1Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defence: 2“King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defence against all the accusations of the Jews, 3and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently. 4The Jews all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. 5They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee. 6And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today. 7This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. O king, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me. 8Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead? 9I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them. 12On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’
15Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. 17I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”
Saul of Tarsus, before his dramatic conversion on the Damascus Road was convinced that he was on a mission inspired by God. He was a zealot for the Pharisees, and he totally rejected this new sect called Christianity. He was determined to wipe Christians from the face of the earth. Commissioned by the authorities, he went from house to house rounding up early Christian believers and had them thrown into prison. He was there when the first Christian martyr Stephen was stoned to death, and applauded his execution. He was delighted to take on his assignment to go to Damascus to continue his massacre of Christians. It was on the Damascus Road that he met the Holy One of God.
The change in Paul’s life was dramatic, to say the least, and this former persecutor of the Christians became an Apostle of Jesus. This of course, brought him into direct conflict with his former colleagues, the Pharisees and religious leaders. He was regarded as a turncoat and a traitor to their cause. Only Jesus Himself was held in higher contempt, and they had him arrested and flogged, before putting him on trial.
Paul though, knew the law, and as Palestine was part of the Roman Empire, he reminded them that he was a Roman citizen. He spoke to Festus the Roman governor, and insisted that if he were going to be put on trial, that they send him to Rome to be tried there. That is the context of Acts 26. Just before leaving Jerusalem to face his trial in Rome, the Jewish king Agrippa asked for an audience with Paul, and chapter 26 records this conversation.
Saul, in his previous life, was absolutely dedicated to what he thought was his pursuit of righteousness.
In Philippians 3 he writes of himself that he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” (Philippians 3:5-6)
He was committed to legal perfection. The irony of it all was that the more zealous he was in pursuit of his goals, the more opposed he actually became to the work of God.
Not that God is opposed to the pursuit of righteousness. God wants us to pursue righteousness, but He stands opposed to the proud and the arrogant. He stands against those who are swelled up with self-righteousness. While Saul was convinced he was fighting for God, he was actually fighting against God. And in this ironic battle he was destined for a dramatic confrontation with the very Saviour he opposed.
Paul described his experience on the road to Damascus as starting with the appearance of a dazzling light. Verse 13 tells us that this happened at noon. It was a bright, clear day, yet Paul says, “I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions.”
For any other light to be noticed against the backdrop of the desert sun, especially at that time of day, it must have been incredibly bright. Paul called it a light from heaven, not from the sky.
The sun shines from the sky, but this was very different. Paul was in the presence of the heavenly glory of God and His holiness. God’s glory is the outward manifestation of His holiness. The brightness of His glory is so extreme, so brilliant that it eclipses the noonday sun. The Apostle John writes of this light in Heaven in Revelation 21:22-23, “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.”
The new Jerusalem has no sun simply because it has no need for the sun. The glory of God is so bright that the sun itself is overpowered by it. Paul was blinded by its rays.
We’ve all heard warnings against looking directly into the sun, but the blinding power of the sun, even if you were to look at it through the most powerful telescope you could find would not be anything as bright and as blinding as seeing the sheer holiness and glory of God. Remember God’s words to Moses in Exodus 33: “You cannot see my face, for no-one may see me and live.” Looking into the sun will blind you, but looking at the exposed holiness of God will consume you in an instant.
The glory of God reaches a magnitude of brightness far beyond that of the sun shining at full strength.
In an instant Saul was blinded, but that was just the start. With the light from heaven there also came a voice. Paul, when recollecting this experience identified the voice as speaking Aramaic, the native language of Jesus.
The voice addressed him personally, in the form of the repetition of his name: “Saul, Saul.”
This double form of address indicated a greeting of personal intimacy. It was the way God addressed Moses at the burning bush and Abraham at his altar on Mount Moriah. It was the same form Jesus used when calling to His Father on the cross: “My God, my God…”
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The voice didn’t ask why Saul was persecuting the Church. Rather, “Why do you persecute me?” To attack the Church of Christ is to attack Him personally.
All sin is ultimately directed against God. There is no such thing as private or personal sin. Every sin that is committed may affect others, but at its root every sin is a personal sin against God. Saul thought he was persecuting meaningless Christians, but he was sinning against the holy God of Heaven.
Jesus then asks the question, “Why do you kick against the goads?”
