A Chosen Instrument
Introduction: Have you ever thought that you were possibly destined for greatness? Lee Iacocca did, at a fairly young age. He writes in his autobiography, “When you’re young and you lose, you can react in one of two ways: You can pout and lick your wounds or you can tell yourself, ‘Wait a minute. I’m going to come back from the dead. They can’t keep me down, I’m indestructible.'” It’s that kind of self-confidence and ambition that took him to the presidency of Ford and then to the chairmanship of Chrysler. He believed in himself and believed he was destined for greatness. Unfortunately, that conviction contributed to a certain toughness, crudeness, and ruthlessness that is not as admirable as his accomplishments.
However, a conviction of great destiny does not have to be accompanied by such attitudes. The Apostle Paul was destined for greatness, not by his own ambition but by God’s choosing. When Paul was converted on the Damascus Road the Lord Jesus Himself said to Ananias, who took the blind apostle in, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.”
For several months now we have been studying the ministry of Paul as he fulfilled two parts of this prediction—carrying the name of Jesus before the Gentiles and also before the people of Israel. Today in chapters 25 and 26 of Acts we find the third aspect fulfilled as Paul stands before a king to testify of his faith. And what a testimony it was! While there are many ways in which it could be analyzed I want us to concentrate on five affirmations he makes in the first person:
“I lived as a Pharisee.”
“I was convinced.”
“I saw a light and I heard a voice.”
“I was not disobedient.”
“I have had God’s help to this very day.”
But first, let’s take just a moment to put chapters 25 & 26 in context. We are dealing with the final of six opportunities Paul had to defend his faith in the book of Acts. The first two were in Jerusalem before the Jewish masses and the Sanhedrin. The other four took place in Caesarea before Governor Felix, before Felix and Drusilla, before Governor Festus, and now before Festus, King Herod Agrippa II, and Bernice.
Our last sermon from Acts concerned Felix, a wicked, ruthless ruler, who because of procrastination, greed, and the desire for human approval, left Paul in prison for two years until a new governor, Porcius Festus, assumed office, as recorded in the last verse of chapter 24. The Jewish authorities wasted no time upon Festus’ arrival, laying a new plot against Paul to assassinate him. One wonders whether this plot is connected with the one in chapter 23 where more than forty men took a solemn oath not to eat or drink anything until they had killed Paul. If so, now that over two years have passed, they must be mighty hungry and thirsty.
Festus seems to be a just man, and he refuses to send Paul to Jerusalem without first having a chance to talk to him himself. It is during that first encounter with Festus in chapter 25 that Paul appeals to Caesar and is told he will get his wish. However, Festus has a problem. Sending a prisoner to Caesar without any specific charges would not be looked upon with favor. So he takes advantage of the arrival of King Agrippa and Bernice in Caesarea to get their opinion as to what he should do with Paul or say about him to the Emperor. I think we must note that this is not really another trial; it is more like entertainment planned for special guests of state.
This King Agrippa is the last of the Herodian dynasty. The first was Herod the Great, who killed all the babies in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. His son, Herod Antipas, is the one who beheaded John the Baptist in prison. His grandson, Herod Agrippa I, put the apostle James to death with the sword. Now his great-grandson, Agrippa II, has been appointed King by the Romans. His wife, Bernice, is also his full-blooded sister, and so it is before this incestuous couple, enslaved by their own lust and passion, that the Apostle Paul appears. Yet his greatest concern seems not to be his own freedom but rather the opportunity to reach this monarch for Christ. Now let’s consider Paul’s personal testimony.
Paul’s personal testimony (26:1-23)
“I lived as a Pharisee.” (4-8). Paul begins his argument by claiming to be an orthodox Jew, a member of the strictest sect of Jews, the Pharisees, a fact that was well-known to his audience. There’s something ironic happening here. For centuries there have been heated arguments among the Jews as to who is a legitimate Jew. Just this past week one of the orthodox cabinet members of the Knesset in Israel resigned his post because he refused to certify that an immigrant who was converted by a reformed Rabbi here in the states was a bona fide Jew.
It’s almost always the orthodox who practice exclusivism toward those who are less than orthodox. But here in Acts 25 we have ordinary Jews trying to exclude an orthodox Jew, a Pharisee no less, and claim that he is not a real Jew.
Furthermore, Paul states that he believes nothing, even now, that is inconsistent with what a good Pharisee should believe. They believe, or profess to believe, that Messiah would come according to the promise made by God, and so does he! The Pharisees believe in resurrection from the dead, and so does he! Unfortunately, however, while the Pharisees believe in the doctrine of resurrection, but they don’t believe in the reality of resurrection.
