There is tremendous power in personal testimony. It is a great thing to proclaim Christ and Him crucified. “The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). We are commanded to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. When “the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness [or the simplicity] of preaching to save them that believe” (21). But I am afraid the mere proclamation of the gospel would avail very little unless there were men and women to support the preacher and his message and say, “I believed the message and my whole life was transformed. I came in my sin and my guilt and I trusted the Lord Jesus, and He has cleansed me from my sins. When I heard the gospel message, I was under the power of evil and wicked habits. They bound my soul like fetters, but He snapped the chains that bound me, and set me free. My whole being was diseased with sin, but Jesus healed me. I was blind to eternal realities, but whereas once I was blind, now I see.” This kind of testimony confirms to men the power that is in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is a very interesting fact that five times in Scripture we have the story of Paul’s conversion. I have sometimes heard people object to men frequently relating the account of God’s dealing with them. They think that they should just preach the doctrinal message, but in the Word of God we read Paul’s testimony five times. In Acts 9 we have the historical account of his conversion as related by Luke. In this twenty-second chapter of Acts we have what we might call Paul’s Hebrew account of his conversion as, standing on the stairs of the tower of Antonia that overlooked the temple court, he told his Jewish brethren how God had saved him. He presented the story in such a way that it would have appealed particularly to their hearts.
Then in Acts 26 we have what might be called the Gentile account of his conversion. Standing before Festus, the Roman governor, and King Agrippa, he again related at length God’s dealing with him. That account was given in such a way that it would have been of special interest to that cynical, unbelieving ruler, Festus, as well as to Agrippa.
Then in Philippians 3 we have the whole wonderful story told again. Paul described his religion, his hope, and in what he had trusted before he knew the Lord Jesus. Then he spoke of the wonderful revelation of the righteousness of God in Christ, which led him to put away all confidence in any righteousness of his own.
In 1 Timothy he wrote once more what he had been—a blasphemer, a persecutor of the church—in his ignorance and unbelief. Then he told how God in infinite mercy reached out to him, saved his guilty soul and made him His messenger to those still in their sins.
You remember, as we saw in the last chapter of Acts, the people took Paul and were about to kill him. The Roman chief captain, not knowing what was going on, came down and arrested Paul, but gave him an opportunity to speak for himself. So Paul stood on the stairs and related the story of his conversion to the great Jewish multitude gathered below in the court of the temple.
“Men, brethren, and fathers, hear ye my defense which I make now unto you.” Paul was a Jew by birth. He was speaking to his Jewish brethren, and he addressed them in an appropriate manner. He had long since learned to make himself all things to all men, declaring, “Unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews…To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak” (1 Corinthians 9:20, 22). And so he addressed them here in what they themselves would recognize was a proper way to speak to his own Hebrew people.
“And when they heard that he spake in the Hebrew tongue to them, they kept the more silence.” Oh, the appeal there is in the tongue that one has been accustomed to from childhood! There is something about your own native idiom that especially grips your attention.
Paul recognized the intense bigotry in their hearts, and religious bigotry is the worst kind to overcome. He began his story in a very simple way. Since they considered him a hater of their nation who wanted to tear down the things that they loved, he reminded them that there was a time when he was just as zealous as any of them in maintaining the institutions of Judaism.
Although there are people in the world who despise the Jews, no one should ever be ashamed of being a Jew. None need be ashamed to be known as a member of that chosen race—that race to whom God committed the divine oracles and which, through the millennia, has maintained the truth of the one God.
When Disraeli was speaking in the British Parliament, a certain lord rose to his feet and cried out in most contemptuous tones, “You, sir, are a Jew.” Disraeli drew himself up to his full height, which was not very much, and replied: “My lord, you accuse me of being a Jew. I am proud to answer to the name, and I would remind you, sir, that one-half of Christendom worships a Jew and the other half a Jewess. And I would also remind you that my forefathers were worshiping the one true and living God while yours were naked savages in the woods of Britain.”
We Gentiles will never be able to thank God enough for what the Jews have meant to us in preserving the Holy Scriptures and giving us our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who declared: “Salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22).
Paul began his testimony by saying that he was a Jew—one of those dispersed among the Gentiles. He was educated in Jerusalem, a student of Gamaliel, a well-known rabbi, whose reputation for righteousness is revered among the Jews to this day. He continued, I was “taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.”
