Acts26v1to23: PAUL'S TESTIMONY BEFORE AGRIPPA
(A) Introduction (Read the reference.) This is the third occasion in Acts that Luke records the testimony of Paul. I have already studied Paul's conversion in my expositions on: Acts9v1to19 and Acts22v1to22. So I am going to adopt a different approach to Paul's final recorded testimony.
(B) Paul, the Pharisee, was sincere but wrong.
Paul tells Agrippa: "I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth." v9. He opposed everything that Jesus stood for.
Paul was in error through ignorance. He was zealous for God (Acts22v3) but ignorant of Jesus. People through the ages have done many foolish things out of ignorance. I was reading only last week about the recommended cure for malaria before the use of quinine in the 19th century namely, the ingestion of a whole spider concealed in butter or English treacle. It is all too easy to despise those who act foolishly out of ignorance.
Paul writes: 'I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. ITim1v13. I wonder if we are patient with and merciful to those who make mistakes out of ignorance. Sometimes we are badly misjudged out of ignorance. The youngsters I play cricket with these days treat me with something close to contempt because they never saw me at the height of my powers. I need patience and a sense of humour to bear with them.
It is clear from Paul's testimony that he was to some extent resisting the truth about Jesus. Jesus said to him: "Saul, Saul why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads." Paul was having a lot to do with Christians during his campaign against them. Their conduct forced him to reconsider his position. Perhaps after all he was wrong. So he fought against his conscience.
It is never easy to admit that you have been wrong. It is frightening because you have to confront the harm you have done through being wrong. Repentance is always a very humbling experience.
Jesus told a wonderful story about a son who left home for a distant country where he wasted his money and was left destitute. In time of famine he got a job looking after pigs and such was his hunger that he longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no-one gave him anything. Luke15v16. It was only then that he came to his senses. v17. Circumstances brought him to his senses. It isn't always necessary for the Holy Spirit to convict of sin. Charles Colson was brought low by the Watergate scandal. It was this that brought him to the place of repentance. The prodigal repented. He said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare and here I am starving to death. I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your Son; make me like one of your hired men.' So he got up and went to his father.
It was very humbling for the prodigal to repent and return to his father. Some sons would never under any circumstances have gone back. They would rather starve than face the elder brother! Pride would have kept them in the far country.
In the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin it is God searching, finding and restoring. There are times that God does take the initiative to find lost souls. But in the parable of the prodigal it is a son that is lost. The father does not seek his son. The son has to repent and return of his own accord. Repentance is the sinner's responsibility - some do and some don't. Thank God for those words of the parable: So he got up and went to his father. Thank God, too, for the father's reaction to the son's return: But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. v20. These are among the most moving words of the entire New Testament.
(C) Paul was converted and commissioned.
There are three key aspects to Paul's conversion experience:
(1) He saw a light. v14.
The old Sankey hymn puts it like this:
Come to the Light, 'tis shining for thee;
Come to the Light, 'tis shining for thee;
(2) He heard a voice. v14.
(3) He received his commission.
Paul's conversion experience played a part in shaping Paul's beliefs and also his conduct. This is true for other Christians. I found it very strange that Christian in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress travelled some distance from the City of Destruction before he encountered the cross and the burden of sin fell from his back. This, however, was Bunyan's own experience. After listening to three poor old women talk about their faith Bunyan changed his ways. He attended church, read the Bible and lived by the Ten Commandments. It was only later that he received assurance of sins forgiven as he looked to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood ...Heb12v24. Then Bunyan like Christian was able to give three leaps for joy and go on his way singing.
It is well to remember that conversion experiences are very variable. There are at least three types - and all influence belief and practice - perhaps, more than they should.
People who share this kind of conversion are inclined to believe that salvation is all of God. They played no part in it. God's grace was irresistible. God chose them - they did not choose him. They were plucked like brands from the burning.
