As you probably know, today is the last Sunday of this year’s fall campaign. We’ve spent the last 40 days studying personal evangelism. Tonight 300 of us will gather to worship and celebrate all the things we’ve learned about contagious Christianity. We’ll begin with a meal in which we dine on 30+ fried turkeys. I’m sure tonight will be a good time for us-albeit a bad one for the turkeys!
And, I want to say that as your pastor, I have personally benefitted from these six weeks of study in many ways:
1. I’ve enjoyed my participation in the Sunday night class, led by Bill Wehunt. Bill’s a great teacher and God always uses him to grow me when I am one of his students.
2. I’ve also been challenged by our sessions on Wednesday nights as we have wrestled with the most popular objections to contagious Christianity.
Each of our leaders have done top notch work in these studies!
3. The workshop we attended in Richmond this spring and the C. S. Lewis Institute in Falls Church were both very inspiring. I was proud to see so many Redlanders attend!
4. It’s also been heartwarming for me to hear many of you share how good it feels to be on the same “sheet of music” as a congregation. I mean, just as we learned last year, it is always very unifying to study one subject together as a church family.
5. And then, another personal benefit would be all the things I’ve learned in my many hours of sermon prep during this campaign, as I’ve had to dig deep enough to fill six messages on the same topic.
But you know, if I were to have to pick one aspect of this study as my favorite, I’d have to choose the weekly testimonies. I mean, more than anything else, the personal stories shared by Ken Vaughn, Matthew Marceson, Chuck Holton, Brenda Egeland, Charlie and Louise Brinkman, and Bill Stuart-more than any other aspect of this study, these testimonials have stirred my passion to become more contagious as a believer. And, if I were to ask for a show of hands, I think most of you would say the same thing, because personal stories-testimonies-well, they can indeed be very powerful!
I remember during my seminary days one Tuesday morning, my friend, Steve Baker, met me for coffee in the student center. Those three years of seminary we each served in local churches. I served on staff at a church in New Albany, Indiana and Steve served a little church in Plum Creek, Kentucky and we’d often meet in the student center at the beginning of the week to sort of compare notes as to how things had gone the Sunday before. Well, this particular Tuesday, Steve was obviously very excited and I asked him to explain. He said that on the past Sunday night just a few minutes before their evening service was to start, word came that the pastor had taken ill and would not be able to preach-and that Steve would have to fill in. Now, that situation is the kind of nightmare that keeps associate staff members awake at night so I said,
“Steve, tell me man, what did you do? Only a few minutes notice? How did you handle it?” And Steve said, “Mark, at first I was terrified but I prayed for guidance and God gave me a great idea.” I said, “Well, what was it? Tell me-I may need to use it myself some day. As a matter of fact, my pastor’s been looking kind of sick lately.” So Steve went on and said, “When it was time for the sermon, I got up and read the Scripture that told of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin-after His arrest and before His crucifixion. Then I told the congregation, ‘Let’s imagine that we are there in that room where our Lord has just been charged for claiming to be the Messiah, the Savior of the world, the Son of God. We’re there and each of us has an opportunity to share a witness on His behalf. I would like you to come to the mike and tell these Sanhedrin judges anything that Jesus has done in your life that proves He is Who He claimed to be.” Steve said, “At first no one came. But then one by one people came and shared their personal testimonies of how they came to know Jesus and how He had changed their life…things Jesus had done for them and through them that proved He was God in the flesh. I wish you could have been there. It was so powerful-the best worship service I have ever been a part of.”
Now, I’ve never had to use Steve’s idea-but I’m sure if we were to do something like that, it too would be a powerful service because when real people share their actual experience with Jesus it is always powerful and moving! You see, more than any sermon, your PERSONAL appeal has an impact.
Research bears this out. Stats shows that three fourths of all new church members in this country made that decision because a friend or family member invited them to come. In the fastest growing churches the stat is closer to ninety percent! And, all these people came to church because basically, a person like you-an invitational evangelist-said, “Jesus has changed my life. Come to church with me and hear how He can change yours as well.”
Well, this morning I want us to round out our study of Contagious Christianity by looking at a text from the book of Acts in which the Apostle Paul shares his personal testimony. And I want us to do this in an attempt to answer this question. “What is it that gives a personal testimony it’s power? What makes it so effective?” I think this text from Acts can help us answer these questions-but in order to fully understand what Paul says in these verses, we need to remind ourselves of the setting, so let’s do that.
