It’s interesting to note that Jesus actually experienced four trials before being sentenced, having appeared before Annas, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, Herod, and finally Pilate. So here we have the last of the first three formal hearings at which Paul is presented before the final one to come in Rome before the Emperor. As Paul will later confirm in parallel accounts of these times in his letters to various churches, it’s most important to note that because Paul cares more for Christ’s name and will than his own, the priority of preaching and witnessing always takes precedence over everything else. Regardless of our personal circumstances, God is always in control and seeking to use us as an example to all those around us so that they’ll see the power and resurrection of Christ at work through us.
Read verses 1-3
Q: What might be particularly dramatic about the fact that “Paul stretched out his hand”?
A: According to v.29, he was bound in chains.
Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.
— Philippians 1:12-14
Point: Paul saw every circumstance as an opportunity “for the greater progress of the gospel”. He does not see imprisonment as a curse, but a blessing because the Word of God is being further established both personally and in all those around him, believer and non-believer alike.
Q: Since Paul is innocent, why doesn’t he appear to be more aggressive in presenting his own defense? Shouldn’t he show some kind of outrage or passion?
A: First of all, Paul is living out what he will articulate in Romans 13, that although you may not respect the person, God requires you to respect his office since it is God who places governments in power. But secondly, Paul is more interested in communicating the Gospel and the name of Christ than speaking a word on his own behalf. His priorities may be askew from an earthly perspective, but they’re biblically correct.
Point: Paul doesn’t just preach the Word, but lives according to the Word.
Read verses 4-11
Q: How does Paul’s personal explanation begin?
A: “I lived as a Pharisee”. (v.5) In fact, he was no ordinary Pharisee, but was so well-known that he could matter of factly state, “all Jews know my manner of life from my youth up”. It was such an established matter of record that it could be substantiated by calling almost any other Pharisee to confirm his testimony.
Q: What kind of Jew do Paul’s descriptions in v.4-5 depict him as?
A: A Jew in the flesh.
Q: What kind of Jew has Paul become according to v.6-8?
A: A Jew in the Spirit.
Point: Paul is establishing how one comes to understand Old Testament Judaism as being fulfilled in Christ rather than replacing it.
Q: But what is the theological point which Paul alludes to here, which he makes sure to highlight in every public testimony?
A: The resurrection. (v.8)
Point: Paul confirmed in Acts 13:27-37 that God had promised Israel a kingdom and glory, but explained that these promises made to David were fulfilled through the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Had Israel received Christ, they would have received the kingdom. But being sure that Christ was dead, they were missing out on the fulfillment of those promises. If they couldn’t interpret physical things correctly, their spiritual assertions were certainly in error.
Q: What is Paul hoping to prove by reciting his resume as a past persecutor and murderer of the church?
A: He is trying to establish that he once held the same beliefs and positions as his accusers, but was changed by the power of the resurrection of Christ. It’s an example of a type of spiritual resurrection, where Paul died to the old life and rose again to a new life in Christ, fundamentally changing his interpretation of things.
Read verses 12-13
Q: What initially changed Paul’s life as a zealous Pharisee?
A: “I saw…the light”. (v.13)
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life.
— 1 Timothy 1:12-16
Q: What is the greater symbolism of being blinded by a light “brighter than the sun” at midday?
A: It physically parallels the spiritual condition of spiritual darkness. Until one has a personal encounter with Christ, they don’t realize how blind they’ve actually been, how what THEY thought was light was no light at all. It’s also a further illustration contrasting the life of a Pharisee who is blinded to the truth that God’s Word has been fulfilled in Christ.
Read verses 14-18
Q: And what happened after Paul saw the Light?
A: “I heard a voice”. (v.14)
Point: The Word of God is what convicts and leads to the conversion of the soul. This would be quite a testimony coming from one belonging to a sect so inarguably committed to God’s Word.
Q: What is different about this “new” voice? What “voices” had Paul been listening to previously?
A: Paul believed that through his training and upbringing that he was listening to the voices of Moses and the prophets, but now he has heard the voice of the Son of God. It’s a kind of teaching that the only way to properly understand God’s Word is through Christ, another testimony contrasting the beliefs of the Pharisees and those refusing to accept Christ.
Q: What is the meaning of the statement, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads”?
