In Acts 21, while Paul and his companions were in Philip’s house in Caesarea, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea and told them that when Paul gets to Jerusalem, the Jews would bind Paul and turn him over to the Gentiles. Paul goes to Jerusalem, the Jews attack Paul and Roman soldiers had to keep the mob from killing him. Paul asks permission from the Romans to speak to the mob, and Paul gives his testimony to the Jewish mob.
The reason why the crowd was so riled up was because they were told that Paul was teaching others to break away from Jewish traditions and even defiled the temple by bringing Gentiles into it. Paul starts out by establishing his credentials as a Jew: He considers himself a Jew and he was well trained in the Law by one of the great teachers of the law, Gamaliel, and that he was a staunch defender of their religion and persecuted the Christians, believing that Jesus was a false messiah and that His followers were defiling God and the Jewish religion.
Having established his Jewishness, Paul goes on to describe his conversion: How on the road to Damascus he was hit by a blinding light. How the risen Jesus spoke to Paul and told him to go to Damascus where he will be told what he is to do. When he got to Damascus, how Ananias told him that Jesus had called him to do missionary work among the Gentiles.
Although Luke didn’t write this passage to give us a model for how to give our testimony, we could learn from it. Before going into how he became a Christian, Paul established identity or commonality with the audience. Once this common ground is established, he then proceeds to the conversion account.
So, how successful was this approach for Paul in this instance? In verse 22, we are told that the crowd decided to kill Paul. This is a good reminder to us that just because we are doing what the Lord led us to do, that our desired outcome is not guaranteed. As the Lord’s servant, all we can do is what we are led to do, and not worry about the outcome – That is up to the Lord. Is it possible that some in the crowd came to know the Lord through this, but much later? We just don’t know, but like in the parable of the sower, the important thing is to sow the seeds. The seeds may not grow into fruitful trees, but there is no chance of that, if the seeds are not sown.
When we look at Paul’s account of his conversion, we see that it was not just about Paul coming to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. He saw and heard things that he could not on his own and he was given a calling – a vocation. Now that he was accepting Jesus as Messiah, he also now knew that his calling was to testify about Christ to the Gentiles.
This is what Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
We might think or hope that the reason we came to believe in Christ was so God could shower us with His love and goodness so that we can live a happy life on earth as well as in eternity. If we just focused on that, we may forget that we were called to do His works on earth. Further, doing His works may include misunderstandings, oppositions, hardships, and even death.
When God created Adam and placed him in the garden of Eden, the first thing he gave him was a vocation, a calling – to take care of the garden. When Paul was shown the light, he was given a calling. What is our calling? According to Acts, the Holy Spirit was given to us so that we can be witnesses to people near and far that Jesus is the Son of God and the savior of the world.
Each of us are given different roles to play. We can trust that the Holy Spirit will guide and direct us to the who, what, when and where.
One thing that caught my attention about Paul’s testimony is that he specifically brings up Stephen. Acts 8:1 tells us that a young man named Saul was there when Stephen was stoned to death and that he approved of their killing him. This Saul was the pre-conversion Paul, and he was helping by keeping the coats of the men who were murdering Stephen, so that they could throw the stoned harder and better.
The stoning of Stephen occurred about 30 years prior to Paul’s testimony in this passage. Thirty years ago from today (2022) would be 1992. What do we remember from 1992? Some events from 1992: Riots in LA due to the acquittal of those who killed Rodney King; Johnny Carson hosts his last Tonight Show; Hurricane Iniki devastates Kauai; Toronto Blue Jays become the first non-U.S. team to win the World Series; the first smartphone, the IBM Simon, is introduced; Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia dissolved. When pointed out, we remember these things, but would not have otherwise remembered them.
We tend to remember major events in our lives. We also remember things we regret doing, and the killing of Stephen seems to be one of those things that Paul remembered. Otherwise, he would not have included it in his testimony.
Once Paul became a Christian and tried to live according to his calling, he probably felt a kinship to Stephen. Stephen was performing his calling when he was killed. Not only was he willing to go through hardship and even death for his calling, but the last thing he asked His Lord to do was to forgive those who were stoning him.
Paul was not using this memory of Stephen to beat himself up or play “what if” games – It was a reminder of his great sinfulness and in contrast, the great love of God that would forgive his sins and even give him a calling for the Kingdom. This sense of appreciation fueled Paul’s dedication to his calling, even to the point where he now stands where Stephen did – giving testimony to who Jesus is, even if it meant arrest and death.
When memories or reminders of our past sins come into our minds, don’t try to wipe it out or ignore it. Use it as a reminder of God’s great capacity to love, forgive and use us, regardless of our sins. This should energize us to commit to our calling – a calling that our great and loving God gives to each one of us.