Every conversion is a miracle, and nobody becomes a Christian apart from conversion. Our Lord Jesus said, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Little children receive the testimony in the simplicity of faith, and we are called on to do the same. It is remarkable to see, as we look back over the history of the church, how many enemies of the cross have been subdued by the sight of the Lord Jesus Christ who gave His life for them—and not the least of these is Saul of Tarsus.
God’s ways are beyond our understanding and He does not undertake to explain them to us. If we had been members of that early church in Jerusalem, we would have been thrilled over the testimony of Stephen for it looked as though he was destined to become a great leader. Through his eloquence, persuasiveness, and his tender way of presenting the gospel, he might have appealed to many, and many
were converted through him. On the other hand, bitter hatred and enmity were stirred against him as the servant of Christ, and he was stoned to death. When we read of Stephen’s death we are introduced to Saul of Tarsus, a young, calloused, bigoted Hebrew who hated the very name of Jesus: “And the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.” In Tarsus was a large Jewish colony, and this man Saul, as a student of Gamaliel, had been brought up according to the strictest ideas of the Jews. He tells us later on that he was a “Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5). And there he stood that day, looking on as Stephen was put to death. It seemed to be nothing to that hardened young man that the dying martyr’s face shone as if it were the face of an angel and that he died praying for blessing on his murderers. God answered that prayer!
The church must have felt that Stephen’s death was a terrible blow to the Christian testimony, but God has a way of burying His workmen, yet carrying on His work. He raises others to take the places of those He calls home to Heaven. No one ever thought this cynical, young man was to take the place of Stephen and carry on when Stephen was gone. At his death, Stephen had said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” Now, the next time the heavens are opened, Saul of Tarsus sees the blessed One on the right hand of God and is won by Him forever.
Saul’s Conversion Experience (Acts 9:1-22)
As Acts 9 opens we see Saul hurrying to Damascus, with only one dominant desire: to root out all that he found “of this way.” You will note this expression occurring a number of times in the book of Acts. That was apparently the only name given to early Christianity: the Way. That is what Christianity is; it is a way! It is not just fire insurance for eternity, not simply a method of saving us from eternal judgment; it is a way of blessing, righteousness, and gladness right here on earth. Saul of Tarsus thought to destroy all who were of this way. There is something about Christianity that will not allow it to die. Tertullian said in the second century, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Destroy one Christian and ten will take his place. It has been that way all over the world and that, in itself, shows the divinity of the gospel.
Saul’s conversion experience came as he was hurrying along the Damascus road, whether on horseback or afoot I do not know. He has so often been pictured on horseback; but I have an idea he was riding a donkey, because the Pharisees had a great prejudice against riding horses. We read, “suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”
He never got over this revelation of the mystery of the body of Christ—that every member of the church is a member of the glorified Head in Heaven. If one touched a believer on earth, immediately it was felt up there in Glory. Jesus did not say, “Why do you persecute My disciples?” He said, “why persecutest thou
me?”— for to persecute one of His own is to persecute Him.
Paul cried out, “Who art thou Lord?” And the answer came back, “I am Jesus.” He used His personal name, the name meaning “Jehovah the Savior.” It was the name the angel gave Him before His birth: “Thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.” That was the name our Savior bore through all His earthly ministry, and when he hung on the tree Pilate wrote that name on a tablet and it was placed above His head. And now that He is in Glory, we read, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Jesus said to Saul, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” Saul was like a refractory ox kicking against the driving goad! And that reveals to us that this seemingly hard, indifferent young man was all the time struggling with his conscience. Deep inside he was hearing again the voice of the dying martyr, Stephen. In effect, Jesus said, “Saul, you are making a mistake. You are kicking against the goads.” There was something moving within him, troubling him through all those days of persecution. Perhaps one reason for this was that Saul was not the first of his family to be saved. In Romans 16 he gave certain names and he called them “my kinsmen…who also were in Christ before me.” Doubtless they prayed for their kinsman and God was working in his heart.
