Chapter 31: “A Chosen Vessel unto Me”

The Life and Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles, (1979), 256–61


Map Chp. 33

The Acts of the Apostles—Events Occurred ca. A.D. 34–39

 

Acts

Near Damascus, Syria

The Savior Appears to Saul

9:1–9

Damascus, Syria

Saul Receives His Sight and Is Baptized

9:10–19a

Damascus, Syria; and Jerusalem, Judea

Saul Begins His Ministry

9:19b–31

Lydda and Joppa, Judea

Peter Heals Aeneas and Raises Tabitha from the Dead

9:32–43

Interpretive Commentary

(31-1) Acts 9:2, 3, 8. What Was the Importance of Damascus?

Claiming to be the world’s oldest city having continuous habitation, Damascus, present-day capital of Syria, was also in the Roman province of Syria in the days of the apostles. Situated some 130 miles northeast of Jerusalem and approximately 65 miles from the Mediterranean Sea, Damascus lies in the heart of a fertile plain.

The supremacy of Damascus among ancient cities is clearly found in the fact of its location. It was the terminus point for three principal trade routes of the ancient Near East.

Its close proximity to Jerusalem made Damascus a city of great importance to ancient Israel and Judah. (See the map at the beginning of chapter 29.) It was from here that Ahaz, king of Judah, took his pattern for the great altar which he set up in the Jerusalem temple, ostensibly to pacify the victorious king of Assyria, Tiglath-pileser III (2 Kings 16:10–16). In time, the city was destroyed just as God’s prophets had prophesied (Isaiah 17:1; Amos 1:4; Jeremiah 49:23–27). Later is was rebuilt on the same site.

In the present-day Christian quarter of the city is located what is thought to have been the famed street called Straight on which was found the house of one Judas, with whom Paul lived for a time following his conversion. The wall from which Paul was let down in a basket by friends at night so as to escape the infuriated Jews of the city (Acts 9:23–25) is, in all likelihood, that which still surrounds the city. As in the days of Paul, so in our present time; the wares of Damascus are sold openly at the street bazaar. Among the well-known products once produced by the city’s residents were Damascus cloth (damask) and Damascus steel, both treasures to be cherished.

(31-2) Acts 9:4–6. What Are Two Important Lessons We Can Learn from the Accounts of Paul’s Conversion?

“There is a lesson for us all in this Church. Let us, too, recognize the local authority. The bishop may be a humble man. Some of you may think you are superior to him, but he is given authority direct from our Father in heaven. Recognize it. Seek his advice, the advice of your stake presidents. If they cannot answer your difficulties or your problems, they will write to others, the General Authorities, and get the advice needed. Recognition of authority is an important principle.

“The other element in that incident to Paul near Damascus is the great fact that Jesus, our Lord, is interested in his Church, and in the members. As he was interested then, so he is interested today.

“I like to feel that he is watching over us, that he is grieved when we do not comply with the ideals and the standards he has given us in the gospel. He was grieved with Saul, a chosen servant, who was going about blindly to destroy the Church. He is delighted when he finds the brethren whom he has appointed doing their duty and trying to live clean, upright lives, living in accordance with the standards of the gospel.” (David O. McKay in CR, Oct. 1951, pp. 159–60.)

(31-3) Acts 9:5. “It Is Hard for Thee to Kick against the Pricks”

The reference is to a goad, a sharp spear or stick used to prick the hides of animals to make them move ahead. The tendency when pricked is to kick back, to retaliate, literally “to kick against the pricks.” Such a reaction merely brings added distress and drives the wound deeper while having almost no effect upon the goad itself. Elder David O. McKay, in speaking of Paul’s inner feelings, once wrote:

“Damascus is about one hundred and fifty miles north of Jerusalem, so it would take Saul and his attendants about a week to travel the distance. Perhaps during those few days of comparative leisure, he began to wonder whether what he was doing was right or not. Perhaps the shining face of the dying Stephen and the martyr’s last prayer began to sink more deeply into his soul than it had done before. Little children’s cries for their parents whom Saul had bound began to pierce his soul more keenly, and make him feel miserably unhappy as he looked forward to more experiences of that kind in Damascus. Perhaps he wondered whether the work of the Lord, if he were really engaged in it, would make him feel so restless and bitter. He was soon to learn that only the work of the evil one produces these feelings, and that true service for the Lord always brings peace and contentment.” (Ancient Apostles, p. 120.)