(2) Others have a very different conversion experience to Paul. My mother, a very devoted Christian, was converted many years ago in a service conducted at Duke Street, Richmond, by the evangelist Alan Redpath. She testified that as Alan Redpath preached she became aware that Jesus loved her and that she could either yield to that love or resist it. My mother was faced with a decision and she believed until her dying day that she was free to accept Jesus or reject him. She chose to give her life to the Saviour.
My grandfather, a Grace Baptist pastor in Richmond, Surrey, was called 'Electioneering Jake.' My mother was more influenced by her conversion experience that her father's preaching. She believed she became a Christian by her own free choice.
Now you might say that my mother was a very simple woman! However, you could not say that of C.S. Lewis. It is worth recording what Lewis wrote about his conversion in 'Surprised by Joy':
The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. In a sense. I was going up Headington Hill on top of a bus. .... I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. .... I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armour or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door meant the incalculable. ... I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. ..... You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done.
C.S. Lewis, my mother and many other Christians are of one mind in claiming, from experience, that they were free to submit to God or resist God.
(3) Then there are those like me - who have had no conversion experience. I had no conviction of sin and no dramatic encounter with the Saviour. There was no religious crisis in my life and no free will choice to submit to Jesus. I had no sense of being born again or of being changed. It is has always been quite difficult to think of myself as being regenerate. I just found myself following Jesus. That is all I can say.
I am not alone. I read recently the testimony of the Rt Rev'd Dr Aaron R. Orr. He claims to have been converted at the age of 2 when he first listened to the stories of Jesus from his Irish grandmother. He accepted the truth of those stories in his innocence and never rejected them. As he grew up he found himself following Jesus.
So for me following Jesus is supremely a matter of the will. Jesus supports this view in passages like Luke14v25to35. I identify with Scriptures like Hebrews12v1to3: ... let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. The writer to the Hebrews is addressing the will.
(D) The common thread.
There is comfort for the likes of me in the testimony of Paul. There are some among the ultra-Reformed who might say that I am not a Christian at all. The fact that I have never had a conversion experience may mean that I am not one of God's elect. God just has not chosen me - which is tough luck - but there it is, God doesn't have to give an explanation for his decisions!
There is something, however, that Paul, C.S. Lewis and I have in common. Paul said: "I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven." First of all Paul submitted to Jesus. He said after Jesus introduced himself: "What shall I do, Lord?" Acts22v10. Jesus then commissioned Paul to be his witness to Jew and Gentile alike. See Acts26v16to18. He also showed Paul how much he must suffer for his name. Acts9v16. Paul did not disobey Jesus. He did as he was told. He went to Jew and Gentile and preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds Acts26v20. In other words Paul believed in Jesus as Saviour and Lord.
Some say that Paul had no choice but his words: "I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven;" suggest that he could have been disobedient. There is no point making the statement other wise. Moses had a vision from heaven. God appeared to him in a burning bush and commissioned him. Moses resisted! It was touch and go whether he would obey God or not. Strangely God's clinching argument seems to have been: "What about your brother Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and his heart will be glad when he sees you." Ex4v14. Moses set off to see his brother!
Paul believed in Jesus, so did my mother, so eventually did C.S. Lewis and so do I. If salvation depended upon a conversion experience like Saul of Tarsus, or my mother, or my friend Peter Chaffey, or C.S. Lewis I would not be a Christian. But it does not. It depends upon one thing and one thing only: belief in Jesus. I don't know how I came to believe in Jesus or when I came to believe in Jesus; I just know that I do - and that is enough. I thank God for the numerous Scriptures that confirm the prime importance of belief:
John1v12: Yet to all who received him, to those who believe in his name he gave the right to become children of God.
Paul's Theology was balanced. In Romans10 he writes about God's sovereign choice but in Romans 9 he writes about man's responsibility: If you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, "Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame." For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile - the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses those that call on him, for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."
