Life is filled with numerous examples of people who make risky decisions. Sometimes people make risky decisions naively or from compulsion. On our recent vacation to the Smoky Mountains my wife and I saw two different individuals at two different mountain tops who were so desperate for a thrill and a good photo that they put themselves at great risk. In one case a young man stood extremely close to the edge of a cliff. He grinned while staring over the edge and then kept grinning as he looked to see the response from his extremely nervous friends and family. In another case, a young man ignored two different warning signs and climbed to the top of a narrow, steep, and rocky mountain peak that rose another 100 feet from where we stood. In our minds, whatever “reward” those two individuals received for being daredevils wasn’t worth the danger that they put themselves in.
Other times people make risky decisions, but only after careful contemplation. For example, the game of poker includes the potential for a player to go “all in”. That is a strategy where the player pushes all their chips or money to the center of the table. If they have the best hand or can bluff the other players into thinking they have the best hand, they will reap a large payback. However, if someone else has a better hand and calls the bet, the player will lose everything.
When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, Paul decided to go all in. From that moment on, he decided to become a follower of Jesus and become a witness for Him, knowing full well that he was risking fierce persecution and potentially death.
RECAP OF PRIOR EVENTS
Jewish religious authorities have decided they cannot afford to allow Paul to continue spreading the message of Jesus and have sought to have him killed because of it. To accomplish their goals, they have resorted to false accusations, name calling, flattery of government officials, and using evil people to carry out evil deeds.
Each time charges are brought against Paul, his accusers only bring generalized statements, lacking specific examples or evidence. They attempt to push a hot button of those who will listen, hoping that someone will believe their lies and help them take down Paul. Throughout the process, the Jewish religious authorities have hidden their true motivation behind the reasons for hating Paul and the name of Jesus.
Already, Paul has stood before three different authorities due to his faith in Jesus. First, he appeared before his main accusers, the Jewish Sanhedrin. Next, he stood before the governor of Judea and Samaria, named Felix, and then a third time before Felix’ successor, Festus.
One of the strategies the Jews used to squash Christianity was to claim that its followers, including Paul were calling for an overthrow of the Roman government. Since the Romans occupied such vast territory and couldn’t afford those under their control revolting, they had put rulers and soldiers in place to keep people under in their place. Any pushback against the Roman rule would be met with serious consequences.
Specifically, Paul’s enemies accused him of being “a mover of sedition among all the Jews throughout the world" (Acts 24:5). That claim wasn’t true then, and it is not true now. Jesus said, "Render, therefore, unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's" (Matt. 22:21). In Romans 13:1 the apostle Paul said, "The powers that be are ordained of God." Peter said to submit to kings, governors, and the police (1 Pet. 2:13-14). Refusing to obey the government when their demands are contrary to the word of God is one thing. However, actively seeking to overthrow the government is contrary to scripture.
The attempts to have Paul killed have brought us to Acts 25:23 – the 4th time he stands before an authority figure because of his belief in Jesus. King Agrippa II has arrived in Caesarea to pay his respects to the governor Felix. Felix told King Agrippa about Paul, and Agrippa has taken interest in the situation.
25:23 The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high-ranking military officers and the prominent men of the city. At the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. 24 Festus said: “King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. 25 I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome. 26 But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write. 27 For I think it is unreasonable to send a prisoner on to Rome without specifying the charges against him.”
From a Roman legal standpoint, Paul hadn’t done anything significant enough that would warrant him being sent to Caesar in Rome. The prior governor Felix didn’t find Paul guilty of anything. The new governor Festus didn’t find Paul guilty of anything. The only thing of significance that was Paul’s “fault” was that the Jewish community was upset with him for what he was saying and doing. To say it in a way that mimics what we see going on all around us today - some people claimed to have been offended, exaggerated, and lied about what was really said and done, and then made a big stink about in attempt to gather enough additional support to cancel Paul and Christianity.
1 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defense: 2 “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense against all the accusations of the Jews, 3 and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently. 4 “The Jewish people all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. 5 They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee. 6 And now “it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today.” 7 This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. King Agrippa, it is because of this hope that these Jews are accusing me.
