Rev. Erik Veerman
From Darkness to Light, Satan to God
In 1839, the Gospel reached, for the first time, a chain of 80 islands in the South Pacific. We know them oday as the Republic of Vanuatu. Back then, the London missionary society sent out 2 missionaries who landed on the shores one of the islands. Their hope was to share the love of Christ with the natives. However, within minutes of their arrival, they were killed and then eaten by cannibals. In the years following, other missionary endeavors went forth. On a different island, another team of missionaries arrived, but within months they were driven off.
Pastor and theologian John Piper has spoken and written about the mission to these islands. He’s specifically highlighted the missionary endeavors of John G Paton. You may have never heard of Paton before, but he dedicated his life to bring the Gospel to the South Pacific. In 1866, Paton and his pregnant wife arrived on yet another one of the 80 islands – the island of Aniwa. There they found practices of infanticide, widow sacrifice, and more cannibalism. The people were full of fear as expressed through their idols, their superstition, and their ancestor worship. Paton himself wrote, “Their whole worship was one of slavish fear; …they had no idea of a God of mercy or grace.” Sadly, within one year, both Paton’s wife and their newborn son died of disease. He buried them next to the home he built.
When we hear of the hardships, and death, and martyrdom on the mission field, some ask the question ask, “why?” What motivates someone to risk their life for the Gospel? Many missionaries in the 19th century packed their bags for the field by putting their possessions in a coffin. You see, when they said goodbye to their loved ones, they knew they would likely die of sickness or persecution and come home in that coffin.
And dare I ask another related question. A theological one. A hard one. In places where the Gospel has yet to reach, will those people end up in hell? It’s a difficult but necessary question. It’s related. If the answer is “no,” then why would John Paton and other missionaries put everything on the line? Why would they and why should we seek out places in the world where the Gospel has yet to penetrate?
Well, the apostle Paul answers that very question for us today. When I read our text this morning, I’m guessing you didn’t have that on your mind. I know it’s easy to gloss over things in Scripture. After all, this is the third time we’ve heard Paul’s testimony.
But every time we’ve heard it, Luke, the author of Acts, or Paul himself emphasized different aspect of his conversion. One new emphasis here is on Paul’s mission. What God called him to do and why. Really that is captured in verses 17 and 18. God was calling Paul to bring the Gospel to the nations, that they may “turn.” That’s the word used in verse 18, “turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God.” In fact, Paul’s own conversion is a microcosm of his mission. God turned Paul from darkness to light – literally. Verse 13 “I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun.”
In fact, what Paul is doing here in this chapter is following through on his mission. Next week, when we look at the conclusion of his trial, we’ll see that Paul’s very audience was part of his mission field.
So Paul’s life and calling and words all testify to his mission – from darkness to light, from Satan to God. They all answer the question for us, “why take the Gospel to the ends of the earth?”
But before we get into the specifics of why, let’s take a step back. There are some great and convicting things in this chapter, besides Paul’s mission. There are some questions to answer, too – like what is this “kicking against the goads” thing. We’ll get into all that.
But first, let me remind you what had been happening. Paul was on display. We’ve gone from governor Felix to governor Festus. Now King Agrippa and his sister Bernice have joined Festus to hear Paul. A few days earlier, Paul had appealed to Caesar. As a Roman citizen, Paul had the right to request a trial before the Roman emperor. He appealed to that right. Paul would be taken to Rome.
However, there was one problem. Festus didn’t know what to write to Caesar. What charges to indicate. That’s because there were none. The Jews were desperate to have Paul executed, so they made up false charges that didn’t stick. Festus saw right through their fake news. He then consulted with king Agrippa. After all, Agrippa was part of the Herod dynasty, so he had Jewish roots. Maybe he could help figure out what to write to the emperor. So, Agrippa and his sister, Bernice, asked to hear from Paul directly.
What did they do? They called a hearing in the great hall. The event was full of Roman pageantry. At the end of chapter 25, King Agrippa and Bernice entered the great hall with great pomp. That word “pomp” in the Greek would literally be translated fantasy. Like fantastical. It would have been something like a British Royal ceremony. You know, with formalities, and color, and flags. King Agrippa and Bernice sat in their place of honor. Governor Festus and the city counsel and leaders gathered around them. The Roman military commanders made their presence known… all of them decked out in their garb.
And then Paul was brought in with chains. He’s given an audience, a grand audience, a captive audience. What an opportunity. And so Paul seized the moment. Another chance to speak of the hope of Jesus.
In the first few verse, notice how deferential Paul was to the king. He acknowledged him, recognized his status. Paul gave king Agrippa the honor due him. And he pleaded that that the king would “patiently listen,” verse 3.
Even though the Jews weren’t there, Paul knew that Agrippa and Bernice were well versed in the Jewish Scriptures. In verses 6 and 7, Paul spoke of “our fathers” and “our twelve tribes.” And then he honed in on hope to which their Jewish scriptures pointed. This time, in Paul’s defense, rather than end with the hope of the resurrection, he began with it.
