For the proclamation of the Gospel and the edification of the Body of Christ
Three aspects of Paul's vision on the way to Damascus.
"Whereupon, king Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision" (Acts 26:19).
This is the third time in the book of Acts that the story of Saul's conversion appears, and it is the second time that he himself has to speak about it. The first time is in Acts chapter 9, where Luke locates the moment in which this fact chronologically occurred.
A man in weakness
Now, it is no coincidence that this happens three times. How many times did Jesus pray in the garden? How many times did Peter deny Jesus? When Jesus having resurrected, meets Peter, how many times did he ask him: " Do you love me? "? How many times did Paul pray that the thorn be taken from his flesh? How many times was Peter shown the vision of the sheet? Whenever something appears three times, it is related to a great weakness, a weakening; there is an understanding of how fragile we are in our humanity, how we come up short.
Paul probably told of his conversion more times than this. He was imprisoned for at least two and a half years, and was called by the tribunals to ask him why he was there. But the fact that the Scripture registered it three times indicates that Paul had understood how much of his weakness surrounded this episode. In fact, he was in chains; he was imprisoned. Upon having used this expression, "I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision", it is important that we understand the fragility that Paul saw in himself.
On the other hand, at the height of his life, Paul had spent at least 25 years following the Lord. He was a believer, a servant of the Lord, mature, with a very rich experience, which is expressed in his letters. When he wrote the second letter to the Corinthians, he gave his own curriculum vitae, with such elements as: "Thrice have I been scourged... three times I have suffered shipwreck ... in fastings often ... in labour and toil...". So, before saying these words, Paul had years of experience following the Lord, he had written at least six letters, had finished the three missionary trips known from the book of Acts, and had filled the world with the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
What do you think about being able to say: "I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision"? This man, in weakness, but strengthened by the grace of the Lord, was able to say it. And after twenty-five years, when he came before Agrippa, he called to remembrance his conversion. Paul had to remember it whilst in chains.
Christ's goad against Paul
There are three things that I want to look at in this passage. The first one is in Acts 26:14, the words of the Lord: "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against goads". When Paul is re-telling his conversion, after the light, more radiant that the sun had appeared, these are the first words that he remembers from our Lord. What is the goad against which Paul was kicking?
To understand this expression from the Lord, we have to see what he was narrating. Paul was a cruel man against the church; he was imprisoning the saints, was flogging them and compelling them to blaspheme Jesus' name. His anger was such that he asked for letters to go beyond Jerusalem, and to catch anyone that was invoking Jesus' name.
But: do you know what?, whenever Paul was imprisoning a believer or was taking one to be flogged, he began to listen to the words that came out of the mouth of those that had been flogged. He would have heard things like: "Thank you, Lord, because I am suffering for your name". And whenever he heard that, it was like a goad from the Lord that dug into Paul's conscience, to the point that Paul says: "I was present when Stephen died, and I was consenting his death, and I was keeping the clothes of those who were going to kill him".
Undoubtedly, Paul was there, when Stephen, full of the Spirit, saw God's glory and Jesus sat at the right hand of the Father, and proclaimed: "I behold the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God". And these words were yet another goad in Paul's conscience and heart, and he was reminded of the saints who were confessing Jesus' name.
Who taught Stephen to say those things when he was being stoned? Who taught him to say: "lay not this sin to their charge"? Can you imagine Saul, outraged, incensed, listening to these words? What words could fall harder on the conscience of this man?! Who taught Stephen this? Stephen was not with Jesus. He probably converted at the moment when Peter preached. He was with the apostles, and: who, of the apostles, most probably heard Jesus say: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do"? John!
John was at the feet of the cross, and heard Jesus saying: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do". Stephen, at some time, was most likely with John, who would have told him about the moment on the cross. And when John was telling this, Stephen would have been attentive. And he, by listening to John's words, would have begun to see the Lord, and there the glorious truth that Paul teaches in first Corinthians would have come to pass: We are transformed from glory to glory, into the image that we see; Christ.
Stephen at the time when they were stoning him did not have to remember that lesson, because the glory was in him. And when Paul listened to those words, and to many of the saint's words confessing Jesus' name, and seeing that they were praying for those who were persecuting them, received a sharp goad.
Brothers, let's not tire of doing good, because in time we will reap, if we do not lose heart. Today, God needs to goad the consciences of men. God needs to remind their consciences and: who does he have to do it? Us! You and to me, doing good, praying, blessing, endeavoring to love. So here's the first thing: "it is hard for thee to kick against goads". The goad was the life and words of Christ, manifested in the saints.
The vision tears us down or makes us disobedient
There is a second aspect from this moment of Saul's conversion. "when we were all fallen to the ground..." (Acts 26:14). When I read this expression, I recalled Isaiahs' proclamation, in chapter 6. "I saw the Lord…. And I said woe unto me! for I am undone; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, Jehovah of hosts". When we see something of heaven, when we discern something of the riches of the eternal glory in Christ Jesus, something in us is torn down; something in us falls down.
