Acts 9


Acts 9 marks a transition in the story of the early church – the conversion of Saul, apostle to the Gentiles. That’s the part everyone knows (and it’s important, to say the least). But there are other interesting and noteworthy things going on in the chapter: the multiple references to Damascus (why Damascus?), the vocabulary (and theology) of “holy ones,” and the matter of how “son of God” meant more than a claim to be the Davidic king.

Alright. So let’s just jump in with Acts chapter 9. I think we’re going to do what we’ve been doing, just sort of working our way through the passage. When we get toward the end here, there’s going to be something that’s going to be a bit of a rabbit trail. I’m going to be reading a long excerpt of something, so I don’t want to devote too much time to reading the whole chapter, but we’ll see how it goes. So Acts 9, we get the conversion of Saul, who will become known as
Paul. So let's just jump in here. We have,
Acts 9:1–9 ESV
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now, again, we know the rest of the story. He gets knocked off his horse, so on so forth. He gets taken in by Ananias, and God speaks to Ananias and out of this, this is the conversion experience of Saul. He changes from one who persecuted the church to one who is going to be preaching Christ. Now, the first thing I want to sort of camp on a little bit is this issue of Damascus. Now it was mentioned two times in what we read. In the very next verse, there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias, you get another occurrence. You get three mentions of Damascus right here in this little portion of Scripture and so, hopefully, you're already asking the question I’ve told you asked before

When a place is named in the book of Acts, you might want to ask why

Now there won’t always be something revelatory behind it, but places have histories. And for the original recipients of the book of Acts, they're going to know something about Damascus. It's going to mean something to them because places have histories, they have baggage and whatnot. So in the case of Damascus, Damascus is one of the oldest sites known archaeologists in the holy land, and it has a long history in the Old Testament. It was the place where Abraham rescued his kinsman, namely Lot in Genesis 14. David brought Damascus within Israelite control during his reign, but during the reign of Solomon, it was lost. Now, what’s kind of interesting here is, think about it, you have a reference to Damascus connected with Abraham, Genesis 14, where he rescues Lot. He pursues Lot’s captors that far and then rescues Lot, brings him hand his stuff back. And for some reason, David wanted it under Israelite control. He wanted to be part of the kingdom, wanted to be part of it his reign, essentially, part of Israel, Yahweh's property, and then it’s lost in Solomon's reign. Now, this gets us into actually a pretty complicated question. What exactly are the parameters of the Promised Land, because if something is mentioned with Abraham, connected to David, and, of course, then Solomon, chances are it's going to mean something. And in this case, it does. Think about what God said to Abraham when he separated from Lot back in Genesis 13. In verse 17 that we read, God says Abraham, ‘Arise, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.’ So we have that little ditty there. If we go to Joshua chapter 1, we have sort of a reference to something like this. Joshua 1 we read,
Joshua 1:1–3 ESV
After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, “Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel. Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses.
And, of course, the Mosaic promise goes back to this statement of Abraham. Because, remember, God calls Abraham, puts him in Canaan, says this is the promised land, then he says back in Genesis 13, hey, walk through the length and breadth the land because everywhere you walk, wherever you walk, that's what I'm giving to you. Well, it's not a coincidence that Abraham's feet, as it were, tread as far as Damascus. And so there's this sense that since Abraham was there, and it's within, but in antiquity would have been thought of as Canaan proper, that the “promised land” includes, it goes as far north as, Damascus. Now, the reality is that the Promised Land is even farther north than that. If you actually looked at a map of where some of these places are, Damascus is sort of just northeast of Mount Hermon. Mount Hermon, of course, is very famous, very notorious. This is just north of the region of Bashan, again, in divine council stuff, I get into this geography a lot. Damascus is actually on the eastern side of the Jordan. If you just drew a line where of the Jordan River goes north off to the east, you’re going to get Damascus. It’s actually a bit north of Mount Hermon. So this is where Abraham winds up. It takes the parameters of the Promised Land, in other words, what belongs to Yahweh, north to include a notorious place like Bashan and Mount Hermon. According to the book of Enoch, this is where the watchers descended, the
Genesis 6:1–4 ESV
When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.
