Foundation of Forgiveness
Foundation of Forgiveness
The Radiance of the Savior verses 12-14
12–14 Paul begins to describe his encounter with the heavenly Lord by noting that it took place ‘on one of these journeys’ (v. 12, en hois), when he was ‘going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests’. His intention was to persecute and destroy, but the risen Christ had another plan! ‘About noon’ (hēmeras mesēs; cf. 22:6, peri mesēmbrian), he tells Agrippa, ‘as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions’. As noted in connection with 9:1–19 and 22:6–15, there are differences among the three accounts of this event, some more significant than others. For example, in 9:7 Luke records that Paul’s companions ‘stood there speechless; they heard the sound (akouontes tēs phōnēs) but did not see anyone’. Here, however, Paul says, ‘we all fell to the ground’ (cf. 22:7, ‘I fell to the ground’), and 22:9 informs us that those who were with him ‘did not understand the voice’ (tēn phōnēn ouk ēkousan) of the one who was speaking. In all three accounts Paul recalls hearing a voice saying, ‘ “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” ’ But only here does he note that it was ‘in Aramaic’ (tē Hebraidi dialektō, ‘in the Hebrew language’; cf. 21:40; 22:2), possibly to explain the Lord’s use of the name Saul to these Gentiles who know him as Paul. The following expression (‘ “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” ’) also occurs only here. A goad was a sharp-pointed stick used to move animals in a particular direction. The image of kicking against the goads is found elsewhere in ancient literature, and Bruce observes that it is ‘the kind of saying that might be current in any agricultural community’. Such imagery expresses not only the intense struggle Paul experienced before turning to Christ but also the overwhelming power of the Lord to draw him to himself and transform his situation. This is not a reference to Paul’s guilty conscience, but a way of speaking about the Lord ‘prodding him in another direction which he had no choice but to follow—the path of proclaiming this same Jesus he had been attacking’. Perhaps the saying was included in this particular account as a warning to Agrippa and others present. ‘Paul’s plan to exterminate the church was doomed to fail because he was “kicking against” the irresistible purpose of God.’40 By implication, the opposition of Jewish and Roman officials to Christianity could not ultimately succeed.
26:12–15 The Damascus road experience is related in vv. 12–15. It is basically the same as the two prior accounts in chaps. 9 and 22 but with several significant differences. The first of these is the mention of the heavenly light that came upon Paul and his traveling companions at noon and “outshone the sun.” The noon hour and the bright light are also present in Paul’s account before the temple crowd (22:6), but there the light is connected with his blindness (22:11); here it is associated with his commission to witness to the light of the gospel (26:18). In this speech Paul was not interested so much in relating to Agrippa and the Gentiles the miracle of the recovery of his sight as he was in bringing to them the light of the gospel he had himself discovered on the Damascus road and been commissioned to carry to the nations.
Only in this account did Paul mention that his traveling companions also fell to the ground at the appearance of the brilliant light. This detail serves the same function as their hearing the sound in 9:7 and their seeing the light in 22:9. It emphasizes the objective reality of the event. In all three accounts, however, Paul alone experienced the appearance, was converted and called. Only in this account is it explicitly said that the heavenly voice spoke in the “Hebrew dialect” (“Aramaic,” NIV). This, however, is implicit in the address to Paul in the Hebrew form of his name Saoul in the other accounts. All three accounts relate the central question put to Paul by the risen Christ: “Why do you persecute me?” (v. 14). In persecuting the community of Christ, Paul was persecuting the Lord himself. Only in this final account are the further words of the Lord added: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” Perhaps Paul included them here because they were a common proverb of the times, particularly prevalent among the Greeks and Romans, and would hit a responsive chord in his Gentile audience on this occasion. Often the Lord’s words are interpreted as asking Paul why he was fighting his conscience, repressing his inner feelings that the Christians might indeed be on the Lord’s side and raging against them with ever greater fury. This, however, was not how Paul’s Gentile audience would have understood the words. In the many instances where the proverb occurs in Greek literature, it always has the meaning of resisting one’s destiny or fighting the will of the gods. That meaning fit Paul’s situation. In persecuting Christ, Paul was fighting the will of the One who had set him apart from birth (cf. Gal 1:15). Like a beast of burden kicking against his master’s goads, he would only find the blows more severe with each successive kick. He was fighting the will of God (cf. Acts 5:39). It was a futile, senseless task.
