When a new year dawns we may resolve to change our lives. Some of those resolutions may work out well; others not so well. But we should also look for the missing resolutions. The changes that we ought to make but fail to see or accept. This passage mentions folk in just that position.
Paul, the great travelling preacher, has been stuck in Judea for two years (Ac 21-25). Why has the Lord Jesus put him into that position? Because Paul has an important role to play as the final apostolic witness to ancient Israel. Through the centuries of the Old Testament, that nation continually turned against the Lord. In the New Testament, the Lord himself arrives only to be attacked and murdered. However, at the start of Acts the nation is given a final opportunity to repent. God’s Spirit, through God’s people, witnesses to Israel and calls them to turn to Christ before time runs out (Ac 2:36-40). Now, at the end of Acts, the final stage of that witnessing is being enacted. This is why Paul, unlike Jesus at his trial, does not stand silently but speaks up with confidence before King Agrippa (v1-3). He knows that in the end it’s not him on trial but his nation.
The end of ancient Israel would follow in the years after Paul’s trial and since then the Jews have lived with the consequences of those days. However, Christians do not see them as still under judgement but, rather, as being like the other peoples of the world who need to hear the gospel. Ancient Israel has gone. As Jesus taught, the “vineyard” God established in the Old Testament has not ceased to exist but it does now have new tenants (Lu 20:9-16). In other words, all that was invested into that Israel, all the prophecies and promises that were made, have now come to fruition in Jesus’ kingdom of Jew and Gentile united in him and filled with the Spirit. Ancient Israel is the foundation upon which the church is built. The whole Bible is for Christians. Which should not result in any pride in us but, rather, a humble gratitude (Ro 11:13-24).
So before the court, Paul is happy to give his testimony, which is actually well-known (v4). Paul has been a public figure since he moved from Tarsus to Jerusalem, studied under a famous Rabbi (Ac 22:3), and became an important figure in the establishment. His life in public has been upstanding and respectable, previously lived with a firm commitment to the rigour of a Pharisee’s life (v5). Completely true to Israel, he has held onto the promises God made to her (v6), a hope shared across all Jews (v7), a hope of resurrection (v8) – new life for individuals and the nation. Paul is convinced that in Jesus he has seen all these come true, and Israel has been reborn for eternal life. All Jews with faith in Jesus are a part of that renewed nation. However, Paul has not always seen this, previously campaigning aggressively against Jesus (v9) and oppressing his people energetically (v10). At that time, Paul felt his angry opposition to Jesus was the way to love God and Israel.
What fed into Paul’s anger? Part of the answer is to be found in his identification as a Pharisee (v5). These were good people, living careful lives, respected by others and passionate for God. Yet, Jesus saw that something was deeply wrong at the core of their movement – indeed, in their own hearts. What was it? That they didn’t take God’s law seriously enough (Mk 7:6-9). Their edifice of rules shielded the Pharisees from truly living by God’s commands, letting them sink deep into their souls and challenge their innermost sins. Though outwardly moral, respectable and loyal to God’s ways, their hearts remained corrupt. Jesus pointed to sins like greed (Lu 16;14), pride (Lu 18:11) and lovelessness (Lu 11:42) as tainting their lives. The Pharisees were good by the standards they had set up, but not by God’s standards. Their disabling of God’s law meant that they didn’t hear the warnings of his word about this and led them to react angrily to Jesus when he exposed the truth. As Paul later says, when Jesus spoke it was like being prodded with a stick(Ac 26:14).
The Pharisees failed to see changes which their lives needed. Christians are to be careful not to fall into the same mistake (Mt 16:6). To protect ourselves we must, firstly, recognise the goads which prod us into anger or irritation and ask of our reactions: are they truly justified or are we actually hiding from our sins? Secondly, we need to check the rules of our lives to make sure that even if they are helpful, they are not given a place which only God’s commands may occupy over us and others. Thirdly, we must pray that God will help us to see all the sins from which we need to repent, so that we are not limited only to those which strike our conscience or make us embarrassed. With his help, we need to find our missing resolutions.