Chapter 13: Paul

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by Gideon Khoo, Malaysia







Sometimes wise words emanate from the lips of unbelievers, and this has proven true on occasions in the Bible, especially when the lips of the unlearned were employed by the Holy Spirit to convey certain truths.  I believe this was the case when Gamaliel stood up in the Council to address his fellowmen with regard to how they should handle the arrest of Peter and the apostles, and said, “… And now, I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God” Acts 5.38,39.1

1  Except where stated otherwise, all Scripture references in this chapter are from the Acts of the Apostles.

Gamaliel made mention of Theudas and Judas of Galilee, vv.36,37, who likely were self-claimed false messiahs of some sort.  But their cause was not of God, and, therefore, they vanished, and their followers were scattered and brought to nought.  If anything was of God, one of the acid tests was whether it could stand the test of time.  And this, I suggest, is perhaps Luke’s most important motif in the Acts of the Apostles.

Therefore, Gamaliel’s words become the primary thrust of Luke’s book.  Luke is not only interested to tell us of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in his Gospel; he also wants us to know, in this ‘part two’ of his letter to Theophilus, called ‘The Acts of the Apostles’, what happened to this so-called ‘Christian movement’, sometimes referred to as “the way”.  If their Saviour was alive and had gone to heaven, as the disciples claimed, then the test of their claim was whether the teachings of Jesus Christ and His followers would continue.  Luke wrote Acts to show us that they did, and, therefore, Gamaliel’s statement that “if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it” just about ‘hit the nail on the head’ for Luke.  How was continuation of “the way” accomplished?  It was by the power of the Holy Spirit, Who descended on the Day of Pentecost; by the faith and courage of the apostles, who pressed on despite persecution; by the unstoppable spread of the Gospel that reached not only Jews, but Gentile souls and Gentile lands, through arguably the greatest apostle, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.

Therefore, Luke did not write Acts to tell us more about Paul per se, but rather to show us that the spread of the gospel was unstoppable because it was of God, and Paul was the vessel God chose to accomplish this purpose.  Furthermore, there is no better means to prove Gamaliel’s statement, “If it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it” than Paul, his own top student in the Law.  Paul, persecutor-become-preacher, was the very proof that God was unstoppable, and Jesus Christ was alive.

The disciples of the Lord carried out their evangelistic efforts mainly in the synagogues, as they preached to Jews and proselytes.  Even if they were preaching outside the vicinity of the synagogues, they were still reaching out mainly to listeners who were associated with Judaism, such as the Ethiopian eunuch, by Philip, or Cornelius, by Peter.  These proselytes were described as God-fearers by Luke, for example, Cornelius was “one that feared God” Acts 10.2.  But the call of Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles meant that the sphere of his gospel work would exceed the boundaries of Jewish synagogues and Gentile proselytes (especially from Acts chapter 13 onwards), even though he often started his preaching in a synagogue when he arrived at a city.  Hence Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles in the widest sense: beyond the system, buildings and dogma linked with Judaism.  This was also confirmed by the Lord Himself when He appeared to Paul and said, “I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles.” 22.21.

Since most of Paul’s history has been detailed for us by Luke, in Acts, we will mainly use the material in this book in the study of his call, especially from chapters 9-13, 22, 26, and other passages in this book whenever relevant.  But we will also extract important information from Paul’s own accounts through some of his epistles, with the hope of framing up a more complete picture.  The following headings will guide us as we consider Paul’s Divine call:

Pre-conversion Background
Damascus Encounter
Obscure Years
First Missionary Journey


Much of our understanding of Paul’s pre-conversion background comes from his own words.  Before Paul was saved, he had a very illustrious religious career and was climbing up the echelons of the Pharisaic
ladder.  However, whenever Paul spoke of that past, he never did so as something of which he was proud.  In fact, he reckoned that past as “dung” Phil.3.8.  We now look at the kind of man Paul was before the Lord called him.

His Pedigree

Paul told something about his Jewish pedigree in Acts and Philippians.  He said, “I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia” Acts 22.3.  You could almost paraphrase Paul’s words with ‘I am a true Jewish man!’  When Paul spoke these words, he was addressing his fellowmen in Hebrew, and Luke tells us that the moment Paul spoke in Hebrew, they all kept silent and gave audience to him.  Hence, he was a Jew who spoke fluent Hebrew, which was not something taken for granted in his days, for there were many diaspora Jews who did not speak Hebrew.  Therefore, Paul was saying, ‘I am a true Jew!  I even speak Hebrew!’ (paraphrased by me).

Paul wrote that he was “circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews” Phil.3.5.  Paul came from a Law-keeping family that made sure he was circumcised the eighth day.  He mentioned his circumcision and traced his ancestry to Israel, even to the tribe of Benjamin, to impress his readers that he was not a proselyte: he was a Jew from infant days.  Being a ‘Hebrew of Hebrews’ could mean that none of his parents were non-Jews: he was pure bred!  Though he was born in Tarsus, Paul likely grew up and attended school in Jerusalem, 26.4.  Hence, whether it was by parentage, or by the place of upbringing, he was linked in every way to Israel.  He could truly say, ‘I am a Hebrew of Hebrews!’

Paul was also a Roman citizen by birth and his citizenship was not purchased, 22.28; he was also a Roman citizen of a free city of no small significance, 21.39.  In 64 BC, Cilicia was made a Roman province by the Emperor Pompey, and its capital was Tarsus, which was a free city from the time of Augustus.  Hence, Paul was a Roman citizen by birth, from a reputable city.

His Prestige

Paul was a theologian of the Law and was given a prestigious religious education.  He said that he was “brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day” 22.3.  Paul was taught according to the “perfect manner of the law”, or the ‘strictness’ or ‘exactness’ of the Law.  He did not just delve into the shallow introductory courses of Judaism, but was taught to become an expert and trained to be meticulous with the interpretation of the Law.  Furthermore, he lived by that very standard, 26.5; his actions were louder than his words!  In this regard, he described himself as “touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” Phil.3.6.  Paul was also “zealous toward God” 22.3; “concerning zeal, persecuting the church” Phil.3.6; and “being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers” Gal.1.14.  He was a zealot whose beliefs were followed by actions characterised by a burning zeal, though deluded with the idea that he was serving God.

His Pogroms

Paul himself confessed that he was “before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious” 1Tim.1.13.  He had a burning hatred against Christians, mainly due to his religious upbringing and a blindness cast upon him by Pharisaic dogmas.  But we sometimes fail to appreciate that much of what
we read in Acts 8.1-4 about Saul’s2 systematic persecution of the church needs to be understood in close connection with Stephen’s trial, in chapter 7.  Based on the mention of his involvement in Stephen’s death, 7.58-8.1, it is very likely that he was one of those who sat in the Council and heard Stephen; if he was not part of the Council, he would have been present there.  What is written in 7.54 (“When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth”) must have been descriptive of Saul after hearing Stephen, the great orator.  Luke tells us that “Saul was consenting unto his [Stephen’s] death” 8.1, right after the account of Stephen’s public witness, to imply that Saul was furious after hearing Stephen, and his deepened hatred resulted in his consent to violence against Stephen.

