As we come to chapter 26 of Acts, Paul has been in custody in Caesarea for over two years. It all began when Paul arrived in Jerusalem and was engaged in worship in the temple. He was mistakenly accused of desecrating the temple, and a mob of Jews was quickly assembled, who were about to kill him. He would have been killed except for the swift arrival of Claudius Lysias, who saved Paul's life. A plot to kill Paul led to his transfer to Caesarea and to his unfinished trial under Felix. Festus, his successor, also attempted to decide the matter, but this only resulted in Paul's appeal to Caesar. Now, in order to identify some charges against Paul to include in a letter to Caesar, this group has assembled to hear from Paul and to give their advice to Festus.
When Jesus predicted what would happen to His disciples, He said something very sobering, but also very encouraging. He said:
"But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name's sake. "It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. (Luke 21:12-13 NASB)
The encouraging thing in these words is that God intends the persecution and imprisonments to be a strategic opportunity for witness to the truth of the Gospel. That is exactly what happens in our text, Paul shares his testimony of how Christ transformed him from persecutor to preacher.
So the whole Jewish legal council and three of the highest political officials in Palestine (Felix, Festus, Agrippa) all hear the Gospel because Paul was arrested and imprisoned on false charges.
In chapter 25 Paul was on trial before Festus. When Festus understood that Paul was innocent, he couldn't release him because it would enrage the Jews, so he asked Paul if he wanted to be tried in Jerusalem. At this time Paul appealed to Caesar. And Festus agreed to send him to Caesar, but he had a problem, he couldn't send him to Caesar without any charges. So when king Agrippa asks to hear Paul, Festus jumps at the chance hoping to come up with some charges against Paul. So Paul is brought before Agrippa. This is not a trial, just an opportunity for Agrippa to hear Paul:
So, on the next day when Agrippa came together with Bernice amid great pomp, and entered the auditorium accompanied by the commanders and the prominent men of the city, at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. (Acts 25:23 NASB)
So in this auditorium we have king Agrippa in the purple of a king with his wife/sister Bernice, and Festus, who would be in the scarlet of a Roman procurator. There were centurions, lectors, and soldiers. Every notable person in Caesarea, both Jew and Gentile, was gathered there to hear from a Jewish prisoner.
Agrippa said to Paul, "You are permitted to speak for yourself." Then Paul stretched out his hand and proceeded to make his defense: (Acts 26:1 NASB)
What a contrast, all these big shots--all dressed to kill, and in comes a little Jewish man in chains. Paul must have seemed like a nobody, an insignificant Jewish prisoner. But this seemingly insignificant man was there to represent the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And to this day Paul is recognized as a devoted servant of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and the writer of literature that is the object of perusal and study and spiritual blessing of countless multitudes down through the past two thousand years.
"In regard to all the things of which I am accused by the Jews, I consider myself fortunate, King Agrippa, that I am about to make my defense before you today; 3 especially because you are an expert in all customs and questions among the Jews; therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently. (Acts 26:2-3 NASB)
Paul addressed the key figure in the room, Agrippa, with courtesy and respect. Paul "begs" the king's "patience" in listening to him. After so many efforts to make himself understood by such men as Lysias, Felix, and Festus, he was at last in the presence of one who could fully understand and appreciate his cause.
Paul didn't have to appear at this hearing, because legally his appeal to Rome had to be honored. But Paul never missed an opportunity to preach the Gospel. Festus looked at it as an opportunity to get an accusation. Agrippa looked at it as a curiosity-- he wanted to hear Paul.
Paul began his defense by starting at the beginning, with his own faith and practice as a Jew, in Jerusalem:
"So then, all Jews know my manner of life from my youth up, which from the beginning was spent among my own nation and at Jerusalem; 5 since they have known about me for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I lived as a Pharisee according to the strictest sect of our religion. (Acts 26:4-5 NASB)
From the earliest years of his life, Paul was educated at Jerusalem. If the Jewish leaders had the courage to testify, they would admit that he had belonged to the strictest sect of their religion, the Pharisees. A Pharisee was a strict legalist. And Paul was at the strictest end--he was a right-wing Pharisee. From his youth he was trained in orthodox Judaism in Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders knew he had sat at the feet of Gamaliel, a chief rabbi. He stresses that if there was anyone who ever lived who was convinced that Judaism was the final word from God, it was him.