Saul trembled, and said, “Lord.” The implied meaning is that Paul accepted Christ as Lord there and then on the Damascus road. We are told “No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (1 Corinthians 12:3). And we know “that if thou shalt confess with thy mouth [Jesus as Lord], and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Romans 10:9). In other words Saul said, “Lord, henceforth I am Thine, Thy bondservant; I belong to Thee; Thou art my Lord. Lord, give me instruction now. What wilt Thou have me to do?” From the moment of his conversion he was submissive, ready to yield himself wholly to the One who died to redeem him.
Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened [that is, the lids—he was still blind, blinded by the glory of the light that shone from the Savior’s face], he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink (Acts 9:8-9).
The Lord had instructed him to “Arise, and go into the city.” It is sometimes a blessing to a man to go through a period of soul exercise. We would often like to hurry people into confession of Christ, but sometimes they are not yet ready; the heart exercise is not deep enough; conscience-probing has not been sharp enough. And so God allows some people to go through weeks, sometimes months, of soul exercise and then He lets the light break. For Saul of Tarsus there were to be three days before his sight was restored and he learned of the fullness of the joy of his salvation.
The men who were with him on the road heard the sound, but they thought it was thunder. They could not distinguish anything articulate. Do you know how some modernists try to explain Saul’s conversion? They say he had an epileptic fit! Charles Spurgeon has well exclaimed: “O blessed epilepsy, if it effects a conversion like this!” Others say Saul had a sunstroke. What a mercy if every modernist were to be sunstruck if it would change him into a flaming messenger of the cross!
And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord. And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth.
Prayer is always an evidence of the working of the Spirit of God in a man’s soul. We are not told anywhere in the Bible that men have to pray to be saved. They are to believe. But on the other hand, we always recognize this: when God is dealing with a man the natural thing is for him to cry out in prayer. Does your heart cry out to God? St. Augustine uttered these words in the fourth century when writing to one in great soul distress, “You said ‘I am longing for peace and I am crying to God day and night.’ The fact that thou art seeking Him is proof thou hast found Him, for He reveals Himself to those who seek Him.” Am I speaking to anyone who has been seeking Jesus, the sinner’s Savior, and who fervently prays for light? Oh, then, you do believe in Him and you pray because of your faith in Him!
When Ananias received God’s message he felt he had to reason with God about it. Is not God making a mistake, sending him to Saul of Tarsus? Does it not look as though God is delivering Ananias himself into the hands of the enemy? No wonder Ananias talked back. He said, “Lord, I have heard of this man,… he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name.” But the Lord replied, “Go thy way [do what I tell you, Ananias]: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: For I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.”
Notice that all the Lord Jesus had said to His apostles He now reiterated to this new convert. The Lord had commanded the twelve apostles to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all nations—that is, all the Gentiles. The word
Gentile is the same as
nations; it is a different translation of the same word. But the apostles hesitated and did not seem to have the faith to reach out. God said in effect, “Now I am going to send this man as My special representative,” and He gave him the same commission.
Then Ananias instantly obeyed and “entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul.” I like that! Notice the affection in this term. This bitter enemy of the cross, now subdued by grace, is addressed as “Brother Saul.” Ananias continued:
The Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou earnest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized.
By his baptism he cut himself off from unbelieving Israel and took his place in identification with the Christ the nation had rejected, and with the Christ he himself had spurned until now.
After spending some time with the Christians in Damascus, Paul went away for a little while to Arabia and came back to Damascus (Galatians 1:17). “And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). This is a stronger, clearer note than we have had so far in the book of Acts. Peter proclaimed Him as the Servant; but Saul now as the Son of God. “But all that heard him were amazed, and said: Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests?” What has happened? The miracle of conversion! The same miracle that always occurs when a poor sinner looks to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Saul never forgave himself for persecuting the Christians. God forgave him; the Christians forgave him; but he never forgave himself. Years afterwards, when he looked back to these times, he said, “I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet [worthy] to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God (1 Corinthians 15:9). And when he said, “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—he added brokenheartedly—”of whom I am chief (1 Timothy 1:15). He felt there had been no greater sinner than he, for he tried to root out the church of God from the earth. He tried to destroy all who professed the name of Jesus. But God had mercy on him because he did it ignorantly in unbelief. Oh, the boundless mercy of God!
