Luke here makes no mention of Paul’s journey into Arabia, which he tells us himself was immediately after his conversion, Gal. 1:16, 17. As soon as God had revealed his Son in him, that he might preach him, he went not up to Jerusalem, to receive instructions from the apostles (as any other convert would have done, that was designed for the ministry), but he went to Arabia, where there was new ground to break up, and where he would have opportunity of teaching, but not learning; thence he returned to Damascus, and there, three years after his conversion, this happened, which is here recorded.
I. He met with difficulties at Damascus, and had a narrow escape of being killed there. Observe, 1. What his danger was (Acts 9:23): The Jews took counsel to kill him, being more enraged at him than at any other of the preachers of the gospel, not only because he was more lively and zealous in his preaching than any of them, and more successful, but because he had been such a remarkable deserter, and his being a Christian was a testimony against them. It is said (Acts 9:24), The Jews watched the gates day and night to kill him; they incensed the governor against him, as a dangerous man, who therefore kept the city with a guard to apprehend him, at his going out or coming in, 2 Cor. 11:32. Now Christ showed Paul what great things he must suffer for his name (Acts 9:16), when here was presently the government in arms against him, which was a great thing, and, as all his other sufferings afterwards, helped to make him considerable. Saul was no sooner a Christian than a preacher, no sooner a preacher than a sufferer; so quickly did he rise to the summit of his preferment. Note, Where God gives great grace he commonly exercises it with great trials. 2. How he was delivered. (1.) The design against him was discovered: Their lying in wait was known of Saul, by some intelligence, whether from heaven or from men we are not told. (2.) The disciples contrived to help him away—hid him, it is likely, by day; and in the night, the gates being watched, that he could not get away through them, they let him down by the wall, in a basket, as he himself relates it (2 Cor. 11:33), so he escaped out of their hands. This story, as it shows us that when we enter into the way of God we must look for temptation, and prepare accordingly, so it shows us that the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptation, and will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that we may not be by it deterred nor driven from the way of God.
II. He met with difficulties at Jerusalem the first time he went thither, Acts 9:26. He came to Jerusalem. This is thought to be that journey to Jerusalem of which he himself speaks (Gal. 1:18): After three years I went up to Jerusalem, saith he, to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But I rather incline to think that this was a journey before that, because his coming in and going out, his preaching and disputing (Acts 9:28, 29), seem to be more than would consist with his fifteen days’ stay (for that was no more) and to require a longer time; and, besides, now he came a stranger, but then he came, historesai Petron—to confer with Peter, as one he was intimate with; however, it might possibly be the same. Now observe,
1. How shy his friends were of him (Acts 9:26): When he came to Jerusalem, he did not go to the chief priests and the Pharisees (he had taken his leave of them long since), but he assayed to join himself to the disciples. Wherever he came, he owned himself one of that despised persecuted people, and associated with them. They were now in his eyes the excellent ones of the earth, in whom was all his delight. He desired to be acquainted with them, and to be admitted into communion with them; but they looked strange upon him, shut the door against him, and would not go about any of their religious exercises if he were by, for they were afraid of him. Now might Paul be tempted to think himself in an ill case, when the Jews had abandoned and persecuted him, and the Christians would not receive and entertain him. Thus does he fall into divers temptations, and needs the armour of righteousness, as we all do, both on the right hand and on the left, that we may not be discouraged either by the unjust treatment of our enemies or the unkind treatment of our friends. (1.) See what was the cause of their jealousy of him: They believed not that he was a disciple, but only pretended to be so, and came among them as a spy or an informer. They knew what a bitter persecutor he had been, with what fury he went to Damascus some time ago; they had heard nothing of him since, and therefore thought he was but a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The disciples of Christ had need to be cautious whom they admit into communion with them. Believe not every spirit. There is need of the wisdom of the serpent, to keep the mean between the extremes of suspicion on the one hand and credulity on the other; yet methinks it is safer to err on the charitable side, because it is an adjudged case that it is better the tares should be found among the wheat than that the wheat should any of it be rooted up and thrown out of the field. (2.) See how it was removed (Acts 9:27): Barnabas took him to the apostles themselves, who were not so scrupulous as the inferior disciples, to whom he first assayed to join himself, and he declared to them, [1.] What Christ had done for him: He had shown himself to him in the way and spoken to him; and what he said. [2.] What he had since done for Christ: He had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. How Barnabas came to know this, more than the rest of them, we are not told; whether he had himself been at Damascus, or had had letters thence, or discoursed with some of that city, by which he came to the knowledge of this; or whether he had formerly been acquainted with Paul in the Grecian synagogues, or at the feet of Gamaliel, and had such an account of his conversion from himself as he saw cause enough to give credit to: but so it was that, being satisfied himself, he gave satisfaction to the apostles concerning him, he having brought no testimonials from the disciples at Damascus, thinking he needed not, as some others, epistles of commendation, 2 Cor. 3:1. Note, The introducing of a young convert into the communion of the faithful is a very good work, and one which, as we have opportunity, we should be ready to do.