2  I have chosen to use the name “Saul” to refer to him in his pre-conversion days and the name “Paul” after his conversion on the Damascus Road. This is purely for expediency, in the interest of ease and clarity. We will not, however, follow this strictly throughout the chapter. I do not believe that Luke uses the name in such a way. Some have taught that “Saul” was his name before he was saved, and “Paul” was his Divinely-given name after his conversion. We shall prove later that this is not true.

Paul was from Tarsus of Cilicia, and when Stephen was disputing with some Jewish scholars from “the synagogue of the Libertines … and of them of Cilicia” 6.9, Saul was likely part of that group that belonged to Cilicia, and even if he was not, they were at least his compatriots.  That initial encounter with Stephen, in which “they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit” of Stephen, 6.10, most likely affected Saul even before the events that followed in chapter 7.  I believe that Saul was one of those who “stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council, and set up false witnesses, which said, ‘This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law’” 6.12,13.

However, Stephen’s preaching and eventually his martyrdom achieved two things according to the design of Divine providence.  Firstly, that masterly apologetic sermon of the martyr must have left an indelible impression upon the mind of the young Saul, even though at that time he loathed the very things Stephen said.  This is evident when we hear Paul’s first recorded public preaching, in 13.16-41: he adopted the same apologetic approach which Stephen used before the Council, by also recounting to his Jewish audience their nation’s history of rebellion (though in a much briefer review than Stephen’s), God’s mercy upon Israel and His progressive plan in revealing the Messiah.  One would have nearly thought that Stephen was the one preaching in Acts chapter 13!  In another example of Paul’s preaching, this time to a Gentile audience, on Mars’ hill, Paul used words reminiscent of Stephen’s sermon, and said, “… seeing that He is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands …” 17.24; Stephen had said, “Howbeit the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet …” 7.48.  Though Stephen was making reference to Isa.66.1,2, Paul must have been impressed with what he heard (though furious); so much so that he made mention of this when he was preaching to the Athenians.  Through Divine intervention, the very man who was murdered under the orchestration of his hand had become a significant influence on his preaching approach.

Secondly, Stephen’s martyrdom had further emboldened Saul’s pogroms against the Jewish Christians, which resulted in the scattering, 8.1-4, and the further spread of the gospel outside of Jerusalem.  Luke’s mention of devout men giving Stephen a public burial service, accompanied by a great lamentation, v.2, tells us that the death of Stephen and the diaspora of Jewish Christians were connected.  Even though Saul thought that he was moving closer to his objective of obliterating those who believed in Jesus Christ, in reality his persecution facilitated the spreading of the gospel throughout the regions.  Hence, the Lord not only gave Stephen the Divine portion of influencing Paul’s preaching later, but also made Stephen’s death the catalyst for the spread of the gospel, because of Saul’s hatred.  The more intense Saul’s persecution became, the wider the gospel spread.

I believe that is why Luke brings us alongside Philip the evangelist in his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch.  The “therefore” that begins 8.4 and the “but” that begins 8.5 (the word translated “then” in the Authorised Version is “but”) convince me that Saul’s persecution had also driven Philip to go down to the city of Samaria to preach Christ.  Hence, the persecution of Saul caused the gospel to spread eventually to the regions of Africa.  I consider it likely that the subsequent mention of “Simeon that was called Niger” 13.1, who would have been an African, was due to the initial reach of the good news to that part of the world, and the Ethiopian eunuch was possibly the first fruit of the gospel work in that region.

How persistent was Saul in attempting to wipe out those who believed in the name of Jesus Christ?  His own words to the Galatians might shed some light on this question.  He said, “… how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it” Gal.1.13.  The word “persecuted” is in the imperfect tense in the Greek text and might indicate a repeated action on his part to persecute the church of God.  But the word “wasted”, though also in the imperfect tense, likely has the sense of attempting but not accomplishing the goal.  Therefore, it can read: ‘I repeatedly persecuted the church of God, and attempted to waste it’.  Paul was saying that with fervent zeal he relentlessly persecuted the church of God, but did not reach his intended goal.  Despite putting many into prisons and causing some to die, 22.4, his unparalleled ardour proved futile and unsuccessful in destroying the church of God. 


Having awareness, therefore, of Paul’s background: his Jewish pedigree, his religious prestige, and his pogroms, we now consider his Damascus encounter.  There are three direct references to this: one narrated by Luke, from a third person perspective, in Acts chapter 9, and two by Paul’s own account, in Acts chapters 22 and 26.  We will make Acts chapter 9 our pivotal passage, but will cite from chapters 22 and 26 as required.

“And Saul, yet …” 9.1

The way Acts chapter 9 begins is quite significant, and we might miss those little words “But … yet”: “But Saul, yet breathing out threatenings …” 9.1.  This is my preferred reading instead of “And Saul, yet” A.V.  There is an important difference between “But … yet” and “And … yet”.  I believe the “But … yet” (de eti) is Luke’s way of stating a contrast between what has transpired at the end of chapter 8 and the beginning of chapter 9.  In chapter 8, Philip the evangelist found in the Ethiopian eunuch a convert to Christ, and upon accomplishing his assignment he was caught away by the Spirit and was found in Azotus, and eventually Caesarea.  Although the hero of the chapter is Philip, it would be a mistake to miss Luke’s emphasis that Philip was instructed by the Holy Spirit, v.29, and was caught away by the Holy Spirit, v.39, hence showing that the work was of Divine origin, and Philip was only a vessel.  While God was at work through Philip (so that the gospel might reach a region of Africa) and while the gospel was ‘spreading its wings’ 8.4, Saul was at the same time (“yet”) breathing out his hatred against Christians, and was even intensifying his pogroms.  Hence the “But … yet” supplies the contrast between what the Holy Spirit was accomplishing and what Saul, on the other hand, was persisting in doing, though to his eventual realisation of futility.  The words “But … yet” in 9.1 also imply that the events of chapters 8 and 9 took place either concurrently or about the same time.  The ‘gospel train’ was hasting on by Divine power, even though Saul’s persecution intensified.  But now, in chapter 9, Saul will become the chosen vessel of God to also spread the gospel.  Saul would soon be a colleague of Philip.

“Saul, Saul …” 9.4 

Saul was “breathing out” threatenings and slaughter against believers, v.1.  With an inward flame of religious zeal, and a letter from the high priest, Saul took a journey from Jerusalem to Damascus – from the heart of Judaism to a Gentile land – a journey which looks like a precursor to how God would direct him eventually.  Saul’s target was those who believed ‘the way’: “if he found any of this way” v.2, is Luke’s terminology in referring to the gospel of Christ.  He not only searched for leaders of ‘the way’, but cast a wide net of persecution upon all Christians, “men or women”, anyone who dared profess the name of Jesus Christ.

As he travelled on that road and came near to Damascus, around noon time, a bright light shone around him from heaven, 22.6.  The noonday sun would have been at its peak, but this supernatural light outshone the sunlight.  The bright heavenly light and the suddenness of the event likely brought him to the ground.  Yet it was not the intense light that shook the man, but what came after: the voice, and the Man behind the voice.

“Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” 9.4

A supernatural phenomenon like this accompanied by a voice from heaven speaking in the Hebrew tongue, 26.14, would have very quickly convinced Saul that the speaker was from heaven, even though he was not sure whether the speaker was an angel, or God Himself.  In what sense then did Saul address the speaker as “Lord”?  Some suggest that there and then he recognised the Divine speaker as Jesus, and, having been converted at that very moment, he addressed Him as “Lord”.  But his use of the word kurios was most likely a generic title of respect for the heavenly speaker whom he was attempting to identify, though fearing the worst, that it might indeed be Jesus Who spoke.

The conversation between Saul and the Lord was terse but precise.3 In Acts chapters 22 and 26, when Paul recounted this conversation he had with the Lord, his personal account was very similar to what Luke records for us in Acts chapter 9, even though Paul’s testimony before Agrippa contains more details regarding his apostolic mission, 26.16-18.  But the very words that turned the persecutor into a believer were these: “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest” 9.4.  That was all that the Lord needed to say.  He did not need many words even though Saul was a ‘difficult case’, as we would naturally put it.  In that very instant, all the preconceived religious notions and outdated theology that Saul held dear and ferociously defended crumbled like the walls of Jericho that were blasted with the sound of the trumpets and the shout of the people; except there were no blasting trumpets or shout here, but a certain still small voice: “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.”  At that very moment, Saul realised that the Jesus Who was crucified was indeed alive, and His resurrection was neither a conspiracy nor an arranged plot by the disciples.  If heaven’s voice was Jesus’ voice, then Jesus of Nazareth was none other than heaven’s Appointed One.  Instantaneously, grace triumphed over hardness and hatred!  A double call from God in the Bible was often accompanied by a life-changing experience.  This “Saul, Saul” double call was surely life changing; the persecutor became the preacher.

3  “‘It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.’ And he trembling and astonished said, ‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’ And the Lord said unto him”. This whole portion is not in most of the major Greek manuscripts, but we have no doubt that the Lord did indeed say, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks”, because Paul mentions it in 26.14.

The Lord said, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”  The “prick”, or ‘goad’, was a pointed object at the end of the shepherd’s stick, used for prodding a stubborn animal to motion.  Sometimes the animal resisted and kicked back, and injured itself when its action caused the prick to pierce into its flesh.  Hence the more the animal resisted, the more likely it was to injure itself.  Based on this analogy of the prick, in what way was Saul kicking against the pricks, or in what way was he injuring himself by resisting?  And what was he resisting?  I suggest that his conscience had been troubled by Stephen’s moving sermon in Acts chapter 7, and likely also by what he had heard thus far about Jesus of Nazareth and His resurrection.  The gospel of the resurrected Christ was the prick, and his troubled conscience was likened to an injury that was self-inflicted when he ‘kicked’ against the ‘pricks’ (the gospel), firstly by resisting it in his conscience, and secondly by persecuting the believers.  Saul’s pogroms were his way of concealing and resisting the conscience troubled by the gospel.  His persecution of the Lord’s people was tantamount to persecuting the Lord Himself, but for every Christian he had thrown into the dungeon, that ‘prick’ penetrated even deeper into the recesses of his conscience.  He thought that by intensifying his persecution he could silence the voice of the Spirit that must have constantly brought to his mind the enigma of the empty tomb, and the gospel he heard through Stephen.  But for every hurt he inflicted upon the Lord’s people, he received more injury to himself inwardly and spiritually.  When the Lord asked, “Why persecutest thou Me?”, He knew the answer: that Saul’s actions were the result of his attempt to ‘quench the convictions that rise’.4

4   From the hymn “There’s a voice that is calling to thee” by J.P. Webster.

“Arise” 9.6

When the Lord appeared to Saul, he fell to the ground.  The Lord said to Saul, “Arise, and go …” v.6.  Saul’s fall to the ground was symbolic of a man brought to his knees to realise that all he had known and fought for had absolutely no value for heaven.  Later in life, Paul said that he counted them as dung, Phil.3.8.  But the Lord’s command to him, “Arise”, signalled the beginning of a new life.  This word “arise” (anistēmi) is commonly used for the resurrection of Christ, but now Saul is called to rise, not from physical death, but as a symbol of his rise from spiritual deadness.  Paul might have thought of this Damascus experience when he said, “Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)” Eph.2.5.  Luke further tells us that he was three days without sight, food or drink, 9.9.  It would be difficult for one to miss the significance of the three days in relation to the Lord’s resurrection. And this only strengthens our point that the call to Saul to rise was somewhat of an identification between him and his new Master, Who was dead, and rose again the third day.

Though Saul was blinded for three days, how clear was the sight!  I do not think that he was in a state of shock and refused to eat and drink for three days because his Pharisaic ambitions and career had been shattered in a matter of moments.  I believe that he was overwhelmed with joy, but at the same time he would have tried to put into perspective all he had known of the Old Testament Scriptures, in the context of the revelation he had now received from his Lord.  He might have been physically hungry for those three days, but he must have been spiritually overjoyed by just digesting and by putting the building blocks of Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah into their correct interpretation, in the light of Jesus Christ.  Paul would not have figured out everything in those three days, but Ananias was told that “he prayeth” 9.11.  He must have prayed for greater enlightenment, based on what he had known in the Scriptures; he would have prayed for strength to face the days ahead, which he knew would be fraught with hardship.  But he was not shattered.  He was blind but enlightened, hungry but full, thirsty but satisfied:

John Newton, who wrote this most famous hymn, also had a very dark background before he was saved, much like Saul.  These words would have been reflective of Saul’s experience too:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

“For, behold, he prayeth” 9.11

Ananias was given an important mission: to reach Saul.  The Lord told him where to go, how to find the place, whom to look for, how to recognise the person, and what to do with him.  He was to go to the house of Judas, and to find Judas’ house he was to go to the street called Straight.  Though Ananias had likely never met Saul or seen his face, nevertheless he would be able to identify him: “for, behold, he prayeth”.  The verb “prayeth” is in the present tense and could also be translated ‘he is praying’.  Therefore, when the Lord was giving these instructions to Ananias, Saul was at that very moment praying, and he was still praying when Ananias found him in the house of Judas, on Straight Street.  Saul was entering into Divine service as a praying man!

The word “bind”, which appears in vv.2,21 (both as “bound”) and 14, is a significant word closely linked with the apostle Paul in other parts of Acts.  Saul was notorious for binding Christians to be prosecuted; however, Paul’s life and service would be marked by being bound.  He said to the elders in Ephesus, “And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me” 20.22,23.  Agabus came to Philip’s house in Caesarea Maritima, where Paul was lodging, and the prophet bound his own hands and feet and said, “Thus saith the Holy Ghost, ‘So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles’” 21.11.  Luke and those with him attempted to persuade Paul not to go to Jerusalem.  Then Paul answered, “What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” 21.13.  Later in the chapter, Paul arrived in Jerusalem, and when there was an uproar against the apostle, the Roman chief captain intervened, “and commanded him to be bound with two chains” 21.33.  We also read that Felix “left Paul bound” 24.27.  In his pre-conversion days, Paul bound prisoners who belonged to Christ; but he himself eventually became a prisoner of Christ, bound for Jerusalem, and bound eventually for Rome.  To be bound for Christ is to be set on a course which God has purposed for us.  But so many Christians live lives without knowing God’s purpose for them, and hence they know very little about what it means to be bound for Him.  We know how to bind up our time for the world and for our careers, and we waste an awful amount of time bound in the entertainment of this world.  But, dear Christians, are we bound, and how are we bound, for Him?

