One of the things that scripture makes clear, (and we would know from experience even if it didn’t) is that we don’t know what the future holds. And one of the best examples of that in the history of the world is a man by the name of Saul of Tarsus, who, in the spring of the year A. D. 4 or 5 started off on a trip one day to a town by the name of Damascus. He did get where he was going, but by the time he got there his world had been turned completely upside down. And his life from that day forward would be radically different. And of course, the reason for that was here in Acts chapter 9 God finally chased him to the end of his rope. Saul, after years of fanatically attacking everyone and everything that had to do with Jesus Christ, said. “Lord, what will you have me to do?” And, as we saw in our last study, the Lord simply said, “Go into the next town.” But even though God didn’t tell Saul anything but that first step, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t have anything but that first step planned. Because in verses 10 through 18 we are going to see the shepherding which is going to take place in his life.
Isn’t it a wonderful thing that God doesn’t just leave his new children out in the cold? Just as He pursues us for salvation, He also makes “shepherding” available, so the babies can grow to maturity. Ephesians 4 tells us that this is the reason He has organized the church the way He has. And Second Timothy 2:2 puts it on an individual level:
The things you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
And in keeping with that, in verses 10 through 12 we see the calling of the shepherd.
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.” (11) 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 (12) “And in a he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him so that he might receive his sight.”
Now in what we have seen in the chapter so far, we might expect that God would continue to use the miraculous to bring Saul along. But as is usually the case, at this point in the narrative, He uses the ordinary, human means to accomplish His purpose. And this underscores the principle that although God is still capable of miracles and still sometimes uses them, He also (in fact usually) uses ordinary human means to accomplish His purposes. Here is another place where we are perhaps so familiar with the story that we overlook some of the important points. But think how these instructions must have sounded to Ananias!
Then ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem (14) And here has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon your name”
And notice that there is no correction for Ananias from the Lord for having felt this way. In fact, look at the comfort for the shepherd in verses 15 and 16
But the Lord said, Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel (16)”For I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake.”
To Ananias Saul was nothing more than a murderer. But to God he was “a chosen vessel.” And this demonstrates again the difference in the way we look at people and the way the Lord looks at them. Like Ananias, we tend to look at people for what they are; but God looks at them for they will become under His direction. And so, in verses 17 and 18 we see the care by the shepherd.
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.” (18) Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.
Ananias was one of those “indispensable nobodies” that we find from time to time in the scripture. This is the only place we hear of him in the scripture (although Paul mentions him in relating this same story in Acts 22) but think of what he accomplished here: nothing less than the foundational aspects of the faith of he great Apostle Paul himself. And his godliness and confidence in God’s word is shown in two little words in the middle of verse 17: “brother Saul.” Ananias had heard about the terrible things Saul had done to his brothers in the Lord (as in verse 13) But now, simply on the word of God he is a “brother “in the Lord! Now that is true faith in the word of God. And that also tells us something about our common bond in in Christ. If we use what my Dad used to call “our sanctified imagination” It is possible that through the years ahead Paul may have ministered to survivors of people that he himself had put to death. (maybe even Stephen’s wife and children) And that is an example of the strength of our common bond in Christ – “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” And only the love of Christ could accomplish something like that!
Well, the scene changes in the next paragraph. Because in verses 10 through 31 we find the education of Saul. Most schools these days begin with a period of orientation, where the students get acquainted with the curriculum and, and regulations, and so forth. And it was no different with Saul, as it is with any new believer. And in these “orientation” verses, we find one of the most important aspects of the Christian life and yet one that is often misunderstood in the Christian life. And that lack of understanding has caused countless Christians to miss much of God’s blessing in their lives.
Those first few weeks after his conversion must have been thrilling for Saul. Three factors in these verses contributed to his euphoria in this initial phase: First, he enjoyed close fellowship with believers in Damascus (the very ones he in some cases, people he had intended to persecute – verse 19b) This is a unique aspect of Christianity that has to be experienced to be understood. Being fully accepted by the Christians he felt affirmation and support. Because of that, he soon felt secure enough to openly preach the gospel in verse 20. And this proclamation was the second contributing factor to his joy as a new believer. It was thrilling to be able to serve his new master. The third factor in his orientation was acclamation – all those who heard him were amazed, Luke says in verse 21. Like many celebrities who convert to Christianity, Saul immediately stepped into the spotlight to give his testimony. People’s mouths dropped open as they crowded to hear him speak. “Could this be the same man who was persecuting us just a few weeks ago?” they said in verse 22. And it seemed like this was going to be the pattern of this new life for Saul. Look again at verse 22:
But Saul increased all the more in strength and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ.
But, true to form, Satan changes the scene in the next verse. “orientation” was over, and obstacles began to appear. These obstacles first took the form of hazards to his health. Look at verses 23 and 24
Now after many days were past, the Jews plotted to kill him (24) But their plot became known to Saul and they watched the gates day and night to kill him.
Now this wasn’t what he had bargained for. Was it? He was getting used to the acclaim and acceptance, but this didn’t fit that picture. But it gets worse. In verse 25 he faced the obstacle of humiliation
Then the disciples took him by night and let him down through the wall in a large basket.
