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The Spreading Flame - Series 2: Episode 7

Paul joins the church

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 9:19-31

Paul preached in Damascus for a short time and then spent three years away from people before he went to Jerusalem to meet with the Apostles. He met with opposition from the Jews but also the church in Jerusalem until Barnabas built bridges between Paul and the Apostles. He had to leave Damascus and then Jerusalem and went to Caesarea and then Tarsus.

Paul preached in Damascus for a short time and then spent three years away from people before he went to Jerusalem to meet with the Apostles. He met with opposition from the Jews but also the church in Jerusalem until Barnabas built bridges between Paul and the Apostles. He had to leave Damascus and then Jerusalem and went to Caesarea and then Tarsus.


Welcome back to the last episode in Series 2. We are going to conclude the story about Paul’s remarkable conversion on the Damascus road. There’s another part of the story that Luke tells us about here, which is very informative and important for us, as we fill out the picture of what is happening in the Church.

Background and Introduction

It was a remarkable episode that we discussed last time, and if you haven’t heard that episode, I’d very much encourage you to listen to it because this was a turning point in the history of the Church. There’s no question about it. Paul, the arch persecutor, is stopped in his tracks, and miraculously converted through the voice of Jesus speaking to him, and all the remarkable circumstances around it. He totally ceases his activity of opposing the Church and immediately engages in promoting the faith of Jesus and he realises that he’s called to be a leader.

Before we look at our passage today, we are going to remember what was said in the previous passage when the Lord himself spoke to Ananias, the man who helped Paul in Damascus, Acts 9:15 - 16

15 ‘The Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”’

Acts 9:15-16, NIV

At that particular time, Saul or Paul - we can call him either as I’ve mentioned in previous episodes - realised that there was a massive calling on him. His life was going to change incredibly and he must have realised it was going to involve a lot of travel. He had been based in Jerusalem but now he was going to be travelling far and wide. The question now comes, ‘What happened next?’ Did this start immediately? Did he stay in Damascus? Did he go to Jerusalem? Did he go back to his home city, where he had come from originally - a place called Tarsus in southern Turkey, in a Roman province called Cilicia? What was going to happen next?

Paul Preaches in Damascus

Luke tells us the remarkable story of the things that happened following Paul’s baptism in Damascus at the hands of the disciple Ananias, and his healing from blindness and the restoration of his sight and his strength. Let’s read Acts 9: 19 - 25,

19 ‘Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the Chief Priests?” 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah. 23 After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, 24 but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. 25 But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.’

Acts 9:19-25, NIV

Paul’s story is always dramatic and there’s a very dramatic episode here. He spent several days with the disciples in Damascus and he continued preaching. He went to the synagogues - there was more than one synagogue in Damascus because there was a large Jewish community - and went everywhere he could amongst the Jewish communities. He said to them, “You know, I used to be against Jesus but I’ve met Jesus, and I realise he’s the Messiah”. Then he started preaching the Gospel to them. This was something he continued to do for many years, going into the Jewish places of worship, and preaching the Gospel. He would take key texts from the Old Testament, prophecies particularly, and explain how they applied to Jesus. The Jews were tremendously confused. They knew about Saul, or Paul. They knew that he was a very strong supporter of their religion, working with the High Priest in Jerusalem and trying to suppress this new Jewish sect. So suddenly they think, “Why has he changed sides? What has happened?” They listened to his story with great confusion. It’s interesting that Paul immediately starts speaking the Gospel message. He realises that this was his calling. He was a gifted leader and teacher; he had been trained in the study of the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament. He’d studied in Jerusalem under a well-known rabbi called Gamaliel, who appears in our text; we’ve seen him before in an earlier episode, and Paul refers to him later on as his teacher. He knows all about Judaism; he’s very committed. He’s a member of the sect known as the Pharisees. He’s obviously a good public communicator, with a considerable intellect, and considerable abilities. Immediately, all these gifts are turned to the use of the Gospel, and he becomes a public communicator in the synagogues of Damascus, for a short period of time.

Paul’s Preparation for His Ministry

In verse 23, Luke says that, ‘After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy.’ Opposition to Paul was rising amongst the Jews. But what does the expression ‘after many days’ actually mean? This requires a little thought. This is where Luke has compressed the story, in order to bring out certain points that he’s interested in. Paul himself tells us what happened at this particular time in his life, in the book of Galatians, 1:15 - 18, which is incredibly important for understanding the story at this point. In writing later, to Christians in churches that he’d planted in a district known as Galatia, Paul makes this fascinating statement, describing the events that happened at exactly this time in his life.

