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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

A Simple Choice


 

"…I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles.  I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me." Acts 26:17-18


Some of you will have watched a film called The Shawshank Redemption.  It has a 15 certificate.  Which means, if you aren’t 15, you’ll have to wait – either until you are, or until the adults have gone to bed!  The choice is yours!  Or not.  But the film does present a choice.  It has a very famous line about a choice.

 

Shawshank is a prison.  The two lead characters are prisoners.  One is Andy Dufresne.  He and his friend ‘Red’, are lifers – they’re in prison for a long time.  What are they going to do with all that time?  Well, Andy says to Red – ‘I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really.  Get busy living or get busy dying.’

 

Acts 26 is about a prisoner - called Paul.  It’s also about a simple choice.  A man called Agrippa is presented with a choice by Paul.  Paul’s life has been transformed by Jesus.  That’s what Jesus does.  The chapter begins with Agrippa granting Paul permission.  ‘Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You have permission to speak for yourself.’  So, Paul motioned with his hand and began his defence.’

 

‘Speak for yourself’.  Paul does speak about himself – his life story.  But he’s not so much speaking for himself.  He’s speaking for his Jesus.  Paul wants Agrippa to hear about Paul’s life.  But so that Agrippa can hear about the life – the life transforming power of Christ.  Paul ‘began his defence.’  But he’s not so much defending his own actions.  He’s defending the good news about Jesus.  Paul’s life can’t change anyone.  But the risen again, living Jesus can.  He’d changed Paul.  Turned him round completely.  Paul wants the same for Agrippa, but time is limited.  Agrippa is a busy man.  But he’s busy dying.  Paul wants him to choose a different path.  The Way to Truth and Life through Christ.

 

So, who is Agrippa?  He’s Herod Agrippa #2!  Yes, he’s from the horrible Herod clan.  His dad, Agrippa #1, featured in Acts 12, where he ordered the execution of the disciple called James.   His great uncle was Herod Antipas.  He murdered John the Baptist.  His great, great uncle was Herod the Great.  He’s the one in Matthew 2 who tried to kill baby Jesus and killed so many other baby boys.  It’s a background of ruin and death.  Agrippa’s background is so unpleasant.  Perhaps his personal life is better?  Oh no!

 

In Acts 25 & 26 Agrippa is present with Bernice.  Bernice is his sister.  Now, you might be thinking, I thought she was like… his romantic partner.  Yes, that too!  I’ve only five words to describe their relationship deal – Yuk!  Yuk!  And more yuk!  Agrippa’s past and present were both awful.  But notice this.  Acts 25 & 26 seem not to notice those details.  I’ve had to tell you about those details.  Because they’re not detailed here.  Paul presents Agrippa with Jesus.  Paul’s heart’s desire is that Agrippa would choose Jesus.  But Paul doesn’t mention what Agrippa’s done, or what Agrippa’s doing.  This chapter is about a simple choice.  Presented with Jesus, what are you going to do now?

 

Our ugly pasts, and ugly present – they’re not relevant.  But this choice is relevant to our whole future.  Do we believe that Jesus died on the cross for every hideous feature of our ugly lives?  Do we believe that he is willing to give us the God honouring beauty of his own life in full and free exchange?  If we do, then - regardless of what has gone before – we are safe from God’s anger towards our sin.  We are saved in Christ.  And if we don’t?  Then we are lost.

 

When I was at school, we had some tests and exams.  That’s all changed now.  Some has become tonnes of!  The 70’s and 80’s they were just better!  I preferred that slacker set-up.  Maybe, cos I was a slacker!  But do you know which tests I preferred?  Multiple choice tests.  Because you were given the correct answer.  Yes, you were given some incorrect answers.  And you had to work out which was which.  But you weren’t starting from scratch.  One out of the several choices would get you the points. 

 

The Bible’s choice is even better.  The answer to the question of Jesus isn’t multiple choice.  There are two choices.  Only two choices.  Receive Jesus.  Or reject Jesus.  At the end of this chapter, Agrippa gets what Paul is saying.  Festus, who’s also present, has not got it.  But Agrippa has.  In verse 28, Agrippa responds with, ‘Do you think that in such a short time (so quickly) you can persuade me to be a Christian.’  It’s like he’s almost there, but not quite.  In fact the NKJV translates it in that way – ‘You almost persuade me to become a Christian.’  And this is important.  It’s eternally important.  The Bible gives us two options only.  Outside of Christ – dying.  Or, in Christ – now living.  Unbelief or belief.  Almost belief?  There’s only two choices.  Almost belief is unbelief. 

 

People claim that they’re ‘sort of a Christian’ – ‘yeh, I’m kind of a Christian.’  Kind of – sort of.  They’re not in the Bible’s options list of two.  You either are, or you’re not.  We need our eyes opening to this.

