Saul’s Early Christian Experiences
After obeying the gospel, having his sins washed away, and ridding himself of the guilt over what he had done to the church, Saul of Tarsus began to meet with the disciples in Damascus. One can only imagine what the reaction was among those Christians when they first heard about Saul’s conversion. Many of them were probably like those in Jerusalem, who didn’t believe he was really converted. However, it is almost guaranteed that Ananias spoke up on his behalf, explaining his own part in Saul’s conversion to the truth.
Somewhere around this time (the Bible isn’t clear on exactly when it took place), Saul traveled to Arabia, before returning to Damascus.1 How long he was there, what happened while he was there, or even exactly where there is—all of these are questions to which we are simply not given the answer.2 Some have suggested that it was in Arabia that Saul was baptized with the Holy Spirit, receiving his apostolic orders and the ability to pass on miraculous abilities.3
During his time in Damascus, Saul started preaching in the synagogues, gathering the evidence from the Scriptures and putting it all together, showing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.4 By doing this, he stirred up the Jews, causing them great confusion and aggravation (something he was going to experience for the rest of his life); and he also amazed all those who heard him because of his complete change of heart. “Isn’t this he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and came here for the same purpose, that he might bring them tied up to the ruling priests?”5
The Christians were being encouraged, and it is probable that several of the Jews obeyed the gospel during those days. But after “many days” passed (most likely three years since his conversion), the Jews decided they’d had enough and plotted together to kill him. They watched the city gates day and night, waiting for the opportunity to grab him and kill him6—they didn’t take kindly to traitors, especially because his change was a condemnation of their own practices.
However, Saul was aware of their plot, and after discussing it with the other Christians in the city, it was decided that they would take him at night, put him in a basket, and lower him down the wall of the city so he could escape. From there, he traveled south, back to the city where he had been hailed as a hero by the Jews, and feared by a struggling and decimated Christian population—Jerusalem.7
Once Saul arrived, he located some of the Christians (having persecuted them heavily, he would have had a good idea where many of them lived or met), and tried to join them. Saul’s history in the city, his reputation as a murderer of Christians, was still fresh in their minds, and they rejected his attempts, believing that Saul was lying about having been converted. It’s not a stretch to imagine them running, hiding, locking their doors, having private meetings with other Christians who were all afraid that Saul had come back home.
However, Barnabas learned about Saul’s conversion (whether he simply believed Saul or it was revealed to him by inspiration, we are not told),8 and took it upon himself to bridge the gap that separated Saul from the Jerusalem Christians. He took Saul to the apostles9 and declared to them how Jesus had appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus, and had spoken to him. He certainly would have told them about his baptism. Then he added how Saul had boldly preached the name of Jesus in the synagogues at Damascus. Barnabas’ words held a great influence, and the apostles and Christians in Jerusalem forgave Saul for his persecution, and welcomed him as a faithful brother in Jesus Christ.10
As a member of the church in Jerusalem, Saul was very active in publicly proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ. He even debated against the Hellenistic Jews,11 frustrating them so much that they tried to kill him.12 Like in Damascus, when the brethren discovered what was happening, they sent Saul away for his safety, as well as their own. They took him to Caesarea, on the western coast of Judea, and sent him (most likely by ship) to his hometown of Tarsus.13
With Saul gone, the fires of controversy mellowed, and the churches of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had rest, and the church grew.14
-Bradley S. Cobb
1 Galatians 1:17
2 In Galatians 1:17-18, Paul mentions “after three years,” but that phrase comes after he mentioned the return to Damascus—and that time period might encompass the entire time since his conversion. So the only thing it tells us about the length of his Arabian stay is that it must have been less than three years—and most likely it wasn’t a long stay at all, since Luke didn’t see fit to even mention it, even in passing. Regarding where this Arabia was, we shall quote from Vincent’s Word Studies on Galatians 1:17: “It is entirely impossible to decide what Paul means by this term, since the word was so loosely used and so variously applied. Many think the Sinaitic peninsula is meant (Stanley, Farrar, Matheson, Lightfoot). Others, the district of Auranitis near Damascus (Lipsius, Conybeare and Howson, Lewin, McGiffert). Others again the district of Arabia Petraea.”
3 It is never said in the Scriptures that Saul/Paul ever received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. However, there must have been some point in time where he received the miraculous abilities direct from heaven, for only an apostle could pass on the miraculous gifts (which Paul could do, see Acts 19:1-7), and Paul declared that his apostleship did not come from man, but from God (Galatians 1:1). Since Luke doesn’t reveal it to us (Saul/Paul is first recorded to have done a miracle in chapter 13), we are left to guess.
4 Acts 9:20-22. The word “proving” (KJV, verse 22) literally means “to put together.” Thus, Saul was presenting the evidence and showing how it all fit together to prove that Jesus is that Christ they had been waiting for.
5 Acts 9:21.
6 Acts 9:23-24.
7 Acts 9:24-26a.
8 Barnabas was a prophet (Acts 13:1), so receiving the message directly from God wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility.
9 At this point, there are some difficulties. According to Paul’s own testimony in Galatians 1:17-19, when he went to Jerusalem, he met with Peter, but saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother (see chapter on him for more details on his status as an “apostle”). Yet Luke says that Barnabas took him before “the apostles.” Vincent suggests that this visit was just before Peter and James, seeking to harmonize the two passages. It is possible that the Jerusalem visit of Galatians 1:17-21 is a different one from Acts 9, though both chapters record him traveling to Cilicia afterwards, which seems to indicate that they are the same event (Acts 9:30, Galatians 1:21). Ultimately, Vincent’s suggestion, though not thoroughly satisfactory, seems to be the most likely explanation.
10 Acts 9:26-28.
11 Acts 9:29. The ASV has “Grecian Jews,” which is a more explanatory translation. The word “Hellenist” describes Jews who spoke Greek, and were not fluent in Hebrew/Aramaic—if they spoke it at all. These Jews did not reside in the Promised Land (Judea, Samaria, Galilee), but in other areas of the Roman Empire. See also Acts 6:1.
12 Acts 9:29. There was a class/racial divide among the Hellenistic Jews and the Jews from Judea. The Hellenists in general viewed themselves as more educated than their Judean counterparts. Meanwhile, the Judean Jews viewed themselves as more faithful to God because they could still speak Hebrew/Aramaic. Saul is placed in an interesting position, because he was not born in Judea, but was fluent in both Greek and Hebrew. His education (and likely inspiration as well) made him too great of a challenge for the “educated” Hellenists. Thus, these factors all worked together to make them want him gone.
13 Acts 9:30.
14 Acts 9:31. It is interesting that Luke records Saul’s departure as one of the things that brought peace and growth to the churches in that area. While Saul had the best of intentions, and was forcibly proving his case, his tactics may have been closing people’s minds to the truth instead of opening them. Let us at least consider that as a possibility and think about the way we come across to others.