Verse 8 alone is a gem. I’m quite sure different pastors have preached on that verse by itself. It says, “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” Paul’s not just speaking to Agrippa, no, now he’s expanded his focus… “any of you” It’s like he was saying, “If God is God, if he’s the creator of all things, if he’s the one who gave you life and breath, if his might and powerful are infinite, then how little is your faith to think that he can’t raise the dead! Stop putting God in a little box. Open your heart and mind to the wonders and amazing hope of the resurrection.”
Paul then used that resurrection question to launch into his own testimony. He had opposed Jesus and his followers. But then God changed his life.
If you’ve been with us in our journey through Acts, then you know parts the story. How Paul persecuted Christians. How he pursued them, trapped them, had them put to death. But then, How the bright light blinded Paul, how he fell to the ground, how Jesus himself appeared to him, and how he spoke to Paul. Those are the common things we’ve studied in Paul’s testimony.
But here, in this third testimony account, we’re given some new information. Besides Jesus saying to Paul, “why are you persecuting me?” verse 14. Jesus said this: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” We hadn’t that before. You’re probably all wondering, just what does that mean?!
Well, it’s a farming metaphor. When a farmer was driving his oxen, he would have a long pointed stick or steel rod. It was called a goad. And he would poke his oxen to encourage them. You know, so they would pull harder.
I don’t know about you, but if I was one of those oxen, I probably wouldn’t like it. And so, what did the oxen often do? Well, they would try to kick the goad. Literally, they would lift a hind leg and thrust it back toward the oncoming goad. But here’s the thing, what’s going to happen if you try and kick a spiked metal or wooden rod? Well, your hoof or leg is going to get stabbed. It’s not going to be good. It may make you even more mad, you may even try it again, which will, of course, make matters worse.
When Jesus said to Paul that “It is hard for him to kick against the goad,” he was saying that Paul had been fighting God. Paul had been trying to fend off the Holy Spirit’s convicting… but Paul was not going to win that battle.
Are you kicking against the goads? Meaning, is the Lord prodding you? Have you been resisting him? Maybe it’s an area of your life that you know needs transforming. Maybe it’s resisting Jesus himself? Know that when it comes to God, you’re better off submitting now than kicking even harder. Sometimes we learn that the hard way, don’t we?
And so Paul submitted to the Lord. This was the turning point in his life. I’m sure he carried with him all the pain that he had caused the Christians. Maybe it reminded him of God’s grace or it was a constant call to humility.
So Jesus blinded Paul. Told him to stop resisting. Paul’s life was changed. And next, Jesus told Paul his mission - the calling that God had for him. Verses 16-23. The two other conversion accounts don’t focus much on Paul’s mission. To be sure, Ananias was told that Paul would testify to the Jews, and before kings, and to the gentiles. But here in Acts 26, Paul gave us more details. He told Agrippa and Festus, and the whole assembly hall, about Jesus’s calling for his life.
And really, when you hear about God’s mission for Paul’s life, you should be asking, which parts of this missions has God called me to? To be sure, Paul was a special case. God had an intended purpose for Paul as an apostle. But none of these mission emphases, here, are unique to the apostles. No, these are calls to the broader church - for you and me, both collectively and individually. So let’s engage Paul’s mission in light of the mission to which we are all called.
If we put it in question form, God is telling Paul the “what,” the “who,” and the “why” of his mission. Let’s use that for a little structure.
And let me say this, Jesus was pretty clear with Paul about all of it. He was pretty clear about the “what,” Look at verse 16. Jesus said to Paul, “rise… stand up… I have appeared to you for this purpose.” And then Jesus goes right into the “what” of Paul’s mission.
It’s captured in two things:
1.) Paul was appointed to be a “servant” and “witness.” That’s in the middle of 16. In the Greek, that word servant is translated elsewhere as “minister.” In fact, in Luke chapter 1 verse 2, a very similar phrase is used, “minister” and “eyewitness”. Luke, is the same author as Acts. In Luke chapter 1, he was talking about those who served with Christ, or who experienced him. It’s the same word “minister” translated “servant” in Acts 26:16. But interestingly, “eyewitness” in Luke 1 and “witness” in Acts 26 are different. In Acts 26:16 the word “witness” is the same root word for martyr – someone who believed in something so deeply, he or she was willing to give the ultimate sacrifice. In other words, Paul’s whole life was now to “witness” to Jesus, whom he has now seen. Paul’s mission involved being a servant minister and a life transforming witness. That’s the first part of the “what” of Paul’s mission.
2.) And the second part of the “what” is that Paul was sent. That’s the last 4 words of verse 17. “I am sending you.” That’s the same word that is sometimes translated as “apostle.” It’s not used in the formal sense here. Rather, it’s used in the missionary sort of way. Being sent.
So, to summarize the “what” of Paul’s mission. His mission was to go, ministering and witnessing to Jesus. His life and words were to testify about him. That’s the “what.”
And next, the “who” …or rather, “to whom” was Paul being sent.
