Paul—whose given name was Saul—appears for the first time in the New Testament on the occasion of the stoning of Stephen (in Acts 7:58). Paul had associated himself with those who were executing Stephen, and he further persecuted the church and tried to destroy it (Galatians 1:13).
While Saul was in the midst of his tirade against the church, he was confronted on the road to Damascus by the risen Christ. It was there that Paul experienced a dramatic conversion to Christ, and within a short time he had become the leading champion of the cause which he had previously tried to overthrow.
No other event described in the Scriptures—other than the story of Jesus Himself—is more important to the ongoing spreading of the Gospel message, than the conversion of Paul. The account is given in Acts 9, and is repeated two other times in the book of Acts (in chapters 22 and 26).
Acts 9:1-2 explains that Saul was breathing out threatening and slaughter against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and desired letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus—so that if he found any Christians there, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Paul was a ringleader among those who were persecuting the church; he was a “thorn in the flesh” to the early church at Jerusalem. He “made havoc of the church” (Acts 8:3), and entered into houses and dragged off men and women who were Christians and put them into prison.
In the Acts 26 account Paul says that he punished many of the saints by shutting them up in prison, causing them to blaspheme against Christ, and that he became exceedingly angry at them—that is, he violently opposed them (verse 10-11).
The account of Saul’s conversion is given in Acts 9. In verses 3-4 we read, “And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven; and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”
The journey to Damascus (150 miles northeast of Jerusalem) required several days, and about noon, on the last leg of the journey, Paul was planning how he would “compel the Christians to blaspheme”—when suddenly there was a blinding flash and Saul fell to the ground. As he lay there, he heard a voice from Heaven saying, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? As Saul traveled to Damascus, seeking out Christians who might be living there, he was confronted by the living Christ in a very dramatic way. Sometimes God breaks into human lives in a spectacular manner; at other times conversion occurs in a very quiet manner.
Paul could not forget the angelic glow on Stephen’s face when he was being stoned to death. Paul had seen a number of other Christians suffer and die. He saw the peace written on their faces and sensed their hope in the hour of death. He knew they had something different—something he did not have.
Surely, Paul kept asking himself—“What inspires these Christians? Could Jesus really be the true Messiah?”—and the more he tried to put these thoughts down, the more they kept rising in his mind. His conscience was pricking him!
In spite of Paul’s meanness and boldness in threatening the Christians, he must have had some moments of hesitation and doubt. It was hard for him to kick against the goads (“pricks” in the King James Version). Goads are used on oxen when they give signs of stalling—and the fact that Paul was at times being pricked by goads, means that there were times when he was stalling (having second thoughts), and was aware that what he was doing was not acceptable conduct even for non-Christians.
Verse 6 (of Acts chapter 9) says, “And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.”
Saul by this time was forgetting his purpose for going to Damascus—and suddenly he became a broken man—trembling, blind, shocked, and helpless. He said, “What do you want me to do, Lord?”
Verses 7-8 tell us that “the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man—but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.” Paul was blinded by the light of the Lord’s presence, and had to rely on his companions to take him by the hand and lead him to the house of Judas who lived on Straight Street in the city of Damascus. (Straight Street is still a main east-west thoroughfare in modern Damascus.)
Acts 9:9 says that Saul was without sight for three days and three nights, and neither did he eat or drink. God struck Saul with a 3-day period of blindness, so that he would have time to meditate and reflect upon what had just taken place.
Paul was born at Tarsus, an important city in southeast Asia Minor. His father was a Roman citizen, and so Paul was born a Roman citizen (Acts 22:28), which was a privilege that worked to his advantage several times. “Paul” was his Roman name, but he also was given the Jewish name “Saul.”
Paul’s parents wanted their son to be well-grounded in the best traditions of Jewish orthodoxy, so he was trained in Jerusalem, brought up “at the feet of Gamaliel,” a noted rabbi (Acts 5:34). Paul had a great zeal for the Jewish law, and therefore he persecuted Christians even with murder in his heart (Acts 22:4).
At the death of Stephen (the first martyr of the Christian church), Paul was taking sides with Stephen’s executioners. But shortly after Stephen’s death, while traveling to Damascus, Paul was confronted by the risen Christ. His life was changed, and immediately upon conversion, he became a leading champion of the cause which he had once tried to overthrow. He became a missionary who established a number of Christian congregations throughout southern Europe and Asia Minor. His letters to individuals and to churches form a major part of the New Testament.