The heavenly vision cannot leave us indifferent. The heavenly vision tears us down, or we are disobedient. Faced with this vision, Isaiah says: "My lips are unclean", because he could not express that glory that he was witnessing with his lips. So he says: "Woe is me! I am undone".
Before Peter was converted, Jesus went to his house. That night Simon had not caught anything. Then the Lord said to him: "Draw out into the deep water and let down your nets for a haul". He was a fisherman, and he was sure that there were no fish. But when Jesus gave the word, an enormous quantity of fish came in. Peter began to glimpse something and reacted; he fell down onto his knees and said: "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, Lord!". He did not have to say to Peter: "You are a sinner". The Lord being with him was enough, Peter listening to him was enough, seeing this miracle was enough to make him say: "This man is the Lord!".
When John was on the island of Patmos, in the Spirit, on the day of the Lord, and he heard the voice of one who was behind him, he: "... fell at his feet as dead". So the heavenly vision knocks us down, it makes us fall down. Or we disobey. Why do I say that? Because, when Paul was speaking about his conversion before Agrippa, I notice Paul was evaluating and seeing what was happening in Agrippa's heart. Agrippa was being persuaded by the Lord. Paul knew that the work of the Holy Spirit was starting to affect Agrippa, and when he noticed this, he spoke saying: "Whereupon, king Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision". Paul knew by intuition that in Agrippa's heart there was rebelliousness, disobedience; a hardness of heart.
I think that it has been glorious to be among you; but I also say that what we have heard in these days has been frightening, because what we have heard tears us down, or makes us arrogant. But let's not believe that what we have heard will leave our hearts indifferent. Our heart is deceitful, more than all things; and we may become arrogant and harden ourselves to the heavenly vision.
Paul says: "I was not disobedient". What is glorious about the heavenly vision is that, be it as glorious as it may, we can still be disobedient. God is not going to impose things on us as a form of dominion. He is never going to do that. Jesus didn't do that. He called a rich young man, and said to him: "go, sell everything that you have and give it to the poor". And the rich young man returned home, and the Lord allowed him to go. That is glorious. When the heavenly vision comes to us, we must fall down before the Lord.
An encounter with true authority
There is a third thing that is in Acts 26:15. "And I said, Who art thou, Lord?". Think about Paul's expression. He did not know who he was; but he did know something: that he was the Lord. He didn't know whom he was hardening himself against. He had no idea. And Paul was honest and sincere about this. But he immediately knew something; the light that surrounded him made him fall down. He knew he was experiencing the reality of the Lord.
Jesus knew what Paul was going to be. He said to Ananias: "Go, for this man is an elect vessel to me". Here, Paul himself says: "I appeared to thee, to appoint thee to be a servant and a witness ...". So look at what awaited Paul. Paul was going to have a tremendous authority. He was in Ephesus for two and a half years, and the whole of Asia heard the word. And I believe that is why, when we encounter the Lord, we encounter his authority. In Paul's encounter, the issue of authority was vital, and that's why Paul asked: "Who art thou, Lord?". Considering the service that he was going to have, it was important that from the first day of his conversion he understood the nature of the authority that exists in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, this is not a human authority; it has absolutely nothing to do with any concept of authority that we observe from natural experience. It is not the authority of generals or captains, of governors or princes. It is a very different authority, and Paul realized that immediately; an authority that could be pursued by Paul. Paul had to have a clear encounter with this authority. That's why he asked the question: "Who art thou, Lord?", because he knew that he had faced such a different authority. He knew what authority was; he had asked for letters to go to Damascus; he knew how important going under authority was. But here, the Lord was showing him an authority that had no origin on the earth.
What is that authority like? In Revelation 5:5, there is a description of this authority. "And one of the elders says to me, Do not weep. Behold, the lion which is of the tribe of Juda, the root of David, has overcome so as to open the book, and its seven seals. And I saw in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, a Lamb standing, as slain". Where is the greatest expression of authority in the heavens? A Lamb as slain!
This authority arises from suffering, from sacrifice, from committing oneself entirely, from service, of surrendering to God's will. The greatest place of glory is where He who has the name above all other names is found, who was exalted up to the highest place, where the greatest authority resides; this power is in a Lamb as slain. Hallelujah! It has nothing to do with the idea of a captain or a general, or of a noble man. No! It is a Lamb as slain who is in the middle of the throne of God, who was exalted by the Father and given the place of glory.
He is the worthy One in our midst; He is the One who has authority. That's why there is a new song in the heavens, which did not exist before the Lamb ascended: "Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open its seals; because thou hast been slain, and hast redeemed to God, by thy blood, out of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation and made them to our God kings and priests; and they shall reign over the earth".
What an overwhelming scene! The One with maximum authority is a Lamb as slain! It is He who can say: "Forgive your brothers". What can I say to the Lamb who was slain? "And I saw, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and their number was ten thousands of ten thousands and thousands of thousands; saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that has been slain, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing". How amazing! This was the type of authority that Saul faced. And he surrendered, fell down, and gave his life to the Lord; he lost everything that it was necessary to lose and turned from everything that it was necessary to turn from.