The passages we have just studied are direct accounts of Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, a pivotal point for Paul and for the Gentile world. But Paul refers to this and to other revelations he received from Christ repeatedly in his letters to the churches. The Lord told Ananias that He was going to reveal many things to Paul, and that Paul would serve a purpose that was unexpected in Jewish circles. Certainly all of these revelations did not happen on the road to Damascus nor in the three days following. Few New Testament authors had even one such revelatory encounter — John’s book of Revelation comes to mind, and we revere it highly. But by Paul’s own pen we learn that he had several such revelations over a period of several years.
Why, if the Gospel was complete in Jesus’ teaching (culminating in the Great Commission), did God choose to reveal more to an additional apostle who was never part of the circle of the Twelve? Certainly if God’s plan for mankind was fully revealed in the Jerusalem church, Paul would have joined with them and learned the Gospel from them. Yet Paul adamantly insists that he learned nothing from the Twelve in Jerusalem, and that he learned everything by direct revelation from Jesus Christ. He repeatedly refers to his teaching as “my gospel,” describes it as a mystery prior to its revelation through him, declares that anyone who teaches otherwise is accursed, and states that he was given the task of “filling up” (completing) the Word of God.
How audacious, if he was merely an adjunct to the Twelve! These claims are so radical that they remind us of how radical Jesus of Nazareth’s claims to deity were! Who would dare make such claims if God’s message to mankind was already complete in the ministry of the Twelve?
The entire premise of this blog site rests upon the uniqueness of Paul’s ministry and message in contrast to that of the Twelve and the church in Jerusalem. If it wasn’t unique, there would have been no need for God to raise up Paul. It behooves us then, as good Bereans, to study the Scriptures daily to see if these things are what the Bible actually says. We’re not through with our study of Saul’s conversion. In future posts we’ll take a look at Paul’s history between his conversion and his first missionary journey, and also consider other revelations from the Lord that Paul describes in his letters to the Gentile churches. But first, we need to finish the present story of Saul’s conversion.
Paul’s Ministry Immediately After Conversion
In the last post we heard Paul’s own description of the events immediately following his conversion, including the fact that he had preached Christ in Damascus first, and then in Jerusalem where he had received another vision of Christ. In this vision the Risen Lord told him in no uncertain terms that he should get out of Jerusalem “with haste.” (Acts 22:17-18) Paul tried to convince the Lord otherwise, but He was insistent — His reply was, “Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” (Acts 22:19-21) The Greek word for “Go!” is poreuou, the 2nd person singular present imperative form of poreuomai, to depart. The present imperative is an emphatic command to perform some continuous action into the future, beginning immediately. It was as if the Lord said to him, “When I say frog, you jump! Got it?” It is clear from this passage that Paul was not doing what the Lord wanted him to do at this early stage in his ministry! Paul, in spite of whatever revelations he had received in Damascus while blind, was still a Jew and a Pharisee, and his immediate desire would naturally have been to reach out to his own people, the Jews. Even after he had received fuller understanding of his ministry from the Lord, his heart was still broken over errant Israel, and he desired strongly to win them over (see Romans 11).
In spite of Paul’s desire to reach his kinsmen and the firm nature of the Lord’s command to leave Jerusalem immediately, Paul would later refer to these events as he spoke before Festus and King Agrippa. Paul makes an interesting statement that seems to clearly indicate that he was acting under the Great Commission and not some different calling. In Acts 26:19-20, Paul declares, “Consequently, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, but kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.” Does this single passage prove that the case we have built for the mystery is bunk after all? I do not believe so.