of course, the region of Bashan was known as the last bastion of the Rephaim, the giant clams there with Og of Bashan. And it takes you that far north, but it also gets into this stuff that’s east of the Jordan River. There’s actually, it‘s not very easy to determine because if you look at prophecy people talk about, well, the re-gathering of Israel and the founding of Israel in 1948, and this is a fulfillment of prophecy and all this kind of stuff, have you ever really looked to see how the Scripture decides what the promised land is? You get like three different accounting's, and this is part of that issue. Is Damascus in the original promise to Abraham? Is it included, even if it's not mentioned in the original promise to Abraham, or not? Since the original promise to Abraham goes as far north as the Hittite territory that was along the coast, it goes as far north as Damascus, but doesn't go easterly. And so there's this issue, well, was Damascus in or out as a part of the promise or not? Well, according to Genesis 13, God says, hey look, wherever your foot treads, just walk around here, wherever you walk, the length and the breadth of land, I’m going to give it to you. And He says the same thing to Joshua, and He had said the same thing the Moses. So this becomes part of an Old Testament Outlook on what exactly is the Promised Land. And for our purposes, in Acts, why would Damascus be mentioned? Well, it's mentioned because this is a territory that doesn't specifically come up in Acts chapter 2, but the writer wants you to know that this territory, this region is, again, under the domain of Yahweh. And this is going to be actually the last place; in this chapter we’re getting a couple places. There’s something that happens toward a little further on that’s really, really complicated, really convoluted, and also involves Nephilim territory. But Acts 9 is picking off the last parts of the land that are sort of outliers that were not specifically included in the narratives, for Acts 2 on the way up to this point, that have some history of occupation where it rightfully should be included in the land of the promise but was under occupation by either suspect or hostile forces. And so, before we get into the actual ministry of Paul, this is when Paul, Saul gets converted to be Paul, before we actually transition out of this ‘take the gospel to the Jew first and then also to the to the gentile,’before we make that full transition, we’re still picking up pieces of the land that the writer wants you to know, were not overlooked. They’re not either forgotten or it's not under a curse. It’s not a spooky place. We don't want to touch that. There's none of that going on. Everything, even these places that have sort of an odd history or kind of a sinister history or questionable history, as the one we'll hit in a few moments, even those places God is making it clear. This is my domain and now after this chapter, after Acts chapter 9, we’re going to start launching off into lands that are clearly, there's no dispute, clearly not included in the original land promises to Israel, but we’re picked off a few the outliers here. Again, it's about messaging. The message of the Messiah needs to go to the Jew first. Okay, we get that. We've seen that four or five times working our way up here in the book of Acts. It also includes, as we saw last time, proselytes to Judaism, weren’t naturally born but converted. And here we’re going to get a couple places where there's a question mark. Again, is this something we should view within the promise or not? Well, the answer becomes yes if we allow Acts chapter 9 to sort of be a commentary on some of the Old Testament controversial places where there's ambiguity, where there's not absolute clarity on, is it in the promise or not? If you’re looking at Acts 9 as sort of a commentary or filter, looking back in the Old Testament, the answer would be clear here because we have to sort of absorb these placements, we have to answer these questions because the gospel needs to be taken to the Jew first, their territory and their people, even people who converted to Judaism that weren’t ethnically Jewish. We’ve got to cover all those bases and then, in Acts chapter 10, we can jump off into a territory that is clearly gentile material. So I wanted to make another comment about that because you have theological messaging in some of these sort of innocuous kind of details. Let's jump back into Acts 9 here, verse 10, we’ll pick up.
Acts 9:10–14 ESV
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 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, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”
It’s not an argument, but Ananias is disturbed by what God has asked him to do, what the Lord has asked him to do, and he has good reason. But the Lord convinces him, look, I know all that. This guy is the chosen instrument that might carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. Now, you need to go talk to him, and he does it. I want to park a little bit here on this one line, a little phrase here in verse 13, ‘Ananias answered, Lord, I've heard about this man and how much you listen to your saints at Jerusalem’. I really dislike English translations that translate Greek hagio, that’s what we have here, as saints. And it's not because I'm anti-Catholic. I wasn't a Catholic in my youth. I don’t have any problem as far as just this point of irritation because of Catholicism. My point of irritation here is that a translation like saints mars important biblical theological imagery and analogy to the Old Testament. What hagio literally means is holy ones. And if you look back into the Old Testament, you say, well, why would Christians be called holy ones? Try to throw saints out of your head. It’s a really unfortunate translation because it’s going to interfere with what I’m going to get into now.

