Recently, a young man asked me how I decide my approach to preaching from a book like Acts, a book that is narrative rather than didactic. In other words, how do I decide what the theme of the sermon should be from the narrative account?
My answer was that you must ask of the passage some questions, including this fundamental one: Why, of all of the things that the author could have included, did he choose this account? And in answering that you ask, what is the overall purpose of the book?
When we come to this passage we need to ask the same questions. And the answer, as stated well by Longnecker, is, “In this first of Paul’s five defences, Luke’s apologetic interests come to the fore in highlighting the non-political character of Christianity and in presenting Paul’s mandate to the Gentiles as being the major reason for Jewish opposition to the gospel.”1 I would add that Luke was concerned also to highlight that to be a follower of Christ is in no way to be anti-Semitic; in fact, it is to be Jewish in the fullest sense of the word.
And so, as Paul was under Roman guard, he spoke first, “to defend his motives (he was not anti-Jewish), and second, to defend his actions (he acted only in submission to God).”2 And so, in effect, to oppose Paul’s message and ministry was to oppose God at the same time.
As Paul spoke to defend his motives and actions, he recounted the wonderful story of his conversion.
Gypsy Smith (1860-1947) was a British evangelist who began preaching when he was 17 and continued to do so until he died at the age of 87. When asked towards the end of his life what kept him preaching he replied, “I never lost the wonder.” Smith never got over the life-transforming gospel and therefore he just loved to keep on telling the story.
I had the joy this week of sharing my story on our church website regarding God’s saving grace in my life. I was actually moved to tears as I recounted God’s grace to me some 34 years ago. My life was put on the path of transformation and I will be eternally grateful to God for His mercies to me. I trust that others will be blessed by the testimony of God’s gospel in my life. This should always be our goal when we tell our story. I believe that this is one practical reason for the recording of this episode in Acts 21—22.
The apostle Paul’s story of his conversion is well-known, not only by Christians but also by non-Christians. It is a powerful story of God’s saving grace and has been used by God in the lives of many. In fact, Paul himself said that his story was to serve “as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.” In other words, if God can save Paul then God can save anyone (see 1 Timothy 1:12-17).
Again, our salvation stories should serve to encourage others of the power of the gospel.
The background to our present text can be found in 21:26-36. Malevolent and slanderous charges were levelled against Paul that he had brought Trophimus, a Greek from Macedonia, into the temple precinct, which was reserved for Jews only. This was a capital offence, which even the Romans respected. It was a lie. The real motive was to end Paul’s life and his ministry of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, with particular respect as he did so to the Gentiles.
Paul was therefore arrested under Roman guard. The mob was still trying to kill him but the Roman soldiers guarded his life. This is where we pick up the story. And it is also what gives rise to Paul telling his story. Let’s listen and learn some things that will help us to tell our story of God’s grace to us.
We can begin by acknowledging that sometimes we will face difficulties so that we will have opportunity to tell our story. But telling our story is actually a matter of telling God’s story.
We must be wise to use every opportunity to tell our story. And when we have opportunity, let us be sure that the focus of the story is not ourselves but rather the Lord Jesus Christ, the Hero of the story.
In 21:37-40 we read of the intentionality of Paul as he sought permission to address the mob.
Then as Paul was about to be led into the barracks, he said to the commander, “May I speak to you?” He replied, “Can you speak Greek? “Are you not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a rebellion and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?” But Paul said, “I am a Jew from Tarsus, in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city; and I implore you, permit me to speak to the people.” So when he had given him permission, Paul stood on the stairs and motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great silence, he spoke to them in the Hebrew language.
The words of Everett Harrison are helpful here regarding the scene: “It was not arrest in a legal sense, at the beginning, but seizure by a mob. What the Jews in the Dispersion had been unable to do because of the protection afforded Paul by the authorities, they were able to accomplish in Jerusalem, where they were in a majority and where the Roman presence was muted by apprehension that the populace might become offended and raise a tumult difficult to control. Tension usually characterized Jewish-Roman relations, especially in Palestine. Behind the crowd in the temple were thousands more who were like-minded about Paul, and behind them was the Sanhedrin, grieved and alienated because of his defection to Christianity years before (chap. 9). So the apostle was indeed in a perilous position. . . . Humanly speaking, he had to stand alone.”3
And yet, though he was alone, Paul nevertheless exercised great courage to tell his story. Barclay comments, “Here indeed is courage and here is Paul exercising his consistent policy of looking the mob in the face.”4
What needs to be noted from the outset is that Paul was courageously committed to telling the story of God’s saving grace in his life. He was a Christian moved by love for God and for his fellow man. And such a combination produces courage.
