We saw last week that as soon as the new governor, Festus, had arrived in the province, the chief priests and the Jewish leaders appeared before him to ask him to do something about Paul who had been in prison for two years. And Festus agreed to hear their case against Paul. And in the course of the trial, Paul appealed for his case to be heard by the Caesar. Presumably he didn’t think he would receive a fair hearing from Festus and he wanted the Roman Emperor to decide what should be done with him. And since he appealed to Caesar, then to Caesar he had to go.
Now, before he could be transferred to Rome, King Agrippa arrived to welcome the new governor. And Festus spoke to Agrippa about Paul’s case; and Agrippa asked if he could hear Paul for himself. And so, chapter 25 ended with Festus, Agrippa, Agrippa’s wife, Bernice joining together with some high ranking officials and the leading men of the city of Caesarea to hear the Apostle Paul. And so, we read in verse 1 of chapter 26 that King Agrippa invited Paul to address them all. And Paul stretched out his hand towards his audience and began to do what? Well, look at verse 2: He began to make his defence against all the accusations of the Jews against him. So, we shouldn’t think that he’s giving his testimony. This is not an evangelistic meeting with Paul explaining how he became a Christian. This is a kind of legal trial. Charges have been made against Paul that he’s a trouble-maker and that he’s been trying to destroy the Jewish religion. And so, he has to respond to the charges. And he does so by explaining how it is that a good Pharisee who once used to persecute the Christian church is now its preacher. And the explanation is that he met the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. And so, in this chapter, Paul describes his life as a Pharisee and a persecutor of Christianity. He then summarises the encounter he had with the Risen Lord Jesus. And then he goes on to show how he responded obediently to the command of the Risen Lord Jesus.
Verses 4 to 8
First of all, in verses 4 to 8 he describes his life as a Pharisee. And he says in verse 4 that the Jewish people would already know about his upbringing. In other words, he was well-known to many of them and they knew about his life in Tarsus where he grew up and then his time in Jerusalem. And, of course, you might remember from chapter 22 that he studied under the well-known Jewish Rabbi, Gamaliel. And he trained to become a Pharisee. And the Pharisees — Paul mentions in verse 5 — were the strictest sect in Judaism. They were the ones who kept coming to the Lord Jesus to complain because he wasn’t keeping all their rules and regulations. They were the ones with hundreds upon hundreds of dos and don’ts and they did everything they could to do what they thought was right in the eyes of the Lord. Well, Paul was one of them. And the thing about the Pharisees — and one of the things that made them different from the Sadducees — was their belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead. Whereas the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, the Pharisees — as did most Jews — believed that God would raise the dead. And Paul refers to that hope again in verse 6. He said:
It is because of my hope in what God has promises our fathers that I am on trial today. This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. O King, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me. Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
According to Paul, the Jewish people as a whole believed that God would raise the dead. They were hoping that God’s promise to their forefathers will be fulfilled one day. So, it seems incredible to Paul that he’s now standing on trial against them, because they believe what he believes, and he believes what they believe. They all believe that God will raise the dead. The thing is, of course: They’re expecting God to raise the dead on the last day. But what Paul now knows is that God has already raised someone from the dead: he’s raised the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.
Paul doesn’t mention that right away. He’s still trying to lay out his credentials, if you like, and to explain to Festus and Agrippa that he grew up as a Jew and he was trained as a Pharisee. And the Pharisees have always believed that God will raise the dead. And so, it’s incredible — it makes no sense — for them to bring charges against him because he too believes in the resurrection of the dead.
Verses 9 to 11
In verses 9 to 11 Paul goes on to summarise his life as a persecutor of Christians. There was a time when he too persecuted the Christian church. He too was convinced that he ought to do everything he possibly could to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And so, on the authority of the chief priests — and notice that they were once on the same side — he put many of them in prison. And when any of them were executed, Paul gave his support. Many a time he went from synagogue to synagogue to have them punished. He says he tried to force them to blaspheme which presumably means he forced them to say things which would incriminate them before the Jewish authorities.
And at the end of verse 11 he refers to his obsession. Perhaps a better translation is ‘raging fury’. Do you remember the phrase back in chapter 9? It said he was breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He was completely consumed with hatred for Christians. So much so, he even travelled to foreign cities to persecute them.
The question this raises is how did someone who was once the great persecutor of Christianity become Christianity’s great preacher? What happened that the great persecutor is now being persecuted himself? And that’s what Paul is going on to explain. Something happened to change his mind and to change his life.
Verses 12 to 18
And so, in verses 12 to 18 he tells them how he was travelling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. And it was about noon, when the sun was at its brightest. But a light brighter than the sun began to shine around them. They all fell to the ground and Paul heard a voice. And it was the voice of the Lord Jesus who had died, but who had risen from the dead and is now exalted to heaven. And the Lord Jesus said to him:
Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?