“For he is a chosen vessel unto Me …” 9.15

Ananias said, “Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to Thy saints at Jerusalem …” 9.13.  His statement seems to suggest that perhaps he thought he understood the situation better than the Lord did, and too often we commit this same mistake of presumption.  But the Lord said, “Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto Me, to bear My name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: for I will shew him how great things he must suffer for My name’s sake” vv.15,16.  In what sense was Paul a “chosen vessel”?  The word here translated “chosen”, or “election” (eklogē), is a noun in Greek, which appears seven times in the New Testament and is only used in connection to God’s initiative and, in the case of 9.15, Christ’s initiative.

But before we can effectively answer the question of how Paul was a chosen vessel, we first need to ask another question: What was Ananias really protesting about in 9.13?  There are three possibilities: first: was he saying that Saul had a bad track record, and therefore, questioned if he was a genuine believer?  If so, then Ananias was saying that Saul could be an imposter, pretending to be saved so that he might further infiltrate into the community of believers; second: was Ananias implying that Saul might not be an appropriate choice as a servant of God, seeing that he had committed those atrocities against the saints?  If so, Ananias was, therefore, raising the question to the Lord as to whether Saul would ever be accepted by the believers at large, and especially the apostles in Jerusalem; third: was Ananias wondering why the Lord would save such a one as Saul the persecutor?  If so, he is, therefore, raising his gentle protest to the Lord that he does not understand why an evil man such as Saul should be a worthy recipient of salvation. 

Of the three possibilities, the first is the most unlikely.  It is inconceivable that Ananias should ask if the Lord was certain that Saul was genuinely saved.  It would be unimaginable to think that he was doubting the omniscient Lord.  The second and the third options are more likely, but which of the two is more plausible? As for the second option in the previous paragraph, it would have been reasonable, naturally speaking, for Ananias to wonder if believers would ever trust Saul even though he had been converted.  Would the saints receive one who might have even prosecuted their own family members a while ago?  However, up till this point, in 9.13, the Lord had not yet revealed in full to Ananias what
He wanted to do with Saul.  All that Ananias was commanded to do was to go to the house of Judas and restore sight to Saul.  Hence it would be mere assumption to suggest that Ananias was protesting to the Lord that Saul was not an appropriate choice to be the apostle to the Gentiles. 
This fact was only revealed by the Lord’s answer to Ananias subsequently, in v.15.

That leaves us with the third option, which in my view is what Ananias most likely had implied.  This was the infant stage of the church, and though he was a devout man, Ananias, as well as the believers at large, had yet to learn that the dispensation of grace would be the manifestation of the grace of God in a way that men had not witnessed before.  Such wondrous grace is now demonstrated in the case of Saul’s conversion, as if he was the prototype of the magnanimity of the grace of God through the Lord Jesus Christ.  That was what Paul meant when he said, “Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting” 1Tim.1.16. 

If the third option was the most likely sentiment of Ananias, then we should understand the Lord’s reply to Ananias in that context, and further understand the meaning of the “chosen vessel”.  Ananias expressed his bewilderment by stating to the Lord that Saul was an infamous prosecutor of Christians.  How could one with such a background be worthy of God’s grace?  The Lord’s reply to Ananias was that Saul was His vessel of election, purely out of His own sovereign will.  And this Divine choice had nothing to do with Saul’s merits, for he had none, based on Divine assessment.  The Lord said, “Go thy way …” as if He were saying, ‘Get on with it, I know what I am doing, and I am aware of his notorious background, but he is a vessel of election because of My own pleasure and will …’

Therefore, Paul’s call to apostleship was intertwined with his personal election to salvation, the former never to be realised without the latter being true.  Paul later recited to his Jewish brethren what Ananias said to him when he met him in Judas’ house: “The God of our fathers hath chosen [procheirizomai] thee, that thou shouldest know His will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of His mouth” 22.14.  This word, procheirizomai, appears also in 26.16, used under a similar context.  Even though the definition of this word points to the appointment of one to a function or service, and not likely a word used for election to salvation, yet in the context of this passage it cannot exclude the latter.  Ananias says that “the God of our fathers” – a Divine name familiar to Saul – chose him, firstly to know His will; secondly to see the Just One; and thirdly to hear the voice of His mouth.  These three objectives were met when the Lord revealed Himself to Saul on the road to Damascus.  The Lord had indeed caused Saul to know God’s will; caused the persecutor to see Who the Just One truly was: Jesus the Christ; and also caused Saul to hear His voice.  Saul was, therefore, chosen by God to experience these three things that involved his three faculties: to know with his mind, to see with his eyes, and to hear with his ears, and these led to his salvation.  Ananias continues to say, “For [‘in order that’] thou shalt be His witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard” 22.15.  God chose Saul to know His will, see His Son, and hear His Son’s voice, so that he might be a witness to what he had seen and heard.  Paul’s election and apostolic commission are bound up together.  

Paul’s own consciousness of his election is also revealed in his epistle to the Galatians: “But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by His grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach Him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood” Gal.1.15,16.  This subject of election has generated much controversy and has invited an extensive amount of debate, sometimes to an unnecessary level of intensity.  It is not the writer’s intention to generate more debate on this ancient subject.  Suffice to say, if the Lord had not intervened on that road to Damascus, Saul would never have been the apostle God had intended him to be, and it is unimaginable that the Lord would have intercepted Saul on that road without being certain that Saul would be converted there and then.  God’s sovereign will and man’s own free will are both Divine truths in one’s salvation.  By his own free will Paul initially resisted against his conscience.  But he was later intercepted by the Lord Jesus Who called and saved him there and then, and he freely accepted the truth that Jesus was the Messiah.

As the Lord’s vessel, Saul’s call was closely linked to a Divine purpose, as seen in what the Lord said: “to bear My name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” 9.15.  The order is noteworthy.  Though Ananias said, “Thou shalt be His witness unto all men” 22.15, Saul was a vessel to bear testimony for the Lord primarily to the Gentiles, then to the children of Israel, the latter being comparatively lower in priority as far as God’s mission for him was concerned.

It should be observed that Paul’s account to King Agrippa in 26.16-18 concerning his Divine commission appears compressed, and makes no difference between what the Lord said through Ananias, and what He said directly to Saul.  It is also possible that 26.16-18 was what the Lord said to Saul before Ananias appeared at Judas’ house to restore his sight.  But, more importantly, Paul’s testimony to Agrippa sheds further light on what the Lord said to the apostle regarding his commission: “to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in Me” v.18.  Whenever the gospel preacher is given the privilege to herald God’s good news of salvation, he should be conscious that he is a vessel and a servant of God to enlighten men’s darkened understanding, and to direct them from the pathway of destruction, where they are under the power of Satan, to the narrow way of light, unto God.  It is a great honour to be used by God in this arena of battle between Divine light and cosmic darkness, and to realise that whenever a preacher preaches the gospel, he is at war for the Lord.

