(1) Yet breathing out threatenings.—The “yet” implies a considerable interval since the death of Stephen, probably coinciding with the time occupied by the mission-work of Philip in the previous chapter. During this interval the persecution had probably been continuing. The Greek participle, literally, breathing-in, is somewhat more emphatic than the English. He lived, as it were, in an atmosphere of threats and slaughter. It was the very air he breathed. Patristic writers and their followers have not unnaturally seen a half-prophetic parallelism between the language of Jacob, “Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf: in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil” (Genesis 49:27), and this description of one who gloried in being of that tribe (Philippians 3:5), and bore the name of its great hero-king.
Went unto the high priest.—It will be remembered that the high priest (whether we suppose Annas or Caiaphas to be meant) was a Sadducee, and that Saul gloried in being a Pharisee of the straitest sect (Acts 26:5). The temper of the persecutor, however, does not shrink from strange companionship, and the coalition which had been formed against our Lord (Matthew 26:3) was renewed against His followers. If, as is probable, the admission of the Samaritans to the new community had become known at Jerusalem, it would naturally tend to intensify their hatred. It would seem to them as if the accursed people were now allied with the Galileans against the Holy Place, and those who were zealous for its honour.
If he found any of this way.—Literally, of the way. We have here the first occurrence of a term which seems to have been used familiarly as a synonym for the disciples of Christ (Acts 19:9; Acts 19:23; Acts 22:4; Acts 24:14; Acts 24:22). It may have originated in the words in which Christ had claimed to be Himself the “Way,” as well as the “Truth” and the “Life” (John 14:6); or in His language as to the “strait way” that led to eternal life (Matthew 7:13); or, perhaps, again, in the prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3) cited by the Baptist (Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3), as to preparing “the way of the Lord.” Prior to the general acceptance of the term “Christian” (Acts 11:26) it served as a convenient, neutral designation by which the disciples could describe themselves, and which might be used by others who wished to speak respectfully, or, at least, neutrally, instead of the opprobrious epithet of the “Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). The history of the term “Methodists,” those that follow a distinct “method” or “way” of life, offers a partial but interesting analogue.
Whether they were men or women.—The mention of the latter has a special interest. They too were prominent enough to be objects of the persecution. It is probable that those who were most exposed to it would have fled from Jerusalem, and among these we may think of those who had been foremost in their ministry during our Lord’s life on earth (Luke 8:2), and who were with the Apostles at their first meeting after His Ascension (Acts 1:14).
Might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.—The mission implied that the offence, as being against the Holy Place and the Law, as involving what would be called, in modern language, sacrilege and heresy, was beyond the jurisdiction of the subordinate tribunals, and must be reserved for that of the Council. (See Notes on Matthew 5:22; Matthew 10:17.)
He came near Damascus.—The city has the interest of being one of the oldest in the world. It appears in the history of Abraham (Genesis 14:15; Genesis 15:2), and was, traditionally, the scene of the murder of Abel. David placed his garrisons there (2 Samuel 8:6; 1 Chronicles 18:6), and, under Rezon, it resisted the power of Solomon (1 Kings 11:24). Its fair streams, Abana and Pharpar, were, in the eyes of the Syrian leper, better than all the waters of Israel (2 Kings 5:12). It was the centre of the Syrian kingdom in its alliances and wars with those of Israel and Judah (2 Kings 14:28; 2 Kings 16:9-10; Amos 1:3; Amos 1:5). Its trade with Tyre in wares, and wine of Helbon, and white wool is noted by Ezekiel (Acts 27:16; Acts 27:18). It had been taken by Parmenion for Alexander the Great, and again by Pompeius. It was the birth-place of Nicolaos of Damascus, the historian and rhetorician who is conspicuous as the counsellor of Herod the Great (Jos. Ant. xii. 3, § 2; xvi. 2, § 2). At a later period it was the residence of the Ommiyad caliphs, and the centre of the world of Islam. The beauty of its site, the river which the Greeks knew as Chrysorrhoas, the “Golden Stream,” its abounding fertility, the gardens of roses, made it, as Lamartine has said, a “predestined capital.” Such was the scene which met the bodily eye of the fanatic persecutor. The historian does not care to dwell on its description, and hastens to that which met his inward gaze. Assuming the journey to have been continuous, the approach to Damascus would come on the seventh or eighth day after leaving Jerusalem.