When we last left Paul in our study of Acts, he had just spoken on Mars Hill. Subsequent chapters of Luke’s little history book chronicle the fact that from there Paul traveled to Corinth, Ephesus, back through Macedonia, and then finally on to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem Paul was greeted warmly by James and the other elders of the church-but when he went to the temple he was arrested by the Jewish religious leaders. They very nearly killed him on the spot-and would have if not for the intervention of a Roman commander who took Paul into custody & then transferred him under Roman guard to Caesarea. When this happened, Annas, the High Priest went to Caesarea to bring formal charges against Paul before the Governor, a man named Felix. Now-Felix knew Paul had done nothing wrong but this corrupt Roman Governor kept him in prison for two years hoping Paul or his friends would bribe him for his release. Well Felix’s corruption finally caught up to him and he was recalled to Rome in disgrace. His successor was a man named Festus. But and as soon as Governor Festus took office, the Jewish leaders showed up again and asked that Paul be transferred back to Jerusalem for trial. These guys weren’t worried about winning the case against Paul because their plan was to ambush and kill him on the way. But, before sending him to Jerusalem Festus questioned Paul as to the charges that the Jews had levied against him-and when he did this, Paul exercised his rights as a Roman citizen and appealed to Caesar.
Festus agreed to Paul’s request because it took the pressure of the Jews off his back but this left him with another problem. You see, Felix couldn’t very well send Paul off to Nero without some sort of explanation-an explanation as to why he hadn’t been capable enough as a ruler to resolve the issue on his own without taking the precious time of his busy emperor. Well Festus was saved from this dilemma by the arrival of Kind Herod Agrippa II, the Roman-appointed Jewish King of the region who arrived at Festus’ palace in Caesarea to pay his respects.
By the way, I’ve been to the ruins of this palace-and even in ruin it is spectacular. It was built on the shores of the Mediterranean-part of it even jutted out over the sea. If I were a local king back in that day, I would have been dropping in on Festus to pay my respects every chance I could…any excuse to stay in that palace!
Now, let’s review the heritage of this King Herod Agrippa II. He was the great-grandson of Herod the Great, best known as the murderer of the infants in Bethlehem. His grandfather, Herod Antipas, was the king who had John the Baptist beheaded. His father, Herod Agrippa I, was the ruler who arrested Peter and killed James. So Herod Agrippa II did not benefit from a good home life to say the least. And it gets worse. You see, Herod Agrippa II had two sisters. Drusilla was married to Felix-remember him? Well true to “Herodian form” Herod Agrippa II was married to his other sister, Bernice. But even though he came from a shoddy family and was himself embroiled in an incestuous relationship, he was no dummy and was in fact well-known as an expert in the affairs of the Jews. So, I’m sure Festus was somewhat relieved when Agrippa dropped by and then offered to hear from Paul so that he might advise Festus on how to handle this matter.
The next day, several important people gathered at the palace in Caesarea to hear what Paul had to say about the charges that had been leveled against him two years prior. Picture the audience in your mind’s eye. The five, highest-ranking officers-commanders in charge of the Roman military divisions stationed in Caesarea-were present in dress uniform. The leading men of the city were there as well. The Jewish religious leaders were in attendance. Festus, the Roman governor was of course there. And then, intentionally arriving late enough to make a grand entrance were Agrippa and his sister/wife, Bernice. In fact, in verse 25 Luke says that these two, “came with GREAT pomp.” Now, I feel led to point out that the Greek, the word, “pomp” here is “fantasia.” It is the word from which we get our word, “fantasy” and it refers to something beautiful or impressive but is also passing or fleeting-something of momentary interest only. I share this little bit of Greek trivia to remind you that even the most impressive things of this world are not lasting. They are of “momentary interest only.” Think of it. Nothing was more impressive back then than the Roman empire and its powerful leaders and this beautiful palace by the sea. But today Rome is little more than a memory. This palace is in ruins. And, Agrippa and Bernice and Festus are only remembered in connection with Paul-who stood before them that day in chains. This reminds me of a verse in Rudyard Kipling’s great “Recessional” poem of 1897, a poem that compares the passing power of the empires of the world with the eternal power of God.
“The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart;
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lets we forget-lest we forget!”