The Voice of the Savior verses 14-18
26:16–18 The emphasis in this third conversion account is decidedly on the commission given Paul by the risen Jesus in vv. 16–18. Indeed, this commission constitutes the center and climax of Paul’s entire speech. It is virtually repeated in Paul’s closing words (vv. 22–23). Christ’s commission to Paul is given in words reminiscent of God’s commissioning of the Old Testament prophets. Like Ezekiel following his vision of the Lord, Paul was directed to rise and stand on his feet (v. 16; cf. Ezek 2:1). The emphasis on the Lord’s sending him is characteristic of the call of the prophets (cf. Ezek 2:3), as is the promise to rescue him from his enemies (cf. Jer 1:8). Paul’s task is described with two words. He was first to be a “steward” (hypēretēs). The word emphasizes his relationship to his Lord. He was to be one who served his Master and was faithful to his Master’s commission. The second word is “witness” (martys). A witness bears testimony to the things he has seen and heard. Paul had seen the risen Lord and heard his commission. His whole story in Acts has shown his faithful witness—before Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and Romans, peasants, philosophers, and kings. It is witness to Christ that links Paul with the apostles and other faithful Christians like Stephen (cf. 22:20).
Ultimately, the role of witness is the key role for every disciple. All who have encountered the risen Christ are commissioned to be witnesses (Acts 1:8). The content of that witness is summarized in v. 18, in language reminiscent of the servant psalms of Isa 42:6 and 49:6. Christ is the servant of God who opens the eyes of those in darkness, who brings light to the nations. To proclaim him is to bring the light of the gospel. It could hardly be more aptly summarized than Paul did here. The gospel brings light, opens one’s eyes to the truth in Christ. Paul further described this as a turning from the power of Satan to the power of God. The sharp dualistic language of light and darkness is found throughout the New Testament and is metaphorical for two divergent ways of living. The one way can be described in various ways—living according to the world, under Satan, in darkness, in sin, apart from God, totally self-centered existence. The alternative is life in Christ, a life marked by righteousness, walking in the light, directed by God and not by self.
Paul concluded his summary of the gospel by noting the two results that come to the one who responds by faith in Christ. First is the forgiveness of sin, the removal of the barrier that separates one from God. With that barrier removed, the way is then clear for the second result—assurance of a place, a portion among the saints in God’s eternal kingdom. One could hardly give a more succinct presentation of the gospel. Paul may have been describing his commission from Christ. He did more than relate the commission, however. He used the opportunity to carry it out on that occasion. He preached the gospel to Agrippa and the Gentiles gathered there.
15–16 This version of the encounter continues to emphasize what was heard and what was said. Paul asked, ‘ “Who are you, Lord?” ’, and the Lord replied, ‘ “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” ’. At this point, the three narratives of Paul’s call and commissioning converge, but then they diverge significantly. In 9:6 there follows the simple command to get up and go into the city, where he will be told what to do next. In 9:14–15 we learn of what the Lord said to Ananias and must assume that this message was passed on to Paul in due course. In 22:10 the same instruction about going into Damascus is given, and the words of Ananias to Paul are then given in 22:14–15, including the explicit promise that Paul will be Christ’s ‘ “witness” ’ to all people of what he has seen and heard. In Acts 26 the same sequence of events is presented briefly, without mention of Ananias. Although the role of Ananias is important in the narrator’s account in Acts 9:10–19; 22:12–16, his function as a witness to the reality of Paul’s transformation and as a mouthpiece for the divine will is not relevant to the testimony before Agrippa. Furthermore, Paul makes no mention here of the need to go into Damascus, but reports what ‘the Lord’ himself said to him on the road. In the light of preceding accounts, we may understand that the message was actually mediated to Paul by Ananias, but the stress here is on the mandate of the risen Lord himself. This abbreviation and simplification of the story ‘helps Paul to move swiftly and effectively from the encounter with the Lord to the call as witness and the fulfillment of this call’.