How he delights to take up a great sinner and make him a great saint! This book may fall into the hand of someone who is an avowed enemy of Christ. Perhaps the same feelings that filled the heart of Saul of Tarsus fill your heart. But let me assure you that the One who saved Saul of Tarsus is looking down in compassion on you. All your bitterness, opposition, and hatred of the gospel message does not change His love for you. Oh, that you might get a vision of the risen, glorified Christ and be brought as a captive in the chains of love to that blessed Savior’s feet, that you might then become a modern Saul of Tarsus, to go forth and preach the gospel of Christ! Many, many times has this experience been duplicated in the history of the Christian church.
I’ve heard people say, “I do not believe in sudden conversions.” To be perfectly frank, there is no other kind. I do not mean by that that everyone has as marked an experience as Saul of Tarsus had. But I do mean that in the life of every person who is ever saved there comes a definite moment when he trusts the Lord Jesus Christ, turning from all confidence in self. And that is conversion. It may take place after long years of unrest and soul-searching, or as in the case of Saul of Tarsus, it may take place in a moment by a mighty convicting work in the soul, bringing one to an end of himself who has never before been very much concerned about the message of the gospel.
We see both kinds all about us. There are those who are brought up, for instance, in Christian homes and all their lives hear the gospel story and perhaps they grow to young manhood or womanhood without definitely committing themselves to Christ. And yet many could say that they have never known a time in their conscious lives when they did not have some conviction of spiritual things. But there had to come a definite moment when they trusted Christ for themselves. That is conversion.
And then so many other people who have lived wild, reckless, careless lives, having no interest whatever in things of God, could say as one of the old hymns puts it:
I once was far away from God
On ruin’s dark and fatal road,
And little dreamed I’d see the day
When I should tread the narrow way.
And yet these people, brought suddenly to a recognition of their lost, sinful condition and led to definite faith in the Lord Jesus, in a moment become new creatures in Christ. There are many such. It was so of Saul of Tarsus. His was really a model conversion.
“But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ.” Following his conversion he became a witness. And that is the will of God for all who are saved. If we know the Lord Jesus Christ for ourselves, we should immediately join the ranks of those who are witnessing to others of His saving power. It is not the will of God that all should preach in a public way, but it is the will of God that all who know the Savior should speak of Him to others and seek to win their fellows to Christ. I am afraid there are a great many Christians (I do not doubt the reality of their conversion when I speak as I do) who are just content to be going to Heaven themselves and who show very little interest in the souls of those about them. It was otherwise with Saul of Tarsus. No sooner was he saved himself than he began telling all who would listen the wonderful truth that had been revealed to his own soul, that Jesus was indeed the Christ of God, the promised Messiah and the Son of God.
The New Fellowship (Acts 9:23-31)
Saul preached Christ in Damascus, in the very city to which he had gone intending to throw into prison those who loved the Savior’s name. But we are told that “after many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel to kill him.” Having rejected their own Messiah, they rejected this man who sought to awaken them to a sense of their responsibility to His claims. But we are told that Saul knew of their plans. They “watched the gates day and night to kill him,” hoping that as he went in or out of the city they might be able to waylay and slay him. But the disciples, learning of it, “took him by night and let him down by the wall in a basket.” It was a rather humiliating way for this servant of Christ to leave the city of his first labors, wasn’t it?
I remember standing at that wall of the city of Damascus, and I looked up to a little house in the wall and a window there. The guide was absolutely certain that that was the window through which they lowered the basket with the apostle in it. Well, I do not know whether that is true or not, but as I looked at it I could just imagine what it must have meant to this one-time proud, haughty Pharisee, now crouched up in a basket and dropped down over the wall. You would have thought he would never have referred to it again. And if he had had the pride and conceit that some of us have, it would have been among the buried annals. But we hear him speaking of it many years afterward (2 Corinthians 11:33).
