Acts 9 – Paul in Arabia


Bronze Coin of Aretas IV

Luke tells us that Paul spent some time in Damascus proclaiming Jesus in the Synagogue, but was forced to leave the city because there was a plot to kill him (Acts 9:23-25).  Paul mentions these events in Galatians and 2 Corinthians in far more detail.  Luke compresses three years of ministry into a few lines!

How long was Paul in Damascus and the Nabatean kingdom? According to Gal 1:17 three years pass between the Damascus Road experience and Paul’s meeting in Jerusalem with Peter and James (Acts 9:26-30). Since the story of the escape over the wall is a unique event, it seems reasonable that Luke’s “many days” (9:23) extends a full three years. Since Aretas IV died in 39, the latest date for Paul’s conversion is 36, if not earlier.

After the initial confrontational ministry in Damascus, it is possible that Paul traveled from Damascus to other major cities in Nabatean territory. This likely included cities of the Decapolis, perhaps, Geresa and Philadelphia (modern Jeresh).  Philadelphia was a large Roman city, the type of city Paul will target later in his ministry. It is possible he visited Petra since it was a major trading center at the time. He may have used Damascus as a “base” since there was already a community of believers there. We simply have no real facts to deal with for this three year period, other than he was living in that territory for three years and that he did not consult the other apostles until three years after his experience n the road to Damascus.

As James Dunn observes, the more difficult question is why Paul spent three years in the Arabia. Paul makes an emphatic statement that after receiving a commission from the resurrected Jesus to be the “light to the Gentiles,” he did not “consult flesh and blood” but went to Arabia (Gal 1:7). Like Dunn, I think that Paul is simply following through on the commission he was given, to take the message of Jesus the Messiah to the Gentiles. The Nabatean kingdom provided him with ample opportunity to do just that.

Sometimes this period is described as a spiritual retreat into the desert, to work out the implications of his encounter with Jesus. I think that it is certain that Paul begins working through what “Jesus as Messiah” means, and what his role as the ‘light to the Gentiles” should be. He likely spent a great deal of time reading the scripture developing the material that he will use later in Antioch, then on the missionary journeys. But this period is not a monastic retreat! Paul is preaching Jesus and being faithful to his calling as the light to the Gentiles.

12 thoughts on “Acts 9 – Paul in Arabia

  1. I initially found it very odd that Paul did not try to get in contact with the Apostles right after his encounter with Jesus. Paul’s life had just drastically changed; he wanted to stop the Apostles at all cost to all of a sudden joining them. I would have wanted to meet the men who had lived with the Messiah for so long and learned from him. But Paul waited 3 years to meet with the Apostles! After reading this post and thinking about it Paul doing this shows for one that the message of Grace was completely revealed to him. The Gospel of Grace was a mystery revealed to Paul and to be directed by Paul. The Apostles did not have any kind of influence on what God was revealing to Paul. Second, Paul did not hesitate to start preaching the news that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. “At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.” (Acts 9:20) Paul began to preach immediately, but in the synagogues which shows he was initially targeting Jews. Part of the reason for him staying in the area is like Dr. Long said in his Post, that Paul stayed so long in order “… to work out the implications of his encounter with Jesus.” Paul knew he was to target the Gentiles but I think it took him a while of studding the scriptures and God revealing this message to him before he completely understood what he was supposed to do. After he had understood completely and his time had come to an end in Damascus because of threats he traveled to see the Apostles.

    • I would agree with Cam that the time in Arabia would be a time where Paul would have more completely received/understood the revelations God gave him. If you look in Galatians 1 and 2, Paul is convincing those in the churches of Galatia that the gospel he preached to them is the true gospel that he received from God. One way he emphasizes this is to show that he did not go to the apostles right away but instead was in Arabia for three years. Galatians 1:16 says that God was pleased “to reveal his son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man.” Paul asserts that the gospel he received was directly from God, not added onto by anyone else.
      I think that Paul used the time in Arabia to study Scripture and prepare for his missionary journeys. But I also think that Paul preached the gospel while he was in Arabia. From what we know of Paul and his passion, I cannot imagine that he would take three years to simply study. His personality and passion would have driven him to preach the gospel wherever he was.

  2. I think that it is a wise decision to take note of Paul’s three years that he spent learning what his role should be to the gentiles and learning more about what he was going to teach them rather than rushing into it too quickly. At the same time, though he was fulfilling the calling that he had received from the Lord on the road to Damascus. He was a light to the gentiles while he was learning. Somewhat like what college students or seminary students do. Though they are learning, they still have a passion for ministry and for the area God has called them to and they are fulfilling their calling to the extent that is appropriate at the time.

