Redeemed From an Unbelieving Past
The Point: Jesus can transform even the most hostile opponent into a faithful believer.
Paul’s Conversion: Acts 26:9-20.
 "I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them.  And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.  "In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests.  At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me.  And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’  And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.  But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you,  delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles–to whom I am sending you  to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’  "Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision,  but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. [ESV]
“For the third time in the space of two chapters, the apostle Paul gives a defense. The first had been before Governor Felix over two years previously [Acts 24:1-27]. Then, following Felix’s recall to Rome, Paul made another defense before Governor Festus [Acts 25:1-12]. The apostle had declined the governor’s proposal that he be tried in Jerusalem, in all likelihood before a court of Jewish jurisdiction. The outcome of such a trial was a foregone conclusion: they would have found Paul guilty of blasphemy and exercised their right under Roman law to execute him. Paul had appealed to Caesar, something he had not done before Felix, hoping that this appeal would ensure his transportation to Rome. Now that this possibility had been denied him, the only recourse left was to exercise his right as a Roman citizen to be heard by the emperor himself. Now it looked as though Paul would now be summarily taken to Rome. But God had one more surprise in store for the apostle. Within days of Paul’s defense before Festus, King Agrippa II made a visit to Caesarea, accompanied by his sister, Bernice, to pay his respects to the governor [25:13-14]. During the visit Festus discussed the case with the royal party, no doubt looking for advice on how he might handle the situation. He had agreed to send Paul to Rome, but what if the emperor should decide that there was no case to answer and that the governor ought to have known it? At best, it will make the governor appear inept. At worst, it could cost him his post. The Herodian dynasty rose to prominence during the decades preceding the birth of Christ. Herod the Great had been singled out by Marc Antony as a Jewish national leader, and he was made king by the Roman senate, which viewed him as a friend and ally of the Romans. King Agrippa II (the seventh and last king of the Herod dynasty) was only seventeen when his father, King Agrippa I, died. His violent death is recorded in Acts 12 following his involvement in the death of James (the brother of John the apostle, and son of Zebedee). Seventeen was considered too young for the post held by his father, and the young Agrippa was given instead a more manageable region to the north to manage along with the title of “king”. At this time, his kingdom comprised the former tetrarchies of Philip and Lysanias, east and north of the Lake of Galilee, together with some sizable cities west of the lake. His capital was Caesarea Philippi. For the past decade, by a power granted to him by Emperor Claudius, he had been given the responsibility of overseeing the appointment of the Jewish high priest. Festus, in relating the case against Paul to Agrippa, adds and omits certain details: he explicitly mentions the approach to him by the chief priests and elders of the Jews during his visit to Jerusalem [25:15], but makes no reference to the plot made against Paul. For the first time he adds that the Jews asked that a sentence of condemnation be made against the apostle [25:15]. That would short-circuit the judicial process, and the Jews would then have had no need to try Paul further. Hence the reason that the trial be held in Caesarea. Festus made no mention that Paul had protested his innocence; he only affirmed that the apostle had gone over his head in appealing to Caesar. The stage was now set for Agrippa to hear from the prisoner. When Agrippa had granted Paul permission to speak, the apostle assumed the pose of an orator, motioning with his hand [26:1], thereby giving a signal that he was about to begin his defense. This is not technically a legal defense, as had been the case on previous occasions. Agrippa’s desire to hear Paul lies outside of the legal process as such and is meant to be a means both to satisfy his curiosity and possibly to provide Festus with a way of dealing with the case without bringing the emperor into it. The Greek word apologia is rendered “reason” in 1 Peter 3:15: always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that in in you. Paul is giving his testimony as to why he is a Christian before the highest officials in that part of the world. Once again he is about to speak about his love for Jesus Christ and how this came about. In a lengthy address that covers almost an entire chapter , Paul sets forth an apologia. Paul is doing more than defending his life; he is bearing witness to the Savior. What are the main features of this apostolic defense/witness? First, Paul asserts his Jewish credentials [26:1-11]. After a customary rhetorical acknowledgment of King Agrippa, Paul adds the crucial point: especially because you are familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews. Therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently . Though Paul’s formal trial was to be in Rome, it was important that the summary of case given to the Roman authorities by King Agrippa be an accurate one. And for that to be so, knowledge of Jewish belief and practice would be essential. As a Jew, King Agrippa is in a better position than most Roman officials to make such an accurate summary of Paul’s case. It was not in spite of his Jewish heritage but because of it that he had come to proclaim what he did. The Jewish hope and the Christian gospel are inseparably related. The one (the Christian gospel) builds on the other (the Jewish Scriptures). He appealed to the fact that the Jews knew very well what he had been and what he had done as an unconverted Jew [4-8]. Paul’s point is to identify himself with the Pharisees and, further, to claim that their opposition to Jesus’ resurrection and the offer of Jesus to both Jews and Gentiles is inconsistent with Jewish belief. It was a bold opening move on Paul’s part, appealing among other things to Agrippa’s vanity as an “expert” in Jewish matter (more so than Festus). The Old Testament had anticipated a resurrection, Paul argues. It is something we have heard him proclaim before in Acts (most notably in Pisidian Antioch [13:23,32-37]), basing his claims on such passages as Psalms 2:7; 16:10; and Isaiah 55:3. Paul then expostulates: Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? [26:8]. Paul is no longer simply addressing Agrippa; he is appealing to any of you – Festus as well as any Gentiles