We like to tell anecdotes: stories from our lives which stand out. They aren’t simply factual records. Rather, we shape them to be striking, memorable and suited to the effect we want them to have. Sadly, due to our sin, we may also distort our tales to deceive our hearers. However, Christians should resist this temptation since God speaks and writes – in the Bible – the truth (Jo 17:17) and our desire must always be for our anecdotes to be truthful too. Nonetheless, they will also be limited accounts of what happened in which we select what to include and what not.
In Acts 26 Luke records a third account of Paul’s conversion (see Ac 9 & Ac 22) and it helps to notice what is, and isn’t, included. Paul is in a Roman courtroom speaking to Agrippa, the foreign king of Israel. This will be Paul’s last official testimony to Israel of the folly of rejecting Christ since soon he will be sent away (Ac 25:12), so there is an urgency to his speech. Already, he has admitted his own previous hatred of Jesus (Ac 26:9-11), even travelling to Syria in order to hunt down his ‘enemies’ (v12). But then everything changed when heaven grabbed hold of him (v13)! To become a Christian is to have God intervene in your life, often when you are not expecting Him. In Paul’s case that happened in an especially dramatic way.
Unlike the previous accounts, Paul mentions both him and his colleagues falling down (v14). That may be so that Agrippa cannot simply dismiss what happened as the wild imagination of just one man (cf Ac 26:24). He also includes the detail that a voice spoke in the language of Israel, which adds to the tension in the courtroom by emphasising that this is all about Israel not just about Paul. As before, he then notes how Jesus asked him why he was persecuting him but this time the Lord then answered his own question by telling Paul to stop “kicking against the goads”. A goad is a stick used to force a stubborn animal to go where you want it to go. Paul was like that. He had heard Jesus’ words in the past – maybe even from Jesus himself when on the earth – and felt their power and truth. But he also knew that believing them would utterly change his direction in life, so he resisted them like a stubborn mule determined to go its own foolish way.
Stubbornness can be stupid. In some contexts we might describe it as a firm determination not to give up. But it can often be an unnecessary resistance, as with Paul. He wants Agrippa not to be the same; Christians must desire likewise. When the Bible challenges us, we are not to resist its words and refuse to change, however hard that may be. We have to watch ourselves for foolish stubbornness. Too often we note the trait in others whilst ignoring it in ourselves. We mustn’t.
More stupidity came out when Paul asked who was speaking to him (v15) despite being told it was the person he was persecuting (v14)! But that was all about to change. This gracious intervention by the Lord into Paul’s life would heal him of his blindness (v16). Paul was told to stand up ‘on his feet’ – another extra in this account, possibly to link him to the Old Testament prophets with whom Agrippa is very familiar (Ac 26:27; eg Ez 2:1). Then the Lord commanded him to be his servant and witness. Up until that point, Paul was used to having power, which may have been the very thing which blinded him to the truth about Jesus. Now he had to humble himself and take on work which previously he despised: the hunter was to become the hunted, though with the protection of God around him (v17).
Then, finally, Paul summarises the call he received from Jesus, which in earlier accounts he was told during his time with Ananias (v18; Ac 22:10-14). The verse is dynamite! Paul is speaking to an Idumean king who works with the Roman governor. Indirectly, he tells these two Gentile rulers that they are blind, living in the darkness, under the power of Satan, needing forgiveness and are unholy before God (ie unworthy of God). Paul has boldly shaped his testimony to made a risky and powerful point to these powerful men. Yet he knows he must for time is running out.
In very different circumstances, we too need a sense of the urgency of this. If Jesus isn’t our saviour then we are in the same boat as these two men. But even if he is our Lord, Paul’s example should still impress itself upon us. Paul spoke discerningly to Agrippa. Those who speak for Christ today need the same discernment, understanding whom they are addressing so that they speak appropriately. We must pray for the Spirit to give that to believers.