Acts 9:19-30; Galatians 1:15-18.
A comparison of these two scriptures shows unmistakably that it is not the object of the Spirit of God to give in Acts a chronological narrative. There is no mention there, for example, of the visit to Arabia of which Paul speaks in the Galatians; and hence it is impossible now to ascertain whether the plot of the Jews to kill the apostle took place before going to, or after his return from, Arabia. Nor is it of the slightest consequence that we should do so, as it is the spiritual teachings of the narrative which demand our attention. At the same time, it is exceedingly interesting to notice and to weigh every detail given, for we may be sure, even if we cannot always grasp its importance, that everything recorded in the Word of God is worthy of our attention. The Bible, indeed, would become a far more absorbing book - we commend the remark to young believers - if this were more fully understood; if every clue, for instance, to Paul's life and activity were devoutly seized and followed.
Two things are especially noticed as following upon Saul's conversion: first, that he was immediately found in identification with the disciples (v. 19); and, secondly, that he proceeded at once to testify in the synagogues that Christ* is the Son of God. The importance of these two things could not be over-rated. It is God's mind that all that believe should be together, and wherever the Spirit of God is acting in energy it is always the case. (See Acts 2, 4, etc.) It is also a necessity of the new nature, when on the ground of redemption, even as another apostle declares, "That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us," etc. (1 John 1:3.) The character of Saul's testimony in the synagogues must not be overlooked. As has been well remarked, it is not here the commencement of his public mission, but it is rather the outflow of a heart devoted to the One who had appeared to him - of a heart constrained by His mighty love to proclaim that Jesus, Jesus whom he had persecuted, and whom the Jews hated with all the intensity of their Pharasaic pride, was the Son of God. Peter had proclaimed Him as Lord and Christ, but it was reserved to Paul, who had seen the Lord of glory, to declare the divine glory of Jesus of Nazareth.**
*According to the best authorities it would seem that "Jesus should be read here instead of "Christ."
**The word "Son" in Acts 3:26 is a wrong translation; it should be rendered "Servant."
Let the reader pause and meditate upon this wondrous exhibition of the power of the grace of God. We have seen Saul as the ardent zealot, the chosen champion of Judaism in bitterest enmity against Jesus of Nazareth and His followers; and now we behold him standing boldly up in the midst of the synagogues to confess his past blindness and error, and to declare that this Jesus is no other than the Son of God. We can only exclaim, What has God wrought! But let us also remember that the same divine power was needed for our conversion; that but for that grace which visited the heart of Saul of Tarsus we should have remained in our evil condition of enmity against God, blind to our own state, and blind to the glory of His beloved Son. Not all are called to be such chosen vessels as Saul was, but we all, equally with him, have been the subjects of divine grace, and objects of God's mercy, in pursuance of His eternal counsels in Christ before the foundation of the world. To God alone be all the praise!
The effect of Saul's preaching is given with great precision. At first it was amazement that possessed the souls of his hearers. They had heard before of this preacher; they had been told of his destructive energy against the disciples in Jerusalem, and of the object of his mission to Damascus, and lo! this very man had become the advocate of Christianity, and they now heard him asserting that Jesus was the Son of God! Their astonishment may be easily understood. But Saul, in nowise hindered in his testimony by the thoughts of his hearers, increased the more in strength, fruit, we may be sure, of his being much alone with the Lord (for it is they that wait on Him who renew their strength); and he "confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ" - or, better, that this (Jesus) is the Christ, the Messiah for whom the Jews waited. Alas! for the perversity of the human heart. Saul proved - from the Scriptures (see chap. 17:2, 3) - that Jesus was the Christ; and the Jews could not resist the evidence, for they were confounded, but they did not, would not, receive the testimony. Their will, as ever, was concerned in refusing the rejected and glorified Christ.