Josephus says of the Pharisees, "There was a group of Jews priding itself on its adherence to ancestral custom and claiming to observe the laws of which the Deity approves" (Jewish Antiquities 17.41).
Paul was once their national hero. They would have delighted to have him for a son-in-law. For a long time Paul was known to these Jews as a devout Jew, a Pharisee, no less. More than this, he was a "Hebrew of Hebrews." He was one of the outstanding young men of Judaism. He wanted to show them how zealous he was as a Jew so they might understand the tremendous, cataclysmic effect of the transformation that took place in him.
Was Paul now guilty of forsaking Judaism? Far from it! Paul, in his remarks in verses 6-8, shows that it is on account of his Jewish hope that he is now on trial. He is not really on trial for opposing Judaism, but rather for adhering to it. It is his opponents who have forsaken Judaism:
"And now I am standing trial for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers; (Acts 26:6 NASB)
A literal rendering here would be "on the ground of the hope." The article clearly defines what promise, "the one, namely, made of God." What promise is Paul referring to?:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us--for it is written, "CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE"-- in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:13-14 NASB)
What is the blessing of Abraham? If the curse of the law is death, what is the blessing? Life! The blessing of Abraham is eternal life. The parallelism of the two phrases in verse 14 indicates that the blessing given to Abraham is equivalent to the promise of the Spirit.
Please notice what it is that the Gentiles receive--"the promise of the Spirit." What is the promise of the Spirit? To answer that, look with me at:
"And so, because he was a prophet, and knew that GOD HAD SWORN TO HIM WITH AN OATH TO SEAT one OF HIS DESCENDANTS UPON HIS THRONE, 31 he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that HE WAS NEITHER ABANDONED TO HADES, NOR DID His flesh SUFFER DECAY. 32 "This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. 33 "Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear. (Acts 2:30-33 NASB)
The promise of the Spirit is the resurrection, which is life! Resurrection is life in the presence of God. To be under the curse is to be separated from God, and to be blessed is to be in His presence.
Resurrection was a Jewish hope:
"Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God; Whom I myself shall behold, And whom my eyes will see and not another. My heart faints within me! (Job 19:26-27 NASB)
Job looked for the fulfillment of the promise of resurrection. Many see in this verse in Job the promise of a physical resurrection. But if this verse is translated correctly, it does the exact opposite. Kiel and Delitzsch translate verse 26 this way:
And after my skin, thus torn to pieces, And without my flesh shall I behold Eloah, (Job 19:26-27)
In their commentary on verse 26 Kiel and Delitzsch write, "We cannot in this speech find that the hope of a bodily recovery is expressed."
Paul's argument in this chapter is based upon a very important truth: Christianity is Jewish. Paul was once a religious Jew, a Pharisee, but as a Christian he is now a true Jew, enjoying and looking forward to the hope of Israel. If Paul's defense proves anything, it is that the Gospel, which Paul proclaims and practices, is the fulfillment of all that Judaism hoped for. Paul believed that the Church was the Israel of God (Galatians 6.16), and that they were God's true people:
the promise to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly serve God night and day. And for this hope, O King, I am being accused by Jews. (Acts 26:7 NASB)
Paul is guilty of hoping and believing in the promise which God gave to the twelve tribes of Israel, and which they think they are still looking for as they go about their religious rituals of worship. Thus he affirms a continuity of his Gospel message with Jewish orthodoxy.
"Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead? (Acts 26:8 NASB)
Paul addresses the Jews in the crowd. Notice the plural number of the pronoun "you." So, why should you, Jews, consider it incredible for God to raise the dead? There were no doubt Jews present from Jerusalem and the local Jewish community at Caesarea. If belief in the resurrection of the dead is a fundamental premise of Judaism, how is it that the Jews condemn Paul for believing in the resurrection of Jesus? Why do they find believing in an actual instance of resurrection (namely, Jesus) so incredibly difficult? Judaism was not consistent with itself in its response to Paul's proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
We know the Scriptures speak of God as omnipotent, and therefore, he is able to do anything that He determines to do. If He created this universe, to affirm that He cannot raise the dead is surely a contradiction in terms. Why should it be thought incredible that God can do anything?