  3. I agree and also think that Paul was preaching Jesus’ name in those first few years. The Paul cannot be kept from his mission, even at the very beginning. He has such a go-getter attitude bursting at the seams. This reminds me a lot of new believers. When I have witnessed new believers, they are not quite sound in messianic scripture but they have an excitement to tell everyone of their new Savior. As they share their faith, proclaiming the name of Jesus, they begin to learn. I know during time’s my youth group went out witnessing we learned how to do it through experience. As you talk to people you begin to feel out different ways to reach the people and their hearts. A key element we talked about in witnessing to non-believers was the importance of cultivating a relationship. Maybe this is also what Paul was doing. The first half of his life he spent staying away from Gentiles; now he is called to go to them, and that is a bit of a culture shock one would have to undergo. Not only did he have to undergo immersion but he had to gain the individuals trust.

    After Paul was baptized it says, “taking food, he was strengthened” (Acts 9:19). As Christians, we hunger for God’s Word, to learn and grow in it continuously, no matter where God has called us.

  4. After Paul met the Lord on the road to Damascus, he remained in Damascus for a little while. He preached that Christ is the Son of God to the people (Acts 9:20). He lived in Damascus for “many days” (Acts 9:23). When he heard that the Jews wanted to kill him, the other disciples lowered him in a basket, and he escaped to Arabia. In Arabia, Paul does not say exactly what he did while he was there, but as Long states in his post, he probably did talk with the Lord to get a better understanding his commission to the Gentiles, and he probably began to carry out his commission by preaching to the Gentiles in Arabia. Cam’s thought about Paul not running to the disciples as soon as he received his commission was interesting. It showed that Paul alone was the one given the mystery of the Grace of God. The Apostles did not know anything about it until Paul explained it to them. In Ephesians 3:1-3, Paul states that God gave him the mystery of God’s grace to give to the Gentiles. In Arabia, Paul was preparing for his future ministry to share the gospel with the Gentiles.

  5. Even though I agree with Cam and Josh that Paul spent that time in Arabia studying the scriptures, I believe that being a devout Jew and leader he must have known a lot in order to be so high up in the temple. I believe that Paul knew enough about the law to try to live according to the scriptures but the interesting thing is the parallel to when John the Baptist spends time in the desert and also when Jesus goes into the wilderness to be alone with God and also to be tempted by Satan. This was a time where I would think Paul would want to learn about Jesus ministry and about what he had said from the men that knew him but he chooses to be alone instead. He went from devout Jew to dedicated Christ follower in a moment of glory and suddenly he is figuring out his calling and takes time to become the “light to the gentiles”.This could be a time of study and reflection and growth. He could have been mentored by an apostle or even listening to God.

  6. When I hear about Paul not seeking the apostles to talk to them all about how much he loves Jesus now, I think that he does this for them just as much as he does this for himself. Imagine the worst person you possibly can, a murderer who has gone out to destroy exactly what you have been promoting the whole time, coming up to you and claiming he is completely changed and ready to go out and share The Word!
    Do you think that you would be all joyous and accepting of this man. I know that I wouldn’t be. I would think it was some dirty trick. I don’t disagree that Paul took those three years to figure out what he was doing with this new calling and to take time away from the advice of the apostles so that his words were straight from God’s mouth and not of mans, but I also think it goes deeper (or shallower?) to show basic human nature of jealousy and hatred that people possess of others not like them and reluctance to accept.
    Even though the apostles are apostles and usually held up to a higher standard, I don’t think they are exempt from human nature. I could be wrong but I think they would have been reluctant to accept Paul into their little crew so quickly had it not been for the three years he spent away from them.

  7. It is odd that Acts uses the unusual phrase “his disciples” at 9:25 and it is also odd that it gives no record of the conversion of these disciples. It is all explicable if these disciples were converted by Paul’s preaching in Arabia. Luke is silent about their conversion because he chooses not to mention Arabia. They are “HIS disciples” because he was working alone in Arabia.

  8. The idea people need a retreat or seminary training to prepare them to do ministry is odd. The disciples were common men, Timothy was young, Aquila was a tent maker (and merchant?). None of these we are told went to a seminary equivalent. Seminary training is great but not a necessity for ministry. The best evangelists are often new believers and a pastor can do a great job without being seminary trained.

  9. If you follow the sequence of Galatians Chapter 1 you clearly see Paul went to Arabia for an undisclosed time then returned to Damascus. Then three years later he went down to Jerusalem. There is NO mention of Paul being in Arabia for three years. Please read the scripture in context it says he was back in Damascus three years then went to Jerusalem. Everything about what was done in Arabia and for how long is pure speculation. The bible should be read IN CONTEXT please. That solves a lot of problems.

    • Galatians 1:17, Paul goes into Arabia; 1:18 “after three years” he goes to Jerusalem. During that three years he spends some time in Arabia, but Roman Arabia, not modern Saudi Arabia (the point of the post). Maybe “up to three years” is more accurate, but my reading of the text in the post above is neither “out of context” nor “pure speculation.”

      To quote myself, “We simply have no real facts to deal with for this three year period.”

  10. Paul, being who he was, no double was able to even enter the synagogues as a rabbi, and speak from the scriptures about Messiah. He took that opportunity to speak about Yeshua as the One sent. Some heard and believed, but no doubt others wanted him thrown out. I wonder if this “Arabia” was up around Antioch. It was there that they were called Christians and had heard about Messiah.

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