The story here needs to be filled in from Paul’s autobiographical remarks in Galatians 1:17-18.
“…I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles — only James, the Lord’s brother.”
The three years do not necessarily mean three years in the desert, probably not in fact, and it may mean three years in an inclusive reckoning, as in the three days of the Lord’s sojourn in the tomb, which, in this case would be a total elapsed time of closer to two years. Most of this time, then, was the time here described as ministry in Damascus.
There is a special irony here. Paul was coming from Jerusalem to these synagogues in Damascus. He did come to them, but en route his purpose had completely changed. Imagine the response of these Jews — bewildered, angry — like the Philistines after Goliath fell!
Eventually Saul had to flee. In the Scripture, no one goes looking for martyrdom, as some came close to doing in the early church!
As he would many years later learn of another plan to kill him.
When he finally did go to Jerusalem the Jews, of course, would have nothing to do with him and the Christians thought that he was an agent provocateur, a fifth columnist.
Because of the masterful way that Luke has woven his narrative together, we already have met Barnabas. How Barnabas came to know Saul is not said, but he recognizes the genuine article when he sees it and persuades the Christians to receive their new champion. [By the way, Saul is simply the Hebrew name of this man, Paul his Roman name. There is no sense of a name change upon his conversion, only that in the Roman world he was more likely to use his Roman name. For this reason, his calling to the Gentile world, he is known to us as Paul.]
“Apostles” here = Peter and James the Lord’s brother as Paul himself tells us in Galatians 1:18-19.
How to reconcile this with Galatians 1:22-23 is a problem: “I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: ‘The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.'” Does Judea mean the churches outside of Jerusalem itself? It is possible that Paul preached only in the city. In any case he tells us in Galatians 1:18 that he was in Jerusalem for only two weeks on this occasion. It seems likely that in Galatians Paul is answering some charge that when he was in Jerusalem he had been involved in a preaching tour in which he had been happy to insist on circumcision and Paul is there saying that his preaching in Jerusalem had, in fact, been much less than had been reported. As Bishop Lightfoot writes in his great commentary on Galatians, “To a majority therefore of the Christians in Jerusalem he might, and to the churches of Judea he must, have been personally unknown.” In any case Paul had a special interest in the Grecian Jews, perhaps because of what the Lord had told him of his future work among the Gentiles.
You can fill in the details of this event from Acts 22:17-21 which tell us that the warning of a plot to kill him came to Paul from the Lord Jesus himself who appeared to Paul in a trance he fell into while praying in the temple and that he left the city at the Lord’s orders and with his promise to send Paul to the Gentiles.
Paul now goes off the stage and does not reappear until 11:25, approximately ten to twelve years after his conversion! But, all the preparations have been put in place for the decisive leap forward into the Gentile world that Paul would commence years later from Antioch. But, first Peter must be brought to the same understanding that later would motivate Paul’s mission work. So, Luke gives a summary of the state of affairs at this time and of the circumstances of the church in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria especially, that is the church that had suffered persecution under Paul. Now, with him removed, peace returned and the gospel flourished.
Now, what lessons may we draw from the way God ordered the life of Paul in the months and years following his conversion? Let me mention three such lessons briefly this evening.
I. First, there is the importance of solitude.
This is an emphasis of the Bible’s teaching about the Christian life that needs attention in our day, a day in which we all live amid the distraction of almost constant noise: tapes in our cars, radios and CD players in the car or at home, television, and, of course, fewer and fewer of us work alone in quiet as did the farmer in his field. These new devices are not all bad, of course, but they make it much more difficult to think in the way that one can think when he is alone, to reflect, ponder, meditate, and, especially for a Christian, to be alone with God in prayer and meditation.
Matthew Henry said that there are two doors that we must close when we go to be with God, the door of our room so that we might be alone and the door of our hearts so that we might be serious. Today there is as much problem closing the one as the other because of the presence of almost universal sound in our lives — if we are in our rooms there is music or television sounding whether or not it is coming from our room.
But, fact is, for all the attention the Bible places on the corporate nature of the Christian life, for all the emphasis that falls on corporate worship as the engine of the Christian life, there is also a counter emphasis on the importance of solitude to the development of Christian character and communion with God. And so it is no wonder that Paul was given such a time in the desert almost immediately after his conversion. [I accept that this is not in our text, but we have brought it in from Galatians 1 to round out the picture of Saul’s early Christian history.]
Over and again in Holy Scripture, the Lord meets with men and women when they are alone and forms their faith and character during times when they are alone. Think of Elijah at the brook Cherith. Still more, think of our Savior himself.
