Studies in the Book of Acts
Opposed the name of Jesus (Acts 26:9-11)
Paul admitted that he, ardent Pharisee that he was, had once denounced Jesus and denied his resurrection. Paul had persecuted people who claimed to have seen Jesus alive after his crucifixion.
Paul understood his opponents’ frame of mind very well; he had once shared it himself. He himself, for all his belief in the resurrection of the dead at the last day, thought it incredible that God should have raised the crucified Jesus; and when the disciples insisted that he had indeed raised him, Paul treated them as charlatans and blasphemers. (Bruce, 464)
Paul told Agrippa: “On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them” (26:10). Luke previously told us Paul had been involved with Stephen’s death (7:57-60). But now we learn that he was instrumental in the death of many Christians, something he would regret during his entire life (1 Corinthians 15:9; 1 Timothy 1:12-16). The phrase “I cast my vote against them” literally means “I cast my pebble against them.” It was a metaphor with the meaning of giving one’s approval to something. In what sense he gave “approval” is not clear.
Would Paul have been a member of that august body to have actually “voted against” Christians who had been brought before it? It is doubtful, not only on account of his probable age at the time, but also because of his apparently obscure origins. The Sanhedrin was an assembly of aristocrats, composed of men of mature years and influence. It is just possible, of course, that he had won a place in their ranks on sheer ability, but it is safer to assume that “voted against” means simply that he “approved.” (David J. Williams, Acts, New International Biblical Commentary, page 417)
Some commentators believe that Paul was actually a member of the Sanhedrin. Member or not, Paul was working hand-in-glove with the Sanhedrin. He was a sort of point man or agent provocateur for the council authorities in hunting down Christians (7:58; 8:1; 22:20). He went from one synagogue to another—including those in foreign cities—and punished Christian Jews, attempting to get them to blaspheme (that is, to deny Christ) (26:11).
Paul spoke as though quite a number of Christians had been put to death under the authority of the Sanhedrin. It is doubtful that the Romans had given the Jewish leaders unilateral permission to kill the Christians they had jailed. The executions were probably illegal executions, or trumped-up political charges about being a follower of a convicted revolutionary. The fact that the Jews got away with Stephen’s murder implies they escaped detection and punishment in other executions. Or the authorities may have simply looked the other way.
Conversion experience (Acts 26:12-14)
During a Christian-hunting journey to Damascus—with the authority and commission of the chief priests—a critical moment occurred in Paul’s life (26:12). He came face to face with the risen Christ.
This is the third time that Paul’s conversion has been recounted in Acts (9:3-19; 22:6-16; 26:12-18). The event was obviously important for Luke as well as Paul. But each of the three accounts was not an identical retelling. Each version included or deleted information—and each had its emphasis—so that it fit the audience and Luke’s context. There is a general agreement between the accounts, and with Paul’s own statement in Galatians 1. But there are differences in detail. For example, the present account made no mention of Ananias, nor of Paul’s blindness and subsequent healing. Paul also did not mention his being taken to Damascus. [For a side-by-side comparison of the accounts, see harmony.]
Paul did mention only here that the voice spoke in Aramaic, or literally “in the Hebrew language” (26:14). This is indicated by the Semitic form of his name in which the voice addressed him, “Saoul, Saoul…” The light Paul saw was described as having great intensity. It was “a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions” and everyone fell to the ground (26:13-14). The sheer brightness of the light and its occurrence at noon—the brightest part of the day—also added to the forcefulness with which Jesus confronted Paul. He was stopped dead in his tracks, as it were.
The light represented the presence of God and Christ. By its intensification, Paul was perhaps suggesting that the origin of his belief in Jesus was not based on whimsy. The Damascus road experience (with its overpowering light) could not be doubted. This was the risen Jesus talking to him, and there was no question about it.
Kick against the goads (Acts 26:14)
This conversion account seemed to concentrate its attention on Jesus’ divine commission to Paul given through the voice he heard. Luke’s account accentuated the role of the voice by being the only one to report Jesus’ words to Paul: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (26:14). A goad was a long-handled, pointed instrument used to urge stubborn oxen to move forward during plowing. A modern equivalent would be a cattle prod. This prosaic agricultural metaphor was well-known in the Greek world. The expression described opposition to deity. Howard Marshall points out its usage in Euripides’ Bacchanals: “Pentheus, the opponent of the cult of Dionysius, is warned: ‘You are a mortal, and he is a god. If I were you I would control my rage and sacrifice to him rather than kick against the pricks [goads]’” (794-795).
It was a proverbial saying, common in Greek and Latin, indicating that no man can resist the will of the gods. The metaphor is that of the stubborn ox kicking back at the driver who is prodding it on in the direction he wants it to go. (Neil, 243)
An ox who kicks against the goad only invites more goading. The only way for the ox to avoid the irritant is to go forward, to do the master’s bidding. The idea as expressed in Paul’s speech seems to have been that God had been pushing Paul towards the truth, but that he had been resisting. That is not to say Paul had been suffering from an uneasy conscience over his persecution of Christians. There is no hint of this either in Acts or Paul’s epistles. Paul claimed the opposite in Acts 23:1. Even to the last moment on the Damascus road, Paul was on his way to track down Christians, not find Christ.
In the words of F.F. Bruce, “The ‘goads’ against which he was now told it was fruitless for him to kick were not the prickings of a disturbed conscience, but the new forces which were now impelling him in the opposite direction” (466).
