In this chapter of Acts we are given the account of Paul’s testimony before Festus and Agrippa. In Acts 22 we noted that Paul’s testimony is recorded five times in Scripture. Here in Acts 26 we read the third account of his conversion. Even though he was addressing King Agrippa, who had been brought up in the Jewish religion, he had in mind the Roman governor Festus. Therefore he presented the story of his great experience in a way that ought to have appealed to a Gentile as well as to King Agrippa. Paul was following his own rule for reaching men for Christ, “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
The first eleven verses of Acts 26 are devoted (at least in large measure) to the time of Paul’s unconverted days. We are told that Agrippa said to Paul: “Thou art permitted to speak for thyself. Then Paul stretched forth the hand, and answered for himself.” Recognizing Agrippa’s acquaintance with the Jewish religion, Paul felt that he would be able to understand at least in measure something of what he had gone through.
Paul recounted his life as a young man who thoroughly believed in Judaism as the final revelation from God. He declared: “My manner of life from my youth, which was at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews; Which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.”
You will notice the peculiar grammatical construction of a part of this sentence, “the most straitest sect of our religion.” One is reminded of Mark Antonyms expression as given by Shakespeare, “That was the most unkindest cut of all.” Ordinarily we do not use a double superlative like this, but the apostle Paul wanted to stress the fact that no man was ever more firmly convinced that Judaism was God’s final word to mankind than he was. He believed in it with all his heart. He lived it. He was not simply a Jew by profession.
Many today call themselves Jews, yet are not at all careful about observing the customs of the Jewish people or the ordinances of the Jewish religion. It was otherwise with this young man. He was most punctilious about attending to everything that the law commanded. He carried out not only what was written in the law of Moses but the additional traditions of the Pharisees in Israel.
The Pharisees were the most religious and the most conscientious of Jews. I know we Gentiles are accustomed to think of Pharisees as though they were all hypocrites, but that is not necessarily true. Many of them were hypocrites, just as there are many professing Christians today who are hypocrites. The Lord Jesus had some very stern things to say to some of the Pharisees. “Woe unto you, Pharisees, hypocrites.” He condemned them for making long prayers in public just in order that they might be seen of men. He condemned them for sounding a trumpet to announce that they were giving alms. But on the other hand there were Pharisees who were sincere and intensely earnest. Saul of Tarsus was one of these. No man is a hypocrite who can say, “I live what I profess”; and Saul could say, “I lived a Pharisee.”
Even as a Christian he wanted Agrippa to understand that he was not divorced from the great outstanding truths of Judaism. There is not one truth that God has revealed through Moses and the prophets that is denied by Bible-believing Christians. We believe with our Jewish brethren in the unity of the Godhead, but we also believe that God is a trinity, revealed in three glorious persons—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. We believe in the importance of knowing God, as revealed in the Old and New Testaments, and living in obedience to His Word. We believe in the resurrection of the dead, and in the final judgment—the eternal punishment of men who die in their sins, and the everlasting blessedness of the righteous. So Paul could say to Agrippa, “The Jews who have known me could testify that I have lived a Pharisee.”
And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers: Unto which promise our twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night, hope to come. For which hope’s sake, King Agrippa, I am accused of the Jews (26:6-7).
What did he mean by that? He meant this: “I am standing here today in chains because I believe with all my heart what every honest Jew believes. I believe in the resurrection of the dead, but I believe that Jesus Christ has already been resurrected. I believe in the Messiah promised to Israel, and that Jesus Christ is that Messiah, and that he died for our sins, just as depicted in Isaiah 53. I believe that He was raised from the dead and taken up to the Father’s right hand as described in Psalm 110; “The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.” Paul could say, “I believe all of these things, and I stand here a fettered man because I believe with all my heart what you Jews profess to believe. I am convinced that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Jewish hope.”
Then he added, “Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?” I take it that here he was addressing Festus directly, for Festus had ridiculed the thought that Jesus Christ could be alive again. But why should one think it incredible that the same Lord who created this universe, and breathed into man the breath of life, could also be able to bring back His own blessed Son from the dead, or any others whom death has claimed?