An interval may perhaps be supposed between verses 22, 23; and if so, it is possible that Saul's visit to Arabia took place at this time. He that is much before men in testimony needs to be much before God in retirement. How many a witness has suffered shipwreck as to his testimony because he has forgotten this principle. Full of zeal, and marked too by fidelity at the outset, many a servant has gone on giving out more than he has received and living on the manna of yesterday, until, emptied and strengthless, because no longer living in the secret of God's presence, he has become inwardly the sport of Satan, and, losing his Nazariteship, he has speedily fallen into one of the many snares which had been subtly concealed around his path. Saul therefore was sent away into the solitudes of Arabia, that there in quiet before the Lord his soul might be strengthened by the truth communicated to him, and that his heart might be possessed and dominated by the One who had snatched him as a brand from the burning, the One to whom he was now to be devoted as a willing bondman for service. May the lesson be well pondered by all the Lord's servants.
The opposition of the Jews increased as time elapsed. Not having been able to answer the arguments of Saul, they now took counsel to kill him. This has been one of Satan's commonest methods from times immemorial. When Lazarus had been raised from the dead, and had thus become such an irrefutable witness to the person of Christ, the chief priests consulted that they might put him to death, because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away and believed on Jesus. (John 12:10, 11.) It was no matter to them whether the testimony rendered to Jesus were true; but hating it, even though true, they determined, if possible, to destroy the witness. Nor has this plan of getting rid of unwelcome testimony ceased. It has ever been practised in the professing church, and the result will be that in Babylon will be found "the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth." (Rev. 19:24; compare Matt. 23:34, 35.) The Lord watched over His chosen vessel, and the Jews were consequently powerless in their efforts to accomplish their designs. Their lying in wait became known to Saul, and, notwithstanding the vigilance of his adversaries, he escaped, through the help of the disciples, out of their hands.*
*It is clear from 2 Cor. 11:32, 33 that the governor of Damascus aided and abetted the Jews in their desire to destroy Saul. Much discussion has been raised concerning the fact Paul mentions that Aretas exercised at this time sovereignty over Damascus. The matter is of no moment, but any desirous of examining it will find a full and interesting presentation of the subject in Conybeare and Howson's Life and Letters of Paul.
Saul having escaped from the hands of the Jews came to Jerusalem.* Having arrived "he assayed to join himself to the disciples," just as in Damascus he was with the disciples there. He, led of the Spirit of God, must go to his own company, for the believer's heart must be where the heart of Christ is; and it was of His people He said, "In them is all my delight." (Psalm 16) It is a bad sign therefore when any of God's children are satisfied to be apart from His people. When Saul was last in Jerusalem he had consorted with the religious leaders of that city, the implacable adversaries of the disciples; and it was he, as we have seen, who had been their chosen instrument in the relentless persecution which they had initiated. It was only natural therefore that the disciples should now be all afraid of Saul, and that they did not believe that he was a disciple. Evidently they feared that it was a new scheme, on the part of their former foe, to compass their destruction; and until adequate testimony was forthcoming they were not prepared to acknowledge Saul's title to their fellowship.
*Some are disposed to put Saul's sojourn in Arabia between these two events, rather than between verses 22, 23. It is impossible now to decide the question positively.
The required testimony was at hand. Barnabas (a name he had received from the apostles), a Levite by birth, and of the country of Cyprus, and withal "a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith" (chapters 4, 11) came forward, introduced Saul to the apostles, and explained to them the manner of his conversion, "how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus." The testimony rendered was accepted, and Saul, recognised as a true believer, entered into the fellowship of the disciples. Such a witness however as Saul was could not be silent; for, though his stay in Jerusalem on this occasion was very brief (see Galatians 1:18), he at once commenced to speak "boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus." Moreover he "disputed against the Grecians," the "Hellenists," a term under which were comprised the Greek-speaking Jews, and proselytes from the Greeks, etc. In the same spirit as the Jews at Damascus "they went about to slay him." "The brethren" thought it wise that Saul should retire for a season, and, doubtless, having the Lord's mind, "they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus." This closed the first stage of Saul's Christian life. The Lord had now withdrawn him from public activity to prepare His servant for the special and arduous service to which He had called him - to bear His name "before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel." (v. 15.)