Ox goads were sharp spikes fastened to a wooden frame that were fixed to oxcarts behind the oxen. When an ox is stubborn and refuses to move forward, it often displays this stubbornness by kicking its feet backwards. When spanned to an oxcart, it will kick against the goads, which will then cause it to move forwards. An ox goad is an ancient cattle prod.
So we can imagine how dumb an ox would need to be if after kicking the goad once, it became so furious that it kicked it again and again. The more it kicks the goads, the more pain it inflicts on itself.
So basically, what Jesus was saying to Saul was, “You dumb ox! How stubborn you are to keep kicking the goads. You cannot win. Your battle is futile. It is time to surrender.”
Saul’s response was a simple, yet profound question. “Who are you, Lord?” Saul did not know the identity of the One who had just overpowered him, but of one thing he was certain - whoever it was, He was Lord.
In this experience Saul became Paul just as Jacob became Israel. The battle was over. Saul struggled with God and lost. Here, like Isaiah, Saul received his call and his commission to apostleship. His life was changed, and the course of world history was changed with it. In defeat Paul found peace.
After telling this story to King Agrippa, Paul added these words: “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.” As zealous as Saul had been in his fight against Christ, Paul became even more zealous in his fight for Christ. He had a vision of God’s holiness that was so intense, he never forgot it. He contemplated it and expounded its meaning throughout his letters to the Churches, many of which are now included in sacred Scripture.
He became a man who understood what it meant to be justified. For Paul the enmity between him and God – the holy war - was over, and he entered into a holy peace.
Each of us is born into that same holy war with God. Paul reminds us of that reality in Colossians 1:21 – “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour.”
The struggle we have with a holy God is rooted in the conflict between God’s righteousness and our unrighteousness. He is just, and we are unjust. This tension creates fear, hostility, and anger within us towards God. The unjust person doesn’t want the company of a just judge. We become fugitives, fleeing from the presence of the One whose glory can blind us and whose justice can condemn us.
We are at war with Him unless and until we are justified. Only the justified person can be comfortable in the presence of a holy God.
Paul continues in the next 2 verses by writing, “But now He has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation, if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.” (Colossians 1:22-23)
The first fruit of our justification is peace with God.
To the ancient Jew peace was a precious but elusive thing. The Middle East has always been a hotbed of political and military conflict. It’s a pattern which has replayed itself throughout history. It continues today, and will not end until Jesus returns.
The desire for peace for the Jews is so great, that the very word ‘peace’ is a daily greeting. Where we say hello or good-bye, the Jews simply say, “Shalom.”
Even today the greeting shalom remains an integral part of Jewish vocabulary.
To most people the word peace means an absence of military conflict. There is always great celebration when wars end and battle-weary soldiers return home, but this peace never lasts, so the peace God offers us is clearly something very different.
Most people are offended at the idea that they are at war with God, and it is really only after the transforming power of the Gospel that we’re able to look back and realise that it was true. Saul didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. In fact, he thought he was doing the work of God by trying to destroy Christianity. But after his Damascus Road experience, Paul, as he was now known, had his eyes opened by Jesus. And Paul talks about the same process each Christian goes through in Ephesians 2.
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.” (Ephesians 2:1-3)
And then he speaks of the dramatic change in the next 2 verses: “But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions - it is by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:4-5)
Whether we’re aware of it or not, one of our greatest desires is inner peace – that tranquil rest of the soul that means an end to a troubled spirit. And that only comes by being at peace with God.
We long for a lasting peace that we can depend on. This is precisely the kind of peace the apostle Paul found, preached and wrote about.
When our holy war with God ceases, when we are justified by faith, the war ends forever. With the cleansing from sin and the declaration of divine forgiveness we enter into an eternal peace treaty with God. This peace is a holy peace, a peace unblemished and transcendent. It is a peace that cannot be destroyed.
And when God signs a peace treaty, it is signed for an eternity. The war is over, and it is over forever.
Of course, we still sin. We still rebel and commit acts of hostility towards God, but He will always uphold His part of the peace treaty He signed in blood. He will not be drawn into warfare with us. We have an advocate with the Father. We have a mediator who keeps the peace. He rules over the peace because He is both the Prince of Peace and He is our peace.
We are now called the children of God. Our sins are now dealt with by a loving Father, not a military commander. We have peace. It is our eternal possession, sealed and guaranteed for us by Christ.