There are, of course, also a lot of people today who affirm the basic tenets of the Christian faith, but if you press them regarding the actual historical truth of the facts of Christianity, they hem and haw and demonstrate that they are really agnostic. Paul puts the screws on his audience with the question, “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” What good is a doctrine of resurrection if one refuses to accept it when God actually raises someone from the dead?
But not only was Paul a Pharisee, an orthodox Jew with all the right credentials. He was also sincere in his pre-Christian days.
“I was convinced.” (9-11) No doubt there were some Pharisees who were just playing games with their religious faith. Not Paul. He was so convinced of his religious standing before God that he had sought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. One of my all-time favorite cartoons by Charles Schultz finds Charlie Brown on the mound and the scoreboard reads, 169-0. Charlie holds his hands up in despair and asks, “How can we lose when we’re so sincere?” Well, the fact is that a lot of sincere people lose, and no one was ever more sincere than Paul. He put Christians in prison; he voted for the death penalty for them; he raided their synagogues; he tortured them in an effort to get them to recant; and he even traveled to foreign cities to persecute them.
“I saw a light and I heard a voice.” (12-18) Beginning in verse 12 Paul recounts his miraculous conversion on the Damascus Road, an event we are familiar with already. Until Jesus appeared to Paul on the Road he was walking in spiritual darkness. Despite his religious credentials and his great sincerity, he was utterly lost and blind. In 2 Cor. 4 this same Apostle explains that darkness as being Satanic: “The god of this age (Satan) has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
Well, what is the solution to the darkness that unbelievers find themselves in? The same passage goes on to say that God, who in Creation Week proclaimed, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has“made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Now, that light came to Paul in a very unusual way, but it is the same light that comes to every person who is convicted of his sin by the Holy Spirit and sees finally that Jesus is indeed the Son of God who died on the cross to forgive our sins.
But Paul not only saw a light; he also heard a voice. It is important for us to realize that it is the voice of God, the Word of God, that converts the soul. In John 5:24 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”
The specific word Paul heard from heaven was this: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” The goads were sharp spikes mounted on the front of chariots or carts. If a horse kicked back, he would injure himself against the goads. The Lord said in effect, “That is what is happening to you, Paul. You’re kicking against the spikes, resisting the moving of the Holy Spirit.”
What are some of the spikes God used to bring Paul to Christ? The death of Stephen was certainly one, for Paul never forgot that. The godly conduct of the saints he persecuted must have touched his heart. Surely the OT Scriptures spoke to him with great conviction. God used various means to bring Paul to repentance, just as He does with sinners today.
I wonder if there is someone here today who is kicking against the spikes. Lee and Nancy Hall shared their testimonies in a membership interview last Sunday and testified about how their oldest daughter became a believer on the university campus. But they resisted the loving, consistent testimony she gave for so long. Maybe one of the spikes God has been using in your life is a family member who has faithfully lived his or her faith before you. Maybe another spike has been a Christian business acquaintance who refuses to lie or cheat to get ahead. Or maybe God has been using the spike of illness or financial reversal. Have you been resisting? Have you been kicking against the spikes to your own harm?
When Paul heard the voice of the Lord he responded, “Who are you, Lord?” And the Lord answered: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. You think you’re fighting the members of a sect, but you are really fighting me.” And then Jesus commissioned him:
“I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you 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.”
You know, I think that’s the same basic commission Christ gives to all his children, because the problem with humanity is the same today as it was then. Ray Stedman has summarized this well:
“People do not know where to turn; they do not know where the answers lie. They do not even know how to analyze the problems accurately; they cannot see what is happening. They cannot predict the end of courses they adopt nor of the forces which they loose. They do not know where they are going. They are utterly blind, like men staggering around in a dark room, groping and feeling and trying to find their way through the course of history. This sense of lostness pervades our society.”
To remedy that dilemma Jesus says, “I have appointed you as a servant and as a witness.” Paul saw a light and heard a voice. It was the Word of God telling him to go into all the world and to preach the good news to every creature.
At this point, however, Paul was not yet a Christian, not yet a child of God. Yes, he had seen the light and he had heard the Word of God. But he needed to respond, and respond he did, as recorded in verse 19.
“I was not disobedient.” (19-21) “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.” God never forces us to believe and He never forces us to serve. He always leaves us with an “out.” We can always say no. Paul didn’t. He not only repented and became a child of God, but he also committed his life to sharing the good news of salvation. And that is the reason, he claims in verse 21, why the Jews seized him in the temple courts and tried to kill him. Witnessing can be a dangerous avocation. Rarely is it that for us, which means we have considerably less excuse for not doing it. But it can mean trouble.
The final affirmation of Paul’s that I want us to examine is found in verse 22.