Paul makes it clear to everyone there that he wasn’t making up strange new religious ideas. He was believing in something that had always been true. Everyone, with a conscience, whether a Jew or Gentile knows they don’t measure up to God and are guilty of sin. Those things are all addressed in the Old Testament scripture that Paul’s accusers and judges would have read about. The difference is that Paul had made a personal decision to recognize his guilt, and ask for forgiveness, so that his heart could be made new, and he could have a confident expectation of eternal life. This contrasted with the message of the Pharisees message which put a weight on the backs of people and sought to keep a relationship with God exclusively to themselves.
8 Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
Paul asks a rhetorical question in attempt to get people to see the inconsistency in their accusations and beliefs. If God exists, then anything is possible – even raising the dead. God’s character and abilities are not bound within the mind of man. As he often does, Paul appeals to the conscience and forces people to deal with the evidence before their eyes. He gives people an opportunity to admit their error, and if they don’t, to bring judgement on themselves.
This strategy of turning the tables and using a person’s own beliefs and actions as proof of their guilt was used by Jesus as well (Matthew 15:1-11).
Paul continues to describe the way he used to be an enemy of Jesus and Christians.
9 “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11 Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.
In verse 9, Paul ensures everyone knows that the real issue is with Jesus more than it is Paul. He wasn’t going to let that fact be concealed behind the false accusations the Jews made against him.
Paul admits that it had been his goal to protect his Jewish beliefs and defeat those who were followers of Christ. He also admits to being “obsessed” and using dirty tricks during his former religious life. When someone admits to being “obsessed”, they aren’t merely saying that a subject was very important to them, they are also admitting that other things take a back seat to the obsession, they are out of mind. Often, common sense and truth are two of those things.
Back in Acts 8:1, Paul was mentioned in in the context of the death of Stephen. It was at that point when this great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem – causing them to scatter throughout Judea and Samaria. Based upon Paul’s testimony, he tells us that he and the Jews, were so obsessed that they traveled to faraway places to find and murder many Jews who had come to faith in Jesus.
Paul was letting Agrippa know that at one time he was not open to evidence that would contradict his beliefs and prove he was in the wrong. Paul is setting the stage for a main part of his defense. When something changes a person so dramatically, as had happened to him, that forces one to have to consider the validity behind the thing that caused the change. There must be some merit in whatever it was that caused Paul’s conversion.
Paul goes on to describe the amazing events that cause his life to turn around.
12 “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’
Paul gets quite detailed in his account and includes the fact that he was in the company of others who could confirm the truthfulness of what he was claiming in court (Acts 9:7 – they heard God’s voice but saw no one, which confused them so much they were speechless).
When Paul tells the court what God had said to him years before on the road to Damascus, he includes a phrase that Luke hadn’t included in the account of the event in Acts 9 – “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”. A “goad” is another name for a sharp object that that “pokes” or “pricks”. In those days people used the word in context of controlling oxen when plowing. An ox goad was a stick with a pointed piece of iron on its tip used to prod the oxen and steer it in the direction you wanted it to go. Sometimes the animal would rebel by kicking out at the goad, and this would result in the goad being driven even further into its flesh. The more the ox rebelled, the more it suffered. By including this phrase in his testimony that God had used about him, Paul was highlighting the fact that at one time he was like a rebellious ox, fighting against the truth. This would also have implied that Paul’s accusers were also rebellious people, “kicking against the goads”.
Paul continues to recount his conversion.
15 “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ “ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
As it does for many people who are enemies of God or Jesus, it was going to take extenuating circumstances to change Paul’s mind. In his case, it took a miracle – a supernatural appearance of Jesus Himself.
Because of his conversion, Paul was going to be used by God rather than judged by Him. Rather than keeping the news of Jesus hidden in darkness, he would now help to open the eyes of other people who were lost in darkness controlled by Satan. Paul was going to be used to help bring people to a point of forgiveness and sanctification by faith and not by works.