"So then, I thought to myself that I had to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 "And this is just what I did in Jerusalem; not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, but also when they were being put to death I cast my vote against them. (Acts 26:9-10 NASB)
It was Paul's zeal for Judaism that drove him to hate Christians. Notice that he calls Christians "saints," which is literally: "the holy ones." The Greek word for "voice" here is psephos, which means: "a pebble." This may have referred to the little pebble that was used in the Sanhedrin for casting a vote. Paul was referring to his membership in the Sanhedrin and his voting in favor of the death of Christians:
"And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme; and being furiously enraged at them, I kept pursuing them even to foreign cities. (Acts 26:11 NASB)
Paul was the greatest heresy hunter that the Jews have ever known. He was totally committed to wiping out Christianity.
The story is told of Alexander the Great approaching a strongly fortified walled city with a small company of his soldiers. Alexander insisted that the king of the city surrender the city and its contents to this small band of fighting men. The king laughed, "Why should I surrender to you? You can't do us any harm." Alexander offered to give the king a demonstration. He ordered his men to line up single file and start marching. He marched them straight toward a sheer cliff. The townspeople gathered on the wall and watched in shocked silence as, one by one, Alexander's soldiers marched without hesitation right off the cliff to their deaths! After ten soldiers had died, Alexander ordered the rest of his men to return to his side.
The townspeople and the king immediately surrendered to Alexander the Great without a battle. They realized that if his men were actually willing to commit suicide at the command of this dynamic leader, then nothing could stop his eventual victory.
Paul's commitment was like that of Alexander's fighting men. He was committed, whatever the cost, to preserve his fatherland and its traditions against those whom he thought were undermining it. He pursued that commitment with the zeal and tactics of a revolutionary.
"While so engaged as I was journeying to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, (Acts 26:12 NASB)
He was not seeking the truth; he was convinced that he knew the truth, and that Christianity was a lie. He was not acting independently in his persecution of the Christian community; he had the full consent and authority of the chief priests.
Paul asks Agrippa to look at his past life: If you look at my past life, Agrippa, you will see that that cannot explain the great change that has taken place in me. With a record as this, there was no room to suspect him of any bias that would render him an easy or a willing convert to Christ. On the contrary, it must have appeared to Agrippa, and the whole audience, most astonishing that such a change could take place. How did this man, who had been driven by hate, change into a man driven by the love of Christ? How does someone come to embrace what he hates and considers heresy?
This reminds me of David Chilton, a man who stood strong against Preterism, until he became a Preterist. In his book, The Days of Vengeance, David Chilton labels full Preterism as heterodox: "Contrary to the theories of those interpreters who would style themselves as 'consistent Preterists,' the Fall of Jerusalem did not constitute the Second Coming of Christ... its ultimate thesis--that there is no future Coming of Christ or Final Judgment --is heretical."
"...it has become popular in some otherwise apparently orthodox circles to adopt a heretical form of 'Preterism' that denies any future bodily Resurrection or Judgment, asserting that all these are fulfilled in the Resurrection of Christ, the regeneration of the Church, the coming of the New Covenant, and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Whatever else may be said about those who hold such notions, it is clear that they are not in conformity any recognizable form of orthodox Christianity."
David Chilton denounced full Preterism as heresy, but then he had a paradigm shift. He became a full Preterist. After his paradigm shift, he said this, "The more I pondered the awesome implications of Jesus' words, the more I realized their truly revolutionary significance for eschatology. Without exception, every event foretold by the Biblical prophets was fulfilled within that generation, as Jesus said. Scripture foretells a Second Coming--not a third!" (David Chilton, Foreword to "What Happened in AD 70?" By Ed Stevens, 1997)
How is it that David Chilton went towards heresy? How does a man come to embrace what he has once denounced as heresy? He embraced it because he realized it was the irrefutable truth of Scripture!