After some years of nurturing and study, Paul and Barnabas were commissioned by the church to pursue a missionary campaign which took them into many regions of the Roman Empire. Later, after Paul had completed three missionary journeys, he was anxious to return to Jerusalem and complete the task of delivering money he had gathered for the poor saints there—money that had been collected from the Gentile churches which Paul and his companions had visited.
Rumors had been circulating in Jerusalem that Paul tried to turn Jews away from the Law of Moses. After he had been in the City for about a week, certain Jews recognized him in the Temple and they stirred up a mob against him. On the stairway of the fortress nearby, Paul made a speech in which he told the story of Christ’s appearance to him on the way to Damascus.
When Paul explained his call as a missionary to the Gentiles, he raised the ire of the mob, and in fact was almost killed (Acts 22:17-23). The next day he was brought before the Jewish Sanhedrin, and eventually he landed in prison in Caesarea, where he was kept for two years.
The lesson in this article takes place in Caesarea, and centers on Paul’s defense before the Roman governor Festus and King Agrippa II as found in Acts 26.
Festus, Agrippa, Bernice, and some principal men of the city had assembled for the hearing. Festus was the governor of Judea. Agrippa II was the great-grandson of Herod the Great.
- Herod the Great was the king who tried to destroy the baby Jesus.
- His son Antipas beheaded John the Baptist.
- His grandson Agrippa I slew James the son of Zebedee.
- And now Paul is brought before Agrippa’s son, Agrippa II.
Bernice was the sister of King Agrippa, and they were living together as man and wife. It was an ambitious, worldly, and a morally corrupt group of people before whom Paul was called to state his case.
There are three divisions in the Bible account upon which this article is based:
- 1) Paul recounts his experience of conversion (Acts 26:12-18)
- 2) Paul tells about his witness after conversion (Acts 26:19-23)
- 3) Luke describes the response from King Agrippa (Acts 26:27-29)
1. Paul Recounts His Experience of Conversion (Acts 26:12-18)
Saul (also named “Paul”) had been a thorn in the flesh to the early churches. When he found people who were Christians, he sought to “bring them bound unto Jerusalem” (Acts 9:2).
In the account found in Acts 26, Paul started out (verse 12) by explaining that he was on the way to Damascus, equipped with papers authorizing him to arrest the Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. He had received the commission to do that from the Jewish chief priests. But on the way to Damascus, he was overcome by a bright light from Heaven which shone all around Paul and his party (verse 13). In fact, it was as bright as the midday sun—and he and all in his party fell to the earth (verse 14).
This is the third time that the conversion of Saul is described. The other two descriptions are in Acts 9:1-9, and in Acts 22:6-16. Only here in Acts 26 is it said that all of Paul’s companions fell to the ground. But in the midst of that dramatic experience, Paul heard a voice addressing him in the Hebrew tongue: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? It is hard for thee to kick against the [goads]”—pointed instruments that were used to drive animals (verse 14).
The picture is that of a stubborn ox kicking back against the prick of a sharp metal end, fastened to a pole that was used to prod animals to move forward! Paul had been kicking against the goad of his own conscience, which surely told him that his cruel treatment of Christians was wrong. Nor could Paul forget the glowing face of Stephen and his dying prayer forgiving his persecutors. The haunting memory of this scene was following Paul on his way to Damascus.
The point of the Lord’s message to Saul was this: It is difficult and perilous to resist the call of God. And in verse 15 the Lord made it clear: “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest.” You see, those who persecute God’s people are in fact persecuting their Master, and in persecuting Him, they are abusing the Son of God! The injuries Paul had inflicted upon the Christians were felt by the Lord Jesus.
In verse 16, Paul was still lying on the ground after having fallen in response to the brilliant light. Then he describes his commission from the Lord. He was told to get up and stand on his feet, and then he was instructed to become a witness of those things which he had seen, and of those things which the Lord would show him in the future. When Christ saved Paul, He gave him a task—a duty—the duty of taking the message of God’s redeeming love to the Gentiles.
Acts 26:17 implies that Paul’s task would not be an easy one. He could expect opposition both from his own people and from the Gentiles. But Paul explains that in all his labors he was promised deliverance from his enemies. The phrase (verse 17a) “delivering thee from the people”—more literally means “from [your own] people,” that is, the Jews.
Verse 18 gives a summary of the vital themes which Paul was to proclaim. He was to seek the conversion of men and women from the darkness of sin to the light of God’s presence. He was to preach deliverance from Satan’s power, and the forgiveness of sins, along with the promise of a heavenly inheritance.
When people respond favorably to the invitation of the Gospel, God opens their eyes and removes the weight of sin from their hearts. Undoubtedly, those promises sounded strange to the ears of the Roman government leaders before whom Paul was testifying.
