20. Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God.
Very little time passes before Saul, always a zealous and wholehearted person in all he does, begins to proclaim Christ in Damascus, the very city where he came to persecute those who believed in Him. God has called Saul “a chosen vessel of mine,” and He does not waste any time beginning to use him.
Saul proclaimed Christ in the synagogues, those common meeting places of the children of Israel. These were not religious centers, as we would think of them. Many equate these with the Jewish version of churches, which is perhaps what synagogues are today. Yet at the time, they were really Israelite community centers, where these people got together for all aspects of life, including political and social, and not just religious centers. Still, this was the place you could expect to find Israelites gathered together, and so it is here that Saul resorts to proclaim the truth.
He sets forth the reality that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. This means far more than that He is God’s little boy. A “son” in the Hebrew mindset was a representative of his father. The son would inherit from the father, and carry on for him when he could no longer run the family on his own. Jesus Christ, as God’s Son, is the representative of God. He is God in human form. No one has seen God at any time, as the Bible says. Yet God has always had a visible Representative, even throughout the Old Testament, and in the New Testament that One is revealed as Jesus Christ. This is what Paul proclaimed in this synagogue. He was not telling them just that God has a little boy.
Interestingly, we have no record in the preaching that is written down for us to read in Acts up until now that anyone else had proclaimed Christ as the Son of God. I do not say that no one realized it, but that we have no record in the proclamations we have recorded in the earlier chapters of Acts that anyone actually proclaimed it as part of their declaration of the salvation-bringing message. They had preached Jesus as the Christ, but not as the Son of God. This is the first we hear of this being proclaimed specifically, and it is done by Saul. He had seen the Lord in the way, and realized the truth about him. Now, he not only proclaims him, but proclaims an advance to what even the twelve had preached before!
21. 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?”
This event amazes all who hear him. They all know what Saul had done in Jerusalem, and how he had destroyed all who called on the name of Jesus Christ there. They also know that he had come to Damascus to bind those who believed in that city. They just cannot fathom why Saul would now proclaim the glories of the One Whom he had formerly sought to destroy. Indeed, this was a great testimony to the power of the government of God. Once more, His government had reached into the affairs of men to turn things to His Own will. The Lord had turned the usual way this world works upside-down, and had chosen the very man who hated Him most to be His new, primary spokesman. God’s government does things like that when it is present. God’s government changes the world. Yet God’s government is not now in the earth. It has withdrawn, and now we have only the governments of men. And yet God’s government will return someday, and when it does, it will have the victory. When it does, this world will never again be the same!
Though Saul preached faithfully, we do not read of him having much success. It may be that most were distracted by his change of attitude, and were more interested in this than in his words. We can often thus be distracted by the sensational from what is truly important.
22. But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ.
The Lord was clearly with Saul, for as he spoke he increased all the more in power. Already he was showing all the characteristics of being an Acts period believer, with all the mighty strength of God backing him up. Thus, he confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus who sought to oppose him and end his teaching. This word means that he confused them. They were unable to answer his points or to counter his bold claims. Thus, he proved that the Lord Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One God had promised to send.
23. Now after many days were past, the Jews plotted to kill him.
Many days pass in this manner. It would appear that these “many days” were about three years altogether. This is not unheard of in Bible terminology, for a comparison of I Kings 2:38 and 39 will show that three years is there also called many days. How much of that time Saul spent in Damascus, it is hard to say. Yet we do know that Saul left Damascus at some point and went into Arabia, for the first chapter of Galatians makes that clear.
15. 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. Galatians 1:15-18.
Thus, Saul went into Arabia at some point during these many days, but eventually he returned to Damascus. How long he spent in Arabia compared to how long he was in Damascus it is hard to say. Yet eventually, he must have returned to that city of Damascus. By this time, the Jews who had sought to debate with him realized that they could not defeat him in a fair discussion. Thus, as the Jews had done with Stephen, the Lord’s faithful witness in Jerusalem, when they could not stop him by fair means, they turned to foul. They plotted to kill Saul, thus thinking to bring an end to his message of Jesus Christ.
24. But their plot became known to Saul. And they watched the gates day and night, to kill him.
The Lord was watching out for Saul now, however, and so by some means, what means exactly we cannot say, he became aware of this plot. It is hard to say if the Lord granted him this knowledge, or if one in sympathy with the believers among the Jews passed this information on to Saul. Either way, we can be sure that the Lord was somehow behind it, seeing to it that His chosen messenger did not get removed from the fight before the battle was even engaged. He had chosen Saul to perform a service for Him, not to die a martyr’s death. Such a death would have glorified God, but that is not what God had in mind for Saul at this time.