From Damascus he went on to Jerusalem, and undertook to search out the little companies of believers and to join himself to those whom before he had persecuted. We read, “When Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple.” We do not wonder that they were afraid of him. The last they had seen and known of him he was going from house to house trying to find those who professed the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ and deliver them over to be persecuted for His name’s sake. “Oh,” they might have said, “we don’t dare let this man into our assemblies; he is an enemy, perhaps he is a spy just waiting to turn us over to the authorities.”
But Paul had a friend who knew and understood. We read, “Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus.” The testimony of Barnabas authenticated the testimony of Saul. In other words Barnabas said, “Yes, I know all about it. You do not need to be afraid of him now. He was once the enemy of the truth, but a great change has taken place. Saul of Tarsus has been born again.”
I can not too often stress the importance of that second birth. It is being forgotten in so many places today. People imagine they may become Christians by outward reformation, or by joining a church, or even by what they call “religious education.” They think that you can take a child and educate him along religious lines and he will grow up a Christian. But that is all a delusion. Jesus said, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” And the apostle Peter said, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever... And this is the Word which by the gospel is preached unto you” (1 Peter 1:23, 25). Saul of Tarsus had believed the gospel. He was born again, He would never again lift a persecuting hand against God’s people. He was saved. And now he longed for association with others of like precious faith. His heart was welling up with love for them now.
In Jerusalem he found a recognized fellowship of believers. This was the new creation company. This fellowship is called in 1 Corinthians 1:9, “the fellowship of [God’s] Son.” We read there, “God is faithful, by whom ye were called into the fellowship of his Son.” “The fellowship” is a beautiful name for the people of God. Once we were just so many units, individual units. We were not particularly interested in one another. It was every one for himself. But grace reached our hearts, and that introduced us into a wonderful fellowship where we had common interest, and from now on we were members one of another.
This fellowship is called very distinctly, “the church of God.” I have heard it said sometimes by persons who had not fully considered the matter that the church had no existence during the period of transition as depicted in the book of Acts, that it came into full existence only after the apostle Paul was in prison. However, referring to his unconverted days Paul wrote, “I persecuted the
church of God”
(1 Corinthians 15:9, italics added). So we see that the church of God was there before he was converted. He used the same expression in the Epistle to the Galatians, written years after his own conversion (1:13): “For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jew’s religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it.” And from the day of Pentecost to the present time, the church of God has been a distinct company in this world, made up of those who know and love the Lord Jesus Christ. The church of God includes all believers.
The Scriptures also speak, however, of “churches of God”—that is, local companies of believers. In Galatians 1:21-22 Paul wrote, “Afterwards I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia; And was unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ.” And in the second verse of that chapter he wrote, “unto the churches of Galatia.” Used in the plural the term
churches refers to local companies in various places, made up of those who professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In writing to those who had been brought to God from heathenism, he said, “For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews” (1 Thessalonians 2:14).
It is important to see the distinction between “the church of God” to which all Christians belong and the “churches of God” in different communities. A church of God is a company of Christian people. These people may have different doctrinal standards, different views as to ordinances and sacraments, different conceptions of church government, and so on. But where you find believers in the Lord Jesus Christ gathered together seeking to honor Him, coming together for worship, for praise, for testimony, for prayer, there you have a local church of God in any given community.
These churches of God were scattered, by the time Paul was converted, not only in Jerusalem but all over Judea. And in a little while we find them also among the Gentiles. In Acts 5:11 we have the term
the church used for the first time, in the original manuscripts at least: “Great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things.” In Acts 2:47 we read “Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added
to the church daily such as should be saved” (KJV). You will notice that in other versions the words “to the church” are omitted. Probably these three words are not to be considered part of the original text of Scripture, though they do clarify that this verse is referring to a particular company of believers constituting the church in Jerusalem.