Paul’s journey ahead as the chosen vessel of God was expected to be laden with tribulation.  The Lord said that Saul would also suffer for His name’s sake, 9.16.  Ananias had earlier reminded the Lord of “how much [hosos] evil he hath done” 9.13; now the Lord reveals to Ananias “how great things [‘how much’, hosos] he must suffer …”  The sufferings of Paul the apostle would be commensurate with the sufferings he had inflicted upon the saints.  The persecutions inflicted by Saul upon the saints in his pre-conversion days are not ‘swept under the carpet’.  Though he was a vessel of Divine grace and his wrongs were forgiven at the point of his conversion, Saul was also a demonstration of God’s equity in His Divine dealings.

“And straightway he preached Christ …” 9.20

Ananias said, “Brother Saul …” 9.17; 22.13.  Ananias never imagined that he would ever call this man “brother”.  What a change!  Not only in Saul, but in the manner Ananias viewed Saul, and now in the way he addressed him.  There is a certain dramatic effect that Paul wanted his hearers to note when he said, “And the same hour I looked up upon him” 22.13.  The very moment he received his sight, Saul looked up (for he must have been on his knees praying when Ananias arrived) and there, Ananias was standing.  He saw a new brother, a new reality, and a new beginning.  That must have been one of Saul’s most memorable sights; his first physical sight on the other side of destiny: brother Ananias!

Though Saul might have spent some considerable time with the disciples at Damascus, 9.19, he did not wait long to begin preaching Christ.  Luke tells us that “straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God” 9.20.  The street in which Saul stayed in the house of Judas was Straight (euthys) Street; when Ananias came and spoke to him, his sight was straightway (eutheōs, “immediately” is the word used in the Authorised Version) restored; and now Saul straightway (eutheōs) preached Christ.  When God works on His called servant, nothing can delay or hinder, and even the street name had to agree!

Paul was now ready because he was filled with the Holy Spirit, 9.17.  They were expecting him to cause chaos in the synagogues by arresting Christians, but to their surprise, he was preaching in the name which he initially denounced, so much so that his audience was amazed and said, “Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests?” 9.21.  But Saul “increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews …” 9.22.  The verbs “increased” and “confounded” are in the imperfect tense and could have been better rendered “was increasing” and “was confounding”.  Hence Saul was experiencing continual growth in his ability as he preached on and grew in confidence, and he caused a stir within the Jewish scholarly community.


Moses’ life was divided into three stages: first, forty years in Egypt; second, forty years in Midian; third, forty years leading Israel in the wilderness.  Paul’s life has a similar division after his conversion, though not periods of forty years: first, preaching in Damascus; second, obscure years of service; third, well-documented itinerary of his three ‘missionary journeys’.  We have already considered Saul’s pre-conversion background, leading all the way to the point of his Damascus Road encounter.  In this section, we look at those obscure years after his conversion.  We call them silent or obscure years not because Saul was inactive in the work, but simply because there is relatively less material recorded for us in the New Testament, except for some mentions in Paul’s own letters, especially Galatians, and some less obvious mentions in Acts.

These so-called obscure years cover a broad period of approximately fourteen years5:

  • From Saul’s departure from Damascus to Arabia, and then back to Damascus, Gal.1.17; Acts 9.23;
  • From Damascus to Jerusalem, 9.24-29; Gal.1.18-20;
  • From Jerusalem to Caesarea to Tarsus, 9.30;
  • From the time Saul was in Tarsus, and preaching around Syria and Cilicia, Gal.1.21, until he arrived in Antioch upon the invitation of Barnabas to labour with him, 11.25,26;
  • From Antioch to Jerusalem with Barnabas, delivering relief to
    the saints of Jerusalem, and back to Antioch, 11.30; Galatians chapter 2.
5  Mr. Newberry and some other commentators reckon this period as about ten years. This is especially feasible if the events stated by Paul in Galatians chapter 2 coincide with Acts chapter 15, which is what Mr. Newberry subscribes to. It is sufficient to know that there was indeed a gap of time, but scholars differ as to the exact number of years.

I believe these periods covering five phases of the so-called obscure years were formative years for Saul in his theology and doctrine, when he would have received Divine instructions and education, either through direct revelation from God or from the assistance of believers more experienced than he was.  We will briefly address these five phases of Saul’s obscure years:

Damascus – Arabia – Damascus

We have very little information recorded for us here, especially that period when Paul was in Arabia.  Paul’s stay in Arabia is virtually non-existent in the Acts narrative but is tersely encapsulated within this statement: “And after that many days were fulfilled …” 9.23.  However, it is through Paul’s own words in Galatians that we know he went to Arabia, Gal.1.15-17.  Arabia in this case was most likely Nabataea, or the Petra of today.  We are not told why Paul went to Arabia, but from the passage in Galatians, it is very likely that he preached the gospel there.  Instead of going to Jerusalem, the field where the other apostles were labouring, Paul, in keeping with his Gentile commission, went to a land not yet evangelised.  After Arabia, Paul returned to Damascus, and from this point the story in Acts continues: “… the Jews took counsel to kill him” 9.23.  The disciples arranged for Paul’s escape by lowering him down by the wall of the city in a basket.  This same incident is cited by Paul in 2Cor.11.32,33.

Why did the Jews want to kill Paul in Damascus?  And why did the governor under King Aretas of Petra want to arrest the apostle?  It is likely that when Paul was in Petra, there were also local Jews and possibly proselyte Arabs there gathering at the synagogue, and Paul would have preached the gospel and offended the Jews, resulting in unrest that provoked the ire of King Aretas.  If that was the case, then these Jews would have travelled to Damascus and solicited help from the governor under Aretas, as Damascus was under the Nabataean control during that time.6  The governor garrisoned the city with the intention of arresting Paul, who escaped in a basket down the wall.  It is likely that Paul’s missionary effort in Arabia did not yield the result which he had hoped for, and we do not read of any believers or assembly formed there from the records of the New Testament books.  That is possibly the reason why Luke passes over Arabia in Acts.

6  Herod Antipas, who married the princess of Nabataea, divorced her and, in doing so, embarrassed King Aretas. The incident provoked the wrath of the Nabataean king, who sent his army to take on lands under the control of Herod, such as Damascus, in Syria.