The plot to kill Saul seems to have had something to do with him going out the city gates. Perhaps he was to be followed and waylaid as soon as he was in the wilderness away from inhabited places. Perhaps he was to be arrested right then and there as he sought to leave the city. At any rate, Saul knew of this plot, so he just stayed where he was and sought to discover another way to escape out of the city.
25. Then the disciples took him by night and let him down through the wall in a large basket.
A way of escape presented itself at last. Cities at that time were surrounded by a large wall for defense. No space was wasted, however, and homes were built right up against this wall most of the way around. These houses would actually use the city wall for one wall of the house. Sometimes the house would extend up higher than the city wall. In one such house Saul made his escape through a window that looked out over the city wall. The disciples brought him there by night and let him down from the window in a large basket.
This was not the most spectacular way for Saul to escape the city. In fact, he describes it as part of his humiliation in II Corinthians 11:33. God could have snatched Saul from the city by His power if He wished. Instead, he allowed Saul to escape by this much humbler method. Yet it worked, and Saul made good his escape from the city.
26. 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.
When Saul returns to Jerusalem, the disciples there do not welcome him with open arms. We can hardly blame them for being afraid, for remember that Saul had persecuted them most harshly the last time he had been in the city. Who knows how many had suffered at his hands, either directly by beatings or imprisonment, or else through friends or family members whom Saul had helped to put to death? Thus, they all are afraid of him, and do not believe that he had truly become a disciple. They might have heard of his conversion, but they all suspect some trick to draw them out into the open and thus cause further damage. Therefore Saul has no success in seeking to join with those he now considered his brothers in Christ.
27. 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.
Barnabas helps to bring an end to this unhappy situation. This man, named by the apostles the “Son of Encouragement” in chapter 4, believes Saul. He sees in this former enemy a man changed by the power of the grace of God. Thus, he takes Saul and brings him to the apostles. Then, he declares to them the story of Saul’s conversion, how he had seen the Lord Jesus, had spoken with Him, and then had showed the genuine character of the change wrought in him by preaching boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus Christ.
The word “brought” here is an interesting one. It is a form of the Greek word ago, which means “led.” This same word is used in I Thessalonians 4:14, which declares, “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.” This would lead us to think that God will bring the Lord Jesus somewhere with these dead believers. Yet this would be better translated “lead forth.” God is going to lead forth Jesus Christ, and these dead ones with Him.
This is not the first time that Jesus Christ is spoken of as being “led forth” or “brought.” This same word is used many times of the Lord during His arrest and trial, when He was being brought before various rulers and groups of men for them to pass judgment upon Him. For example, Pilate led forth the Lord Jesus in John 19:4.
4. Pilate then went out again, and said to them, “Behold, I am bringing Him out to you, that you may know that I find no fault in Him.”
Pilate was leading forth the Lord Jesus in order for them to see Him and to pass judgment upon what they saw. He intended them to find no fault in Him, but that is not what happened. Rather, they asked for His death. Yet in this future time of I Thessalonians 4, God is going to lead forth the Lord Jesus Christ. This will be for the purpose of presenting Him to the world. This world has many different ideas about the Lord Jesus Christ, many of which are far from the truth. When God leads the Lord forth, however, it will be so that they will be able to see and consider Who and What He is in the sight of God. Then, they will be able to know Him in truth, and not with the flawed and biased judgments of the past.
So it is here that Saul is led forth before the apostles for them to see and consider. Barnabas does this because he wants them to see that he truly is now a friend, not a foe.
We know from Galatians 1:18-19 that the only one of the twelve Saul saw at this time was Peter, who was with James the Lord’s brother. From the record in chapter 8 of the journey of Peter and John, we might imagine that the others were off on missions for the Lord, to encourage the new believers across the land, and to grant them the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Yet these two together are enough for a quorum, and so here they are called “the apostles.” Remember, the Lord Jesus had established this as sufficient numbers for a quorum in Matthew 18:20, when He said, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” Now these two are enough to see the truth about Saul and to make the decision for the rest of the apostles.
