Times of change turn up in all our lives and in a variety of ways. However, knowing how to handle them is not always easy. These verses show us the Lord dealing brilliantly with change, as he prepares his church for a new development with far-reaching implications.
Firstly, what is the Lord about to change? The answer is Israel. Before Jesus the story of the Jewish nation had been one of trouble and sin. So he called Israel to repent (Mk 1:15) and, by him, be transformed into a heavenly kingdom filled with the Holy Spirit. The first 8 chapters of Acts have told the story of that happening (probably over a three year period since 30AD). Under the leadership of the 12 apostles a renewed Israel has grown up in the midst of the old one, built of all with faith in Christ. Now, however, the Lord is going to push beyond old Israel’s borders and incorporate Gentiles (non-Jews) from across the world into his kingdom. But that development will be hard for many of his Jewish followers since they, due to the OT law, have long kept the Gentiles at arms’ length. They’ll find this change hard to cope with!
Secondly, who will the Lord use to implement this change? Already we’ve met his key-worker: Saul of Tarsus (Ac 9:15). Saul, of course, hated Jesus and his kingdom, and set off for the Syrian city of Damascus to stamp it out amongst the Jewish community there (Ac 9:2). But the Lord converted him and Saul’s brilliance, Bible knowledge, speaking ability and passion are now all devoted to Jesus. The turn-around is stunning (v21), as Saul becomes a superb public theologian for Christ (v22). We should pay attention to this. Christ brings gifts, resources and opportunities into his church. Our responsibility is to identify them amongst us and use them as wisely as we can (Ro 12:5-8). And in doing so, we shouldn’t limit our sight to the ‘obvious’ candidates. Christ often raises up the unexpected person to serve him, as in Saul’s case. Also, we need to ask of ourselves whether we are capable of more than we might assume – do we use all our gifts?
To serve the Lord, however, more than ability is required: humble faith is vital. Previously, Saul was a self-confident, successful man (Ga 1:14). But meeting Christ humbled him and the work which lies ahead will do the same. Suffering, disappointment and apparent failure will mark it (Ac 9:16) and Saul’s faith in the Lord will be tested. That begins here in Damascus. After 3 years in the area (Ga 1:17-18), a plot is hatched for Saul’s murder (v23) and he has to go into hiding (v24), only escaping the assassins by the use of a basket (v25). So from the beginning of his new life as a believer, Saul feels deeply his own weakness and his need to rely upon the Lord. And in Jerusalem that continues as the believers treat him with suspicion (v26). So the Lord really puts Saul through some tough times, until it becomes his attitude that he ‘boasts’ in weakness (2Co 11: 30-33). But he needs this. Saul was appointed to his task directly by Christ, without apostolic approval (Ga 1:15-17). He has his own disciples (v25). All that could easily make him proud, except Christ will not let it. We should value weaknesses in our lives. They are not indications of the Lord’s lack of care for us but of his desire to build up our faith in him. And as we trust him, the Lord provides. To Saul, Christ gives Barnabus to stand by him (v27). This is often how the Spirit supports, rebukes and encourages us: through fellow believers. Without Barnabus, Saul could have felt horribly alone since he cannot settle in Jerusalem (v28), fresh opposition soon arises (v29), and he ends up running to his birth-town (v30). But the Lord is with him.
The Lord, however, is not only preparing Saul for the coming great change, but all his people. So Saul’s removal is not only for his own good but also helps to contribute to a period of peace and growth for the church (v31). This period is a kind gift from Christ. Many things are going to disturb the church in the years ahead but for this moment they can be refreshed in mind, heart and body. Of course the Christian life is hard and stressful (Lk 14:27), but the Saviour gives us breaks and we should make full use of them for the good of our souls (Ps 23:1-3).