The Lord’s command to ‘ “get up and stand on your feet” ’ recalls the commissioning of Ezekiel (Ezk. 2:1–3), after he had seen visions of God and fallen to the ground. Further echoes of OT prophetic calls will be noted in connection with vv. 17 and 18. Paul is then told that the risen Jesus appeared to him to ‘ “appoint” ’ him (procheirizomai, as in Acts 3:20; 22:14) ‘ “as a servant and as a witness” ’ (v. 16, hyperetēn kai martyra). Luke uses a similar expression at the beginning of his two-volume work to describe his sources (Lk. 1:2, hoi apʾ archēs autoptai kai hypēretia … tou logou, ‘those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word’). The language in Acts 26:16 identifies Paul with such people but also highlights his distinctive role in the purpose of God, as a personal assistant to the risen Lord Jesus (hyperetēn; cf. John Mark’s role in relation to Paul and Barnabas in 13:5). The great opponent of Christ (vv. 9–11) is now invited to become an ‘instrument of his will’. His farewell message to the Ephesian elders (20:19–35) describes what this meant for him in practical terms, using the related terms douleuōn (v. 19, ‘serving’ the Lord) and hypēretēsan (v. 34, ‘supplied’ my own needs and the needs of others). This service involved faithful, sacrificial ministry to believers and unbelievers, in the face of opposition, persecution, and various deprivations. In this respect he was a model for other ‘ministers of the word’. However, Paul’s role as a witness (martys, as in 22:15) suggests that he shared something of the distinct function and authority of the Twelve in testifying to the resurrection of Jesus and its implications (cf. 1:8, 22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39, 41; 13:31). This is emphasized by the full expression ‘ “a witness of what you have seen” ’, pointing to the Damascus road encounter (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1–2; 15:8–9). But the additional words ‘ “and will see of me” ’ anticipate further revelations of the Lord’s will and manifestations of his power to advance the mission he has given to Paul (e.g., 16:6–10, 25–34; 18:9–11; 27:23–25). We know from the progression of Luke’s narrative that such further revelations specifically enabled Paul to testify ‘to the Lord’s power to sustain witnesses under threat’.45
17–18 What Paul will see of Jesus in the future is specifically related to a promise of deliverance: ‘ “I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles” ’. Preaching to Jews as well as to Gentiles would be Paul’s way of participating in the inclusive mission of the risen Lord (v.23 note). This would involve rejection and persecution from both groups, but especially from his own people. The message conveyed to Ananias by the risen Jesus contained the warning that Paul would suffer for the sake of his ministry ‘to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel’, without an explicit promise of deliverance (9:15–16). Here the words I will rescue you (exairoumenos se) seem to echo what was said to Jeremiah when he was called to be a prophet (Jer. 1:8; cf. Acts 18:9–10 note). We have already noted a possible allusion to Ezekiel 2:1–3 in v. 16. Further allusions to prophetic callings follow with the words ‘ “I am sending you (exapostellō se; cf. Jer. 1:7; Ezk. 2:3) to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light” ’ (cf. Is. 42:6–7, 16; 49:6). In various ways, Paul’s call and commission is likened to that of great canonical prophets in the exilic period, but the Isaianic allusions in vv. 16–18 are particularly significant. Luke makes it clear that Jesus fulfills the Servant’s role (cf. Lk. 4:18–19; 22:37; Acts 3:13–15, 26), but shares aspects of that role with his chosen representatives (cf. Acts 1:8; 13:46–47). So what is said in Acts 26:16–18 ‘not only suggests the continuity of Paul’s mission with the scriptural prophets but also with the mission of Jesus announced in the Nazareth synagogue’. Luke thus confirms Paul’s key role in the divine plan, which began to be fulfilled with the coming of John the Baptist and then Jesus, to bring salvation to Israel and to the Gentiles.
As well as rescuing him from danger, the risen Lord promises Paul that he will work positively through his ministry to accomplish great things. When Paul preaches the gospel in the power of the Spirit, he will be enabled ‘ “to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God” ’. These words provide us with an important theological reflection on what has been taking place in Luke’s account so far. We find no actual mention of Paul challenging people to turn from darkness to light, though his ministry in Acts has had that effect in various ways. Moreover, Paul uses similar language himself in Colossians 1:12–14 to describe what God does in bringing people to himself through the work of Christ. In this particular narrative (contrast 9:17–18; 22:11–13), the divine light ‘does not blind but enables sight and represents salvation’. Paul sees the light of Christ (v. 13) in order to bring that light to others (vv. 18, 23; cf. 2 Cor. 4:1–6). There are certainly hints that he makes it possible for people to turn from the power or authority (exousia) of Satan to God (e.g., 13:6–12; 16:16–18; 19:13–20). Turning is closely linked to repentance (v. 20, metanoein kai epistrephein, ‘repent and turn’). Both terms describe a regular aspect of Paul’s preaching (14:15; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20; cf. 1 Thes. 1:9–10). Spiritual enlightenment and liberation from Satan’s dominion require repentance in the sense of turning away from every alternative source of illumination and control to seek a genuine relationship with God. Such a relationship is then described in terms of its outcome: ‘ “so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” ’ (en tois hēgiasmenois pistei tē eis eme). The language of sanctification is used in a covenantal and corporate sense, both here and in 20:32, where Paul indicates that ‘the word of grace’ is able to give you ‘an inheritance among all those who are sanctified’ (en tois hēgiasmenois pasin). In both contexts, the perfect passive participle emphasizes that sanctification is a state or condition granted by God rather than a process of becoming holy (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2, hēgiasmenois en Christō Iēsou, ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus’). Here it is linked with the forgiveness of sins on God’s part and faith in Christ on our part (cf. 20:21; 24:24, where the Lord Jesus is also specifically the object of faith). Its outcome is a share in the eternal destiny of God’s people, which contextually means a share in the resurrection from the dead (26:6–8, 23). If, in fact, it is ‘the word of God’ which accomplishes such things (cf. 6:7; 12:24; 19:20), the commission given to Paul in v. 18 must have application to others engaged in gospel ministry. When the gospel is faithfully proclaimed in the manner that Paul does, we may expect the risen Lord to bring spiritual enlightenment (to open their eyes) and genuine conversion (to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God), enabling people to share in the benefits of his saving work (so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me).
