“A little learning is a dangerous thing,” they say. In this case, as in many others, I’ve figured out who “They” are: Alexander Pope.
Well, I have a little learning, especially when it comes to New Testament Greek. This is, of course, no fault of my Greek teacher (he knows who he is!) My little Greek (I keep him in a closet in my house) cannot help me make a firm decision about the very verse I want to discuss today: Acts 26:28. I could cut the Gordian Knot and simply go with God’s version of the Bible, the good ol’ KJV, which reads, “Then Agrippa said unto Paul, ‘Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.’”
Young’s Literal Translation has it, “In a little thou dost persuade me to become a Christian!” The New American Standard Version says, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian,” while the English Standard Version puts it, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”
We’re used to thinking that Agrippa is saying that Paul has him on the ropes and that if he continues Agrippa may become a Christian. I’ve even extrapolated the text to mean possibly that the reason Agrippa stands up and gets ready to leave is that he doesn’t want to be persuaded any further.
But I have in mind today an alternative understanding. What if Agrippa really is asking Paul something like, “Paul – did you really think you could persuade me to become a Christian in such a short time? Did you really think that I – a Herod, remember – could be so easily persuaded? Have you heard the rumors that I’m living incestuously with my sister Bernice?”
Even the great St. Paul, in his longest recorded speech, couldn’t persuade Agrippa to become a Christian. It appears as if he may not even have come close, in spite of some translations that may suggest so. We want to believe that it would come so easily; we want to believe that people usually give their life to Christ in an instant without having previously heard of or considered Him.
But ironically, I think that in so thinking we give too much credit to man and not enough to God. Such thinking easily shades into believing that it is the persuasiveness of our words or the earnestness with which they are spoken that will convert men to Christ. And so we pat ourselves on the back when someone moves toward Christ and kick ourselves for not being clever enough if they don’t convert in our time with them, 5 minutes later imagining some devastating come back that would almost certainly have converted them if only we had thought of it at the time.
We give too much credit to both the one who bears witness to Christ and the one who responds. Far too often, we don’t remember or see all of the invisible work that God has been doing in that person’s life.
I want to look at 3 of the most famous examples of “immediate” conversion, in which people are converted “in an instant.” The first is St. Paul himself. Certainly, he is the epitome of the instantaneous, miraculous conversion, and perhaps the source for much of our thinking on the matter. So important is his example that St. Luke records it 3 times, originally in chapter 9, and then when Paul relates his conversion to the Jerusalem Jews in Acts 22 and to King Agrippa II here in Acts 26.
And yet what else do we know about this instantaneously converted Saul? We know that he knew a lot about Yahweh. He was, remember, a Pharisee of Pharisees. He had and knew the Law. He was zealous for God, as he incorrectly conceived of him. He was also the recipient of the miraculous that very few of us would dare to claim. Surely, Jesus Christ had been working in Paul’s life long before He smacked him down on the road to Damascus. Paul himself certainly thought so, for he thought of himself as elect before the foundations of the world.
A second dramatic example of an apparently instantaneous conversion is the conversion of 3000 people on the day of Pentecost. No faithful Christian would deny the miraculous nature of what happened on Pentecost, but look again at the 3000 who were spontaneously converted. These were not 3000 African animists but 3000 faithful Jews who loved God and had come to Jerusalem to worship Him at the appointed feast day. Yes, they needed to be converted to Christ, but look at how God had already been working in their lives and blessing them.
Third, think of John Newton of “Amazing Grace” fame. Many of us have heard of his dramatic conversion to Christ from a sinful life as a slave trader. Until he was 7 and his mother died, he had been raised with a strong faith in God as a Nonconformist in England. By the time he was 16, he had gone through three or four fleeting and partial reformations. During a sea voyage in 1748, he had read Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ once and began to read it again on March 9th. This time as he read it, he asked himself, “What if these things should be true?” He woke that night to a violent storm. To make a long story short, they were adrift at sea for four weeks, during which time he read parts of the New Testament and began to cry to the Lord. By the end of that time Newton had recovered his belief in the God and his grace. But you see how there was nothing “instantaneous” about this conversion.