There shined round about him a light from heaven.—As in Acts 26:13, “above the brightness of the sun.” Three accounts of the event that thus turned the current of the life of Saul of Tarsus meet us in the Acts. (1) This, which gives the writer’s report of what he could hardly have heard from any lips but St. Paul’s; (2) St. Paul’s narrative before the Sanhedrin (Acts 22:6-11); (3) that which he gives before Agrippa (Acts 26:13-18). They present, as will be seen, considerable variations, such as were natural in the records of a manifestation which was partial to some, and complete to one only. Those that were with him heard a voice but did not distinguish words (Acts 22:9). They saw, as stated here (Acts 9:7), the light, but did not perceive the form of Him who spoke. The phenomena, in this respect, stand parallel to those of the voice from heaven, in which some heard the words, ascribing them to an angel, while others, hearing only the sound, said it thundered (see Note on John 12:29). It is not possible in such a history to draw a hard and fast line between the objective and the subjective. The man himself cannot say whether he is in the body or out of the body (2 Corinthians 12:2-3). It is enough for him that he sees what others do not see, and hears what they do not hear, while they too hear and see enough to prove both to themselves and to him that something has occurred beyond the range of ordinary phenomena. Nothing in the narrative suggests the thought of a sudden thunderstorm, which has seemed to some writers a probable explanation of the facts. In that case, the gathering gloom, the dark rolling clouds, would have prepared the traveller for the lightning-flash. If this hypothesis be at all entertained—and as it does not necessarily exclude the supernatural element, and presents analogies to the divine manifestations on Sinai (Exodus 19:16) and Horeb (1 Kings 19:11-12), it may be entertained legitimately—we must think of the storm, if we take such a view, as coming with an almost instantaneous quickness, the first flash and crash striking all with terror, while the full revelation of the Christ was made to the consciousness and conscience of the future Apostle.
I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.—Some of the best MSS. give “Jesus of Nazareth”; or better, perhaps, Jesus the Nazarene. It is probable, however, that this was inserted from Acts 22:18, where it occurs in St. Paul’s own narrative. Assuming the words to have been those which he actually heard, they reproduced the very Name which he himself, as the chief accuser of Stephen, had probably uttered in the tone of scorn and hatred (Acts 6:14)—the very Name which he had been compelling men and women to blaspheme. Now it was revealed to him, or to use his own suggestive mode of speech, “in him” (Galatians 1:16), that the Crucified One was in very deed, as the words of Stephen had attested, at the right hand of God, sharing in the glory of the Father. The pronouns are both emphatic, “I, in my Love and Might and Glory, I am the Jesus whom thou, now prostrate and full of dread, hast been bold enough to persecute.” It was not the disciples and brethren alone whom Saul was persecuting. What was done to them the Lord counted as done unto Himself (Matthew 10:40).
It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.—There is a decisive preponderance of MS. authority against the appearance of these words here, and the conclusion of nearly all critics is that they have been inserted in the later MSS. from Acts 26:14. As they occur in the English text, however, and belong to this crisis in St. Paul’s life, it will be well to deal with them now. In their outward form they were among the oldest and most familiar of Greek proverbs. The Jew who had been educated in the schools of Tarsus might have read them in Greek poets (Æschylus, Agam. 1633; Pindar, Pyth. ii. 173; Eurip. Bacch. 791), or heard them quoted in familiar speech, or written them in his boyhood. They do not occur in any collection of Hebrew proverbs, but the analogy which they presented was so obvious that the ploughmen of Israel could hardly have failed to draw the same lesson as those of Greece. What they taught was, of course, that to resist a power altogether superior to our own is a profitless and perilous experiment. The goad did but prick more sharply the more the ox struggled against it. Two of the passages cited apply the words directly to the suffering which man is sure to encounter when he resists God, as e.g.—
“With God we may not strive:
But to bow down the willing neck,
And bear the yoke, is wise;
To kick against the pricks will prove
A perilous emprise.”
—Pind. Pyth. ii. 173.
We ask what lesson the words brought to the mind of Saul. What were the “pricks” against which he had been “kicking”? The answer is found in what we know of the facts of his life. There had been promptings, misgivings, warnings, which he had resisted and defied. Among the causes of these, we may well reckon the conversion of the friend and companion of his youth (see Note on Acts 4:36), and the warning counsel of Gamaliel (Acts 5:34-39), and the angel-face of Stephen (Acts 6:15), and the martyr’s dying prayer (Acts 7:60), and the daily spectacle of those who were ready to go to prison and to death rather than to renounce the name of Jesus. In the frenzy of his zeal he had tried to crush these misgivings, and the effort to do so had brought with it discomfort and disquietude which made him more “exceedingly mad” against the disciples of the Lord. Now he learnt that he had all along, as his master had warned him, been “fighting against God,” and that his only safety lay in the surrender of his own passionate resolve to the gracious and loving Will that was seeking to win him for itself. In his later retrospect of this stage of his life he was able, as by a subtle process of self-analysis, to distinguish between the element of ignorance, which made forgiveness possible, and that of a wilful resistance to light and knowledge which made that forgiveness an act of free and undeserved compassion (1 Timothy 1:12-13).