Kipling wrote this poem at the time of the great Jubilee honoring Queen Victoria and the English people did not like what he wrote. In fact, most think this poem kept Kipling from becoming poet laureate. But Kipling was right to warn us about forgetting-even though it cost him earthly acclaim. You see, we all need to be warned that we serve the one and only Eternal King and that this world and everything in it will one day be forgotten. As someone has said, “Only one life; twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
Well, as I said, amidst all this pomp and grandeur Paul came into the room manacled. He hobbled into place with his chains dragging. And I want you to be sure and note that this is a fulfilment of the prediction Jesus Himself made about Paul when He called him to be an apostle. Remember? In Acts 9:15 our Lord said to Ananias, “This man, [Paul] is a chosen servant unto Me. I will send him to the Gentiles to stand before GOVERNORS and KINGS….that he may bear My name before them, as well as before the sons of Israel.” Surely those words echoed in Paul’s mind that day as he stood in Festus’ palace.
I also want to point out that the way Luke describes all this shows us that there was a hunger in Paul’s heart to reach King Agrippa for Christ, in spite of his dark past and sinful present. Like his Master Paul saw beyond Agrippa’s sin to his need. He allowed God’s love for Agrippa to fill his heart and mind. Plus, Paul realized that this might be his last chance to reach Israel. So he hoped against hope that perhaps the king would repent and turn to Jesus because if he did, perhaps the nation might follow. Okay, with that setting in mind, let’s look now to the text as dramatized by The Visual Bible (Acts 26:2-29) as Paul shares his personal testimony with all these people.
2 – “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense against all the accusations of the Jews,
3 – and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently.
4 – “The Jews all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem.
5 – They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee.
6 – And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today.
7 – This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. O king, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me.
8 – Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
9 – “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.
10 – And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them.
11 – Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.
12 – “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests.
13 – About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions.
14 – We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’
15 – Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied.
16 – ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you.
17 – I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them
18 – to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
19 – “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.
20 – First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.
21 – That is why the Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me.
22 – But I have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen-
23 – that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”
24 – At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.”
25 – “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable.
26 – The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.
27 – King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”
28 – Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”
29 – Paul replied, “Short time or long-I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”
Now, I’m sure you’ll agree that was a powerful testimony. In fact, until Festus interrupted Paul’s speech, the audience hung on his every word, listening attentively to what this chained former Pharisee had to say. Well, why did they do that? What compelled them to give this chained prisoner the time of day? I mean what is it that makes a testimony like this so powerful?
I want to suggest four things-so that as Christians striving to develop a faith that is contagious,
we can understand what it is that gives our own personal testimonies power.
1. First, a personal testimony like this enables you to IDENTIFY with people.
We see this in verses 4 and following as Paul began his sharing that day. Basically he looked at the Jewish leaders and said, “I was once like you. I was the son of a Pharisee and studied to become one myself…” Perhaps he recognized a former class-mate in the school of Gamiliel in the audience and caught their eye as he said this-but the people listened because Paul identified with them. He even identified with King Agrippa by saying in verse 26, “The king is familiar with these things.” Or, “King Agrippa, as a student of Judaism, you know what I’m talking about!”
And that’s the way it is with testimonials given by real people. Other real people pay attention to them-which is why we see so many TV commercials filled with testimonials. You know what I’m talking about. A woman stands at her washing machine and says, “I’m a mom like you and my kids get grass-stains on all their clothes just like your kids do. Nothing I tried would get the stains out until I found ALL-TEMPERATURE SPOUT.” Well, mom’s with laundry baskets full of grass-stained jeans listen and then run out to the local store to get their own supply of ALL-TEMPERATURE SPOUT. They do this because people identify with the testimonies of other people. This principle is why we like to read biographies more than essays. It’s why most people remember the illustrations-the real-life stories in a sermon-longer than they do the sermon itself. People can identify with something that really happened to a fellow human being.
I remember my dad once telling of two college girls who were invited to give their testimonies at their home church when they were home for Christmas break. The first girl gave a beautifully prepared and well-delivered SPEECH. It would have gotten a high grade in any speech class. You could see people smiling their approval and making a mental note to put her on that list of people who are often called on to give devotionals. Well, the second girl was obviously shaken a bit by having to follow so polished a performance-and she had no reason to be. She said, “I must have misread the pastor’s instructions. I didn’t know I was to give a speech I’m not prepared to do that. But I do want to tell you of a wonderful experience I had learning to pray as a freshman I college.” Every member of that congregation perked up a bit. Their interest was obvious because while the first girl had shared a speech, this girl was going to share something of herself.
Charles Swindoll puts it this way: “The skeptic may stop his ears to the presentations of a preacher and the pleadings of an evangelist, but he is somehow attracted to the human-interest story of how you-John Q. Public-found peace within.”
