I Have Fulfilled My Duty
Key verse 23:1
“Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, ‘My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.’”
When Paul came to know the Lord personally, nothing was ever the same for him. He a was changed man, inside out, being transformed from within and from without. Years later Paul talked about this transformation which every born against Christian goes through in meeting the Lord personally when he said: “We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18) Exactly as he said then! He met the Lord and began to “reflect the Lord’s glory” in his life. In other words, he began to reflect the very likeness of the Lord. He began to conduct himself with the bearing of a Christ-like shepherd [And not with the depravity of a lecher]. He began to live in the purity of Christ-likeness. He began to speak with the integrity of Christ-likeness. When Paul met Christ personally, you couldn’t mistake his life for one who walked with Christ. He was visibly [not invisibly] transformed inside out. You could actually see it! Not only so, but as he says, he was constantly being transformed into the likeness of the Lord. And that transformation which he was undergoing was one with “ever-increasing glory”, meaning that the transformation wasn’t static at all, it was increasing, developing, growing; it was by all means dynamic. And he tells us something else about his new birth, his complete change within and without, his ever-increasing transformation; he tells us its wellspring; the origin and source of it; where it comes from! Certainly it isn’t anything he himself could produce on his own, for who could himself, let alone produce a radical transformation of a mindset, and heart and spirit, of attitude and behavior and such! So where does all this transformation come from? And so he tells us: “Which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit”. It comes from the Spirit of the Risen Lord who now lives in him.
Paul depended on the Spirit of the Lord in his transformation, trusting that the process was ever an ever-increasing glory, never regressing, ever growing, and never stagnant or backwards. And so he was becoming more and more Christ like day by day, for he was a man in Christ, born to serve Christ together with all who like him are called to reflect the Lord’s glory. And with this joy filling his heart to bursting, Paul returned to Jerusalem after an absence of near thirteen years, carrying in his heart a great hope. It was a hope doomed to failure. But he was yet to find that out. Anyway, at the time he still hoped that the very people who once sent him to Damascus to capture and kill Christians would now see his transformation and with it would also see sense as well, and then conclude that the Jesus they rejected as the Messiah was indeed the Christ, the true Promised Savior of the world. Look at 22:17. So, one day while he was praying at the temple, the Lord who searches and knows every thought of the heart, puts Paul in trance and reveals to him a vision where his very hopes are shattered to pieces. “Leave Jerusalem immediately”, the Lord says to him: “Because they will not accept your testimony about me.”
That was the last thing Paul wanted to hear, for he was overjoyed to return to Jerusalem as a witness to the Lord. With the innocence and purity of a true love that deeply hopes, he thought he would only have to reflect the Lord’s glory on his own people for them to believe his testimony. But the Lord who searches and knows every thought of the heart, also knew that his people who rejected the Christ out of self righteousness and pride of heart, would also consider any likeness of Christ an abomination. How deep the sin of pride and self righteousness go in the human heart! The Lord knew that even a cold blooded murderous lion like Saul, transformed into a gentle loving and humble lamb like Paul wouldn’t melt the walls of pride and self righteousness in his people’s hearts— walls built up from their childhood, and fortified by years of practice of bigotry and of hypocrisy. It’s like trying to melt the pride and self righteousness of an arrogant child who thinks they know better than their father. Such a person or people would have to suffer a lot of humiliation before God shows them any mercy, because their pride is deliberate. ‘They won’t listen to you,’ God said. Of course, Paul made a feeble attempt to convince the Lord otherwise, but the Lord was adamant. He had another life direction for Paul, one that would change the world and bring about world salvation according to the Lord’s will and purpose. “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” (22:21)
How glorious it is when one finds themselves so deeply disappointed with the portion allotted to them by God, yet, in due course find that it was that very portion that brought the world to salvation, exposed the darkness, reconciled the irreconcilable, having served its purpose as a faithful instrument, fulfilling promises given by God long ago, and having written down words and laws that would become etched in stone for generations to come until the advent of eternity. It was exactly what God did through Paul’s disappointment! How glorious it is when we too are so deeply disappointed and in the end find out that it was for our own good that God disappointed us! How much better it would have been if rather than bitter defiance, we had meekly surrendered to the divine will even if it tore us apart on the inside and shredded every hope we had, only to discover one day that our disappointments, our frustrations, our pains and sorrows, our troubles and hardship and difficulties were all the prerequisites for the glory of God and the blessing of others, that if it weren’t for these, the kingdom of God wouldn’t be complete, and the work of God wouldn’t be finished! How glorious are some of our disappointments and how wretched are most of our tantrums! Paul didn’t want to go to the Gentiles. But it was what God had apportioned for him. And he was so broken hearted when realized how right the Lord was about his own people’s rejection of him. That first time when he saw the vision, his people even tried to kill him when he witnessed to them. His friends had to scurry him away secretly out of the city. (Acts 9) And so, as God had intended him to be Paul became the true bearer of gospel to the Gentiles and the one who defended the gospel and its purity throughout the Gentile world. It was Paul’s ministry that brought us the gospel in all its glory so that we Gentiles now freely share in all its grace privileges and blessings together with the Jews [sans the burdens of the Old Covenant]. While Paul’s hopes were being shattered by the Lord, the glorious hopes of the world and its salvation were being realized!