 

Here, Paul tries to open Agrippa’s eyes to this.  Why?  Because that is what Jesus called him to do.  We see it in verses 17-18.  When Jesus met with Paul, he told him that he would rescue him from many and varied opponents.  He said, ‘I am sending you to them to open their eyes.’  And then there’s a list of stuff in verse 18.  That list highlights these two choices.  Choices of utter contrast.  We have ‘darkness… to light’.  God didn’t send his Son to die on Calvary’s Cross, to move us from darkness to some mucky shade of grey.  Oh no. Jesus died to move us into his light.

 

‘From the power of Satan… to God.’  Christ’s rising from the dead wasn’t designed to move us from living in Satan’s house, to now camping out on his front lawn.  Oh no.  ‘From… Satan.  To God’.  All the way.  Would you get on an aeroplane that you knew wouldn’t get you all the way to the intended destination?  Oh no.  But the Bible assures us this about God’s Son and Saviour – whoever you are, get onboard Christ and he’ll take you all the way to God.

 

What other contrasts are implied in verse 18?  Sin, or forgiveness of sin.  It’s total.  Our sin still held by us, to one day be accounted for by us.  Or our sin, given to Christ, paid in full by him on that cross.  Still living in that place that you were born into, where everyone is busy dying?  Or in a new place?  ‘A place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’

 

That’s a big Bible word – ‘sanctified’.  What does it mean?  Well, it means, ‘set apart for special purposes.’  It features a lot in the Old Testament.  There, people were employed in service of God in the temple worship.  They had to be sanctified – set apart for that role.  The instruments that they used in God worship, were also sanctified.  They had to undergo cleansing ritual to make them ready (as Exodus 30 29 & Leviticus 8 11).  Then they were ready to be set apart.  The cups used in temple worship had a new purpose.  They may have looked very similar to other cups which the Israelites used for other things.  But now they’d been set apart, they were reserved only for the special God-jobs, if you like.

 

It's the same with New Testament believers.  We are given a place among those who are set apart.  We may look no different to the other cups in the cupboard of humanity.  But we’ve been taken out and set apart for a new purpose now, by a cleansing process.  What cleansing process?  Well, in verse 18, Jesus tells Paul how.  It’s ‘by faith in me’.  By belief.  If we believe, then we know that when Jesus died for our sin, all our sin was washed away. Now we have a new life purpose.  Before, we were in darkness.  Before, we were under Satan’s power.  Before, we were still in sin.  But now?   Now our sin is forgiven.  Now our eyes are opened to God’s light.  Now we’re in God’s employment.

 

How does Paul illustrate the transformation that Jesus can bring?  He just tells how Jesus had changed him.  We’ve seen this before in Acts but it’s worth re-seeing!  Do you worry because your bible knowledge and your power of recall aren’t quite as you’d like?  Someone asks you why you do church – why you have the hope that you do.  And you struggle to quote chapter and verse about what Christ does.  Then just tell them what he’s done for you.  You may feel that your story is not as impressive as Paul’s.  But it’s just as lovely in God’s eyes and ears.  Especially when you care enough to share it with others who need to know (see 1 Peter 3 15).

 

Paul begins his new life sharing, from a shared place.  We’ve also seen this before in Acts.  Paul starts from where people are at.  From there he can lead them to Christ.  Verse 3 tells us that Agrippa was ‘well acquainted’ – he was something of an ‘expert’ (as NASB & NLT) in Jewish stuff.  So, Paul starts there.  Paul mentions, in verse 5, his life as a devout ‘Pharisee’, ‘the strictest sect of our religion.’  In verses 6-7 he highlights that genuine belief in the Old Testament writings was not incompatible with faith in Christ.  Christ himself was the highlightof those scriptures!  ‘What God… promised’ there – that he was sending the Messiah to deliver his people – that’s what Christ has done.  Jesus is the deliverer-person that God promised to humankind.  If you reject Jesus because of what the Old Jewish writings say, then you’ve made the wrong choice.  You’ve failed the bible’s test of heart and mind.  You’ll get no points from God.  Paul had once been in that position.

 

Paul confirms his previous religious life.  He thought he was so close to God – no-one kept the commandments like he did.  He thought he had more God-points than anyone.  He was convinced of it.  That’s the word in verse 9 – ‘convinced’.  He was convinced he’d made the right choice.  The message about Jesus was a lie and Paul was choosing truth.  But Paul was ‘convinced’ by the Devil’s lie.  And so, he rejected God’s truth. 

 

What a helpful thing to share?  Paul had for a long time chosen the wrong answer.  He’s such an example to those who would now believe.  Pauls’ life shows that it doesn’t matter how much time we’ve spent scoffing about the Jesus message.  It doesn’t even matter if we’ve gone to great lengths to destroy the Jesus message.  What matters is now.  When our lives prove to be utterly empty, we’ll find that God is full.  Of forgiveness and love and ongoing grace in Christ.

