Sermon Text: Acts 21:27-40; Acts 22:1-21
Sermon Theme: Paul’s personal testimony offers us reminders about being wholly surrendered to God.
In the temple, where Paul should have been protected as in a place of safety, he was violently set upon. They falsely charged him with ill doctrine and ill practice against the Mosaic ceremonies. It is no new thing for those who mean honestly and act regularly, to have things laid to their charge … by malicious people, with which they thought to have obliged them… And here see what false, mistaken notions of good people and good ministers, many run away with. But God seasonably interposes for the safety of his servants, from wicked and unreasonable men; and gives them opportunities to speak for themselves, to plead for the Redeemer, and to spread abroad his glorious gospel.
The apostle addressed the enraged multitude, in the customary style of respect and goodwill. Paul relates the history of his early life very particularly; he notices that his conversion was wholly the act of God. Condemned sinners are struck blind by the power of darkness, and it is a lasting blindness, like that of the unbelieving Jews. Convinced sinners are struck blind as Paul was, not by darkness, but by light. They are for a time brought to be at a loss within themselves, but it is in order to their being enlightened. A simple relation of the Lord’s dealings with us, in bringing us, from opposing, to profess and promote his gospel, when delivered in a right spirit and manner, will sometimes make more impression than labored speeches, even though it amounts not to the full proof of the truth, such as was shown in the change wrought in the apostle.
The apostle goes on to relate how he was confirmed in the change he had made. The Lord having chosen the sinner, that he should know his will, he is humbled, enlightened, and brought to the knowledge of Christ and his blessed gospel. Christ is here called that Just One; for he is Jesus Christ the righteous. Those whom God has chosen to know his will, must look to Jesus, for by him God has made known his goodwill to us. The great gospel privilege, sealed to us by baptism, is the pardon of sins. Be baptized, and wash away your sins; that is, receive the comfort of the pardon of your sins in and through Jesus Christ, and lay hold on his righteousness for that purpose; and receive power against sin, for the mortifying of your corruptions. Be baptized, and rest not in the sign, but make sure of the thing signified, the putting away of the filth of sin. The great gospel duty, to which by our baptism we are bound, is, to seek for the pardon of our sins in Christ’s name, and in dependence on him and his righteousness. God appoints his laborers their day and their place, and it is fit they should follow his appointment, though it may cross their own will. Providence contrives better for us than we do for ourselves; we must refer ourselves to God’s guidance. If Christ send any one, his Spirit shall go along with him, and give him to see the fruit of his labors. But nothing can reconcile man’s heart to the gospel, except the special grace of God.
[From Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary]
- Does our good works and religious sincerity make us right with God? If you were to ask most people what you have to do to get into heaven, the overwhelming response would be some form of “be a good person.” Almost all religions and worldly philosophies are ethically based. Whether it’s Islam, Judaism, or secular humanism, the teaching is common that getting to heaven is a matter of being a good person — following the Ten Commandments or the precepts of the Quran or the Golden Rule. But, the proverb “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” can be seen as reflecting Jesus’ warning: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14). Which comes to the point of what our intentions are built on — God’s or ours. We should well ask ourselves, “How can we know God’s will for our lives?” Three answers surface, quite easy to remember, but much more difficult to implement. We know God’s will by his Word which sometimes tells us precisely what to do or not to do. We also learn God’s will through the wisdom of others. Primarily though, we know God’s will through the Holy Spirit’s inner witness, and that is exactly what Paul demonstrated. But let us look at those things that had put Paul, a devoted Jew of the Law, on the wrong track: 1) A birthright among God’s chosen people did not keep Paul from early persecution of those who believed on God’s Son. We may have been born in a land based on Christian principles, and still not be Christians. 2) A most complete education did not restrain Paul from persecuting Christ’s followers. We may be college educated and still remain bigoted, ignorant, opposers of the truth. 3) A consuming zeal only made Paul’s mistaken activity the more disastrous. We had better never be zealous than to have a zeal only for the wrong. 4) A relentless determination rendered Paul’s evil work of persecuting increasingly evil. We are so much the worse off for having a strong will, if it be a wrong will. 5) A hatred of the Way led Paul into the way of persecuting. If we do not love the Savior, we shall soon find ourselves attacking those who do. For the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but the road to heaven is paved with obedient faith. Good intentions make us feel like we’re on the right track, but they lack any power to get us where we want to go. However, a willful commitment to follow the will of the Lord takes us where He wants us to go.
