Acts Devotional Commentary [Acts 9:19-26] Saul In Damascus

Saul’s Sight Restored

Acts 9:19-26

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 is 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.

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.

Observations and Reflections

Act 9:19 begins with an interesting phrase;

At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. (Acts 9:20)

The fact that Paul spent some time among the disciples that he came initially to arrest is no small feature of the story. However, what is striking is that immediately after arriving he began preaching among the Jews in the synagogue. He went from brand new convert to jumping into the lion’s den. What kind of preparations did he make? Was he instructed by any of the other Christians first? Did the Lord train him in some way beforehand? Was he just given the knowledge telepathically by the Holy Spirit? How did a non-believer turn into a champion of the gospel so quickly and boldly that he was able to preach in from of the people and persuade them?

The answers to this quandary is probably two-fold. First, he probably leaned on arguments he had already heard about Jesus being the messiah but had previously ignored. Second, I am sure he was led by the Spirit and spoke as the Spirit gave him the ability to speak. Even more perplexing is the fact that Luke appears to have Paul preaching in Damascus on an altered time-line. Paul told the Galatians that he went away to Arabia before preaching in Damascus and then he stayed in Damascus preaching 3 years before going to Jerusalem.

11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 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 and stayed with him fifteen days. (Galatians 1:11-18)

Based on Paul’s own words, it sounds like Paul was converted and then went to Arabia and then returned to Damascus to preach. Many discrepancies of this nature exist in the New Testament and quite often they are explained away by the combination method. This method is quite over-used and often applied incorrectly by well-meaning apologists. Essentially, the combination method would suggest that the two stories don’t contradict each other because both recounting of events are plausible without one of them having to be wrong. One example of this is the differing stories of David capturing horsemen and chariots in battle. Was it 1,700/100 or 7,000/1,000? It’s important to note that Chronicles will often revise the stories of David to make him appear in a better light. The example below is common.

  1. 2 Samuel 8:4 David captured from him 1,700 horsemen and 20,000 foot soldiers; and David hamstrung the chariot horses, but reserved enough of them for 100 chariots.
  2. 1 Chronicles 18:4 David took from him 1,000 chariots and 7,000 horsemen and 20,000 foot soldiers, and David hamstrung all the chariot horses, but reserved enough of them for 100 chariots.

Clearly the story told in 2 Samuel and also 1 Chronicles is the same story, based on context not listed above. (Go read the whole chapter of each story). Thus, the combination method cannot apply without stretching the stories way passed the absurd.

However, in Paul’s travel time-line, it’s quite possible that he was in Damascus a few days preaching before he left for Arabia, then returned to Damascus for 3 years. After all, we know he was there at least for a short period recovering. He was already there, so the question becomes: how long did he stay? The bigger question is: why Luke leaves out Paul’s travel to Arabia between the Damascus visit? If we use the combination method to justify this discrepancy then one must assume that Paul’s schedule had the following time-line.

  1. Converted in Damascus (Acts and Galatians agree)
  2. Preached a few days (Included in Acts but not Galatians)
  3. Escaped to Arabia (Included in Galatians but not Acts)
  4. Returned to Damascus for 3 years (Included in Galatians but not Acts)
  5. Went up to Jerusalem to meet with the disciples (Included in Galatians and Acts but different order and timing)

Given the information, it’s easy to see that Paul gave more detail. This is likely because he simply recounting something from his own memory. Whereas, Luke recorded the story with less detail and more gloss. Luke uses phrases like “a few days” and “many days”. This should tell the reader that it’s a generic story, not focused on date details. But Paul’s letter is very specific because the time-line matters to him and the Galatian church. If one is to be believed as the correct story it should be Paul’s recounting of events. However, it’s quite possible that Luke’s story is just skipping or glossing details because it’s not really important to the point he is trying to make. It’s probable that Luke was glossing this large span of time which is quite common.

For example, Luke moves from story to story in the book of Acts with introductory phrases like “As Peter traveled about the country…”. Luke covers Paul’s entire ministry in the book of Acts but often leaves out details. But Paul’s letters are specific and too the point because he is addressing specific concerns and events that require detail for his audience to understand. Specifically, in Galatians Paul is defending his own ministry apart from the Disciples in Jerusalem, so he recounts the events concerning his meeting with them. The time-line is meaningful to the Galatians. However, to the audience of Acts, the reader is more concerned with the “act” or events that took place during the ministry of Paul and the disciples, as they relate to the gospel message. Luke is not as concerned with validating Paul’s ministry and Paul is concerned with validating Paul’s ministry.

These types of discrepancies in the scriptures are inevitable as the Bible was created by many authors in various times and places, with varying sources. The written end oral traditions were alive for nearly 300 years before combined into a single unit that call a Bible. Small discrepancies will for sure creep in because human beings are not perfect, yet we are still entrusted with the gospel. The marks of humanity are in every part of the gospel, the church, and even the transmission of scripture. However, God’s gospel requires a relationship with man despite our shortcomings. The gospel is spread both because of humanity and despite humanity, because God’s Spirit works in partnership with the free-will of mankind.

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