who may have been present. Skepticism about the resurrection continues today, on largely the same basis as that which the apostle met in Agrippa’s court. The resurrection, it is claimed, goes against “the laws of nature.” Paul resumes the narrative form of his address in verse 9, drawing attention to his Pharisaic past, giving attention to a detail that has not appeared before in similar testimonies to his notorious conversion to Christianity [Acts 9:1-19; 22:4-21]. In his zeal as a Pharisee to persecute and destroy what he at first regarded as a heresy, he admitted to having voted for the death of Christians. He denounced belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and willingly persecuted those who claimed to have seen Jesus after His crucifixion. He had gone from one synagogue to another, engaging in an attempt to make them blaspheme . Here Paul adds a detail not found in earlier versions: he went beyond the already-recorded visit in Damascus, declaring that in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities . In an attempt to stamp out Christianity and force recantations, Paul’s travels were more extensive than he had at first admitted. Whether this reflects Paul’s growing sense of sin is impossible to affirm, but it would correspond with what we see elsewhere in his correspondence as he grows more aware of his natural depravity, escalating from a view as least of the apostles to foremost of the sinners [1 Cor. 15:9; 1 Tim. 1:15]. What has happened in Paul’s life can be fully corroborated even by his enemies. They would gladly testify to the change that has taken place in his life as a result of what he had experienced on the Damascus road. Second, he draws attention to calling and mission [12-23]. Paul continues his defense by relating once more his conversion on the Damascus road and the events that immediately followed it [13-17]. In addition to what we were told in Acts 9 and 22, this account provides new information. Not only the apostle, but we … all fell to the ground in response to the sound that was heard . The voice of Jesus saying, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me was in Hebrew . Jesus adds: It is hard for you to kick against the goads . A goad was a sharp-pointed stick used to drive animals. Traditionally, this image has suggested Paul’s wrestling against a guilty conscience, but it is better to understand the image as the Lord’s prodding him in another direction which he had no choice but to follow. Paul’s attempt to resist the definite plan of God was doomed to failure. No mention is made of the involvement of Ananias in Saul’s conversion, nor of Saul’s blindness and subsequent journey to Damascus. In earlier accounts, Paul’s commission to be an apostle to the Gentiles was mediated by Ananias, but here the Lord is said to have charged him directly. Effectively, whether mediated or not, the command had come from God Himself. In addition to Paul’s commission to be a witness to the things he has seen [26:16], Paul now adds that he will also be a witness to those in which I will appear to you . Paul is an apostle and privy to ongoing revelation. He is asserting developing status as an apostle of Jesus Christ. In Acts 9, we read that Paul was warned of the suffering that would accompany his mission [9:15-16]. Here Paul adds a promise that he was given: that God would deliver him from your people and from the Gentiles . There are echoes of words given to the major prophets (Jeremiah [Jer. 1:8] and Ezekiel [Ezek. 2:1-3], for example), and more especially to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah [Isa. 42:6-7,16; 49:6]. Paul is not only continuing in the line of Old Testament prophets; he is also continuing the mission of Jesus. A crucial summary of Paul’s mission is given in Acts 26:18: he is sent to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. Note the fact that the expression who are sanctified implies that there is a sense in which Christians are already sanctified [cf. 1 Cor. 1:2; Heb. 10:10,14,29]. We are perhaps more accustomed to thinking of sanctification as something future and transformational – a work that needs to be done in us. But it is also important for us to grasp that the New Testament also thinks of sanctification in definitive terms. As a past event, sanctification refers to the way in which Christians are set apart by virtue of their union with Jesus Christ. Christians have been turned from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God, from union with Adam to union with Christ. It is in the definitive and relational sense that Jesus could say, I sanctify myself [John 17:19]. Clearly, Jesus had no need for progressive sanctification, since He was sinless [John 8:46; Heb. 4:15]. Paul now addresses Agrippa directly: I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision . The gospel that he had been charged to deliver, first in Damascus, then in Jerusalem, then in Judea, and finally to the Gentiles , was nothing more than what the prophets and Moses had prophesied . Once again, Paul summarizes the content of the gospel: they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance . J. I. Packer defines repentance as “changing one’s mind so that one’s views, values, goals, and way are changed and one’s whole life is lived differently. The change is radical, both inwardly and outwardly; mind and judgment, will and affections, behavior and lifestyle, motives and purposes, are all involved. Repenting means starting to live a new life” (Concise Theology, 162). Paul made the appeal to Scripture: what he had taught was that which Scripture declared – no more, no less! We should ask ourselves two pertinent questions. Is our defense of the gospel noted by fidelity to what the Bible says? Does the principle of sola Scriptura characterize the message of our evangelism? Specifically, do we give the same emphasis to the need for repentance as was so evident in the ministry of Paul and others in the New Testament?” [Thomas, pp. 687-702].
Questions for Discussion:
1. Analyze Paul’s testimony or apologia in these verses. What does he focus on? What is his goal? What changes did he make from his earlier testimonies? Why did he make these changes? What can we learn from Paul’s testimony here for when we are given the opportunity to give our testimony?
2. In 26:17-18, Jesus tells what He will do for people. What must they do in response [26:20]? Define repentance (refer to J. I. Packer’s definition). What are deeds in keeping with repentance? How is true repentance more than just saying “I’m sorry”?
3. Why was the resurrection the decisive issue between Paul and the Jews? Why is it still the decisive issue today [see 1 Cor. 15:12-19]?
4. What are the two pertinent questions that Thomas says we should ask ourselves? What answers do you personally give to those two questions?
Acts, Darrell Bock, BENT, Baker.
The Acts of the Apostles, David Peterson, Pillar, Eerdmans.
The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter Varsity.
Acts, Derek Thomas, REC, P & R Publishing.