- What was the cause for the turning point in Paul’s life? The manifestation of Christ in the light, the voice, the address (Acts 22:6-10). Conversion does not originate with self, nor with the agency of man outside, but always with Christ. It is a resurrection. Who can raise the spiritually dead but He? It is a new creation. Who can create but He? Paul’s testimony teaches us that salvation is by God’s grace and power, not by our merit or will power. He was not unhappy with his life in Judaism, searching for another way. Rather, he was militantly defending the Jewish faith, seeking to rid it of the heretics who claimed that Jesus was the Christ. It was his pursuit of this course of action with a vengeance that God literally stopped Paul in his tracks — His power knocked Paul to the ground and blinded him. Then God gave very specific orders about what Paul had to do next. Everything about Paul’s conversion came from God. Nothing about his conversion stemmed from Paul. God didn’t look down and see some merit in Paul that qualified him to come to salvation. Quite to the contrary, he confesses that he was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent aggressor” (1 Timothy 1:13) and a persecutor of Jesus Himself (Acts 22:7-8). For this, he deserved God’s judgment, but he was shown God’s mercy. God didn’t say, “Oh Paul, I’d really like you to be My apostle, but I’m not going to force your will. You have to exercise your free will to choose Me!” There are many who say that the reason that God chose Paul, or that He chooses anyone, is that He foresees that the person will one day choose to follow Him. But to say this is to base God’s sovereign election on the fallen will of man, ignoring the biblical truth that unless God first does a work of grace in our hearts, no one would ever choose Him. No one comes to Jesus unless the Father draws him (John 6:44). No one is able to come to Jesus unless it has been granted him from the Father (John 6:65). No one knows who the Father is except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him (Luke 10:22). Paul always attributes the first cause of our salvation to God’s choice of us, not to our choice of Him. In Galatians 1:15, he says that God set him apart from his mother’s womb and called him through His grace. In Ephesians 1:4-6, he says, “Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world …. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” In 2 Timothy 1:9, he says that God “has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.” If we deny God’s sovereign election, we rob Him of glory and attribute at least part of the cause of our salvation to something in us. If God’s choice of us depends on what He foresaw that we would do, then we have grounds for boasting that by our will or brilliant minds caused us to see the truth or to have faith which God saw that we would exercise. But if our salvation rests not on our will or effort, but only on God who shows mercy (Romans 9:16), then He gets all the praise and glory. For the risen mighty Lord Jesus can open your eyes to get a glimpse of His glory and grace, and you will never be the same. Paul’s testimony teaches us that being zealously religious does not reconcile us to God. Rather, salvation is totally by God’s grace and power, not by anything in us.
- What was it that caused the bleeding and broken apostle Paul to ask for permission to speak? A swelling passion for his people — the desire even to be anathema for their sake, that they might know Christ. Consider that the source of false zeal is either some selfish interest, as in the case of the Jews, the Romanists, etc.; or party spirit, national feeling; or false doctrine, hatred of the truth. The source of true zeal, as a Christian grace, is the Holy Spirit, as the Author of all good, together with spiritual apprehension of the excellence of its object, whether it be God, truth, or the Church. For false zeal can be seen in its effects: 1) False zeal is malignant; true is benevolent. The one is the fervor of the unrenewed; the other of the renewed mind — as illustrated by Jesus and the Jews. 2) False zeal is proud; true zeal is humble. The one arises from a sense of superiority which it seeks to assert and vindicate; the other from such views of God and things Divine as tend to produce humility. 3) False zeal is irreverent; true is reverent. For true zeal is connected with a holy life. True zeal is consistent — it burns with a steady flame. It is humble — not puffed up nor vaunting itself. It is pure — shunning all evil methods. It is learnt from Christ, who was full of zeal, because He was love itself. Its secret is the love which Christ’s love kindles in human hearts. Let us seek, then, a zeal which is pure and undefiled, which will endure the searching test of God.
