[9:1-22]. Saul meets Jesus.
Let’s begin with a statement that seems clearly false: «Paul never persecuted Christians and, after his conversion, it was more dangerous for them than before». To realise why this statement can be considered true, you have to pay attention to the beginning of the part we are dealing with: «But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem». (vv. 1-2).
The difficulty of understanding comes from imagining that those who followed Jesus separated themselves from Judaism, so one imagines that Saul went to Damascus to persecute “Christians”: Saul instead went to the «synagogues of Damascus» to persecute the members of the synagogue who had recognised in Jesus the promised Messiah. There was not yet a specific name for the followers of Jesus, and, as we have considered in 2:41, “to follow the Way” simply meant to be an observant Jew, since the term “Christians” was necessary only after non-Jews were baptized (10:48) and referred initially only to them (11:26). Paul needed the authorisation of the high priest precisely because he acted within the synagogues and, since Damascus was not a Jewish city, to prosecute the “heretics” he had to forcibly take them to Jerusalem.
The Jew Saul, in short, did not like it if someone abandoned Judaism and let himself be convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, but the persecution (especially outside Judea) was triggered especially if “the heretic” remained in the midst of the Jewish people, who had to stay on the “straight path” according to Saul.
A few days after being baptised, Saul «immediately proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues» and «confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus» (vv. 20-22). After meeting Jesus, Saul remained a Jew who continued to regard the Gospel message as a “matter within Judaism”: to become “apostle of the Gentiles”, indeed, Saul would have had to make that somewhat complicated journey which is described by Luke in the next chapters. Paul’s “dangerousness” to believers in Christ, after his conversion, will be seen a little later, commenting on 9:23-31.
Another detail concerns the two names of Saul/Paul: some think that the name Saul would become Paul with the “change of religion”. That this approach is wrong is shown by the fact that Luke, even after his conversion, continues to call him Saul (a typically Hebrew name, which was the same as King Saul). Luke uses Saul as long as he is in a substantially Jewish context and the name change between Saul and Paul will take place in 13:9, when he begins his missionary tours in the predominantly Greco-Roman areas. Since Paul, from birth, had dual Jewish and Roman citizenship (Acts 22:28), it is not strange that he also had two names, to be used in the two different contexts.
Let us now look at some particular expression present in the story.
Ananias answered « “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul» (vv. 10-11).
Some people are reassured by the thought that Jesus went up to heaven and that, at least for the moment, he should not come back: besides, the place that he has left empty, people have found ways to fill it (with “vicars” of various kinds). That is why the story of this “incursion” of Jesus on Earth is not being paid much attention. The words of Jesus «I am with you always, to the end of the age» (Mt 28:20), in the light of this passage from Acts, acquire a new light. And Jesus only needs a few quick moves (such as speaking first to Saul and then to Ananias) to completely change the path of the Church. Shouldn’t this living presence of Jesus be more reassuring than his supposed absence?
«all who call on your name», that is, of Jesus (v. 14).
This definition is an indirect affirmation of the divinity of Jesus, because it parallels a verse from Joel where Yahweh appears (Joel 2:32; cf. Rom 10:13 and 1Cor 1:2).
«to carry my name before the Gentiles» (Gk. ‘ethnon’= ‘nations/peoples’; v. 15).
When we read “peoples” it is easy for us to think of the “individuals” of those peoples (or ‘nations’), but perhaps God has an interest not only for a certain number of Italians, but also for Italy as a nation, that is, for our collective life (language, culture, history). This “suspicion” led us to compile the Further Insight n. 4 (Is the Gospel only for individuals or for the nations too?), placed at the end of this chapter.
Saul «immediately began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “This man is the Son of God”» (v. 20).
When Peter used the expression «you are the Christ, the son of the living God» (Mt 16:16) one can also look for its meaning in the Old Testament, given that God had adopted Solomon as his son (1Cr. 28:6) and that “Christ” meant for Peter “anointed as king”. In short, Peter could also mean that Jesus was the “new Solomon”. But after Paul had spoken to the risen Jesus, his pointing to him as the “Son of God” was more based on the present than on the past; however, the context of Acts 9 clearly shows that even for him that definition meant a break with Judaism, as will be much clearer in later chapters.
[9:23-31]. Saul, more dangerous as brother than as persecutor.
Saul immediately went from persecutor to persecuted in Damascus, but because he did not intend to flee, the brothers thought to lower him outside the walls of the city by means of a basket. The question is not easy to explain, because it is not that the Jews of Damascus wanted to kill all believers in Jesus, but only Saul (vv. 23-25) who, if he had continued to remain in the city, would have risked drawing persecution even on the other disciples.
In other words, before his conversion it was quite easy to avoid the persecution of Saul, because one could simply stay away from the synagogue; if, instead, you had him in the middle as a brother the persecution became inevitable and, thus, you were “forced” to get rid of him. The same thing happened then also in Jerusalem, but there the brothers did not content themselves to just drive him away from the city, but they accompanied him to Caesarea (that is, about 100 km away). There they embarked him for the destination that they considered more suitable for him, that is, Tarsus, his city. It seems clear that in this sending him home, in addition to the concern for Paul’s safety, there was also the apostles’ concern for the troubles that Saul could bring. This impression is confirmed by the fact that it would have been some time before the Church would remember Saul, going to look for him in Tarsus (11:25).