15 ‘But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. 17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were Apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus. 18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas (or Peter)and stayed with him fifteen days.’

Galatians 1:15-18, NIV

When Luke says ‘after many days’ we find out that the ‘many days’ is three years. Paul, having had this revelation from Jesus, and having preached briefly in the synagogues, felt he needed some space to prepare himself, to pray, and to think about his future. He says here that he went into Arabia. The description of Arabia here, probably refers to the geographical area immediately surrounding Damascus, which was part of a kingdom known as Nabataea - an Arab kingdom in those days, largely under Roman rule. He probably went from Damascus into some regions nearby, which he describes as Arabia, basically away from people - away from the front line - and for three years he had a time of preparation. I’ would love to know more about those three years and I am sure you would. But we don’t know exactly what happened. He may have preached to communities that he met during that time. It may have been a time of intensive preparation and prayer. I think, for certain, Paul would have gone through the whole of his knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and looked very carefully at the text from the point of view of now believing that Jesus was the Messiah. He would particularly have given attention to the prophecies and also the theme of the calling of Israel, and what the purpose of the Jewish people was, now that he was going to be speaking to the Gentiles. There was a lot of thinking going on in Paul’s life during those three years. We don’t know very much about it but it’s a very interesting part of the story. Luke doesn’t mention it; he just says, ‘after many days’. If those many days are three years, we find that he started in Damascus for a short period of time, then went into Arabia for three years.

Jewish Opposition to Paul

Then he came back to Damascus and that’s when big trouble started. The Jewish community in Damascus had been very upset by Paul, in the short period of time when he’d been preaching in the synagogue. They were very confused and upset. When he left the city, they would have been very relieved. He’d gone off somewhere into Arabia. They probably didn’t know where he’d even gone. He hadn’t gone back to Jerusalem. He wasn’t talking to the High Priest. He wasn’t doing anything significant that they could see. Then, he came back after three years. At that moment, some of the people of the Jewish community thought, “We don’t want him back here. In fact, he’s really dangerous to our religion because he’s changed sides, and he’s now going to be speaking against the Jewish religion and in favour of the new Christian faith, proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah”. That’s the context of the statements here; there was a conspiracy to kill Paul. Several times in his life there would be an attempt by Jewish groups to assassinate him; this is a theme that you will see running through the book of Acts. Amongst the Jewish people, when Paul preached there was always a division. Some people believed the Gospel and joined the Church from the Jewish faith, but usually most of them didn’t. This is the first time we see this pattern here and we’ll see it on a number of occasions.

They were watching the city gates because Paul had found out about the conspiracy. They thought, “He’ll probably want to leave again”. So, they literally were watching the gates. In ancient cities in the Middle East at this time - cities like Jerusalem and Damascus - were surrounded by defensive walls, with a small number of gates. It was fairly easy to observe who comes and goes if you’ve got people at those gates. If you go to the city of Jerusalem today, you’ll see a medieval version of the walls and the gates that are similar to the ones that existed at the time of Jesus, and a similar situation was the case in Damascus. They calculated that he would decide to leave, and so they watched the gates in order to take him captive and assassinate him. It’s a ruthless assassination plot that was planned but we see that the Christian community in Damascus got together with Paul, and decided that it was too much of a risk for him to stay in the city, and too much of a risk for him to leave the city through the gates because they knew that they were being watched. This is how they decided that he would be lowered in a basket at night, through an opening in the wall. Very dramatic. That’s how Paul escaped the city of Damascus when he was in key danger.

Interestingly enough, when Paul recounts this story in 2 Corinthians 11: 32 - 33, he adds another very interesting bit of information.

32 ‘In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. 33 But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.’

2 Corinthians 11:32-33, NIV

So, the Jews had been speaking to the authorities who were under the leadership of King Aretas, an Arab ruler of the kingdom of Nabataea, and his governor agreed with the Jews that Paul was a troublemaker in the city. The Arab authorities and the Jewish members of the local synagogues worked together in this conspiracy. It appears that the guards at the gate may also have been members of the local police or military for the ruler, working with the Jews. That’s an interesting detail. It was a matter of real danger to Paul, that his life could end right there, before he’d even started his ministry.