Our peace with God is not fragile. It is stable. When we sin, God is displeased, and He will move to correct us and convict us of our sin, and sometimes those lessons can be very painful. But He does not go to war against us.
RC Sproul writes, “His bow is no longer bent, and the arrows of His wrath are no longer aimed at our hearts. He does not rattle His sword every time we break the treaty.”
In one of St Augustine’s prayers he wrote, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it finds its rest in Thee.”
Paul calls this peace the peace that passes all understanding. It is a holy peace, a peace that is completely foreign to human reasoning.
It is the kind of peace that only Jesus can give, because it is the peace that He is.
Jesus told His disciples the day before His death, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)
His peace is our inheritance, and one of the great benefits of this peace is that we now have access to the Father once more. That immeasurable gulf between an infinitely Holy God and depraved sinners has been removed.
When Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, we’re told in Genesis 3:24 that God “placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” That ‘no entry’ sign kept us from God’s presence.
In the days of the Old Testament temple ordinary people no access to the throne of God. Even the high priest – the man who represented the people before God had strictly limited access. A thick curtain in the temple served the same purpose as the flaming sword in Genesis 3. It separated the Holy of Holies from sinful human beings.
But the moment Jesus died, the very instant the Just One died for the unjust, the curtain in the temple was torn. The presence of God became accessible to us. For the Christian the “No Entry” sign was removed from the gates of Heaven. We are now free to walk on holy ground. We have access to His grace, and not only that, but we have access to Him.
Justified people no longer need say to a Holy God, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.”
Now we are welcome in the presence of a holy God.
It is simply astounding that God would allow this, but He does.
I was listening to a podcast the other day when this often-heard objection to the Gospel was brought up: “I just cannot come to terms with a God who is supposed to be loving who will condemn people to hell. I can’t reconcile that with the idea of a good God.”
Michael McClymond, the professor of modern Christianity at St Louis University then quoted St Anselm from the Middle Ages who said, “You have not yet considered the weight of sin.” McClymond went on to say, “We can’t begin to answer this objection without a very strong sense of the distinction between God and His holiness and our sin. Sin is a profound violation of the nature of the world God has made. It’s a tear in the fabric of the Universe. Yet God in His mercy, chooses to save sinners, so I would say that the astonishing thing is not that anyone is separated from God in hell, but that anyone is saved at all.”
It is really only when we consider the weight of sin, that the magnitude of what God has done through Christ will begin to dawn on us.
We can feel welcome in the presence of God. Of course, we must never forget just who He is and what He has saved us from. This means we come before Him in awe, in a spirit of reverence and adoration, but the wonderful news of the Gospel of Christ is that we can come.
Hebrews 4:14-16 says, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
The Bible invites us to approach the throne of grace with confidence. Other translations use the word boldness. As justified people we can be bold in approaching God.
To be bold or confident must not be confused with being arrogant. That was what Saul was when he was an arrogant, legalistic Pharisee.
When we come before our Holy God in holy peace, we must remember two things: Who He is, and who we are. That will always give us a healthy understanding of this access we now have to God.
For the Christian the holy war is over, because a holy peace has been declared, and the peace treaty has been signed by the blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Access to the Father is ours. But we still must tremble before Him. He is still holy.
Luther put it like this: “We are to fear God not with a servile fear like that of a prisoner before his tormentor, but as children who do not wish to displease their beloved Father.”
What a joy it is to know that we can come to God in confidence, knowing that as we come into His presence we find grace, mercy, and holy peace.
Homegroup Study Notes
Read Colossians 1:21-23 and Ephesians 2:1-5
Discuss the radical transformation that Paul describes in these verses.
How did you come to realise that you were once an object of God’s wrath and at war with Him?
Through Jesus’ sacrifice, God has given us His holy peace, but what does this mean when we continue to sin?
Discuss the differences between God’s discipline and punishment.
One of the most common objections to the Christian faith is the idea that a loving God would send people to hell for eternity. How does the following statement help us to deal with this question?
“We can’t begin to answer this objection without a very strong sense of the distinction between God’s holiness and our sin. Yet God in His mercy, chooses to save sinners. The astonishing thing is not that anyone is separated from God in hell, but that anyone is saved at all.” (Michael McClymond)
Read Hebrews 4:14-16
What does it mean to say we can approach God with confidence?
What can we do to guard against coming into His presence flippantly or even with arrogance?