The Law as an Agent of Conviction


Acts 25:1-26:14

Text Comment



v.2

A courtesy call, but an opportunity for the Jews to bring up the case they wanted resolved.


v.5

Festus not ready so soon in his governorship to alter procedure at the request of the Jews, suggests the more normal order, viz. that the case be tried in the provincial capital, Caesarea, where Paul was in any case.


v.7

They had difficulty proving their charges in the first place; the fact that the case is now two years old didn’t make it any easier.


v.9

Keeping the Jews at peace was, of course, one of Festus’ chief assignments. Anything that might be done to ingratiate himself with them — especially in a matter as inconsequential as this must have appeared to him (cf. 15:18-19) — was worth doing.


v.11

Paul clearly saw the change in venue as tantamount to handing him over to the Jews, perhaps Festus, according to a Roman custom, had actually proposed putting some members of the Sanhedrin on his advisory council. The appeal to Caesar, a right of Roman citizens. Paul did not take the Lord’s previous assurance that he would see Rome as a reason to put his head in the lion’s mouth. He took the prudent course to protect himself in the assurance that he was far more likely to get justice from a Roman court than a Jewish one (not the last time in history when church courts have been more corrupt and less interested in the truth than civil courts).


v.13

Agrippa was the son of Herod Agrippa I whose death was described in chapter 12. The Romans had granted him territories in the north-east of Palestine and ruled over them as a King. He was thus paying an official visit to the new governor. Bernice was his sister, not his wife. She would later have an affair with Titus before he became emperor. Agrippa knew much more of things Jewish — later he would try to no avail to preserve the peace between the Jews and the Romans — and that naturally led Festus to consult him regarding Paul’s case.


v.22

Agrippa probably has heard about this case already and it would have been very interesting to him.


v.23

Remember, we read in Luke 21:12 that the Lord had prophesied that his servants would be hauled before governors and kings on account of him.


v.27

The specific reason for this public investigation was to provide material for the governor’s report to Rome. Remember, he couldn’t use the material he had so far gathered, as he himself recognized (v. 25) that the charges were either unproved or relatively minor and he did not want to send a report which invited the obvious official inquiry: why didn’t you set the man free?


v.8

That is, the Christian faith is continuous with Judaism. Indeed, his point is the Christian claim, that Christianity alone is the true continuation of the faith of the OT and historic Israel as revealed to Moses and the Prophets. The Jews have given up the hope that was theirs; the Christians had embraced it. Now Paul will go on to admit that he too once shared the Jews’ viewpoint.


v.10

This "casting my vote with them" probably indicates that Paul had been a member of the Sanhedrin. Further we have evidence here that Stephen was not the only early martyr; unless Paul is speaking rhetorically (notice "foreign cities" in v. 11). There cannot have been many, in any case, as the Romans held the power of execution, not the Jews. Stephen seems to have been mob action which the Romans would have winked at. They would not have tolerated too much of that however as threatening their order.


v.11

The synagogue could punish, especially with lashing. Paul himself suffered this fate on several occasions. "To blaspheme" = to curse Christ and renounce their faith. This is exactly what Pliny, the Roman governor of Bithynia would later try to force the Christians to do, as he tells us in his celebrated letter to the Emperor Trajan early in the second century.

"Those who denied that they were, or ever had been, Christians, who repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered invocation, with wine and frankincense, to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for that purpose, together with those of the gods, and who finally cursed Christ — none of which acts, it is said, those who are really Christians can be forced into performing– these I thought it proper to discharge" (Epistles 10:96).

I want to spend our time this evening on the feature of Paul’s conversion account that appears here for the first time and is not mentioned in the other versions of the same event that are given in Acts 9 and 22. I am speaking of what Paul says in v. 14 the Lord said to him: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me. (That we have heard before.) "It is hard for you to kick against the goads." That we have not.

