Muhammed had the practice of periodically retreating to a cave in the mountains surrounding Mecca for prayer and exclusion. He claims that at the age of 40 (around the year 610) he received his first revelation from God. Three years later he began preaching “God is one” and told people to completely surrender to him. He believed himself to be in the line of the other Islamic prophets.
In the early 1820s Joseph Smith of upstate New York began having visions. At age 24 he published “The Book of Mormon” based on the translation of some golden plates he was directed to by the angel Moroni.
On a trip to Damascus to round up followers of “The Way” Paul of Tarsus received a vision. In that vision Jesus of Nazareth, the object of worship of the followers of “The Way” said to him “Saul Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.”
This vision changed Paul’s life from a zealous Pharisee, seeking the destruction of the followers of Jesus to being one of their chief advocates. Our longest record of his ministry is found in the book of Acts written by his friend Luke and many of his letters to churches comprise the New Testament of the Christian Bible.
One of these men will die of natural causes, leader of a successful religious and political revolution. Another of these men die trying to escape a mob. He’ll have a gun in his hand fleeing the mob through a prison window. The death of the third we have little information about except that he was killed by his government.
Why should you believe one account and not the others?
Visions and Portents in the Ancient Mind
Many of us hearing these stories are naturally skeptical. People make a lot of claims and the more unusual or extra-ordinary a claim the more evidence we expect, especially from a person we don’t personally know.
Paul is telling his story to Festus, the new governor, Agrippa II and his consort/sister Bernice. Paul’s appeal to Rome has already been secured. His only motivation in giving this speech will be to seek the conversion of his audience in the story, and for Luke via the book the presentation of Paul’s story to Luke’s audience.
He makes the point that this heavenly manifestation didn’t occur to him in private or when he was alone, but when he was in public and those around him also witnessed something but didn’t hear the voice. It would be a very important point that Paul was making here to validate his experience that others had witnessed at least something at the event. He did not emerge from a cave or from his room with a new revelation. Something happened in public that dramatically changed his life and given the time it would have been feasible to attempt to track down Paul’s traveling companions in order to verify the story itself.
Also bear in mind that most people in his day expected that:
- heavenly powers controlled the events of the earth
- the wise and powerful payed close attention to portents and signs in order to chart their own course or the course of their people towards prosperity and supremacy.
Contrary to our rather skeptical age, Paul’s audience would have assumed that Paul must stay obedient to the heavenly vision he had been given. Who on earth (from their perspective) would have been foolish enough to ignore it!
Culturally we are pre-conditioned to out of hand dismiss such stories. Seeing and hearing things is a symptom of mental illness and people who see or hear things need treatment, not followers, we assume.
Paul tells this story to persuade his listeners, and for many centuries stories of visions and miracles inspired belief in listeners rather than skepticism. In many places in the world today, in fact, the same is true.
Finger of God
Phil Vischer, the creator of Veggie Tales has a podcast and on last week’s podcast he mentioned the documentary “Finger of God” that caused a stir a few years ago. The movie begins when a young film maker’s aunt and uncle were miraculously given gold teeth at the Toronto Airport Vineyard. If you do a Google search of this you’ll find the whole range of responses from mockery to denial to skepticism to passionate embrace.
Tim Stafford, long time editor of Christianity Today and member of the Presbyterian church has written a book on Miracles. His posture is probably best described as open but skeptical when it comes to miracles. When a young man that he personally knew from his congregation seemed to be miraculously healed by a church in Redding where there is currently a lot of buzz about miracles, he decided to delve deeper. One of the things he notes is that for many of us believing is greatly influenced by how close we are to the people who make these claims. Are they the kind of people we find to be reliable and sober, or are they given to exaggeration and quickly grabbing at things.
Festus and Agrippa are not ready to bite
One of the things I like about Luke’s telling of the story here again is how honest and believable the story is. It would be tempting to have Festus and Agrippa so moved by Paul’s account that they immediately become Christians. No such thing happens and Luke makes no such claim.
We might imagine what might have happened if Paul did some kind of miracle to somehow prove to Agrippa and Festus that what he was saying was true. Could such a thing be done? Herod Antipas, Agrippa’s great uncle Antipas (first uncle by marriage to his aunt) had wished according to Luke that Jesus would perform some sign for him. Jesus did not.
At the hearing of Paul’s story Festus wonders if Paul is mad, and Agrippa is a bit chagrined by imagining that Paul simply telling his story would make him a believer.
We might likewise wonder at the economy of Jesus. Jesus it seemed was able to turn an ardent hater like Paul around with a vision on the road, while not appearing to Festus, Agrippa, or the vast majority of others. To who does Jesus chose to appear and why? We have no idea.
“John’s” Encounter with the Miraculous
Tim Stafford takes a considerable amount of time in his book telling the story of “John”. John contacted Tim via his blog while Tim was preparing his book and shared with him his story.
As a young man John was attracted to churches where dramatic miraculous things were occurring. He wished that God would do some of these things through him but no matter where he want or what he tried it just wasn’t happening.
John sought out a Vineyard church in his city and suddenly things were beginning to happen. He was thrilled because for him these things were clearly not of him but were supernatural. This was what he had been waiting for. Over a three month period things would happen nearly every day, but after three months they tended to subside.
He eventually got married, but stayed involved in the Vineyard movement, also taking up a bit of a music career. Some seemingly miraculous things began to happen again that all seemed to point to God preparing him to some large, great work through his music. He seemly miraculously got the money to make the CD, but despite prophesies and dreams and signs the CD went nowhere.
John is still a believer, but he’s not quite sure what to make of this period of his life. He thought he heard God clearly, but now he knows something happened but just doesn’t understand what God was up to.
Paul’s Last Speech in Acts
Luke clearly seems to be setting up Paul’s final appeal, his “apology” here in Acts as the culmination of his trials before men and women. This is the last, grand speech, the final time in Acts when Paul will give his personal testimony to the “King of the Jews” and the Roman Governor and it will seemingly fall on deaf ears. Paul will be obedient to the heavenly vision, his innocence Agrippa will recognize, but the grip of the assertion that the hoped for resurrection had begun in Jesus Christ will simply be too large and too strange for Festus and Agrippa to embrace. They will be too steeped in their worlds to imagine the world Paul presents.
Belief and Choice in this Strange World
Facing the blizzard of information, contradictions, doubts and assertions each person must somehow decide their course. Part of the seduction of skepticism is the idea that one can withhold judgment indefinitely, but withholding judgment is itself a decision.
Paul of Tarsus had a vision on the road that changed his life completely. Why God would reveal himself to Paul when he did, after the stoning of Stephen and the persecution of the church and not before, remains a mystery.
Festus, Agrippa and Bernice continued on the journeys they took. Festus would be dead in a couple of years. Agrippa would continue on as “King of Jews” and preside over a bloody Jewish revolt, taking the side of the Romans and lived a fairly long life, dying childless. Bernice would continue to be the consort of powerful men including a future emperor who could not marry her because of her race.
When it comes to faith the miraculous is ultimately ambiguous and submits to deeper, stronger powers of belief and choice. By definition anything miraculous must arise fully and freely from a divine decision, unmitigated by any human assertion or control making us fully and completely recipients of any individual gift.
Each of us must choose how to live with what we’ve been given and presented, or the lack thereof. All of the evidence suggests that despite pleadings for signs and clarifications none would have the power to do so apart from our desire to live within it.