Paul could have simply hid behind the protection of the Roman military leader but he chose instead, despite beaten and humiliatingly rejected, to intentionally make the effort to testify for Christ.
We too need such courageous intentionality. Paul did not know at this point the outcome (later the Lord would reveal to him that he would arrive safely in Rome), but he was willing to risk it all. “The moment would not last, but Paul knew how to capitalize on it.”5
What you are willing to risk? And why are you willing to take such a risk?
But we must also note that, even before Paul spoke, the crowd became silent. This word (“silence”) is a favoured one of Luke in Acts, and I am sure that he wrote it here with a smile on his face. After all, this is a truly remarkable scene. There was something about Paul’s presence that, at least for the time being, commanded attention. Perhaps it was his bold intentionality. No doubt it was the Spirit’s influence. But what a beautiful confluence of the two! “Nothing in all the New Testament so shows the force of Paul’s personality as this silence that he commanded with gesture from the mob who would have lynched him. At that moment the very power of God flowed through Paul.”6
A. T. Robertson shares this insight: “His enemies had said in Corinth that ‘his bodily presence was weak and his speech contemptible’ (2 Cor. 10:10). But surely even they would have to admit that Paul’s stature and words reach heroic proportions on this occasion. Self-possessed with majestic poise Paul faces the outraged mob beneath the stairs.”7
As Paul began his testimony, he very wisely identified with his audience (22:1-5).
“Brethren and fathers, hear my defence before you now.” And when they heard that he spoke to them in the Hebrew language, they kept all the more silent. Then he said: “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today. “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, “as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished.”
One of the essentials, if our story will be heard, is the ability to connect with those to whom we are speaking. And though this is not the only way, certainly the idea of identification is a powerful means to make such a connection. It would seem that this is precisely what Paul did here—in several ways.
First, note that he addressed them as “brethren and fathers.” Incidentally, this was also the way that Stephen, the first martyr in the Christian era (a martyr, not incidentally, at the hands of Paul!), began his speech (cf. 7:2). The results were not much different, but the approach was still correct.
Paul was not belligerent or rude but rather self-controlled and mannerly. He addressed them as the gentleman he was.
If we want people to hear us—if we want our audience to hear our story—then let us learn to be sensitive, polite and respectful.
The use of these terms was more than merely a case of Paul being polite. By using them he was also identifying culturally with them. These terms are very Hebraic, and Paul was trying to say to them that he still considered himself one of them.
But the clincher here was when he began to speak in “Hebrew.” In actual fact, most believe that he was speaking in the Aramaic of the day, which was considered as being in the Hebrew linguistic family. Regardless, this clearly got their attention.
From v. 37 it is clear that Paul had been speaking in Greek, and this is what had caught the commander’s attention. Now that he spoke in the common language of the people “they kept all the more silent.” They were at least intrigued, if not interested.
When we tell our story it is helpful if we use the language of the day, the lingua franca as they say. This is an important point.
I once met a Zambian native in Zambia who had named his son Textus Receptus. Though English was at best his second language, he had been taught by some missionaries that the King James Bible—and the Greek text on which it is based—is the only correct translation for English-speaking Christians. The man had been so indoctrinated that he named his son after the Greek text! While the King James Version is without dispute an excellent translation, it is written in language that is four hundred years old. There are more modern translations that are equally good, and I maintain that it makes good sense for us to use something more modern.
I think it would be helpful for us to communicate with people in the jargon of the day. One of the concerns that I have with many Reformed churches today is that they rely so much on the Reformers that they create something of a time warp in their services. The doctrine of the Reformers needs to be proclaimed, but we can do so (faithfully) in a far more contemporary way than we often do.