(31-4) Acts 9:8. What Blinded Saul on the Road to Damascus?

“But Saul of Tarsus saw Jehovah, the glorified Christ, and heard his voice and conversed with him. Even partially protected as he was, the brilliance of the light from heaven in which he centered—greater than the noonday sun—Paul collapsed to the earth, trembling, shocked. The voice said: ‘I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. …’ (Acts 9:5.)

“So intense and brilliant was the light that even with such protection, he was blinded. He said: ‘And when I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus.’ (Acts 22:11.)

“A priesthood miracle restored sight to Paul after three days of total darkness. The glory of the Lord! How great and magnificent!” (Spencer W. Kimball in CR, Apr. 1964, p. 96.)

(31-5) Acts 9:18. Why Was It Necessary for Paul, Who Saw a Vision, to Submit to Baptism?

“Saul [saw] the resurrected Son of God, received visions, [was] the recipient of miracles wrought on his behalf, and yet none of these sufficed to prepare him for church membership or ministerial service. Baptism is the gate for all—Christ, Paul, every accountable person.” (McConkie, DNTC, 2:91.)

(31-6) Acts 9:20–22. What New Problems Did Paul Face Following His Conversion?

As soon as he was a member of the church of Jesus Christ, Paul faced two new problems: one stemming from his former relationship with the Jews, the second from his new situation as a follower of Jesus. Prior to his conversion, his work of persecuting the Christians found full acceptance among the Jewish leaders. Following his conversion, he had to face his former friends and associates and declare he had been wrong. “And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.” (Acts 9:20.) Note the forward nature of his testimony. So incensed were the Jews that they “took counsel to kill him.” (Acts 9:23.)

But what of those who knew Paul formerly as their persecutor? How did they receive his testimony of Jesus? Their reaction must have been similar to that of Ananias who, following his call from Christ to minister to Paul’s needs, said: “Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: And here [i.e., in Damascus] he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name.” (Acts 9:13, 14.) Was his conversion a mere ruse intended to trap those who truly professed the Christian cause? (See Acts 9:20–22.) Time alone could answer this question and show the actuality of Paul’s conversion.

(31-7) Acts 9:27. Who Was Barnabas?

Barnabas was Paul’s missionary companion during his first mission (Acts 9:27). His first recorded service to the church was the selling of his property in accordance with the agreement among early Christians to have all things in common (Acts 4:36). He was a Jew (a Levite, actually) from the island of Cyprus; his surname was Joses or Joseph. At the time that he and Paul encountered the Lycaonians, Barnabas was given the name of Jupiter, most powerful of the Roman gods (Acts 14:12), evidently in token of his commanding manner, his dignified appearance, and his physical prowess. He was called “a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith” (Acts 11:24), was chosen with Paul to take the relief funds to the poor of Judea (Acts 11:29, 30), and was a hard worker who supported himself rather than throw himself upon the church for support (1 Corinthians 9:6). Although he had sharp contention with Paul over the issue of taking John Mark, Barnabas’ nephew, with them on the second journey (Acts 15:36–39), he and Paul were later reconciled. He it was who first sought Paul out after the latter’s conversion by going to Tarsus to induce Paul to join him in the ministry (Acts 11:25, 26). He seems to have been an apostle (Acts 14:4, 14).

Points To Ponder

Like Saul All Must Confront the Lord

(31-8) Every Knee Will Bow

Sooner or later each of us must face God. Even those who live out their lives without God must one day acknowledge that he is, for “every knee shall bow … and every tongue shall confess.” (Romans 14:11.) Of course, for all of us, now is the best time to serve the Lord.

“And, if you sense that one day every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is the Lord, why not do so now? For in the coming of that collective confession, it will mean much less to kneel down when it is no longer possible to stand up!” (Neal A. Maxwell in CR, Oct. 1974, p. 16.)