It is possible to have a zeal for God and yet not have it according to knowledge. Paul said of his own kinsmen after the flesh in another place:
Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God (Romans 10:1-3).
That was the state of Paul himself for years. Ignorant of how righteous God really is, he imagined he could work out a satisfactory righteousness of his own. He was endeavoring to do that very thing until he was brought into contact with the living Christ and found in Him a righteousness in which he could stand perfect before God. But in the former days, he had “persecuted this way unto the death.” It is interesting to note that the way is frequently used in the book of Acts as the term for Christianity. Christianity is the way to God, to life, to Heaven.
Then he said, “The high priest” (perhaps the high priest was standing there as he spoke) “doth bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders: from whom also I received letters unto the brethren, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished.” And there those elders stood, waiting to bring their accusations against him.
But as he drew near Damascus, the great event that transformed his life had taken place. The most remarkable thing about the story of Paul’s conversion is that he had a conversion to tell of. I know a great many professing Christians who can tell scarcely anything about their conversion. Of course, we recognize the fact that many have come to know the Lord Jesus Christ in early childhood. It is not necessary, nor may it be possible for them, to retain the memory of the time when they first came to Christ. These things fade from the child’s mind. But others who have gone on to adult years before they came to know the Lord ought to be able to give some account of what took place when they turned from darkness to light and from death to life.
A parishioner once asked his minister, “Would you mind if I suggested a subject that you should use on some occasion?” The minister said, “I am very pleased to have you show that much interest. What is it you would like me to speak on?” “Well,” the man replied, “I would like very much if you would give us a sermon on the text, ‘Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’” “I shall be delighted to do that, and I will notify you in advance when I am going to speak on that subject.”
The time came when he was to speak on the text, and he thought, Let me see, how will I divide it? Conversion— what? Conversion— how? Conversion— when? Conversion— where? He thought a little on conversion—what? Well, conversion must be the turning of the heart to God; and he elaborated on that. And then he came to conversion—how? How is a man converted? A little perplexed, he thought, Well, let me see, how was I converted? Why, I don’t know. I think I’ll pass over that just now.
He came to the next point: conversion—when? Well, one may be converted as a child; one may be converted in youth; or one may be converted in mature years. But then the thought came to him, When was I converted? Was I converted when I was a child? I can’t remember. Well, was I converted when I was a youth? No, I am sure I was not, for I got far away from God out in the world. No, not as a youth. Was I converted when I came to more mature years? I do not recall.
So he passed on to the next point: conversion—where? It might take place in the home, in the church, in the Sunday school, or out in the open. God is ready to meet men wherever they may be. Then the thought came to him, Where did it take place with me? Was I converted at home? Was I converted in church? Have I ever been converted? And suddenly it came to him in tremendous power, l am preaching to other people and I have never been converted myself. I don’t know when, how, or where I was converted. I have never been converted at all!
He preached his own sermon to himself, and got down before God and told the Lord Jesus that he would trust Him as his Savior, and that was the beginning of a new life and a new ministry. When he came into the pulpit on Sunday to preach on conversion, his words had tremendous power for he was a new man.
Do you know anything about conversion? You may be a church member, but that is not conversion. You may have been baptized, but that is not conversion. You may take the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and be interested in missions, but these are not conversion.
You like to help the cause of Christ perhaps, but that is not conversion. Conversion is a turning to God from self. It is taking the place of repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Do you know anything of the experience that Paul knew of trusting Christ?
Paul continued: “And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me.” Paul saw an actual light shining from Heaven—the light of the glory of God reflected from the face of Jesus Christ. Seeing the light is always the beginning of real conversion. Men go on in darkness until light from Heaven shines into their hearts as they come under the convicting power of the Word in the energy of the Holy Spirit. That Word causes the light to shine in and shows man what he really is—a poor, lost sinner in the sight of God—and then reveals the Savior that He has provided.
Paul continued, “And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” He was amazed, and said: “Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.” The men with Paul heard a strange noise but could not discern actual words. They thought perhaps it was thunder or something like that, but he could hear every word distinctly. And he asked, “What shall I do, Lord?” And the Lord said to him, “Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do.”
