© 2000, J.W. Carter
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In the 21st chapter of Acts, we found Paul ending his third missionary journey by delivering a gift from the Macedonian churches to the struggling Christian church in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem church was unlike most of the other Christian churches in the first century in that it was almost exclusively Jews, or Gentiles who had taken on an allegiance to the Jewish law and traditions, becoming Jews. The church membership included a sect that was extremely bigoted against Gentiles. This group violently opposed any attempts to spread the gospel outside of Judaism. Consequently, it was this group that was opposed to Pauls ministry, and even though he was bringing a significant gift from that group of believers, the stage is set for conflict when Paul arrives in Jerusalem.
When Paul entered the temple to take part in a Jewish traditional practice, those opponents assumed that the Jews who were with him were Gentiles, and stirred up a riot as they accused Paul of desecrating the temple in such a way. The nearby Roman guard stepped in immediately and carried Paul away from the angry crowd as they were about to beat him to death. The crowd followed the Roman soldiers to their barracks where Paul was being taken. Upon entering the barracks, Paul asked to speak to the crowd. The Roman commander gave him permission to do so.
Men, brethren, and fathers, hear ye my defence which I make now unto you. 2(And when they heard that he spake in the Hebrew tongue to them, they kept the more silence: and he saith,)
It does not take a lot of rhetoric to convince one that we live in an evil world. We see Satan making inroads at every station of our culture, destroying lives through war, genocide, and abortion, and turning people from God to any number of alternative ideologies. The news media, which shapes so much of public opinion, is securely in Satans hands as it propagates secular humanistic and relativistic ideology. This same agenda has misinterpreted the constitution to create a "separation of church and state" that has secularized our schools to the point where children are now openly taught secular humanist ideology.
Meanwhile, the church is silent. When called upon to give an account of their faith, most Christians are silent. The desire for a God-centered lifestyle is shared by a great majority of our population. The desire for evangelism is shared by many, but that desire is often not expressed in action. What is keeping the church silent? What is keeping Christians from telling others of the reason for their faith? While the church remains silent, untold millions of people are kept from hearing the gospel, and our culture moves further and further into the abyss of secularism.
We can learn something from Pauls experience that is recorded in the 22nd chapter of Acts, as he took the opportunity to give an account of his faith to his persecutors. Why did the crowd become quieted when Paul spoke at the entryway to the Roman barracks? He spoke in Aramaic, the common language of the people. Paul was fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. He probably also knew words and phrases from a variety of languages and dialects in the region. By speaking in Aramaic he was identifying himself with the people to whom his defense was directed. It is interesting to note that if he was speaking to the Pharisees, he would have spoken Hebrew. Instead, Paul saw this as another opportunity to share the gospel.
So, two important components of testimony are demonstrated here: (1) Paul identified with those to whom he spoke, and (2) he took advantage of the opportunity to share the gospel.
I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day. 4And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women. 5As also the high priest doth bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders: from whom also I received letters unto the brethren, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished.
From this point, Paul delivers a personal testimony. There are occasions when a Christians personal testimony can and should be shared. People might argue theology, but cannot rebut a testimony. Pauls testimony of the circumstances of his salvation lay the groundwork for the sharing of the gospel. He first identifies that he, like those he is addressing, is a Jew. Though he was born in Tarsus of Celicia, he grew up in Jerusalem. Furthermore, he studied as a Pharisee under the teaching of Gamaliel. Gamaliel is only mentioned here, and in Acts, chapter 5, when he came to speak in the defense of Peter and John. Gamaliel was a well-respected teacher of the Law who would have led Paul in the memorization of the written and oral traditions, further solidifying his position as a learned Jew.
He then further identifies with the Pharisees as he reminds them that not only was he a Pharisee, but that he was as zealous for God as they are (providing them with an off-hand compliment) He also noted that, like them, he persecuted the Christians to the point of death, delivering to prison not only men, but women and children also. It is apparent that, along with the high priest, Ananias, and the makeup of the Sanhedrin had not changed much over the years, as Paul points out that they would remember him themselves. It was under their orders that he was carrying out this persecution.