Paul now goes on to tell them what happened to him that caused this great change:
at midday, O King, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining all around me and those who were journeying with me. (Acts 26:13 NASB)
On his way to arrest Christians, Paul is struck down by the glory of God. The idea of a light from Heaven revealing the glory of God occurs regularly in the First Testament:
Covering Thyself with light as with a cloak, Stretching out heaven like a tent curtain. (Psalms 104:2 NASB)
Judaism thought of God as revealed in the Shekinah glory, brilliant and yet veiled. Saul could hardly see the light as other than the Shekinah glory through which God revealed Himself to His people, especially when it was accompanied by a voice:
"And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.' (Acts 26:14 NASB)
To a Pharisee a voice from heaven was the voice of God, the "bath qol," especially when accompanied by blinding glory. Who, then, was this Who spoke from heaven? It could only be the Lord. But how could He be thought of as persecuting the Lord? Paul was without a doubt thoroughly confused. He was not persecuting God! Rather, he was defending God and His laws!
"Goads" were the sharp spikes often mounted on the front of chariots. If a horse kicked back he would hurt himself against them. This was a Greek saying, meaning, You cannot resist fate, which Festus and Agrippa were familiar with.
"And I said, 'Who are You, Lord?' And the Lord said, 'I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. (Acts 26:15 NASB)
His reference to "Lord" was an expression of humility before divine authority. He wanted "the Lord" to identify Himself. How could he be persecuting God when his whole life was given to His service?
The reply came, "I am Jesus." Can you even imagine how Paul felt at this moment? It had been the last thing that he had expected to hear. As far as he was concerned, Jesus was just a rotting corpse. Paul had dedicated the most recent part of his life to this belief that Jesus was not the Son of God, Jesus was not the Messiah, Jesus had not risen from the dead, and all those who believed that must be exterminated. Can you imagine the sobering reality of suddenly standing face-to-face with the resurrected Jesus, knowing He is indeed both God and alive--and you had been very wrong? These three words turned Paul's world and his theology upside down.
This was then a clear testimony to the resurrection, for Jesus had been dead and buried, and yet here He was speaking from heaven and identifying Himself with Christians on earth. Indeed He was declaring that they were so precious to Him, that those who touched them, touched Him. This was the amazing thing that had changed the course of his life. He had been brought face to face with the risen Jesus Christ, and had had to face up to the fact that He was alive.
New Testament scholars and others have puzzled a great deal over the conversion of Paul. Outside the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, it may well be the second most important event described in the New Testament. So the conversion of Paul has been the object of a great deal of investigation. Some of the most amazing theories have been brought forward to explain what happened to the Apostle Paul. One of the favorite explanations was to explain it by saying Paul had epilepsy.
Joseph Klausner, the well known Jewish author writes, "Evidently, the apostle suffered an attack of epilepsy on the Road to Damascus, and that explains what came to pass." Spurgen used to say, "Oh, if that is true, O God, give us many epileptics, for that is what we need."
Others have said what Paul saw was an hallucination. He was the victim of a sunstroke, because the Scripture does make special reference to the fact, that it was around noon, and we all know that at that particular spot, the sun does shine brightly, and its no doubt true, that many people have suffered sunstroke in that area.
If Paul had been the only one to make the claim of seeing the risen Christ, perhaps we would have to concede the point, or at least not build our case on it. But in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul states:
and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. (1 Corinthians 15:5-8 NASB)
Floyd Hamilton states:
Now it is perfectly possible for one man to have an hallucination, and two men might have the same hallucination by a singular coincidence, but that eleven men of intelligence, whose characters and writings indicate their sanity in other respects, or that five hundred men in a body should have the same hallucination and at the same time, stretches the law of probability to the breaking point! (cited in Teacher's Manual for the Ten Basic Steps Toward Christian Maturity [Campus Crusade for Christ, 1965], p. 104, italics his)
The only explanation that really satisfies the context and explains the life of Paul is that this was an appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ:
"And I said, 'Who are You, Lord?' And the Lord said, 'I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. (Acts 26:15 NASB)
Here our Lord makes it plain that to put your hand upon one of the saints is to put your hand upon Him, for the New Testament makes very plain that our Lord Jesus is the federal head of the saints. He is the covenantal head of the saints, and they're identified with Him. He represents them, and His experiences in representing them on the cross are the fundamental facts of divine redemption. And thus, to touch His saints, is to touch Him, for He stands for them. Remember this each week as we read the Voice of the Martyr: When they persecute the saints, they persecute Christ.
