Acts 9:1-2

1 Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest

2 and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

breathing (v.1) = breathing in, inhaling — passion

asked letters (v.2) — Paul volunteered to persecute, and he was obviously held in high esteem by the rulers.

Damascus (v.2) — In Old Testament times it was the capital of Syria. It is situated on one of the most fertile plains in the world, about 2,200 feet above the level of the sea, a plain watered by the river Chrysorrhoes and abundant in fruit trees and grain crops. It is about 60 miles from the sea coast, and was once the highway of traffic to the East. Under the Greek regime, it was eclipsed by the greater importance of the new capital, Antioch (Acts 11:20). It has again, however, established its former superiority and is a large city with 150,000 inhabitants [as of 1965]. A large colony of Jews who had several synagogues, resided there … Its distance from Jerusalem is about 160 miles. — Walker, pages 205-206

The persecution of believing Jews in Jerusalem was probably close to completion. Saul had persecuted believers in other cities (Acts 26:11) and was moving on to Damascus.

the Way (v.2) — From other passages in Acts it seems clear that the term, “this way” is Luke’s inspired designation for the faith and practices of Messiah’s followers, not a derisive term used by Saul (See Acts 18:25-26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). Perhaps the term was used much as we might speak of “the message” or “these truths,” but it is not without significance that the same terminology is used in John 14:6, where we have the words of our Lord: “I AM the Way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me.” — Stam, page 25

Paul was fulfilling the Lord’s prediction in John 16:2: They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. He did it in ignorance (1 Timothy 1:13-16), but it was willful ignorance, and this, in no way, eliminated his guilt.

Saul was born in Tarsus, an old city, and the capital of Cilicia. In that city was situated a great university given mostly to the study of philosophy. Josephus in agreement with Jewish literature identified the city with Tarshish, to which Jonah attempted to flee. Saul has often been called a “Hellenist,” that is, a Grecian Jew. But this is easily answered by his own words, “a Hebrew of the Hebrews.” He belonged to the sect of the Pharisees, and his father was likewise a member of the same class, for Saul called himself “a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee” (Acts 23:6). His bringing up was on the strictest Jewish order. All the observances of the law and the traditions of the elders were conscientiously followed by him. This fact he calls to mind when he wrote his great defense of the Gospel to the Galatians. “For ye have heard,” he states, “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 profited in the Jew’s religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:13-14). He also witnesses of his life before the grace and power of God converted him, when he wrote to the Philippians, “Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, and Hebrew of the Hebrews as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the Church; touching the righteousness, which is in the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6).

This young Pharisee had a strong belief in the God of Israel, in His promises and the destiny of Israel. This belief manifested itself outwardly in a zeal for God. While he was thus filled with pride of race, zeal for God, but without knowledge, striving to attain righteousness, to fulfill and obey the very letter of the law, he had an intense hatred of what he supposed to be disloyalty to the law. In Tarsus, his native city, he became fully acquainted with Greek customs, Greek life, literature, art and philosophy. The local industry of Tarsus was tent making. These tents were manufactured out of goat’s hair. This trade the young Saul learned. Teaching boys a certain trade is an ancient Jewish custom. His family may have been very influential and wealthy. He had a married sister living in Jerusalem, who must have been very highly connected (Acts 23:16). Saul of Tarsus was furthermore a Roman citizen. This was a high honor and privilege. It could be bought for large sums of money. When Paul was about the be scourged he mentioned his Roman citizenship. The chief captain, a Greek by the name of Claudius Lysias (Acts 23:26), said: “With a great sum obtained I this freedom. And Paul said, But I was born free” (Acts 22:28). The prisoner held a higher honor than the captain; no wonder Claudius Lysias was afraid. His family must have had the Roman citizenship conferred upon them as a mark of distinction or reward for some eminent service.

Saul received his religious education in Jerusalem. We listen again to his own words, “I am verily a man, a Jew, born in Tarsus, a  city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city  (Jerusalem) at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye are all this day” (Acts 22:3). Gamaliel was the greatest rabbi of the Pharisees, the president of the Sanhedrin. He was the son of Simon and grandson of the celebrated Hillel. We have found his name before in the fifth chapter. He was highly esteemed for his learning. The Talmud says, “When he died the honor of the Torah (law) ceased, and purity and piety became extinct.” At the feet of this great and learned man, Saul of Tarsus sat. That Saul was highly respected in Jerusalem and close to the leaders of the people is seen by the letters entrusted to him and the commission to Damascus. He may have been even a member of the council, for “he voted.” “When they were put to death, I gave my voice (lit. my vote) against them” (Acts 26:10). It may be interesting to say a word on his outward appearance. He has frequently been pictured as a tall handsome-looking man. But in 2 Corinthians 10:10 we read otherwise. The Corinthians were used to the athletic figures of the Greeks. Of Paul they said, “His letters are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible.” A very old apocryphal book, dating back to the end of the first century, “Acta Pauli et Theclae,” has an interesting description of his person, which may be genuine. “A man of moderate stature, with crisp hair, crooked legs, blue eyes, large knit brows, and a long nose, a times looking like a man, at times like an angel.” — Gaebelein, pages 11-164

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