Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.
How did Saul know to call Jesus “Lord”?
It’s not often that people recognised Jesus for who he was, even among the Apostles, and even after several years of being with him. And yet, on his very first encounter, Saul refers to Jesus as “Lord”. That said, it’s in the context of trying to understand who is speaking, because he says “Who are you, Lord?” So there is clearly some confusion, yet at the same time Saul does recognise that whoever it is must be someone jolly important. Referring to anyone as “Lord” was a big deal.
Let’s remind ourselves of Saul’s backgroud, for a moment. He wasn’t an atheist; far from it – he was a devout Jew, probably living and working in the synagogue, with a healthy understanding of the Scriptures and a zeal for God. His involvement with persecuting the Christians was rooted in his Jewishness – he didn’t want these radical upstarts drawing Israel away from the One True God. But as Saul has this personal encounter with a bright light with a voice, he immediately realises that this is no ordinary meeting. This is not the God he thought he knew, it wasn’t a distant deity, it was a real and tangible presence that demanded his personal attention and deserved the identity of “Lord” before he even understood who it was. At the same time, there’s no indication that Saul thought it was a ‘different’ God; all those years of belief would be hard to undo at a moment’s notice. His acceptance of Jesus’s call shows that Saul understood Jesus to be the same God he had always followed, just a more exciting and clearer picture of him.
To be fair to him, his perception was probably better than most of the people we meet in the Bible!
Did Saul have his own disciples?
In the NRSV, at least, we’re told that when Saul found out about the plot to kill him “his disciples” helped him to escape. It seems early for him to have his own troop of followers, doesn’t it? Well I’ve checked in the Greek, and that does appear to be the correct reading of it. Maybe it was his charisma, or his communication skills, or simply his overt passion that attracted others to him. We don’t know for sure. But we do know that Saul (once he was Paul) was incredibly influential in the early Church, so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that people were willing to follow his lead right from the start.
These days we would be wary of this sort of thing. In fact, I think Paul himself advised against it in one of his letters. New converts don’t have the experience or knowledge that a more mature Christian would have. But then, some people’s presence is quite simply infectious. We enjoy being around them, we have an inherent respect for them, we have patience with them. I expect Saul had a lot of learning (and un-learning) to do in those early days of his ministry, and would have needed the support of those more mature Christians to guide him. Perhaps there’s a lesson for us too – it’s okay for the student to eventually become the master.
Did Peter feel threatened by Saul’s rise to popularity?
In the last few chapters we’ve heard a lot about the ‘other’ disciples. The Apostles were straining under the load of their ministry, so they delegated, and from then on they seem to have slipped out of the limelight. First it was Stephen, then Philip. Now we’ve got Saul too, who hasn’t even been a follower for long and has a significantly dodgy past. God seems to be working through them a lot at the moment. It reminds me a little of Jesus’s own words, about us doing “even greater things than these”. Sure, the Apostles were arguably the ‘leaders’ of this new Church, but God wasn’t working exclusively through them. It’s another expression of the outworking of God’s plan to bring the Word to all nations, for it not to be an exclusive club, with no one being more important than any other. The Apostles didn’t have a monopoly on the Church.
How would Peter have felt about that? After all, he was human, and without the benefit of hindsight. Jesus had told him personally that the Church would be built on him. And already it seems to be slipping between his fingers. Sure, he’s still doing miracles, and bringing someone back from the dead is certainly not trivial, but I’d still suggest that some of the things the others were doing were perhaps more… sensational. If there had been tabloids back then, Peter wouldn’t have made the front page in a while.
I guess we’ll find out how things pan out in later chapters, but with the benefit of hindsight it’s a good lesson in humility. We may be given a ministry, a calling, a responsibility, but that doesn’t mean God won’t call others as well. We have a share in the task of widening God’s Kingdom, we don’t have a claim to fame. Even if we have a calling as massive as Peter’s, we should still be humble and allow others to shine too.