Another term is used throughout the book of Acts, and in fact through all the New Testament, and that is “the kingdom of God.” Wherever these early Christians went preaching the gospel of the grace of God, they carried with them the proclamation that Christ is the rightful King and Lord of all. They called on men everywhere to subject themselves to Him. And those who believed the gospel, those who received the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior, those who acknowledged Him as their Master now were brought into His kingdom. God “hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son” (Colossians 1:13). His kingdom was set up in their hearts. It is a moral thing. “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 14:17).
In Acts 9 we read of a company of people in Jerusalem who honored Christ while living in the midst of a sinful world. They crowned Him Lord of all, and they constituted His kingdom. And still that glorious kingdom is in the world today. Some day it will be openly revealed, when our Savior comes again. Now it is “the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:9). When He re-turns it will be the day of the kingdom and glory. I think it is helpful to us as believers if we get some of these terms clearly in mind. We are members of the church of God; we are members also of churches of God. We belong to this glorious fellowship of the redeemed, and we have been translated into the kingdom of the Son of God’s love.
More than that, Saul of Tarsus was chosen of God later on to open up a new and wonderful revelation that had never been made known before; that is, that believers are not only members of the church of God, but the church of God is also the body of Christ. All believers are members of that body and He is their glorious Head in Heaven. What a wonderful fellowship that is!
The outward expression of this fellowship is seen in the Lord’s table. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, we read, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion?” The word
communion is the same as the word
fellowship in the original text: “Is it not the [fellowship] of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the [fellowship] of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread and one body.” We eat and drink together as those redeemed to God by the precious blood of His Son in remembrance of Him who gave His life for us.
Now it was into this fellowship that Saul, the one-time enemy of the cross of Christ, had been brought. What a wonderful thing it must have been for Saul of Tarsus to sit for the first time with these Christians at Jerusalem and enjoy communion with them, to partake of the loaf and the cup in commemoration of the Savior whom for so long he had rejected!
I remember reading in a missionary record of a young man in New Guinea who had been away to school and had gotten a good education, then returned to his own island and to his own village after his conversion. On the Lord’s day the group of missionaries and believers were gathered together to observe the Lord’s supper. As this young man sat by one of the elder missionaries, the missionary recognized that a sudden tremor had passed through the young man’s body. The young man had laid his hand on the missionary’s arm, indicating that he was under a great nervous strain. Then in a moment all was quiet again. The missionary whispered, “What was it that troubled you?” He answered, “The man who just came in killed and ate the body of my father. And now he has come in to remember the Lord with us. At first I was so shocked to see the murderer of my own father sit down with us at the table of the Lord, I didn’t know whether I could endure it. But it is all right now. He is washed in the same precious blood.” And so together they had communion. Does the world know anything of this fellowship? It is a marvelous thing, the work of the blessed Holy Spirit of God.
I think of Saul of Tarsus seated there with that little group of believers around him. And I think of them looking over and saying, “That is the man that arrested my father. That is the man that threw my mother into prison. That is the man that tried to make me blaspheme the name of the Lord Jesus. There he sits, a humbled contrite believer, receiving the bread and the wine in commemoration of the Lord who died.” What a wonderful fellowship!
We read that Saul went in and out among them at Jerusalem. He enjoyed to the full these privileges of fellowship. “And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians.” The term
Grecians here means not only Greeks, but Hellenistic Jews—Jews born within the nations of the Gentiles. But they, instead of responding to the message, went about to slay him. God permitted Saul now to know something of the persecutions that he had caused others.
When the brethren realized that his life was in danger if he remained in Jerusalem, they brought him down to Caesarea, the seaport, and sent him to Tarsus, his own native city. And now with Saul out of the way the churches prospered. That seems a strange thing. You would have thought they might have prospered more with the ministry of this wonderful man of God among them. But now he was the object of the intense hatred of the Pharisaic party that he had once represented. And the Christians realized that it was better that he go elsewhere to labor than remain in Jerusalem. And so we are told, “Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria.” Observe the three districts. By this time churches had been established throughout Judea, far north in Galilee, and in the intermediate district of Samaria. And they “were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.”