(31-9) We Have Made Covenants with the Lord

As Latter-day Saints, you have a special relationship with the Lord. Even before the foundations of the world were laid you made commitments to and covenants with the Lord. Of course, these have profound effects on that which you are called to do on earth. Certain it is that Paul didn’t receive the great blessing of seeing the Lord on the merits of that which he had accomplished in mortality alone.

“But why Saul, why this man who hated the Lord and sought to slay his saints? There can be only one answer—pre-existence; Saul had gained the talents and risen to the spiritual stature in the pre-mortal life which qualified him to stand as an apostolic minister of Him who now chastened him on the Damascus road.” (McConkie, DNTC, 2:89.)

And so it is with us. Not that all of us have as far to come as did Saul, who was in rebellion, but all of us are influenced by our pre-earth life. President Kimball indicates that we made covenants before we were born. Note his words:

“We made vows, solemn vows, in the heavens before we came to this mortal life. …

“We have made covenants. We made them before we accepted our position here on the earth.

“Now we made this commitment, ‘… all things whatsoever the Lord our God shall command us.’ We committed ourselves to our Heavenly Father, that if He would send us to the earth and give us bodies and give to us the priceless opportunities that earth life afforded, we would keep our lives clean and would marry in the holy temple and would rear a family and teach them righteousness. This was a solemn oath, a solemn promise. He promised us an eventful mortal life with untold privileges and providing we qualified in the way of righteousness, we would receive eternal life and happiness and progress. There is no other way to receive these rewards.” (“Be Ye Therefore Perfect,” Address given at the University of Utah Institute Devotional, 10 Jan. 1975, p. 2.)

Thus much of what you receive in the pathway of life has been determined by that which went on before. It ought to give you great hope that you have come so far with the Lord. You have already rejected Satan once. You have been added upon with glory. (See Abraham 3:26.)

(31-10) We Determine the Course We Pursue

You have the responsibility of determining your course and then pursuing it steadily to the end. To aid you, the Lord has given some special helps—significant ways you can discover him in mortality, as did Saul.

For one thing, all are born with the light of Christ, which is “the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” (D&C 93:2; see also John 1:9.) It is this that gives you an intense sense of right and wrong. Also, if followed, the light of Christ will lead you to the gospel. This Spirit strove with Amulek and called many times, but “I would not hear … I knew … yet I would not know.” (Alma 10:6.) It is probable that on the road to Damascus Saul was struggling in the spirit. Elder Howard W. Hunter, speaking of Saul’s state of mind as he journeyed, indicates that Saul’s earlier persecution of the Saints “weighed heavily upon his conscience.” (CR, Oct. 1964, p. 109.) You too have probably felt the Spirit of the Lord striving with you; and if you have heeded, your life, like Saul’s, has been drastically altered.

Parents too have a vital stewardship. Goodly parents often act as angels for us. They help us in the way we should go. Nephi, for example, was led to his testimony because of the vision of his father (1 Nephi 11:1). Paul was a spiritual father to Timothy and led that youth in the way he should go. All of us would be wise to honor our parents by listening to their righteous counsel. Their stewardship over us is recognized by the Lord and his Church; and even if they are not all faithful members of the Church, by divine decree they deserve honor.

The great gift of the Holy Ghost, if you truly receive it, will lighten your way.

Certainly the influence of this “first comforter” is vital to our own personal relationship with God.

Saul illustrates another essential way one confronts the Lord. He was administered to by Ananias, one of the Lord’s servants. As a matter of fact, most blessings come through the administration of others. That is the established pattern in the kingdom of God—blessings, ordinances, ordinations, administrations, and endowments come through others.

As you grow in the gifts of the Spirit, you may discover the Lord more fully. Finally, when you are endowed and married in the temple, the door will have been opened to eventual access to all the mysteries of God if you keep your covenants. All of us will have the privilege of confronting the Lord, each in his own way, each in his own time.