Missionaries can learn from this the importance of trying to learn the language of the people to whom they are ministering. Thank God for skilled interpreters, but there is nothing quite like being able to speak comfortably with those to whom you are ministering in a way that they can easily understand you.
Third, Paul’s story made it clear by implication that he could well relate to his Jewish audience and therefore to the struggles that they themselves faced when it came to following “the Way.” Paul’s words here were in fact a matter of public record.
Paul was not embellishing his past, which is sometimes a temptation when sharing our story. Particularly in our day of technology, we had better be sure that our story is true!
Paul’s point was that he too was zealous for the law, and this was intended to strike a chord with his hearers. Further, his testimony concerning how he persecuted the followers of Christ was not for the purpose of making light of this or of bragging about his past but rather to highlight that he understood the angst of the Jews. He also painted a picture of the darkness of sin in order to highlight the light of the glorious gospel of Christ.
We need to do likewise in our storytelling and, again, be careful about embellishing it. If you were squeaky clean then don’t be ashamed of that! In fact, it clearly can be argued that Paul himself was. He lived a “lawful” life, but it was a self-righteous one. The gospel converting a drunk into a sober and upright citizen is no more glorious than the gospel converting a self-righteous Saul into a humble but righteous Paul.
One more important observation: Paul was ashamed of his past. I think this is seen when he recalls in v. 4 that he was guilty of “binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.” I imagine he said this with pain in his voice and a lump in his throat.
Let us be careful that we never boast about our sin. We need to tell this part of our story, but we should do so while blushing.
Having gone to some lengths to identify with his audience Paul then spoke of the transformation of his life by “Jesus of Nazareth.” This is the second record of his testimony, and we will encounter it again in chapter 26. What I want for us to see are some of the ingredients in the story we should be telling. And by the way, we should indeed be telling it!
The ingredients of the story can be highlighted in vv. 6-21:
“Now it happened, as I journeyed and came near Damascus at about noon, suddenly a great light from heaven shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ So I answered, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ And those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me. So I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Arise and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all things which are appointed for you to do.’ And since I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of those who were with me, I came into Damascus. Then a certain Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good testimony with all the Jews who dwelt there, came to me; and he stood and said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that same hour I looked up at him. Then he said, ‘The God of our fathers has chosen you that you should know His will, and see the Just One, and hear the voice of His mouth. For you will be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptised, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’ Now it happened, when I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, that I was in a trance and saw Him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, for they will not receive your testimony concerning Me.’ So I said, ‘Lord, they know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believe on You. And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’ Then He said to me, ‘Depart, for I will send you far from here to the Gentiles.’”
“Now it happened” is a powerful statement, which a Calvinist like me reads as a word pointing to the truth that salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9). Indeed, the story of Paul’s conversion is the story of God’s power; it is the story of God’s grace; it is the story of God’s work.
Paul tells of the “great light” that overcame him. What is of particular interest is that this occurred at noon. It happened when the sun was at its zenith. This highlights that it was the glorious glory of the Lord!
When you tell your story, do not be ashamed to speak of your experience. Granted that experiences have to be authenticated by Scripture; nevertheless, experiences are valid. Barclay helpfully notes, “Here Paul makes his defence to the mob who are out for his blood; and his defence is not to argue but to relate a personal experience, and a personal experience is the most unanswerable argument on earth.”8
Though the existentialism of an earlier era was in the end a destructive philosophy, because it refused to ground them in objective truth, nevertheless we are Christians because of something existential in our lives. We have experienced the power of the personal God.
I understand that Paul’s audience were steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures and that they tended to be far more theistic than many in our culture. Nevertheless, when you share your experience of God in your life, this still strikes a chord with many and awakens something in many of them.
In vv. 7-8 Paul edged closer to danger as he began to make it quite clear that the Lord who confronted him was none other than “Jesus of Nazareth.” This was the term commonly used by unbelieving Jews in their description of our Lord. He was not denying Jesus’ deity but was rather wisely laying a foundation to show that Jesus is more than a man. If they were listening, they would have begun to hear this by now. In fact, note that Jesus Himself uses this description (v. 8)!