Saul had been chosen by Jesus to preach and suffer for him (9:15-16), so why didn’t the apostles of Jesus understand him? Here it seems that everyone is right and wrong, but certainly the believers in Jerusalem had sensible reasons to try to avoid another case like that of Stephen, with the following related persecution.
Someone in Saul’s place would have set out to reclaim his own vocation, to argue and to discourage himself, but Saul knew well the Word of God and knew that a long time can pass between the call of God and its realisation (for example for David, 1Sam 16:13; 2Sam 5:4). He knew that, in the time of waiting, God did not forget the word He spoke to us and, instead, prepares its fulfilment. Saul, therefore, accepted the events and agreed to stay at home, taking advantage of the time to refine his preparation and grow in the faith: that he did all this can be deduced from the fact that, when Barnabas went looking for him, he found him ready to go to Antioch and able to perform an excellent service, without his presence creating any kind of problem.
Luke concludes the passage in an encouraging way: «Then the church […] had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied» (v. 31). Encouraging for the “neutralisation” of a great persecutor who would have matured becoming the most effective evangelist, as also should have matured that context of the Church in which he should have operated, as we will see more clearly. Of course, God would have then made sense of everything, but the story reported by Luke is far from those pious tales where everything goes smoothly. In any case, God immediately begins to prepare the suitable scenario for Saul, working indeed on an unwitting Peter, as we see immediately afterwards.
[9:32-43]. Peter as unwitting forerunner of Paul.
For the first time Luke describes a Peter who spontaneously moves from Jerusalem, going to visit the brethren. Hence we find him in Lydda, about 40 km in a north-western direction, on the road towards the Mediterranean coast. There Peter is still an instrument of a spectacular miracle, telling a paralytic to get up and make his bed, understandably stirring a mass conversion.
Knowing that he was in Lydda, those of Joppa (that is, Jaffa, next to present-day Tel Aviv) sent for him, because a young believer had died, whom Peter resurrected, remaining then in Joppa «many days». In other words, step by step, Peter arrived on the coast, unwittingly following a stretch of road towards the next destination that God would have called him to reach, that is, Caesarea.
That same Peter who at times had difficulty understanding the developments of God’s plan, continued to have an extraordinary intimacy with Jesus, working powerfully for him. Precisely the fact that Peter knew so well the voice of God, would have led him to do what he considered absolutely conflicting to His written Word, initiating that revolutionary phase of the Church that begins in the next chapter 10.
Further Insight n. 4
THE GOSPEL IS FOR INDIVIDUALS ONLY
OR ALSO FOR THE PEOPLE?
It is written that, in Abraham, «all the families of the earth» would be blessed (Gen 12:3), more than individuals. Jesus, son of Abraham (Mt 1:1), wants «all nations» (Mt 28:19) to be made disciples and not, as we can easily think, to make disciples “from all nations”. It is clear that Jesus and the apostles have requested the adhesion of individual people, but this does not alter the fact that God wishes to save the nations as such, because he also wants to save the people of Israel as such.
This idea is reinforced by those passages in Revelation which describe the effects of the Gospel preaching throughout the world; for example, at the beginning Jesus is told: «by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation» (Rev 5:9); and the preaching to the various peoples will last until the end: «Then I saw another angel […] with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people» (Rev 14:6; cf. 10:11). This competes with a diabolical action which is also directed towards various peoples and languages (13:7; 17:15).
In Acts 15 it is noted that God has chosen a second people among non-Jews (v. 14) and the two peoples that appear in the New Testament are undoubtedly the Hebrew-speaking and the Greek-speaking, taking into account that also the Letter to the Romans is in Greek language (Acts 18:4; 22:2; 26:14; Rom 1:16; Gal 3:28; Eph 2:14; 1Cor 1:22-24).
When God returns to dwell on earth in the New Jerusalem, he will be surrounded by «his people» (Rev 21:3), who will be not only two, but of every kind (Rev 7:9), as already outlined at Pentecost (Acts 2:8-11). It would not be a question, in other words, of taking individuals here and there and making them an indistinct stew, but it is as if the Gospel has to do with peoples too, saving also their language and, therefore, their cultural specificity as well.
It is substantially after the apostolic times that Churches developed in the various languages. For the Latin one, after Paul’s powerful testimony (Acts 28:30-31; Phil 1:12-14), the work done by the first great Christian writer in Latin, Tertullian, comes to mind; then the first translation of the whole Bible into Latin by Jerome, certainly not perfect, but authoritative and extremely useful.
Surely as Protestants we have many difficulties considering “ours” the history of Christianity before Luther, but if we consider the history of Israel told in the Bible, we see how God has constantly tried to guard, to valorise and develop what remained positive in his people (and at times there was very little left). Besides, the history of Protestantism is not so edifying as one might think. Certainly, the more recent and small movements are, the easier it is to feel “superior”, especially if the members of that movement read only the history written by the leaders of the movement itself!
The thoughts of this Further Insight are more questionable than the others, but we wanted to express them with the main purpose of reflecting on perspectives often ignored.