There isn’t any evidence that God miraculously reached down to anyone else like He did to Paul. We don’t have any evidence that God used anyone else to spread the news of Jesus more effectively than Paul. Why did God choose Paul to accomplish His work and not some other Jewish pharisee or rabbi? We aren’t literally told that in the Bible. Sure, Paul had specific abilities and personality traits that God used. Maybe the fact that Paul wasn’t a married man with children helped him be a more devoted follower of Christ. But there is no denying that fact that people who knew him 2,000 years ago saw a literal 180-degree turn in a man who had hated Jesus and was a murderer. And, 2,000 years after these events you and I can read about this same dramatic conversion. God’s choice to use Paul was proof that He can forgive and use people today who are far from Him. He can also use you and me.
19 “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. 20 First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds. 21 That is why some Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. 22 But God has helped me to this very day; so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— 23 that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”
Today it isn’t hard to find examples of people who make judgements or form opinions without any actual evidence. Science and biology are friends when they confirm pre-existing ideas but are thrown by the wayside when they do not. Today it only takes a 5-second video clip taken out of context from a 20-minute event to start protests and movements. The mere fact that someone’s Facebook post appeared on a social media feed is enough to get one to “like” or “share” it without taking the time to consider its truthfulness or morality.
Paul was different - he had actual firsthand, personal experience and evidence, that he could not ignore. The things he knew were so compelling he had to accept the truth regardless of the cost. He was so convinced about who Jesus was that He started preaching about Him knowing full well of the potential consequences for his actions.
Paul preached repentance – which is the admission of being guilty of sin, the turning of ones’ heart to God, and demonstrating this change of heart and mind through actions. Repentance goes against a person’s natural tendency and pride. Paul preached repentance to Gentiles - people who would have had little knowledge God through the Old Testament law, but they did have knowledge of God through natural law that exists in creation and within themselves. Paul also preached repentance to Jews – people who had plenty of knowledge and supposed dedication to the Old Testament law, but in their case this knowledge didn’t result in them recognizing how far away from the heart of God that they really were.
The Jews were familiar with Old Testament passages that spoke about what it really meant to love God. Speaking about the Jews in Isaiah 29:13, God said, “….this people approaches Me with their words And honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of the commandment of men that is taught. Samuel spoke about what God really desires in 1 Samuel 15:22, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. 6 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Preaching to people about the need for a savior brings their sinfulness into the light and is normally met with fierce resistance. John the Baptist preached repentance as well. When he preached repentance directly to an adulterer named Herodias in Matthew 14:4, that led to his death. Herodias and her daughter had such a grudge against John the Baptist for what he said, they demanded that King Herod (Antipas) behead him.
Paul made his testimony “to small and great alike”. He was using this as an opportunity to be witness of Christ to everyone present at these proceeding – a king, a governor, religious authorities, and everyone else. He was being especially convicting to the Jewish people at the proceedings, letting them know if they were willing to convict Paul for what he was preaching then they were at the same time convicting the Old Testament prophets that they claim to be so endeared to.
24 At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.” 25 “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable.
Originally Festus recognized that from a legal standpoint Paul was being accused unjustly. But now that Paul’s testimony has taken a turn toward the spiritual, and has tweaked his conscious, Festus’ tune changes. When he recognized that the evidence proves he himself is guilty before God, He quickly tries to build a wall between himself and the truth.
Festus’ response includes a couple telltale signs that he wasn’t interested in Jesus. First, he uses derogatory language and calls Paul insane. Name calling is a common way to attempt to undermine the character of the messenger. You are insane, you are brainwashed, you are a fascist, you are a racist, you are phobic, and on and on. While it is true people with mental illness make crazy decisions, they cannot make rational, effective arguments and cannot present evidence like Paul was doing.
Second, Festus deflects the conversation away from the evidence, by referring to Paul’s “great learning”. Paul never pointed to his religious heritage or education as the basis for him coming to believe in Jesus. No, the thing that convinced Paul of who Jesus was meeting Him in person on the road to Damascus, and the 180-degree spiritual change in his heart. Festus didn’t want to have to deal with the fact that he needed to come to know Jesus as well.
