Paul As God’s Witness
May 20th, 1979 @ 10:50 AM
PAUL AS GOD’S WITNESS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
5-20-79 10:50 a.m.
It is a gladness to welcome the uncounted thousands and thousands of you who are watching this service on television and listening to the hour on radio. This is the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor delivering the message entitled God’s Witness in Paul.
In our preaching through the Book of Acts, we are in chapter 26. And it finds Paul standing in the Roman Praetorium in the provincial capital of Judea named Caesarea. He is standing in a great defense of his life. And having recounted his conversion [Acts 26:12-18], he says:
O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision:
But showed first unto them at Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all of the regions of Judea, and finally to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God . . .
Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing . . . saying those things that Moses said should come:
That Christ should suffer, that He should be the first that should rise from among the dead, and should show light unto the nations.
And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice: Paul, thou art beside thyself; much studying doth make thee mad.
But he said, I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and sobriety.
Now the king knoweth of these things, before whom I speak: I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him . . .
King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.
Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.
And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these chains.
Walking around the ancient site of Caesarea, I saw a fluted, marble Corinthian column sticking at an angle out of a plowed field, about sixteen or eighteen inches of it visible. And I paused and looked at that beautifully carved Corinthian column, just the capital of it appearing. And I thought in my heart that maybe, I was standing above the place where the Praetorian palace was located on the marble polished floor of which Paul stood to deliver the defense of his life. A geologist had told me that out of the denuded hills and mountains of Judea, the rain had washed the soil, and it was deposited seventeen feet above the level of the plain, and underneath that debris and alluvial soil, somewhere are the remains of that Praetorian palace.
It was a dramatic day. It was one of the more poignant confrontations in history and in the Holy Word of God. Felix, a scoundrel, had been procurator of Judea for the two years previous and had left Paul in bonds, in chains, pleasing his enemies [Acts 24:27]. Festus was a noble Roman and was appointed by the emperor to be the procurator of the province in the place of Felix, who was recalled in disgrace [Acts 24:27]. But when Festus suggested that Paul stand trial for his life before him in Jerusalem, a conspiracy having provided an ambush to murder the apostle by the way [Acts 25:1-6], the apostle Paul appealed in the right of a Roman citizen to be heard by the Caesar himself in Rome. Festus said, “To Rome therefore you shall go” [Acts 25:11-12].
While Paul is in prison in Caesarea, awaiting his transportation to Rome, Festus is greeted by an illustrious couple. As a visitor, he has Herod Agrippa II, the king of Lebanon, and his consort who is his queen and wife, his own sister Bernice [Acts 25:13]. They are Jewish. They’ve heard of the Christian faith and of this man, Paul. So they make request to Festus, the procurator, that they be privileged to listen to the prisoner for themselves. Festus is delighted to acquiesce [Acts 25:22]. So at a set time, at a set day, on a raised dais, the illustrious group gathers to listen to the prisoner on the pavement below [Acts 25:23-24].
It is easy to imagine that striking and dramatic scene. Here is seated Festus the Roman procurator dressed in scarlet, surrounded by his lectors and legionaries. By his side is seated the king of Lebanon, Herod Agrippa II, dressed in his royal robes with royal insignia and surrounded by gaily dressed attendants and by his side, Bernice, her royal jewels flashing; her beautiful gown setting forth her matchless beauty. Around them, the captains and the magistrates of the imperial empire of Rome—these on a raised dais and below, on the marble, polished floor, a humble prisoner of state, chained and standing in humility [Acts 25:23-24].
What a contrast. Here raised high, luxury and affluence; there on the floor, poverty and need. Here, power; there, weakness. Here, pride; there, humility. Here, pampered self-indulgence; there, suffering, self-denial. Here, pride of mind; and there, humble obedience before God. Here on the raised dais, cynicism, secularism, materialism; and there, a sublime faith. Was ever such contrast ever seen by mortal eye? [Acts 25:23-24].
The prisoner is invited to speak for himself [Acts 26:1]. So Paul begins. And in his defense, he recounts his marvelous conversion on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus [Acts 26:12-20]. I made that journey one time, crossing the Pharpar and the Abana rivers. There is a place where tradition says Paul met the Lord above the brightness of a Syrian midday sun [Acts 26:13-15]. I remembered a saying that I had read. A student of history said, and I quote: “I have visited and studied all the great battle grounds of history, but this spot,” pointing to the conversion of where Paul was converted, “but this spot is the most meaningful and the greatest of them all.”