Then Paul continued to tell Agrippa something of the circumstances of his life before he knew Christ. He said, “I thought I ought to be opposed to Jesus Christ.” I have no doubt there are some people who really believe they are doing right in opposing the gospel of the grace of God. Let me stress this: Sincerity of belief does not in itself prove anything. You might, for instance, board a railroad train and be absolutely sincere in thinking that it was going to take you to Minneapolis, and yet you might later discover that it was going to Omaha. Your sincerity of belief would not alter the facts. It would not change anything. Saul of Tarsus sincerely believed that Christianity was a delusion. He sincerely believed that Jesus of Nazareth was a deceiver. He sincerely believed that the Christians were a fanatical people who ought to be rooted out of the world. He was sincere, but he was sincerely wrong. You see, you need to test your facts by the revelation God has given. “Should not a people seek unto their God?...To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:19-20).
Sincerely believing that Christianity was wrong, Paul acted accordingly: “Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them.” This seems to imply that Paul himself was a member of the Jewish high council, otherwise he would not have been entitled to participate in their deliberations. “And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities.” In these words he covered his whole life from his childhood up to the moment of the great crisis when the Lord Jesus was revealed to him as the Son of the living God.
Next, Paul related his conversion experience. However you may try to explain the event on the Damascus road, however you may understand it, the fact remains that something happened that day which changed this man completely. He himself told us what happened. You may not want to believe him, but then how are you going to account for the marvelous change in his life and in his way of thinking and acting from that moment on? One instant he is the hater of the Lord Jesus Christ and the bitter persecutor of Christians; the next he is a humble, obedient Christian, willing to lay down his very life for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. And for thirty years he continued in the position he took that day. What brought it about? He had seen the Christ of God. God was pleased to reveal the Lord Jesus directly to this man. He felt himself struck to the ground, a light from heaven shining round about him. He said, “I could not see for the glory of that light.” He heard a voice in the language that he loved the best—the Hebrew tongue—calling him by name and pleading with him tenderly, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”
In commenting on Paul’s conversion experience (Acts 9), we noted that something within Saul revolted against the bitterness of persecution. He was uneasy at heart. Perhaps he remembered the light that he had seen in the face of Stephen who, looking like an angel, cried, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” And he may have remembered Stephen’s words, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” Perhaps Paul was conscious of the prayers of his kinsmen, to whom he referred in Romans 16 as those who “were in Christ before me.” Who can question but that these kinsmen of Saul often prayed for their young relative, prayed that God might speak to him and quicken him, that he might come to see and know the Lord Jesus! So he was like a refractory ox kicking against the goad that was prodding him. When Jesus appeared, he cried out, trembling and amazed, “Who art thou, Lord?” And a voice came back, an audible voice from Heaven, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.” The revelation of Jesus Christ changed everything! That is what conversion really is—when a man is brought for the first time in his life to look in saving faith upon the face of the Lord Jesus.
Some try to explain away the wonder of Paul’s conversion. Someone in Britain years ago insisted that it was to be explained in this way: Paul was evidently an epileptic, and as he went along the Damascus road he had a fit and fell to the ground, foaming at the mouth, and thereafter was a changed man! Spurgeon said, “Oh, blessed epilepsy that made such a wonderful change in this man! Would God that all who oppose the name of Jesus Christ might become epileptics in the same sense.”
Some are saying today that it was a sunstroke. A modern writer declared that as Saul traveled on the road the sun became so hot he was struck and fell to the ground, and that was his conversion! As I read it, I thought, “Would God that all modernists could be so sunstruck that they might begin to preach Christ, and so come back to the grand old gospel of redemption by the blood of Jesus!” And yet I am quite in agreement with the modernist explanation except for one letter. It was a
Son-stroke, not a sunstroke! It was the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus the Son that struck home to the very heart of that man and opened his eyes to see the One he had been persecuting—the Savior of sinners. And so the great change took place.
The voice of the Lord continued speaking to Paul: “I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee.” This was Paul’s ordination to the ministry. No human hands had anything to do with it. Henceforth he could say:
Christ, the Son of God, hath sent me
Through the midnight lands;
Mine the mighty ordination
Of the pierced hands.
The blessed Christ of God commissioned Saul that day to be His messenger. He was to go forth as His witness. As such he would be rescued from his own people, the Jews, and the Gentiles, unto whom now he was to be sent; for this man’s work was to be particularly among the Gentiles, though he never forgot his own people. Everywhere he went it was the Jew first.