Have you ever noticed the Bible arithmetic in the book of Acts? In 2:41 we read the Lord
added those that believed. And in 2:47 the Lord
added those that were being saved. In 5:14 certain ones were
added to their company, and they became about five thousand men. And then in 6:7 and 9:31 (kjv) the number of believers were
multiplied. This is Bible arithmetic. First addition, then multiplication. I am afraid sometimes it is not like that today. In fact, I know a great many churches where there seems to be subtraction rather than holding their own, let alone addition or multiplication. My dear brothers and sisters, if our companies are not being added to, and if believers are not being multiplied, I’ll tell you the reason: It is because the church is not walking in the fear of God and the comfort of the Holy Ghost. When the Spirit of God has His way in the hearts and lives of believers, then unsaved people are going to be reached and won for Christ. If we are not seeing people converted it indicates that something is wrong. If believers are truly moving forward with God, if He is having His way in their lives, then their testimony will really count for Him. Let us face this honestly and ask ourselves, “What am I doing to win souls that the work of the Lord may progress and believers may be added to the Lord?”
The Practical Side of Christianity (Acts 9:32-43)
We are coming to the close of Peter’s later Judean ministry. In Acts 10 and 11 we will see him used of God to open the door to the Gentiles; and in chapter 12 we have his arrest and marvelous deliverance from prison. From there on, Peter fades into the background and Paul takes the prominent place.
I was half asleep on a warm afternoon while we were traveling through Palestine when suddenly the train stopped with a jerk. As I woke up with a start and looked out the window, I saw the name “Lydda.” It carried me back two thousand years. At this town of Lydda Peter was engaged in ministering the Word, “And there he found a certain man named Aeneas, which had kept his bed eight years, and was sick of the palsy.” I think every one of the different diseases mentioned in Scripture was intended by God to illustrate in some way the effects of sin. Palsy was a disease very common in Palestine during the days of our Lord’s sojourn on earth, and afterwards. It illustrates the utter helplessness of the sinner.
The Lord Jesus often ministered to people with palsy. You will remember the palsied man who was let down through the roof by his four friends, and the Lord Jesus gave him not only healing of his body, but forgiveness of his sins (Mark 2:1-12). You will recall the poor man who had lain by the pool of Bethesda for thirty-eight years. He was sick five years before even the Lord came from Heaven! Jesus said to this poor, helpless man, “Wilt thou be made whole?” The impotent man answered him, “Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool.” Jesus spoke the life-giving word that gave strength to those palsied limbs and the man sprang to his feet and went away carrying his bed (John 5:1-17).
Here in Acts 9 we have another palsied man in all his helplessness. If you have not trusted Christ, you are just like him. You have no ability to save yourself; you can’t take one step toward God. If this man was ever to be healed, someone must come to him, and that is just what Christ Jesus did. We read, “When we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). He comes to us where we are and speaks the word that gives life to poor, helpless sinners.
Peter evidently saw in this man a spirit of expectation. The man may have been a Christian—we do not know. “Peter said unto him…Jesus Christ maketh thee whole: arise, and make thy bed. And he arose immediately.” One may ask, “Why do we not have many miracles like this today?” God has never promised in His Word that all miracles and signs would remain in the church to the end of the dispensation. He was speaking to the disciples when He said, “In my name shall they cast out devils;…if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (Mark 16:17-18).
Many of the apostles found that these signs accompanied their ministry, but we never read that the same power was given to other believers. In the early church there were far more evidences of the miraculous power of the Spirit of God to heal than we perhaps see today, but there was greater reason for it. Men knew less of the human body and its ailments and how to minister to them than they know today. Down through the centuries God has given remarkable enlightenment and skill in dealing with physical ailments and God does not always do for us what we can do for ourselves. He does not always work miracles. He can bless the medicine and the skill of the physician and surgeon, and these are as much an answer to prayer as if He wrought a miracle. After all, every case of healing is from God. The doctors ability does not count for anything at all unless God blesses his efforts for the building up and renewing of the bodies He made.