This man had been a vigorous persecutor of the Christian faith [Acts 22:4-5, 26:9-11]. He had been a champion of Judaism, and he thought he was right. But he had been marvelously, gloriously converted [Acts 9:1-18]. The conversion of any man is a miracle of God; your conversion and the conversion of the apostle Paul.
Then he says to the king and to those who illustriously surround him, he says, “The work that I do, the assignment that I have, my call to preach the gospel of the living Lord, comes from heaven. It is a mandate from glory” [Acts 26:16-23]. That’s a wonderful thing for a preacher to feel in his heart. Like Jeremiah, even though he was derided and ridiculed, persecuted, saying in his heart, “I will speak no more in His name for since I have spoken, I have been an object of ridicule and derision.” Then Jeremiah says, “But His word was in my heart as a burning fire in my bones and I could not forebear” [Jeremiah 20:9]. Or as Amos, “The lion hath roared, who will not fear? The Lord God hath spoken, who can but prophesy?” [Amos 3:8].
So the apostle Paul, standing in defense of his life, recounts his wonderful conversion [Acts 26:12-15], and adds to it his heavenly mandate to preach the gospel of the grace of the Son of God [Acts 26:16-23]. And as he speaks, in the midst of his eloquent address, Festus, the Roman procurator, breaks in and cries with a loud voice, “Paul, thou art beside thyself. Your studying has made you mad” [Acts 26:24]. This is ever the answer of cynicism, and secularism, and worldliness to the Christian commitment. You are irrational. You are mad. You are beside yourself. No, normal man would do that, say that, give his life to that.
One of the most interesting things you’ll read in the life of our blessed Lord is in the third chapter of the Gospel of Mark. In verse 21 it says: “That His friends when they saw what He was doing, they came to Him to lay hands upon Him, saying: He is beside Himself. He is mad. He has lost His reason” [Mark 3:21]. That, they said about the Lord Jesus. Coming down to the [thirty-first] verse it says: “Even His mother and His brothers came to get Him and called for Him” [Mark 3:31]. And not only that, not only do His friends say He is mad, and not only do mother and brothers say He is beside Himself, but His enemies say He has a devil, and it is by Beelzebub, the prince of devils, that He cast out devils [Mark 3:22]. The appearance to an unbelieving world always is that the Christian commitment is irrational, that it is mad.
When the Lord was raised from the dead, and those godly women came to the apostles and said, “He is alive, He is alive,” even the apostles said, “You have lost your mind.” And their words were as fables, tales. “And they believed them not” [Luke 24:5-11]. At Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit of God in power came down upon the witnessing apostles [Acts 2:1-4], those who stood by sneeringly said: “They are drunk! They are out of their minds” [Acts 2:13-15]. This ever has been the word of cynicism, and materialism, and secularism to the Christian faith. They relegate those who give themselves to Christ to those who are hallucinated. “They are irrational. They are mad. They are beside themselves.”
When I was in Amarillo, and my mother took me to Amarillo to go to school; when I was in Amarillo, I was very much in the life of the high school. I had won a silver loving cup in declamation, declaiming. Donald Huning and I were the two representatives on the debating team, and we went all over West Texas debating in high schools in other cities. And as such, I was constantly speaking to the civic organizations of the little city of Amarillo—the Kiwanis Club, the Rotary Club.
One of the finest firms, law firms of Amarillo said to me, called me in for a conference and said to me, “We want to send you to college. And we want to send you through the school of law. And in the summertime in vacation, you can come and work in our firm. Then when you receive your law degree, we will accept you as a partner in the law firm.” To a boy that had nothing, lived in poverty, and knew no way that I could attend college, such an offer and encouragement was almost unbelievable to me. “We’ll pay for your way through college. We’ll pay for your way through the law school. And we’ll have an open door for you as a partner when you are graduated.”
I said to those gifted and splendid men, I said, “But sirs, I have given my life to be a preacher. God has called me to be a pastor. And I’m going to school with His help to train myself to be a minister of Christ.” And they looked at me in amazement and in astonishment. And they said, “What? What? You are thinking of wasting your life being a preacher?” That word has stayed in my mind through these years since; “wasting your life being a preacher.” To the secular world, the one who commits himself to Jesus is mad. He is beside himself. He is irrational!
In these days past when I was preaching through the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, I delivered several addresses on evolution. How God created us in His own image, after His own likeness [Genesis 1:26-27]; and these seniors in the Chapel Choir took those addresses down. They were taking, some of them, they were studying shorthand in high school, and without my knowing it, they took those addresses down. They sent them to the Zondervan Publishing Company, and the first time I saw them they were in galley proof. And as you know, they were published under the title: Did Man Just Happen? “God never created [man], he just happened; an adventitious phenomenon, the presence of man on this planet.” Well, it had wide circulation, a surprise to me. And it was reviewed by one of the scientists who lived here in—who lives here—lived here in Dallas. And the review was published in the book section of the Dallas Morning News.
