“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9:1-5)
The beginning of Acts 9 must be understood in the light of the preceding context of Acts 8:40 which says, “But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.” The faithful preaching ministry of Philip on behalf of the gospel is in direct contrast to the murderous persecution waged by Saul against the gospel. No two men could have been more different but at the same time very similar.
Phillip was one of the original seven deacons chosen by the early church to ensure that the practical and physical needs of the Hellenistic widows were being met (Acts 6:1-2). Along with Stephen, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Pharmenos, and Nicolaus, Phillip was a man full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom (Acts 6:3-6). Phillip’s ministry included proclaiming the gospel in Samaria and then not only explaining the gospel to the Ethiopian Eunuch but also baptizing him (Acts 8:1-39).
In contrast, Saul was ravaging the church (Acts 8:3). The word ravaging (ἐλυμαίνετο; elymaineto) means to severely injure and to cause great harm to someone. The grammar indicates that Saul did this personally, consistently and continually. He also was forcibly dragging people off and actively delivering believers in Christ to prison.
Today’s text says, “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” Apparently, Damascus had a large population of Jews, including Hellenist believers in Christ, who fled Jerusalem because of Saul’s initial persecution (Acts 8:2).
Acts 9:1 begins with the statement that Saul was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. In this context, the word breathing (ἐμπνέων; empneon) is a euphemism, or synonym, meaning to strongly threaten and or to make firm threats. This was done to the point of, and including, murder. How ironic it is that Saul, who was seemingly so devoted to the Old Testament, perceived it to be appropriate to violate one the Lord’s most familiar commands: “Thou shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13).
At this moment in time, the church and believers were known as belonging to the Way. This description occurs several times in Luke’s account of the early church (Acts 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). Dr. John MacArthur comments that, “This is an appropriate title because Christianity is the way of God (Acts 18:26), the way into the holy places (Hebrews 10:19-20), and the way of truth (John 14:6; 2 Peter 2:1-2).”
People may wonder how Phillip and Saul were similar? First, they were committed men. Second, they were passionate men. Third, they were men who took their passionate commitment beyond the City of Jerusalem and the confines of their Jewish religious culture. Phillip would venture into Samaria while Saul was ready, willing and able to travel to Damascus, the capital of Syria, located 160 miles northeast of Jerusalem.
However, while Phillip was obediently serving the Lord, Saul was mistakenly in conflict with the same Lord. That was all about to change.
Soli deo Gloria!