- 16 November 2021
- Dan McKinlay
In so short a time would you persuade me also to be a Christian? Striking words from one of the ancient world’s most important people. Acts chapter 26 is a remarkable chapter of the Bible. Through the apostle Paul’s experience, it teaches us about what to expect when we testify and share about the gospel of the Lord Jesus. What do we expect will happen when we use our words to have the ‘sin, cross, resurrection, forgiveness’ conversation with family, friends, coworkers or others? I think for the most part we probably expect that we will be rejected, and that, of course, does happen – even in this passage! But sometimes, by God’s grace, our words can be met with reception, even in the most surprising of places.
The appearance of Paul before King Agrippa, the last of the Heordian princes, is a remarkable occurrence. But how did this obscure, once Jewish persecutor and now missionary for Christ end up in the highest office of the land? Well, ultimately it was because God put him there. Although for Paul, the plan probably looked like it was going wrong, didn’t it? Paul had been in prison now for two years. He had been moved to the coast and passed between the machinations of bureaucracy and now he finds himself appealing to the centre of Roman power itself. But before he boards a boat to Italy, there is something he has to do – he has to speak to the king.
Now before we get into the content I just want to pause on that important bit of context one final time. There is a lesson for us here. Every single person in this church building and those joining online has experienced what it means for life to take a detour, for plans to change – think of the past two years! Would we have asked for the upheaval that Covid brought? I doubt it! But God can and will have been using that disruption for your good and for his glory. God has a very specific purpose in the world; it is to see people put their faith in Christ. And we should not think that just because we can’t open the doors of the church for months, or because we can’t see our friends face to face, that his purpose has somehow been derailed.
God uses Paul in this chapter to show us just that. God through Paul was sending the message of the cross and resurrection to those in the highest seats of power. And the apostle Paul plays his part, and shows us how to turn seasons of setback into opportunity for the gospel. I know that if I had been given an audience with the king the first thing I’d want to do is complain about being in prison for all this time for something which didn’t deserve it. But instead Paul sees that all that has happened to him is actually not necessarily a political loss but rather a spiritual opportunity. And so the conversation takes an altogether different form. Paul essentially uses his time to share his testimony.
He begins by talking about his former role as a persecutor of the Christian faith as a Pharisee within Judaism. He highlights his own Jewish credentials, how strictly he has lived. He tells of how even in Jerusalem he threw Christians into prison and cast votes for their execution. Paul wants to show how he has at one time has acted in an identical manner to people who is trying to keep him in prison and silence him. And why do they do it? Well its because they just cannot tolerate talk of the resurrection. It was a threat to them.
Let me just pause there. The resurrection is the best possible news a human could receive, you know. Knowing that our sin has been taken care of. That death has lost its sting. That the judgment of God no longer hangs over us. Is there any better thing for me and you to know that as sure as Jesus rose from the dead, so we will too? And yet for the pharisees, and possibly for some here today it’s utterly impossible to believe- it’s simply just foolish. And yet, it is the core teaching of Paul and the apostles and that is why Paul goes on to talk about the conversation that he had with this risen Lord Jesus.
Let me read the particular task that Jesus gave Paul in verses 17 and 18:
‘I am sending you to the Gentiles to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they might receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified through faith in me.’
Jesus gives Paul a purpose and he tells him what he might expect to happen. And I think this is such an important thing for us to see too. When we are brave, when are bold in speaking about Jesus, some will indeed come to faith. They will turn from sin, they will be released from under the judgment of God in which they stand, and they will receive a place among the faithful. That will happen. And we should – as I was saying a few weeks ago – pursue fruitfulness.
But maybe you’re here this morning thinking – I’ve tried this once and I fell flat on my face with it. My family think I’m a hypocrite who can’t live up to the message, or I’m not articulate enough or that one time I tried doing it the bridge club threw me out. I get it. I’ve tried to be bold before too and ended up feeling foolish. But look at what happens to Paul in verse 24, Paul finishes talking and Festus pipes up, saying ‘Paul, you are out of your mind. Your high education has driven you mad. And Paul replies, I am not mad, but I am speaking true and rational words.’
And so here is the rub, beloved. When God is at work in people to bring them to faith in Christ, the gospel message simply sounds different to them. It sounds rational and true. They believe it. They desire to learn more. And for the opposite, for those who are far from God and lost in the world – the gospel sounds idiotic and irrational.
I think about my own coming to faith. I could not give you every precise detail of how I came to faith in Christ. I couldn’t tell you the weather that day or the preacher’s name. But what I could tell you is that as I listened more and more to God’s word, the more I considered how Jesus had lived and died and rose again, the more people talked with me, the less I thought they were deluded fanatics and the more I thought that the gospel was true and rational.
You see our job is to say the words, to speak of Christ and to testify to his grace. But it is God who works in the hearer to order their thoughts and bring about that understanding.
I will speak more to this next week, but as my time at SHAP and indeed in Sydney draws to a close I am struck again by how great the need is for people to come to faith in the Lord Jesus. Sydney is a city where many people find something worth living for – careers, houses, holidays, harbours. But very few find something worth dying for. And as the apostle Paul says, ‘for me to live is christ but to die is gain’. There is a deeper need, a longing in every human heart that will only be stilled through faith in Jesus. And this group here, small though we may be, are the ones at the frontline. And so let’s be bold, like Paul, let’s be brave, and let’s proclaim Christ.
Let us pray that God would help us in this work.