In recent weeks the city of Damascus has frequently appeared in our headlines. Although it now appears that a U.S.-led strike against the region is not on the immediate horizon, it also looks as if negotiations over the proposed transfer of chemical weapons will continue throughout the coming weeks and more likely the coming months.
Those familiar with the NT probably associate Damascus most often with the conversion of the man who would become known as the apostle Paul. According to Acts 8:1–3, a young Pharisee named Saul was zealously involved in persecuting the church in Jerusalem. Luke tells us that after having attempted to “destroy the church” in Jerusalem, Saul sought and received authorization from the Jewish high priest to travel to Damascus in pursuit of converts in order to arrest them and bring them to Jerusalem for trial (Acts 9:1–2). However, Luke records that as Saul was travelling the 150-plus miles from Jerusalem to Damascus, he encountered the risen Christ. In this encounter the infamous persecutor of the church was himself transformed into a follower of Christ. Having been blinded by the vision, Saul continued on to Damascus where he was sought out by a disciple named Ananias. After being healed of his blindness, Saul was baptized, and he soon began preaching to the Jews in Damascus that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Some of the Jews, in turn, conspired to kill Saul, and he was obliged to leave the city in secret. And so ended the former persecutor’s ministry in the city of Damascus.
Today, the city of Damascus is the capital and second largest city in Syria. Its current population is estimated to be about 1.7 million with an additional million or so inhabitants in the greater metropolitan area. In Paul’s day, Damascus was part of the Decapolis on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire. However, around the year 635 the city came under Muslim control, and to this day, the vast majority of the inhabitants are neither Jewish nor Christian, but rather Muslim. In fact, the city contains more than 200 mosques (several of the more famous ones are listed here).*
Politically, I have no strong opinion about what the U.S. policy toward Syria should look like. However, as a Christian, it seems that Paul’s instructions to Timothy about praying for rulers and authorities are certainly applicable to the current situation. Paul told Timothy to pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we [believers] may live peaceable and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim 2:2). As believers we may pray that God will so work in the lives of those in positions of authority in Damascus that the Christians living in the region will be able to live peaceable and quiet lives and that the church will be able to spread the gospel in relative safety.