There Are Specific Things the Lord Would Have Us Do

(31-11) “If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments”

That Saul was willing to ask the Lord what to do and then to do it tells us much of Saul’s character. As has been noted elsewhere, others—Laman, Lemuel—have seen glorious things, even angels (1 Nephi 3:29–31); but their lives were not changed, because, unlike Saul, they would not respond. The Lord deals with specifics, and once we know his will, we should be willing to obey. To do otherwise is to bring upon ourselves condemnation. Alma the Younger had an experience similar to Saul’s when he saw an angel. The record is clear that he would have been “cast off” (Mosiah 27:16) if he had not repented. Once you confront the Lord in such a manner, it would be better not to have known him if your life is not changed (2 Nephi 31:14). Of course, like Saul, you need a specific course to follow; or as the rich young man responded when the Savior told him to keep the commandments, you may ask, “Which?” (Matthew 19:18.)

In order to do what the Lord intends, we must be aware of the specific commandments he has given. Faithful Saints need constantly to examine themselves (1 Corinthians 11:28).

Examine your own life, using the following scriptural criteria:

  1. 1.

    I’m aware of the significance of the covenant of baptism, and I’m keeping the covenant (Mosiah 18:8–10; D&C 20:77–79).

  2. 2.

    I’m morally clean—specifically so. I refrain from worshiping the God of lust by bridling all my passions (Alma 38:12).

  3. 3.

    I keep the Sabbath. I consider it my most important day. I do enter into the Lord’s presence on his day (D&C 84:24). I refrain from doing my own pleasure on this day (Isaiah 58:14).

  4. 4.

    I pray with desire. I could say that my heart is often drawn to the Lord in prayer (Alma 34:27). My prayers are more of communication and less of habit.

  5. 5.

    Understanding that the Lord has repeatedly admonished his Saints to be in the world but not of it, my lifestyle is consistent with Church standards in the following areas:

    1. a.

      Manner of dress

    2. b.

      Language

    3. c.

      Music

    4. d.

      Entertainment

    5. e.

      Eating habits

    6. f.

      Dancing

  6. 6.

    I have felt and can distinguish the power of the Holy Ghost in my life (Smith, Teachings, p. 151.)

  7. 7.

    Although my testimony has passed through a number of stages, I can honestly say I now know for myself. I have felt the promptings of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 16:17).

  8. 8.

    I would say that I’m a spiritual person. My spirituality is not a theory to me; it is a present consciousness. (David O. McKay has described spirituality as “consciousness of victory over self, and of communion with the Infinite.” [CR, Apr. 1949, p. 17.])

Being Born Again to a Newness of Life

(31-12) Saul “Arose from the Earth,” and So May All of Us

It is written that whatever the Lord does it is for the benefit of man (2 Nephi 26:24). It was so with Saul. After his experience with the Lord, Saul “arose from the earth.” (Acts 9:8.) As a matter of fact, the rest of his life became a testimony to his foreordination to greatness. He later wrote that he could “do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Philippians 4:13.) His life is the eloquent testimony of his words. He chronicles some of the happenings of his life—the trials, the blessings, and the glories—in 2 Corinthians, chapters 11 and 12.

Finally, his testimony to Timothy bespeaks his journey to perfection (2 Timothy 4:7, 8). Paul truly had crucified the old man of sin. He was a born-again saint. Saul the persecutor had become Paul the apostle, the saint, the man of God.

Witness Paul’s testimony and ask yourself if you have arisen “from the earth.”

Are you filled with love through the Holy Ghost? Read Romans 5:5.

On what foundation is your testimony built? Read 1 Corinthians 2:5.

How hard have you been striving against sin? Read Hebrews 12:4.

Do you pray with the Spirit? Read Romans 8:26.

Are you making your weak things strong? Read 2 Corinthians 12:7–10. See also Ether 12:27.

Have you crucified the flesh in the sense of bridling your passions and appetites? Read Galatians 5:24.

Are you founded upon the rock of revelation? Read Galatians 1:11, 12.

(31-13) Will It Make a Difference?

And so in the life of Saul—later, Paul the apostle—we see a prime example of one who was called from before the foundations of the world and, because of his acts in his mortal life, was ultimately chosen and who even attained a relative degree of perfection through Christ. (See Galatians 4:12, Inspired Version.) So may it be with you. You have been called. You will sometime be confronted by the Lord on your own road of life. To progress, you must do as the Lord directs. If you fully arise from the earth, you will come to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13) and be, indeed, “a chosen vessel unto the Lord.”