In v. 9 Paul made it clear that there were witnesses who did not hear and see all that he did. They saw the light, and they heard a voice, but they could not make out what it said. Is this not so often the case? God saves one man in a church service while the one sitting next to him is busy cleaning his fingernails. It does not make the saving experience less real but in fact highlights that “now it happened” is a wonderful way to characterise our story of salvation.
The confrontation was personal, evidenced by the words, “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting Me?” The Lord knows just where and when to confront us with His convicting Word.
It is important that people with whom we share the gospel understand that we really are sinners who truly need the Saviour. Too often we proclaim the gospel as a good suggestion as to how to merely improve our lives without driving home the news that we were sinners and that God was well aware of our sin. Only then is the gospel seen as good news that forgives and delivers from judgement.
Paul, of course, (pre-conversion) was very self-righteous, and that is the problem with many in our day. As we tell the story we must highlight that we were not merely mistaken but were personally responsible for wrongs against the Lord. He sees this; we are accountable.
Paul continued by noting that he was ignorant of the Lord Jesus. Once again, we see Paul’s identification with those to whom he was speaking, for they too were ignorant of the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Paul, like this mob of unbelieving Jews, knew Jesus only “after the flesh” (2 Corinthians 5:16); at least, that is, until this experience. Now he came to know something of the true nature of Jesus.
This is where many in our own culture are. They may in many cases know the Sunday school stories of Jesus, and may know of Him as a great moral teacher and a famous historical figure, but they do not know Him as Lord of all. When we tell our story we should make it clear that we too were blind until His self-revelation. Be careful of giving people the impression that there is something special about you as the reason for your belief. Keep your story God-centred. Be honest. Such honesty is a wonderful hope giver.
Importantly, when you tell your story, be sure to tell the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord!
Paul next told of what happened subsequent to the confrontation by Jesus. Let’s note particularly vv. 10-13.
“So I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Arise and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all things which are appointed for you to do.’ And since I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of those who were with me, I came into Damascus. Then a certain Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good testimony with all the Jews who dwelt there, came to me; and he stood and said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that same hour I looked up at him.”
Paul tells them that his experience with the Lord resulted in his being blinded by the light. This no doubt was a traumatic and troubling experience. In other words, when Paul met the Lord it was not a matter of instant, “Now I am happy all the day.” Rather Paul, the self-sufficient man, was now dependent upon others. Without spending too much time here, it may be helpful to observe that when telling our story we dare not give the impression that salvation immediately turns life into a bed of roses. Rather, when we are converted we may find ourselves experiencing some real difficulties. The reason for this is that, upon regeneration, we get a new Lord. And His ways are seldom our ways. But without submission to the lordship of Christ we will never know what it means to be saved.
Don’t sugar-coat your testimony. Be willing to point out the difficulties associated with following Christ. The wonderful visions are often followed by periods of darkness and even of heavenly silence. After all, Jesus told His would be followers that they must take up their cross if He will be their Saviour and Lord. And since His cross is in many ways the template for ours; we should not be surprised if it includes episodes like Gethsemane. Be honest. God does not need us to sweeten the story to make it attractive to those whom He is drawing.
John Phillips writes of Paul’s encounter with Ananias, “The last thing Saul had seen was the face of the Christ. The next thing he saw was the face of a Christian. He had seen the Head; now he saw a member of the Body.”9
As an aside, note that Paul drove home the Jewishness of Ananias by saying that he “was devout according to the law, having a good testimony with all the Jews who dwell there.” In other words, Paul was saying that if they would not take his word for it then they should take Ananias’. In fact, Ananias called him “brother.” “I am indeed your brother. I am not apostate; rather, my experience is completely in accord with our Jewish biblical heritage.”
Let us learn from this that, though there is a danger of going overboard, we must do what we can to make the connection of identification with those to whom we are telling our story. Let them know that our experience can be theirs as well.
