This week, we’re studying Acts 9:9-17, the “second act,” if you will, of the story of Saul / Paul’s dramatic encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road. This second act is the part where Ananias goes to the “street called Straight,” lays on hands, and Saul regains his sight. At first we might think this is not “the dramatic part.” We might be wrong about that.
Here are my notes on this week’s text [and some questions here]:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’re finishing up a series of five lessons in the book of Acts. More specifically, five lessons in the very first part of the book of Acts, between chapters 1 and 9. This is significant, because these first chapters lay the groundwork for the rest of the action in the book.
Arguably, the events of chapters 9 through 11 then constitute the turning point of the narrative, as the focus of the book of Acts shifts from the earliest community of believers in Jerusalem to the growth of a multicultural and geographically far-flung church of followers of the Jesus Way. As the narrative stays relentlessly focused on Paul’s missionary adventures from chapter 16 on.
So, not that any of the texts we’ve looked at so far are unimportant, but this week’s story is structurally essential for the book of Acts. As we might say today, “This changes everything.”
Geography is emphasized in the telling of the story, so we might want to look at a map – like this one at Bible Journey, which also features commentary and photographs of Tarsus and Damascus. Including what the Street called Straight looks like these days.
“Straight” here, btw, is not the “orthopedic” kind of straight, but the “make His paths straight,” “direct route” kind of straight. In case we were wondering.
Names are emphasized, too. Maybe only because this is narrative, and Ananias is the protagonist of this episode, and so, naturally, his name repeats several times in the course of these verses. But then again … this Ananias isn’t the only one in the book of Acts. So, does it mean anything that someone named Ananias [“Yah has been gracious” – see the discussion here] might be a conniving fraudster (Acts 5:1-11), or a visionary faith-healer (Acts 9:9-17), or a high priest in Jerusalem (Acts 23:1-5, 24:1-9)? Maybe just that context is everything.
However, does it mean nothing at all that Saul here is the namesake of the first king of Israel? That is, the king who has to give way to the second one, who becomes associated with Israel’s messianic expectation? And whose name means, in Hebrew, something like “called” or “asked for” (see the discussion here)? I just have a hard time buying that, even if it’s simply a significant coincidence.
The name Paul, by the way, as what the world will start calling this character for the rest of history, will first show up in Acts 13:9 – where it seems to be, possibly, a nickname (it means “small”). An ironic one, really, as time will tell.
And is it entirely coincidental that Saul is staying at the house of someone named Judas? Meaning nothing more than that it’s an uncommonly common name in the New Testament? With a whole range of associations. Going all the way back to those kings of Israel. [See the discussion here.]
Something else that seems likely to be significant, but is a little more “contextual” for us, is what’s happening with roads in this [big] story. Last week we looked more closely at the story of a Spirit-managed encounter that took place on a road (a wilderness one) that resulted in the baptism of “the Ethiopian eunuch” (Acts 8:26-40). Then, in Acts 9:2, the believers in Jesus are referred to as those “of the Way”. “The Way” is indistinguishable, in Greek, from “the Road.” Then, this week, here’s a person seeking these people of the Road/Way. Traveling, to Damascus, by road/way – we assume, although the text doesn’t that word immediately. And then, as we know, Saul / Paul will spend a good deal of the rest of the story traveling for Jesus and having various adventures.
Acts is a story where A LOT happens on the way.
This story is – optionally – a lectionary reading for the Third Sunday of Easter, year C. If all we knew were the lectionary, we still might have heard of this Ananias and this healing.
CLOSER READING: In v9, it feels at least meaningful, if not certainly intentional, that Saul is in darkness, without food or drink, for three days. Functionally a dead man. Like how the prophet Jonah was three days in the belly of the great fish. And Jesus was three days in the tomb.
In v10, this Ananias is identified as a disciple. Starting with Acts 6:1, the term “disciples” seems to be used simply for “believers” or members of the community growing up as a response to the apostles’ message. We’ve been told they’ve dispersed in response to a persecution in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1), and Saul’s whole project presupposes that at least some of these people might have relocated as far afield as Damascus …
How ironic, that Saul was planning to “find” some of these disciples, and now he’s depending on one of these same disciples seeking and finding him.
Most of our text is a conversation between the Lord and Ananias, that takes place in a vision. This vision is coordinated with Saul’s vision described in v12.
In v13, Ananias raises an objection. As usually happens when someone is given a mission by God in the Bible.
This might be a good place to point out that there are no emotion words in this text. Only rather factual descriptions.
On the other hand, we’d probably be right to imagine Ananias has some feelings, some human emotions, in connection with his objection in v13.
In v14, Ananias reminds the Lord that this person he’s being told to go seek has authority to bind “all those calling on your name”. That is, the name of the Lord. That is, people who, as we heard back in Acts 2:21, will be saved. So, although the Lord does not offer an immediate, emotionally-worded reassurance to Ananias, maybe there is some reassurance for the reader built in to these words.
The Lord’s response (v15) is really more along the lines of “Yeah, I have a different plan for this guy.” Plus, Saul is going to have to suffer. There probably shouldn’t be any consolation in that, but there might have been.
End of conversation.
“So Ananias went” – this seems majorly significant – and follows all the Lord’s instructions. Addresses Saul as a brother, says he’s been sent, by the Lord Jesus, “who appeared to you on the road/way by which you were coming,” for the purpose that Saul will regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Ananias’ speech is terse, but evocative:
- Saul is no longer an enemy, but a brother.
- This is the first time “the Lord” has been named as “Jesus” in our verses, so his name registers dramatically.
- This is the first reference to Saul’s being on a “road” or “way” in this chapter, and in this position, it has a double meaning (at least):
- the road / way Saul was on was simply the road to Damascus;
- but more figuratively, it was the way to persecute Jesus’ disciples, so, the wrong way (as we readers know!).
- But wait: it was the way to meet Jesus, and then to meet Ananias the disciple and follower of the Way and sent person, and to regain his sight and to be filled with the Holy Spirit. So … does that make it the right way after all? Whether Saul knew it or not?
Maybe it depends on whose way we think he was on … Saul’s way, or the Lord’s way … Kind of like one of those complicated freeway intersections where you keep trying to go west and keep ending up headed back east … We may not always be that good at knowing which is which. At first.
Images: “Stained Glass St Blaise Church Dubrovnik” (cropped), Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Paul regains his sight through the ministry of Ananias, Ciro Ferri, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
One response to “Studying Acts 9 9-17”
Thans for the book tip. I thought I would let you know, I looked it up and discussed it with my dad. The next day he called me to say he was getting it for me as a Father’s Day gift. Ha! So, it looks like I will read it after all. Go figure.
Well, it does look interesting…
So, again, thanx
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