So remember that-when you share how Jesus changed your life-other people will listen-even more than they will listen to me-because it’s easier for them to identify with you!
2. A second secret to powerful testimonies we see here is PREPARATION.
And, it is obvious that Paul was prepared. I mean, he’d had two years of imprisonment to formulate his thoughts-plus he’d had a lot of experience sharing his testimony. I mean, if you read through Acts 22-26 you’ll see that on six separate occasions between Paul’s third missionary journey and his trip to Rome he stood before different audiences and told them his experience with Jesus-so he was prepared. He had it down pat.
This helps us to see that if we want a powerful testimony we need to prepare! So do that! Write it down-work on it-practice it in front of a mirror-set up a camcorder and record yourself giving it and then criticize yourself. But prepare! In his book Come Before Winter, Charles Swindoll suggests five things to remember when preparing your testimony.
A. You want to be LISTENED to so be INTERESTING. Remember, no one-no matter how gracious-enjoys being bored so they won’t listen if your testimony is dry. Besides, we need to remember-it’s a contradiction to talk about how exciting Christ really is in an uninteresting way. So, work on your wording. Get the flow of your thoughts just right. And, remember, guard against religious cliches and hard-to-understand terminology.
B. You want to be UNDERSTOOD, so be LOGICAL.
Just as Paul does here in Acts 26, organize your testimony in three logical phases:
6. Tell what your life was like before you met Jesus.
7. Tell of the events or event that led you to become a Christian
8. Close by telling about the difference Jesus has made and is making in your life.
C. You want the moment of your new birth to be CLEAR, so be SPECIFIC.
Be extremely careful at this point-I mean, don’t be at all vague regarding how you became a Christian. Speak of Jesus, not of your walk down the aisle or your baptism. Refer to the decision you made-the moment in time when you decided to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord. Be simple and direct. Emphasize faith more than feeling.
D. You want your testimony to be USED so be PRACTICAL.
Be human and honest as you talk. Don’t promise, “All your problems will end if you become a believer…” because that isn’t true. Try to think as an unbeliever thinks and trust me, theoretical, theological stuff won’t attract their attention as much as practical reality so just tell them how Jesus helps you to live your day-to-day life.
E. Finally, you want your testimony to produce RESULTS, so be WARM and genuine.
Remember it will be hard to convince the person of the sheer joy and excitement of knowing Christ if you’re wearing the face of a prison-warden. So-smile! And, make sure they can sense that you are sharing out of love and concern for them. Paul did this in his last appeal by saying,
“I would that you were like me-I wish you could experience the joy and freedom I have because of Jesus.” I mean, be friendly and sincere. Let your enthusiasm flow freely. And above all, be courteous-as Paul was at the beginning of his testimony here when he said, “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today…because you are well-acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies.”
These are five good tips to heed-because for your testimony to be powerful, it needs to be prepared. To have a moving testimony we need to obey 2 Peter 3:15 where it says, “Always be READY to share the reason for the hope that is in you.”
3. Third, testimonies are powerful because they are PERSONAL.
Now-sermons are great-I love to preach and to hear sermons preached to me but-and listen closely because you won’t hear many preachers say this-sometimes I think the world has been preached to death. What this lost world of ours really needs is not more sermons, but more testimonies based on real-life experiences. You see, no sermon-no matter how bald its preacher-will ever take the place of a well-prepared personal testimony. This is because the most convincing unanswerable arguments on earth regarding Christianity is one’s personal experience with Jesus. Look at verses 13 and following and count all the times Paul uses the personal pronoun, “I.” He says to his hearers, “I saw a light from heaven…” “We all fell to the ground…” “I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic…” “I obeyed my heavenly vision…”
But please here me on this-don’t think you have to have your own PERSONAL Damascus Road experience like Paul for your testimony to be worth telling. I can understand the feeling of the man who went to hear an evangelist who had been converted from a life of crime and drug abuse. After hearing the evangelist tell of all the bad things he had done, the man went home and that night in his prayers he said to God, “Oh, Lord, I’ve never smoked pot, never been drunk, never committed adultery, never robbed a bank, never lied to a grand jury, but if You can use me in spite of these short-comings please do.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love to hear how someone has come out of a life of sin-but I also think we benefit just as much if not more from people who tell how Jesus kept them from a life of sin.
We need to realize that for every “Paul”converted on the road to Damascus, there are thousands of “Timothys” who came to know Christ in a quiet way as the result of faithful parents and grandparents. And while a striking testimony makes for good programming, the more ordinary experience is easier to identify with-because most of us are just ordinary! So a testimony is powerful because people can identify with it….it’s powerful if it is prepared. It’s powerful and authoritative because it is PERSONAL-it happened to you!