Again, Jesus was pretty clear with Paul about that! In verse 17, first Jesus says he’s delivering Paul from his people, the Jews, and also delivering him from the gentiles. In other words, God will be with him and rescue him from them. Same word deliver and rescue. And then Jesus said, those are the people to whom I’m sending you. To the Jews and gentiles. Translation – the whole world. Your people, the Jews and everyone else, the non-Jews. When Jesus told Paul that he was being sent to them, Jesus was at the same time saying it wouldn’t be easy. It’s like this intermixing of sending and delivering. I’m sending you to them while I’m delivering you from them. We know from the other two accounts that Jesus is explicit to tell Paul that he would be persecuted.
I don’t think there’s any missionary sent to unreached people groups, who would say the work is easy. No, it’s not easy. It involves risking your life, it involves giving up the comforts, and sacrificing. Paul didn’t have a home. Have you ever thought about that? No place to lay his head that he could call home. He was either on the move or like here, in chains, sleeping in a prison cell. Yet, he knew “what” Jesus had called him to (to be a witness that pointed to him), and he knew “to whom” Jesus had called him – first the Jews and then the Gentiles. Really, to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
And the last thing that Jesus tells Paul… the “why” of his mission.
The “why” is verse 18, the whole verse. Look at it, again. “Why?” “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.’” Notice, there are four parts to the “why” in verse 18
• First, for those who do not know Jesus; those who have never heard of the grace of God in Christ; the tribes and peoples in the world today where the Gospel has yet to reach… they are living in darkness. That’s the first part of the “why” – they are in darkness and need the light of Christ.
• The second part in verse 18 is that they are under the power of Satan. The great enemy has a hold on their lives and culture. We’ve seen that in several cities in our journey through Acts… and we see that today. Cultures dominated by cult practices and false religions.
• The third part of the “why” is that the people Paul was called to needed Jesus’s forgiveness. When people come to the light of Christ, when they come to God repenting, verse 20, then they will be forgiven.
• And the last part is perhaps the hardest. Jesus said “they do not have a place among those who by faith are sanctified in Christ.” In other words, they don’t have a heavenly hope. They will not be in eternity with Christ. Instead, their end will be eternal separation from God. That’s what verse 18 says. Plain and simple.
It’s the answer to the question I began with, what about the people in a remote village or remote island where the Gospel has yet to come. Can they be saved and have the hope of heaven? No, not apart from the Gospel.
This “why” answer created an urgency in Paul’s life, in his mission. It’s the urgency that we need to have as we think about God’s mission call for us today. There are people who have yet to hear about the hope of Christ.
According to the Joshua Project – The Joshua Project tracks the unfinished task of Gospel missions to the world – according to them, of the 17,400 people groups in the world, 7,400 of them have little to no Gospel.
Are you called? In one sense, we’re all called to the same mission as Paul, but in another sense, this is a particular call to be sent. To go forth. To help reach those at the ends of the earth that still need Christ. This is not to minimize the Gospel needs all around us, our neighbors, the refugee community next door. But maybe God is calling you to go. Kids, maybe God is calling you to dedicate your life to Gospel work. To go to the remotest of villages or cultures where darkness or Satan reigns and to be part of God’s kingdom work to bring light, and God, and forgiveness of sins, and the heavenly hope that only Jesus can offer.
John Paton wrote about those two missionaries martyred back in 1839 - John Williams and James Harris. Almost 50 years after their death, Paton wrote this: “Thus were [these islands] baptized with the blood of martyrs; and Christ thereby told the whole Christian world that he claimed these islands as His own.” And do you know what happened on island after island. The Gospel took root – the hope of Christ alone went forth. Paton, himself, persevered in the mission to which he was called on the island of Aniwa. He saw almost half the population dedicate his or her life to Christ, 3,500 lives. On another island, 79,000… yet on another, 34,000. Paton wrote they “threw away their idols, renouncing their heathen customs, avowing themselves to be worshippers of the true God” Besides proclaiming the Gospel, Paton and other missionaries translated the Bible into multiple languages, established churches, set up schools, and orphanages. Over time, these new believers would themselves send out hundreds of Bible teachers and Gospel missionaries to the other remote areas of the islands of Vanuatu.
God saw fit there to fulfill an Acts 26 verse 18 Gospel transformation. God opened their eyes. He turned them from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God. They received forgiveness of sins and a place, an eternal place, in heaven, among those sanctified in God. John Piper wrote a few years ago that 85% of the people of Vanuatu profess Christianity today. It all started with the ultimate witness - the martyr of two faithful believers called to go to the ends of the earth.
Let me bring this to a close. The apostle Paul, after speaking of the mission that Jesus gave him, next told them of his obedience to that call. “O King Agrippa,” verse 19, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” And over our concluding verses this morning, Paul shared of his ministry to the Jews and Gentiles, calling them to repentance… and in verse 23, Paul concluded with the Gospel - Christ’s suffering to death and his resurrection, and Jesus’s own Gospel mission, “he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” May we go forth with the same Gospel mission to the ends of the earth.