“I have had God’s help to this very day.” (22-23) “I have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”
The point Paul is making here is that he continued to stand strong in his faith because he recognized that God was his strength and his help. In the parable of the soils Jesus told of many believers who are “converted” but who do not continue to stand. Jesus said, “What was sown on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.” (Mark 4:16-17) When trouble and persecution came upon Paul he stood and testified anyway, because he knew God’s help was always available.
Now these five phrases…
“I lived as a Pharisee.”
“I was convinced.”
“I saw a light and I heard a voice.”
“I was not disobedient.”
“I have had God’s help to this very day.”
…summarize the life of Paul and the life of any sinner who has trusted Christ and seeks to serve Him.
But Paul didn’t get to finish his sermon. He rarely did. As soon as he got to the word “Gentiles,”he was interrupted (as also happened in 22:22). Festus shouted, “You are out of your mind, Paul.” The Apostle’s belief in resurrection and his insistence that Gentiles, as well as Jews, needed Christ, was almost more than this materialistic Roman could stand. He couldn’t call Paul ignorant, so he went the opposite direction and accused him of learning so much that his brain had suffered an overload.
Now it would be rather disconcerting to me if someone stood up during one of my sermons and alleged that I wasn’t playing with a full deck. But Paul used it ingeniously to turn from his personal testimony to a passionate exhortation.
Paul’s passionate exhortation (26:24-32)
He fends off Festus’ allegation of insanity and challenges the king. (24-28). Please notice how skillfully Paul fends off Festus’ allegation of insanity and turns the focus back to King Agrippa. Apparently, Paul feels that Agrippa has the greater potential of becoming a convert, so he refuses to let Festus sidetrack him. You can see Paul reaching out to the king, knowing perhaps that this is his last opportunity to reach the Jewish people. He even challenges Agrippa: “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” That took some courage. A prisoner is required to answer questions during a trial; he does not normally have the right to question the judge.
Paul is simply asking Agrippa to put two and two together. He knew the historical facts of Jesus’ life and he believed in the prophets. So, he should put the two together. What did the prophets say the Messiah would do? Didn’t Jesus fulfill every one of their predictions?
At this point, this morally enslaved king, mastered by his own lusts, is faced directly with the issue of his own personal spiritual destiny. You can just see him squirming up there on his throne. Unfortunately, his answer is to turn his back on what Paul says.
It is a bit difficult to understand exactly what Agrippa says in response. The Greek is a bit obscure, but it is clear that he did not say what the King James Version seems to imply: “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” There is a touching invitation song entitled, “Almost Persuaded,” that is built on the KJV rendering of Acts 26:28, but Agrippa is not saying that he is almost to the point of accepting Christ.
The likelihood is that Agrippa is using the word “Christian” as a term of contempt, and the word “almost” really means “a short time.” In other words, he is probably using sarcasm: “Do you really think, Paul that in this short a time and with such feeble arguments you’re going to make me a Christian?”
But Paul doesn’t take offense. Instead, he responds with a heavy heart and …
He urges Agrippa to turn his “almost” into an “altogether.” (29) The KJV reads in verse 29, “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.” Though this translation is weak, I think we can borrow it to express the fact that there are two groups of Christians: almost Christians and altogether Christians. Agrippa was an almost Christian, not in the sense that he was ready to believe, but rather in that he understood the Word and knew the truth but refused to do anything about it. His intellect was instructed, his emotions probably touched, but his will was unyielding. What Paul was after is altogether Christians—those who have surrendered their wills as well as their minds and hearts to God.
The better translations have the Apostle saying,
“Whether I have but a short time or a long time to witness to you, I just want you to know that the hunger of my heart for you and for all who are listening to me today is that you may become believers like me. I wish you had the peace, the liberty, the power, the joy, the gladness of heart and life that I have; in fact, the only thing of mine that I wouldn’t wish on you is these chains you have bound me with.”
What an appeal out of a great heart! What a revelation of the greatness of the Gospel! It can rise above every circumstance, every situation, and fill the heart with joy, so that a person in chains, bound and a prisoner, can stand before a king and claim that he is better off.
Herod, unfortunately, gets up and leaves the room, leaving behind him forever the opportunity to exchange an earthly throne for a heavenly crown. In independent arrogance he refuses the proffered hand of God’s grace, and he fades from history. He is the last of the line of the Herods.
Points to Ponder:
1. Hearing about Christ doesn’t automatically produce internal change. this is proved by Felix, Drusilla, Festus, Agrippa, and Bernice, because all of them heard a clear and precise presentation of the truth of the Gospel, but all of them rejected for one reason or another.
2. Believing in Christ doesn’t automatically remove external chains. The Apostle was a faithful witness, but God’s will for him was to witness to the Emperor as well, and the only way that could happen was for him to go to Rome in chains. It is easy for us to rebel against the external trials God allows in our lives, but every one of them has a purpose. Every one of them is a sign of His ownership. Every one of them is proof that we are chosen instruments.