If this happened to the apostle Paul, we need not be discouraged when our gospel efforts yield less than we hoped for.  Most of Paul’s missionary successes started from his first missionary journey and onwards, but in these obscure years which we are considering, his successes were relatively marginal.  The lesson we must learn is that the work of the gospel is a long-term work.  We seldom realise that Paul did not see the type of success we normally associate with him until much later.  It involved unceasing labour and hardship even for Paul: why do we expect anything less in our gospel labours?  In many assemblies, tracting work has either diminished or disappeared.  Gospel meetings have deteriorated from a weekly meeting to a bi-monthly meeting, and eventually to an ‘as and when’ arrangement.  Gospel series or tent meetings have become a thing of the past.  All these developments occur because of disappointment resulting from misguided expectations that with a little gospel effort we would see immediate results.  If we observe how Paul laboured in the preaching of the gospel, we might feel ashamed with our miniscule efforts, compared to his.  Unless we realise how little we have done, and that gospel work is long-term work, there will not be a meaningful revival in our evangelical fervour.

Damascus – Jerusalem

The pre-converted Saul pursued Christians in Damascus, and later the converted Saul was pursued by the Jews in Damascus.  The hunter is now the hunted, and he escapes to Jerusalem, 9.26.  Fear and distrust were the natural reactions of the believers in Jerusalem; they doubted that he was genuine, for they “believed not that he was a disciple”.  However, Luke tells us that Barnabas stood in for Saul as a guarantor on the authenticity of his conversion.  Barnabas declared to the saints in Jerusalem that Saul had seen Christ, heard Christ, and preached Christ boldly in Damascus in the name of Jesus, 9.27.

This account of Luke is also matched by Paul’s own testimony in Gal.1.18-20, but Paul furnishes us with some ‘inside information’ in Galatians and tells us that he went to Jerusalem three years after his conversion, and when he arrived in Jerusalem, he abode with Peter for fifteen days.  In that period of fifteen days, he met no other disciples except James the Lord’s brother.  The reason why Paul stated that there was a gap of three years between his conversion and his meeting with the apostle Peter was to establish the point that his call and his gospel were not influenced by any of these great names in Jerusalem.  His Divine commission was directly from the Lord.

It is possible that Barnabas was the one who brought Paul to see Peter, and then James the brother of the Lord, based on Luke’s account, 9.27.  But Luke later adds that “he was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem.  And he spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him” 9.28,29.  This was likely after Paul had stayed for fifteen days with Peter, and was subsequently introduced to a localised circle of believers.  Paul himself said in Galatians that he was “unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ” Gal.1.22.  Hence his fellowship and movement at that time must have been quite localised in the assembly in Jerusalem, where Peter was, and not with the multiple local churches of Judaea.  Furthermore, his stay in Jerusalem was a short one because the enemy was plotting for his life.

During this stay in Jerusalem, his life was in danger.  Paul not only got into trouble when he preached the gospel boldly in Damascus and in Arabia; he faced similar opposition when he did the same in Jerusalem, boldly preaching in the name of the Lord Jesus.  Now it was the Grecian proselytes of Jerusalem7 who wanted to kill him.  Paul was consistent with the message he preached, and the manner in which he preached, hence he often invoked the anger of some wherever he preached.

7  Some commentators take the position that these are Greek-speaking Jews born in foreign lands, hence whenever Acts mentions “Grecians” the reference is to Hellenized Jews, who ere still religiously affiliated to Judaism. However, I believe that these Grecians were Gentile proselytes.

If we preach Christ and Him crucified, and if we faithfully tell men and women about sin, and about heaven and hell, we are bound to get some frowning faces in this modern and self-centered world.  It would not be a surprise if some even walked out of the gospel meeting.  But do we reduce the solemnity of the gospel to avoid such responses?  Paul never did, and on many occasions, to his own peril.  The ‘social gospel’ of today, in its content and methods, with all its worldly embellishments, PowerPoint charts, staged drama, music bands, charity drives, etc., has been framed in such a way as to suit the palate and interest of the modern listener.  It is all designed to attract young people, and to remove any element of solemnity.  These things have manufactured many a false conversion, and contributed to much of today’s nominalism.  Paul wrote, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God.  For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” 1Cor.2.1,2.  And again, “For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” 1Cor.1.21.  Notice that the centre of the message is “Christ crucified”, and the method of communicating this was through “the foolishness of preaching”.

Jerusalem – Caesarea – Tarsus

Because the Grecians wanted to kill Saul in Jerusalem, the brethren escorted Saul down to Caesarea, and then to Tarsus, his hometown, which was the capital of Cilicia.  Luke mentions this part of Saul’s itinerary only in a short statement: “Which when the brethren knew, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus” 9.30.  Caesarea was a port town, and most likely Saul was taken to the port and from there he sailed to Tarsus.  This effectively commenced his “Syria and Cilicia” itinerary, Gal.1.21.  Paul’s mention of the plot of the Grecians, recorded by Luke in Acts 22.17-21, gives us a deeper insight: it was the Lord Himself Who revealed to Saul in a trance that his intended audience would not receive his testimony.  The Lord instructed Saul to get out of Jerusalem quickly, because his life was in danger.  He further said, “I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles” 22.21.  It seems that Saul had focused his efforts among the proselyte Gentiles, in this case, the Grecians in Jerusalem; but the Lord revealed to him that his mission was going to be further away: “far hence unto the Gentiles”.  Hence his call was not to Gentiles within Judaism or Jerusalem, but to Gentiles in Gentile lands, often outside Judaism, even though he would usually enter a synagogue first when he arrived at a city.

The Lord gave Saul greater clarity progressively in his early years of service, and it was becoming clearer that he was to go “far hence unto the Gentiles”.  This is how the Lord guides His servants, and this is true for us as well.  The servants of the Lord might be aware of the nature of their spiritual gifts, but not always having the full clarity of the Lord’s direction until later.  Sometimes it involves years of waiting, which include years of training, but the Lord certainly does not leave it ambiguous when the time comes.

Around Syria and Cilicia, then Antioch

It is through Paul’s own account that we read in Galatians, “Afterwards I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia; and was unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ” Gal.1.21,22.  Paul was moving between the regions of Syria and Cilicia, but most likely making Tarsus his base.  We read later that there were churches made up
of Gentiles established in these areas, surely due to Paul’s gospel
efforts, 15.23,41.  Paul was beginning to see results in his Gentile commission.

Paul was not successful in his gospel efforts to the Grecians in Jerusalem, who attempted to kill him.  But while he was busy in the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and Tarsus, another work among the Grecians was taking place, around Antioch.  This work was, ironically, spurred partly by his earlier persecution of Christians: “Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only.  And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus” 11.19,20.  Some of these dispersed believers of Cyprus and Cyrene came into Antioch to help their Antioch brethren in the preaching of the gospel to the Grecians.  This time, these Gentiles were much more receptive than the Grecians of Jerusalem.  The Lord was giving the increase because we read that a great number believed, 11.21.  Notice that the flourishing of the Antioch assembly did not involve Paul initially, but subsequently it became an important launching point for him.

Barnabas was instrumental in introducing Paul to the Jerusalem believers; now he is again the servant used by the Lord to bring Paul into the work in Antioch, and this proved to be a very strategic and important initiative by Barnabas.  Barnabas went to Tarsus to seek him, and found him, 11.25,26.  Every servant of the Lord knows of an ‘Ananias’, or a ‘Barnabas’, who was instrumental in initiating the younger or more junior man into a more active and public sphere of service.  We ought to be grateful that the Lord often uses a “good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” 11.24, to mentor and invite younger men of spiritual potential into a larger sphere of service.

