Converted to Christ
Scripture: Acts 26:1–18
1 So Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” Then Paul stretched out his hand and made his defense:
2 “I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am going to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, 3 especially because you are familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews. Therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently.
4 “My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. 5 They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee. 6 And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, 7 to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! 8 Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?
9 “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. 11 And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.
12 “In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. 14 And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 15 And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17 delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
We started a series last week called “The King and His Victory.” We are seeing the events of Easter—the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Jesus from the dead—as events of victory, of a king’s victory. A victory of conquest. Of deliverance. A global victory. The kingdom of God and its universal empire. We’re trying to understand the Christian faith from this perspective.
Today I want to talk about what it means to be a Christian, to subscribe to this faith. To be a Christian means to be counted among God’s people in his empire. It means to possess the privileges of this citizenship. But how exactly do you become a Christian? Nobody is born a Christian. According to the Bible, you have to become a Christian. You have to be converted to Christianity. But how?
My aim this morning is to help us think about this a bit more carefully. And the text I’ve turned to is this passage in the book of Acts where we find Paul making his own defense before Agrippa. What Paul says here, the way he makes his argument, gives a lot of insight into what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be a convert to Christianity. What Christianity is and how we can be one of its proponents.
The process of becoming a Christian is straightforward. There is an old way of living, the way of religion. Then there is an encounter with Christ which results in a new way of living, the way of freedom.
The Old Way of Religion
First, the old way of religion. If we’re going to convert to Christianity that means we are converting from something else, from a different religion.
What Is Religion?
What is a religion? One author defines it as “a set of beliefs that explain what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things that human beings should spend their time doing.” Whatever you think about the world and especially about human beings in the world, that is essentially your religion.
What transpires in Acts 26 is in essence an intra-Jewish debate. Paul defends himself as a Jew to King Agrippa who is himself quite familiar, verse 3 says, with all the customs and controversies within Judaism. Agrippa was, like his father, thoroughly committed to Jewish causes as the ruler over the Jewish people within the Roman empire. Though Agrippa ruled only under the authority of Rome itself, there is little doubt about his sincere concerns about the welfare of the Jewish religion. Paul was eager to get to plead his case to Agrippa, as he says in verse 2, because here is a man who ought to be amenable to what Paul is going to say.
All human beings are different in many ways, but we also have much in common. There’s something that we all understand, something intrinsic to our humanity. We are all religious because we have strong opinions about what we as humans should be doing in the world. We all start from a basic religious worldview.
Taking Religion Seriously
Christianity urges us to take this “religion” seriously.
Paul’s “manner of life” was a poster-worthy example of what it meant to be a good and faithful Jew. In verse 5 he says that he lived “according to the strictest party of our religion,” as a Pharisee. Now most of us would hear the word Pharisee with contempt. But that’s only because we are familiar with Jesus’s harsh words against them (e.g. Matt 23:13-36). But these were among the elite members of Jewish society. They were experts in Judaism, the theologians of the Jewish faith. And Paul is wanting to show that he was not one given to rambunctiousness when it came to his theological convictions. The Pharisees were “strict,” a word that refers to the preciseness of their beliefs. They paid careful attention to Judaism. Their manner of life was lived in careful conformity to Judaism.
We don’t usually like people who say they are “strict,” but don’t miss the importance of what Paul is saying. He is saying that he was the kind of person who took his faith seriously. His religion was not just an incidental aspect of his life; it was central to everything he did. He was “all in” with his religion. He filtered everything through that prism. It was his worldview. And he did his best to live in conformity to it.
If our religion has any value, it ought to function just like this, having an effect on everything we think about life.
That’s why you can see a person’s religion by how they worship.
