Acts 9:1-19a: A character previously introduced only briefly now takes center stage. He will be the main character for most of the remainder of Luke’s story in Acts – Saul/Paul. In these verses we have the story of a fundamental change in his life. The Peoples New Testament Commentary notes that nowhere do Paul or Luke refer to this as a conversion (as if from one religion to another or from no religion to a religious faith), but it is a fundamental re-orientation in the life of Paul. The authors of that commentary (Craddock and Boring) note that this isn’t a change from one religion to another, from irreligion to religion, from unbelief to belief, from insincerity to sincerity, from atheism to theism. “The one life-transforming change was that he came to believe that God sent the Messiah, and his name was Jesus of Nazareth.” The one who had previously believed that the Christian claims for Jesus were delusion or deceit came to believe that they were true: God had acted decisively for the salvation of the world; the crucified and risen one is God’s Messiah.
The story begins here with Saul’s on-going persecution of those who believed in Jesus. He did this in sincere belief that he was reigning in a dangerous and misguided sect within his own faith. He seeks such people out in Damascus – probably Jerusalem Jewish Christians (followers of the Way) who had gone there. He apparently obtains such letters and is nearing Damascus when he is engulfed by a light and hears the voice of Jesus. The experience leaves Saul blind and he is taken to Damascus. While in Damascus there is another intervention of the divine. This time, a man named Ananias is given a vision to go to Paul and minister to him. God tells him that Saul will be the one to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. Tarsus, the hometown of Saul, was an intellectual and cultural center and a Roman provincial capital. Ananias goes and lays his hands on him both healing his blindness and conferring on him the Holy Spirit. Following this, Saul is baptized and begins eating after his time of fasting and prayer.
Throughout Acts, Luke has people come to faith through the work of others. Christian faith is personal, but also communal. We help each other along the way, and help others into the Way. Who are those who have been most helpful to you along the way?
Acts 9:19b-25: Saul continues his education in the faith with the disciples in Damascus. Then his work begins. He goes to the synagogue and proclaims that Jesus is “the Son of God.” This is yet another characterization of the essence of the Christian message. Saul’s preaching amazes people because of its source and its power. The way in which Saul treated those belonging to Jesus’ Way before comes back to bite him. Other Jews take up the cause of persecution, and now Saul is the target, but he manages an escape.
Acts 9:26-30: Saul returns to Jerusalem, the place from which he set out to go to Damascus. In Jerusalem, he want to join the disciples, but they were afraid of him. Barnabas, however, takes a chance and brings Saul to the apostles and shares with them what has happened in Damascus. This gives Saul entrée into the Jerusalem Christian community from which he comes and goes freely. He engages in debates with “Hellenists” – Greek-speaking Jews. As with others, including Jesus himself, preaching leads to threats on Saul’s life. In the face of the threats, Saul is taken out of Jerusalem and sent to Tarsus.
Acts 9:31: Luke has said a whole lot about the difficult situation the church finds itself in, but now pauses to paint a different picture. In Judea, Galilee and Samaria the church is at peace and being built up. In reality, the church was both under stress and increasing in numbers. It had a message that resonated with many and disciples lived a life many found attractive.
Acts 9:32-35: While Paul will dominate the rest of Acts, Luke is not quite done with Peter. Here we see Peter on a traveling mission, bringing healing to a man named Aeneas. The telling of this story parallels other such stories in the New Testament. Lydda was an important crossroads community, where the road from Jerusalem to Joppa and from Egypt to Babylon intersected. This would seem to have some symbolic significance. The gospel is going to go on the road with its power to heal and make whole.
Acts 9:36-43: This story combines a number of important elements. It gives us a picture of an early female disciple. Tabitha/Dorcas (both mean “gazelle” – not what we might associate with “Dorcas”) was devoted to good works and acts of charity. She was apparently also a fine worker with cloth. Tabitha dies and Peter is summoned – this says something about her importance to that community of disciples. Peter brings her back to life. This story is meant to illustrate the on-going power of the Spirit in the early Jesus community. Peter stays in the area and it is interesting to note that the profession of the person he stays with was considered unsavory, unclean even if not technically defiling from a religious point of view. There is perhaps a bit of a hint of what’s to come.