Then we read, “And when I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus.” I think we may take a spiritual meaning out of those words, “I could not see for the glory of that light.” The glory that shone from the face of Jesus blinded Saul of Tarsus forever to all the glories of earth and to all thought of self-righteousness. When his eyes were opened again, he saw things in a new light. Everything was different.
But he entered Damascus a blind man, and was led by the hand to the home of a friend with whom he was to lodge. There he remained in deep soul exercise until Ananias came to him with the message, “Brother Saul, receive thy sight.”
What a wonderful thing! Ananias was a Christian Jew. Saul had been a persecutor of the Christians, and Ananias was one of the very men that Saul had come to arrest, but now he says to him, “Saul, my brother.” Grace had made them brothers. And Paul said,
The same hour I looked up upon him. And he said, The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth. For thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard. And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord (Acts 22:13-16).
Do not link the expression “wash away thy sins” simply with baptism. Even though baptism is a picture of the washing away of sin, no sin can be purged by water. Sin is only purged by the precious blood of Christ. But there is a sense in which when Paul was baptized, his past was all washed away. He had been a bitter hater of the name of the Lord Jesus, but when he went down into the water of baptism, all that disappeared. He came forth not to be a persecutor but a preacher of the gospel of the grace of God. The past was gone. Henceforth he walked in newness of life.
Then Paul skipped over a number of years, and explained why he had to give himself to the work among the Gentiles. He was told to leave Jerusalem because the Jews would not believe his testimony. However Paul thought, Surely, Lord, they will believe; they will see the wonderful change that has taken place. But when men have made up their minds, they are hard to change: “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” And so the Lord said in essence, “No, Paul, you are not the one to make them believe. I have another work for you among the Gentiles.”
As soon as that hated word Gentiles came from his lips, there was a riot and that Jewish crowd began to throw dust into the air and to cast off their clothes. They cried: “Away with such a fellow from the earth; for it is not fit that he should live.” The chief captain had to come down and rescue him again and take him into the castle to get him out of their hands. What a terrible thing religious prejudice is, and what a wonderful thing it is for a man or woman to have an open mind and be ready to examine themselves and be taught of God!
As they were leading Paul away, the captain commanded the soldiers to scourge him, which was a common practice in those days. But Paul turned to the centurion and said, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned?” It was the practice of the Roman government to permit one method of dealing with those who did not have full Roman citizenship, and another for those who did. Among those rights guaranteed to a free-born Roman citizen, or one who had paid a certain sum of money to purchase his citizenship, was the right to be tried in court without scourging. So as they were about to scourge the apostle Paul, he stood on his right as a Roman citizen.
I believe there is a lesson for us in that. Sometimes we are told that because Christians are heavenly citizens, they have no responsibility whatever as to citizenship here on earth. We have even heard it said that inasmuch as one cannot be a citizen of two countries at the same time here on earth, so one cannot be a citizen of Heaven and a citizen of earth at the same time. But this certainly does not follow. Since it was right for Paul to claim Roman citizenship in order not to suffer scourging, then it was also incumbent on him to fulfill the responsibilities of that citizenship. And this is true of any citizen of any country in this world. In other words, if I am to have certain protection as a citizen, I owe it to my country to act accordingly when it comes to fulfilling my responsibilities. It is true 1 am primarily a citizen of Heaven, but I am also a citizen of whatever country to which I belong on earth by natural relationship. So I am to be loyal to my government, pay my taxes, and to accept even military responsibilities if I am subject to them. It would be unthinkable that one would be entitled to claim protection from a country if he did not loyally respond to the rightful demands of its government.
So when the centurion heard that Paul was a Roman citizen, he went and told the chief captain saying, “Take heed what thou doest: for this man is a Roman.” Then the chief captain came and asked him, “Tell me, art thou a Roman?” He had not suspected anything of the kind. Paul said, “Yea.” The chief captain answered in effect, “Well, it cost me a great deal to obtain this freedom.” Paul answered, “But I was free born.” That is, Paul’s father was a Roman citizen, and so although Paul was a Jew of Tarsus, he himself was born a Roman citizen, and as such had all a citizen’s rights and liberties. So those that would have examined Paul withdrew from him. However the chief captain, anxious to know just what crime Paul was supposed to have committed, “loosed him from his bands, and commanded the chief priests and all their council to appear, and brought Paul down and set him before them.”