Arise, and go into the city.—In the narrative of Acts 26:16 there appears a fuller manifestation of the divine purpose as made at this time; but there St. Paul, in his rapid survey, is obviously combining, in one brief summary, the whole sum and substance of the teaching that was associated with that great turning-point of his life. We may trace in the command actually given a stage in the divine discipline appointed for his spirit. Silence and submission, and acquiescence in ignorance of the future, and patient expectation, and prayer for light—these were needed before he could be ready for the great work which was to be committed to his charge.
“An infant crying for the light,
And with no language but a cry.”
They led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.—The mission on which Saul had come was already known at Damascus, and his arrival expected with alarm. Now he came, and the mission fell to the ground. The letters to the synagogues were not delivered.
To him said the Lord in a vision.—It is clear from Acts 9:16 that the writer is speaking of the Lord Jesus. The ready acceptance of the command seems to imply either personal discipleship or previous visions of the same nature.
Saul, of Tarsus.—The passage is memorable as the first mention of the Apostle’s birth-place. For an account of the city, see Notes on Acts 7:58 and Acts 9:30.
Behold, he prayeth.—The thoughts which the words suggest belong to the preacher rather than the commentator. We can but think of the contrast between the present and the recent past—between the threatening and slaughter which the persecutor breathed out as he drew near to Damascus, and the prayer of humble penitence in which he was now living. Estimating that prayer by that which came as the answer to it, we may think of it as including pardon for the past, light and wisdom for the future, strength to do the work to which he was now called, intercession for those whom he had before persecuted unto the death.
Thy saints at Jerusalem.—This is noticeable as the first application of the term “saints” to the disciples. The primary idea of the word was that of men who consecrated themselves, and led, in the strictest sense of the word, a devout life. A term of like import had been taken by the more religious Jews in the time of the Maccabeans. The Chasidim, or Saints (the word occurs in Psalm 16:3), were those who banded themselves together to resist the inroads of heathenism under Autiochus Epiphanes. They appear in the books of Maccabees under the title of Assideans (1 Maccabees 2:42; 1 Maccabees 7:13; 2 Maccabees 14:6). The more distinctive name of Pharisees (Separatists), which came to be attached to the more zealous Chasidim, practically superseded this; and either by the disciples themselves, or by friendly outsiders, the Greek equivalent of the old Hebrew word—and probably, therefore, in Palestine, the Aramaic form of the word itself—was revived to describe the devout members of the new society. The fact that their Master had been conspicuously “the Holy One of God” (the same adjective is used of Him in the quotations from Psalm 16:10, in Acts 2:27; Acts 13:35), made it natural that the term should be extended to His followers, just as He had been spoken of as the “Just One” (Acts 3:14; Acts 7:52); and yet that name was applied, in its Greek form, to James the brother of the Lord, and, in its Latin form of Justus, to the three so named in Acts 1:23; Acts 18:7; Colossians 4:11. It is significant that its first appearance in the New Testament should be as used by the man who was sent to be St. Paul’s instructor, and that it should afterwards have been employed so frequently by the Apostle himself (Romans 1:7; Romans 15:25; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 1 Corinthians 6:1-2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1, et al.). The “devout man according to the Law,” may well have been among the Chasidim even prior to his conversion to the faith of Christ. The term appears in inscriptions from the Catacombs in the Museum of the Collegio Romano at Rome—“N. or M. resteth here with the Saints”; but probably in the later sense, as attached to martyrs and others of distinguished holiness.
To bear my name before the Gentiles.—The mission of the Apostle was thus revealed to Ananias in the first instance. He is one who welcomes that expansion of the kingdom on which even the chief of the Apostles would have entered, but for the voice from heaven, with doubt and hesitation (Acts 10:13; Acts 10:28). He is taught to see in the man of whom he had only heard as the persecutor, one who had been trained and chosen as fitter than all others for the work of that expansion.
And kings.—The words find their fulfilment in the speech before Agrippa (Acts 26:12); possibly in one before Nero (2 Timothy 1:16).
