A Threatening Personal Testimony

Paul's (Saul's) encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ

This is a sermon on Acts 21:37-22:29.  Download sermon outline/commentary, and audio.

Christians are sometimes called upon to defend their faith and obedience to Christ, and if their personal character and actions are also in question, it is appropriate to give this defense in the form of a “personal testimony”.

Introduction – As we leave the joyous holiday season behind and begin a new year, I’d like to remind us of the acid tone of our culture’s religious environment.  Prominent American atheist Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation commented on the winter solstice and the Washington DC nativity display.  “We have a holiday. Before even this country started this time of year is the winter solstice. It’s a natural season. The Christians basically stole the season from us human beings by using the hate speech of the nativity scene which [condemns] all of us to hell if we don’t bow down to that little baby who became the dictator.”  Wow!  Happy New Year Mr. Barker.  In our culture, telling others about your personal religious beliefs can be scary because you don’t know whether you will be yawned at, laughed at, relativized, scorned, or welcomed.  You may doubt (as the world does) whether following Jesus as a Christian is actually obeying God.  You may be tempted to keep your most deeply cherished beliefs, and the source of life’s meaning and purpose, to yourself.  Nevertheless, Christians are sometimes called upon to defend their faith and obedience to Christ, and if their personal character and actions are also in question, it is appropriate to give this defense in the form of a “personal testimony”.

I.    The Need for Personal Testimony

A.    What it is; what it isn’t

1.    A personal story; not a sermon, an argument or a gospel presentation (although it should include elements of these).

2.    A story about your new birth in Christ (personal background, conversion experience, what you now believe as a Christian, what God has called you to do, and how your life has changed).

3.    A winsome method of gaining an audience for sharing the gospel and how Jesus relates to your life; not an irrefutable method of evangelism.

B.    To give contextualized reasons why you obey God by following Jesus (vv. 1-21)

Paul tailors almost every sentence of his testimony to the Jewish crowd in a winsome way by constantly identifying himself as a faithful Jew who must obey God by following Jesus.  Despite the crowd’s violent response, notice that in no way does Paul incite the Jewish crowd.  Throughout his speech he chooses words that are calculated to win Jewish sympathy.  His speech is contextualized (seeks common ground) to his audience by emphasizing things they shared: love for their people, zeal for God and his commands, hometown, spoken language, respected religious education, respected human authority, respected spiritual experience, respect for the temple, prayer as dialogue with God.  Christians are exhorted throughout the NT to give this kind of testimony (1 Pet 3:15b-16; Jude 3).

1.    V1. From the start Paul is conciliatory with his Jewish audience.  He identifies himself in terms that stress his friendly unity with the Jews.

2.    V2. Recall that Paul was swept up in the Jewish riot under the pretense of charges by Asian-Jews who knew Paul from his work in Asia.  As Jews of the diaspora they probably spoke Greek, so when Paul began to address them with a defense against the charges in the Hebrew (or Aramaic) language, the mere fact of his speaking the language of the common people in Jerusalem would have gone a long way to refute the charges that he was an anti-Jewish troublemaker.  Paul demonstrated he had closer and more reputable Jewish ties than the Asian-Jewish pilgrims.

3.    Vv3-5. Paul presents his impressive credentials to defend his Jewishness to the crowd.  He was a Jew, a native of Tarsus (with its diaspora Jewish population), brought up and educated in the capital city Jerusalem by none other that the venerable rabbi Gamaliel, a follower of the Jewish law, a zealous persecutor of the Church (the Way), and a representative of the high council (Sanhedrin).

4.    V6. Paul’s experience of the Lord’s glory would have reminded his audience of the prophet Ezekiel’s experience of the heavenly glory (cf. Ezek 1:26-28).  The Jewish crowd, familiar with the Bible, would associate a bright light from heaven with a divine encounter as a means whereby God reveals himself (Ex 13:21-22; Neh 9:12; Ps 104:2; Isa 60:19; Dan 2:22; Hab 3:4).

5.    V7. Paul’s audience would recognize in the repetition of God’s call (“Saul, Saul”) the manner in which several OT saints were called by the God of Israel and commissioned into divine service (Ex 3:4; 1 Sam 3:10).

6.    Vv12-13. He was instructed by Ananias, a godly and law-keeping disciple in Damascus.  Because Paul was formerly such a zealous Pharisee, it was appropriate for him to meet Ananias.  Note Paul’s wisdom in relaying that Ananias addressed Paul as his “brother.”  The implied question is How much more should those less devout than Ananias receive his testimony as coming from a fellow Jew and follower of Israel’s God?

7.    V14. Ananias does not instruct Paul in a new religion, but rather teaches Paul that following Jesus Christ as the “Righteous One” is the fulfillment of biblical religion (Isa 53:11).  Jesus is the God of the Jewish forefathers.  He is the messiah to whom the fathers looked.  Worshiping Jesus Christ is the same as worshiping the God of antiquity.  He is not a new god; he is the one true God.