Why would Christians be called holy ones?

Well, one of the first questions you should ask yourself is, does that phrase, holy ones, however that is in Hebrews, Kedoshimin Hebrew, does that ever show up in the Old Testament? Well of course it does. This term holy ones is used of both divine beings, members of the Divine Council, and human beings. As far as examples where holy ones refers to divine beings, the Divine Council, you get
Deuteronomy 33:2–3 ESV
He said, “The Lord came from Sinai and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran; he came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand. Yes, he loved his people, all his holy ones were in his hand; so they followed in your steps, receiving direction from you,
That's the scene at Sinai. Yahweh is there with his holy ones. We get
Job 5:1 ESV
“Call now; is there anyone who will answer you? To which of the holy ones will you turn?
where one of Job's friends says, hey, is there anyone who will answer you Job, to which of the holy ones will you turn? Again, that introduces the idea of Divine Council mediation of some sort between the humans and God. Of course, in that context it’s Job.
Job 15:15 ESV
Behold, God puts no trust in his holy ones, and the heavens are not pure in his sight;
God puts no trust in his holy ones. Again, he knows they have free will. He knows they can choose to do wrong. There’s a whole track record of that in the Old Testament
Psalm 89:5–7 ESV
Let the heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones! For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord? Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord, a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him?
Daniel 4:17 ESV
The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.’
we get two terms that are going to be familiar to this audience, the divine being speaking to Daniel in this vision says, the sentence that's been described in Daniel chapter 4 which concerns Nebuchadnezzar's madness, the sentence is by decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones. That's actually an important reference because if you look at Daniel 4, think about what its saying. The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, plural. And then the rest of the verse says, to the end of the living, they know that the Most High, that’s singular, there’s only one of those, that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over the lowliest of men. We have this sense of the holy ones, members of Divine Council, participating in divine decision-making of things happening on earth. Last reference would be Zechariah 14:5, when Yahweh at the last day of the end of days, a day of the Lord comes back to earth with his holy ones to judge of the wicked. So there’s some very clear examples where holy ones refers to members of Divine Council, that’s the whole point. There are also instances, and these are a little more obscure where holy ones, plural, refers to people, human beings
Leviticus 11:44–45 ESV
For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”
now this one would not sort of jump out at you and it’s going to sound familiar but just bear with me here. Leviticus 11:44says, ‘For I am the Lord your God, consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy for I am holy.’ Now the tricky part about this is the ‘be holy’, I’m reading the ESV translation. The word holy is actually plural, it’s Kedoshim, it’s like these other references. So the more accurate translation of the verb form is also plural. The more accurate translation would be ‘be holy ones for I am holy.’ Again, he’s speaking to the believing community of God, or at least elect community of the Israelites, and if you've followed any research in the Divine Council, the whole point with the restoration of the kingdom, Israel, the people of God on earth post-Eden, is to revive or kick-start the Edenic idea, where God rules among people on earth, right there with them. And then we have to sort of turn our little spot on earth that is where the divine presence dwells, we have to expand that to the whole earth. That’s the original Edenic commission, to be fruitful and multiply, then to overspread the earth and subdue it, have dominion over it. Again, turn the earth into Eden was the original command. Well, when we kick-start the kingdom through bringing the people out of Egypt, the Exodus, and here we are at Sinai, God turns around and says, hey, be holy ones for I am holy, there is a little bit of flavoring that goes on in that because the ultimate plan is to have, God wants a family of human beings with him. This is why the plurals in Genesis 1, but the Edenic plan was that God would have a human family along with his unseen divine family, living together, ruling together on his behalf, one big new unified family with the goal that humanity would at some point be glorified. Again, if they hadn't fallen, since we did fall we look forward to being redeemed finally, the consummation of the whole plan of salvation is being glorified and made like him, like 1 John 3 says. We will be like him. We’ll be more than human, that sort of thing. Well that kind of imagery, that kind of thinking, the restoration of the divine presence on earth with the kingdom, with a people, is designed specifically to go back to Eden, kick-start Eden, and have it work this time, because God has forgiven humanity. He’s provided a means of salvation. He didn't destroy them like the nacash, the serpent, had assumed he would. That doesn't happen. We have the reinstitution of God's family, and his family means also his counsel, on earth through human beings. So if we were translating these terms holy ones, you'd sort of pick up on that idea, because of the way holy ones is used of divine beings. Here’s another example
Daniel 8:24 ESV
His power shall be great—but not by his own power; and he shall cause fearful destruction and shall succeed in what he does, and destroy mighty men and the people who are the saints.
