God’s Perfect Plan

Bible Study with Jairus – Acts 9

Peter and Paul

In Acts 9, we see an abrupt transition from the transformation of Saul/Paul (vs. 1-30) to the story of Peter’s ministry (vs. 31-32). Why this abrupt transition? Why does the storyline seem incoherent and inconsistent?

To answer this question, let’s look back briefly at chapters 7 and 8. Chapter 7 tells the story of Saul guarding the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen to death, and Chapter 8 talks about Philip evangelizing. Chapter 9 tells the story of Saul’s conversion. These chapters introduce Saul (Paul), preparing readers to recognize him as the leading apostle and one of the main characters in the book of Acts.

Before Paul’s appearance, Peter is the leading force of the first-generation apostles, along with the twelve disciples he represents. At the beginning of the book of Acts, Jesus tells the disciples to wait at Jerusalem to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Peter preached a powerful message through the anointing of the Holy Spirit, bringing salvation to 3000 people. The twelve disciples worked together to preach God’s word and bring others to Christ.

Later, some widows complained about being ignored in the daily distribution of food. Stephen is introduced as one of the deacons who helped serve meals daily. Writing under the influence of the Holy Spirit, Luke chose to include the story of Stephen so that he could introduce Saul. After Saul is introduced briefly, we continue to follow Peter’s story. Peter remains the main figure for a few more chapters.

The transition between Peter’s storyline and Paul’s storyline has not yet completely occurred. Slowly, the focus will be shifted from Peter to Paul. In Acts 13:2, when the prophets and teachers were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work that the Lord called them to. Paul was officially named an apostle, and from then on, he became the main character in the book of Acts. Paul wrote 14 New Testament letters, over half of the New Testament (27 books in total). Paul was clearly the main figure in the New Testament.

The Authority of God’s Word

Sometimes, we may be tempted to view the structure of Acts as disorganized. We may doubt the authority of God’s word because of its seemingly incoherent structure.

At the time of the Renaissance, the authority of the Bible was undermined. The church believed the earth was the center of the universe, and they executed Bruno, who advocated for the heliocentric theory of the earth.  They persecuted Copernicus, Galileo, and others, mocking their belief that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and revolves around the Sun.

Because of this scientific mistake, many people lost their faith in the authority of the church and the Bible. Instead, science became the mainstream concept. Theology and belief in the Bible were marginalized to an extent.

Recently, I took a Systemic Theology class from the United Theological Seminary (UTS). In the class, I learned how the church lost some of its credibility under the pressure of modern science. These factors helped to produce a liberal theology that does not believe in God’s miracles and even denies that the Bible is the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The church persisted in some traditional teachings that were not in line with the facts. For example, they continued to believe the earth was not round. Because of this, modern scientists who disbelieved the Bible had a chance to criticize them.

However, our disregard towards the authority of the Bible can be changed as the Holy Spirit helps us understand it. As the Holy Spirit enlightens us, we will see the authoritative inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit helps us see that the transition between Paul and Peter are perfectly organized, like beautifully orchestrated movie cuts.

If we view the Book of Acts as a movie script, we can see that the Holy Spirit is the best screenplay writer. We may think the organization of certain Bible verses or chapters are fragmented. As the Holy Spirit guides us, we can see that the various storylines in Acts are stitched together in perfect coherence by the best author of all.

The Beautiful Structure of God’s Word

I often use examples from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to explain the Bible. According to Chinese Medicine, our bodies have many meridians. Wikimedia defines meridians as “paths through which the life-energy known as ‘qi’ flows.”[1] There are about 20 channels and along them about 400 acupuncture points. The acupuncturists use these acupuncture points and their channels to determine what medicine to use for certain diseases. They say a good combination of these efforts will bring better healing results. Of course not everyone agrees with this theory. I am just using this as an example.

When the Holy Spirit inspired authors to write the Bible, he put down lines or hidden structures that flow through the Bible. These lines are just like meridians, or channels, that the Holy Spirit used to express His train of thought. If you are good writer or editor, you understand the importance of following certain threads throughout an entire narrative. A poor writer does not have a coherent thought that flows through his entire writing.

