23 Nov 2020
A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 26:1-23 Paul makes his defence (continued).
Paul now turns from Christ’s commission to his response to it, and in describing this he replaces narrative with a direct address to Agrippa:
Paul begins his statement with a double negative: *I was not disobedient*. How could he have been? The vision was evidently from heaven, and it was overwhelming. His fanatical opposition was overcome in a moment, and his secret doubts resolved. Christ had appeared to him and commissioned him; his obedience corresponded precisely to the charge he had received. First in Damascus, next in Jerusalem and Judea, and then also to the Gentiles, he announced the good news and called on people to *repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds* (20). The word ‘turn’ in verse 20 is *epistrepho*, as in verse 18, even though there it is transitive, since it is Paul who is appointed to ‘turn’ people, while here it is intransitive, since it is the people who are exhorted to do the ‘turning’ in response to Paul’s preaching. These expressions are not contradictory; they explain each other. We notice also that Paul was clear from the beginning that, although salvation was by faith (18), it had to be evidenced by good works.
It was Paul’s proclamation and promises to the Gentiles (17, 20-21), indicating that they could receive the new life and join the new community directly, without first needing to become Jews, which had aroused Jewish opposition. Indeed, they had seized him in the temple courts and tried to kill him (21). But he was rescued from their hands, according to Christ’s promise (17), and God’s help had continued with him to that very day. So ‘*I stand here’* (22a), he cried (as Martin Luther was to say to the Diet of Worms centuries later), bearing witness (as Jesus had instructed him) to *small and great alike*, the nonentities of 1 Corinthians 1:26ff. as well as the dignitaries who were in court, *saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen* (22b). This renewed claim that Paul was not an innovator, but a faithful exponent of the Scriptures, also had its parallel in Luther and other sixteenth-century Reformers. They were accused by the Roman Catholic Church of teaching novelties. But they denied it. ‘We teach no new thing’, Luther claimed, ‘but we repeat and establish old things, which the apostles and all godly teachers have taught before us.’ Or, as Lancelot Andrewes was to say a century later, ‘we are renovators not innovators’.
And what did Moses and the prophets say would happen? They predicted three events: first *that the Christ would suffer*, secondly that he would be *the first to rise from the dead*, and as such, thirdly, that he *would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles* (23) – (cf. Lk. 24:45-47). More simply still, Jesus the Christ was Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’ of the Lord, who would suffer and die for our sins (Is. 53:4ff.), be raised and highly exalted (Is. 52:13; 53:12), and become a light to the Gentiles (Is. 42:6; 49:6; cf. 60:3). Further, as the Gospel centres on Christ’s atonement, resurrection and proclamation (through his witnesses), the resurrection is seen to be indispensable. Paul kept on referring to it during his trials, not in order to provoke the Pharisees and Sadducees into argument, nor only to show that he was faithful to the Jewish tradition, but because the resurrection of Jesus was the beginning and pledge of the new creation, and so at the very heart of the gospel.
Tomorrow: Acts 26:24-32. The judges react to the prisoner.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.