The Mission of the Savior verses 19-23
PAUL’S WITNESS FOR CHRIST (26:19–23)
26:19–20a Returning to the outline of his ministry, Paul now showed how he had carried out the commission of Christ. He had not been disobedient to his vision of Christ (v. 19); he had not “kick[ed] against the goads.” He had carried out not only the Lord’s commission to him to be a servant and a witness (v. 16) but indeed the Lord’s commission to his disciples on the ascension day, preaching first in Damascus, then in Jerusalem, then in all the land of Judea, and finally to the Gentiles (v. 20; cf. Acts 1:8). The narrative of Acts mentions Paul’s preaching in Damascus after his conversion (9:20–25) as well as his subsequent witness in Jerusalem (9:28f.). There is no mention of a larger witness of Paul “in all Judea.” There are grammatical and textual problems with this reading, and it may well be that the text originally referred to Paul’s preaching “in every region among both Jews and Gentiles.” Paul’s reference would then be to his missionary pattern of beginning in the synagogue before turning to the Gentiles, a pattern characteristic of his mission throughout Acts 13–19.
26:20b As is true throughout this speech, Paul did not pass up any opportunity to testify to the gospel before the king. Thus, in speaking of his witness to Jews and Gentiles, he included the characteristic appeal he made—to “repent and turn to God” (v. 20). Repenting (metanoein) and turning (epistrephein) to God are variant expressions of the same act, for true repentance is a complete change of mind, an about-face from sin and self to God. The manifestation of this complete change of direction, the proof of the genuineness of repentance, is a life characterized by good works. Works can never be the basis of salvation. They are, however, the inevitable result of a genuine experience of turning to God in Christ.
26:21–22a Verses 21–22a complete Paul’s testimony to his life as a Christian witness. It did not always go easily. Ultimately, the mob descended on him in the temple because of his testimony to Christ, leading to his arrest (v. 21). But even in that instance, as in many others, the Lord kept his promise to Paul and rescued him (v. 22a; cf. v. 17). Even though in bonds, his witness was unhindered, as even now he testified before the king. But it was not just before kings and governors that the Lord had enabled Paul to witness. It was before “small and great alike.” Just as there were no geographical or racial boundaries in Paul’s ministry (v. 20), so there were no social barriers. It was the same gospel for all, and Paul bore his witness to all without discrimination, whether to the peasant farmers of Lystra or the Jewish king himself.
26:22b–23 Verses 22b–23 provide Paul’s final and climactic reference to the gospel in his speech. He had spoken of turning the eyes from darkness to light, of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, of obtaining a portion with the saints in the eternal kingdom (vv. 18, 20). Now he centered on the key to all of this, the means by which enlightenment, forgiveness, and salvation are all realized—the death and resurrection of Christ. It is a familiar pattern to the reader of Acts—the opening of the Old Testament Scriptures and demonstrating from “Moses and the prophets” that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead. In the summary of Paul’s speech before Agrippa, the explicit texts are not cited; but one is already familiar with them from Peter’s sermons at Pentecost (2:24–36) and before the temple crowd (3:17–26) and from Paul’s sermon in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch (13:32–39). This tradition began with Jesus’ instruction of the disciples in the upper room (Luke 24:44–49; cf. also 24:25–27, 32).