4. And, finally, a testimony is powerful if it can be SEEN.
In other words, people are more likely to be moved by your testimony if they can look at your life and see that Jesus has indeed changed you. And Paul’s life showed that. The way he allowed Jesus to change him backed up his words that day. Remember, Paul had sat in that prison cell for two years because he knew it was wrong to bribe his way out. I’m sure this fact was well-known.
Plus, those people in the audience were familiar with Paul’s life since his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road so they knew he was telling the truth in verses 19 and following when he said,
“I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.” They must have nodded to each other as if to say, “I’ll give Paul that much-his walk matches his talk-he HAS changed.” And the fact that he had-the obvious fact that God’s power had reached down and changed this persecutor into a preacher, added great power to his testimony that day.
At the preaching conference I attended last month, Hybels reminded us all of one of the most powerful sermons I have ever heard. It was delivered by the late E. V. Hill-a truly gifted preacher-but the thing that made this sermon powerful was the fact that it was his testimony.
Hill gave his message/testimony a title in the form of a question, namely: “When Was God Was At His Best?” I can’t preach the entire message but basically it went like this. He turned to the book of Genesis and talked about creation and he described what happened during those first seven days in such amazing detail that I thought, “Wow-surely that was God at His best.” But as if to read my mind, E.V. said, “This was amazing. It was powerful-but it wasn’t God at His best.” Then He turned to Exodus and talked about how God delivered the Hebrew people from bondage. And as I heard him describe the plagues and miracles and the parting of the Red Sea I thought, “Man…surely that was God at His best.” And again, Hill said, “This was powerful and amazing but it wasn’t God at His best.” He followed this same line of reasoning with the birth of Jesus and then with His crucifixion and then with His resurrection and each time I thought, “This must be it-surely this is God at His best.” And each time Hill would say, “This was powerful and amazing but it wasn’t God at His best.” About this time, like you I was wondering-”Well, then what is? Please, I’m listening! Answer this question—-when was God at His best? I’ve got to know!” In other words Hill’s sermon showed the power of tension in a sermon-or testimony for that matter. I mean, if you have tension you have attention-which is what I hope I have now! So, he got my attention. In my mind I’m begging him to tell me, “When was God at His best?” And at this point as if to read my thoughts E. V. Hill said something like this, “Do you want to know when God was at His best?” “Yes-when? When was God at His best?” “He was at His best, when He reached down and saved and redeemed a sinner like me.” And I thought of my own experience with Jesus and thought-”YES! YES that is right! God WAS at His best when He saved me and began to change me!” Wouldn’t you agree! God is at His best-His power is most evident in the new birth we experience when we become Christians!
Well, Paul’s hearers saw an example of God at His best in the way He obviously changed this former Pharisee-and I’m sure that visible change earned him their attention. I’m sure it convicted them of their need for Jesus. I think Paul saw this in Agrippa’s eyes because in verse 25 in essence he said, “Jesus has changed me Agrippa. I know you can see that! And He has the power to change you to!” Well, let me ask you. Have you allowed God to be at His best in your life? Does your testimony show? Does the way you live your life make sinful people-people like the woman at the well who have drunk at this world’s wells hopeful that God could do the same for them?
Well how did this thirsty king respond? He shrugged it off. Look at verse 28 where he says, “Do you think that in such a short time you an persuade me to be a Christian? – Almost Paul, but not quite.” And then he and Bernice and Festus got up and walked out. So, Agrippa ALMOST became a Christian-he was “almost won” to Jesus. Now, in that context, aren’t those two words heart-wrenching? Again, let me ask, what about you? Remember ALMOST only counts in horse shoes and hand-grenades. To be almost saved is to be completely lost. As C. H. Spurgeon wrote: “Almost persuaded to be a Christian is like the man who was almost pardoned, but hanged; like the man who was almost rescued, but was burned in the house. A man that is almost saved is damned.”
If you are here and are not a Christian, then don’t leave here ALMOST saved. Decide now to do what so many of us in this room have done, pray-and invite Jesus to be your Lord and Savior.
And Christian, don’t leave ALMOST in the center of God’s will. Pray…in your seat…or come and pray with me….pray for God’s guidance….and then commit to follow it…whether it means joining this church family…or yielding completely to God’s wonder-working power in some area of your life.Come now as God leads.