'But get up and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; 17 rescuing you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, (Acts 26:16-17 NASB)
This is Paul's commission, which he is fulfilling at this very moment as he witnesses to Agrippa and the crowd gathered before him that was made up of Jews and Gentiles:
to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.' (Acts 26:18 NASB)
"To open their eyes"--in Isaiah 42:7 it is the Servant of the Lord who was to open the blind eyes of His people that they might know the Lord. The idea is thus that the Messianic Age is now here and Paul is a witness of it.
"That they may turn from darkness to light"--the central application would appear to be Isaiah 9:2. The Messianic light has shone, Jesus the Messiah has come, and men must come out of their darkness and respond to His light.
"From the dominion of Satan to God"--God's servant "the Branch" would remove the iniquity of the land, ushering in the time of blessing. Being turned from the power of Satan to God indicates having the filth of sin removed and being clothed with righteousness and purity, and as Messiah's people finding a new oneness in Him.
"That they may receive forgiveness of sins"--this forgiveness is the most remarkable thing in the world, for it is a complete removal of sin through the cleansing of the blood of Christ (1 John 1:7), a "blotting out" (Isaiah 43.25; 44.22; Psalm 51.9), so that man is no longer seen as sinful. His filthy garments having been removed, he is seen as clothed in the righteousness of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21), and is thus able to approach the living God.
"An inheritance among those who have been sanctified"--it is because their sin has been removed that they will be able to enjoy their inheritance among God's people, enjoying His blessing of eternal life.
"By faith in Me"--none of this is the result of our efforts, but only through "faith" in Jesus Christ.
In Paul's writings, he never varied from this Gospel, which he was given right from the beginning. That is one of the characteristic things of the preachers of the New Testament. They were absolutely intolerant of other ideas of the way of salvation. Does that seem strange to us in the 21st Century? Sure it does, because one of the things that we are supposed to have in the 21st Century is tolerance. But tolerance, when it comes to things of God, is ultimately indifference to that which is the truth of God.
James Denney, a Scottish Presbyterian theologian, in his book, The Death of Christ, under the heading of "The Intolerance of Paul" writes:
The first commandment is, "Thou shalt have none other gods beside me," and that's the foundation of the true religion. As there is only one God, so there can be only one Gospel. If God has really done something in Christ, on which the salvation of the world depends, and if he has made it known, then it's a Christian duty to be intolerant of everything which ignores or explains it away. If we're going to be faithful to the one God and the one Gospel, how can we be tolerant of doctrines that are contrary to what the one Gospel of the one God says? It's only unfaithfulness, unbelief, tragic departure from a clear testimony to the Lord Jesus, that leads a Christian man, a supposedly Christian man, to be tolerant of other ways of salvation."
Listen to the Apostle Peter:
"And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12 NASB)
Listen to what Lazarus writes:
He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. (1 John 5:12 NASB)
We hear a lot today about "people of faith" and tolerance, and how we are all worshiping the same God, but by different names. But there is no such thing as a Christianity that stands side by side with Islam, or Judaism, or Buddhism, and says, "We worship one God under many names."
Christians believe, fundamentally, of necessity, that there is one true God. This true God is not Allah. This true God is not Krishna. This true God is not the god of Joseph Smith or Buddha or the Jews. This true God is the Lord Jesus Christ!:
looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, (Titus 2:13 NASB)
Jesus Christ is God. And as God He seeks true worship, worship based upon a knowledge of Who He is in reality, based upon His revelation to man. He does not grant to man the freedom to worship Him in a manner that pleases the creature rather than the Creator. God is particular about His worship. His worship is intimately, vitally connected to truth. Without truth, there is no worship of the Christian God. May God deliver us from the mealy mouthed kind of tolerance that is supposed to be a great virtue in the twenty-first century.
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