Saul on the Damascus Road
Verse 1: Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest (NRSV)
- The use of “still” is important, because some significant time has passed and yet he still is trying to kill people.
- ”Murderous threats” is an odd wording, and can also be “threats and murders” indicating that he followed through with what he said (Barrett 133).
- Saul almost certainly heard Stephen's speech, and possibly heard the other disciples speak too. He knew what Christians believed, he just didn't agree.
- Just because Saul is the one seeking out violence on the Church, the author of Acts makes sure that we are aware that ultimately the authority to do so came from the High Priest and Jewish leadership.
- The assumption with going to the High Priest is that these are Jews that Saul is going after, and that they are still part of Judaism, if a heretical branch (Fitzmyer 424).
Verse 2: and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (NRSV)
- Until this point, Saul's persecution appears to have been mainly in Jerusalem, so this expansion is a big deal.
- There is some question about how organized the synagogues really were at that time and whether this was an order from the High Priest, or a suggestion.
- In 1 Maccabees 15:15-24, a letter commands kings to turn people over to the High Priest (Johnson 162).
- This is probably not about civil authorities, or dealing with any non-Jewish believer, but about having a few believing Jews vanish into the night with the help of the local synagogue (Barrett 133).
- Damascus is one of the 10 cities of the Decapolis, and was a very powerful commercial center with a large Jewish population as well of about 10,500 (Longenecker 165-166).
- We are not told how Christianity came to Damascus. Luke assuredly could have told us, but it wasn't important. This shows very clearly how the pieces of the story that we do have are carefully chosen.
- It is important that Saul is mentioned as being after members of “the way”, not because the early Christians were called that, but because this entire story carries deep double meaning as Paul in both a physical and spiritual sense lose and find his “way”.
- In Greek, and English, “way” can mean “road” in a literal sense or in a metaphorical or spiritual sense. Luke is creating a play on words here.
- Saul loses his sight, and thereby his “way” as he is on his “way” to persecute members of the true “way.”
- Then Saul finds his sight at the same time as he finds his true “way” in life. The physical follows the spiritual in this story so closely that they are almost interchangeable.
- The term “the way” is Lukan only, and can find echoes back in Luke 3, with John the Baptist calling to “prepare the way of the Lord.”
- The only other major usage of “the way” as a means of religious identification in Judaism is with the Essenes and involves a strict observance of Mosaic law (Fitzmyer 424).
Verse 3: Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. (NRSV)
- It is interesting that God waits until Saul is heading to Damascus to talk with him. This might indicate that Saul's persecution of the Church in Jerusalem was sanctioned in order to get the disciples out and evangelizing, but that Damascus was too much for a new Church to take.
- Light and sound are important ways that God has traditionally communicated his presence with people, especially associated with personal appearances.
- The term for the light appearing is the same used in Luke 2:13 for the heavenly choir appearing (Johnson 162).
Verse 4: He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (NRSV)
- The double use of Saul's name is very similar to the burning bush and asking Moses his name twice (Johnson 163), as is the use of light.
- Persecution of God's people is equivalent to persecuting God himself.
Verse 5: He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. (NRSV)
- The honorific “Lord” has two different usages, either is possible here.
- First, it can mean “master” or any person over you in authority.
- Second, this can be a reference to God, because “adonai” of “lord” is Hebrew, is the word used by Jews to refer to God without using God's name.
- Either of these uses are possible. That Paul asks who this “lord” is, perhaps indicates that he doesn't mean it as in God. But that there is a shining light and a loud voice in the air might make it more likely that he believes this voice is God.
- Saul here is very confused because he recognizes that a voice from heaven comes from God in Jewish history (Longenecker 166), but he isn't persecuting God, or God's people as he understands it.
- This is one of the few times when Jesus is shown in power, and acting as part of the godhead.
- Jesus' use of “ego eimi” or “I am” can be a simple grammatical phrasing, but it could also be Jesus referring himself to God, as the Hebrew name for God is “I am”.
- There are some obvious parallels here between Jesus' statement and Paul's latter emphasis on the Church being the “body of Christ.” But Luke doesn't use that idea. Perhaps Saul described this event in those terms when he told Luke about it many years later.
