Chapter 15 – Witnessing to a king
4 ‘My manner of life from my youth, which was spent from the beginning among my own nation at Jerusalem, all the Jews know. 5 They knew me from the first, if they were willing to testify, that according to the strictest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee. 6 And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers. 7 To this promise our twelve tribes, earnestly serving God night and day, hope to attain. For this hope’s sake, King Agrippa, I am accused by the Jews. 8 Why should it be thought incredible by you that God raises the dead? 9 Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11 And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.
12 While thus occupied, as I journeyed to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests, 13 at midday, O king, along the road I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and those who journeyed with me. 14 And when we all had fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me and saying in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” 15 So I said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
16 But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. 17 I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, 18 to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.”
19 Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance. 21 For these reasons the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. 22 Therefore, having obtained help from God, to this day I stand, witnessing both to small and great, saying no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said would come—23 “that the Christ would suffer, that He would be the first to rise from the dead, and would proclaim light to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles.”’
Paul’s background and former passion
Paul moves on from his introduction. He says that all his accusers know he is totally Jewish. Born a Jew, with a traditional Jewish upbringing in Jerusalem, he became a strict Pharisee. Without detailing his Jewish credentials now to the Gentile audience, he stresses he is being judged for ‘the promise made by God to our fathers.’ That promise concerns the resurrection from the dead. Every tribe of Israel wants to attain that, he says. They constantly serve God in trying to succeed. He then tells Agrippa that his resurrection-based hope has caused the Jews to accuse him.
He then addresses a personal question to Agrippa. Perhaps others hearing it will apply it to themselves. ‘Why should it be thought incredible by you that God raises the dead?’ Paul now will explain why the traditional Jewish view that God raises the dead, insisted on by Pharisees, has become so real and vital to him through the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul’s Jewishness caused him to work for and under the authority of the chief priests on a specific and very demanding task. The other side of the same pro-Jewish coin was that Paul despised and hated anything to do with ‘Jesus Christ of Nazareth’, including his followers. Today, we call them ‘Christians’: but Paul rightly called them ‘saints’. Saints are not remote figures of art in cathedral stained glass windows. ‘Saint’ comes from the word meaning ‘holy’. It means someone ‘set apart’. Some dictionary definitions of ‘saint’ ignore the original meaning and have focused on non-Biblical church jargon and thinking. When a sinner turns away from his wrongdoing and turns to the Lord Jesus Christ, he is separating himself from sin and selfishness and separating himself to trusting and following Jesus as his personal Lord and Master. He is set apart for Christ. He builds on that each day by seeking to grow in holiness as he spends time with God in prayer and in reading and applying the Bible to his life. It is people like that whom Paul had in mind when he called those early Christian disciples ‘saints’.
But Paul’s hatred for Christ’s disciples really was cruel. In Jerusalem he had them jailed. He voted for their execution in Jewish sentencing decisions. He ‘punished them often in every synagogue’, forcing them to blaspheme. Anyone whom the Jews regarded as a blasphemer would be stoned to death, as was Stephen.1 Every faithful Christian rightly confessing that Jesus is God faced that punishment for blasphemy. If a believer renounced his faith in Christ in a moment of weakness under pressure, and so denied Jesus as God incarnate, he would thereby be made to blaspheme. Paul’s opposition to lovers of Christ made him ‘enraged against them.’ World-wide today, many disciples of Jesus face a similar rage from persecutors who follow a religion which encourages hating others. Others oppose Christians rather than accept the truth that as guilty sinners before a holy God they must repent and receive Christ to be forgiven.
Jesus breaks in
Agrippa and the audience now learn that under that bright midday sun, as the enraged persecutor travelled for the chief priests to Damascus to cruelly persecute Christians, Jesus Christ dramatically stopped him in his tracks. The One who is ‘the Light of the world’2 outshone the sun at its brightest, causing everyone to fall involuntarily to the ground. As Paul relays his amazing experience to Agrippa he tells of the voice addressing him personally in Hebrew by his old name: ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads’. Paul was bewildered. After his ruthless attempts to eliminate Christians, he experienced the acute jabs of conscience driving him ever further into guilt and despair, just as an ox is driven forward by the farmer jabbing it with a pointed ox goad. It is never far away from Paul’s mind and memory that he held the coats of the vicious mob who stoned godly and innocent Stephen to death.3 He sensed that the voice was God’s. But confused and shocked, he blurted out, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord replied, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’. Paul learned that in persecuting Christians by hounding and imprisoning them and having them killed, he has been persecuting Jesus. Paul was surely staggered to learn that Jesus was so close and lovingly caring to those who trust and know Him. But more is to come—much more.