After seeing and hearing the outburst from Festus, and recognizing that he wasn’t open to the evidence, Paul addresses King Agrippa directly.
26 The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. 27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” 28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” 29 Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”
Agrippa was a Hellenistic Jew who sided with Rome and had fallen out of favor with the traditional Jews of Jerusalem. He knew of the Old Testament scriptures as well. Paul makes an appeal to his conscience and beliefs, the same technique he used in verse 8.
Paul reveals his motivation for his ministry and does it while enduring the unjust accusations against him. He says that the most important thing that should come from the trial is not his freedom, but that people would be convicted of the truth and come to believe in Jesus.
Was this merely a trial about Paul? No! Even though everyone came into the proceedings thinking this was a trial about Paul, he ensured that from a spiritual perspective everyone knew they were on trial as well. Everyone was guilty. Paul also made sure that these people knew that Jesus was on trial. Even though his life was on the line, Paul did his best to get all those listening to come to a verdict on who Jesus was.
30 The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. 31 After they left the room, they began saying to one another, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.” 32 Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”
The evidence presented proved that Paul was not guilty of anything. Agrippa immediately judges that Paul is completely innocent of any official wrongdoing. He knew that he was sending an innocent man to be judged by Caesar in Rome - someone who would have even less motivation to care about the life of a Jewish Christian.
The Jews had tried to make it appear that Paul was calling for an overthrow of the Roman government. However, throughout Paul’s trial before Agrippa, the subject of Rome’s authority was never raised. Paul never advocated for the Roman rule, but neither did he reject it. When Paul made use of his Roman citizenship to escape the clutches of the Jewish religious leaders it had strategic, long-term implications. First, it ensured his demise wouldn’t come before a kangaroo court of his enemies in Jerusalem. Second, he would now be able to travel to Rome, which was his desire and God’s plan. In doing so, Paul could continue to bring the gospel of Jesus to some of the most influential people in the world.
1. God can use anyone. When it comes to morality, the world categorizes some sin as okay, while other sins are unforgivable. Paul’s life proves otherwise. There is hope for anyone.
2. Be dedicated to Jesus, not defiant against Him. As a non-believer, prior to his trip to Damascus, Paul had been rebelling against Jesus. But even as believers, we need to make sure we aren’t fighting against Him in some way as well. Psalm 139:23-24 says to “Search me and know me”. That should be our goal in our relationship with God.
3. God’s timing is normally different than ours. We want to see obvious fruit of our labor, but sometimes it doesn’t happen until later…we may never know until we get to heaven. You might get one reaction from a person today, but possibly sometime down the road, what you said will come back to them and they might turn to Christ later. God had promised to “rescue” Paul from attacks that he was going to face from Jews and Gentiles alike, but that promise wasn’t all encompassing. He wouldn’t always be rescued – but he would be rescued enough times for God’s work to be accomplished.
4. Prepare to be judged. Paul stood before 5 earthly judges in increasing authority because of his faith in Jesus. While we may not stand in an actual courtroom for our faith, we may be met with resistance or persecution. One day Paul will stand before a 6th and final judge, the same one we will, and will be declared not guilty, and then spend eternity with God. Those same earthly judges who held Paul’s life in their hands will stand before that Judge as well. If they accepted Christ’s payment for their guilt, they too will spend eternity with God. If they rejected Christ, they will spend eternity apart from Him. God’s judgement that condemns people to hell is result of their willing rejection of Christ and desire to remain separated. The only unforgiveable sin is rejecting the message of the Holy Spirit – who points people to Christ.
5. Stand for truth regardless of consequences. This time of year, we see and hear many political speeches and advertisements. Often the people responsible for them make decisions based upon appearance, popularity, the desire for power, and disregard for long term consequences. Truth often comes at the expense of all those things. Paul didn’t lie in any of his testimony. When his feet were being held over the fire, He never embellished the truth, rejected the truth, or faked an apology. The truth was the best long-term approach both for him as well as potentially getting other people to come to Christ.
1 Peter 3:14–16
14 But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, 15 but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; 16 and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.