Paul continues his proclamation by recounting his witness of Jesus. He recounts his past opposition to Jesus of Nazareth and of how he sought the death of Jesus’ followers (as had Agrippa’s father). All this changed when on the way to Damascus he encountered a light from heaven, brighter than the sun. Agrippa’s Jewish background would have understood this to being a theophany – an appearing of God to reveal himself. Paul is identifying Jesus with God in this way.
Paul then quotes the words of Jesus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” Agrippa’s Roman background would have recognized this Greek proverb that was current in his day. To kick against the goads was a proverb that meant to resist the will of the gods. The point is that one cannot effectively resist divine will. Again, the words identify divinity with Jesus.
What was God’s will in Jesus that it was futile for Paul to resist? Paul is called to be a servant and a witness. This is Isaiah language as is the reference to opening the eyes that people might turn from darkness to light. The words draw on the following ideas seen repeatedly in the book of Acts:
- Israel is the LORD’s servant but has become blind spiritually.
- Through the ministry of a particular individual servant of the LORD, Israel’s blindness would be healed.
- The healing of this spiritual blindness would enable Israel to see the salvation work of God (achieved the individual suffering servant).
- Having become a witness to this saving work, Israel would then take the good news to the Gentiles with the effect of turning the nations from the power of Satan and the blindness of idolatry so that the Gentile nations would also receive forgiveness of sins and a place among God’s people.
This Paul saw his calling and ministry as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s words. That is why Paul says he declared the gospel first in Jerusalem then throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance – the three gospel expansions mentioned by both Isaiah and Acts 1.
Paul’s summary then is that he testifies to “both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”
Finally, Paul begins to urge Agrippa that believing in the prophets, as he does, logically means that he should follow Jesus. Agrippa deflects, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” Paul counters, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.” Agrippa does acknowledge however that Paul has done nothing to deserve death or imprisonment and where it not for his appeal to Caesar he could have been freed – but Paul’s goal is not freedom but gospel proclamation in Rome.
Festus still does not understand any of this and like for the tribune it makes no sense. Their ignorance remains unlike for us who have seen the light and turned from the darkness. Knowing the God who of the future resurrection and judgment, knowing the God of the present providence and knowing the past revelation of God’s plan – we know the God who was, is, and is to come.
It is a great thing to be a Christian!