Again, consider Paul. The most significant detail about his faith as a Jew was, what he says he is now on trial for, his “hope in the promise made by God to our fathers” (v. 7). It is “for this hope” that he was now being accused by the Jews, he said. So Paul wants Agrippa to know that what he found himself accused of by the Jews was believing what it is that Jews say they believe. Paul’s defense is to say that his problem is not an accusation of being inconsistent with his faith but being far too consistent. He was on trial by the Jews for actually believing what Judaism confessed. According to verse 8, it was the belief that God raises the dead.
This was Israel’s great hope, a hope that sustained their worship. It was this hope that, according to verse 7, the “twelve tribes hope to attain.” Resurrection from the dead is how the Old Testament describes the fulfilment of Israel’s hope. When the dead are raised, Israel would be reconstituted. Their exile would end, their sins would be forgiven. They would no longer be dominated by pagan people. Israel would be liberated and free. There would be no more exile, there would be no more death, for God would reign over his people on earth and every foe, including death, would be reversed, undone, and defeated. Israel’s God, the good Creator that he is, would bring in a new creation. And like Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones once again being animated by flesh and breath, this promise had clearly not yet been fulfilled.
Of course, so fantastic is the promise of the Old Testament, that there were many Jews who thought it best to reinterpret the promise than to hold out for its fulfillment. Perhaps it just means that even in the midst of suffering and death, God will subjectively reveal himself and give us some sense of good life. Religion and its rituals were there just to give one a sense of the esoteric and the divine. It would be a useful habit for making one’s way through this difficult life and into the (hopefully) blessed life hereafter.
That is how many people deal with their religion. They utilize the rituals of worship, but they are empty because many do not really believe what it is those rituals are pointing to.
The Encounter with Christ
Next, Paul details the story of what happened to him on the road to Damascus. And while Paul’s story is unique, everyone who becomes a Christian has this in common with Paul: they have an encounter with Christ. That is, their “manner of life” collides with the claim of Jesus, and something has to give.
In verses 9-11, Paul recounts his stringent opposition to Jesus. He says he “was convinced” that he “ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” He did everything he could to discourage the Christian movement from advancing. He persecuted Christians, trying to get them to blaspheme, to repudiate their allegiance to Jesus.
Notice that Paul did this not because he was some evil madman but because of his religion. As a careful Jew, he saw Christianity not as something that could be tolerated but something that had to be opposed. Why? Because Christianity was a threat to everything that he believed. The Christian movement could not be allowed to have its own private following. Christianity was explosive and dangerous. He saw it to be a deadly disease attacking the vitals of Jewish hope and life.
Now again, why was Christianity such a threat to Paul’s understanding of Judaism? What was it that agitated him so much? It all has to do with resurrection. The claim that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and that he had now been raised from the dead was an explosive view to hold. Because if it is true, then he could not go on living as he had been living.
If it is true that Jesus has been raised from the dead, then, Paul knew, Jesus had to be worshiped as the true sovereign of the world. Everything he hoped for had to now be realized only in and through this Jesus. So, Paul understood, the claim that Jesus had been raised from the dead was an absolute watershed issue. Either Jesus had to be opposed or he had to be worshiped. There could be no middle ground about Jesus given the claim that was being made about him.
The Resurrected Jesus
For those of us who have been raised within the Christian faith, the weight of what Paul felt from the claim about Christ is just not all that heavy. Nevertheless, everyone who is truly a Christian has far more in common with Paul and his experience on the road to Damascus than they might have thought.
Paul’s story is dramatic. We read in verse 13 that at midday he “saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun.” He “heard a voice” speaking to him in Hebrew, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (v. 14). The metaphor, of course, speaks of the long branch of wood with a pointed spike on one end that would be used to prod the oxen to plow. And what it means is that Paul could not go on resisting a power that was impelling him to go in a completely opposite direction to the one he had been going.
It was not that Paul did not believe Jesus existed. He believed this well enough that he had strongly opposed everything about Jesus. And we should not make too much of the dramatic aspect of the story, as if this experience in and of itself was the new driving force in his life. There is much about the story, told three times in the book of Acts, that is not altogether clear, especially how objective or subjective the whole event was.