8.    V17. Paul intended to preach the gospel to his beloved countrymen (the Jews).  Paul is surely not a desecrator of temple because he was praying therein.  That Paul had his vision of God in the temple is significant for communicating its validity to Jews, for the temple was holy ground (the Lord’s house).  Paul’s account of receiving a vision surely reminded his audience of the prophet Isaiah’s call (Isa 6:1-13).  Paul is claiming a similar call as a commissioned spokesman for God.

9.    V19. Paul objects to God’s command to go to the Gentiles, but not in a rebellious way.  Rather Paul finds it hard to believe that honest God-fearing Jews will not be moved to consider the claims of Jesus Christ upon seeing his dramatically changed life and doctrine (from murderous hatred and pride to humble love and self-sacrifice).

So to summarize Paul’s “Jewish defense”: he is a good Jew, and when a good Jew receives visions and commands from the Lord he can do nothing but obey them.  Any Jew who saw and heard the things Paul did could only obey God.

Think about it.  You do the same thing when you try to persuade someone to your point of view.  If you’re speaking to someone educated and intelligent, you let them know that you are too, so they don’t dismiss you as ignorant.  If you are speaking to someone from another country, first you listen to them to discover what you have in common, and then you draw on these to persuade.  When you speak to children or people significantly younger than you, you draw on your relevant experiences and thoughts when you were their age.  When you speak to your spouse, you either let them persuade you or you say “Yes, dear.”

Do not miss this important aspect of the Acts narrative: that Paul is charged as an apostolic law-breaker.  But the verdict is clearly no—Paul proves to be a faithful Jew, obedient to the Torah, Roman law, and to God’s direct commands to obey Jesus.  The rest of the book of Acts tells how Paul was enabled to give a defense for the gospel within the Roman halls of power, and this story explains how Paul found himself on this path.

C.    To show that God’s Spirit is still working in people through Jesus (vv. 6-10, 13, 17-21)

1.    A bad evangelical example (me-centered, no gospel, sin-glorifying, religious jargon, moralistic).  “I used to be a really bad person.  I committed sins x, y, z.  Here are some graphic details that show how much fun I had sinning. (Smile)  But then I heard the gospel when the lead singer of my favorite band shared his personal testimony at the concert.  So I asked Jesus into my heart to be my “PersonalLordAndSavior” and I cried a lot.  Now my life is great and I’m a really good person.  In fact I hardly sin anymore, and when I do I don’t have to worry about guilty feelings because I know I’m already forgiven.  It’s cool to be saved.”

2.    A good biblical example (Christ-centered, gospel-oriented, sin-debasing, miraculous conversion, God-obeying, grand mission).  Paul’s testimony includes his pre-conversion sinful life (vv. 3-5); his conversion experience, changed heart, and encounter with Jesus (vv. 6-11); his calling/mission from Jesus (vv. 12-16); and his continuous following of Jesus’ commands (vv. 17-21).

II.    The Opposition to Personal Testimony

Of course we know from personal experience and Paul’s story that our testimony of Jesus’ work in our lives may be opposed.  The deal-breaker for Paul’s Jewish audience was love for Gentiles.  At the prospect of Gentiles receiving God’s mercy in Christ, they rioted in the streets demanding Paul be executed.  This passage is evidence that different people will oppose your witness for different reasons.

A.    From religious people (v. 22)

Hostile Objection: You can’t obey God by following Jesus because Jesus is a liar.  Away with you!

Followers of Judaism believe Jesus was a false messiah (Christ).  From the website about.com: “According to Jewish scripture and belief, the true messiah must meet the following requirements. He must:

•    Be an observant Jewish man descended from the house of King David
•    Be an ordinary human being (as opposed to the Son of God)
•    Bring peace to the world
•    Gather all Jews back into Israel
•    Rebuild the ancient Temple in Jerusalem
•    Unite humanity in the worship of the Jewish God and Torah observance.

Because Jesus did not meet these requirements, from the Jewish perspective he was not the Messiah.”  To which the Christian may reply: “Read the Gospel of Matthew.”

Self-righteous Objection: Jesus’ forgiveness gives immoral people license to sin.  Keep Jesus to us!

If we tell immoral people (those sinners, not us sinners) that Jesus forgives sin (past, present, future), then they’ll just sin all the more!  Immoral people outside the church aren’t fit for the gospel.  Jesus is for church folks.  To which the Christian may reply: Read Romans 6.”

Relativist Objection: Jesus is fine for you, but I don’t believe in him.  Keep Jesus to yourself!

Examples of religious relativism are the Universalist Church and the Baha’i faith.  Religious truth is not absolute but relative, that all great religions of the world have facets of one truth, that they agree on the essentials and only disagree on the nonessentials, and that historic faiths represent successive stages of the spiritual evolution of human society.  To which the Christian may reply: “Compare answers from different religions to worldview questions—especially who is Jesus?”

B.    From secular people (vv. 37-38, 24)

Pax Romana Objection: Your religion is fanatical and makes you a danger to civil society.  You should be locked away!