Paul Returns to Jerusalem

So, he escaped by going through the wall in a basket and then he came to Jerusalem. This is another dramatic moment. What on earth is going to happen to Paul when he comes back to the city of Jerusalem? He had left the city three years earlier with some Temple guards, armed, heading for Damascus to arrest Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem, under the authority of the High Priest. Yet they had heard all these rumours about him - that he’d changed sides, that he’d given up on Judaism, that he’d joined the Church and was preaching about Jesus. The Jewish authorities were very angry and hostile towards him. What’s their response going to be? What’s the response going to be of the Early Church? Their last memory of him was the arch persecutor, who literally went door-to-door in the city, knocking on the door of known Christian families and households and arresting people. As I mentioned in the last episode, he interrogated them carefully to find out if they had any contacts in other districts, where he could follow-up and arrest them too. So, when Paul comes back into the city of Jerusalem, he’s got to deal with the Jewish authorities. What are they going to do to him? And, he’s got to deal with the church and its leaders and the Apostles, who, he makes clear in his statement in Galatians 1, he has not yet met. One of the reasons he didn’t go to Jerusalem, by the way, was because he believed his calling to be an Apostle and his revelation of the Gospel, came directly from Christ, and it wasn’t passed to him by Peter and the others. He’s not a second-hand Apostle who just speaks a message that someone else told him. He makes the point in Galatians 1, “I received this revelation from Jesus Christ. He called me to be an Apostle”.

But now, after three years, it’s time for them to meet up. Acts 9:26 - 30 tells us this story:

26 ‘When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the Apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28 So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews, but they tried to kill him. When the believers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.’

Acts 9:26-30, NIV

The hostility of the Jewish authorities is there. It’s not spoken about much in this passage. What is spoken about is how the church connected to Paul. They wouldn’t even believe initially that he was a disciple. It just seemed incredible to them. All they could remember was this terrible trauma of him literally breaking up the church, forcing hundreds and thousands of people out of the city into exile, and to move to other areas, and then imprisoning people within the city in the special prison compound, that was part of the Jewish Temple complex, under the authority of the High Priest and the Sanhedrin. They were very cautious.

Barnabas Builds a Bridge

Then we come to a very interesting man in the New Testament story, Barnabas. We’ve heard of him before. He was clearly amongst the key people in the Early Church and we heard of him because he sold a field, in order to provide funds at an earlier stage in the city, to help the church at the time of its economic pressures. You may remember that incident if you’ve been following through the story as a whole. Now Barnabas returns again. Barnabas can see a problem. He believes that Paul is a true Apostle, has been truly converted and is a totally different person who left Jerusalem three years ago. Barnabas has a really good reputation with the Apostles. He’s part of their group, as we’ll find out later on. We see that he is an Apostle himself, not one of the Twelve, but one of those few people who were added in by Jesus Christ in the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension. He’s named as an Apostle a little later by Luke. He is very close to the Twelve, very close to Peter, and he goes to them and says, “You have to help here; we’ve got a problem. Paul wants to meet you; you need to trust the fact that what’s happened to him is genuine.” He builds the bridge where there had been distrust and fear, and to be honest, pain - a lot of pain. People had died in Jerusalem. The first martyr was Stephen and they remembered that Paul had approved the stoning of Stephen. It’s there, written in our text. They remembered the ruthless things he did. So, to build a relationship with him was going to be very tricky emotionally, psychologically. Barnabas was the human bridge. As they met, there was an amazing coming together. The relationship between Paul and the Twelve and the other Apostles was made, which was a very important relationship for the future, particularly between Peter, the leader of the Jerusalem Apostles, and Paul, who was going to be involved in mission in other areas.

