Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Details, Details …

Hebrews says that God spoke by the prophets (and presumably to the prophets) “at many times and in many ways”. Among these methods were visions, dreams and riddles.

The apostle Peter had one such experience on the housetop of Simon the tanner while waiting for a bite to eat and praying. Luke says, “He fell into a trance.” Peter heard a voice uttering actual words (as opposed to merely receiving an impression) and saw an accompanying vision, but the end result was perplexity, not sudden clarity.

Peter had indeed witnessed something spiritually meaningful, but had yet to find the appropriate context in which to apply the instruction he had received.

An Absence of Ambiguity

Saul’s road-to-Damascus vision of the risen Christ was not like that. There was no ambiguity about it. In recounting the incident to King Agrippa, he notes this: “I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language …”

This is an interesting bit of seemingly trivial information, and it hasn’t come up before despite the fact that Paul’s conversion account is one of the most repeated stories outside of the gospels. The apostle has given testimony to his transformation on two other occasions: to a crowd of rioting Jews in Jerusalem, and in his letter to the Galatians.

Luke also documents the event in Acts as part of his historical record of the early church.

Paul’s Four Conversion Accounts

As has been noted elsewhere, there are differences between the four conversion accounts, all of them logical in the various contexts. In giving the history in Acts 9, Luke has no reason to explore the specifics of the mission the Lord Jesus would give to Saul: he moves right on to the story of Ananias’ visit. In reaching out to a crowd of rioting Jews in Acts 22, Paul understandably avoids mentioning his mission to the Gentiles as long as possible, since as soon as this truth comes out, the crowd goes crazy and his testimony comes to an abrupt end. In Galatians, his point is that the gospel he preached was revealed to him by Jesus Christ directly, which makes it absolutely authoritative. The details of his conversation with the Lord on the road to Damascus would just be clutter.

So yes, there are plenty of perfectly good explanations for the different ways Paul’s testimony is framed from one account to the next.

A First Time for Everything

But why should a minor detail like the fact that Jesus Christ spoke to Saul in the Hebrew language that day on the road to Damascus matter to King Agrippa? Why should Paul mention it at all when he had never done so in any of the other accounts of his conversion?

One cannot be dogmatic about such things, of course, but I have noted repeatedly over the years that nothing in the pages of holy writ is irrelevant. Much of the specific significance of any particular word or phrase may now be inaccessible to the modern reader because of translation issues, differences in culture, inadequate knowledge of Bible history or the passage of time, but it mattered to somebody at some point. Quite often it mattered a great deal.

One possibility is that Paul was not merely engaged in defending himself from the charges brought against him by the Jews, though he is certainly doing that. Rather, he is appealing to Agrippa’s conscience, and he seems to do a fairly decent job of it.

Kicking Against the Goads

He starts by establishing that he too had fought a battle against his own conscience: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads,” the Lord had told him. Unsurprisingly, it is only to Agrippa that Paul mentions this internal struggle and the Lord’s acknowledgement of it to him. Perhaps the king has good reason to relate to this.

He continues to make his appeal very pointed and personal:
“King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.”
That’s quite a confession to attempt to wrest from royalty in the presence of an unbelieving Roman governor and an audience of military tribunes and prominent men. It’s a major challenge. But that doesn’t stop Paul, and his question provokes Agrippa’s famous response:
“In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”
This has been read a variety of ways, none of which seem to me entirely dismissive.

Various Readings

Perhaps Agrippa’s reply was a rhetorical question, perhaps an exclamation of disbelief that Paul would be so brazen, perhaps an invitation for Paul to develop his case further. We can’t be sure.

One of the more interesting marginal takes is this:
“In a short time you would persuade me to act like a Christian!”
If this is the correct reading, Agrippa has correctly intuited that being a Christian involves a behavioral change, not just assent to a series of propositions or a contentless profession of faith. And I think this may well be what Agrippa is saying: he may be internally calculating the cost of confessing Christ in a roomful of unbelievers and wondering if Paul would really dare to ask so much of him.

The linguistic evidence for reading it this way is not easily dismissed: the word usually translated “be” in this passage is ginomai. While it has a broad semantic range, it is indeed used to describe actions (as opposed to mere head-knowledge) in Matthew 5:45, 10:16, 10:25, 13:22, 24:44, 28:4 and a host of other places.

An Offensive Defense

Further, Paul neatly turns the Lord’s explanation of his mission to him on the road to Damascus (undisclosed in the other three accounts, of course) into an opportunity to clearly lay out the way of salvation for not just the king but his entire audience:
“I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
Here Paul manages to squeeze forgiveness of sins and the vital concept of salvation by faith in Christ into his legal “defense”, making it probably the least ‘defensive’ defense in scripture. More like he’s in the other team’s red zone, if you’ll forgive a football analogy.

Goodbye Wiggle Room

If this is indeed Paul’s strategy (and it certainly seems like it to me), then introducing the relatively minor new twist that the risen Christ spoke to him in Hebrew actually makes a fair bit of sense, if only in this context. It demonstrates that there was nothing difficult to understand about the revelation he received.

In the Old Testament, God made statements in explicit language very rarely indeed: God’s dealings with Moses were a noted exception to his usual way of doing business. When God did speak clearly, his words were not to be dismissed. Agrippa, if truly familiar with the prophets and convinced of their truthfulness, would surely have known this.

Unlike Peter’s vision, which required some interpretation and a trip to Cornelius’s house before the penny finally dropped for him, and especially unlike the nebulous touchy-feely stuff we hear about modern ‘prophets’ and their revelations, Paul is detailing a series of unambiguous commands given to him in a known language with which the king himself was familiar.

There’s some solid authority in that, and not a lot of wiggle room.

Getting Practical

Are there lessons in here for us? I think so:
  1. Testimonies can be presented any number of ways, can’t they, while still being perfectly true. Certain features of our stories, the significance of which may be entirely lost on one audience, may be most convicting and relevant to another.
  2. The challenge to Agrippa to confess his belief, even if only in the truth of what the prophets had written, is an awfully good model to follow. Whether or not he responded in faith, a roomful of men and women got the same message.
  3. In scripture, details always matter.
That last one is a keeper, eh?

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