A Life-Changing Encounter with Christ
May 19, 2024

A Life-Changing Encounter with Christ

Preacher:
Passage: Acts 26:1-29

Persecution and Prison

This afternoon, we’ll be finishing our series in Acts. We’ve looked at six major speeches made by followers of Jesus - people who had a personal encounter with Christ. And tonight we’ll end by looking at one more major speech, given by the Apostle Paul.

The Apostle Paul was an ambassador for Christ. He urged both Jews and the non-Jewish Gentiles to turn from false religion and to turn to Jesus for forgiveness and for peace with God. But the Jewish religious leaders were offended by Paul’s ministry, and they wanted to end it.

You may remember from last week, Paul mentioned in Acts 20 that he was on his way to Jerusalem. Well, in Acts 21, when he arrives in Jerusalem, the Jews recognize Paul. And from their intense hatred of Paul, they stir up an angry mob and try to kill him. But the Roman government steps in to end the violence and takes Paul into custody. From there, the governor sends Paul from Jerusalem to the capital of the Roman province – to a city named Caesarea.

Now it probably sounds a bit bizarre, but during this whole time, the Roman officials really don’t have a reason in the books for why they arrested Paul. They haven’t charged him with anything. They know that the Jews are angry with him – and they want to please the Jews by keeping Paul in prison.

But two years later, a new Roman governor comes into power named Festus. And as Festus is trying to figure out what crime Paul should be charged with, he’s visited by King Agrippa. Agrippa was a Jewish man from the family line of King Herod, and Festus asks Agrippa for advice. They decide to hear what Paul has to say for himself. And in Acts 26, Paul gives a speech to defend himself from the charges that the Jews have raised against him and the Christian faith.

If you haven’t already, please turn with me to Acts, Chapter 26. I’ll be reading verses 1-29. But before we get to the text, let’s ask for God’s help in prayer:

[READ/PRAY]

A Justification of Paul's Ministry

Paul has an opportunity here, before Agrippa and Festus, to defend his ministry and his message against the accusations of the Jews. And in the text you can see that Paul identifies two primary aspects of his message that angered the Jews. For one thing, He has proclaimed the resurrection – particularly, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. In verse 7, Paul identifies that it’s because of his hope in the resurrection that he’s been accused by the Jews.

And in addition to this, Paul has been teaching that through Jesus, both Jews and Gentiles can enjoy the peace and presence of God. And in verse 21, Paul identifies that including the Gentiles in his ministry was the issue that led to the Jews rioting against him, and his eventual arrest. Now, it wasn’t a crime for Paul to teach either of these things – Paul didn’t deserve a jail sentence. But these were the issues that put him in prison. So as Paul speaks before Agrippa and Festus, he argues that his ministry to all peoples – Jew and Gentile – proclaiming the resurrected Jesus – this ministry of his is warranted. It’s right.

But Paul doesn’t defend his ministry by listing out all the good reasons why he should be vindicated. Reason 1, Reason 2, etc. Instead, Paul defends his ministry by giving Agrippa and Festus a window into his life. Paul’s defense has three parts. First, Paul explains His Encounter with Christ. Second, on account of this encounter, Paul defends his Obedience to Christ. And third, Paul gives an Appeal to believe in Christ. So we’ll work through the text under these three points. Paul’s Encounter, Paul’s Obedience, and Paul’s Appeal.

Paul’s Encounter with Christ

Paul lays the background for his encounter with Christ starting in verse 4. He admits openly that there was once a time when he wasn’t a Christian. In verse 5 he explains that “according to the strictest party of our religion, I have lived as a Pharisee.” At that time, the Pharisees were an elite group of Jewish scribes. And this party of Jewish scribes insisted that people could only be acceptable to God by keeping all the rituals and commands of the Old Testament law.

So when Christianity began to spread, teaching that people could only gain forgiveness and access to God through faith in Jesus, Paul thought that the Christians were false teachers. In raging fury, as he says in verse 11, he persecuted these Christians even to foreign cities. He separated families. He put people in prison. He consistently voted in favor of giving Christians the death sentence. Paul wasn’t just a non-Christian. He was an enemy of the Christian cause.

But as Paul was on his way to get rid of the Christians in Damascus, assuming he was doing a good work for God, he and his companions were suddenly blinded by a piercing light from heaven. And when they all fell to the ground, Paul heard a voice, calling him by his Hebrew name: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” Now a goad was a long, pointed tool used to prod stubborn animals to get them to move. And in those days, this mental image of an animal kicking against the goads became symbolic of a human’s attempt to resist the will of God. So when this heavenly voice said “It’s hard for you to kick against the goads,” Paul was being told that it’s pointless to try to resist God’s will.

You have to imagine how mystified Paul would have been by this! He was convinced that he was serving God – not resisting him! How could this be? Who could this be, confronting him from heaven? So he asks, “Who are you, Lord?” And the Lord said, “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting.”

Now I don’t know about you, but if I was suddenly confronted with a heavenly voice, telling me that I had been focusing the last several years of my life on defying God and murdering his people, I would be terrified! Surely this is the end of the road for me! Surely the Lord Jesus has appeared to me in order to strike me down in judgment!