Paul continued with his salvation experience as he recounted the counsel given by Ananias to him. He told of how this brother confirmed that “the God of our fathers has chosen you” to “be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard.” Stott helpfully notes, “But the God of his fathers was his God still. He had not broken away from his ancestral faith, still less apostatized; he stood in direct continuity with it.”10
Paul was wisely laying the foundation to defend why he was a missionary to the Gentiles. You will remember that he was in this predicament not primarily because he preached to Gentiles (after all, the Jews themselves were all for proselytising Gentiles into Judaism) but because of his insistence that Gentiles who believed on the Jewish Messiah were every bit the equal of Jewish believers. This is why they trumped up the false charge that Paul had brought Trophimus into the temple. As Barclay notes, “He saw Christ as the Saviour of all men and God as the lover of the souls of all men. His audience saw God as the lover of the Jews and of no other nation.”11
We can learn from this that one evidence of our conversion is that racism and ethnocentrism fall away. We really do look at others with new eyes. This will be a blessing to some who hear our story and an indignation to others. So be it. That is all a part of being salt and light.
Paul then shared that one evidence of his salvation was his baptism. When instructed by Ananias to be baptised, he obeyed. This verse does not teach baptismal regeneration, but rather that, when one has experienced the washing of their sins in the blood of the Lamb, baptism in water is the natural and expected consequence.
By Paul telling this part of the story he was being faithful to the whole story. And we need to be so as well. We must never shy away from telling people what Jesus expects. The gospel story is ultimately about the lordship of Jesus Christ and he expects obedience from those who claim to believe the story. This, by the way, is a good indication of the legitimacy of one’s profession of faith: identifying with Christ and His Body.
In the final section of this story (vv. 17-21) Paul wades deeper into dangerous waters as he further faithfully recounts the whole story.
When you put together the full picture of Paul’s early years as a Christian you discover that he spent several years in Arabia where, most likely, the Lord discipled him. He then returned to Jerusalem. As he was praying in the temple (another hint as to his Jewish orthodoxy) the Lord gave him a vision in which He told him to get out of town because the Jews would not accept his story about Christ saving him. Paul seemingly had a debate with the Lord and reminded Him that since the people knew his earlier history as a persecutor of the church, they certainly would believe His gospel since now he was a lover of Christ and the church. Paul said that, since he was well known as the human instrument of Stephen’s martyrdom, he was the best candidate to convince his fellow Jews, and former friends and colleagues, of the gospel. The Lord disagreed and rather said to him, “Depart, for I will send you far from here to the Gentiles.”
Let’s note a couple of things as we bring this study to a close.
First, as powerful and as real as our story is in illustrating the transforming effects of the gospel, nevertheless, not everyone will be convinced. There is no doubt that Paul’s remarkable transformation from being a foe of the church to being a friend of the church was irrefutable. But unbelief dies hard. Spiritual blindness and spiritual death are not overcome merely by our story. Yes, we must tell the story, but apart from God’s saving power man will not believe.
I found this when God did a work in my life at university. There were those who were glad to hear my story, but I soon found that a good many were less than eager to do so. I experienced some severed relationships and some awkward moments. No doubt, you can share this testimony.
Second, God has his purposes for our lives and sometimes this includes separating us from those whom we think that we are best suited to reach. One would think that there could hardly be a better candidate than Paul for reaching the Jews with the gospel, but the Lord sent him instead to the Gentiles. The Lord knows what is best. Listen and go.
Finally, the story that we are to tell will sometimes get us into trouble—especially if we are living out the implications of the story. Erdman observes that a “careful examination of the address shows that it is a skilful argument, so arranged as to prove that the course of Paul has been divinely ordered and thus to imply that those who oppose Paul are, in reality, placing themselves in opposition to God.”12 Sadly they indeed opposed God.
Paul’s story of being saved by Jesus Christ included the story of his obeying the Lord. As we have seen, this is what led to so much trouble. His story was countercultural in its wider implications concerning Jews and Gentiles. The story reshaped his worldview and that is precisely what often results in conflict. Don’t be surprised by this, and don’t be silent because of it. Rather, always be ready to give a reasoned defence for the hope that is in you. Always be ready, willing and able to tell your story. It is a story that must be told.
- Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:523. ↩
- John F. MacArthur, Jr., Acts: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 2:264. ↩
- Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 349. ↩
- William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 173. ↩
- John Phillips, Exploring Acts, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 2:204. ↩
- Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 173. ↩
- A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), 3:384. ↩
- Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 174. ↩
- Phillips, Exploring Acts, 2:207. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 348. ↩
- Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 175. ↩
- Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 165. ↩