No sooner had this happened, than we find that the Jews, some of the Jews in Jerusalem, take great offence at Paul being there - the Hellenistic Jews. These are the same Jews, the people from whose cultural background is outside Israel, but are living in Israel and Paul was one of them. The very ones who had been the instruments of Stephen’s martyrdom, were horrified to see Paul had changed sides. They tried to find a way of killing him. The second assassination plot, and not the last; they happened frequently. The believers realised, as they had done in Damascus, that he was not safe in Damascus, but he wasn’t safe in Jerusalem either. The hostility levels were too high. The risk was too high. So, they sent him off to the town of Caesarea, and then eventually to Tarsus. The significance of Tarsus is that that was his original hometown, where his family lived; he had relatives there. We don’t know if there was a church community there yet, but they wanted him to go to a safer place for the time being, until the next part of his mission unfolded. In God’s providence, he had another period of time where he was in a fairly quiet stage of his life. He’d been in Arabia for three years, then he was in Tarsus for a period of time. Then suddenly, that very same Barnabas, came to Tarsus and knocked on his door one day and said, “Come and join the mission because we’re really moving forward”. But that’s a story for another day.

Summary Statement

This passage ends with a summary statement. If you’ve listened to Series 1 Episode 10, you’ll know that Luke occasionally has a summary statement that describes the situation at the end of a period of Church growth and development. In Series 2, the Church has been moving from Jerusalem - just one city - into the surrounding districts, Judea and Samaria. Very shortly after this, it was going to be moving further away from those areas. Luke makes this wonderful statement here, in Acts 9: 31,

‘Then the Church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in number.’

Acts 9:31, NIV

This is the first time that the whole of the land of Israel is referenced. If you’ve listened to earlier episodes, you’ll know that there are three main districts in the whole land of Israel at this time: Galilea in the north, Samaria in the middle and Judea in the south. It now appears that the Church is strong in all three districts. When it says that it experienced a time of peace, what it means is peace from persecution because the persecution had now died down following Paul’s conversion. The numbers were too great. The energy wasn’t enough amongst the religious authorities in Jerusalem. They had a time of peace and the Church was strengthened. They lived in the fear of the Lord and through the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, the Church continued to grow; it increased in numbers. That’s Luke’s summary statement. In the next series, we’ll see how the Gospel moves to a new type of people and a new geographical area.


Let’s reflect on this for a moment. First of all, Paul is an example of amazing obedience and courage. We need to honour the fact of his sacrificial attitude. Jesus had already warned him that he must suffer ‘many things for my name’. Acts 9:16, as recounted to Ananias in the first instance. He knew that suffering was coming but he knew that obedience mattered most. Calling matters most. This is my first application really, as we come to the end of this episode. The book of Acts gives some very interesting examples of different types of calling. It is faithfulness to what you are called to that matters. Paul had a calling to be a frontline leader and risk taker, an Apostle and preacher. But notice there are many other people in the story who are faithful in less prominent callings. Notice the significance of Barnabas, who has a particular gift of connecting people, building community, taking risks at a human level, so new things can be done. Take note of Ananias, a faithful disciple in a local church, who probably never left the church in Damascus. He was just a godly man who was able to do the key things at the key points. If you go through the book of Acts, you will find many faithful people who are doing the thing that God called them to do. Think back to the earlier stories, and you will see how faithful the Twelve Apostles were to their first calling. So, an application for us is concerning the calling on our lives. What God asks from you is not spectacular success but faithfulness to your calling and he puts the jigsaw together. There are some prominent people and usually many less prominent people who play critical roles. Without Ananias and Barnabas, without the mobilisation of the church community to get Paul out of two very difficult situations, he would never have been able to emerge alive from the threats that he experienced; he had never have connected with the Jerusalem church. Let us be faithful to our calling.

Let us give thanks to God that there is a principle here in this text, which applies to many modern churches in different parts of the world, and that is: despite persecution, God is always sovereign. He will find a way of making his Church grow, even in hostile circumstances. He has done that here. He has overturned the terrible persecution and caused the Church to grow and develop. This is a story that has been played out in many nations in the world: some nations where an Islamic regime is particularly hostile to the Church; some communist countries; some countries with other religious regimes of different religions, such as in Buddhist countries, where faith cannot easily flourish because of the situation. There are many contexts in which this applies. We need to take courage from the fact that, despite the setbacks, God moved his Church forward and blessed them, and on this particular occasion, gave a time of peace from persecution. I look forward to welcoming you to Series 3 as we continue our journey through the book of Acts, and I hope you’ll join us for that.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How important is it to have ‘bridge builders’ in society? And in church?
  • Discipleship
    1. There are different types of calling. What is yours? How can you help others to know what their calling is?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Use tagging to find the summary statements in Acts. How do they help you to understand the purpose of the book?
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