The Holy Spirit is God. If we learn to see the coherent thought patterns behind the words on the page, we will marvel at how beautifully God inspired the Scriptures. If we do not understand it well or do not see the hidden line or channels, we will have a hard time understanding the Bible, in part or as a whole.

Liberal theologians often deny the authority of the Bible because traditional theology was slow to accept the truths of science or to come in line with fact. Other traditional theology tended to be legalistic, so nonbelievers reject the Bible’s truth. To counteract this trend of unbelief, we need to help others grasp the true meaning, coherence, and beauty of the word of God. We can understand this through the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that God’s children will feel it inside their spirit if something is really an illumination from God.

As we study the Bible, we are not trying to just understand the written words. We also want to receive the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Often the questions that disturb us most are the very questions that the Holy Spirit wants to answer. At our church’s Bible study, a believer shares their insights into the passage, and then we have a Q&A session. We allow people to ask questions about the passage. As we talk and discus the answers, we receive insights and inspiration from the Holy Spirit. As each person shares what God is teaching them, we all learn and grow.

Today’s discussion is an example of one of these inspirations. A lady asked about the sudden jump from Paul to Peter in this chapter, and the Holy Spirit helped me understand it. As we were discussing this question, I realized that Saul is introduced for the first time at the end of Acts Chapter 7. At the martyrdom of Stephen, Saul agreed to put Stephen to death (7:60). When Stephen was martyred, he was filled with Holy Spirit. He saw God’s glory and Jesus standing at His right side. He prayed that God would not charge his murderers with sin, because they did not know what they were doing. This testimony is the root cause of Paul’s salvation. The blood of martyrs is the seed that produces the flower and fruit of the gospel. On the one hand, Paul was saved because he was chosen by God and Jesus and because Jesus appeared to him in a vision. On the other hand, he was also saved because of Stephen’s testimony.

When I was still meeting with the Local Church Movement (LCM), I read a testimony about a man that was saved when the Boxers massacred missionaries. The Boxers used a prison wagon to carry a female missionary to the execution ground. The man in the story was so frightened that he hid behind a door and watched through the crack. He noticed this female missionary was not fearful; instead, her face was full of God’s glory. The man was astonished at what he saw. He decided to believe in Christ as Savior. This story shows the power of a martyr’s testimony. Stephen’s testimony in Chapter 7 began to guide Paul towards salvation. As Stephen exits the stage, Paul begins his appearance. In a way, Paul inherited the spirit of Stephen. And eventually Paul was also martyred for Christ.

Luke does not immediately re-introduce Paul in Chapter 8. Instead, he continues by telling the story of Philip spreading Gospel. Philip is not one of the twelve disciples but is one of people chosen to serve food to the widows (Acts 6:5). Here we call him an evangelist. Stephen is also chosen by the disciples to serve food, so the Holy Spirit continues to tell Philip’s story after Stephen dies. Philip is a first-generation worker for the Lord, serving under the twelve disciples headed by Peter. Philip’s story still falls under the category of ministry headed by Peter.

Acts 9:1-31 speaks of Saul meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus. After he was blinded by a bright light, Paul received his sight when Ananias laid hands on him and prayed for him. The chapter mentions that no one would accept Saul as a genuine believer, except Barnabas (9:27). This is a foreshadowing of the fact that God wants to raise up Paul as a servant of the gospel, and that he would work together with Barnabas.

This premonition comes true in Chapter 13. Chapters 9-11 continue discussing Peter’s service to the Lord, and it’s not until Chapter 11 that we hear that Barnabas went to Tarsus to find Saul in order to bring him to Antioch to start serving (11:15-26). Acts 11:30 mentions that Barnabas and Saul brought the donations to Jerusalem from Antioch. Chapter 12 speaks of Peter’s miraculous escape from prison. Chapter 12 verse 25 mentions that Barnabas and Paul went back from Jerusalem after they had completed their service, bringing Mark back with them. In Chapter 13, Paul was then introduced formally in the text when the Holy Spirit set apart Barnabas and Saul to become apostles.