We’ve noticed before the way the Lord Jesus identifies himself so much with the church that he describes Paul’s persecution of the church as Paul persecuting him (Jesus Christ). The church of Jesus Christ is the body of Jesus Christ; and whoever attacks the church is attacking the Lord Jesus who loves us and cares for us.
And then the Lord said to Paul:
It is hard for you to kick against the goads.
A goad was a sharp stick used to move animals in a particular direction. And the Lord seems to be saying to Paul that he’s been prodding Paul in a certain direction. He’s been trying to lead him in a certain way. But Paul has been kicking against it, and resisting the way of the Lord. But, of course, the Lord has now appeared to Paul to remove all of Paul’s resistance and to make him yield to the will of the Lord.
In verse 15 Paul wants to know who is speaking to him. He doesn’t yet know. And the Lord tells him. And the Lord explained to Paul that he was appointing Paul to be his servant to do his will and his witness who would be able to testify to all that he had seen and would yet see in the future.
And in verse 17, the Lord promised that he would rescue Paul from the Jews and Gentiles who oppose him. And yet, even though many will oppose Paul so that he needs to be rescued from them, nevertheless the Lord is still sending Paul to the Jews and the Gentiles in order to open their spiritually blind eyes and to release them from the darkness of Satan’s evil rule. And that’s what a person’s life is like before they’re converted to faith in Christ. Our eyes are blind so that we cannot see the glory of God in Jesus Christ. And we’re held fast in darkness and under the tyranny of the Devil who takes us captive to do his will. But then, through the preaching of the gospel, God the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see. He brings us into the light of Christ and he sets us free from Satan’s tyranny. And so we receive the forgiveness of sins and a place among all those who are sanctified by faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, the believer is set apart from the mass of unbelievers — that’s what sanctified means here — and he’s given a place side by side with the rest of God’s holy people.
And, of course, the Lord’s call to Paul on the road to Damascus is what qualified Paul to be numbered among the Apostles. The Apostles were those who had seen the Risen Lord Jesus and could give an eye-witness testimony that ‘Yes, we have seen the Lord.’ And an Apostle was someone who had been specially commissioned by the Lord and sent out by him to preach the good news. And so, Paul had now seen the Risen Lord Jesus; And the Risen Lord Jesus was sending him out to preach his word.
Verses 19 to 23
The great persecutor of the church has met the Saviour of the church. And the Saviour of the church has sent Paul out to preach. And in verses 19 to 23 the Apostle Paul goes on to explain how he was obedient to the Lord. First in Damascus, then in Jerusalem, then in all Judea, and to the Gentiles as well, he preached the message that had been given to him. And so, he preached that the people should repent: everyone should turn from their sins with sorrow and hatred for them. And he preached that everyone should turn to God. And he preached that everyone should then live a life in keeping with their repentance. And, of course, that’s still our message today: Sinners must turn from their sins in repentance; and they must turn to God through faith in his Son. And, having been pardoned by God, we should strive to do God’s will and to live our lives for his glory by obeying him everyday.
And look at what else Paul says in verses 21 to 23. Yes, the Jews seized him. But God has continued to help him everyday. And even though the Jews hate him and have persecuted him, nevertheless the fact is that everything that he has preached is in agreement with all that is written in the Law and the Prophets. In other words, his message about Jesus Christ and the promise of salvation for Jews and for Gentiles and for all who believe is the fulfilment of everything taught in the Old Testament, because the Old Testament writers also said that the Christ would suffer and would rise from the dead.
That’s all the time we have this evening. But notice this one thing in closing. Look again at verse 23. According to Paul the Old Testament Scriptures announced that the Christ would suffer and would rise from the dead and he would proclaim light to to his own people (the Jews) and to the Gentiles. Who would proclaim light to the Jews and Gentiles? The Christ. And how does the Risen Lord Jesus Christ proclaim light to Jews and Gentiles? Well, in the days of the Apostles, he did it through their preaching. Wherever they went, and whenever they preached, the Living Lord Jesus Christ was speaking through them, addressing the hearts of men and women and boys and girls and enabling some to repent and believe in him. And he does the same thing today. Through the preaching of the gospel, the Living Lord Jesus is calling his people to believe in him.
This takes us right back to the beginning of the book of Acts where Luke explained that in his gospel he wrote what the Lord Jesus began to do. And the implication is that the book of Acts is about what he has continued to do now that he has been exalted to heaven. The gospel of Luke was all about the beginning of the Lord’s work. And the book of Acts is all about what he has continued to do from his throne in heaven. And here we learn that one of the things he now does is that he speaks to sinners through the preaching of his gospel to bring them from darkness into the light. So, once again we’re reminded how the Risen Lord Jesus is building his church here on earth from his throne in heaven. And he’s building it through the reading and preaching of his word. And so, of course, we ought to pray that the Lord Jesus will speak to us on Sunday and that his word will bear fruit in our lives.