In Damascus and Arabia
It was not that Ananias doubted the Lord, or questioned His wisdom, or wondered if he had interpreted the mind of the Spirit aright. It was just that the message and the commission was so unexpected and incredible that he was surprised into faint expostulation, almost as though all the ethics of the case were suspect. As a servant of the Lord he was prepared to go anywhere and do anything that he was bidden, but normally he was able to see the end to which his efforts were tending. As a Christian, his work was to convert men to Christ and then act as pastor to lead them in the way of Christ. Ananias had been long enough in the Way himself to know that the essential prerequisite of all to whom he thus ministered must be repentance, and the full, wholehearted acceptance of the Lord Jesus Christ and of His power in the life. There must also be a fixed conviction that all salvation is through Christ and that one day Christ would return to earth in the glory of His Kingdom to reconcile to Himself everyone of earth's multitudes who could possibly be persuaded to turn from their evil way and live. For the present a relative few gave themselves wholly and unreservedly to the service of the Master, that they might live and reign with Him in the administration of His Kingdom when the blessed day should come. So it was with astonishment and perhaps dismay that His Lord in the familiar vision gave him a totally unfamiliar and unexpected instruction. 'Rise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold, he is praying and has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." (Acts 9.11-12 RSV).
Saul of Tarsus! Ananias was thunderstruck. This was the man who had come into Damascus with the avowed intent of harrying and persecuting the disciples of Jesus and taking them prisoner to Jerusalem. In his own congregation Ananias had some who had fled from Jerusalem to escape the terrible evils that were being inflicted upon the Christians there by this same Saul. Whether Ananias had heard anything of the circumstances of Saul's arrival and of his blindness does not appear but that he knew of his reputation and of his mission is plain. "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name"
(13-14). Ananias was a man of faith and of trust; he knew and served his Lord in implicit confidence. but this mission cut across all that he knew or could imagine of the Master's actions and interests. The less any of them had to do with this arch-persecutor of the saints the better. To go and seek him out was only asking for trouble. Surely the Master knew how inveterate an enemy to his cause was this man!
Jesus' words cut across his thoughts and words which must have enshrined a great deal more information than is recorded in the short account of Acts 9, for when Ananias did at last go to Saul he knew what he evidently did not know at this moment, that Jesus had appeared to Saul in the way. "Go thy way" was the calm rejoinder "Go for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles, and kings and the sons of Israel, for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name". And at that Ananias hesitated no longer. If Saul was indeed a chosen instrument then, despite all outward appearances, he was the Lord's and Ananias must hasten to receive him into the community of the faithful. Explanations could wait; the Master knew what He was about, and the servant could do naught but obey.
So it came about that the blind Pharisee, sitting quietly in the house of Judas as he had sat, silent and fasting, for three days past, heard an unfamiliar voice, a voice of calmness and sweetness, uttering words that he had never heard applied to himself before. "Brother Saul" they said "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me, that you may regain your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit." How did this man know ‑ how did any man know ‑ that Jesus had appeared to him in the way? That must have been the first thought which flashed across the keen, perceptive mind of Saul. That he had been led into Damascus a blind man might well have become generally known, an item of gossip. Something of the vivid light and thunderous noise out there on the hills above the city might have been recounted by the men of his party; but none of them knew of his sight of the risen Lord or of the words he heard. How then did this stranger know anything about it? "That appeared to you on the road by which you came" If, during those three day's meditation, Saul had wondered whether after all the whole thing was a chimera of his imagination, Ananias' words must have settled the question for him. Only the Lord Himself, the One who had appeared to and spoken to Saul, could have imparted the information to this Ananias. There was no alternative; he could only accept the fact, and believe.
What went on in Saul's mind during those three days can only be surmised. His creature comforts would be well looked after by Judas, who was evidently his pre-arranged host in Damascus and sure to be, like himself, a Pharisee and in sympathy with his mission. What Judas thought of receiving a Nazarene into his house and watching him receive his fellow-Pharisee as a convert to the hated faith can only be imagined; it may be that Saul did not continue in the hospitality of Judas beyond that point. But during the three days his mind must have been exclusively concerned with the amazing thing which had happened to him and all that it implied. The Old Testament prophecies must have come to him in a new light. The baffling questions which had tormented his mind during the journey were baffling no longer; the answers were all falling neatly into place. He began now to see what was meant by the sufferings of Christ which he must undergo, and only afterward enter his glory. The fifty-third chapter of Isaiah became luminous and full of meaning, the blindness and hardness of heart of those who had rejected the Lord's Messiah stood plainly revealed to him and he realised how he had been one such blind and hard of heart. Those three days were by no means the end of Saul's soul-searching and he was not yet ready for the work of his life, hut he was prepared to accept induction into the Church of Christ at the hands of the saintly Ananias and that was a momentous thing.
