A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 26:1-23. Paul’s makes his defence (continued)
Thirdly, Paul describes *his conversion and his commissioning as an apostle* (12-18).
Damascus was one of the ‘foreign cities’ to which Paul travelled, equipped with a high priestly extradition order. But before he reached his destination the divine intervention took place. A heavenly light, more brilliant that the sun at noon, flashed around him and his companions. Together they fell to the ground. Then a voice, addressing Paul in Aramaic, asked why he was persecuting him and, quoting a well known proverb, declared it painful for him to kick against the goads. Dr, Longenecker gives the references in the works of Euripides, Aeschylus, Pindar and Terence, where this occurs as a metaphor for useless ‘opposition to deity’.
To the anonymous voice’s question ‘Why are you persecuting me?’ Saul responded with a counter-question ‘Who are you that I am persecuting?’ Although his addition ‘Lord’ does not necessarily mean more than “Sir”, yet the fact that Paul introduces Jesus’ reply with the words ‘the Lord replied’, so that *Kyrie* and *kyrios* stand together in Luke’s text, suggests that it did mean more. Surely, when the heavenly voice declared, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ at least two truths must have registered instantly in Saul’s consciousness. The first is that the crucified Jesus was alive and had thus been vindicated, and second that the Jesus who identified himself so closely with the Christians that to persecute them was to persecute him, must regard them as being peculiarly his own people.
In Paul’s account to Agrippa of what happened on the Damascus road, however, what he stressed was not his conversion, but his commissioning, not his becoming a disciple of Jesus, but his appointment to be an apostle. So Jesus’ first word of command to him was ‘*Now get up and stand on your feet*’ (16). This cannot mean that he had been wrong to fall to the ground, for in that fall he both was humbled and humbled himself. Nor is there any hint that he was now grovelling in a prostrate position inappropriate to a human being and a Christian. No, the command to stand was a necessary preliminary to the command to go; it prefaced his commissioning. One is reminded of Ezekiel. When he saw ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord’ he ‘fell face down’. (Ezk. 1:28b). But God immediately said to him ‘Son of man, stand up on your feet…I am sending you to the Israelites…. You must speak my words to them (Ezk. 2:1,3,7). In fact, the commissioning of Saul as Christ’s apostle was deliberately shaped to resemble the call of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and others to be God’s prophets. In both cases the language of ‘sending’ was used. As God ‘sent’ his prophets to announce his word to his people, so Christ ‘sent’ his apostles to preach and teach in his name, including Paul who was now ‘sent’ to be the apostle to the Gentiles (17).
Christ’s commission of Saul took the form of three verbs, all in the first person singular of direct speech, although respectively in the past, future and present tenses: ‘I have appeared to you’, ‘I will rescue you’ and ‘I am sending you’. First, *I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness (16a). The general call to be a ‘servant’ is narrowed down into to the particular call to be a ‘witness’. Luke has already combined the ideas of service and witness in reference to the original apostolic eyewitnesses, and used the same word for ‘servant’ (hyperetes*). (Lk. 1:2). Also in Paul’s ministry as in theirs the emphasis is on being an eyewitness, for he was to bear witness both to what he had seen of Jesus and to what Jesus would later show him (16b). Secondly, *I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles* (17). A similar promise of ‘rescue’ was made to Jeremiah (Je. 1:8). This did not guarantee immunity to suffering. On the contrary, it was part of the vocation of prophets and apostles to endure suffering (cf. 9:16). But it did mean that their testimony would not be silenced until their God-appointed work was done.
Thirdly, *I am sending you (ego apostello se)*. The emphatic *ego* (I), the personal *se* (‘you’) and the verb *apostello* (‘send’) could almost be rendered (as in 22:21) ‘I myself apostle you’, ‘I myself make you an apostle’. For this was Paul’s commission to be an apostle, especially to be the apostle to the Gentiles, which was comparable to the commission to the twelve which was renewed by the risen Lord on the first Easter day in his word ‘I am sending you’ (Jn. 20:21). And what was Paul being sent to do? In essence, *to open their eyes* (18a). For the unbelieving Gentile world was blind to the truth of God in Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 4:4). Yet this opening of the eyes did not mean intellectual enlightenment only, but conversion: to *turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God* (18b). For conversion includes a radical transfer of allegiance and so of environment. It is both liberation from the darkness of satanic rule and a liberation into the sphere of God’s marvellous light and power (cf. Col.1:12-13; 1 Pet. 2:9). In other words, it means entering the kingdom of God. Further, the blessings of the kingdom are the *forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith* in Christ (18c). The promise of forgiveness was part of the apostolic gospel from the beginning (Lk. 24: 47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 13:39). So was belonging to the Messianic people (2:40-41, 47). For the new life in Christ and the new community of Christ always go together. What was specially significant in Christ’s commissioning of Paul was that the Gentiles were to be granted a full and equal share with the Jews in the privileges of those sanctified by faith in Christ, that is, the holy people of God.
Thus, the commissioning formula was ‘I am sending you’. And the object of Paul’s commission was that he should open blind eyes and convert people from darkness to light and Satan to God. Not of course that he himself had authority or power to do the eye-opening or the converting. These things could be effected by Christ only through his word and Spirit. In addition, the essential equipment for his mission was Christ’s appearance to him, so that he could be an eyewitness, and his necessary assurance was that Christ would rescue him from the enemies of the gospel until his course was finished and his ministry fulfilled.
Tomorrow: Paul makes his defence (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.