9:1-22 Saul's Conversion and Baptism
In the previous chapter we saw the beginning of Saul's attempt to destroy the Greek-speaking Christian congregation in Jerusalem (8:1-3). The result was that these persecuted disciples had to move out of the city, and they planted new congregations in Samaria and its surrounding villages (8:1, 4-5, 25), and up into Galilee (9:31).
Saul had almost certainly visited Damascus. It was on the main road from his home town of Tarsus when he traveled by foot for his rabbinic studies in Jerusalem (a three week journey). There were several synagogues in Damascus (9:2), and Saul obviously wanted to prevent Christian preachers from making disciples among them (see Ananias in 9:10, 14).
Luke gives us what reads like an eye-witness account of Saul's conversion. Luke must have heard it from Saul (later known by his Roman name as Paul, 13:9) during the many journeys they made together. Jesus asked Saul why he was persecuting him, and Saul asked Jesus who he was. The answer given was that the people Saul was persecuting were part of the Messiah's body. Luke will later describe how Paul repeated the story of this very personal encounter with the Messiah when he addressed the Hebrew speaking mob who attacked him in Jerusalem (22:4-16), and then before King Agrippa (26:9-15).
9:1-2 Before his conversion Saul was probably a member of the Sanhedrin, and we have seen how they "became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen" (7:54). With their authority "he was ravaging the Greek-speaking church in Jerusalem by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women" (8:3). Now he obtained permission to make a ten day journey to Damascus to continue the persecution there. Again women as well as men are included (8:3). Jesus had said "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), and so Luke called Jesus' disciples followers of the Way (as in 18:25-26, 19:9, 22:4, 24:22, as in 2 Peter 2:2, 21). They were only later known as Christians (Messiah people, 11:26).
9:3 Saul fell to the ground when "a great light from heaven" (22:6-7) which was "brighter than the sun" shone around him and his companions (26:13).
9:4-5 Many years later Paul remembered that the voice he then heard was in the Hebrew language, saying "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads" (26:14, using the metaphor of an ox stubbornly refusing to pull a plow). Saul already knew who it was, and said "Who are you, Lord?" And he received a very personal answer. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." This meant that in persecuting Jesus' disciples he was hurting the Lord himself.
9:6-9 Saul was obviously perplexed as to what he should do next. And Jesus' voice told him to go into the city of Damascus, and he would be told what to do there. Luke adds the information that Saul's companion heard a voice speaking, but saw no one. This might suggest that Saul actually saw the Lord (as he did in 23:11) when his eyes were still closed. When Saul rose from the ground he opened his eyes, but found he was blind and had to be led by the hand into the city. The shock of this encounter, and finding himself blinded, was so great that he could neither eat or drink for three days.
9:10-12 Ananias was an otherwise unknown disciple, who was residing in Damascus. He was no doubt praying with others as they knew Saul had come to arrest them. The ascended Jesus was able to direct him in a vision to where Saul was staying. He then made clear that Saul was praying to him, and he had also been a given a vision in which he had seen a man named Ananias coming to lay hands on him to restore his sight.
9:13-14 Ananias naturally objected that Saul was a dangerous enemy who had come to arrest and take any Christian disciples that he found to be punished in Jerusalem (9:1-2).
9:15-16 The Lord answered that he had himself chosen Saul to make his name known before the Gentiles (non-Jewish nations), kings (as before Felix in 24:24, 27. 25:1, 6, 13), and the whole Jewish nation. The Lord added that he would personally show Saul (later called by his Roman name Paul, 13:9) how much he would suffer in doing this. It had been the preaching and working miracles "in the name of Jesus the Messiah" that had already infuriated the authorities (4:7-10, 17-18, 30), and this would continue throughout Paul's ministry..
9:17 We have to be impressed with Ananias, the otherwise unknown disciple, who accepted this assurance, went to the house, laid his hands on Saul, and called him "Brother Saul." He told him he would now receive his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit, as had happened to leaders (Judges 3:10, 6:34) and prophets in the Old Testament, and the apostles on the Day of Pentecost.
9:18-21 When Saul found his sight restored he immediately asked for baptism, and ate his first food (perhaps communion?) with Jesus' disciples. Without hesitation he went and told what had happened in the synagogues of Damascus (see 9:2) and declared that Jesus "is the Son of God." We can imagine the astonishment of the synagogue leaders. As John explained, "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (John 1:18, see Exodus 33:20). That meant the one whom Paul saw (see note on 9:7) cannot have been the Father, so he could only be God's Son (as in Genesis 17:1, 18:1, Exodus 3:6, 31:18, Daniel 3:25).
9:22 It soon became clear to Saul that Jesus was not only the Son of God, but the Messiah, sovereign Lord of hosts (5:42, see Psalm 2:2, 6, 5:2, 8:9, 9:7, Isaiah 3:1, 10:26, 22:12, 28:29, 29:6, 35:2, 37:16, etc.).