Why am I telling you these things? Some of you may even be discouraged by them if I’m not careful. But my purpose is to bring en-courage-ment! How?!
I’m a realist – so it’s a good thing that God’s reality is ultra-cool and glorious! The fact that even the most rapid and dramatic conversions we know of are not nearly as rapid and instantaneous as we think tells us a lot about reality. It’s in understanding God’s reality better that I find immense, divine, encouragement.Do you remember those 4 questions I said were good ones to ask of every Bible passage? What – you’ve forgotten already (look of mock shock)!
- What does the passage teach me about God?
- What does the passage teach me about myself?
- What does the passage teach me about what God has done and is doing to me?
- What does the passage teach me about how I should respond to God?
The fact that conversions aren’t normally rapid or instantaneous things, even in the best cases, tells me first of all that sin is a much harder thing than we imagine. This is our first mistake. We routinely diminish the sins in our lives through a myriad of means. We ignore them, conveniently forget them, shrink them down to the size of a freckle, mutate them into normalcy, and employ dozens of other tricks. First, we should understand how evil and how hard sin is.
Next, we learn something about ourselves. We learn that we are sinful (see point 1 above). We learn that we are helpless without God and that our salvation is all from Him. We learn that God works in our lives in many ways, often before we’re even aware of it. But we continue to commit what I call the Empirical Heresy, which is to allow ourselves to be deceived into believing that something is only real if I can perceive it.
But mostly, we learn about God. We learn how patient God is in dealing with our sins without killing us. We learn how gracious He is in giving to us what we need and could not otherwise have. And we learn that His love is stronger than sin.
I find encouragement also in this: that my joy and thankfulness aren’t dependent on what I’ve done but on what God is doing. If someone doesn’t “convert” despite my most eloquent and impassioned pleas, why is my eye evil? Isn’t it supposed to be about God and not me? And if someone does “convert,” why do I fall into heresy and blasphemy, believing that it is me and not God who has done this?
I’m in this thing for the long haul, this business of making disciples of Jesus Christ. I’ve vowed to spend 18 years on each of 6 kids, training each one to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, and to spend the rest of my life working on discipling my wife and myself. I’m in it with you until I finish writing a Give Us This Day for every single passage in the New Testament, and then I’m in it for whatever else God asks me to do. I’m in this thing whole-heartedly for the students at Good Shepherd School and the parishioners of Good Shepherd Church, even if a lot of them never come close enough to really hear me.
I’ve vowed to give my entire life to God with no strings attached. I’ve vowed to water, plant, fertilize, mow, weed, till, de-rockify, and nurture whoever I can with no certainty of reward other than that I am pleasing to my Master.
So whether I persuade the Herod Agrippa II’s in my life a little or whether they mock me for thinking I could so quickly persuade them, or whether my own children seem like little reprobates sometimes, I know these things: that sin is hideously ugly and frightfully immense, that I am a sinner who has received the grace of God, and that God’s grace and love beat Satan and sin any day of the week.
Prayer: Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all things, judge of all men: I acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which I from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. I do earnestly repent, and am heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for my Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, forgive me all that is past; and grant that I may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life.
Almighty God, my heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him, have mercy upon me, pardon and deliver me from all your sins, confirm and strengthen me in all goodness, and bring me to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Point for Meditation: Reflect on your experience in speaking to non-Christians, lapsed Christians, weak Christians, and strong Christians. What do you notice about the way that they have responded to God and His Word, remembering that strong Christians were not always strong Christians? What do you notice about how God has worked in their lives and how long it has taken?
Resolution: I resolve to seek encouragement in the Lord’s labor today, remembering that as I do His will there shall be joy.
Paul and King Agrippa – U.S. Public Domain