That thou mightest receive thy sight . . . .—Better, regain thy sight. The narrative clearly implies that here, as in Acts 8:17, the being “filled with the Holy Ghost” was connected with the laying on of hands as a condition, and it is so far a proof that that gift was not one which attached exclusively to the Apostles. It was, we may well believe, manifested in this instance as in others, by the ecstatic utterance of “the tongues” (comp. Acts 19:6; 1 Corinthians 14:18), and by the gift of prophetic insight.
Arose, and was baptised.—It is clear that both Saul and Ananias looked on this as the indispensable condition for admission into the visible society of the kingdom of God. No visions and revelations of the Lord, no intensity of personal conversion, exempted him from it. For him, too, that was the “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5), the moment of the new birth, of being buried with Christ (Romans 6:3-4). It may be inferred almost as a matter of certainty that it was at the hands of Ananias that he received baptism. The baptism would probably be administered in one or other of the rivers which the history of Naaman had made famous, and so the waters of “Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus” (2 Kings 5:12), were now sanctified no less than those of Jordan for the “mystical washing away of sin.”
And came hither.—More accurately, had come hither, as implying that the purpose of his coming had been abandoned.
He assayed to join himself to the disciples.—The reader may note the use of the word “assay,” which has since been confined to a purely technical meaning, in the wider sense of trying or attempting. The verb for “join” is that which is always used of close and intimate fellowship, such as that of husband and wife, of brothers, and of friends. (Comp. Acts 10:28; Matthew 19:5; Luke 15:15; 1 Corinthians 6:16.) He was seeking, in the language of a later time, full communion with the disciples. It was not strange that his motives should be at first suspected. Might he not be coming to “spy out” their weak places, and in time appear again as a persecutor? The difficulty which at first presents itself in understanding how the Church at Jerusalem could have remained ignorant of what Saul had done at Damascus as a preacher of the faith, is adequately explained by the political incidents to which attention has been already drawn. The occupation of the city by Aretas, and his enmity against the Herodian house, may well have stopped the usual intercourse between it and Jerusalem, then under the rule of Agrippa, and so the reports that reached the Apostles would come in uncertain and fluctuating forms, which were not sufficient to lead the disciples to trust in the conversion of the persecutor.
Brought him to the apostles.—In the more definite account in Galatians 1:18-19, we find that his primary purpose was to exchange thoughts (ἱστορῆσαι = to inquire, the word from which we get our “history”) with Peter, and that the only other leading teacher that he saw (we need not now inquire whether he speaks of him as an Apostle or not) was “James, the Lord’s brother.” It may, perhaps, be inferred from this, either (1) that the other Apostles were absent from Jerusalem at the time, or (2) that the new convert did not attend any public meeting of the Church.
Throughout all Judæa and Galilee and Samaria.—Brief as the notice is, it is every way significant. It is the first intimation since the opening of the apostolic history of the existence, not of disciples only, such as had gathered round our Lord during His personal ministry, but of organised religious communities, in the towns and villages of Galilee. We may think of such churches as formed in Capernaum and Tiberias, in Chorazin and the two Bethsaidas, perhaps even in Nazareth. The history is silent as to the agency by which these churches had been founded; but looking to the close relations between St. Luke and St. Philip, and to the probability that the latter made Cæsarea his head-quarters for the work of an Evangelist, we may legitimately think of him as having worked there as he had worked in Samaria. It is not improbable, however, that here also, as in that region, he may have been followed, after he had done his work as an Evangelist, by the Apostles to whom it belonged to confirm and organise. (See Note on Acts 8:14.) The mention of Samaria in like manner indicates the extent and permanence of the result of Philip’s work there, followed up as it had been by the preaching of Peter and John.
Were edified; and walking. . . .—The more accurate construction of the sentence gives, The Church . . . . had peace, being edified and walking in the fear of the Lord, and was multiplied by the counsel of the Holy Ghost. The passage is noticeable for the appearance of the word “edified,” or “built up,” in the sense in which St. Paul had used it (1 Corinthians 8:1; 1 Corinthians 14:4), as describing orderly and continuous growth, the superstructure raised wisely upon the right foundation,
Walking in the fear of the Lord.—The phrase, so common in the Old Testament, is comparatively rare in the New, being used only by St. Luke here, and in 2 Corinthians 5:11, where it is wrongly translated “the terror of the Lord.” What it describes, as interpreted by its Old Testament use (Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7, et al.), is the temper of reverential awe; the scrupulous obedience to the commandments of God, which had been described of old as “the beginning” of wisdom.
