MESSAGE FOR MARCH 11, 2012 FROM ACTS 26:1-32
This week, for the third time in Acts we meet the apostle Paul in a Roman court arguing his case before a Roman official as he responds to the bogus legal charges leveled against him by Jewish religious authorities. This third address in chapter 26 is not part of an official Roman appeal process, however. Paul, in order to avoid another trip to a hostile Jerusalem has already appealed his case to the emperor after appearing before two Roman governors, Felix and two years later, Festus. Neither of them could find him guilty of any crime. However, before Paul could leave Caesarea for Rome, a Palestinian ruler happened to be in town. When Festus mentioned Paul and his trial to King Herod Agrippa II, he wanted to hear him speak. Herod was the grandson of Herod the Great who built the Jerusalem temple. He ruled over Jerusalem and the surrounding area and because of his own background in Judaism and his familiarity with Jerusalem and the temple, he was well-versed in the Jewish faith. Festus is more than happy to let Herod hear Paul.
This account includes Luke’s third telling in Acts of Paul’s Damascus Road experience. When Luke repeats something three times in one letter, he is communicating the intense importance of this event. The aftershocks from the spiritual earthquake that occurred that noonday on the Damascus Road are still being felt today all over the world and will carry into eternity. Although Luke doesn’t include every detail of Paul’s conversion found in the other two accounts, this one in chapter 26 is the most detailed of the three conversion narratives. Because we’ve treated much of this before, we’ll be looking at the entire chapter today. The chapter divides into three sections. First, the ultimate and unchanging promise to God’s people in redemption, second—the radical nature of redemption and third—the boldness a right understanding of redemption gives the messenger.
First, let’s look at: The Ultimate and Unchanging Promise to God’s People in Redemption. One of the charges the Jews consistently leveled against Paul was that his message was a radical departure from Judaism. The idea of a crucified, cursed itinerate Galilean rabbi being their messiah was a gross departure from their understanding of Judaism and God’s ultimate purpose for the Jews. First Corinthians 1:23 says this was “a stumbling block” to the Jews. Anyone crucified was considered to be under God’s special curse worthy of God’s harshest judgment. That means that to the average Jew, a crucified messiah was about as likely as a convicted serial killer being elected President. A close second in the category of “why the gospel of Jesus Christ was a huge departure from Judaism” was the fact that Paul’s gospel declared that the God of the Jews was now in the business of bringing to himself Gentile pagan idol worshippers without having them first converting to Judaism.
For Paul to declare that God was now redeeming unclean, uncircumcised Gentiles apart from the Law of God was unthinkable to them. The Western church has largely forgotten how scandalous —how utterly repugnant this message would have been to its first hearers. If the church really understood how revolting and non-user-friendly this message was, we would be far less inclined to do what so many do and that is—strive to make the gospel message as palatable as possible. The gospel was offensive—very offensive. It was what it was—you didn’t knock off its sharp edges because those sharp edges were central to the message. You couldn’t sanitize the gospel for the Jews by downplaying the crucifixion—the crucifixion was the heart of the message. To make that message more appealing, marketable or user-friendly was to completely gut it. Surely party of the reason so many in the west attempt to soften it today by downplaying or even eliminating God’s holiness, his wrath and utter hatred of sin is because they don’t appreciate how revolting Paul’s gospel was to his hearers. Those elements are central to the gospel! If God is only loving and merciful and full of grace—as he is so often portrayed today in evangelicalism, then it is absolutely inconsistent for him to take the radical action of cursing his sinless, beloved Son for my sin.
When the vast majority of Jews heard this message of a cursed Messiah they responded, “This is completely inconsistent with the message of our Bible.” Paul boldly declares here to Agrippa that his message was not only consistent with the Law and the prophets; it was the very fulfillment of all the hopes and promises of the Old Testament. Paul testifies in verse four, “4 “My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. 5 They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee.” One of the reasons Paul cites his Jewish credentials as a Pharisee is to establish that he knew the Old Testament—he had been trained in the Old Testament and he had lived much of his adult life as part of the Jewish religious establishment. He knew the hope and the promises of God to the Jews. He then continues in verse six, “6 And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, 7 to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! 8 Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?”
