Chapter 21: Not so easy for Saul
20 Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. 21 Then all who heard were amazed, and said, ‘Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?’
22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ.
23 Now after many days were past, the Jews plotted to kill him. 24 But their plot became known to Saul. And they watched the gates day and night, to kill him. 25 Then the disciples took him by night and let him down through the wall in a large basket. 26 And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. 28 So he was with them at Jerusalem, coming in and going out. 29 And he spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus and disputed against the Hellenists, but they attempted to kill him. 30 When the brethren found out, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him out to Tarsus.
31 Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied.
Saul immediately preaches Christ whom he proclaims in the synagogues as ‘the Son of God’. He staggers his hearers. Can they be listening to the cruel persecutor of those asking Jesus to save them? They think he must be in Damascus to capture Christians, scattered by persecution, to return them to Jerusalem’s hostile chief priests.
Saul’s powerful preaching extends the influence of the good news of Jesus Christ. His detailed knowledge of the Old Testament is the foundation. He is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus called ‘the Spirit of truth’.1 Jesus promised His apostles, who now include Saul, that when the Spirit comes, ‘He will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and he will tell you things to come’. He added ‘He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you’.2 So Saul confounds ‘the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ’.
The Holy Spirit still leads every committed and earnest Christian into God’s truth, today, through the Bible. All that is needed is a humble and teachable attitude, backed by prayer, and the disciplined determination to get to know God’s word by reading and studying it each day.
Death threats, unjust imprisonment, persecution and hardship will mark the life and service of Saul, or Paul as he is called later.
He must anticipate what awaits him. He knows how those think who oppose Christ. Until recently he was ‘breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord’.3 He hated anyone trusting in Christ’s shed blood and risen life for forgiveness. He detested their insistence on spreading the message that only Jesus can save. The Jews plot to kill him. They keep watch around the clock at the city gates for him, in case he tries to leave the city. The governor of Damascus uses a garrison to seek to arrest him, presumably at the Jews’ request. The disciples take ‘him by night and let him down through the wall’ (using a ‘window in the wall’) in a ‘large basket’.4 Saul flees from persecution and premature death, but never from duty! He is now among those ‘scattered’ believers in Christ who go ‘everywhere proclaiming the word’.5 The wheel has come full circle: Saul’s sacrificial and fruitful service for Christ has just begun.
That man, Barnabas, again!
So it’s back to Jerusalem for the escaped new convert. He now tries to ‘join the disciples’. When going to a new city Christians do themselves and others good by seeking out fellowship with other believers. But Saul hits a road block. They are ‘all afraid of him’. They do ‘not believe’ that he now is a ‘disciple’ of Jesus. It seems too good to be true! How different from his last Jerusalem visit! Do they suspect it is a sly strategy to trap them?
Do you remember Barnabas,6 the Cypriot Levite who gave the sale proceeds of his land to the apostles in Jerusalem for the needy? This ‘son of encouragement’ is not only a very generous and self-sacrificing man. He now steps forward to help Saul. He tells the apostles how Saul met Jesus on the Damascus Road, and preached ‘boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus’. Throughout the book of Acts bold preaching for Christ shows the Holy Spirit’s work in any Christian.7 It still does today. Christians, who help new believers to be accepted and integrated into Christian fellowship, do something close to the Lord’s heart.
So Saul becomes accepted widely by the church. He moves freely among them. He also witnesses to others with them about Jesus Christ. He makes known the Lord Jesus’ name. This leads him to debate with the Hellenists.8 They make another attempt on Saul’s life. His fellow Christians discover that and bring him to Caesarea, before sending him to Tarsus. (I wonder if Philip is also in Caesarea at this time and, if so, whether these two brothers in the gospel have fellowship together there?) In Tarsus, Saul’s profile drops for a few years. It seems that during this time he may plant ‘some churches around Syria and Cilicia’.9
Multiplication of churches in peace
We will meet Saul again, in Acts 13. He will start his first of three missionary journeys to the ‘everywhere’ section of the Lord Jesus’ ‘here, there and everywhere’ commission to His disciples in Acts 1:8. Through Peter, the gospel witness will now continue to Judea, the second part of that three part commission to witness to Christ in ‘Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth’.10
Meanwhile ‘the churches throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria [have] peace and [are] edified’. Saul’s conversion and time in Tarsus and on his three coming missionary journeys, takes some pressure off the existing believers. In this time of peace, the preaching of the good news of Jesus and the teaching of God’s word continue to blossom.
By God’s grace the church increases numerically and in spiritual growth. These Christians do not imitate the world and its loose standards in their worship and service. They are ‘walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit’. They serve, with reverence, the awesome God in whom they trust.
They know the Holy Spirit’s help and comfort as He draws alongside them. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of holiness and a Person of God the Trinity. His comfort is not a response to easy compromises, producing no challenge to live for Christ. It comes from God having first place in their lives as they honour Christ and share His word.
The test of a good and faithful church is not how many attend it. Numerical increase sometimes may be at the expense of faithful teaching of the Bible. Diluted discipleship can attract people for the wrong reasons. So-called ‘worship’ can be worldly and self-centred, and dishonour God’s holiness. We must ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness’.11 If that results in losing out on numbers, then so be it. But we should constantly seek to reach, win, build up, train, and use as many people as possible in the ways of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So the early Christian population grows in numerical quantity and in spiritual quality. That can only be God’s work in them. He is at work in every child of God and will complete that work to His glory!12 But meanwhile there is much for them to do for Him. The rest of the book of Acts is a thrilling testimony to that fact. Perhaps you will join us in the remaining two Amazing Acts books to experience that blessing for yourself?13
Questions on Chapter 21
Not so easy for Saul—Acts 9:20–31
A. What part do Barnabas and the Christians play in this passage?
Acts 9:25–30, Hebrews 10:25, Romans 12:10, 1 Thessalonians 4:9–10, 1 Peter 3:8, 1 John 4:11–12
B. What do you learn about the witness about the good news of Jesus Christ in these verses? How does boldness feature?
Acts 9:20, 22, 27, 29, Acts 4:13, 29, Acts 13:4, Acts 14:3, Acts 18:26, Acts 19:8
C. How does Saul act in the presence of real death threats?
Acts 9:23–25, Acts 9:29–30, Acts 9:15, Acts 8:1–3, Acts 9:1–2, Isaiah 41:10, 2 Corinthians 9:6, Galatians 6:9, 2 Timothy 4:2, 2 Corinthians 6:1–10
- John 15:26, John 16:13 ↩
- John 16:13–14 ↩
- Acts 9:1 ↩
- 2 Corinthians 11:32-33 ↩
- Acts 8:4 ↩
- Acts 4:36-37 ↩
- Consider boldness in Acts by looking at: Acts 4:13, 4:29, 4:31, 9:29 13:46, 14:3, 18:26, 19:8 ↩
- Remember that Hellenists were Jews from various places with strong Greek links. The martyr, Stephen, had dealings with them in his role as a deacon when he was responsible for feeding believing Hellenist widows. See Acts 6:1–6. ↩
- So suggests The MacArthur Study Bible in its comment on Acts 9:30, citing Acts 10:23 and Galatians 1:21. ↩
- Acts 1:8 ↩
- Matthew 6:33 ↩
- Philippians 1:6 ↩
- Amazing Acts—act one precedes Amazing Acts—act two on chapters 9–18, and Amazing Acts—act three on chapters 19-28 ↩