Look at verses 21-29. Now after many years of being away with the Gentiles where God had sent him, Paul again is in this city of Jerusalem facing the same people who once tried to kill him, and of whom God said: “They won’t accept your testimony about me.” But he’d taken permission to speak to them, and the commander had allowed him to. They had listened to Paul’s testimony up to a point, until he said something he knew they would react to most violently. But, he was compelled to say what he needed to say. He just had to— just as we are compelled to speak the truth at times even when we know it will cause irreparable damage or cause serious trouble for us. Truth is priceless, and must be spoken at any cost, even at the cost of a relationship, or the loss of others’ respect, or at times one’s life; truth is vital to the body of Christ. Paul stood there and finally told them what God had commanded him: “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” They had rejected the Messiah who came to save them from their sins, and they had rejected God’s fundamental mission for them as a nation— to be a light for the Gentiles. They needed to hear this truth even if they hate to hear the truth because it is too painful to hear the truth. They would either be broken by the truth, or do as most people do when they hear the truth, resist and suppress, and continue in their sins. Look at them in verse 22. “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!” they said. Words like these tell us that they were living in rebellion against God. Although they were at the temple to worship, God says of them: “These people…. Honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me… “ (Isaiah 29:13) God wants true worshipers who “worship the Father in spirit and truth” as Jesus taught us, “For they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4:23) A true worshiper of the Lord has no rebellion in his or her heart, but lives in submission and obedience to God. He or she devotes their whole heart to learning his divine will, that they might obey it and submit to it. Paul himself showed us how we do that when he said: “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5) We tame even our very thoughts to make them obey the word of Christ, until every thought bends the will to Christ.
These people were not interested in obeying God’s will nor God’s voice, since it clashed with their national pride. Most Jews, even religious Jews had no interest in blessing Gentiles, especially Gentiles who were responsible for colonizing them and causing them so much suffering. So as soon as they heard Paul’s words, they were ready to kill him again, and the Soldiers had to rush Paul away into the barracks. The commander now wanted to flog Paul because he still couldn’t get to the bottom of things as to why they crowds were so angry— and he needed an answer. There was no way for this commander to understand that they were angry with Paul simply because Paul wanted to share their divine blessing with Gentiles like this commander and his soldiers. For this commander, the way to get information was to inflict unnecessary and senseless violence, and since he couldn’t get anything from the crowd, he would flog Paul for information. Paul never shrank away from suffering. But senseless suffering was not something even Paul would care for, so why go through with it. He didn’t. At the same time, Paul was also a shepherd at heart not only for the Jews but for this commander and his soldiers. He knew that beating up a Roman citizen like himself without a trial is a serious offence even for the commander to bear on his record, and Paul wouldn’t want that for him. In that way Paul was able to extract himself from a flogging. But as expected, the commander still needed to find out what was the cause of such hostility against Paul, and what offense had he committed to incur the wrath of the Jews. Look at verse 30. The next day the commander calls for the chief priest and his Sanhedrin to assemble, and brings Paul before them to get some answers once and for all. He is going to be terribly disappointed once again!