This is fascinating. Paul draws a line of direct continuity between what he had been taught as Pharisee and what he was now preaching. And what connects his gospel to what he knew as a Pharisee is encapsulated in this word, “hope.” He uses it three times in two verses. In verse six he says that this hope was “in the promises of God made to the fathers.” This hope goes all the way back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He points to the injustice of the charges by the Jews by saying that “And for this hope [the hope of Abraham and the Patriarchs] I am accused by Jews, O king!” He wants Agrippa to see that there is indeed an inconsistency at work here, but it’s NOT that his message is inconsistent with the hope of the Jews, but rather that the Jews are putting him on trial for preaching this ancient hope that began with God’s promise to Abraham.
In verse eight, Paul unveils what is at the very center of this hope in the form of a direct question to Agrippa. “8 Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” Paul says that the ultimate hope of Israel is the resurrection from the dead. Most Jews would not have seen the hope of the resurrection as central to the promises God made to Abraham. So, how does the resurrection of Jesus fulfill the promise of God to Abraham? Think about the history of redemption. When Adam fell, he brought the curse of death to all of Adam’s race. The most feared, daunting enemy humanity faces is death. It’s so overwhelming that we don’t even question the inevitability of it. We may work on fighting cancer and heart disease, but no serious scientist or philosopher is under any illusion that a cure for death will be found. Although death is our most feared enemy, in the end—even the richest and most powerful among us humbly acquiesce to its inevitability.
Yet, the Bible clearly teaches a sure hope of death’s ultimate defeat. After the fall, God told Satan, who introduced death into this world through sin, “15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” God promises a Deliverer who will come and defeat this one who defeated Adam resulting in death. That promise is like a seed—in the sense that there is much more to a seed than meets the eye. There is hidden genetic material in a seed that, when germinated produces leaves and flowers and fruit. This promise of a Deliverer, like a seed, carries far more than simply the promise that someday God would avenge his enemy. Unbeknownst to Adam, implied in this seed of a promised Deliverer is “the flower” of the complete redemption of this world and that includes the removal of death as God’s curse for sin.
Two thousand years later, God revealed to Abraham that this Deliverer would come through him and all the families of the earth would be blessed. As the Old Testament progressively develops this this, we discover that this Deliver would be a Messianic Warrior who would destroy the enemies of God’s people and as the progression continues, the prophets draw out the ultimate implication of the promises of Abraham—the crowning flower erupting from this seed of promise. Isaiah 25:8 says, “8 He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.” Later in 26:19 he says, “19 Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!..” The ultimate hope of the promises to Abraham is the promise of resurrection—the defeat of death. Death is the enemy this Jewish Messiah would defeat. Paul draws a direct line from the resurrection of Jesus—which marked the defeat of the power of death, back to God’s promise to Abraham.
The promised blessing of Abraham fulfilled in Jesus was far more comprehensive than the Jews anticipated because it resulted, not simply in the deliverance of earthly, military enemies, but the far more daunting spiritual enemy of the power of death. In mentioning the resurrection as the ultimate fulfillment of the promise of Abraham, Paul draws attention to God’s ultimate and unchanging promise to God’s people in redemption--resurrection, not only to believing Jews, but to all who would become children of Abraham through faith in Jesus Christ. Now, let’s shift to the second section which covers The Radical Nature of Redemption.
Paul teaches the radical nature of redemption to Agrippa in two ways. First, he explains the power of the gospel as seen through God’s miraculous work in his own life. He says in verse nine, “9 I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. 11 And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.” Paul gives his own story because it, better than any other testimony, describes the fundamental and massive transformation God does in a person through redemption in Christ. The radical nature of redemption is exemplified in this zealous Pharisee who tortured, imprisoned and even executed believers. Paul makes it clear that he did not do this out of a sense of duty or loyalty to the high priest. No, this was a personal crusade to Saul. He says his persecution was rooted in his “raging fury” against the church. The word in the original literally means “frenzied, frantic.” Paul was obsessively driven to persecute the church by a blazing, self-righteous rage. It was his sacred duty before God and he performed it with tyrannical relish. The dramatic change in Paul’s life from being a raging persecutor to an impassioned preacher helped Agrippa see the radical nature of redemption.
