The Old Testament is divided into three large segments. The Pentateuch is centrally concerned with the tabernacle and priestly service at the altar. Joshua conquers the land, which later becomes the realm of the Davidic dynasty. When the northern and southern kingdoms fall to Assyria and Babylon, respectively, Jews are sown into the Gentile world, and Israel remains intact through the word and ministry of prophets. The Old Testament moves from sanctuary to land to world, from priests to kings to prophets.
As Presbyterian pastor Jeffrey Meyers observes, apostolic history roughly replicates this sequence. The first seven chapters of Acts are set in the temple-city, Jerusalem, where the apostles perform signs in the temple courts and arouse the opposition of priests, elders, and other temple officials. After Stephen’s martyrdom, disciples scatter from Jerusalem to surrounding lands. Between Acts 8 and 11, the action moves from Samaria to Caesarea, north of Galilee, and chapter 12 introduces the first king in Acts, Herod Agrippa. Starting in Acts 13, Paul embarks on the missionary journeys that occupy the remainder of Luke’s history. As Jesus’s disciples move from Jerusalem to the land to the empire, they contend with priests, then battle kings and city rulers, then stand trial before Roman officials. Acts ends with Paul awaiting a hearing before Caesar himself.
A crucial clue indicates the first seam in the narrative fabric, that is, the transition from a priestly to a royal context. It’s a name: Saul. King Saul was, of course, the first king of Israel, and the appearance of a second Saul marks the beginning of the royal phase of apostolic history. In Jerusalem, the apostles re-enact the primary Pentateuchal conflict, assuming the role of Moses in their clashes with a priestly class that has become Pharaonic. Once they’re outside Jerusalem, the disciples of Jesus are portrayed as a Davidic people hounded by Saul-like enemies.
The old Saul was a man of the spear, intent on murdering David. The new Saul picks up where the old left off. He makes his first appearance guarding cloaks for the men who stone Stephen (Acts 7:58). Almost immediately, we learn “Saul was in hearty agreement” with the execution, and two verses later, he’s grown into a vicious persecutor, “ravaging the church, entering house after house; and, dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.” Like his namesake, Saul declares war on the anointed king, the new David (cf. Acts 9:4). He’s a predator, threatening to devour Jesus’s followers, as King Saul lurked like a lion to pounce on his prey (see Psa. 7:1–2; 57:4–6).
Even when Saul drops out of the narrative, Luke continues to allude to the life of David. Philip flees to Samaria, the capital city of the northern kingdom. There, he encounters a magician, Simon Magus, who is as powerless before the gospel as the evil spirit was before David’s harp. Through his successful preaching in Samaria, Philip unites the ancient divided kingdom under Jesus, son of David. To escape King Saul, David hides out among the Philistines, and Philip retraces David’s footsteps. An angel sends him to meet an Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza, in ancient Philistine territory, and after Philip baptizes the eunuch, the Spirit sweeps him away to Azotus, the Greek name for the Philistine city of Ashdod (Acts 8:26, 40).
King Saul ends in tragedy. Plagued by an evil spirit, his soul is poisoned with paranoia and envy. Israel asked for a king to deliver them from Philistines and Ammonites, but Saul spends much of his reign pursuing his rival, David. He loses his family to David. Saul’s son, Jonathan, divests himself of his princely insignia and gives them to David, while Saul’s daughter, Michal, becomes David’s wife. Saul loses his kingdom to David, too. Because Saul repeatedly defies the word of the prophet Samuel, Yahweh takes the kingdom from him. Even Yahweh abandons the king. The Spirit who made Saul a new man leaves him, and Saul can no longer make contact with God. Nothing works—not dreams, not Urim and Thummim, not prophets. In desperation, Saul disguises himself to consult a medium at Endor. His life ends with a meal in a house of demons and a pathetic suicide on Mount Gilboa. Saul fails in his primary life-goal, to exterminate David and his seed.
The second Saul also fails to exterminate David’s seed, though for very different reasons. David once confronted the first Saul outside a cave in the wilderness of Engedi. David has just refused to take advantage of an ideal opportunity to assassinate his enemy, who is also his king and father-in-law. He greets Saul as “My lord the king!” and falls on his face before him. Seeing David’s humility, Saul is remorseful: “You are more righteous than I; for you have dealt well with me, while I have dealt wickedly with you” (1 Sam. 24). The moment of reconciliation doesn’t last. Soon enough, Saul has organized another posse to chase down the outlaw David. Centuries later, a greater David confronts the second Saul on the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). This Saul’s repentance takes. A few days after his encounter, he’s in the synagogue of Damascus, proclaiming King Jesus as the righteous one, the “Son of God.”
No wonder the second Saul will later, under the name of Paul, include so many autobiographical references in his sermons and letters. Jesus snatched him from the tragic path of the first Saul, which is how he learned of the cunning power of Jesus—a king who enlists Sauls to be heralds of David’s kingdom, who turns Sauls into Jonathans.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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