Acts 9 verse 31, which we’ll get to in a few minutes, marks the end of a major section of the book of Acts which began in chapter 6 and verse 8. Up until Acts 6:8 the focus was on what was happening in Jerusalem. So, we had the Lord’s ascension; the Day of Pentecost; Peter and the other apostles preaching in the temple area and healing the sick in Jerusalem; there was the story of Ananias and Sapphira, again located in Jerusalem; then there was the choosing of the first deacons. All of this took place in Jerusalem.
But then, beginning in Acts 7:8, Luke tells us about Stephen who was killed for his faith in the Lord Jesus. And then a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem so that the believers were scattered. And wherever they went they preached the good news about Jesus Christ. And so, the gospel began to move out from Jerusalem into other parts of the world. Philip went to the region of Samaria and some Samaritans heard and believed. And the Apostles Peter and John came from Jerusalem to see what was happening. And once they saw that God had accepted believing Samaritans into the church, they preached the gospel in many other Samaritan villages. And then there was the Ethiopian Eunuch who was converted and baptised. And then, Saul who wanted to persecute the church, and who was largely responsible for driving the believers out of Jerusalem, was himself converted to faith in Christ and commissioned to take the gospel to Jews and Gentiles. So, this section of Acts from 6:8 up to 9:31 is about taking the gospel out of Jerusalem.
Jesus Christ, from his throne in heaven, is building his church. He’s building it in Jerusalem. And he’s building it outside Jerusalem. The gospel is not just for the Jews. It’s also for the Samaritans. And it’s for the Gentiles. It’s for all who call on the name of the Lord.
Verses 19b to 22
Last week we read about Saul’s conversion and commissioning. He was converted to faith in Christ through a unique encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus on the Road to Damascus. I said last week that people sometimes talk about having a ‘Damascus Road Experience.’ But no one has experienced what Saul experienced. No one I know has ever seen the Risen Lord Jesus Christ and heard his voice the way Paul did. So, Saul’s conversion doesn’t so much tell us how unbelievers are brought to faith in Christ. But it does tell us about the greatness of God’s mercy. If God was willing to show mercy to someone like Paul, then there is no one so bad and there is no sin so bad that it cannot be covered with the blood of Christ. So, Saul was converted.
And he was also commissioned at the same time to proclaim Christ’s name to all. So, look at verse 19b: We read that he spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. And then, verse 20: At once he began to preach in the Jewish synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.
Note that he preached in the synagogues — the Jewish church. We assume that most of the preaching in Acts took place outside. But in fact, most of it took place indoors.
And what did he preach? That Jesus is the Son of God. Well, before he met the Risen Lord Jesus, he probably knew what the Christians believed and taught. He was probably aware of how they viewed the Lord Jesus. He probably knew all this, but he didn’t believe it. However, now that he has seen the Risen Lord Jesus, he now believed all that he had once dismissed as nonsense. He now believed and proclaimed that Jesus is the Son of God — the Lord on whom we are to call for salvation.
This was this message he preached in the synagogue in an effort to convince his fellow Jews that they must put their faith in him. And in verse 21 we see the reaction of the people. And they were astonished, as we can well imagine. They said to themselves:
Isn’t this 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?
Last week we saw how Ananias had heard about Saul and the way he persecuted the church. And so Ananias was a little perturbed whenever the Lord Jesus asked him to go and find Saul. Now we see that Saul’s reputation was well-known throughout the city of Damascus. Everyone knew what he had done previously. Everyone knew what he was like. And so, how astonishing that now the great persecutor had become this great preacher. The faith he once tried to destroy, he’s now proclaiming. The people were astonished. But, verse 22, Saul grew more and more powerful which probably means that he was able to use stronger and stronger arguments to convince the people that Jesus is the Son of God and our Saviour. And look! He grasped the faith so well that he was able to baffle the Jews by proving to them that Jesus is the Messiah. In other words, they weren’t able to contradict him or to prove that he was wrong. And, of course, the Messiah is another name for the Christ or God’s Special Servant sent to save us from our sins.
Verses 23 to 25
In verse 23 we’re told that after many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews. They had had enough of Paul and his message. And so, they plotted together how they might kill him. The persecutor has become the persecuted. But Saul learned of their plan before they could put it into action; and though they carefully watched the gates of the city to try to prevent him from getting away, nevertheless, his followers took him at night and lowered him over the wall in a basket. And so he escaped.