There is another point to remember. When the church went forth in the beginning, in its purity, “terrible as an army with banners,” it was the delight of the Lord to give signs to accompany it. But we must remember we live in a day when we can look back over fifteen hundred years or more of grave departure from the Word of God, fifteen hundred years in which apostasy has been making tremendous strides in the Christian church, fifteen hundred years of ever-increasing worldliness and corruption. It has been said that “the corruption of the best thing is the worst corruption”—and we can see why the Lord might withdraw some of His great gifts. Suppose He gave some of these gifts today in abundant measure. To what section of the church would He give them? He could not give them to all. Would there not be a great danger of increase in spiritual pride on the part of any section specially honored?
There are reasons why God withholds certain things. I have sometimes illustrated it like this: A young man is engaged to a beautiful young woman and has full confidence in her. He delights in lavishing presents on her. Given a position across the sea, he goes away, and from his new station sends beautiful and precious gifts to this lady of his heart in the homeland. But then he learns the one he has trusted is proving unfaithful to him. She is seen with other lovers and found here and there with them in questionable places. When the heart-breaking news comes to him, do you not think it would dry up the stream of gifts? He would not feel the same about her. Will you look at that example as a little parable? When the church was in its first love, the Lord Jesus delighted to grace her with many gifts, but the church has been unfaithful. We have drifted far away from the principles of those early days and the Lord has had to deal with us in much more reserve than in the beginning.
There are those who say today that miracles passed away with the apostles. That is not true. Many wonderful miracles have occurred in answer to prayer during the last nineteen hundred years, and here and there throughout the world today God still acts in wonderful grace. Again and again God puts forth His hand in healing power, and many given up by doctors have marvelously recovered as God’s people have prayed. Other signs and wonders too have accompanied Christianity. It really behooves us to be careful and not go to either of two extremes. Let us not insist that the working of the Spirit of God through miracles and signs is past; on the other hand, let us not say that He will always so act if we ask Him to do so. The measure in which He delights to work is left with Him.
Peter said to Aeneas, “Arise!” and the man arose immediately. It was a real testimony to the people in the neighborhood. “And all that dwelt at Lydda and Saron saw him, and turned to the Lord.” God used the miracle of healing to direct the attention of needy souls to Christ Himself, and they came not only for physical help, but also for spiritual blessing.
The next miraculous healing we read about occurred in Joppa, a place not far from Lydda, and on the sea coast whereas Lydda is inland. “Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas: this woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did” (Acts 9:36). I want to fix your attention on this verse for a few moments for we are given one of the very real evidences of a truly converted person. She was deeply interested in doing good to others. It is marvelous to see how God in His grace exercised people’s hearts into sharing their possessions to supply others’ temporal needs. Christianity is not a means simply of getting into Heaven, nor is it only a system of doctrine, but it is a wonderful manifestation of divine life and love in the midst of a world of sin and wretchedness.
I am afraid sometimes we forget that side of our faith; many professing believers are so terribly self-centered. They seem to be looking constantly for some new religious thrill or new spiritual experience. They are always looking inside and always seeking blessing for themselves. They stream to the altar when the invitation is given. If you gave the invitation a hundred times a year, they would come a hundred times.
That isn’t the ideal Christian at all. The ideal Christian is one who is resting in Christ for his soul’s salvation and his great concern becomes the salvation of others. He is interested in making Christ known and in doing good in a temporal way to others. John insisted on this, and James asked, “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food. And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” (2:15-16)
Dorcas loved the Lord and displayed this love in a very practical way. She was not satisfied with reading her Bible only. She had a consecrated needle and used it for the blessing of other people, and the Spirit of God has preserved this record that we might learn from it and never forget her. Some of you dear Christian women who are not satisfied with your life, get busy and try to help and bless other people, and you will be surprised to see how your own spiritual condition will improve! You will get on wonderfully well when you start thinking about others. I do not go quite so far as a preacher a few years ago, who said, “Anyone whose chief concern is the salvation of his own soul hasn’t got a soul worth saving.” Every soul is valuable. But I would say this: Anyone constantly occupied with his own spiritual experience and never concerned about blessing other people will never have an experience worth being occupied with.
