Then things took a turn for the worse. To young Saul’s chagrin, the Jews of Damascus were not at all responsive to his powerful arguments. Luke tells us what happened:
After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept cl ose watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall (Acts 9:23-25).
What a burning humiliation to this dedicated young Christian! Paul had become—quite literally—a basket case! How confused and puzzled he must have been as all his dreams of conquest in the name of Jesus were brought to this sudden and degrading halt. How humiliating to be let down over the wall in a basket like a common criminal escaping from the reach of the law! How shameful, how discouraging! Once over the wall, he slips off into the darkness of the night, bewildered, humiliated, and thoroughly discouraged. He stated later that it was both the lowest point in his life and the beginning of the greatest discovery he ever made.
Where does he go from there? Luke tells us immediately, “When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple” (v.26). Paul’s own account agrees with this exactly: “Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:18-19). How he managed to break through the fear barrier to see these two men is given us by Luke:
Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, sp eaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him (Acts 9:27-29).
It is a familiar pattern. Once again the ardent young Christian is determined to persuade the Greek-speaking Jews that Jesus is the promised Messiah of the Old Testament. Once again a plot against his life is set in motion. It is the Damascus story all over again.
At this point there occurs another gap in Luke’s account that we must fill in from Paul’s own account elsewhere. Luke does not tell us young Saul’s reaction to the opposition he received when he preached to the Jerusalem Jews. But knowing his ambitious and dedicated heart, it must have been one of severe discouragement. Years later, he mentioned this event in his great defense to the Jerusalem mob when he was arrested in the temple precincts and saved from certain death only by the timely intervention of the Romans. In Acts 22 he tell s us, “When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking. ‘Quick!’ He said to me. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about Me’ ” (vv.17-18).
It is surely understandable that young Saul would seek the comfort of the temple at this discouraging moment. Again his efforts to bear a convincing witness for Christ had failed, once again men were seeking to find an opportunity to kill him, and he had no positive results with which to encourage himself. No wonder he went into the temple to pray. And there, to this discouraged disciple, the Lord Jesus appeared—yet His message was anything but encouraging. “Get out of Jerusalem,” said Jesus. “They will not receive your testimony concerning Me.” At this point Saul began to argue with Jesus: “ ‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in You. And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him’ ” (Acts 22:19-20).
In these words Saul gave himself away. We can now see what he was depending on for success in his witnessing efforts. It is apparent that he saw himself as the one person who was eminently qualified to reach the Jews for Christ. His argument says in effect, “Lord, You don’t understand this situation. If You send me out of Jerusalem You are going to miss the opportunity of a lifetime. If anyone understands how these Jews think and reason, it is me. I was one of them. I speak their language. I know how they react. I understand their background. I too am an Israelite, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, circumcised on the eighth day, of the tribe of Benjamin. I was a Pharisee like they are. I walked before the law blameless. I even persecuted the church, as they are now doing. Why, when the martyr Stephen was killed, I even kept the garments of those who murdered him! Lord, don’t send me away. I have what it takes to reach these men. Don’t miss this opportunity!”
Jesus’ answer is abrupt and to the point. Paul tells us himself, “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles’ ” (Acts 22:21). What a shattering blow! How crushed young Saul must have been! But to indicate how the church agreed with the Lord at this point, Luke tells us, “When the brothers learned of this [the plot to kill Saul], they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus” (Acts 9:30).
Tarsus was Paul’s hometown. There is no tougher place to go as a Christian than back home. Paul had tried his best to serve his newfound Lord with all the ability and energy he could muster. But it amounted to exactly nothing. In fact, at this point, Luke records a rather astonishing thing after Paul&rsqu o; s exile to Tarsus: “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31).
The record shows that at first the apostle Paul was not so much the dynamic history-changing missionary he later became. No, initially the apostle Paul was really something of a “consecrated blunderer”! In his earnest, fervent, good-hearted way, he went about preaching the gospel and stirring up all kinds of anger and hostility among the Jews! When this “dedicated disputer” was eliminated—sent away to his hometown of Tarsus—the church finally had peace! It began to grow! Isn’t that amazing?
Saul goes off to Tarsus to nurse his wounds, his ego shattered and his plans dissolved in despair. For 10 years he is not heard of again—not until an awakening breaks out in Antioch of Syria and the church in Jerusalem sends Barnabas down to investigate. When Barnabas finds “a great number of people [are being] brought to the Lord” (Acts 11:24), he knows help is needed.
In verses 25-26, we read, “Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” It was a different Saul who came to Antioch with Barnabas. Chastened, humbled, and taught by the Spirit, he began to teach the Word of God. And from there he launched into the great missionary thrust that would eventually take him to the limits of the Roman Empire, spreading the gospel with explosive force throughout the world.
Are You A Basket Case?
What made the difference? Writing to the Corinthians many years later, Paul makes one brief reference to the event that triggered a line of teaching that would culminate in a clear understanding and acceptance of what he came to call “the new covenant.” The Corinthian church had written to Paul and brazenly suggested to him that he would be more effective if he would boast once in awhile in his accomplishments. To this the apostle replied: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying” (2 Cor. 11:30-31).
What he is going to say will be such a shock to them that he takes a solemn vow that he is telling them the truth, otherwise they may think he is joking or playing with them. Then he tells them what his boast is: “In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands” (vv.32-33).
“That,” says Paul, “is my boast. That is the greatest event of my life since my conversion. When I became a basket case, then I began to learn the truth that has changed my life and explains my power.” What was that lifechanging truth? Let Paul put it in his own words, from his letter to the Philippians:
If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (3:4-8).
The word he uses for ‘’consider them rubbish’’ refers to common, barnyard dung. What he once regarded as qualifying him to be a success before God and men (his ancestry, his orthodoxy, his morality, and his activity) he now regards as so much manure compared to depending upon the working of Jesus Christ within him. He has learned how to shift from the old covenant (everything coming from me, nothing coming from God) to the new covenant (nothing coming from me, everything coming from God), which gives life. He is no longer highly qualified to be utterly useless but is able to say: “My sufficiency is from God, who has qualified me to be a minister of a new covenant.”
Have you become a basket case yet? Have you reached that place which Jesus described as “blessed”? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” To be “poor in spirit” is to be utterly bankrupt before some demand of life, and then to discover it to be a blessing because it forced you to depend wholly upon the Lord at work in you. That is where you learn the truth of the new covenant, and nowhere else.