There are two stories worth mentioning. The first story tells us how Paul went to Jerusalem right after being saved. He attempted to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple (9:26). Only Barnabas accepted him (9:27).

These two verses are very interesting. We can see that all circumstances are under God’s control. Why did the disciples not want to associate with Paul? God had a hidden purpose for this rejection. God wanted to train Paul first in the wildness. Even though Paul had been saved, God still needed to train him to know Him better and to learn to understand God’s revelation. Therefore, God brought Paul into the wilderness of Arabia (Galatians 1:17). Theologians have different opinions on how long Paul stayed there. Some theologians say 14 years, some say seven years, some have other opinions. Even though we don’t know the exact length of time Paul stayed in the wilderness, we know he stayed there a long time. Paul may have had a lot of time to pray and fellowship with God. Perhaps this is when he was caught up to the third heaven to receive a supernatural revelation (2 Corinthians 12:2). Maybe in the desert, God continued to work on Paul’s personality to prepare him for his future ministry. It was not yet God’s time for Paul to step out publicly. But God was preparing him secretly. The previous mention of Barnabas’ acceptance of Paul foreshadows the later fact that Barnabas went to search for Paul at Antioch (Chapter 11).

The second notable story is the story of Peter’s hypocrisy from Galatians Chapter 2. When Peter came to Antioch, he would eat with the Gentiles, but after certain men came from James, he drew back and separated himself from the Gentiles, as he was afraid of those who promoted circumcision. Even Barnabas was led astray. Hence, Paul opposed Peter publicly and rebuked his hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-13).

Peter’s weakness may have disqualified him from the responsibility of leadership. Plus, God was ready to bring the gospel to the Gentiles rather than strictly to the Jews. Therefore, Paul’s appearance as the apostle of the Gentiles became unavoidable. Barnabas’s hypocrisy showed his weakness as well, so he was also disqualified from taking on the new role of leadership.

Another important story deals with the relationship between Paul and Barnabas. At first, Barnabas accepted Paul, but later, the two men had a falling out. The Bible leaves no doubt in our minds that that Barnabas was a good man (Acts 11:24). He was very helpful to Paul in his gospel work. When the teachers and prophets had fasted and prayed, the Holy Spirit set apart Barnabas and Saul to become apostles. (When Barnabas was first mentioned, Paul was still called Saul.)

If Barnabas was the only one who accepted Saul when he was first saved, why did they later have a falling out? My answer is this: It is not easy to accept new people, but it is even harder to accept the fact that new people have surpassed oneself. I was taught that Barnabas and Paul had an argument about whether or not to take Mark along on the next missionary journey. Perhaps Barnabas had more problems as well, as the Bible never mentions his itinerary after this. I am not sure if this view is correct or not. But in any case, God used Barnabas to introduce Paul to the church, as Paul was God’s special chosen vessel.

On the other hand, we cannot look at Barnabas and Paul in terms of victory or defeat. God’s grace is great, and although the Bible does not continue to follow Barnabas’s missionary journeys, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Paul was better than him. It only means that God’s grace on Paul was greater. Paul was God’s chosen vessel, and since he and Barnabas had differing opinions on ministry strategy, Barnabas had to step aside. Barnabas’s mission was to bring Paul to the foreground. Now that Paul was on center stage, Barnabas’s mission was accomplished. In the same way, John the Baptist’s mission was to bring in Jesus, and his mission was completed when the Lord Jesus began his ministry.

Who is Judas?

Verse 11 says, “And the Lord said to him, ‘Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying.’” Who is this man, Judas? The Bible does not say. But we know it is not Judas the betrayer. Personally, I think that he is a little-known figure that the Bible has never introduced before. But at an unanticipated time and place, God showed Paul what He had planned for him.