So he listened to the quietly spoken words "Brother Saul ... be filled with the Holy Spirit' and as he listened, a peace came over his soul such as he had never known and something like scales fell from his eyes and his sight returned and he looked up into the face of the man above him and he knew that his past was over and done with and he was now Christ's bondslave for ever and he rejoiced. with a humility that was new and strange to him. Saul the leader became Saul the led. He came into Damascus to take Ananias and bring him to the Sanhedrin but Ananias had taken him captive and was bringing him to Jesus. He had lost Moses and the Law, but he had received Christ and the Spirit. His thoughts were still in a chaotic jumble, but even as he began outwardly to behold his surroundings, so inwardly he began to glimpse something of the things of the Spirit.
A certain amount of quasi-medical speculation has centred upon the "scales" which fell from Saul's eyes. The Greek word indicates something which stripped or peeled off like a skin. Something of a similar nature is recorded in the Apocryphal Book of Tobit in Nineveh who likewise was blind and received his sight. It is said that records of the same affection were left by Hippocrates, the reputed founder of medical knowledge, who lived in Greece about 400 B.C. Suggestions have been made that the physical effect of the blinding light shining upon Saul's upturned eyes out there on the Damascus road was to cause some disease of the eyes which resulted in the formation of the scales which afterward fell away. Some have connected this possibility with Saul's "thorn in the flesh" and hazarded the suggestion that he afterward suffered from glaucoma or other affliction affecting his sight: several allusions in his epistles do support the likelihood of such being indeed the case. Saul's weak eyesight might well be attributable to more normal origins and although his eyes might quite possibly have been inflamed and temporarily injured by the experience. Could those of any man exposed to intense and searing light, the three days' blindness could conceivably have been, in part at least, of a psychological nature, and the emotional effect of the coming of Ananias, his words and his actions all that was needed to complete the cure and give Saul his sight again.
For a short tirne, "certain days", Saul remained with the disciples at Damascus. Of Judas, his erstwhile host, we hear no more. He had evidently washed his hands of the renegade. But Saul had found new friends and was rapidly assimilating himself to their fellowship. He was baptised at once: his strength of character and firmness of decision shown in his insistence upon that act before he so much as broke his three days' fast. The same resolute pushing forward which had made him so dangerous an enemy to the Christian faith was now being turned to good account and was very shortly to make him an even more dangerous enemy to the opponents of Christianity, first in Damascus itself, and then in the outer world
There is uncertainty about Saul's next move. According to Acts 9.20 he "straightway preached Christ in the synagogues" that is, to the orthodox Jewish community, and to such good effect that the Jews took counsel to kill him and he was let down by night over the city wall in a basket and escaped to Jerusalem. After a short time at Jerusalem he aroused the enmity of the Jews there and had once again to escape, this time going to his native city of Tarsus, where he drops out of the New Testament story for a time. On the other hand he himself, writing to the Galatians many years later (Gal. 1.17) says that immediately after his vision of the risen Lord he went into Arabia for three years and returned to Damascus, then going to Jerusalem to see Peter and James. It seems evident that this three years in Arabia must have come immediately after his reception into the fellowship of the Damascus disciples but before he started preaching in the Damascus synagogues, and therefore should be placed between verses 19 and 20 of Acts 9.
Where was the "Arabia" into which Paul went and why did he go there? Perhaps the second question is easier to answer than the first, and of greater importance. Almost certainly Saul, after his conversion, impressed with the magnitude and majesty of the Divine commission he had received and conscious how much he had yet to learn, felt the need for a prolonged period of meditation and study. "I conferred not with flesh and blood," he wrote to the Galatians "but I went into Arabia, and returned after three years". Those must have been three years of quiet but intense study and thought, going over the whole of the Old Testament prophecies, already so familiar to his mind, but now in a new light and against a different background. Formerly he could only see Moses, now he could see Christ in all the Scriptures. There is not much doubt that the outlines of all those brilliant arguments and expositions of the Pauline books in the New Testament - Romans, Ephesians, Colossians and so on - were drawn during those three years in Arabia. The location was a vague at the time, and it covered a long stretch of territory from the wilderness east of Damascus right down through Edom into Sinai, and Paul may, as has been so often suggested, have spent the time on the slopes of Mount Sinai itself or he might merely have lived a secluded life, unnoticed and unknown, in one of the country villages or Bedouin encampments on the east side of the Jordan not a hundred miles from Damascus itself. It matters little; there, in the place of his choice, he came to know the leading and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and there he was transformed from the efficient organiser and bigoted zealot he had been in former days, to the most indefatigable missionary and profound theologian the Christian Church has ever known.
And so, when he was ready, and the Holy Spirit so directed, Saul came back to Damascus.
Editorial note ‑ it is just possible that the experience narrated in 2 Cor.12.1‑4 occurred in the three years in Arabia ‑ it is not easy to fit into Conybeare's chronology of Paul's life.