Paul details the radical nature of redemption a second way. That is in his quoting of Jesus’ explanation to him of his ministry of redemption. Jesus says to Paul in verse 16, “16…I have appeared to you… 18 to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’” Here Jesus says the initial miracle involved in redemption that makes the others possible is “to open their eyes.” This notion of redemption as God’s work in opening the sinner’s eyes to see the spiritual realities of what it is to be lost and alienated from a holy, sin-hating God is all over the Bible. In Mark chapter four, when his disciples ask Jesus why he teaches in parables instead of in plain words, he quotes Deuteronomy 29:4 and says, 12 so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.” Jesus says the purpose of his parables is to obscure the message so that those outside God’s elect people will not perceive the weight of what they see and hear in the gospel. Though they may in some superficial sense “see”—that is--mentally apprehend the truth that they are lost, the parables harden them to the eternal weightiness of that horrific reality. They see, but they don’t see because Jesus says, if they really saw, they would “turn and be forgiven.” His point is that in order to turn to Christ and be forgiven, God must open a sinner’s eyes to God’s holiness and his sin in the light of that holiness and what that means from an eternal perspective.
Paul says in Second Corinthians 4:4 that those who are perishing have a veil over their hearts and he again uses the metaphor of sight. “4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. There are those who mentally understand the gospel—that they are a sinner—that they need a Savior and that Savior is Jesus. But they are blind to the deeper heart reality of the gospel that Paul describes as “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” These people have not seen what Paul calls “the light of the gospel” which comes from the glory or the radiance of Christ. When Paul met Jesus, he saw the glory of Christ—he personally encountered the risen Christ. He was not given a set of theological facts about Jesus; he was personally confronted by him. The implication is that it is possible to theologically perceive the facts of the gospel without a confrontation with God through the Holy Spirit who deeply impresses upon you your wickedness and what that means in the presence of a holy, sin-hating God. Jesus commissioned Paul to be used by the Holy Spirit to do this “opening of the eyes” so that people could see—experience down to their bones the reality of their utter lost-ness in the light of the glory of Christ in the gospel. Paul says in Romans chapter one that sinners in their unrighteousness “suppress the truth”—the truth about God and his righteous demands on them as a sinner. Jesus calls Paul to present the message through which the Holy Spirit opens their eyes to the truth about their sin that they had previously suppressed in their unrighteousness.
Jesus says the reason these people must have their eyes opened is, “so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God.” The implication is that when by God’s grace you see the reality of your sin in the light of God’s glory, you will turn from the spiritual darkness of sin and alienation from God-- to the light of God’s glory in the gospel. When sinners see this reality or (to put it another way) when they become alive to the truth about their sin, they will then turn from the darkness to the light of Christ. This is a radical, extreme turning away from one end of the spiritual spectrum, darkness to the other, light. Paul underlines the radical nature of this turning by adding that these newly enlightened sinner’s also turn “…from the power of Satan to God.” You cannot imagine two more polar opposites than Satan, the Prince of darkness and God who dwells in unapproachable light. Yet, that is the radical nature of the turn sinners make when they--illumined by the Holy Spirit, see their miserable plight as a sinner before a holy God. Paul knows nothing about the myth that you can be a Christian without repenting—repenting is central to the conversion process—if God causes you to see your sin—you will repent, period! Jesus concludes by saying that those who have seen and have turned “…receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
This gospel brings forgiveness from God of all your sins—past, present and future. For those who have trusted in Christ, all the sins they have committed are washed away—removed as far as the east is from the west as God chooses to remember them no more. As Stuart Townend writes, “No guilt in life, no fear in death—this is the power of Christ in me.” My legal guilt before the Judge of the universe is banished—washed away in the blood of Jesus. For those who have trusted Christ, this gospel also brings “a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” We are given a place in God’s family. What’s more, Jesus here reveals that this gospel not only forgives the penalty of our sin, it conquers the power of sin because saving faith brings not only forgiveness but sanctification—that process of gradual growth into holiness. As Mike Bullmore says, “justification is pregnant with sanctification.”