A: Christ is comparing Paul to stubborn cattle who attempt to go their own way and are poked and prodded by the goads – long, hard rods – shepherds use. This is revealing in that although Paul was quite zealous in his persecution of Christians, they were making an impression on him which he was resisting. Examples would be the death of Stephen and the conduct of the saints he persecuted; their witness did not go completely unnoticed by Paul, contrary to the outer façade he put up.
Q: What was the greater message Paul was to preach in his calling to be “a minister and a witness” of Christ?
“…to open their eyes…”
“…that they may receive forgiveness of sins…”
“…that they may receive…an inheritance…”
And that they may be “sanctified by faith in Me.”
Point: In reality, these were supposed to be the most important points of the Old Testament “Gospel”, if you will. To those with Paul’s kind of upbringing, they would recognize that he is stating that he is in fact fulfilling what Hebraic scholars had determined were the most important purposes of the Law.
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves;
— 2 Corinthians 4:3-7
Point: Paul realized that God was not just in complete control of individual circumstances, but had designed things with a much greater plan in mind. That we would find ourselves in less than ideal circumstances is part of God’s plan so that our weakness might testify to the greater power of the Gospel through us.
Application: What might be wrong with the notion that “everything has to be right” before we share the Gospel? Why might our current, personal crisis be the exact circumstance God wants to use to preach the Gospel to others?
Read verses 19-21
Q: What is ironic about Paul’s description of his obedience to the vision by preaching that everyone “should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance”?
A: Paul has actually summarized his New Testament calling as being fulfilled by what was EVERYONE’S Old Testament calling.
Point: The Hebrew word for repentance – “tesuba” – means to turn back towards God. This is what the Jews, and the Pharisees in particular, should have been doing not just with each other, but as God’s designated “light to the Gentiles”. (Is. 42:6; 49:6, 9) Paul is further establishing the fulfillment of the Word through Christ instead of being a replacement of it.
Read verses 22-23
Q: How does Paul summarize his calling?
A: “I stand to this day, testifying…”
Q: How do these 5 points summarize the life of any Christian who seeks to serve Christ?
“I lived as a Pharisee”. (v.4-11) [A reference to the old life.]
“I saw…the light…” (v.12-13)
“I heard a voice”. (v.14-18)
“I did not prove disobedient”. (v.19-21)
“I stand to this day, testifying…” (v.22-23)
Application: To what degree do you agree or disagree with the statement, “Faithfulness to Christ is evidence of true salvation”? How would you apply it to yourself?
Read verses 24-32
Q: Where do people always seem to interrupt Paul in the course of his speaking?
A: Whenever he gets to the topic of being sent to the Gentiles. It was the same point at which the Jews in the temple began to riot. (Acts 22)
Point: Many Jews had a kind of “myopia” wherein they seemed to ignore the myriad of Old Testament promises that God would save BOTH Jew and Gentile. Their narrow interpretation of Scripture led to a major misinterpretation so that they couldn’t accept its fulfillment in Christ.
Q: Why does Paul seem to ignore Festus and instead go after Agrippa?
A: First of all, Festus wasn’t attacking Paul. Second, Agrippa was someone known to not just be familiar with Scripture, but engaged in its operation. Historical records indicate that besides holding the title “King”, he was also President of both the temple and its treasury, and the one who decided which person held the office of high priest.
Point: The more light a person has, the more responsible they are to make a right decision.
Q: How might you re-word Agrippa’s response so as to understand his true attitude?
A: “It will take more than THIS to make a Jew like me into one of those hated Christians!” His response is not an indication that he might be close to becoming a Christian, but is actually full of contempt.
Point: Note that the example of Agrippa shows that it’s possible to have faith which falls short of salvation. Although he may have believed the prophets, he fell short where Christ was concerned, the very One to whom the prophets pointed.
Q: Why might Agrippa be described as an “almost Christian”?
A: He understood the Word and heard the truth, but refused to do anything about it. Although he was touched both intellectually and emotionally, his heart was quite unyielding.
In the last chapters of Acts, the route and conditions are traced by which the Gospel will be preached to the whole world; they don’t fit the ideal circumstances or plans for which most ministries or individual servants plan for today. How does this speak to you of your present situation, the will of God for your life, and what might be accomplished if the greater priority over planning is faithfulness?