Dorcas must have been a most genial person. I can’t imagine her as one of those sour pusses we sometimes see today—-going around with long, melancholy faces and a holier-than-thou attitude. I think her face gleamed with the love of Christ. I do not think she had a dainty little handshake, but I believe she had a pump-handle handshake. She was always interested in other people—really a warmhearted Christian.
But this dear woman died. Her spirit went home to be with Christ and her body lay there in an upper room. The Christians felt Dorcas should go to Heaven, but they wanted her here. For some of us they would not worry very much. They would just look pious and say, “The Lord has taken him.” But they would not be very anxious to have us come back. These dear believers, however, were exceedingly sorry to lose this wonderful Christian character.
“And forasmuch as Lydda was nigh to Joppa, and the disciples had heard that Peter was there, they sent unto him two men, desiring him that he would not delay to come to them.” They probably thought,
We do not know what he can do, but we shall send for him. “Then Peter arose and went with them. When he was come, they brought him into the upper chamber: and all the widows stood by him weeping, and showing the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them.” Can’t you just see that picture? The lifeless body of the dear one lying on the bed while her friends, gathered around, mourn for her. One exclaims, “Look at this coat. I didn’t know where I was going to get a winter coat; but she cut a coat that her grandfather left and made it over for me!” And others were showing one thing and another. “Dorcas made it for me!” These garments seemed to have a mute voice, and Peter heard their crying and “put them all forth, and kneeled down, and prayed; and turning him to the body said, Tabitha, arise. And she opened her eyes; and when she saw Peter, she sat up. And he gave her his hand, and lifted her up, and when he had called the saints and widows, presented her alive.” What a rejoicing they must have had!
She is one of the special saints of the New Testament. Her name has been enshrined in countless Dorcas societies—groups of Christian women who come together to do what she did and emulate her ministry to the poor and needy.
This is one of the ways the gospel of Christ commends itself to the needy. Do you realize what we call social service really began, after all, with Christ and His apostles? Many talk today of the social gospel and try to distinguish it from the saving gospel. There is no such distinction, for the gospel that saves the individual also brings blessings to the needy.
In all the reading 1 have done I have never read of any hospital for the treatment of the sick being established in the world before Christ came. We have no record of an asylum for the mentally sick people before Jesus came. Before He came the mentally deficient or insane were driven from their homes and left in tombs or in desert places. They were looked upon as demoniacs. People sometimes considered them inspired and listened to their strange ravings for some new revelation. But there was no asylum in which they could be treated and tenderly cared for.
There was no such thing as a leprosarium in the world until after Jesus came. The leper was doomed to wander in the wilderness, and it was only during the Christian era that the first home for lepers was opened. Ever since then the church of God has been ministering to those suffering from that horrible disease.
There was no such thing as an orphanage until after Jesus came. The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Assyrians, with all their boasted civilization, never thought of opening an orphanage. Instead, orphan children, unless adopted by some of their relatives, were exposed to the elements and left to die, or else were sold into slavery. Many little boys and girls were given over to a fate worse than death before Jesus came. It was a Christian who started the first orphanage, and it is Christian people who have been interested in these things ever since. There was no such thing in all the world as international relief—until Jesus came. You can search all the records and you will never read, for instance, that during the famine in Egypt the people of Rome took up an offering to help the starving people; nor during a pestilence in Syria did the people in Greece raise a fund to assist those in distress in Syria. It was not very long after Jesus came that the Christians in Achaia and other parts of the Grecian world were sending to those in need in Judea. The Red Cross would never have come into existence were it not for Jesus; for, after all, what is the symbol of the Red Cross? It is the blood-red cross of Christ! We need to remember that all these agencies had their birth in the gospel of the grace of God.
Dorcas stands out before us as a special picture of one who lived her faith by ministring to the temporal needs of those around her. May we all learn to emulate her concern for others.
The last verse of Acts 9 introduces us to the events recorded in the next chapter: “And it came to pass, that he [Peter] tarried many days in Joppa with one Simon a tanner.”