In the final section of Paul’s address to Agrippa we see: The Boldness a Right Understanding of the Radical Nature of Redemption Gives the Messenger. Because of our admiration for Paul, it’s easy for us to miss how intimidating this could have been for him and therefore, the boldness it required. Luke sets the stage for this scene in 25:23. He writes, “23 So on the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city. Then, at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in.” The contrast between Paul and his hearers could hardly be more stark. Agrippa and Bernice come with all their royal regalia and an entourage that must have been very impressive for Luke to describe it as “great pomp.” By contrast, Paul is brought in wearing the same clothes he had worn in prison, his wrists shackled. If that weren’t enough to intimidate him, Festus’ response to his message was certainly no confidence builder. Luke records in verse 24. “24 And as he [Paul] was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” There are few things that can rock your boat more violently than when someone interrupts your sermon and declares in a loud voice before the king that what you are saying is so absurd, so beyond the pale, so inconceivable that you must be mad, insane.
Festus says in effect, “Paul, your great learning has completely fried your circuits that you are babbling incoherent nonsense.” That will set you back…unless you know beyond a doubt that these astounding statements you are making are absolutely true. Paul believed with every fiber of his being that what he was saying was true because he had experienced it first-hand. Not everyone will have this kind of Damascus Road experience, but if you have had a genuine saving encounter with Christ, that will bring some boldness. This is why new believers tend to be so much more bold in sharing their faith. The radical change that Jesus has made in their lives is so fresh, so undeniable that this intense reality stokes their boldness. They are absolutely gripped by the radical work of God in their life and they want others to experience it.
As we close, here are three points of application. First, do we show the boldness in our witness of a person who has had a saving encounter with the living God? The reason some people are so hesitant—even embarrassed to speak of Christ to others is because—though they know the message of the gospel, they don’t own it very deeply. There may be several reasons for this. Perhaps the deep sense of their own sinfulness is not there and that causes a person to make less of the radical work God has done in their heart. If salvation is a radical, miraculous transformation of a wicked sinner into a forgiven child of God—that is something it’s hard to be quiet about. But if redemption only makes a slight change to your thinking and attitudes, why would you risk humiliation by telling something that, if they accept it, bring only minor adjustments to their life. If you’re a doctor, you are much more likely to enthusiastically share with others how you saved a patient’s life than if you merely treated their hangnail or extracted a splinter.
Second, do we show the boldness in our witness of a person convinced that the work of redemption is utterly miraculous and must come from God? There are at least two ways to increase our boldness in sharing the gospel. The first is what we see so often in the church today. That is--you knock off the rough edges of the gospel that offend people and make the message as user-friendly by sharing only the love and grace and mercy of God. The other path to boldness is the Biblical one. That is—share the unedited, radical and often offensive message of the gospel, but do so knowing that the person’s salvation is totally dependent upon a miraculous work of God to open their eyes to their sin and repent. In the first instance, boldness is enabled by decreasing the chance that you will offend the sinner. If you don’t offend anyone, there will be little or no opposition and your boldness will increase. You’re not proposing a radical cure for a disgusting disease they have. You’re offering them a warm cup of cocoa for a cold heart. In the second instance, boldness is increased because all the pressure is taken off of you for the salvation of the person to whom you are witnessing because it’s not dependent upon you, but upon God. In the first instance, the goal is to get the person to accept the message by removing its sharp edges. In the second, the goal is to glorify God by being a faithful witness to a radical message and in so doing giving God a chance to miraculously open the eyes of a blind sinner to the horrific reality of their condition so they will turn from darkness to light in genuine salvation.
Third, does your life more resemble a person who has accepted the facts of the gospel as truth, or as someone whose eyes have miraculously been opened to the reality of your sin in the light of a holy God and the glory of Christ in saving you? Paul’s life was marked by a radical commitment to Christ in part because on the Damascus road, he didn’t receive a lecture in Christian theology, he met the risen Christ, saw his glory and he was never the same. Does the quality of your spiritual life point to an encounter with the glory of Christ who reached down and saved you from your wretched sin? Or, is it more consistent with a person who has been exposed to the facts of a gospel and mentally accepted their truthfulness? May God give us the grace to know Christ in his glory through the gospel and live radically transformed lives as a result for his glory and our joy.
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