 

In verse 19, Paul describes his experience on the Damascus Road as a ‘vision’.  Again, this presents a simple choice.  Was this a vision from heaven?  Or is this all a daydream from Paul’s head?  Paul is sharing his past.  Previously he thought that faith in Christ was fiction.  And he thought that the fairytale of his religious life was fact – ‘I too was convinced.’  Paul was doing anything and everything - ‘all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus.’

 

‘All that was possible’ - Paul was so busy.  But busy… dying.  His religion was deathly.  Paul was convinced that God relationship was all about what Paul did.  Until the day he met with Jesus.  And found that God relationship was all about what Christ had already done.

 

In verse 10 he mentions his present opponents.  His previous mission of hate had been authorised by those people who now hated him.  Why the change in their opinion?  When Paul had a religion of busy religious doing, he was flavour of the month with them.  Now he had a religion of done.  Now he was just a bad taste in their mouths.  They wanted to spit him out of their lives.  They were so full of their own God-worthiness, they hadn’t the stomach for Jesus.

 

But the detail of those verses is horrific.  Paul admits, in verse 11, that he ‘was… obsessed.’  So much so that national borders posed no barrier to his madness.  And then…  When I read the chapter this morning, I paused between verses 12 and 13.  As believers, may we often pause here.  What a difference Christ makes!  To the end of verse 12 we are watching the power of Satan.  Eyes tight shut to God’s truth.  Sin, sin and yet more sin.  Only darkness.  To summarise Paul’s life up to verse 12?  There were no limits.

 

Have you ever taken your car for an MOT test thinking that it’s all pukka.  Then when you arrive to collect it, the mechanic is stood there shaking their head and going ‘tut, tut, tut!’ But it wasn’t Paul’s car that received a thorough inspection that day.  It was Paul’s heart and Paul’s whole life.  Inspected, not by a mechanic, who may miss the odd fault or two.  But by God’s Messiah who saw it all.  Paul had failed the Jesus test.  His pride and joy was now fit only for scrap.  It had been condemned by Christ’s examination.

 

How terrifying for Paul when he realised that his religious living had been religious dying.  And his whole life was a lie?  A lie that was now exposed by the answer to his pressing question in verse 15.  Paul asks, ‘Who are you, Lord?’  The answer?  ‘I am Jesus, whom youare persecuting.’  In that moment, all was lost.  Except for this.  That Jesus is living and active.  And that Jesus came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19 10).

 

Up to verse 12 – there were no limits.  To summarise verse 13 onwards?  There were no limits until Jesus said ‘stop!’  In verse 13 the darkness is replaced by God’s own ‘light from heaven.’  Paul thought he’d been living for God.  Now he would no longer live (that way) but Christ would live in him.   His old life of disobedience would be replaced by a new life of obedience.  As verses 19-23 show us.  Not only would Paul repent, but he would take God’s message of repentance in Christ to others and show them that they ‘should demonstrate their repentance by their deeds.’  So, ‘prove they have changed by the good things they do’ (see NLT).

 

Paul was converted to faith in Christ in Acts 9.  How do we know his conversion was not just a dream?  Acts 10 through to 28, I guess!  And Romans through to Philemon – that good stuff he did in God’s employment.  Paul wasn’t now doing good things to be right with God.  Paul was already right with God by what his Jesus had already done.  And that powered the good things he now did.

 

Agrippa now has all the evidence.  He’s heard about Paul’s horrific past.  Our behaviour is not beyond God’s Saviour.  Agrippa knows that his life’s ruin doesn’t have to end in ruin.  He’s now almost persuaded to be a Christian.  Almost but not quite.  Nearly there.  But not there. 

 

Because the business of the day takes over.  It so often does.  If you’re considering the question of Jesus, don’t let other stuff take over.  Not until you’ve made the right choice.  There are only two choices.  Continue dying.  Or get living.

 

Agrippa, and the others, for the time being, get busy dying.  Agrippa misses the real point.  He’s got earthly – here and now - stuff to deal with.  He’s got to decide whether Paul has broken the law or not.  He decides that he hasn’t.  The chapter finishes with his conclusion.  Paul isn’t ‘doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.’  He ‘could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar’.  It’s like the main point of that day is to decide whether the prisoner is guilty or innocent. 

 

But that’s missing the point, Agrippa.  You are guilty.  Guilty before God.  Your life makes you guilty.  Are you choosing to stay that way?  Or are you going to choose the new way that Paul did.  Are you going to be made innocent of your sin through Christ?   There were only two choices presented to Agrippa.  The Bible only presents two choices to us.  Because there are only two choices.

 

Some years ago, by God’s grace, I made a new choice and became a Christian. The Bible had not only limited me to two choices but – praise be - it also told me the right answer. For a slacker like me, that’s awesome! Now, at this moment in my life I’ve been given a speaking role in this church. What do I want from it? What is my prayer? It’s the same as when Paul spoke to Agrippa, in verse 29. I’ve received Christ as my Saviour and so am made a Christian. And ‘I pray to God that… all who are listening today may become what I am.’ Because, to our life’s most important question, the answer is Jesus Christ as our Saviour.

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