What was his commission? “To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.” What a glorious, full commission was this! It is as though the Lord was saying, “Saul, all over the world men are sitting in darkness, and in the shadow of death. They are blind; they cannot see. But you are to go out as My servant and, as you proclaim My Word, these blinded eyes will be opened and men will be turned from darkness to light, from the awful, ruinous power of Satan to God Himself who waits in grace to save them.” When they turn to Him, they will be cleared of every charge that God had against them, and they will have a glorious inheritance among those who are separated unto God in Christ Jesus through faith. This was his message, and this is the message that God is still sending out into the world. Oh, how men’s eyes need to be opened! They are open enough to the things of this world, but they are blind to the things of eternity. And God’s truth alone can give enlightenment. “The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple” (Psalm 119:130).
Beginning with Acts 26:19, we read something of Paul’s life after his conversion. He said the essence of his message to Jew and Gentile alike was “that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.” Sometimes we are told that repentance has no place in the message for this present glorious dispensation of grace. But here is the man who is preeminently the apostle of grace saying in essence, “Wherever I have gone, this has been my message, to tell both Jews and Gentiles that they should repent and turn to God, and do works that prove their repentance.”
What is repentance? It is a complete change of attitude. It is a rightabout-face. Here is a man who is living in open, flagrant sin, and he does not care anything about the things of God and is totally indifferent to the claims of righteousness. But once the Spirit of God takes hold of him, he suddenly comes face to face with his sins in the presence of God. He turns rightabout-face and comes to the God he has been spurning and to the Christ he has been rejecting and he confesses his sins and puts his trust in the Savior. All this is involved in repentance.
We look at yet another man. He is not living in open sin, but has been living a very religious life. He has been very self-righteous. He has been thoroughly satisfied that because of his own goodness and because of his punctilious attention to his religious duties, God will accept him and eventually take him to be with Himself. But suddenly he is brought to realize that all his own righteousnesses are but filthy rags, that nothing he can do will make him fit for God’s presence, and he faces this honestly before God. For him too there is a change of attitude. He turns away from all confidence in self, the flesh, his religion, and cries: “In my hand no price I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling.” This is repentance. It is a rightabout-face.
And so everywhere that Paul went he preached repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And today God, through His servants still calls on “all men everywhere to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). It is repent or perish; turn or burn! Face your sins now and find deliverance from them or face them in the day of judgment when it will be too late for deliverance.
In bringing his marvelous account to a close Paul added: “I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come” (26:22). That is, there is not one thing in Christianity that is contrary to any truth revealed in the Old Testament. There is a greater fullness. We have been given additional light on many old truths, but every servant of Christ today who is really faithful to the Word can say what Paul said.
Paul himself opened up wonderful truths of grace not hitherto made known. The glorious truth of the believer’s justification from all things; his union with Christ; the baptism of the Holy Spirit; the truth of the one body. In all these truths Paul shared the light revealed to him as the messenger of the risen Christ.
As Paul spoke for himself, Festus the skeptic, Festus the rationalist who would not acknowledge the miraculous, leaned forward and cried, “Paul, you are going crazy. You have been dwelling too much on religious problems, and have lost your wits; you don’t know what you are talking about.” Paul looked the Roman governor straight in the face, not a sign of fanaticism about him, and calmly, coolly, answered: “I am not mad, most noble Festus, but speak forth the words of truth and soberness.” Turning to Agrippa for corroboration, he said: “For the king knoweth of these things, before whom also I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner.”
Then addressing Agrippa directly, he pressed the question home: “King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets?” Without waiting for an answer, he added, “I know that thou believest.” And Agrippa, leaning forward, exclaimed, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” Possibly that is not an exact translation. Perhaps it was, as a more literal translation records it: “With but little persuasion would you try to make a Christian of me!” Paul answered: “I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds.” And he held up his manacled hands! “Oh, Agrippa, I wish you and Festus and Bernice and all the rest here, I wish that you had the same blessed hope that I have.” And that is what we say to all who do not know Christ.
“Then said Agrippa unto Festus, This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar.” But God had permitted him so to appeal in order that he might witness in Rome.