In a way, Paul was (3) describing his life before he became a Christian, another component of a testimony. Sharing our way of life before we met Jesus can often be a powerful part of our testimony. However, it should always be presented in a way that glorifies God, and is appropriate for the situation. It should not be a "look how bad I was" type of statement, since no person is good in and of themselves alone. When taken to the extreme, such statements can be self-glorifying, and should be avoided.
And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. 7And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? 8And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest. 9And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me. 10And I said, What shall I do, Lord? And the Lord said unto me, Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do. 11And when I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus. 12And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews which dwelt there, 13Came unto me, and stood, and said unto me, Brother Saul, receive thy sight. And the same hour I looked up upon him. 14And he said, The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth. 15For thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard. 16And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.
If Paul could have accomplished only one thing through his sharing of this testimony, it would be to convince some Jews that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Paul did not teach that Christianity was separate from Judaism. Paul respected the oral and traditional Jewish laws, and repeatedly stated that their application was appropriate for Jews. He embraced the scriptures and often pointed out their prophesies concerning the coming Messiah. Finally, he saw Christianity as the fulfillment of Judaism, not separated from it. When sharing the gospel with anyone who believes in Judaism, our testimony as Christians is similar: Jesus is the Messiah. When we share our testimony with others who are not waiting for this Messiah, our message is that Jesus is Lord. By using such a message, we are shaping our testimony to the needs of the hearer.
This brings us to another step in a testimony that (4) we can describe how we came to become a Christian in a way that the hearer can identify with it. God must go ahead of us to prepare the heart of one who is to receive the gospel, and by sharing our experience it is possible that the one hearing the testimony can identify with it.
This is one of three such testimonies of the Damascus road experience that is recorded in the New Testament. In this one Paul stresses the "Jewishness" of his experience. He was surrounded by his Jewish companions on the road, and taken to the house of Ananias, a devout and respected Jew in that community. The key to his testimony, at this point, can be entirely missed in our culture and is mentioned in verse 16.
Paul states that he came to obedience to God by calling upon the "name" of Jesus. This brings us to another testimony step: we should (5) describe how salvation is specifically accomplished. Our sharing of the gospel is lacking if we do not provide the hearer with the opportunity to come to faith in Christ. We can give testimony of how wonderful our experience is, but if the hearer cannot share that same experience, the testimony falls short of its purpose. For many, bringing people to the point of making a decision for the gospel is difficult. One way to do this is to simply share how this took place in your own life.
It is necessary for anyone who is to be saved to "call upon the name of the Lord." This does not mean shouting the name "Jesus," as the literal English translation might imply. In ancient Hebrew culture a persons name defined who they were. When we speak of the "name" of Christ, we are referring to the entire scope of who He is, and to the hearer of the gospel He is first, Savior, and Lord. By being Savior, Jesus saves us from the eternal separation from God that results of the deserved condemnation for our sin. By being Lord, we are motivated to follow Jesus in obedience. Belief in who Jesus "is" is simply not enough. Satan intimately knows who Jesus is and believes everything about Him to be true. He has first-hand knowledge of Jesus. It is the rejection of Jesus authority that eternally condemns Satan, and eternally condemns every person to rejects Him.
And it came to pass, that, when I was come again to Jerusalem, even while I prayed in the temple, I was in a trance; 18And saw him saying unto me, Make haste, and get thee quickly out of Jerusalem: for they will not receive thy testimony concerning me. 19And I said, Lord, they know that I imprisoned and beat in every synagogue them that believed on thee: 20And when the blood of thy martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him. 21And he said unto me, Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles.
Paul then continues his testimony by (6) describing the change that took place in his life after he became a Christian. He describes how he understood, without question, that his testimony would be rejected by the Jerusalem Jews. By doing this he was bringing his testimony back to the present situation where he was being violently rejected by those same Jerusalem Jews.
There are no guarantees that our testimony will be received in the manner in which it is given. When giving a testimony we (7) cannot compromise the truth in an attempt to make it easier to receive. The center of Pauls life since he met Jesus was his ministry to the Gentiles. The other Jerusalem Apostles could not entirely overcome their prejudice against Gentiles, and were relatively ineffective in that area of ministry. (However, we should note that Paul was not the only apostle to take the gospel to the Gentiles. We do not know what the true "Acts of the Apostles" were. For example, traditional history indicates that Thomas went to India.)
