Paul gave a magnificent defense. He actually used the word “defense” (Acts 22:1). In Greek it is the word apologia, from which we get our word “apology.” It refers to a formal defense of one’s past life or actions.
The story of Paul’s conversion, which this is, is found several times in the New Testament, three times in Acts alone. It is in the ninth chapter, where it is presented historically not in Paul’s words but in Luke’s words. It is in this twenty-second chapter, where Paul defends himself in Jerusalem. This is a Hebrew version, spoken in Aramaic with Jewish overtones. Finally, it is in chapter 26, where Paul is appearing before the Roman governor Festus. There it has a Roman slant; it is a Gentile version.
We also find it twice more in Paul’s letters. It appears in Philippians 3. This is what I call a theological version. It does not deal with the historical details but rather with the changes in Paul’s thinking. Last of all, though much briefer, it is in 1 Timothy 1, where Paul is reminding Timothy of what had happened to him in order that Timothy might be encouraged to bear a witness similar to Paul’s. This is a hortatory version.
In our chapter the story of Paul’s conversion is in three parts.
1. Paul speaks of his past in Judaism (vv. 1-5). He emphasizes this here because he is trying to calm the crowd. They are upset because they think he has done something wrong in the way he has presented the Gospel to the Gentiles and perhaps in violating the holy space surrounding the temple. In this section he stresses how Jewish he is and tells what happened to him in ways easy to be understood by the Jewish community.
2. The second part is the account of the conversion itself (vv. 6-16). This is told simply. Paul seems to be saying, “This is what happened to me. It was as simple and as straightforward as that. What could I do about it?”
3. Beginning with verse 17, there is a record of what God said to Paul after he had returned to Jerusalem (vv. 17-21).
When Paul speaks of his past we are reminded that, apart from the single fact that he persecuted Christians, Paul never thought of his background as something about which he had need to be ashamed. On the contrary, he spoke of it favorably. In Romans 9 he wrote about the advantages of being a Jew, saying, “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ” (vv. 4-5). In Philippians he spoke more personally: “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Phil. 3:4-6).
Paul uses some of the words that appear in Philippians in this account, which means that this must be the way Paul was accustomed to talk about his conversion. He was a pure-blooded Jew, and he was zealous for the traditions of his fathers. He emphasizes this, saying that he was trained by the great Rabbi Gamaliel. Everybody in Jerusalem would have known who Gamaliel was. Paul was not ashamed of his Jewish background, because God had chosen the Jewish people. Every spiritual advantage in history before the coming of Jesus Christ was with Judaism, and Paul was not afraid to acknowledge it.
In spite of the fact that he had this great heritage, in spite of the fact that he had been trained in the law—the law God gave for our benefit to restrain evil and to direct us to the Messiah—Paul had been woefully off base because he had been trying to do as a Jew the same thing the Gentiles had been trying to do with their own non-biblical religions. Unintentionally perhaps, but nevertheless, he had been trying to establish a righteousness of his own which, because he was a sinner, was not true righteousness. He had been rejecting the salvation God provided.