The Lord’s purpose for Paul
Even at this time of trauma, confusion, bewilderment, guilt, and helplessness Jesus already began to indicate to Paul that He neither abandoned him to judgment, nor wrote him off. The Saviour told him to ‘rise and stand on your feet.’ When Jesus deals with a rebel sinner, He often humbles him first. The sinner’s pride, selfishness, self-reliance, and self-effort all need to be broken. He needs to sense his guilt, shame, helplessness and inadequacy. This is how God makes the guilty sinner turn from sin and to trust and obey Jesus. In trusting Christ, God’s mercy and grace lift him.
Acts 26 is the only one of the three conversion accounts revealing that Jesus told Paul why He was dealing with him in that way at that time. He had two roles for Paul to play soon. He would be Christ’s ‘minister’ (meaning ‘servant’) and also his ‘witness’. A good witness in court is honest, reliable and of good reputation. He has seen and heard first-hand evidence that he shares in court. Jesus would make Paul into His witness to tell what he has already witnessed—he has just met the risen Lord who died for him—and what God, through the Holy Spirit, would reveal to Him. That is why, under the direct influence of the Holy Spirit, Paul was used to write so much of God’s word in the New Testament.4
God promised Paul that He would deliver him from both the Jews and the Gentiles. The book of Acts is clear testimony to the way God kept that promise. Paul’s God-aided task was ‘to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God.’ Why? First, to ‘receive forgiveness’: and, second, to receive a glorious eternal ‘inheritance’ along with all those who are set apart for the Lord Jesus Christ through their personal saving faith placed in their once crucified and now risen Saviour. In short, Paul has been saved to take the life-changing gospel of the Lord Jesus to lost and guilty souls to save them from judgment and Hell, assure them of forgiveness and Heaven, and change their lives so much that a watching world knows that Jesus is alive in them.
Paul’s new passion
Paul now tells the listening king how he obeyed what Jesus told him in that vision on the Damascus road. He has visited the areas where once he hunted Christians—Damascus, Jerusalem and Judea—to share the gospel of repentance, evidenced by changed lives showing how real that repentance is. He then took the same message to the Gentiles. Paul repeats that this is why the Jews wanted to kill him. They tried to do so after seizing him in the temple. But Paul testifies to God’s deliverance as He promised. So he still witnesses to the ‘great’ (like his current hearers) and to ordinary, insignificant and overlooked people whom he meets day by day. He shares the saving message which the Old Testament prophets and Moses had predicted would come.
What is that message of ‘light to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles’? No prize for guessing. Paul has made it abundantly clear all along. Wherever he goes he shares it.
His message is still basically two-fold. First, ‘Christ would suffer’—which he did supremely in loving us enough to die on Calvary’s cross, where He bore our sins and God’s punishment for them. Second, ‘He would be the first to rise from the dead’—which Jesus mightily and miraculously accomplished in His resurrection from that borrowed tomb on the third day. Paul puts it like this to the church at Corinth: ‘I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.’5 That is the heart of the gospel that brings forgiveness, eternal life, and personal peace.
Are those twin truths more important to you than anything else? If so, have you benefited from them by committing your life to Jesus? Is your answer ‘Yes!’ to that? If so, are you sharing the message of forgiveness and new life with others now by explaining to them why Jesus died and rose again?
Questions on Chapter 15
Witnessing to a king—Acts 26:4–23
A. Based on Paul’s question to Agrippa in verse 8, and his insistence that he is being accused by the Jews because of the resurrection, why do you think it is important to believe and proclaim that Jesus rose from the dead?
Acts 26:1–8, 1 Corinthians 15:3–16
B. In how many ways in verses 12 to 18 do you see God at work to change Saul, the cruel persecutor of verses 9 to 11, to Paul the apostle who will serve Jesus so faithfully and well?
Acts 26:9–18, Acts 9:1–9, Acts 22:1–11
C. What are the main elements in the message that Paul preaches?
Acts 26:19–23, 1 Corinthians 15:1–4, 1 Corinthians 2:2