Paul refers to this incident in 2 Corinthians 11:32–33 where he says that the governor of the city wanted to seize him. And this tells us about the scale of the opposition he faced. It wasn’t only a few ordinary Jews who wanted to kill him. No, the opposition he faced went as high as the ruler of the city.
Verses 26 to 30
In verse 26 we read how Saul came to Jerusalem and tried to join the disciples there. Now, in Galatians 1 Paul refers to how, after his conversion, he went into Arabia for three years and then returned to Damascus before going on to Jerusalem. So, at some point between verse 19a and verse 26 Saul spent three years in Arabia. Luke, of course, doesn’t mention it. Perhaps he didn’t know about it, or more likely: he didn’t mention it because it didn’t add anything to the narrative he was telling. Writers who are relating events don’t have to include everything they know. We only have to think of the end of John’s Gospel where John tells us that he didn’t include in his gospel everything the Lord had done. He was selective. And so was Luke. He doesn’t mention that Saul spent time in Arabia before going up to Jerusalem.
When he gets there, the disciples (that is, the believers) are, naturally enough, wary. They were suspicious. They couldn’t quite accept that he was a believer. But look — Barnabas, who we met in Acts 4 where he was called Son of Encouragement — took Saul under his wing and introduced him to the Apostles. And Barnabas explained how the Lord Jesus had appeared to Saul on the Road to Damascus and spoken to him. And he explained how Saul had preached fearlessly in the name of the Lord Jesus in Damascus. Well, Barnabas’s intervention seemed to do the trick. Verse 28: he didn’t have to leave them, but he was able to stay with them and he was able to move about freely in Jerusalem.
Barnabas provides us with a good example to follow, doesn’t he? Just as he spoke up on behalf of Saul, perhaps there are times when we need to stand up for someone in the church and speak well of them to others. Or just as Barnabas was a peace-maker, making peace between Saul and the other believers, so we need to be peace-makers and do what we can to reconcile Christians to one another. We don’t know very much about Barnabas, but what an important role he played, because he was the one who introduced Saul to the Apostles and persuaded them to accept him as a brother in the Lord.
And look what happened once Saul was accepted by the others. Verse 28: he spoke boldly or fearlessly in the name of the Lord. Verse 29: he talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews (that is, the Greek speaking Jews). He continued the work he was doing in Damascus: preaching about the Lord Jesus and seeking to persuade the Jews that Jesus is the Son of God and our Saviour.
The response was similar to what happened in Damascus: The Greek-speaking Jews tried to kill him. And so, once again, Saul had to flee for his life. The Lord Jesus had said to Ananias in verse 16 that he would show Saul how must he must suffer for Christ’s name. And the Lord was absolutely right, because twice already Saul’s life was in danger because of the message he proclaimed.
But then we have verse 31, the conclusion to this section of the book of Acts. Luke tells us that the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. The great persecution they had once suffered was over. The Lord Jesus Christ had promised that he would build his church and the gates of hell would not prevail. And the enemies of Christ’s church did not prevail. The church survived the persecution. More than that, the church grew. And so we read:
Living in the fear of the Lord, and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, the church increased in numbers.
Fearing the Lord means worshipping him. And since the Holy Spirit always works through and with the word of God, then Luke probably means that the Holy Spirit encouraged and comforted the believers through the preaching of God’s word. And the church grew.
And so, of course, we must pray that the Lord will enable us to worship him as we should, with reverence and awe. And we must pray that his Spirit will continually encourage us through the reading and preaching of his word Sunday by Sunday when we gather together. And we must pray that the Lord will build his church and cause it to increase in numbers.
But let me finish with this. We have so far encountered lots of different preachers in the book of Acts. There’s Peter who preached on the Day of Pentecost and the other apostles. There was Stephen the first martyr. There was Philip the Evangelist. There was Ananias, who in a sense, preached to Saul. And then there was Saul. Different men. But always, the same message. They always preached the message of Jesus Christ. It’s not about who the preacher is. It’s about who we preach. We must also preach the message of Jesus Christ. Some will hate the message and will hate us for preaching it. But those whom God has chosen will hear, and believe. And the church will grow.