“Grow” Series articles are not expositions. They are efforts to take one aspect of the passage and expound on its application for us today. Join the study for a more in-depth conversation!

Acts 22

My son tried to extend his body as far as he could to reach the top cabinet. He was determined to help Mommy with the dishes but his three-year-old body couldn’t quite manage. I understood his frustration. Earlier that morning I needed to move the car seat but my arms weren’t strong enough for the job. Remembering that feeling I giggled and bent down towards my son, lifting him to put the cup where it belonged. He was thrilled to have received help. 

Because I understood this type of physical frustration I could empathize with my son and react with compassion instead of my own frustration. There are far more monumental moments in our day-to-day life that benefit from emotional understanding–things like infertility, grief, academic failure, shame, relational turmoil, etc. Empathy creates credibility because someone speaks or acts according to an honest experience.

In Acts 22, Paul is the perfect man to empathize with his own accusers because he’s journeyed in their shoes. Throughout the latter chapters of Acts, we frequently encountered a sect of Jews who vehemently disagreed with Paul’s teachings. Their hatred overflowed into the spreading of lies and confusion, stirring up a hostile crowd and ending in Paul’s arrest. Paul seeks out an opportunity to defend himself with the crowd and his means of defense is surprising–empathy. 

Paul begins with a respectful address, “brothers and fathers,” and continues to lay out how he once hated the message he was now sharing. As an educated, cultured, and zealous Jew, he knew the law and the importance of Jewish customs. The accusations that Paul is anti-Jew by teaching Jews to leave their beloved customs behind is absurd–for he is a Jew! He understands. 

Not only that, but he also understands the zeal with which they were acting because Paul was a persecutor of the church. He has stood in the mob’s shoes by throwing men and women in jail for their beliefs and sentencing others, even to death. Paul understood their anger and Paul understood their actions. 

And it is through this understanding that Paul hoped to make a powerful contrast by leading them to wonder, what changed? How could a man of such intellectual rigor, power, and passion go from persecuting “the way” to following “the way1”? 

Paul answers this with his testimony. 

Jesus Initiates Change

We first heard of Paul’s conversion in chapter 9 but here Paul shortens the details to emphasize his inactivity. Paul was traveling to Damascus to persecute Christians when Jesus intervened. Blinding Paul with his glory, Jesus identifies himself as “Jesus of Nazareth2.”

Paul explicitly identifies the catalyst for change as the man put on a cross. This was a big deal. The same sect of Jews that were angry with Paul didn’t believe that Jesus from Nazareth was the prophesied Messiah. They called him a blasphemer and chanted for his execution. 

For Paul to identify this man as God and as the catalyst for changing his disposition would have been radical to the Jewish mob–which was Paul’s point. There is no reason other than being directly rebuked and called by God for a man like Paul to have changed. 

Jesus Accomplishes Change

There was no lingering from Paul. Immediately he submits, “What shall I do, Lord3?” It was the proper response for someone who encountered the terrifying and humbling glory of God. 

Jesus commands Paul to rise and continue toward Damascus where he would be told what’s next. Paul, physically blinded by the bright light of Christ, was led by the hand for the rest of the journey. 

Paul began his journey full of power, pride, and zeal for the law and he was finishing his journey bowed low, humbled, and obedient to Christ–who perfectly fulfilled the law. Jesus not only initiated a change, he accomplished the change. 

We cannot experience a change in our human nature without encountering Christ. This is Paul’s mic drop moment for the Jews who believed to be on mission for God. In salvation, we undergo the same death and resurrection as our Savior4; a complete overhaul of heart, mind, and soul. The desires we once sought come under the authority of Christ who has a new mission for us5. We see this perfectly and drastically in the life of Paul. 

It is for this end that Paul spoke of his Jewish heritage as common ground. Paul gained an attentive ear through the tool of empathy. For just a moment, the audience was convinced to hear what Paul had to say and he was able to share the gospel–the true source of change and salvation. 

Paul’s testimony revealed the Jew’s misplaced zeal. Rather than zealousness for the letter of the law, they ought to be zealous for Christ.

Paul shows us that in evangelism and discipleship, two things must be present: empathy and truth. We must remember that like Paul to the Jews, we have all once stood on the path that opposed God. The true common ground between each of us is sin. Paul was no better than the mob that reviled him. Paul was undoubtedly respectful, understanding, and compassionate. On the other end of that understanding, though, was truth. Unwavering and divine truth that Jesus Christ is the way to salvation. 

The gospel emboldened Paul’s empathy. The love of Christ that called him to and through change was the foundation of his empathy and willingness to press on despite persecution. If a “Hebrew of Hebrews6” could be changed, so could his enemies. Paul extended to the mob the same grace he was given, the truth of Jesus. Every Christian ought to take on this disposition. Jesus has revealed himself to us, bringing us into the fold of grace, and because of that love we boldly share our testimony.

  1. This phrase is first seen in Acts 9:2 describing Christians (see also John 14:6). ↩︎
  2. Jesus of Nazareth is the name used to magnify Jesus’ humanity–the man born of Mary, in Bethlehem, and preached the kingdom of God. ↩︎
  3. Acts 22:3 ↩︎
  4. Romans 6:4-5 ↩︎
  5. Ephesians 4:22-24 ↩︎
  6. Philippians 3:5-6 ↩︎

Empathy and Truth


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