From the website newatheists.org: “Tolerance of pervasive myth and superstition in modern society is not a virtue.”  Or from the website godlessamerican.org: “So many christians, so few lions.”  If atheist and other anti-christian arguments are persuasive to you or someone you know, I urge you to read Tim Keller’s “The Reason For God” or C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”.  You simply cannot honestly raise the Pax Romana Objection if you haven’t wrestled with the arguments in these books.  These books answer the other objections as well.

C.    From family and friends (v. 22)

Dishonored Objection: You used to believe what we believe.  You’re no longer one of us!

Family and friends who are dishonored because you dissent in your religious beliefs.  Some groups practice extreme forms of “shunning” where the group avoids all social contact with the former group member (it is estimated that 10-15% of Protestant groups practice some form of shunning!).  But I think we all have experienced being moved out of the “inner circle” of family and friends because of our religious beliefs or your sharing a “personal testimony.”  This kind of objection is best answered with love and grace.

III.    The Power Behind Personal Testimony

At this point you might expect to hear a how-to list for planning, memorizing, and sharing your personal testimony.  That is a profitable exercise, and there are many places to find simple instructions for this on the internet.  Or maybe now you expect a guilt-laden push to resolve to evangelize more this year.  That would be a worthy resolution (minus the guilt as motivation).  But this text forces us to look at something different—namely that you will never overcome your fear of sharing the gospel and how Jesus has changed your life unless he has really changed your life!  The power behind a personal testimony is…

A.    A spiritual encounter with God (vv. 6-10)

Paul made it clear that God himself is the author of his sudden and radical conversion.  God knocked him off his horse with a blinding light from heaven in order to turn him around from his murderous life mission.  Furthermore, Paul’s audience was well acquainted with Jesus of Nazareth.  They believed the “official” Jewish stance on Jesus—that he was a false messiah who had been crucified, but his body had been stolen from the tomb by his disciples (Mt 28:11-15) who subsequently spread a rumor that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  Paul himself had believed this about Jesus, but now he was claiming that he had met the crucified and risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, and that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the Lord Jesus Christ.  His meeting Jesus changed his whole way of thinking and way of life.

B.    A heart changed by God (vv. 10-13, 19-20)

Jesus changed Paul’s heart.  He went from a hater of Jesus to a submissive disciple of Jesus.  Now Paul is no longer arrogant and breathing murder.  He is tamed by the Lord of Heaven.  Paul’s conversion is a wonderful picture of what it means to turn to the Lord: to bow in humility to willingly bear the yoke the Lord places on you, and ready to do his will (whatever that may be).  Notice that Paul continued in humility.  He was a Bible scholar and more advanced than all his peers, and now the Lord himself had appeared and spoken to him!  Yet he was not so proud as to refuse the instruction of humble men.  Paul received the word of God from the mouth of Ananias (another servant of the Lord).  In his pre-conversion life, professing to be wise, Paul had become a fool (Tit 3:3).  But by the converting grace of God, Paul now professes to be a fool, and only then does he become truly wise (1 Cor 3:18).  Look in verse 19 where Paul objects to God—but not in a rebellious way.  Paul asks God to reconsider making him leave Jerusalem because he finds it hard to believe that the Jews will not be moved to consider the claims of Jesus Christ upon seeing his dramatically changed life and doctrine.  Paul even uses the stoning of Stephen (which he approved) to bolster his point!  Stephen (the first Christian witness to be martyred) is followed by Paul as an eager witness.  Paul’s heart is dramatically changed—the opponent of Jesus has become the proponent!

C.    An assigned mission from God (vv. 10, 14-16)

This is Paul’s calling as a prophet of God.  God appoints Paul according to his plan for him to the specific task described by Ananias.  What was God’s plan for Paul?  To know God’s will (i.e., believe in Jesus and obey his commands), to see the Righteous One (Jesus), to hear a message from the mouth of God (God’s specific instructions for Paul), to be a witness to all men of what Paul saw and heard from God (preach the gospel of the risen Jesus Christ to both Jews and Gentiles).

Conclusion – Does Paul’s story—before a hostile crowd, giving “personal testimony” of the gospel and how Jesus transformed his life by saving him from his pride, arrogance, hatred, and the penalty he deserved for all his sins—stir your heart?  Does it warm your heart because it’s basically a feel-good human-interest story that refutes Dan Barker’s jaded view of Jesus and Christians?  Or does it stir your soul because you know from your own experience the kind of spiritual encounter, the changed heart, and the sense of mission that Paul knew?  If Paul’s personal testimony doesn’t even faintly remind you of your own encounter and relationship with God, then perhaps God has not yet “knocked you off your horse.”  If that power is utterly incomprehensible and unknown to you, then you need to respond to God’s call to you like Paul did:  turn from your complacency in happily living without the power of God, put your life in Jesus’ hands, and ask “What shall I do, Lord?” But if you know and feel God’s power in your story, then give your defense when the opportunity arises.  God will give you the courage when the time comes.  And despite the response, you will glorify God.

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