Saul and Barnabas, who spent a whole year teaching the Word of God in Antioch, and “taught much people” 11.26, played an important role in building up the saints, and caused the local assembly at Antioch to flourish.  The believers at Antioch were the first to be called Christians, 11.26.

Antioch – Jerusalem – Antioch

Luke is very brief about Paul’s journey to deliver relief to the Judaean saints.  This circuit was only mentioned by Luke in a few verses: 11.29,30 and 12.25.

The other possible mention of this visit to Jerusalem is in Gal.2.1-10, by Paul himself.  There are basically two schools of thought: that the visit to Jerusalem in Galatians chapter 2 is either the council meeting in Acts chapter 15; or Paul’s visit to Jerusalem in 11.29,30.  My preference is the latter suggestion, but the scope of this article does not permit us to delve into the details of both arguments.  However, by just reading the account of this circuit by Barnabas and Paul in Acts, we are sufficiently informed that the Lord now begins to use the apostle Paul in this practical ministry with the purpose of building the bridge between Jewish believers in Jerusalem and the predominantly Gentile assembly in Antioch.  The church at Antioch now takes the initiative to demonstrate practical fellowship to their Jewish brethren. 


It is not my intention to write about the entire ‘first missionary journey’.  My focus will be on the commencement of that journey through the call and separation by the Holy Spirit, 13.2, and some initial itineraries of Saul and Barnabas, leading eventually to the point where Luke begins to refer to the apostle as “Paul”, and no longer “Saul” 13.9.  The encounter of Paul on the Damascus Road was the initial call which defines Paul’s overall lifelong service for the Lord, but the separation by the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter 13 in a way officially launched Paul’s Gentile mission, even though he had already preached to Gentiles in Gentile lands prior to this.

It is worthwhile at this point to ask these questions: firstly, if Paul had already been preaching to the Gentiles early on, especially during the first and second stages of his service (as outlined under the section “OBSCURE YEARS”), what is the symbolic significance of mentioning the conversion of Cornelius, a Gentile, at such a late stage, in Acts chapters 10 and 11?; secondly, what is Luke’s literary intention when he places the events recorded in Acts chapters 10 to 12 in the middle of a narrative flow that is obviously moving towards bringing Paul to the place of prominence? The events in Acts chapters 10-12, concerning the conversion of Cornelius; Peter’s defence of Gentile inclusion, at Jerusalem; James’ beheading; Peter’s imprisonment by Herod; and eventually Herod’s demise as the result of the Lord’s judgment, all seem to interrupt this intended flow.

Cornelius and his household were not likely the first Gentiles to exercise faith after hearing the gospel, as some might claim, because Saul was already preaching the gospel to Gentiles early on in his missionary career.  However, Peter’s meeting with Cornelius and his household was indeed symbolic because it was important that Peter, and his apostolic colleagues in Jerusalem, would recognise God’s Divine plan for the Gentiles, and there was no one better than Peter himself as the instrument of preaching on such an occasion, and as the witness of the Holy Spirit’s confirmation of Gentile inclusion.8  Peter was used by God to preach the first gospel at Pentecost, in Acts chapter 2, and now he is the one officially opening the door to the Gentiles.  Without Peter’s witness in chapter 10, and his testimony before his brethren in Jerusalem in chapter 11, Paul’s missionary journeys, commencing in chapter 13, would have raised questions of legitimacy or concerns of appropriateness from the brethren in Jerusalem.  Hence what took place in chapters 10 and 11 became a very important milestone in Divine history, and served as the ‘door opener’ for Paul’s subsequent missionary journeys, bringing the gospel deeper into Gentile lands.

8  The issue in Acts chapter 15 was not about whether the Gentiles should be included, but whether they should be circumcised.

But what about those events recorded in chapters 10-12 that seem somewhat out of place?  Specifically, how are Herod’s persecution and Peter’s imprisonment relevant to our present discussion?  The question is not an easy one.  Perhaps Luke wants us to know that the persecution against the people of God did not end at Saul, while reminding his readers that no enemy could press beyond what God allowed.  Saul was no longer the threat, but “Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church” 12.1.  After one enemy of the saints was removed, another one came up.  While Saul the persecutor was removed by being transformed into Saul the preacher, Herod the murderer became Herod the dead man, for he came under the Divine hand of God.  Yet Luke might have had another thematic interest, that is, to fade out Peter to the background while bringing Saul to the forefront of his narrative, in order to give us the account of how the gospel spread to Gentile regions in the remaining part of Acts.  Therefore, Luke tells us that after Peter was delivered from prison through the intervention of the Lord, “he departed, and went into another place” 12.17.  We do not read of Peter again until Acts chapter 15, at the Jerusalem council, which will be the last time we read of Peter in the Acts of the Apostles.

“Separate Me Barnabas and Saul for the work …” 13.2

The church at Antioch has become the launching point for the spread of the gospel through Paul the apostle.  It has now somewhat superseded Jerusalem’s strategic value as far as the dispensational plan of God is concerned.  Barnabas, 13.1, was from Cyprus, a Levite, 4.36, therefore a European Jew.  Niger would have come from Africa, and was most likely black, as his name suggests, and he was possibly the fruit of the gospel through the Ethiopian eunuch.  It is possible that Lucius of Cyrene is the author, Luke himself, though we cannot be absolutely sure.  Manaen was an aristocrat, having been brought up together with Herod Antipas.  And Saul, of course, was a religious Jew.  These servants of the Lord were from various racial and social backgrounds.  Therefore, the background of the prophets and teachers who were active in the work in Antioch was most reflective of the type of mission work that was commencing in Antioch.

The church at Antioch was praying (possibly what the word “ministered” in v.2 means in the present context) and fasting, waiting upon the Lord to give direction in the work.  The Holy Spirit responded to their exercise: “Separate Me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them” 13.2.  There is a sense of urgency in this call, for it should literally read, “Separate to Me now, Barnabas and Saul …”  Saul’s missionary career to the Gentiles has officially commenced through the Divine initiation of the Holy Spirit.

Notice here that Barnabas’ name preceded Saul’s in the call of the Holy Spirit.  It seems that the more senior man, Barnabas, was given the honour to lead, at least at the beginning of the journey. However, very soon, especially after Luke uses the name “Paul” instead of “Saul”, we notice that Paul becomes the more prominent one, and eventually becomes the one who leads the missionary work.  When confronting Elymas, Paul began to exercise apostolic authority when he set his eyes upon the sorcerer and pronounced judgment upon him, 13.9-11. Luke speaks of “Paul and his company”, not ‘Barnabas and his company’ 13.13.  In Antioch in Pisidia, Paul was the one who stood up in the synagogue and gave us his first Stephen-like sermon, 13.16-41; and after this sermon, Luke says that many “followed Paul and Barnabas” v.43.  From this point onwards, it becomes apparent that Paul had become the leader, and rightly so, for he was only fulfilling the ministry which the Lord had so uniquely given to him.