It is a proverbial saying having to do with the stabbing of the conscience or the fierce determination to resist one’s destiny. The idea seems to be that there was already, in some way, at some level, a struggle going on within Paul. There was already some growing apprehension that he was on the wrong side, his conscience was afflicting him.

It has long been supposed that this growing inner unease may have harked back as far as Paul’s role in the murder of Stephen and his witnessing the manner of Stephen’s death and his hearing that good man’s words as he died. "I see heaven opened and the Son of Man standing at the Right Hand of God." And, then, "Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit." And, finally, regarding those who were stoning him to death, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."

It may also be that it was precisely this uneasy conscience that drove Paul to more and more frantic efforts to persecute the Christians. This is so human. Not only would he be inclined to hate the Christians more for the inner disquiet, the guilty burden he was living with, but, like so many others, his first resort would have been to try harder at what he was already doing. Destroy the Christians and he will have exercised his inner demons.

Notice the language Paul uses of himself in 26:11: "In my obsession against them…" And this agrees with what Luke says about him in the account of his conversion in Acts 9. The chapter begins with these words: "Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples." The picture is of a man who is seeking out Christians not out of a mere sense of duty to his Jewish faith, but out of some deep personal animus, a spirit of personal revenge, driven by hatred, which, as we know is often but the expression of a deep personal insecurity.
Now, we have some reason to believe that something like this was at work in Paul’s heart and conscience prior to his conversion, because of an autobiographical remark he makes in Rom. 7:9-11.

"Once I was alive apart from law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death."

Now, it has long been assumed that Paul must be speaking about circumstances prior to his conversion, for it is hard to imagine how this account could be reconciled with either the single experience on the Damascus road or events subsequently.

What Paul seems clearly to be saying was that at one time he had both the theology and the heart of a Pharisee. Like the rich young man who came to Jesus, he could have said with a straight face concerning the commandments of God, "all these I have kept from my youth." With one remark, the Lord Jesus exposed that man. "Go, sell all that you have, give to the poor, and come follow me." The man went away sad, for he had great wealth. In other words, this man who thought he had kept all the commandments, hadn’t even understood the first commandment: money was his god.

And so with Paul. He thought of the commandments in that typically superficial way common to Pharisaism in that day, the way that Jesus was always exposing, as in the Sermon on the Mount. I haven’t killed, a man would say, and Jesus would say, "Oh, yes you have, for the law of God reaches into the heart and the attitudes of the heart, and every hatred, every dismissal of, every proud and haughty thought toward another human being was a violation of the sixth commandment."

Paul tells us what the commandment was that "came." By "came" he means, "came home to me," "came into my heart with understanding and conviction." It was the tenth (vv. 7-8). The one commandment that was explicitly concerned with the attitudes and desires of the heart. Even at that, he had long thought himself a keeper of the tenth commandment. But then the commandment came, and, by the grace and the Spirit of God, he understood for the first time the searching requirements of the divine holiness. That he was required not only to avoid some very definite outward acts, extreme acts — theft, murder, adultery, perjury and the like — but that he was required to offer God a pure heart, a heart of love for God and for his neighbor, a self-effacing heart. This he knew he could not give for he didn’t have it to give to God.

But Paul says more than that. He says that then "sin sprang to life and I died." That is, conviction of sin and guilt did not immediately give way to faith and repentance. It produced rather, perhaps surprisingly at first, still more sinning. As he put it in 7:8: "Sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead." Paul does not explain in detail what he means by this, how it is that the law produces sin. It is not enough to say that forbidden fruit is the sweetest, though fallen man’s natural antipathy for the good and the holy does incline him to prefer what is sinful. But Paul seems to be thinking about Gen. 3 and its account of the fall and the way that there, Eve, then Adam, found the constraint of God’s commandment a spur to evil desire. It was the fact that something had been forbidden them that led them to believe that the way of their true fulfillment lay in breaking the commandment of God. Connecting this with the verses that follow, then, we get this.