28. So he was with them at Jerusalem, coming in and going out.
The result of this encounter is that the apostles allow Saul to join them, and he remains with them at Jerusalem. Coming in and going out means going about their affairs or conducting their business together. Of course, the most important business they were engaged in and the one that swallowed most of their time was that of teaching and spreading the Word of God.
29. And he spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus and disputed against the Hellenists, but they attempted to kill him.
As we might expect of him, Saul was as bold and outspoken in declaring his newfound faith as he had been in persecuting it when he thought it to be error. Thus, Saul speaks boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus. This brings him in sharp dispute with the Hellenists. Remember, these were the Greek-speaking Jews living in Jerusalem. It was a dispute with these that had started all the trouble for Stephen back in Acts 6:9. Then, Saul had sided with them in condemning Stephen. Now, just as Saul’s former enemies are now his friends, so Saul’s former friends are now his enemies. Probably Saul sought these out, seeking to correct his former error in siding with them against Stephen. Perhaps he also believed that they might listen to him, their former friend, in a way they would not have listened to anyone else, and that he might turn them to the truth, even as he had been turned.
Whatever Saul thought might happen, these Hellenists respond in the same way to him as they had to Stephen. That is, they seek to kill him. So it often is with religious men of this world. They seek to silence all dissenting viewpoints by whatever means necessary. A true believer should not fear controversy, however, but should be ready to answer all arguments with the truth of the Scriptures.
30. When the brethren found out, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him out to Tarsus.
When the brethren in Jerusalem find out about this plot to end Saul’s life, they act quickly, seeking to save their new brother from sharing Stephen’s fate. Saul goes along with them on this, for again he knows that his mission is to testify for God, not to become a martyr for Him. Thus, they bring him down to Caesarea. “Down” means downhill, for Caesarea was on the sea coast, whereas Jerusalem was high in the mountains. At Caesarea they send him out, probably on a ship, bound for Tarsus, his hometown.
“Sent” here is the Greek word exapesteilan, coming from ek or “out” and apostello, which we have already discussed means “to send with authority” or “to commission.” These men did not just see Saul off, but rather sent him off with their approval and authority going with him. This was quite a change for the man whom a little while earlier they had hated and feared! Clearly they were now totally convinced of Saul’s loyalty to the Lord.
So in these verses we read of the conversion of this man Saul. This was something new and unique in the Acts period. God had never appeared to a man in this way, nor brought Him to the Lord by such a revelation from heaven. I believe that this is a foreshadowing of the way men will come to the Lord at the start of the kingdom of God. Yet some would suggest to us that this great event was the start of God’s work today, and the beginning of the dispensation of grace, of the mystery of Ephesians 3:6, and of God’s secret work among the Gentiles. Yet how could this work have begun with something that was so diametrically opposed to it? How could the time of God’s silence have begun with the Lord appearing in glory from heaven? How could the time when there are no mediators between God and men have begun with God sending a mediator like Ananias to the man Saul? How could the time when we see no manifest miracles have begun with such glorious ones as the ones we see here? How could a time when men must believe without seeing have begun with a man believing because of seeing a vision of the Lord? This entire event is completely out of character with the condition of things that we see in our day. Thus, this could not be the beginning of the dispensation we live in today. God was starting something new and glorious here, but it was not His secret dispensation, and it was not His work today. We will see what it was He was starting and setting up as we follow Saul’s career later on in Acts.
31. 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.
Here we have another occurrence of the word ekklesiai, in this case in a plural form. However, this does not mean that a lot of religious organizations around these places had rest at this time. This word means “out-positioned,” as we have previously discussed. In this case, it means those out-positioned people who belonged to the Lord, and who were scattered throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria at this time in the places where they had fled at Saul’s persecution. Previously they had been fleeing for their lives from the hatred of the man Saul. Now, God has removed Saul as a threat, and they have rest from flight and from fear of him. God’s government has acted to remove this enemy as an obstacle to its citizens. Now, Saul is on their side, and will cause no more trouble for them.
Thus, with Saul removed, these believers in all these places have peace and are edified. They are now free to walk in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit. The word for “comfort” here is paraklesei, and is related to parakletos, the name given to the Holy Spirit in John 14:16,26; 15:26, and 16:7. The Comforter does give comfort, the Helper gives help. The phrase “Holy Spirit” here is “the Holy Spirit” in Greek, and thus indicates the Person of the Spirit, as we have discussed before. Clearly, it is the Person Who comforts, not merely His power.