By Dr. Mark Scott
It is hard not to overstate the significance of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. His conversion story is told three times in Acts (9:1-19a; 22:6-11; 26:12-18). God used Peter to open the door of faith to Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. But God would need a universal man who would be very global in his thinking to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. That man was Saul of Tarsus.
The Saul of the Old Testament started out good and ended up bad. The Saul of the New Testament started out bad and ended up good. Before encountering Jesus on the Damascus Road, Saul was a terrorist who was out of control (1 Corinthians 15:9; 1 Timothy 1:12-17). After meeting Jesus on that road, Saul became a preacher of the gospel.
The Content of the Preaching
Acts 9:19b-22, 28
It is impressive to see how fast Saul turned to preaching following his conversion. Literally days after seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus, Saul began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. He also baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah. He spoke boldly in the name of the Lord.
Three expressions are used to describe Saul’s actions: preach means to “herald the king’s message”; proving means to “put side by side” (aligning prophetic texts with their fulfillment); speaking boldly means to “speak without hindrance; freedom of expression.” But more important than his method or his passion was the content of Saul’s preaching. It centered on Jesus. It was the content of his preaching that irked the opposition.
Opposition to the Preaching
The opposition to Saul’s preaching came from three groups of people: the Jews living in Damascus, the disciples living in Jerusalem, and the Hellenistic Jews living in Jerusalem.
The opposition took various forms: questions, conspiracy to kill him, fear, and debate with the intent to kill.
No doubt this opposition was discouraging to Saul. He had made a 180-degree turnaround and was thrilled with his newfound faith in Jesus. To experience persecution from without and disbelief from within must have hurt. But as part of Saul’s call to become a Christian, Jesus had said that Saul would suffer for the sake of the name
(v. 16). The identity of Jesus (the content of Saul’s preaching) seems to be the lightning rod for the opposition.
Friends of the Preacher
God showed tender mercies to Saul in the midst of his opposition. Some fought him. But some befriended him. When his preaching caused Saul to have to leave Damascus his followers (disciples) lowered him in a basket through an opening in the city wall. The word for basket is the same word as in Mark 8:8 where the disciples pick up seven baskets full of food following the feeding of the 4,000. The remarkable thing about Acts 9:25 is that the text says his disciples did this. Very quickly into Saul’s Christian experience, he already had disciples of his own who were following him and learning of Jesus.
God’s tender mercies were also seen in the friendship of Barnabas. Earlier Barnabas was introduced as one who encouraged through his gift of money (4:36, 37). Now he encouraged by supporting Saul. One can understand why the Jerusalem church was hesitant to embrace Saul as a believer. He was a former terrorist, after all. But Saul was able to ride the coattails of Barnabas’s affirmation.
Finally the believers in Jerusalem who had accepted Barnabas’s testimony about Saul helped him escape to Caesarea (by the Mediterranean Sea). From there he went to his hometown of Tarsus—probably for study, reflection, and preparation for the new life ahead.
Increase in Numbers
Verse 31 is one of the internal summaries found scattered throughout the Book of Acts. Other summaries up to this point in Acts would include 2:42-47; 4:32-37; 5:12-16; 6:7. The point of this is to say that the summary may be larger than the immediate context. However, it certainly fits the immediate context. With Saul’s persecutions of Christians a thing of the past, the church enjoyed a time of peace, and it increased in numbers.
Few sermons are more powerful than the sermon of a transformed life. Saul of Tarsus preached that one.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College and has held preaching ministries in Missouri, Illinois, and Colorado.