“Then Saul, (who also is called Paul,) …” 13.9

Contrary to popular belief, Saul was not exclusively a pre-conversion name of the apostle, neither was Paul the name he was given after he was converted.  Both were his permanent names, for Luke says, “who also is called Paul”.  Saul was his Jewish name, and Paul, or Paulos, was his Roman citizenship name.  If the apostle had had a Roman citizen’s identity card, it would have borne the name “Paulos” and not “Saul”.  Why did Luke decide to use his Roman name (in the Greek language) instead of his Jewish name (in the Hebrew language) from this point onwards?  Possibly because Paul has now come into the full exercise of his ministry to the Gentiles as appointed by the Lord.  The unfolding of the events that took place in Paphos will also provide greater insights into why Saul is now called Paul.

When Barnabas and Paul left Antioch, they passed through Seleucia, then sailed to Cyprus, where they visited Salamis and then Paphos, 13.4-6.  Luke now focuses on the story of the false prophet Bar-jesus, who was also called Elymas, and the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus, in Paphos.  The following points on how Luke narrates the encounter of the apostle with Bar-jesus and Sergius Paulus might give us an insight into why Saul is now referred to as Paul:

Firstly, in the record of Scripture, Sergius Paulus was the first Gentile individual in a Gentile land converted under Paul’s preaching, who was not linked to Judaism or the synagogue system.

Secondly, Acts frequently brings to the readers’ attention the conflict between God and the devil.  In fact, in each of the three ‘missionary journeys’ of Paul, there is at least one mention of demonic activity.  Now Paul has become the servant of the Lord placed at the forefront of this conflict between light and darkness, starting with this encounter between him and Elymas.  When Paul here for the first time exercised this authority to defeat the power of darkness, represented in Elymas, this was the point when Luke began to call him “Paul”, and no longer “Saul”.  This confrontation with the power of darkness in Gentile lands was part of Paul’s missionary calling, for the Lord said to him, “… to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God …” 26.18.  Hence, Luke records this encounter to show us that Paul has begun to fulfil this part of the Lord’s commission.

Thirdly, the false prophet had two names, Bar-jesus and Elymas; the apostle also had two names, Saul and Paul.  However, they were serving under different masters. One was the child of the devil, v.10, and the other was filled with the Holy Ghost, v.9.  It is ironic that the child of the devil should have a name (“Bar-jesus”) which means ‘son of Jesus’; if there was anyone qualified to be called ‘son of Jesus’ it was Paul, and not this evil sorcerer.  Perhaps Luke saw that this was a good place to show that Saul, also called Paul, was now the worthy steward and soldier to face the frontal assault of the devil, whose servant also had two names, albeit devious names.  This was a clash between a man with two names serving the Lord, and another with two names serving the devil.

Fourthly, the way Bar-jesus was blinded and led by the hand after Paul’s pronouncement of judgment is reminiscent of how Paul himself was met by the Lord on the way to Damascus, and was blinded and led by the hand.  By bringing out the similarity (and also the contrast: the sorcerer blinded because of judgment, Saul blinded to subsequently behold a new reality) between Bar-jesus’ calamity and Paul’s conversion experience, the readers cannot help but notice the hint inserted by Luke at this point, to remind us that the apostle’s experience on the Damascus Road has found here an alternative parallel in his enemy from the realm of darkness. 

Therefore, this encounter was somewhat of an initiation of Paul into the full realisation of his ministry.  Based on the points stated above, Luke found it appropriate to use the Gentile name of the apostle throughout the remainder of Acts, to signal the full realisation of the apostle’s call and the clarity of direction, which he must now have obtained through the unfolding of the above events. 


The Acts of the Apostles may perhaps be thought by some to close in a manner that seems to imply that Paul’s mission had failed.  After all, he was housebound in the hands of his captors.  Hence, we want to ask the following questions: first, did Luke end his book with Paul’s defeat?; second, did Paul fulfil his apostolic call as far as Luke was concerned?; third, why did Luke end his book the way he did, as if he had deliberately left the story without a happy ending?

I believe that if we can answer the first question, the answers to the other questions will become apparent.  Let us state upfront that Luke did not end his book with Paul’s defeat.  On the contrary, Paul was already Christ’s victor by the time he reached Rome, though he was a prisoner.  For Luke, Paul not only answered the Divine call, but completed his heavenly commission.

There are many similarities between the life of the Lord Jesus on earth and that of Paul the apostle.  One of the similarities is how their enemies viewed their end.  In the eyes of the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus of Nazareth had failed in His mission when they crucified Him through Roman hands; they did not understand that His death was His victory, and they refused to believe that He rose from the dead.  In the eyes of those Jews who wanted Paul removed, his arrest and eventual demise under the hands of the Romans meant the preacher’s defeat; they did not understand that it was Paul’s victory.  Paul has penetrated the centre that represented Gentile rule with the gospel of Christ! 

Even though there were already believers and churches in Rome before Paul arrived there, as is evident in Romans chapter 16, Paul’s arrival in Rome was still significant for Luke because his preaching efforts must have yielded important results and successes that were never achieved before.  But do we know what these successes were?  We do, for Paul himself wrote, “So that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places” Phil.1.13.  The word “palace” is the word praitōrion, commonly associated with Rome’s judgment hall.  Paul’s imprisonment became a well-known and high-profile case in the Roman courts, and it offered him great opportunities to bear testimony for Christ.  Later in the same epistle Paul wrote, “All the saints salute you, chiefly they that are of Caesar’s household” Phil.4.22.  The imprisoned Paul, known even to Caesar’s household, must have also found the opportunity to preach the gospel to them.  Not only did he carry the gospel into the capital of the world, he also brought the good news of the gospel into the innermost sphere of the emperor. 

That is why we stated in our Introduction that Luke is not giving us the history of Paul per se in Acts, but the history of how the gospel of Jesus Christ arrived at the heart of the Gentile realm through this great apostle.  Luke is not writing a biography of Paul, which might end with how Paul died, but a biography of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  However, this biography does not end with the gospel’s demise, but, through Paul the apostle, it now covers the breadth and depth of then-known Gentile lands.  And now, the apostle to the Gentiles has reached his final destination, Rome!

It is most moving that Paul used the word “chiefly” or ‘especially’ in Phil.4.22: “chiefly [‘especially’] they that are of Caesar’s household”.  Imagine: all the saints with Paul, and especially those of Caesar’s household, send their greetings to the saints at the Philippi assembly!  Those of the emperor’s household, upon being saved, must have been especially thrilled to know that there were believers in the Lord Jesus Christ throughout the world, whom they never knew.  And now they were no longer separated by social status from these in the Lord, but were united in the common faith.

It is highly significant that when he was in Rome Paul was “preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ …” 28.31.  Rome once mocked the Lord Jesus with the title “King of the Jews” in the land of Israel, but now the message of the kingdom of God and of Jesus Christ the Lord and King has not only arrived at the heart of the Roman Empire, but it has also found a place in the inner sanctum of Gentile rule, in the hearts of the emperor’s household. The “King of the Jews”, once victorious in Jerusalem, is now victorious again, in Rome!