This is J.S. Stewart:
Once there was lived upon this earth a life of terrible self-giving, yet of utmost serenity. Do not we, who grow so hectic often and strained and tired and overburdened, long to share the secret of Christ’s peace? It was the secret known to the mountain-tops where He outwatched the stars, to the olive trees in the garden which heard his voice at mid-night, to the winds and waves that were his shrine while he communed with God. How shall any man be strong to do Christ’s work today, with the purposefulness and passion and mastery of life that shine on every page of the Gospels, if he neglects Christ’s hidden secret? [Heralds of God, p. 202]
Paul says that he went almost immediately into Arabia and then returned to Damascus. In that desert silence the foundations of his Christian life were laid and the new convictions that would sustain him for thirty years of the most intense ministry were fixed in his mind and heart.
What is more, a habit of solitude was thus formed. No doubt Paul was like the Lord in this, often taking, even at cost to his much needed sleep, time apart for prayer and communion with God, for meditation on the Word of God and his life of faith. It was in such a time, such a silence that he was carried up to the third heaven.
Most of us hear this and immediately recognize this to be a problem for us — not nearly enough solitude, to think about our faith and our life and the Word of God. We must find it, and we will have to find it the way the great men and women always have — by stealing the time for it from other things, usually sleep!
II. Second, we learn here that no Christian is an expert at the beginning.
True, Paul begins to preach almost immediately. He had a story to tell, of course, and a different purpose to declare. Further, he was already a theologian. The Damascus road simply gave him new eyes to understand the theology he already knew. But, unbeknownst to the one who reads only Acts 9, he had time apart in those early days. We cannot say for sure how those days were spent, if Christ communicated any further with Paul or if he simply had to work his new-found faith back into his knowledge of the Word of God.
But, what is much more surprising and interesting is the fact that after his early time away and his ministry in Damascus and Jerusalem, Paul is sent off to Tarsus for at least 10 years! What a waste, we think. Take a man with Paul’s story, his background, his stardom, his training, his gifts and then send him off to Tarsus for ten years?! It doesn’t make sense to us in our day of celebrities in the church as in the world.
We rush our Bob Dylans and Eldridge Cleavers right out on to center stage and then, of course, get egg all over our faces.
God places a premium on a proven record, on spiritual maturity, on experience. Then, and only then, the limelight. When Paul is brought back on to center stage, he is ready to make the very most of the opportunity and rises to meet the terrific challenges that that ministry would require of him — the vicious and unfounded attacks of others, the hostility of governments, the battle with false teaching in the church on every side, the wearying undependability of his converts, etc. The Scripture teaches us to believe that he was up to those challenges and had the ministry he eventually had because he came to it prepared, practiced, experienced, mature. That is what ten years in Tarsus and, apparently, only ten years in Tarsus, could give him.
III. Third, Paul’s experience is certainly a powerful demonstration of the error of supposing that coming to Christ will solve our problems and end our troubles in this life.
It will solve some problems, of course — the greatest ones of all: estrangement from God and the guilt of our sins. But it brings with it a whole new set of problems that the Bible shows no interest in hiding from us.
Paul stepped into a heap of trouble when he entered the kingdom of God: the hatred of others (at least his Christian enemies hadn’t sought to kill him!); a very difficult and demanding task; the suspicion of those who knew his past; the necessity to forsake the limelight — and these are just the beginning of the hardships Paul will face in his life and work as Christ’s apostle.
This is all because God is calling us to fight his battles and because godliness absolutely requires constant testing.
But, God often seems to deal most roughly with those he intends to use most mightily. A.W. Tozer once wrote, “It is doubtful that God can bless a man greatly unless he has hurt him deeply.”
Calvin comes out into the open as a Christian and has to run for his life.
Luther raises the pastoral and theological questions that troubled him and is threatened with punishment, even death by the pope.
This was so much Paul’s experience that when it came time for him to die, the first thing he thought to say about his life as a Christian was “I have fought the good fight…” We must be able to say no less! And a good way to examine our lives at any point is to ask just that question: in what way am I fighting the good fight, the Lord’s fight. Where am I at war at this moment: with my sins, with the world, the Devil?
This too is the Bible’s picture of the true Christian life.
Robert Service wrote his poems about life in the Yukon, but he might have been describing the Christian life.
Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane,
Strong for the red-rage of battle; sane for I harry them sore.
Send me men girt for combat, men who are grit to the core,
Swift as the panther in triumph, fierce as the bear in defeat,
Sired of a bulldog parent, steeled in the furnace of heat…
And I want for the men who will win me — and I will not be won in a day,
And I will not be won by weaklings, subtle and suave and mild,
But by men with the hearts of Vikings and the simple faith of a child,
Desperate, strong and resistless, unthrottled by fear or defeat,
Them will I gild with my treasure, them will I glut with my meat.
(“Law of the Yukon”)
Well, not, of course, that we are strong in ourselves, of course. We are weaklings. But that Christ makes us strong and, therefore, we must live the life of a strong man, doing strong things, just as Paul did — the supreme exemplar of a Christian in the NT, that is a Christian who lives a Christian life while remaining sinful himself. And while there is continuing weakness in that life — as Paul himself will say — there is also great strength and a tremendous fighting spirit. And that must be true of us!