Let us read 23:1. “Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, ‘My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.’” This is the first time Paul faces this body of Jewish religious leaders and politicians ever since he was sent by them to Damascus all these years ago as their arm of justice against the Christians. Look at him, bold and fearless before them! He’s also taking the initiative to address them. He does not appear to be like one on trial, but rather like one who is reporting back in regards to a mission he’d been entrusted with some time ago by this very body. Look at what he says: “I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” What he’s saying is that he’s right with God and that’s of paramount importance to him; In as far as responsibility, regardless of how the world around him sees it, he’s completed the mission God had given him; and when it comes matters of conscience, his is spotless and clear before the living God, and that’s something that gives him the confidence to stand before them in humble boldness of heart to speak his mind!
God himself made us in his image and gave each of us uniquely a conscience, a priceless amazing attribute that distinguishes us from the animal world, and at times even from one another. That precious gift of God helps us discern and then to go on and choose that which is good in the sight of God. And as long as we can discern and then choose the good, our conscience is at peace, experiences the basic joy that God intended for it. But when evil is chosen, the conscience becomes burdened and laden with guilt. That’s also incredible. The Bible tells us that the thoughts of a human being waver, sometimes accusing the person, sometimes they defending the person (Romans 2:15). The conscience doesn’t let the person alone, of course unless the person commits the crime of shutting up the conscience so often as to put that conscience either to death or in a permanent coma as some do— when they engage in some sin, try to cover it up, try to forget about it, conscience won’t let them, they are set with guilt, then terrible guilt, they drown their guilt with distractions, and so on until that loud voice dwindles to a whisper and finally withdraws to naught. And in a day like ours, there are countless things that distract all kinds of healthy and unhealthy things to drown the voice of conscience such that many don’t even know that they are killing their own conscience with their activities. In the process some even harden their hearts and go as far as becoming the instruments of evil. The most dangerous person in a community or in a family is that one who can no longer hear the voice of his or her own conscience. Your conscience is priceless. That gift should be guarded as more precious than life itself.
Paul was never short of confessing what a great sinner he is and had been; almost every testimony bears a sinner’s confession. (1Timothy 1:15) The question then is how could he say he stand there and say in the hearing of this body that he had fulfilled his duty to God in all good conscience? He could do so only in and through the grace of our Lord Jesus. And I’ve said this on several occasions during our study of Acts, but we need say it time and again so as to fully understand the gift of God, and to avoid any misunderstandings as well. Our Lord Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross for our sins, thereby shedding his blood to cleanse us from our sins. (Romans 3:25). The word of God says: “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ…. cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:14) Christ’s blood cleanses our sins, but also washes clean our consciences from those sinful acts that would have lead us to our death and condemnation. However, the holy and precious blood of Christ is efficacious when a sinner is bent on putting the past behind rather than bent on continuing to engage in the life of sin. When Christians of the first century tried to take advantage of Christ’s abundant grace in that way, wanting to be cleansed and at the same time wanting to continue committing sin, Paul wrote saying: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:1) Paul’s conscience was clear because he never took advantage of the Lord’s grace, nor did he take it for granted as so many regretfully end up doing.
When Paul was accused of legalism, he wrote saying: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” He says. “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey— whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (Romans 6:15-16) He wasn’t legalistic, but he wasn’t undisciplined either, letting his guard down to the point of slipping into sin when he was weak and unprepared. Paul’s conscience was clear because when he put the life of sin behind, he made provisions to train himself in the life of a different kind of obedience. He became a slave to a different sort of obedience— that is, to obedience to God, rather than the old obedience to sin. And that wasn’t easy to do at all. As Christ had said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) That requires obedience! And this kind of obedience to Christ requires discipline and a disciplined life— the kind of discipline Christians can only fulfill when they surrender to the Lord in willing sincerity of heart— letting go of any and all chains and desires that bind them to the old world they once belonged to. Paul, the transformed man of God could say: “I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience.” with confidence because the blood of Christ had cleansed his conscience of sins that lead to death. Yes, he was a sinner as he always confessed that he was— a sinner who like all of us needed to live in the repentance before God. But this repentant sinner Paul, was also visibly growing in ever-increasing glory and likeness of the Lord Jesus the shepherd. He grew in Jesus’ grace. May we serve the Lord’s will and purpose in our lives and grow in his grace every day becoming more and more Christ like.