Again, this is a reference to a great earthly enemy of God, sort of an antichrist figure. But the object of what is happening there are the holy ones. Again, the ESV translates it ‘saints’. It just ruins the imagery
Psalm 34:9 ESV
Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack!
There are references, very same word, same terminology, used of humans and divine beings. That is not accidental. We’re supposed to be thinking of believers, of people, who are faithful to Yahweh. We’re supposed to be thinking about them the way we think about the divine beings in his counsel because they're six of one and half a dozen of another. The only difference between them is the fact that human beings are not on the other side. They are not in the spiritual world. They are not glorified, and earth has not been remade into Eden. That is eschatological stuff, since we have the problem of sin, since there's been this thing called the fall. But we’re still supposed to be thinking about both groups in the same way. And so in both Testaments, when I see the translation saints, I just, honestly, I haven't done it, but I just want to scream. It’s like, look at what you're missing just by this simple translation. If you literalized it, you would see connections back into the Old Testament in both these arenas. I want to take us a little bit further. Again, we already saw a passage of Daniel 4 about the holy ones participating, the Divine Council participating, in decision-making. Let me just introduce you to a couple of passages. You can go study them. You can think about them, because they could go either way. So I’m being honest with you here. There's a lot of ambiguity in the text, but there are couple disputed passages whether Kedoshim, a plural of the word Kedosh, whether it should be translated and understood as plural or as singular. Well, you say that’s sort of an odd question to even raise. Well, think of it like Elohim. Elohim is morphologically plural but in many contexts. it means a singular entity, the God of Israel. Sometimes this happens with Kedoshim as well. You don't know whether it's talking about the holy one, God, or holy ones, plural. Here’s a couple verses
Proverbs 9:10 ESV
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
Believe it or not, holy one there is plural. You could translate it, ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge the holy ones is insight.’ It sort of gives a little street cred, a little heavenly cred, to the Divine Council there, if it is, indeed, meant to be understood as a plural. Proverbs 30:3, same thing, says, ‘I have not learned wisdom nor have I knowledge of the holy one. It's plural. You could translate it, ‘I have not learned wisdom nor have I knowledge of the holy ones.’ Now the reason why these two plural references could be singular, and that's the way the ESV has both of them if you notice the translation, is in this next verse,
Hosea 11:12 ESV
Ephraim has surrounded me with lies, and the house of Israel with deceit, but Judah still walks with God and is faithful to the Holy One.
which, in the Hebrew text, if you're looking at this in Hebrew, if any of you know Hebrew, it’s going to be actually a different verse reference. It's chapter 12:1. But in English Bibles, it’s Hosea 11:12, says this. ‘Ephraim has surrounded me with lies and the house of Israel with deceit. But Judah still walks with God and is faithful to the holy one,’ or is it holy ones? Well, because of the parallelism there, ‘walks with God, faithful to the holy ones,’ it is probably better is to see that a singular, ‘walks with God, faithful to the holy one.’ It just makes sense. But the fact is, in those other two verses, it sort of could go either way. But you can make an argument based on Hosea 11:12 that those two other verses should be singular as well. So you can chew over that. Think about that. Do with it what you want.
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