In Acts 9.19b-22 the story of Paul’s involvement with the church in Damascus – the city of his conversion to Christ – is retold. The duration of his stay with this congregation is not explicitly related to us in the text, aside from the general statement of “for some days” (Acts 9.19b).
Some suggest that this time frame was probably brief, but the phrase employed “some days” (hemeras tinas) can be quite elastic in meaning and can cover a larger period of time. In fact, elsewhere in the New Testament Paul expands our understanding of this early period in his early Christian life.
In Galatians 1.17-18, Paul reveals that following his conversion he spent three years in the vicinity of Damascus laboring in nearby Arabia “of which Damascus was at various times the principal city” preaching Jesus as the Son of God.
It is not insignificant that Paul identified himself “with them” in Damascus. It is also noteworthy that the church “so readily received him is a token of the fact that his conversion was regarded as genuine, and the church had no further fear of him.” He remained there until he had to escape by basket out a window due to persecution (2 Cor 11.32ff; Acts 9.23-25).
When Paul arrives in Jerusalem some three years after leaving, “he attempted to join the disciples” (9.26). However, his attempt to be considered as one of them was continuous but futile, so the force of the verb in the original (epeirazen).
The fear was difficult to overcome, but due to the commendation on the part of Barnabas he was accepted within the fellowship of the Jerusalem Christians (Acts 9.27-30). How Barnabas was convinced of Paul’s sincerity is not revealed, but no doubt it was Paul’s conversion story and new behavior which motivated Barnabas to provide the type of solicitation which won the confidence of the Jerusalem church thereby gaining a reception by the brethren.
Why Does it Matter?
At this point it is crucial to pause and ask a question that impacts us at the congregational level. Why does Paul join himself to the Christians in Damascus, and then again in Jerusalem – especially through much conflict to be accepted?
If we continue to read through the Book the Acts it can be observed that wherever Christians are, they joined together in fellowship (13.43-44; 14.20, 28; 16.15, 34; 17.7, 34, etc). But this is not an answer to our question; it is simply a textual fact.
The question supposes a motivation – whether theological or personal explaining Paul’s behavior. In answering this question, we may also learn something about why we join ourselves to a congregation.
In 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul writes to one of the groups that he worked with early in his apostolic ministry and rehearses his approach to the work there. In fact, the chapter begins, “you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain” (2.1). This is a reference to his ministry.
It is perhaps in verses 7-8 where an answer emerges. Observe these words:
But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thess. 2.7-8 ESV)
As in many other passages, Paul places the congregation as the center of spiritual and communal blessings (cf. Rom. 1.11-12). This is particularly seen as Paul recounts the kind of fellowship he enjoyed with the Thessalonians. Observe the four points below:
(1) Eager Affection
Paul loved his brethren and had this desire affection for them in his involvement with them, and it would be such care and consideration that enabled them to bond together. The church is where brethren build strong bonds which pull at each other towards stronger fellowship. When Christians life according to Christian principles the congregation provides a wonderful environment to create and reinforce those “ties that bind”.
(2) Ready to Share
The kind of environment that Paul reminds the Thessalonians is one of community interdependence. Sharing is an act of giving to others which also maintains the the solidarity of the church. Sharing is a demonstration of a strong bond, and as such this Christian outpouring of fellowship is found in the congregation. The line between sharing and giving may be thin, but so are the lines separating states and nations. The church is a place where one invites others to share in the blessings the Lord has given to them (Acts 2.44-47, 4.44-45, 11.29-30, etc.).
(3) Share the Gospel
Paul reminds them that while he shared with them, it was not sharing devoid of purpose. Instead, Paul share with the Thessalonian church the Gospel. It is within the congregation that Christians experience the richness of the Gospel as it is applied to one’s life, enhanced in hope, and enjoyed in its revealed mercy. The story of redemption that we all share from the pulpit to the pew is one that reminds every Christian that we too are on the same level field before the Lord – forgiven sinners, living lives of faithfulness before Him. The message though is half of the story.
(4) Share Ourselves
Paul goes a step further in his statement of what he shared with the church in Thessalonica. As he affirms,the message needs to extend beyond theological proclamation, and is further realized by sharing the deepest levels of our identity – our souls (ASV); making the bond strong between Christians. Bonds are not created by mere pew warming but through the embracing of our selves with each other in order to build each other up in Christ (cf. Gal. 6.2-5). When brethren truly tie into each other’s lives in Christian fellowship the bond will be strong among the brethren.
Reflecting over what Paul said in these brief words makes sense of his commendation and exhortation in 1 Thessalonians 4.9-12. They know the meaning and the “how” of love extended to brothers, and treating each member of the congregation in this manner.
The congregation is where Christians fellowship, grow, share and care; it is the place for acceptance and spiritual development.
The congregation is also a place where “the people of God” is no longer a phrase but an identity. It is where the stranger is received as a neighbor. It is where the rejected are received with welcome arms. It is suppose to be the safest place on earth for those seeking a refuge as the repentant learn how to “turn to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1.8-10).
One thing is definite, Paul did not wait for other members to move into action, he was proactive in sharing of himself, his preaching, and his affection. There is an old adage, “if it is to be it is up to me”. Paul demonstrates himself to be a Christian who loves being a member of a local congregation. We need to take a page out of Paul’s attitude about being an active member of the church (Phil. 4.9). So what will you share with your congregation? It is up to you … “me”.
- R. J. Knowling, “Acts” in volume 2 of The Expositor’s Greek Testament edited by W. Robertson Nicoll (New York: Doran, 1901), 238.
- Richard N. Longenecker, The Ministry and Message of Paul (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1971), 36.
- Wayne Jackson, The Acts of the Apostles, 2d edition (Stockton, Calif.: Courier, 2005), 107.
- Bauer, Walter, et al, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3d edition (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 792.
- John W. McGarvey, Acts of Apostles, 10th edition (Repr. Bowling Green, Ky.: Guardian of Truth Foundation, n.d.), 126.