Appointed to witness (Acts 26:15-16)
Over half of the conversion experience narrative in chapter 26 was taken up by a description of the commission Jesus gave to Paul. In this account, the commission was delivered directly to Paul by the risen Christ. Ananias was not referred to at all. It was Jesus who spoke to Paul, telling him to stand on his feet. He was then told that he had been appointed as a servant and witness of Christ (26:16). There are parallels with the commissioning of some of the Old Testament prophets. One is reminded of the commission of Ezekiel (2:1-8). He, too, was told to stand. Then he was informed that he would be sent as a prophet to a rebellious house of Israel.
But Paul was to be rescued from his own people, and then sent to the Gentiles. Paul said Jesus had told him: “I am sending you to them [the Gentiles] to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (26:17-18).
Paul would receive protection from Jews and Gentiles to enable him to fulfill his witness. But he would not be spared suffering in the process (9:16). Paul would turn the Gentiles from darkness (sin and ignorance) to light (understanding and righteousness) (26:18). Paul’s description in Colossians 1:12-13 of the Gentiles as being rescued from “the dominion of darkness” and sharing in “the kingdom of light” is a close parallel. Paul used this metaphor of darkness and light to represent salvation in his own writings. Some examples are: Romans 2:19; 13:12; 2 Corinthians 4:6; 6:14; Ephesians 5:8; Colossians 1:12-14; 1 Thessalonians 5:5.
Moving people from darkness to light was a way of describing conversion (1 Peter 2:9). This involved turning away from sin and evil as well (Ephesians 2:2; Colossians 1:13). In the Bible, the unsaved are pictured as being spiritually blind. Salvation is pictured in terms of restoring spiritual sight to the blind (Isaiah 35:5; 42:6; cf. Matthew 9:30). The Suffering Servant, a reference to Jesus, was commissioned to “open eyes that are blind” (Isaiah 42:7). Jesus applied this commission to himself (Luke 4:16-21, quoting from Isaiah 61:1-2). Paul, as the servant of the Master, was to take the news of that salvation to Jews, and especially to Gentiles—to open blind eyes. Paul was called to continue Jesus’ ministry of conversion, a ministry of spiritual healing.
The turning of Gentiles “from the power of Satan to God” echoed another theme of Scripture. Satan’s kingdom (this world) is at war with God’s kingdom, and must be vanquished. The book of Revelation, for example, is a story of Satan “who leads the whole world astray” (12:9). He is vanquished by the returning Jesus and chained so that “the kingdom of the world” can become the kingdom of Christ and God (11:15; 20:1-3).
Obedient to vision (Acts 26:19)
Paul offered his experience on the Damascus road as a rationale for why he was preaching a message that angered the Jews. He was telling people about what he had seen, Jesus Christ, and following his commands, telling all people that he was the promised Savior. Paul said, “I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven” (26:19). Not being “disobedient” required that he preach to Gentiles everywhere.
Paul explained to Agrippa what he had been doing all these years. He gave a general summary of his missionary activity to the present. (Or rather, Luke put a summary in the book of Acts. Paul may have covered many more details when he was talking to Agrippa.) Paul’s work had occurred in: Damascus, Jerusalem, Judea and the Gentile world. This was similar to the commission given to the 12 apostles. They were to be witnesses of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (1:8).
Paul was not laying out a chronological summary of his missionary activity. There is no evidence in Acts that he witnessed throughout Judea after preaching in Damascus and Jerusalem, though Luke doesn’t necessary tell us everywhere Paul preached (9:20-30). Paul’s own letters say that he did not preach “in all Judea” in the early days of his conversion (Galatians 1:18-24). He traveled through Judea and into Jerusalem on several later occasions (11:30; 12:25; 15:3; 18:22; 21:7-16). He could have preached the gospel in Judea during these travels.
Repent and turn to God (Acts 26:20)
During his witnessing to Christ, Paul preached that people “should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds” (26:20). We have here something of the basic substance of Paul’s message. True repentance involves a new view of oneself in which the need for a Savior to do his work within is understood to be necessary. Thus, the stress in the apostles’ preaching on the need to accept and put one’s faith in Jesus and his saving power. There is a need to turn to God “based on knowledge” and accept “the righteousness that comes from God” instead of seeking a goodness based on our own merits (Romans 10:1-3; Philippians 3:9). Pagan Gentiles would also learn that they had been putting their faith in worthless idols, and they need to turn to the true God.
Following that, believers would begin living a life appropriate to conversion. They would be showing the fruits or evidences of the operation of the Holy Spirit in their lives (Galatians 5:22-25). In short, people do not make themselves acceptable in God’s sight because they first decide to keep his law. God first converts people through the Spirit, and this leads them to base their lives on his will. Obedience is the result, and not the cause of salvation.
The proof of genuine repentance and turning to God is a certain kind of life. But these deeds are not merely the reaction of someone whose life is governed by a new series of laws; they are the result of a new love. (William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles,revised edition, The Daily Study Bible Series, page 179)
Spoke what was prophesied (Acts 26:21-22)
Paul insisted to King Agrippa that it was because of his preaching the gospel—particularly to Gentiles—that the Jews had seized him in the temple, and tried to kill him (26:21). It was only through God’s protection that he had survived the plots against him.