The comfort of the Holy Ghost.—It was natural that the gift of the Spirit who had been promised as the Paraclete, or Advocate (see Excursus G on the Gospel of St. John), should be described by the kindred word of paraclesis, and equally natural that this connection should re-appear in the two English words of “comfort” and “Comforter.” “Comfort “is, however, somewhat too narrow; the Greek word including (see Note on Acts 4:36) counsel and exhortation, so as to be very nearly equivalent to “prophecy.” What is meant here is that the words of counsel which came from the Holy Ghost, speaking through the prophets of the Church, were, then as always, far more than signs and wonders, or human skill of speech, the chief agents in its expansion.
He came down also to the saints which dwelt at Lydda.—On the term “saints” see Note on Acts 9:13. Lydda, the Lud of the Old Testament (1 Chronicles 8:12; Ezra 2:33; Nehemiah 7:37; Nehemiah 11:35), was a town in the rich plain of Sharon, one day’s journey from Jerusalem, founded originally by settlers from the tribe of Benjamin, and retaining to the present day its old name as Ludd. It is mentioned by Josephus (Wars, iii. 3, § 5) as transferred by Demetrius Sotêr, at the request of Judas Maccabeus, to the estate of the Temple at Jerusalem (1 Maccabees 10:30; 1 Maccabees 10:38; 1 Maccabees 11:34). Under the grasping rule of Cassius, the inhabitants were sold as slaves (Jos. Ant. xiv. 11, § 2). It had, however, recovered its former prosperity, and appears at this time to have been the seat of a flourishing Christian community. In the wars that preceded the destruction of Jerusalem, it was partially burned by Cestius Gallus A.D. 66 (Jos. Wars, ii. 19, § 1), all but fifty of the inhabitants having gone up to the Feast of Tabernacles at Jerusalem, and was again occupied by Vespasian A.D. 68 (Jos. Wars, ii. 8, § 1). When it was rebuilt, probably under Hadrian, when Jerusalem received the new name of Ælia Capitolina, it also was renamed as Diospolis (= city of Zeus), and as such was the seat of one of the chief bishoprics of the Syrian Church. It was, at the time when Peter came to it, the seat of a Rabbinic school, scarcely inferior to that of Jabneh, and retained its fame after the scribes of the latter city had migrated to Tiberias. Gamaliel, son of the great Rabbi who was St. Paul’s master, and himself honoured with the title of Rabban, presided over it, and was succeeded by the great Tarphon (Lightfoot, Cent. Chorogr. c. xvi.). The question which we naturally ask, who had planted the faith of Christ there, carries us once more on the track of Philip the Evangelist. Lying as it did on the road from Azotus to Cæsarea, it would lie in his way on the journey recorded in Acts 8:40, as he passed “through all the cities;” and we may believe, without much risk of error, that here also he was St. Luke’s informant as to what had passed in the Church with which he was so closely connected.
A certain man named Æneas.—The Greek name (we note the shortened vowel Ænĕas of the later form of the word), perhaps, implies that he belonged to the Hellenistic section of the Church. Had the fame of Virgil’s poem made the name of the Trojan hero known even in the plains of Palestine? In the care with which St. Luke records the circumstances of the case, the eight years of bedridden paralysis, we note a trace of professional exactness, as in Acts 3:7; Acts 9:18; Acts 28:8. The word of “bed,” used commonly of the couches of the lower class (see Note on Matthew 2:4), suggests the thought that poverty also was added to his sufferings.
Make thy bed.—More accurately, make, or, arrange for thyself. He was to do at once for himself what for so many years others had done for him.
Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas.—Both the Hebrew and Greek names mean Antelope or Gazelle. The fact that she bore both implies some points of connection both with the Hebrew and Hellenistic sections of the Church. The Greek form occurs, in the curious combination of Juno Dorcas, on one of the inscriptions in the Columbarium of Livia, now in the Capitoline Museum at Rome, as belonging to an Ornatrix of the Empress. Was the disciple of Joppa in any way connected with the slave, whose very function implied skill in needlework? If, as is probable, the Church at Joppa owed its foundation to Philip (see Note on Acts 8:40), we may trace in the position which she occupied, in relation to the “widows” of the Church, something of the same prudential wisdom as had been shown in the appointment of the Seven, of whom he had been one.
Full of good works.—The form of the expression may be noticed as characteristic of St. Luke, and his favourite formula for conveying the thought of a quality being possessed in the highest degree possible. So we have “full of leprosy” in Luke 5:12, “full of grace” and “full of faith” in Acts 6:5; Acts 6:8. (Comp. also Acts 13:10; Acts 19:28.)
Which Dorcas made.—More accurately, used to make.