2. How sharp his enemies were upon him. (1.) He was admitted into the communion of the disciples, which was no little provocation to his enemies. It vexed the unbelieving Jews to see Saul a trophy of Christ’s victory, and a captive to his grace, who had been such a champion for their cause—to see him coming in, and going out, with the apostles (Acts 9:28), and to hear them glorying in him, or rather glorifying God in him. (2.) He appeared vigorous in the cause of Christ, and this was yet more provoking to them (Acts 9:29): He spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus. Note, Those that speak for Christ have reason to speak boldly; for they have a good cause, and speak for one who will at last speak for himself and them too. The Grecians, or Hellenist Jews, were most offended at him, because he had been one of them; and they drew him into a dispute, in which, no doubt, he was too hard for them, as he had been for the Jews at Damascus. One of the martyrs said, Though she could not dispute for Christ, she could die for Christ; but Paul could do both. Now the Lord Jesus divided the spoils of the strong man armed in Saul. For that same natural quickness and fervour of spirit which, while he was in ignorance and unbelief, made him a furious bigoted persecutor of the faith, made him a most zealous courageous defender of the faith. (3.) This brought him into peril of his life, with which he narrowly escaped: The Grecians, when they found they could not deal with him in disputation, contrived to silence him another way; they went about to slay him, as they did Stephen when they could not resist the Spirit by which he spoke, Acts 6:10. That is a bad cause that has recourse to persecution for its last argument. But notice was given of this conspiracy too, and effectual care taken to secure this young champion (Acts 9:30): When the brethren knew what was designed against him they brought him down to Cesarea. They remembered how the putting of Stephen to death, upon his disputing with the Grecians, had been the beginning of a sore persecution; and therefore were afraid of having such a vein opened again, and hastened Paul out of the way. He that flies may fight again. He that fled from Jerusalem might do service at Tarsus, the place of his nativity; and thither they desired him by all means to go, hoping he might there go on in his work with more safety than at Jerusalem. Yet it was also by direction from heaven that he left Jerusalem at this time, as he tells us himself (Acts 22:17), that Christ now appeared to him, and ordered him to go quickly out of Jerusalem, for he must be sent to the Gentiles, Acts 9:15. Those by whom God has work to do shall be protected from all the designs of their enemies against them till it be done. Christ’s witnesses cannot be slain till they have finished their testimony.
III. The churches had now a comfortable gleam of liberty and peace (Acts 9:31): Then had the churches rest. Then, when Saul was converted, so some; when that persecutor was taken off, those were quiet whom he used to irritate, and then those were quiet whom he used to molest. Or, then, when he had gone from Jerusalem, the fury of the Grecian Jews was a little abated, and they were the more willing to bear with the other preachers now that Saul had gone out of the way. Observe,
1. The churches had rest. After a storm comes a calm. Though we are always to expect troublesome times, yet we may expect that they shall not last always. This was a breathing-time allowed them, to prepare them for the next encounter. The churches that were already planted were mostly in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, within the limits of the holy land. There were the first Christian churches, where Christ had himself laid the foundation.
2. They made a good use of this lucid interval. Instead of growing more secure and wanton in the day of their prosperity, they abounded more in their duty, and made a good use of their tranquillity. (1.) They were edified, were built up in their most holy faith; the more free and constant enjoyment they had of the means of knowledge and grace, the more they increased in knowledge and grace. (2.) They walked in the fear of the Lord—were more exemplary themselves for a holy heavenly conversation. They so lived that all who conversed with them might say, Surely the fear of God reigns in those people. (3.) They walked in the comfort of the Holy Ghost—were not only faithful, but cheerful, in religion; they stuck to the ways of the Lord, and sang in those ways. The comfort of the Holy Ghost was their consolation, and that which they made their chief joy. They had recourse to the comfort of the Holy Ghost, and lived upon that, not only in days of trouble and affliction, but in days of rest and prosperity. The comforts of the earth, when they had the most free and full enjoyment of them, could not content them without the comfort of the Holy Ghost. Observe the connection of these two: when they walked in the fear of the Lord, then they walked in the comfort of the Holy Ghost. Those are most likely to walk cheerfully that walk circumspectly.
3. God blessed it to them for their increase in number: They were multiplied. Sometimes the church multiplies the more for its being afflicted, as Israel in Egypt; yet if it were always so, the saints of the Most High would be worn out. At other times its rest contributes to its growth, as it enlarges the opportunity of ministers, and invites those in who at first are afraid of suffering. Or, then, when they walked in the fear of God and his comforts, they were multiplied. Thus those that will not be won by the word may be won by the conversation of professors.
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