Verse 6: But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (NRSV)
- The use of “but” here has a distinct element of forgiveness. Saul is persecuting the Church, and this is the great “however” that starts his change. This is his second chance.
- Saul came down that road with a lengthy plan of what he was going to do. But when he encountered God, he was only given one step at a time.
Verse 7: The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. (NRSV)
- We don't know if the people traveling with Saul were just traveling companions for protection, a common thing in that time (Barrett 134), or whether they were other Jews there to help out with the persecution.
- The word used here is “phone” which means voice, or sound. Some translations assume there was a noise with the light, like in Pentecost, and translate it as “sound.” Others translate it as “voice,” assuming that it refers to Jesus speaking. This seems the more logical connection.
- There is no record of what the other Jews who came with him thought about this. We don't know if they converted as well, or not.
- What is very strange about this is that it says that the people with Paul are mentioned as not seeing “anyone”. But Saul isn't mentioned as seeing any person either, just the light.
- In 22:9, the people with Saul are said to have seen the light but not hear the voice.
- In 26:13, everyone falls down, not just Saul and only Saul heard the voice.
Verse 8: Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. (NRSV)
- Saul had obviously been closing his eyes, so the exact moment he lost his sight is unclear.
- This blindness serves many purposes.
- First, it is a way of making the powerful man powerless.
- It probably reassures Ananias that Saul had really had an encounter with God.
- It makes it clearer that Jesus is part of God because no one can see God, and so Saul is blinded after just a glimpse of God's light.
- Possibly most importantly, Saul's blindness connects with the metaphor of Saul losing his way. He was on his way, both physically and spiritually, encountered God, and lost both directions until he encountered Ananias. Saul's blindness makes the abstract encounter with God concrete.
Verse 9: For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (NRSV)
- It is unclear it this is penance, or if this is fasting and prayer, or if Saul is just too freaked out to eat.
- There is a lot of debate among commentators about whether this fasting was preparation for Baptism or not. We don't have a record of Saul being baptized, but it is almost certain he was at one time.
Ananias and Saul
Verse 10: Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” (NRSV)
- This is obviously not the Ananias of earlier in Acts.
- There is no explanation of how Christianity spread to Damascus, just that it did.
- We don't know if Ananias is a leader or not, but remember that this is a man who would have been a target of Saul if he hadn't of been struck blind.
- Visions are a big deal in Acts, and double visions are sometimes used (here and Cornelius for examples) to show that God was at work in both parties and to confirm that this indeed was God's will through having two witnesses.
- Note that even though this is a vision, literally “said to him in a sight,” there is no mention of a visual component. The Lord speaks, and Ananias responds.
- Perhaps the use of “vision” here is to tie it together better with Saul's vision of Ananias coming, which does include sights.
Verse 11: The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, (NRSV)
- We don't know who this Judas is. The assumption is that this was Saul's original contact in Damascus, as Jesus just told Saul to go to the city, not where.
- That would imply that Judas is a Jew who is allied with Saul, and therefore against Christians.
- This is a great deal of detail, even with the street named. That would be expected in the original instructions, but surprising to be passed on in future retellings and here in writing.
- This is the first time that we learn Saul is a Jew from the Diaspora and not native to Jerusalem (Fitzmyer 427).
- The mention of Saul praying at the moment God was speaking to Ananias hints at a connection between Saul's prayers and God's appearance, like perhaps Saul got help because he was praying. This is purely supposition, however.
- It is revealing that only Saul is mentioned as praying, not Ananias. This shows the importance of God reaching him.
- Saul praying is an important plot moment here. Until now we have not had any real evidence of Saul's spiritual maturity or devotion that was no violent. Even the fasting in verse 9 is not mentioned as “fasting” but just as “not eating”. So this is partially a reassurance of Ananias that Saul is a godly man.
Verse 12: and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” (NRSV)
- This is the same term for “vision” as in verse 10, tying the two experiences together. Indeed, we only learned about Saul's vision from within Ananias's, which merges their stories before they actually meet (Johnson 164).
- We are not told that Ananias even knew Saul was blind., so this information must have been slightly surprising to say the least.
