Acts 9:23-31 (AD 34-37)
Even at this early point in Paul’s ministry we can see lessons about spreading God’s Word. For example:
Don’t wait to share the gospel, just get on with it.
For many people healed by Jesus, their immediate reaction was to praise God and tell people what Jesus had done for them. On at least one occasion Jesus specifically commanded they do that (Mark 5:19). Paul was like that in the response to his conversion and God’s calling him to ministry. He spent “several days” in Damascus (v.19) immediately after his conversion, proving to the Jews from their own Scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament) that Jesus was God. His gospel experience and knowledge was tiny, but his Old Testament expertise gave him an audience.
To be a teacher of God’s Word or an authority among God’s people, we need to spend time learning about God’s Word through study of God’s Word.
(see footnote for more details, and caveats, on this point)
After those few days in Damascus he went into the Arabian desert for 14-36, where he was taught by God (ref Galatians 1;15-18). Then he went to Jerusalem on a two-week visit, spending most of his time with Peter on what seems to have been largely a get-to-know the church visit (i.e. it wasn’t for Paul to study/be taught by the Jerusalem church). The famous parts of Paul’s ministry – the ‘missionary journeys’ – all happened after this intense and lengthy period of learning.
Even if we never plan to be teachers, the more we know about God’s Word the better equipped we are to engage with the people we want to reach for Jesus. We don’t wait for expertise before we start, but we should never be content with what we already know.
In Damascus, days after conversion and knowing little about the gospel, Paul went straight to the synagogue to preach to Jews, who were utterly opposed to his new teaching. As a result, he had to be smuggled out to avoid being killed by the Jews.
In Jerusalem, three years later and with enormous knowledge of the gospel, Paul “moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly” (v.28). As a result, a group of the Jews tried to kill him, so he had to escape.
Have no fear of people, but live in fear of God – that is, in enormous respect of him, and deep awareness of his holiness and justice. That fear, combined with the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, was the context for peace in the church and many people coming to know Jesus (v.31).
Because that’s the point of all this. It’s not about Paul the apostle, and it certainly isn’t about you and me – this is all about the spread of the gospel and the glory of God.
My second point, that we need to study well in order to teach or be in a position of authority, is a truth found in various Scriptural teachings including 2 Timothy 2:2 & 15 and the many references to the eternal significance of false teaching and heresy.
However, by way of caveat, I need to say a few things about my reasoning in taking that lesson from this passage.
- My view that Paul spent the bulk of the time in Arabia being prepared through learning, is just that, a view. Tim Keller shares it, but not all the commentators do, and some eminent Biblical scholars definitely don’t. Some prefer to say we really don’t know (e.g. Geoffrey Wilson), others lean towards saying that he may have been more busy with missionary service in Arabian cities (e.g. Douglas Moo).
- I base my view that the Arabian period was largely learning (though not without missionary activity), in part on the idea that Acts is clearly about the spread of the gospel, and not about Paul. If that three year period included pioneering missionary activity of any significance, it seems to me that it would be an integral or at least obvious part of the gospel-spreading story that Luke is telling.
- The basis of the view, and the expression I used re being taught by Jesus, was as follows:
- Galatians 1:11: “the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ”.
- Coupled with Galatians 1:15-19:
“…when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.
Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.”
- However, I now believe I have to some extent conflated the idea of Jesus revealing his truth to Paul (largely or entirely on the road to Damascus), with Paul’s experience in Arabia, including the Arabian desert, during the 14-36 months after his conversion. Here’s what seems to me to be likely:
- The gospel was taught him directly by Jesus. It wasn’t complicated and it didn’t take long. It was by revelation.
- The content and meanings of the words of Jesus ministry on earth was not taught to Paul by Jesus, but by special revelation through Holy Spirit (including 1 Corinthians 2:7, 10; 2 Corinthians 12:1-4).
- Three years doesn’t necessarily mean 36 month. As with the description of Jesus rising “on the third day” being true at the same time as saying he died on Friday and rose on Sunday, it’s worth pointing out that for the Jews, a part of a day counted as a day in descriptions. So it’s possible that Paul spent as little as 14 months in Arabia (ref: December 2018 to January 2020 is 14 months, but would be referred to as three years).
- Some say that he was in Arabia for a relatively short time, and spent the bulk of it in Damascus. Looking at Galatians 1:17 and comparing it with the incident in Acts 9 where the Jews in Damascus wanted to kill him, I find that highly unlikely. Paul put himself in public immediately, and the opposition to him would have been swift, as it was in Jerusalem when he had to escape within two weeks of having arrived. He was publicly telling the Jews, constantly, that they had killed the Son of God, The idea that they would have waited many months, even years, before trying to kill him, doesn’t fit with the pattern of the rest of Paul’s story
- Paul was not taught all Jesus’s teachings “by Jesus”. Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, but Jesus was not Paul’s companion in the desert to teach him the way he taught the Twelve. Paul would have been taught, as we are, by Holy Spirit. Paul was taught ABOUT Jesus, most particularly to help him know and understand all that Jesus said while he was on earth (bearing in mind the disciples hadn’t written the gospels yet and Paul pointedly says it was NOT the disciples who taught him about Jesus).
- The point of Paul’s claim in Galatians 1 is that he didn’t make up the gospel, the disciples didn’t teach him the gospel, and in fact no human taught him the gospel. Rather, Jesus taught him the gospel. The fact that he didn’t meet any disciples for three years after his conversion because he was in Damascus and Arabia, backs up that story.
- We do NOT have a definitive statement about what exactly happened in Arabia, or for exactly how long.