If you remember, at Paul’s lowest point, our Lord appeared to him. So what do we make of this?
First, we should notice that this visit is much more intimate than the “vision” that Paul mentioned in chapter 22 of Acts. Look at Paul’s description of this earlier vision again:
“When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord saying to me, ‘Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ I replied, ‘Lord, they themselves know that I imprisoned and beat those in the various synagogues who believed in you. And when the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing nearby, approving, and guarding the cloaks of those who were killing him.’ Then he said to me, ‘Go, because I will send you far away to the Gentiles’” —Acts 22:17-21
The best way for me to contrast Paul’s “vision,” mentioned in chapter 22, with the appearance of our Lord in chapter 23 is by turning to this passage in Numbers 12:
“Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married (for he had married an Ethiopian woman). They said, ‘Has the Lord only spoken through Moses? Has he not also spoken through us?” And the Lord heard it. (Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than any man on the face of the earth.) The Lord spoke immediately to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam: “The three of you come to the tent of meeting.” So the three of them went. And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent; he then called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward. The Lord said, “Hear now my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known to him in a vision; I will speak with him in a dream. My servant Moses is not like this; he is faithful in all my house. With him I will speak face to face, openly, and not in riddles; and he will see the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” —Numbers 12:1-8
Wow! Okay, what is the correlation between that story and the vision Paul had? Well, the revelation Paul received from his trance was something like watching a video. However, in Acts 23:11, Paul saw a vision. Our Lord literally stood at Paul’s side and spoke to him. That is what I would call a first-class encounter with Christ. It is in our times of deepest need that our Lord is most near:
Even when I must walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff reassure me —Psalm 23:4
But I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me by your wise advice,
and then you will lead me to a position of honor —Psalm 73:23-24
“. . . remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” —Matthew 28:20
“. . . he has said, ‘I will never leave you and I will never abandon you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper, and I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’” —Hebrews 13: 6
At this low point in Paul’s life (low, from his perspective), our Lord is near to him in the most intimate way. There is not even the hint of rebuke from our Lord at a time when we would have expected it. Think of what we might have said to Paul. “Paul, you made a bad decision in coming to Jerusalem, and now you are suffering the consequences.” “Paul, you certainly lost your temper with Ananias, and look at the trouble you have gotten yourself into.” “Paul, you may need to take a class in anger management.” “Paul, you should have kept your mouth shut.”
No! Instead of a rebuke, Paul receives encouragement. The translators may be right when they render our Lord’s words, “Have courage. . .” Many of the Bible translations render it this way, or something similar to it. But the King James Version and the New King James Version both render it, “Be of good cheer . . .” The sense of the message is this:
“Cheer up, Paul. Things aren’t nearly as bad as they appear to be at the moment. You have faithfully fulfilled your assignment of proclaiming the gospel in Jerusalem; now you are about to do the same thing in Rome.”
Besides Paul, the only person who seems to have done it right (so far) is the Roman commander, Claudius Lysias. The high priest failed, along with the Sanhedrin. How wonderful it is to know that God’s plans and purposes are certain and secure, based on His sovereignty, and not on our perfection.
If interested, you can download the entire study of The Story of Acts