- The laying on of hands is traditionally associated with God's healing through a chosen vessel.
- To have Ananias heal Saul would be a physical and visible way of proclaiming to Saul
- Laying on of hands is also associated with a blessing (Barrett 135), and so Ananias is providing his support for Saul as a Christian as well.
- This is not just a physical healing, but a spiritual restoration of sight, as Saul can once again find his way both in the world and to God. Ananias, being a follower of God through Jesus, can lead Saul to both of those.
Verse 13: But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; (NRSV)
- The “Lord” here is obviously Jesus and not who the Jews worship because calling on the Lord's name is why these people are being targeted.
- If “Lord” is used here as a term for God, this indicates a very high understanding of the divinity of Jesus.
- The Lord here is not identified as Jesus, but Ananias recognizes him anyway.
- That Jesus is in a vision states his divinity, because it is God who appears to people.
- Ananias shows that he has a good knowledge of Saul and what Saul was going to do.
- But he does not show any knowledge of the experience Saul had on the road.
- That Ananias has “heard” about Saul indicates that he is a native of Damscus and not one of the Jerusalem followers who was initially scattered (Longenecker 169).
- Ananias here objects to God's plan for him with regards to Saul. We aren't told exactly why Ananias is objecting, but there are many possible reasons.
- Ananias's own safety almost assuredly plays a part in this. Saul was dangerous and the people with him were dangerous.
- There might be a question in Ananias's mind about the authenticity of Saul's conversion (Barrett 136).
- But there can also be an element of punishment involved. Ananias recognizes his redemptive role in Saul's life, and that it goes against the expected punishment of Saul for his crimes (Longenecker 169).
- This vision is interactive, which is at least a little unusual. This brings it closer to an appearance of an angel than the typical vision.
- There is an undoubtedly purposeful, if indirect, contrast here between the “evil” that Saul did and the “holy” people he did it to. It isn't a direct attack on Saul, but it's close. And it also shows the change that is happening in Saul.
- The use of “saints” originally meant a Christian in Judea or Jerusalem, but was eventually expanded (Fitzmyer 428).
Verse 14: and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” (NRSV)
- This is the only mention that Saul got the letters that he was hoping to get from the Chief Priest.
- Here, however, we have Ananias saying “chief priests” in the plural, which does not reflect the legal truth, though it might reflect reality of power.
Verse 15: But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; (NRSV)
- ”Go” is an imperative verb, a command form.
- ”Carry my name” is a very interesting term, because it means that the name of Jesus itself sums up the Christian message (Barrett 136). This is also the first time someone is commissioned as a Christian, a person who carries Christ's name with them as they go.
- ”Instrument” is not an accurate term here. The word refers to an object to be used, “vessel” or “pot” is more literal (Liddell 754). This is something for God to fill and empower.
- We normally see Paul as being a messenger to Gentiles only, but here we see from God's own mouth that Paul was for Jews as well as Gentiles.
- There is no mention of how Ananias felt to hearing that Gentiles would be receiving the gospel as well. This was still a radical idea at this stage in Christian history.
Verse 16: I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (NRSV)
- ”Must suffer” puts Saul firmly with the OT prophets (Johnson 165).
- It is interesting that Saul is just recently converted and the first thing God wants him to realize is the suffering that comes later. This is also important for Luke as a storyteller because it sets up what is going to happen to Saul throughout his life.
Verse 17: So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (NRSV)
- This is a great change for Ananias. He greets Saul as a brother, his first words.
- This use of “brother” could be as a fellow Jew to fellow Jew (Fitzmyer 429).
- We have no mention of Ananias being told that Saul would receive the Holy Spirit. Neither do we have any mention of Saul actually receiving the Spirit, though that might be implied with the baptism.
Verse 18: And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, (NRSV)
- Literally something “as scales of a fish” fell from his eyes.
- We don't have any mention of scales being placed on his eyes on the road.
- Baptism was very important for Sail; because he needed to be incorporated into the church as quickly as possible (Johnson 165).
Verse 19: and after taking some food, he regained his strength. (NRSV)
- Immediately afterwards, Saul broke the fast that he had been doing for three days.
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