that recognized the genuine needs of its members and designed and implemented practical, biblical plans to take care of these needs.
  • They were flexible in being able to adjust their organizational structure to meet the needs. The modern church often can be inflexible in meeting needs if the structure doesn’t have a plan to address the need. In the New Testament church, structure only developed to meet needs.
  • They practiced positive attitudes of restraint. In this case, they didn’t place blame on anyone for the Hellenistic widows being overlooked. Also, the Apostles didn’t demonstrate autocratic leadership in the search for a solution.

Applications

  • Are the needs of everyone in your local body of Christ being met? If not, bring up your concern to leadership to address the issue. If you are in a leadership position, take action on the  problem.
  • Don’t point fingers when problems arise. Instead, work with a spirit of unity and humility to find a solution to the problems. Also, don’t seek after glory in the search for a solution. Only God deserves the glory.
  • Decisions within a church or ministry organization should be corporate in nature. Autocracy has no place in a biblical church. If you see that happening in your church, challenge those in charge with a humble but uncompromising spirit.
  • Regardless of our gifting or role in our church, we are all called to serve one another. Don’t be a consumer Christian, be a participating and serving Christian.