9:23-31 Paul's escape from Damascus and stay in Arabia before meeting the apostles
This interval of time is reported by Paul in one of his letters. "When God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas (Simon Peter) and stayed with him fifteen days" (Galatians 1:15-18).
9:23-25 The Jewish leaders soon recovered from their astonishment, and began to plot his death. But Saul and his friends knew that the gates were being watched, so fellow disciples lowered him down from the city wall in a basket. The Arabian desert began less than a hundred miles east of Damascus, but the main towns stretched a thousand miles south along the trade route to Mecca. Saul may have picked a quiet oasis or an ancient city like Petra, where he could live quietly and rethink all the implications of what had happened to him and how it related to the Old Testament in which he had been trained as a rabbi.
9:26-28 After three years Saul came back to Damascus, and made the long journey south by foot to Jerusalem. His aim was to meet with the apostles, but they could not believe that Paul had been so wonderfully converted. It was Barnabas (see note on 4:36-37) who was able to describe Saul's conversion and his bold preaching, and the fearful apostles were then able to receive him.
9:29-30 Inevitably Saul found himself arguing with the Greek speaking Jews who had wanted Stephen killed (6:9-12, 7:54), and who encouraged Saul to root out any Greek speaking Christians all the way to Damascus (8:3, 9:1-2). When they planned to kill him, believers in Jerusalem took him down to Caesarea, and he took a ship up the coast back to his own city of Tarsus.
9:31 Now that Saul had become a Christian (the term was first used in 11:26) the persecution of Greek speaking believers came to an end, and churches could begin flourishing.. "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18) so we know that the "fear of the Lord" is nothing to do with abject terror. One of the meanings of the word phobos is reverence or respect, and it is used in that sense by Paul (1 Corinthians 2:3, 7:1, 15, Ephesians 5:21, Philippians 2:12). So a better translation would be "respecting the Lord, and being encouraged by the Spirit." And that is precisely what results in church growth.
9:32 Churches established along the Mediterranean Coast
In the previous chapter Luke mentioned that, after baptizing the Eunuch from Ethiopia, Philip preached in the coastal towns stretching sixty miles from Azotus (Ashdod) north to Caesarea (8:40). He now describes how Peter went to visit these groups of believers. They had probably been baptized as a result of Philip's work (as in 8:12), and Peter led them into life in the Spirit (as in 8:15) so that they could begin functioning as churches of the Holy Spirit. Later while Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea (24:27) Luke probably visited these churches, and he must have been impressed with the two incidents that he records here. Lydda is the present site of the Lod airport and Joppa (now called Tel Aviv) was the harbor (2 Chronicles 2:16, Jonah 1:3) eighteen miles to the north-west. Luke tells us that Peter later settled in the area, and made his home in Joppa (9:43) and by then there was an established church there (10:23).
9:32 The words translated "went here and there" suggest erratic visits, but the Greek verb dierchomai often means to go through (as in 20:25, Luke 9:6, 17:11) in a systematic way. The city of Lydda (Lod) had a church which was probably planted by Philip on his way from Azotus to Caesarea (see note on 8:40).
9:33-34 Aeneas (a Greek name) was well known in the church of Lydda (9:32), and he had been paralyzed for eight years. Peter may have remembered Jesus' words to the man at the pool of Bethesda, "Stand up, take your mat and walk" (John 5:8). So Peter first told Aeneas that "Jesus the Messiah (as in 9:22) is now healing you." Then he told him to get up and roll up the bed he was lying on (9:34). Obviously Peter stayed on in Lydda (9:38) to form the new converts into a functioning church.
9:35 Sharon was (and still is) the very fertile land (Isaiah 65:10) that stretches the forty miles from Lydda up to Mount Carmel. What happened to Aeneas was talked about by the inhabitants of Lydda and the surrounding villages of Sharon. "All the inhabitants" does not mean literally every single man, woman, and child in the area, but it certainly indicates a Group Movement when large numbers are baptized and formed into a church.
9:36-37 Joppa (now the big city of Tel Aviv) is a day's walk 18 miles to the north-east of Lydda.
A much loved disciple there named Tabitha (an Aramaic name, 9: 40) was also given the Greek name, Dorcas meaning gazelle. She had the spiritual gift of practical generosity and deeds of mercy (Romans 12:8, 1 Corinthians 12:28). When she died she was washed (as was the custom) and laid on a bed.
9:38 Usually the burial would follow within an hour or two (as in 5:5-6, 10). But hoping for a miracle two men were sent from the church in Joppa to run the 18 miles to Lydda and call Peter. That meant the funeral would be delayed till the next day.
9:39-41 Peter was greeted by a crowd of weeping women trying to show him the beautiful clothes Dorcas had made. But he put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed alone in the room where Dorcas' body lay. After a time he turned to the body and called Tabitha (using her childhood name) back to life. She first sat up, then Peter took her by the hand and helped her to stand. Only then did he call the mourners back to meet her.
9:42 This became known throughout the city of Joppa, and again there was a big Group Movement into the church (as in 9:35).