And I’ll never forget a sentence by which he closed the review. The scientist said, “I recommend the reading of the book as a curiosity to see what a warped mind would say.” No answer to the proof or the argument or the presentation; dismiss it all with a sneer and a ridiculous sentence. That’s the world! To the one who has committed to the Holy Scriptures and to God and to the blessed Jesus, we are irrational, we are mad, we are fanatics.
A man learned how much I give to the church, and he looked at me in astonishment, and he said, “Why, you could buy an expensive automobile with that amount of money.” That’s right. You can buy lots of things with it. But instead, give it to God. Give it to the church. To the world, to the secular, to the materialistic, it is unthinkable! “You are mad. You are irrational. You are beside yourself!” [Acts 26:24]. It’s that way always to the world. But to us, this is the glory way to heaven. This is God’s presence. This is the joy, and the glory, and the meaning, and the purpose of life and living.
The other one, Agrippa, addressing Agrippa personally; “You are a Jew. You believe the prophets and Moses. I know that you believe” [Acts 26:27]. Then Agrippa said unto Paul: en oligō, en oligō me peitheis Christianon poiēsai. One of the famous sentences in the Bible; what did he mean by that? Every commentator you will read will have some little different turn of its interpretation: en oligō, “in a little,” just in brevity, in summary, “me,” and here’s one of the meanings, en oligō, in a brief, in a summation; “me,” very prominently placed, “me,” you would persuade me to be a Christian [Acts 26:28]; I, the king of Lebanon, and a Jew. You mean briefly, sum up, you want me to be a Christian.” That’s one of the meanings.
Another meaning possible is this in the King James Version: “Almost,” en oligō, “almost you persuade me to be a Christian.” His heart was moved and his soul was convicted. “Almost you persuade me to be a Christian.”
Practically, certainly, the meaning of that en oligō is this. It was a Roman sneer. En oligō, “You mean in this little time, with these few words, with this brief presentation, you would persuade me to be a Christian?” [Acts 26:28]. Paul’s answer was beautiful. “I would to God, that not only you, but all that hear me this day, were en oligō ki en megalō.” “I wish whether it was in little,” en oligō, “or in much,” en megalō, “you were just as I am, except for these chains” [Acts 26:29]. And they separated and went their ways; Herod Agrippa to be king in Lebanon, Festus about the duties about his procuratorship, and all of the attendants in their daily court life: but Paul to his cell and to his chains.
How downhearted and heavy in soul and burdened of life must he have been as he sat there in that cell. No convert. No godly response. No trophy of grace to bring to the feet of the blessed Lord; failed. No. No. There is never, ever any time ever that God’s Word falls to the ground [Isaiah 55:1]. God sees it, God hears it, and God blesses it. And God did so here. My brother, somebody heard that. Somebody stood there listening to that, and whoever that somebody was, wrote it down. And for two thousand years, we have been reading it. And ministers and pastors and preachers by the uncounted thousands have been preaching it. And I have been preaching it today.
No word spoken for our Lord ever fails. It accomplishes the purpose for which God hath sent it [Isaiah 55:11]. And I may not live to see it. And the witness by which I’ve tried to win somebody to Jesus may seemingly have issued and ensued in failure. No. God in His elective providence remembers, and He blesses and He hallows and sanctifies our testimony for the living Lord. And in God’s day, and in God’s time, and in God’s way, it brings forth a full and a beautiful harvest for Jesus [Matthew 13:8]. You don’t know what you do. Faithful in our witness, God remembers and blesses. And thus we offer to Him our humblest, most prayerful testimony that you might be saved. And that in the circle of God’s redeemed family, you might live your life, build your home, rear your children, walk with us this pilgrim way that leads from earth to heaven.
And in the quietness of this moment, in the holiness of this hour, while all of us wait before the Lord, we extend that invitation to you this solemn and sacred moment. To accept Jesus as your Savior: “I have made that decision, pastor. I have decided for God, and here I stand.” To come into the fellowship of the church: “Pastor, my wife and my children, we are all coming today.” Or just one somebody you, from the balcony round, down one of these stairways; in the press of people on this lower floor, down one of these aisles: “Here I am, pastor. I am on the way.” Make the decision now in your heart, and in just a moment when we stand up before God, you stand up taking that first step. The Holy Spirit of Jesus and the angels of heaven will attend you in the way while you come. Do it now, make it now, on the first note of the first stanza. While we stand and while we sing.