2. Paul Tells about His Witness after Conversion (Acts 26:19-23)
When Paul was really convinced, on the Damascus Road, that Jesus was the Christ—he accepted Him as Savior and Lord, and he never wavered from the commitment he made.
In verse 19, Paul flatly says, “I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision.” Paul’s obedience was immediate and complete. He began telling others what God had done for him. Just so, we like him, should be committed to proclaiming the truth about Jesus!
In spite of the dangers and hardships that would confront Paul as he carried out his commission to reach Gentiles with the Gospel message, he was ready to go. When Paul went out on his preaching missions, he approached the task with the same vigorous and wholehearted energy that he had formerly used in persecuting the church.
The first part of Acts 26:20 describes the sphere of Paul’s service. He ministered in Damascus, Jerusalem, Judea (perhaps a reference to Palestine in general), and to the vast Gentile lands in Europe and Asia Minor. The last part of verse 20 spells out the main themes of Paul’s message—repentance from sin, conversion to God, and deeds that would prove the reality of conversion. Paul encouraged Christians to live in such a way that their living would match what their repentance signified. In verse 21, Paul clearly says that preaching the message of repentance, and conversion to faith in Jesus Christ, and admonishing people to live in ways that please God—is what he was doing when the Jews seized him in the Temple and tried to kill him.
Note the words at the beginning of verse 22: “Having, therefore, obtained help of [from] God.” Every teacher and preacher of the Word of God who takes the task seriously, surely will claim that promise of obtaining help from God.
Paul says (in verse 22) that the Jews tried to kill him, not because he had abandoned the Old Testament revelation, but because he proclaimed that the Old Testament predictions about a Messiah have been fulfilled in the sufferings and resurrection of Jesus. Paul’s message was not contrary to the Old Testament Scriptures. His message of good news through Jesus the Messiah was simply the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.
What did Moses and the prophets say about the One who should come? They said that the Anointed One would suffer, die, and conquer death. That is the theme of Psalm 22, Psalm 69, and Isaiah 53.
3. Luke Describes the Response from King Agrippa (Acts 26:27-29)
Acts 26, verse 24 says that Paul did not get to complete his defense, because Festus interrupted him with the rude statement that he was going crazy over religious ideas. Paul did not argue with Festus; he said in essence, “I speak nothing but the sober truth” (verse 25).
And then immediately Paul turned to King Agrippa with a question: He said (verse 27), “King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets?” Then Paul answered his own question. He said, “I know that thou believest.” But Agrippa was clever enough to realize that if he agreed with Paul, the next question would be, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?”—and that was a question King Agrippa did not want to face!
Agrippa’s response was, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” While this has been the text for hundreds of sermons, and the basis for a well-known invitation hymn (“Almost Persuaded”)—the exact meaning of the words is uncertain. Was Agrippa sarcastic or was he sincere? If he was sincere, he was saying, “You have just about convinced me to become a Christian with your testimony.” If he was being sarcastic, he was saying, “You don’t think that I can be persuaded in such a short time, do you?” From the Greek text we can’t really tell if Agrippa was making a statement, or if he was asking a question. If we could have heard the tone of his voice, or seen the look on his face, we would be more certain of the meaning.
Paul’s testimony must have had some effect on Agrippa’s mind, and the king must have felt some conviction in his heart. But Agrippa withdrew from the hour of grace that was extended to him—and in doing so, he likely forever left salvation behind him! So far as we know, the Holy Spirit never gave him another chance.
Paul’s heart was burdened for the king. He said (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.” Paul was a prisoner bound with chains.
There is no doubt about the seriousness of Paul’s reply. Paul sincerely wished that all who heard his testimony might humble themselves and repent, and thus enter the joys and blessings of the Christian life.
The chapter concludes by informing us that the political leaders got their heads together and agreed that Paul might have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar (verse 32). The general opinion was that Paul was innocent, but that he must be sent to Rome, since he made an appeal for his case to be heard by Caesar. They concluded that the legal machinery must take its course, and that Paul could not be set free.
Paul did an excellent job of presenting the Gospel to high officials, but none of those persons responded in faith. Like those who heard Paul’s testimony on that day nearly two thousand years ago, many persons today are willing to listen to a sermon, and even express a keen interest in it—but as soon as the preacher calls for a personal commitment to Christ, most will say “Not today; perhaps some other time.”
Today you still have a chance to repent and to get right with God. Don’t shrug it off like Agrippa did. Don’t throw away the opportunity to respond to the call of Christ. Won’t you hear His voice and turn to Him, and live eternally?