And they gave him audience unto this word, and then lifted up their voices, and said, Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live. 23And as they cried out, and cast off their clothes, and threw dust into the air,
The quiet crowd suddenly exploded with violence. What had Paul said that had aroused them again to such hatred? The city that had killed the prophets and crucified the Son of God had not changed. Pauls statement that God had ordained him to take the faith to Gentiles could not be resolved with their religious bigotry and hatred of them. Such words were considered blasphemy, and for that crime, Paul should be put to death. What was the significance of their throwing off of their cloaks and flinging dust into the air? Such an act was their way of demonstrating mourning. By going through these motions they were expressing their piety, and how such a statement against God was so hurtful. The hypocrisy of their act is laughable. It may be hard for us to understand how a people can be so religious, so pious, and yet so hypocritical. These people were so defined by their traditions that anything that would threaten those traditions was unequivocally rejected without regard to the truth.
There is a time when our testimony cannot be received. These peoples hearts were so hardened by their bigotry and their demand to protect their traditions that they could not hear the truth. They clung to their beliefs to the point of irrationality. Once a person is irrational, it is impossible to communicate with them rationally. It is time to move on. It is this same irrationality that will forever prevent a peaceful settlement of the conflict in the Middle East. Jewish tradition and culture have been 160 generations in the making. It is this culture that taught them to despise Paul to the point where they wanted him dead. If you do not agree with them, you "are not fit to live." Such is the testimony of bigotry.
The chief captain commanded him to be brought into the castle, and bade that he should be examined by scourging; that he might know wherefore they cried so against him. 25And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned? 26When the centurion heard that, he went and told the chief captain, saying, Take heed what thou doest: for this man is a Roman. 27Then the chief captain came, and said unto him, Tell me, art thou a Roman? He said, Yea. 28And the chief captain answered, With a great sum obtained I this freedom. And Paul said, But I was free born. 29Then straightway they departed from him which should have examined him: and the chief captain also was afraid, after he knew that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him. 30On the morrow, because he would have known the certainty wherefore he was accused of the Jews, he loosed him from his bands, and commanded the chief priests and all their council to appear, and brought Paul down, and set him before them.
The Romans had heard all they had needed in order to conduct the next step in this punitive process. The Jewish traditions condemned anyone to death who spoke blasphemy (the charge used against Jesus), and anyone who entered the temple courts who was not worthy. However, because of Roman rule, capital punishment was not assessed for these crimes. The individual was scourged instead, the same treatment that Jesus received immediately prior to his crucifixion.
However, Roman law superceded Jewish tradition, and one such law forbade brutal treatment of Roman citizens. The penalty for brutalizing a Roman citizen was to receive the same treatment. In cases where such a citizen died, the one who caused the death was occasionally required to carry the dead body around for a significant period of time. Pauls announcement that he was a Roman citizen was not taken lightly by the Centurion. To lie about this was punishable by death. Certainly, the Centurion had no interest in continuing this process. Even the fact that they had placed Paul in chains was of grave concern.
Since he could not use coercion on Paul, the commander decided to bring Paul before the Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, to see if the conflict could be settled. A failure to bring settlement that would result in riots in the streets would be dealt with brutally by Rome, resulting in a punishment and replacement of the chain of command. Pauls standing on his status as a Roman citizen would shape remaining years of his life as his appeals for justice would enable him to share the gospel with the members of the Roman chain of command all the way to Caesar.
In this event we saw the testimony of Paul before the people. We saw several components of his testimony that we can apply today as we are called to give an account of our faith:
1. Identify with those to whom the testimony is to be given.
2. Take advantage of every opportunity to share the gospel.
3. Describe your life prior to knowing Christ.
4. Describe the events of your coming to know Christ.
5. Describe, specifically, your decision to accept Christ.
6. Describe the change that took place in your life as a result of your decision for Christ.
7. Realize that your testimony may be rejected.
As ministers of the gospel, all Christians are to give an account of their faith at every opportunity to do so. Only when Christians are willing to speak up will we be able to truly serve as the salt and light that we are commissioned to be. Until we do, we can expect society to continue its downward spiral into the abyss of sin.