by Matthew W. Bassford
One of the most fascinating exchanges in the New Testament appears toward the end of Paul’s defense before the Jerusalem mob, in Acts 22:17-21. The incident that Paul relates took place shortly after his conversion, after he had fled from Damascus and returned to Jerusalem, still preaching the gospel. While he is praying in the temple, Jesus warns him that he is going to have to flee Jerusalem too.
Paul is bewildered by this. The Jews of Jerusalem know that he used to be Church Persecutor No. 1. He beat and imprisoned all the Christians he could catch. When the Sanhedrin mobbed and murdered Stephen, he cheered them on. Surely somebody like that, whose convictions have changed so spectacularly, is worth listening to! Surely if Saul of Tarsus, a persecutor of the church, now testifies that Jesus is the Christ, the Jews will find that testimony is persuasive!
Paul is both right and wrong. He’s right about the power of the evidence he offers. Even now, 2000 years later, his witness to the resurrection is a strong confirmation of our faith.
However, he is wrong about its persuasiveness to the Jews of Jerusalem. His testimony would be enough to win over reasonable people, but those Jews aren’t reasonable. Jesus’ response implies that their hearts are so hardened against the truth that they will respond with violence instead of conversion. Incredible though it may seem, the gospel will find a better hearing among the pagan Gentiles than among God’s chosen people in God’s holy city.
Ironically, the reception to Paul’s speech proves Jesus right. Prophets had been predicting for a thousand years that the Messiah would save the Gentiles too. Nonetheless, the mob finds this notion so hateful that they begin to riot as soon as the words pass Paul’s lips. The Roman commander, who doesn’t have a dog in the fight, is so baffled by their reaction that he is willing to torture Paul to figure out what in the world is going on.
Even today, we still struggle with the illusion that others are reasonable people with honest hearts. We show them enough proof to persuade them three times over, and we are bewildered by the negative responses we get. Look at all the evidence for the existence of God! Look at how many Bible verses testify to the importance of baptism! Often, we react by doubling down, by presenting more evidence, by pointing out more verses.
What we fail to understand in such cases is that we aren’t dealing with a proof problem. We’re dealing with a heart problem. Usually, people reject the truth because they don’t want to be Christians. If we press the point, we might make them angry, but we won’t make them believe. The sooner we recognize the heart problem and stop arguing, the better.
What about us, though? What about the truths we aren’t willing to hear, the Scriptures we aren’t willing to consider, the sacred-cow beliefs that we can’t bear to challenge? The devil is happy to harden the hearts of Christians too. If we do not love the truth ourselves, especially when it is difficult and painful, we may find ourselves no better off than the Jews who heard Paul’s speech. After all, every one of them thought they were faithful servants of God — just like we do.