Waiting on God’s timing

God chose Saul in eternity, but He did not reveal himself to Saul on the first day. God was really holding out on him; he only revealed himself after Saul studied Judaism for many years. In our Christian life, we are all chosen by God, or given a certain calling or promise. God may wait a long time before he reveals your calling to you. Paul was chosen by God from the time he was in his mother’s womb, but only years later, when he was on the road to Damascus, did God reveal himself to him. God revealed himself to Paul while he was at the house of Judas. God sent Ananias there to lay hands on and pray for Paul.

God knows everything. He knew Paul was going to Damascus to persecute the Christians, and he knew he went to the house of Judas to pray. The great light at Damascus turned Paul from the wrong path. Ananias’ prayer in the house of Judas brought Paul onto the right path. After Ananias laid hands on Paul’s eyes, immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained sight. From here on out, Paul started to spread the Gospel enthusiastically in Damascus.

But God’s time had not yet come. Paul soon encountered persecution, and he was forced to leave Damascus and Jerusalem. He went to Caesarea and Tarsus. Later, in Acts 11:25, Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul and bring him to Antioch. Theologians say Saul left Damascus for the first time and then went to the wilderness of Arabia for some time. No matter how long Paul was in the wilderness, the experience in the wilderness was used by God Himself to train Paul and prepare him for future ministry.  Even people like Paul had to go through long periods of training. We should be encouraged that the pruning process is a normal part of God’s work in his children’s lives.

What amazing plans God has for his people! While God was using Peter and the others in the limelight, He was also preparing Paul and others backstage. At the wave of the director’s hand, Paul and his companions would come onstage. Paul definitely did not come out from nowhere; God had already been preparing him for that exact time and place.

Just like the meridians in TCM I mentioned earlier, the Bible has many lines or channels, themes you can follow through entire chapters and books. The Bible has many threads of meaning and storyline that weave through the entire text. All these lines are like meridians through which the spiritual life (or “qi”) flows like a current underneath the ground. They are the breath of God (2 Timothy 3:16)! If we can find these spiritual meridians and acupuncture points while studying the Bible, it will greatly help us to understand God’s word.

The authors who wrote the Bible were definitely inspired by the Holy Spirit. Once you find the “channels” under the surface, you will see how the same continuous thread flows through all the books of the Bible. All the biblical authors follow a coherent storyline.

When we lose sight of these channels or threads of meaning, it doesn’t mean the Bible is wrong. It just means we don’t yet fully understand it. In Acts 8- 9, the Bible is going through a major transition, or turning point. Paul is being introduced on the one hand, and on the other hand, Peter has not yet fully left the stage. The storyline is transitioning from the ministry of Peter to the ministry of Paul. The focus of the book of Acts is being shifted from ministry to the Jews to ministry to the Gentiles.

The Lord Jesus told Paul that he would go far away to the Gentiles, because his testimony would not be accepted in Jerusalem (Acts 22:21). Just like many of us, Paul was very slow in obeying God’s call. He was eager testify for the Lord Jesus in Jerusalem and other areas in Judea, but he met persecution. This forced him to make a slow and roundabout journey to Rome. At the end of the Book of Acts, he finally reached Rome.

The book of Acts is the biography of the apostles, and the representatives of the apostles are Peter and Paul. Peter represents the twelve disciples; they focus on bringing the gospel to the Jews, and they are the direct fruit of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Paul was the apostle who received his call to apostleship after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul’s ministry focus was the Gentiles. His work and ministry are the fruit of Jesus’ heavenly ministry. Jesus is still alive today, and He is working behind the scenes. The end of Chapter 7 mentions Saul briefly, and the first part of chapter 9 talks about Paul again. But the second half of Chapter 9 continues to talk about Peter’s ministry, because Peter is still in the frontline of the ministry. Acts Chapter 9 is an important turning point, a watershed moment for the Book of Acts. Paul’s ministry started to come over the horizon in this chapter, and came into full force in when he was anointed as apostle in chapter 13.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meridian_(Chinese_medicine)