But Paul tells us that his encounter with Jesus didn’t end like that at all. Jesus made himself known to Paul, not in order to crush him, but in order to commission him – to send him out with a purpose. Jesus explains why he appeared to Paul in verse 16 – to appoint [him] “as a servant and a witness.” And in verse 18, Paul tells us what Jesus has sent him out to do for these people. Jesus has sent him to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” Here, on this journey, Paul was given open eyes to see. He was turned from darkness to light. He was forgiven of all his violence and rebellion against God, and given a place among God’s people. And now Jesus charges him to help bring these great gifts to others.

Paul’s Obedience to Christ

And after this encounter with Christ, Paul became convinced that he must obey. This my second point – Paul’s Obedience.

In verse 19, Paul says, “Therefore, O King Agrippa” – because the resurrected Jesus appeared to me, because Jesus commanded me to speak as his witness – “therefore… I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.”

Paul wants Agrippa and Festus to understand – Paul’s ministry isn’t something he invented for himself. He has simply been submitting himself to the will of God. He’s announcing the glory of the resurrected Jesus because he has received this command from heaven.

And for any person at the time who was even remotely religious, this would have been a respectable argument. If indeed, a divine voice commanded Paul to carry out a certain task, of course he had to do it! And it was obvious that Paul had taken this command seriously. He had been engaged in this work for years. He had preached all over – Damascus, Judea, Jerusalem, various foreign cities. He proclaimed Christ to all people – Jews and Greeks, both to the small and to the great. When Paul obeyed, he obeyed God immediately, eagerly, with consistency. And it’s worth pausing here for a minute to ask – could the same be said about me? Could the same be said about you?

Paul, coming from his background as a Pharisee – think about how costly it would have been for him to obey Jesus! He had to totally give up his status. He was going to lose all his friends, all his influence, all prospects for earthly wealth and comfort. And realize, too, how difficult it would have been for Paul to set aside his old convictions as a Pharisee, and to accept the Gentiles in as children of God’s promises. Obedience wasn’t easy. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t convenient.

And yet Paul obeyed Jesus anyway! Even though it was costly! Even though he was being asked to do something he probably didn’t want to do at first! He made it his supreme priority in life. Because he understood who it was who was calling him to obedience – it was the Lord who made Him – the Lord who died to give him life. This Lord commissioned Paul to bring the Christian message to others.

Yet Paul further clarifies to Agrippa and Festus – he isn’t just being obedient to that one, heavenly vision. But he’s being obedient to the whole Old Testament Scriptures. He’s been “saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people, and to the Gentiles.” The message of a resurrected Lord bringing blessing to all nations of the world – this isn’t a new idea that shows up for the first time in the New Testament. But this promise appears in Genesis, and is reaffirmed with increasing clarity throughout the Bible.

And from all this, Paul wants his hearers to understand – he’s simply doing what any ordinary person should do in response to God’s voice. He’s obeying.

Paul’s Appeal to Believe

And in the remaining verses of our passage, Paul makes an appeal to those who are present, that they should believe his testimony and trust in Christ. This is my third and final point – Paul’s appeal.

Here at the end of Paul’s speech, you’ll notice that Festus and Agrippa have different responses. Festus actually seems to interrupt Paul in verse 34. After all this talk about people being raised from the dead, and heavenly visions, Festus says what many secular skeptics would say today: “Paul, you are out of your mind!”

But Paul’s quick to respond, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.” Everything that Paul’s speaking about is rooted in true, historical events that can be pointed at – Jesus’s empty tomb on Easter morning, Paul and his travelling companions being confronted by light from heaven on their way to Damascus, the transformation of Paul’s life, his clear-minded purposefulness in bearing witness to Jews and Gentiles – Paul isn’t acting like a madman. In fact, He’s doing the most rational thing a person could do.

And even though resurrection and the Old Testament scriptures were new ideas for Festus, Paul knows that these aren’t new ideas for Agrippa, and so he begins to address the King in verse 26, “The king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.”

Agrippa, as a professing Jew, would have claimed that he believes the prophets. But now Paul wants to press him on it. Because Paul wants to help Agrippa see that if he really believes the prophets, he should receive the Christ that the prophets spoke about. And Agrippa understands Paul’s point here, so he asks in verse 28, “In a short time, would you persuade me to be a Christian?”

And Paul ultimately says yes: “whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am, except for these chains.”

Just a few moments earlier, in Acts 25, verse 23, Agrippa and his sister, Bernice, had entered the audience hall with great pomp and fanfare. They were heralded as royalty, on the top of the world, wealthy, powerful. Everyone would have thought that the King was the greatest man in the room that day.

But Paul insists – even though he’s functionally homeless, even though he has no retirement plan or health insurance, even though he’s been rejected by his nation and kinsmen, even though Paul probably had nothing about his appearance that would have suggested we should envy or admire him – Paul insists that his position is better than the Agrippa’s. What Agrippa has is temporary. But Paul has found enduring happiness and richness and peace and security. He has found a life that lasts, because He has had an encounter with the Christ who conquered death.

Have You Had an Encounter with Christ?

Have you found the same treasure that Paul has found? Do you believe the prophets? Do you believe in the power of God to raise the dead? Does your life demonstrate that Jesus is your greatest hope and treasure?

We shouldn’t be embarrassed to live our lives in whole-hearted, sincere obedience to Christ. We shouldn’t be ashamed to tell people that we’ve had an encounter with the glory of Christ in the gospel, and we’ve been called into his service. We do not live for ourselves as Christians. But we live for someone greater – we live for a greater hope. So as we close in prayer, let’s ask God to help us live in a way that testifies to the realness and greatness of the resurrected Christ.