The other thing that Paul said as part of his testimony was: "Having, therefore, obtained help from God I continued unto this day witnessing both to small and great. v22. AV. This declaration is every bit as important as the story of his conversion. Saving faith is not just dependent it also makes a great effort. I have just watched the British athlete Kelly Holmes win the Olympic 800 metres. Her success moved me to tears. I could see as she dug deep, hung in and gave every last ounce of her strength to win, what it cost her. I am reminded of Paul's description of what it is to be a Christian in Philippians3vs10to12: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering.... Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me..... But one thing I do. Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
After Kelly Holmes won her great race she was interviewed for BBC TV. One of the first things she did was to pay tribute to those who had helped her. Paul always acknowledges the secret of his success as a Christian worker - Having, therefore, obtained help from God. Even when likening himself to a dedicated athlete Paul remembers that it was Christ Jesus who first took hold of him and that it is God who has called him heavenward.
If I gave my testimony there would be little in it about a conversion experience but I, too, would be able to witness to God's help in fighting the good fight, running the race and keeping the faith.
After a surprising victory over the Philistines we read: Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and called the name of it Eben-ezer, saying, "Hitherto hath the Lord helped us." 1Sam7v12.
(E) Confirmation from Scripture.
Paul said to Agrippa: "I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen - that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles." v23.
Once again we see in this remark the importance of experience. "No, no," I hear you say, "Paul confirms rather the importance of Scripture." Paul had the Scripture before his conversion. He was not convinced then that the Christ would suffer and die, rise from the dead and proclaim light to the Gentiles. Jesus did not live up to John the Baptist's expectations. His own disciples thought the death of Jesus was a disaster and never anticipated his resurrection. When Jesus told his disciples about his impending death Peter replied, "Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you." Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." Mt16v22and23.
Modern Christians might argue: how could they overlook Isaiah 53. My sympathies lie with the Jews. Passage after passage in the Old Testament about the Messiah is triumphalist. Take the well known verses: Isaiah9v6and7: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. This and many other references - Isaiah 11, Micah 5, Psalm 110 and Jeremiah33v14to16 - are difficult to reconcile with a blameless life ending in shameful crucifixion. They explain why the disciples expected Jesus to establish an earthly kingdom based on Jerusalem that brought glory to the Jews.
Once you become a Christian then of course it is possible to find numerous references to Jesus in the Old Testament. No one shows this more clearly than the writer to the Hebrews.
Paul sees Christ's passion prefigured in the Passover story. He writes to the Corinthians: For Christ our Passover has been sacrificed.
It is possible that the Scripture: Yet it was the Lord's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand; (Is53v10) refers to the resurrection of Christ.
However, there were not many Jews like Simeon who uttered the stirring words: "For mine eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." Luke2v30to32. Simeon from long meditation upon the Messianic predictions based these words on a correct understanding of Isaiah49v6: "It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth." Let me say again - there were not many like old Simeon!
Religious experience is then very important in shedding light upon the Bible but it does carry a risk. We can see in Scripture what we want to see, what coincides with our experience, and we can miss what God wants us to see. King Henry VIII of England offers a very good illustration of this. He desperately wanted to divorce Katherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. He found a verse in Leviticus that he used to justify his decision to proceed with the divorce. It was: Do not have sexual relations with your brother's wife; that would dishonour your brother. Lev18v16. Katherine was the widow of Henry's brother. The King found what he wanted in the Bible but sadly he overlooked another verse and none of his clerical advisers was brave enough to point it out: If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfil the duty of a brother-in-law. Dt25v5.
So we all need to be careful how we interpret Scripture. There are many references to the sovereignty of God in the New Testament but there are just as many references to man's responsibility to believe. Belief is not the gift of God - it is what a man must do to receive the gift of God. When the Philippian jailer asked: "Sirs what must I do to be saved?" Paul and Silas replied: "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved." Acts16v30and31. See exposition on Acts16v25to40.