The point of contact that all of us must share with Paul’s experience is the claim that Jesus is alive, that he has been resurrected from the dead. If that is true, then everything in our lives now must be transformed by this reality. We can’t resist the goad any longer. We must live differently. We are compelled to live an entirely different way.
The New Way of Freedom
But let us not assume we know instinctively what that way is. Again, if none of us are natural Christians, then all of us who encounter Christ must have our lives transformed by him. To be a Christian is to have our entire lives conformed to the resurrected power of Jesus Christ. The Christian life is not a mere moral code of conduct. That’s why it’s never enough to simply ask, “What would Jesus do?” Being a Christian means living by a new power that takes us down a different path. What is that path? What should we call it?
I’d like to call it the way of freedom. I call it that because what happens next in Paul’s story is something of a parallel to what we find when Moses encounters God at the burning bush. God’s call, “Moses, Moses!” is like the “Saul, Saul!” cry from heaven, and what “I AM” told Moses to do is not altogether different from what Jesus now tells Paul to do, to announce the fulfillment of the long-awaited promise and to rescue God’s people and bring them into that fulfillment.
Eyes Open to Spiritual Realities
So Jesus tells Paul that he has appeared to him on purpose, the ultimate purpose of which is, according to verse 18, to open eyes. The Christian life, based on the confidence that Jesus has risen from the dead, is like having a new lens by which to see everything differently.
Several years I had Lasik surgery, and it was like experiencing a miracle. To be able to see again without corrective lenses was an amazing experience. And if you encounter the resurrected Christ, life just cannot be the same. It is a new lens by which you see everything.
What is this new lens? It is the lens of resurrection. Through that lens we see spiritual realities. Not only non-physical realities, but physical things that are now eternal and immortal.
Turning from the Power of Satan to God
With that kind of lens, Christians are able to “turn from darkness to light,” that is, “from the power of Satan to God.” The hope of resurrection, now inaugurated in the person of Jesus, means that Satan has been stripped of his power. He’s been disarmed. Like Israel leaving Egypt, he has no power over us anymore.
Therefore, if death has no power, we do not need to make too much of life as if this mortal life is all that you have. For Christians, nothing could be more unbelieving than a bucket list! We are heading for immortal resurrected bodies, so you cannot miss out on embodied life simply because death comes calling.
On the other hand, because death has no power over us, we do not need to make too little of this life, as if the only hope we have is to die and escape from this mortal life, or that everything in it is meaningless. No! Because we believe in the resurrection of the body, there is continuity with the life that is coming and the life we have right now in our mortal bodies.
So turn from the power of Satan to the power of God and the hope we have in the resurrection.
Forgiveness and Sanctification
The resurrected power of Christ also means that along this new path of freedom we have the “forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in” Christ.
The forgiveness of sins is freedom indeed! The letter of 1 John was written to help Christians to avoid sin. But, we are assured, that “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 Jn 2:1). Now that is freedom! The Christian life isn’t lived in fear of God crushing us for not living up to some moral code, because we have a friend, an advocate, when we do sin. And he has paid for every sin and failure with his own blood.
But we also have “a place among those who are sanctified by faith in” Christ. So Jesus is not merely about the business of forgiving our sins, paying our debts, and getting us back to zero. Many Christians live as if the Christian life is I sin, God forgives, I sin, God forgives. But there is more freedom in Christ than that! He’s not just getting us back to zero. He’s sanctifying us. We are the kind of people on a path heading toward the freedom of immortal existence.
Converted and Commissioned
As Paul stands trial for his faith, he understands that his own conversion to Christ was not only for his benefit. Jesus told him, “But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you” (v. 16). Paul was converted to Christ to be commissioned as a bearer of good news of what God has given to all who will come to Jesus.
So we implore you to come to Christ. Come to the resurrected Jesus. In him there is new life and in him there is a new way, a way of freedom.