- Have you challenged yourself as to your motives for the things you do? Have you asked yourself: “Lord, You see what I’m about to do here. Is this for Your glory or for mine? Examine my heart. Am I desiring to give You praise or keep some for myself?” Paul’s testimony teaches us that God often must humble us before He extends His mercy toward us. God does not always humble us to the degree that He humbled Paul before we are converted. But if at some time we have not been humbled before God’s majesty, it shows that we barely know Him. In John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin exalts God and shows us how to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God. Consider his words in the second section of the opening chapter: “Again, it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy — this pride is innate in all of us — unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity. Moreover, we are not thus convinced if we look merely to ourselves and not also to the Lord, who is the sole standard by which this judgment must be measured… As a consequence, we must infer that man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty… [So] that, humbled and cast down, we may learn to tremble at his judgment and esteem his mercy.” Such humble submission to God is a mark of true conversion. Paul’s two questions that he asks God here are good ones to ask every time you approach Him through His Word: “Who are You, Lord?” and, “What shall I do, Lord?” What we have done, we may repent of — what we shall do tests the sincerity of our repentance. If He gives you even a brief glimpse of His power and glory, you will be laying prostrate with Paul, asking, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” For humility increases when we are willing to be humbled by God, circumstances, and others. Our sinful natures do not want to be humbled. We tend to protect our pride as though it were our best friend, but pride gets in the way of our relationship with God. He resists the prideful but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). He will work with us when we desire humility, but the development of humility will be painful. Despite the discomfort, we find an added measure of grace to sustain us as we suffer through the refining process. For the Bible lavishes praise on the humble and of course, Jesus modeled perfect humility (Matthew 11:29). Paul reminded the Corinthians that, even though he was an apostle and their spiritual elder, he was humble when he was among them (2 Corinthians 10:1). Jesus taught that those who wish to be great must be the most humble (Matthew 23:12). Many places in Scripture command us to humble ourselves (Ephesians 4:2; 1 Peter 3:8; 1 Peter 5:6). If we don’t humble ourselves, God will do it, and that can be even more painful (Luke 1:52; Luke 18:14).
- Why should the word Gentiles have upset the Jews so much? Paul had been doing everything possible to stress how Jewish he was. He even gave the story of his conversion a Jewish emphasis: he pointed out that Ananias was a devout Jew. When Ananias came and talked to him, he talked in Jewish terms, according to Paul’s account: “The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One” (Acts 22:14). Paul did not even use the word “Jesus.” He had done everything he could to bridge the gap; but as soon as he uttered the word Gentiles, the mob reacted violently and would have killed him if it could have. Why did they object to that word? They were objecting to Paul’s persuasion that Gentiles could be saved without adhering to the law of Moses, without becoming Jews. But God saves people his way, and his way is through Christ. If you are a Gentile, you can come as a Gentile. But it must be through Jesus Christ alone. If you are a Jew, you can come as a Jew. But you must come through Christ alone. Why must we come in this way and not in some other way? Why can’t we invent our own way? It is because God sent Jesus Christ to be the Savior. This is how God has done it. So, when we talk about the gospel today, we are not talking about a religious opinion, though the world would like to make it that. We are talking about reality, about truth. But someone is always saying when discussing spiritual things or the gospel, “That’s just your opinion.” But whether it’s your opinion or not is not the point. The point is, is it true? God sent Jesus Christ to be the Savior. If you rebel against that fact, you are doing exactly what the Jews did. It is not saying you have to become a Jew first, though you may say so if you are Jewish. But you are saying that you have to do something first and you want others to do it your way. If you are thinking like that, it is no wonder you despise and even hate a gospel as humbling as this gospel is. It may be simple and it may be humbling, but it is still the gospel, and it is the way to be saved. May God give you grace to embrace it wholeheartedly.
- Do we not know that God not only saves people through Christ, he also gives them a mission for life and provides the Holy Spirit’s power to accomplish that mission? When God brings a person to faith, he already knows how he will use that one in His service, though sometimes we are slow to understand that plan and perhaps may even resist it. We see in Paul’s testimony teaching that God saves us for His purpose, not for our agendas. But, Paul’s audience reacted emotionally to his message. The Jewish crowd was not thinking rationally at this point. It was pride and prejudice that blinded these people from calmly thinking through what Paul was saying. Any time people react emotionally to the gospel, they should calm down and ask themselves why. Paul didn’t get a chance here to get them to do this. But if you’re witnessing to someone who reacts emotionally, don’t get drawn into his response by getting emotional yourself. Rather, try to get him calmed down enough to examine his reaction. But, by no means give up on the central doctrines of the gospel and their implications. We must not attempt to shape God to the culture, rather than summoning the culture to turn to God. The idea of conforming God to our cultural ideals remains tempting. Adapting the doctrines of the gospel to today’s culture might lead to less suffering and mockery for Christians. To do that, however, would mean compromising the gospel and the message of salvation. If your desire for cultural relevance supersedes your theological commitment to the Christian faith, then you will not preach good news, though you might proclaim culturally popular news. Christians must know how the gospel offends the most deeply-held assumptions and values of any society, so that we are prepared to challenge the culture when the gospel does offend. While God’s will for us does not always coincide with our perspective, He wants the message of His salvation to go to all the nations on earth. While we aren’t all called to be missionaries, neither are we called to live selfishly for ourselves while the nations perish in darkness. If, like the Jews of Paul’s day, we begin to grow comfortable about being God’s chosen people and ignore His purpose of reaching the lost, then we’re missing God’s purpose for our lives. Every Christian should ask himself, “How does God want me to fit into His purpose of being glorified among the nations?”
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