A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 9:26-31. Saul and Barnabas: his introduction to the apostles in Jerusalem.
Saul’s experience in Jerusalem was similar to his experience in Damascus. On his arrival in the capital city, *he tried to join the disciples*, since he knew he was one of them, but they were filled with scepticism and fear: *they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple* (26). Presumably they had not heard of him for three years. But this time Barnabas came to the rescue. True to his disposition and name, *he took him and brought him to the apostles* (in particular to Peter and James according to Gal.1:18-20, and told them how he *had seen the Lord, the Lord had spoken to him, and in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of the Jesus* (27). As a result of this testimonial, Saul was accepted as a Christian brother. He *stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem* during the two weeks we know that he spent there (Gal.1:18).
Thus Saul was clear about his membership of the new society of Jesus. First in Damascus, then in Jerusalem, he sought out ‘the disciples’ (19,26). True, both groups hesitated, but their initial scepticism was overcome. Thank God for Ananias who introduced Saul to the fellowship in Damascus, and for Barnabas who did the same thing for him later in Jerusalem. But for them, and the welcome they secured for him, the whole course of church history might have been different.
True conversion always issues in church membership. It is not only that converts must join the Christian community, but that the Christian community must welcome converts, especially those from a different religious, ethnic or social background. There is an urgent need for modern Ananiases and Barnabases who overcome their scruples and hesitations, and take the initiative to befriend newcomers.
In addition to this new reverence for God, and new relationship to the church, Saul recognised that he had a new responsibility to the world, especially as a witness. According to his own account of his conversion, it was already on the Damascus road that Jesus appointed him ‘as a servant and as a witness’ and indeed as the apostle to the Gentiles (26:16ff.). Jesus then confirmed to Ananias that Saul was his ‘chosen instrument’ (15), and Ananias passed on to Saul Jesus’ commission to ‘be his witness to all men’ of what he had seen and heard (22:15). Several characteristics of his witness are noteworthy. First, it was Christ-centred. In Damascus Saul had both ‘preached’ that Jesus was the Son of God (20) and ‘proved’ that he was the Christ (22). The arguments from Old Testament Scripture and from his own experience coincided. They both focused on Christ, and this is the task of the Christian witness. Testimony is not a synonym for autobiography. To witness is to speak of Christ. Our own experience may illustrate, but must not dominate, our testimony.
Secondly, Saul’s witness to Christ was given in the power of the Holy Spirit (17), so that he ‘grew more and more powerful’ (22). No wonder for the supreme function of the Spirit is to bear witness to Christ (eg. Jn.15:26-27).
Thirdly, his witness was courageous. Twice Luke alludes to the ‘boldness’ of his preaching, first in Damascus (27), in the very synagogues to which the high priest had addressed letters authorizing Saul to arrest Christians (2,20), and then in Jerusalem itself (28), the seat of the Sanhedrin from whom the authority had come. He also debated with the Grecian Jews or Hellenists (29), like Stephen and perhaps in the same synagogue (6:8ff.).
Fourthly Saul’s witness was costly. He suffered for his testimony, as Jesus had warned that he would: ‘I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’ (16). Already in Damascus he went in danger of his life (23-24) so that, when all the city’s exits were sealed, he had to make that ignominious escape in a basket (25) (cf. 2 Cor.11:32-33). In Jerusalem too some Hellenists tried to kill him (29), so that Jesus warned him to leave the city immediately (22:17-18). So his Christian brothers personally *took him down to Caesarea* on the coast and from there *sent him off* by ship *to Tarsus*, his home town, where he stayed incognito for the next seven or eight years.
Thus the story of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9 begins with him leaving Jerusalem with an official mandate from the high priest to arrest fugitive Christians, and ends with him leaving Jerusalem as a fugitive Christian himself. Saul the persecutor has become Saul the persecuted. And in the rest of the Acts story Luke tells us more of his hero’s sufferings, how he was stoned in Lystra and left for dead, beaten and imprisoned in Philippi, the centre of a public riot in Ephesus, arrested and imprisoned in Jerusalem, shipwrecked in the Mediterranean, and finally held in custody in Rome. Witness to Christ involves suffering for Christ. It is not an accident that the Greek word for witness (martys) came to be associated with martyrdom. ‘Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship’, wrote Bonhoeffer.
Yet the world’s opposition did not impede the spread of the gospel or the growth of the church. On the contrary, Luke ends his narrative of Saul’s conversion, which culminated in his providential escape from danger, with another of his summary verses (31). He describes the church, which has now spread throughout *Judea, Galilee* and *Samaria*, as having five characteristics – peace (free from external interference), strength (consolidating its position), encouragement (enjoying *paraklesis*, the special ministry of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete), growth (multiplying numerically) and godliness (*living in the fear of the Lord*).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.