There he provided them with the scriptural base for their understanding of his death and resurrection, and there he first granted them the commission to proclaim their witness to both Jew and Gentile. In the Old Testament it is the servant psalms which most clearly point to Christ’s sufferings, and that Paul had them in mind is indicated by his speaking of the proclaiming of “light to his own people and to the Gentiles.” That was the role of the servant (Isa 42:6f.; 49:6; cf. v. 18). Paul was a servant of the Servant (cf. v. 16). In fulfilling his commission to be a witness to Christ, he was enabling Christ to fulfill his role as a light to the nations. He was enabling all who responded in faith to share in the resurrection life.173
19–21 Paul now addresses King Agrippa with the form of speech called ‘litotes’, where a modest statement (‘I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven’) is used for the sake of emphasis: in truth, ‘Paul was wholeheartedly obedient’. Witherington rightly observes that the word vision (optasia) here ‘should not be seen as a reference to a purely subjective and internal experience, as is shown by the stress in vv. 13–14 on the objectivity of the occurrence, but rather one that originated from heaven but penetrated the inner being of Paul in a way that was not true of his companions’. The account of his commission (vv. 16–18) is then followed by a report of how he carried out that commission. Fulfillment is highlighted by ‘the repetition of theme words that bind the Lord’s commission and Paul’s obedient response closely together (cf. “witness”, “bearing witness”, vv. 16, 22; “rescuing”, “help from God”, vv. 17, 22; “the people and the Gentiles”, vv. 17, 23; “turn … to God”, vv. 18, 20; “light”, vv. 18, 23)’. Paul recalls the geographical scope of his mission, ‘first to those in Damascus’ (cf. 9:20–25), ‘then to those in Jerusalem’ (cf. 9:26–30) ‘and in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles’. He indicates that he conveyed the same message to all, declaring (apēngellon, ‘reporting’, ‘announcing’, ‘proclaiming’) ‘that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds’ (cf. 20:21). Challenged to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins and a share in the messianic salvation (v. 18 note), Paul was as serious as John the Baptist in calling for deeds to demonstrate the genuineness of repentance (cf. Lk. 3:8; Acts 20:21). He understood conversion ‘not only in terms of forgiveness and faith, but also in terms of a full ethical transformation’. Jewish missionaries might have said as much in their approach to Gentiles, but Paul was calling for the same response from Jews as well. When he mentions that certain Jews seized him in the temple courts and tried to kill him (v. 21; cf. 21:27–29; 24:5–8), he explains that this happened because of his preaching ministry (v. 21, heneka toutōn, ‘because of these things’; TNIV ‘that is why’), which effectively put Gentiles ‘on the same level as Israelites as potential heirs of salvation’.
22–23 Paul concludes his speech with an important theological inference (oun, ‘therefore’, ‘so’) that is relevant to his present situation: ‘God has helped me to this very day, so I stand here and testify to small and great alike’. ‘At this point the report of past witness turns into present proclamation.’ When Paul recalls how God has helped him in the past, he implies that the promise of rescue in v. 17 has been fulfilled. With God’s help, he has also been able to testify to an audience like the present one, covering such a wide social spectrum (to small and great alike). His testimony contains ‘nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen’, agreeing with the predictions of Scripture specifically related to the Messiah (cf. 2:14–36; 3:12–26 [Peter]; 13:16–41, 47; 24:14; 28:23 [Paul]). Paul’s gospel summary in these verses begins with the assertion that the Scriptures have been fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus. The Greek syntax makes it clear that two specific predictions had to be fulfilled to provide salvation for Israel and the Gentiles. The first is that ‘the Messiah would suffer’ (ei pathētos ho Christos) and the second is that, as ‘the first to rise from the dead’ (ei prōtos ex anastaseōs nekrōn), he ‘would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles’. In Paul’s letters, Christ is described as the ‘firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep’ (1 Cor. 15:20, 23) and the ‘firstborn’ of a large family of people brought to life by God (Rom. 8:29; Col. 1:18). Here the special point is made that the Messiah can bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles because of his resurrection. By implication, he forms his own people by means of such proclamation. In Luke 24:44–48, there is a similar sequence of suffering, resurrection, and proclamation, with reference to the fulfillment of Scripture. However, in Luke 24:47 the proclamation is in the Messiah’s name, whereas here it is the risen Messiah himself who proclaims light to his own people and to the Gentiles. This is consistent with the notion first implied in Acts 1:1–2—that the risen Lord would continue to work through his disciples to fulfil his saving plan—and conveyed in various other ways throughout the narrative (e.g., 3:16; 4:9–12, 29–31, 9:5–6, 10–16, 31; 11:21; 16:6–10). The mission is first and foremost the Lord’s, but Paul is making the point that the Lord made him ‘a part of the mission given to the first witnesses’.61 Thus, in response to the original charge that his ministry is illegitimate and destructive of true Judaism (24:5–8; 25:8), Paul ultimately insists that it is scripturally based and God-given, a privileged share in the Messiah’s own mission of salvation to Israel and the nations