Think about it! Here is the great Jewish scholar and expert in Old Testament law crawling into a basket in a back alley and being sneaked out of town like some common criminal! But the humiliation didn’t stop there. Luke doesn’t even refer to it here but by comparing the description of this period which Paul wrote to the Galatians we see where he probably went after he was over the wall. Look at Galatians 1:15-17a
But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, (16)to reveal his son in me that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, (17)nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. (18) Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and remained with him fifteen days.
We don’t know exactly when this happened, but we know that it was soon after he was saved in Acts 9:6, and before he went to Jerusalem, which happens in Acts 9:26. Acts 9:8 tells us that he did go to Damascus the day he was saved, and 9:19 says that he spent “some days” with the disciples there. So the most logical time for his move to Arabia is right here in Acts 9:25, when he goes over the wall. Whenever it happened this time in Arabia must have been a humbling experience. Here he was, fresh out of Judaism into the light, giving his testimony, having people “amazed” at what he had to say, and now suddenly restricted to “the middle of nowhere.”
But make no mistake about it, this, too, is an essential part of a new life in Christ. It is something that every Christian goes through in one form or another. Moses spent 40 years on the back side of the desert, working for his father- in law. Joseph served time as a servant in an Egyptian officer’s house and a term in prison before becoming prime minister of Egypt. Elijah and John the Baptist spent years out in the desert before becoming mighty prophets before God. Even the Lord Jesus had a period of time in his life that is very obscure – from age 8 until the age of 30 we have absolutely no details of His activities. And the same is true for many men and women of God who are recorded in secular records – H. A. Ironside, had been in the ministry for 25 years before he became pastor of Moody Memorial Church, the ministry for which he is famous. And the same is true for W.A. Criswell, legendary pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas.
Are you perhaps going through a time like that? Feel like you are just spinning your wheels spiritually, feeling less and less effective for Christ? This might go on even longer. But these “desert places” in the Christian life are indispensable for making us the servants that He wants us to be. Even after the humiliation, though, the humbling process didn’t stop. Verse 26 tells us that even after he came back from he still had problems:
And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple.
Here he faced the problem of ostracism Nobody wanted to do anything with him. Now from the human standpoint this was understandable. But it still hurt. Sometimes Christians today have painful things in their past that fellow believers have a hard time with – divorce, bankruptcy, or some other problem. There is a real opportunity for ministries for Christians who are willing to “run interference” for others for others who are in those kinds of situations. And that is exactly what happens in the next verses:
But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that he had spoken to him. and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. So he was with them at Jerusalem coming in and going out.
Finally with this help from Barnabas, Saul has the opportunity for acceptance he has been hoping for. And just as with Ananias earlier in the chapter here was a great ministry that had it not been written in the scripture, few people would have known about. But think what a contribution Barnabas made to the body of Christ by just being willing to lend his influence! There are so many Christians who need this this ministry of encouragement and “mentoring.” And, just as in this situation, who knows what might come of it? But even with that kind of acceptance, Saul’s problems weren’t over. Look at verse 29:
And he spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus and disputed with the Hellenists, but they attempted to kill him.
Why were these Jews so persistent? Because it was obvious that the truth had made a radical transformation in his life. Therefore they only had two choices: Admit that their lives needed to be changed too, or destroy the evidence. Donald Gray Barnhouse an influential teacher of a previous generation says that “every martyrdom that has ever taken place has been an attempt to destroy the evidence.” So to protect Saul, the believers had no choice but to get him out of there. Look at verse 30:
When the brethren found out they brought him to down to Caesarea and sent him to Tarsus.
Surely Saul must have felt dejected as he boarded that ship. Was there no place of service for him? Would the hatred of the Jews keep him from ever being able to serve the Lord? It surely seemed that way. In fact Luke is quick to point out in verse 31 that after Saul left
Then the churches throughout all Judea, galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the holy spirit, they were multiplied.
What a disillusioning experience for Saul! He drops out of sight here and isn’t heard from again until we get to chapter 11. But it was during that period of time that Saul learned two principles which every one of us needs to learn: First, in our Christian growth, God does everything possible to stop the energy of the flesh. In those early days of his ministry, with all of his abilities Saul may have been tempted to depend on his own strength. He had to learn that that wouldn’t work. And the best way to teach him that was to put him in situations which he could not control. And God does the same thing for us. don’t chafe at His movements to curb those self-reliant instincts; try to find out what He is teaching you and seek to learn it as quickly as possible.
The second thing that Saul (and we) need to learn is that no one but Christ is indispensable. Throughout the rest of Saul’s life, the humility which God instilled in him through these difficulties safeguarded him against self destructive pride. If you feel like Saul – facing obstacles or ostracism or off the stage, remember what eventually happened to Saul; he became God’s premier missionary, sailing the world with the gospel. God may not have exactly that same course in store for you, but he definitely has a ministry in store for you, but he has a ministry that only you can perform. And He loves you too much to let you go on without further training.