Sin was inert, it was inactive in Paul’s consciousness and to Paul’s conscience. He was not aware of it. But, when, by the Spirit of God, the commandment came home to him, sin revived, it not only surfaced to his view and he was able to see it, but he saw it actively and increasingly rebelling against this commandment that God had sent off the page of the Bible and into his heart. He died. That is the contrast to "once I was alive apart from the law." Death in this case was the death of his self-assurance, his complacency, his sinful pride before God.

Now, as I say, putting Romans and Acts 26:14 together, all of this that Paul says happened to him in Rom. 7:7ff., must be placed before the Damascus road and be at least a part of what the Lord meant when he referred to Paul’s kicking against the goads. Paul was coming under conviction of sin, but he was not yet ready to surrender his life to God in faith and repentance. That left him guilty and angry about his guilt and he took out that anger on God by persecuting God’s people whom he recognized by a divinely given instinct in the Christians, the followers of Jesus. It was in that state of inner conflict that he left for Damascus and the resolution of all his problems when Christ appeared to him.

Now, I finish with this observation. In the Bible and ever since, this "death" of self-assurance, self-confidence is the precondition of conversion, of new life in Christ from the human side. [Not with many covenant children, of course. For them this "death" to self-confidence is worked at as the alternative to a salvation they have already experienced and as a false principle of life to which they are always tempted to return.] And, for that reason, we must never forsake the ministry of the law. Paul did not. Through the law, he said, comes the knowledge of sin, and that knowledge is essential to the understanding of and embrace of the gospel.

What comfort can a Savior bring
To those who never felt their woe?

But it is exactly this use of the law, this preaching of the law that is falling more and more into disfavor in our day. It is thought that it puts people off — yes it does, of course. Paul goes farther, it can even deepen their rebellion, but, until sin revives and self-assurance dies, there can be no hope of genuine faith in Christ. What is more, without the piercing effect of the law — and preaching the law is the means by which most often this effect is brought home to a conscience — a large number of church members will rest content, as Paul did for years, believing themselves safe, without ever having really faced the facts about their sin and their need for divine grace.

I have been reminded several times in the last few days how unwelcome the real demands of God’s law are in the evangelical church today. How quick Christians who should know better are to confuse an emphasis on the law with legalism, on obedience with legalism. Legalism is not at all the same thing as believing that we are obliged to keep God’s law. Legalism is the belief that we can be justified (saved) by keeping God’s law. After all, it was the law that saved Paul from legalism and opened his eyes to the grace of God.

Pity the generation that hears about grace only and never understands the message because it never heard about the law. Grace is little more than leniency and has no saving power unless it reaches people in whom sin has sprung to life and they have died to complacency and self-sufficiency.

Unless you are forced to face the standards of divine holiness and see them reaching into your heart where you daily and hourly and moment by moment betray those standards, unless you see the living power of your own sin surfacing and asserting itself in the face of God’s holy law, you will never appreciate how impossible it is for you to please God, how desperate you are for a righteousness you can in no way supply yourself, and how perfectly Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God meets your need.

One of you gave me this week an article on feminist theology from the New York Times ("Arts and Ideas," April 11, 1998). In that article, a feminist theologian at Union in New York City — she calls herself a "womanist" theologian — was quoted as saying that Christian theology historically needs to be reinterpreted. "We do not need theories of atonement that focus on the blood and murder of Jesus" because, she argues, such theories are supportive of the violence that results in child abuse, particularly in the homes of the poor. What this means in practice, she said, is a shift away from emphasizing the cross as the symbol of salvation to emphasizing Jesus’ life as the vehicle for Christian deliverance.

All of that boils down to this: this woman has never died, not in the sense that Paul is speaking of in his own case. She has never come to the end of herself and realized that God absolutely requires of her for her salvation something she does not have within her to give. She must be holy and she is not. Her sins must be paid for. She must be righteous in the sight of God’s judgment. But she is still thinking the way Paul once thought, that way of thought that ended so abruptly in the dust of the Damascus road.