In tracing St. Paul's footsteps through the Bible, readers often gravitate towards details of his conversion on the road to Damascus in chapter 9 of Acts of the Apostles. The dramatic blinding and humbling of the persecutor-turned-preacher is crucial for understanding Paul.
Yet there is so much more to the Acts narrative. This installment explores the first time Paul experienced hostility as a Christian in Damascus and follows his return to Jerusalem. Before commencing, two disclaimers are required.
First, Acts, which is really "part two" of Luke's Gospel, tells of the Holy Spirit giving life to the Church and guiding her mission to the world.
Paul's speeches, miracles, prison breaks and other scrapes with death, along with other details, are to be read in light of his tenacious obedience and faithfulness to the Spirit of Christ with whom he was "filled" on the day of his Baptism. Paul speaks and ministers, but the story is ultimately about the Holy Spirit who leads.
Second, as one reads of Paul in Acts, it is prudent to keep in mind that the various episodes, some of which Luke witnessed firsthand, are not related at random as if the book were the ancient equivalent of a travel blog.
As well, Luke does not mention every curiosity we would hope to know. We are only given highlights connecting Paul to the Church and the Church to the life of Christ.
These caveats aside, our sights turn to Paul's first years as a Christian. Paul spent three years living in and out of Damascus (see Galatians 1:17-18). This metropolis north of Galilee contained a substantial Jewish minority with whom the Christians had a precarious relationship.
Luke tells us that during this time, Paul grew in strength (the verb in Greek is passive, which implies the Holy Spirit is doing the strengthening) and in his ability to preach the Gospel.
Needless to say, Paul was not unvocal in expressing his beliefs, and like Christ, after three years of ministry, a plot was hatched to do away with this apostle. The plot bears striking resemblance to Christ's own persecution. Both Paul's fellow Jews and the ethnarch of Damascus, perhaps under Jewish pressure, sought to squelch the apostle once and for all. (An ethnarch is a Roman vassal like Herod the Great or Herod Antipas; see also 2 Corinthians 11:32.)
They decide to watch the city gates, day and night, in order to catch Paul leaving the city. A close reading of the text also indicates that by this time Paul has even gathered disciples to himself. He would not face his opponents alone.
We are not told the length of the stakeout or the undisclosed location of Paul's hideout. In any case, a preacher hardly wants to bide the rest of his days undercover. So a counter-plot is conceived.
My hunch is that the inspiration came as one of the disciples or Paul himself who would have ample free time while hiding read of the analogous situation of Joshua's spies stuck within the walls of Jericho. With Rahab's help, they were lowered from a window.
This must have been a "eureka" moment for the group. But would it work again? Sure enough, under the cover of night, Paul is lowered in a large basket through a window in the city's walls. Paul escapes to safety unharmed.
This would be his first lesson in learning when to run from opponents. That said, the apostle isn't intimidated easily. In fact, upon leaving Damascus, he heads straight for Jerusalem, which is the proverbial equivalent of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.
As he travelled the road back to the city of David, Paul's main concerns undoubtedly shifted from past or future persecution to reconciliation with the Church of Judea.
As Luke recounts, the Christians of Jerusalem offered Paul the cold shoulder upon his arrival. They were afraid and distrustful, and justifiably so. Was Paul's conversion a facade to capture them or a genuine encounter with Christ? Having left the close circle of believers in Damascus, Paul would experience yet again isolation, even dejection for the sake of the cross.
Perhaps this afforded further purification and reflection for Paul. In any case, Barnabas made the important step of warmly encouraging Paul. Taking a hold of the convert, Barnabas vouches for him before Peter and James.
Peter welcomes Paul into his lodgings where he stays for the next 15 days. Back within the fellowship of believers, Paul soon returns to "speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord" in Jerusalem (Acts 9:28).
Predictably, opposition arises and the decision is made to send Paul beyond the boundaries of Palestine to the safety of his childhood town, Tarsus.
Next time, we will track Barnabas' search for Paul, their time in Antioch of Syria, and their commissioning by the Holy Spirit to begin a missionary outreach to the Gentiles.