Paul’s defense before Agrippa came late in his ministry. Looking back on his travels and preaching, Paul told the Corinthians, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself uder the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God, but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” (I Corinthians 9:19-22)
Now consider the circumstances in which Paul made this statement that seems so close to the Great Commission. He was speaking before Festus and Agrippa, but addressed his remarks directly to Agrippa because “you are an expert in all customs and questions among the Jews…” (Acts 26:3) As such, Agrippa would have also been familiar with the sect known as The Way, and thus familiar with the Jerusalem church and probably the Twelve. He may even have been aware of the terms of the Great Commission. Agrippa was indeed expert in Jewish ways — his great-grandfather was Herod the Great, responsible for the infanticide in Bethlehem following the visit of the Magi. His father, Herod I, beheaded James the brother of John, and tried to put Peter in prison. The Herods had built their dynasty in the midst of Israel and understood the religion and politics of the Jews very well. Under these circumstances, Paul would phrase his message in terms familiar to Agrippa — Jerusalem, the Jerusalem church, and the commission of the Jerusalem Church. I believe this passage is fully in keeping with Paul’s approach to winning the lost in I Corinthians 9:19-22 quoted above. It was very effective: “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian!” (Acts 26:28)
Paul spoke the truth to Agrippa. He began by declaring his message in “…Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and to the Gentiles…,” as indeed Luke records in the next passage in Acts 9. Compare this statement to the Great Commission in Acts 1:8: “…Jerusalem , and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” For all practical purposes they are identical in order, the differences being only that Paul began at Damascus, and the Lord included Samaria. Well, Samaritans were like Gentiles to the Jews, and Paul, in spite of circumstances, did go straight from Damascus to Jerusalem. And the heart of the Great Commission is about taking the Gospel to the lost. But as we study further in Acts, it will become even clearer that God made a distinction in commission and message between the Twelve and Paul. That did not prevent Paul from ministering to the Jews as a Jew (and thus on the basis of the Great Commission), nor did it nullify his office as Apostle to the Gentiles, an extended, greater commission. Everywhere Paul went, he always began in the synagogues, preaching Christ to the Jews. I suspect his message to them was much the same as what he presented to Agrippa.
I am in no way suggesting that Paul’s greater commission opposed or nullified the instructions Christ gave to the Twelve at His ascension. Both are based on the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, being the Son of God and the Savior of the whole world. But at issue is the method by which it would be accomplished — through Israel and her promised King and Kingdom, or in spite of Israel and her unbelief. I do not reject the spirit of the Great Commission, but I do reject the sloppy thinking that fails to acknowledge the uniqueness and ramifications of the mystery that was revealed only through Paul — a failure to rightly divide the Word of God.
So now let us return to Acts 9 to read Luke’s detailed account of these earliest events in Paul’s ministry.
Saul Preaches in Damascus and Jerusalem
If you have not done so already, please take the time to read Acts 9:19b-31
Here is an outline of the verses you have just read. Luke, as usual, just sticks to the facts, and these observations are easy to make.
- Saul stays with the disciples in Damascus for several days
- He immediately begins proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah in the synagogues in Damascus
- He is recognized as the leader of the persecution
- His defense of Jesus as the Messiah gets better and better, and the leaders of the synagogues are less and less able to argue with him
- After many days, some of the Jews plotted to kill Saul
- They had all the exits from Damascus covered
- Somebody among the disciples was able to “think outside the box” — they lowered him over the wall in a basket, and he escaped
- He immediately traveled to Jerusalem and attempted to associate with the Jerusalem church
- They feared him and didn’t believe that he was a disciple
- Barnabas brought him to the Twelve and explained what had happened to Saul
- He was accepted in the Jerusalem church and was free to move about the city
- He spoke boldly in the name of the Lord
- Jews from Greece (“Helenistic Jews”, the same group who stirred up the mob in Chapter 21) plotted to kill him
- When the church heard about the plot, they sent him to Tarsus by way of Caesarea
- These events ended the persecution of the church in all of Israel (Judea in the south, Samaria in the middle, Galilee in the north)
When Luke records in v31 that “… the church… enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase…”, he is referring to everything he has just described concerning Saul, encompassing Acts 8:1-4 (immediately following the death of Stephen) and all of Chapter 9. The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is inserted in the middle of the larger story of the persecution simply because it occurred chronologically during the persecution. In an even broader perspective, we see that the entire story of Saul is also a chronological “rabbit trail” for Luke, for at Acts 9:32 he returns to the story of the Jerusalem church and the Twelve. Saul doesn’t come on the scene again until the end of Chapter 13.