Is there any comparison between Paul’s vision of Christ on the road to Damascus and Joseph Smith’s vision in the woods in New York?
This will be our last lesson from the Book of Acts. The manual states that Paul’s “errand from the Savior was ‘to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel’ (Acts 9:15). In chapters 22-28 of Acts, we see Paul fulfilling this errand and facing great opposition – chains, imprisonment, physical abuse, a shipwreck, and even a snake attack. But we also see that Jesus ‘stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul’ (Acts 23:11).”
Paul had been falsely accused, arrested, and kept in prison for a couple of years by Felix the Roman ruler of Judea. When Felix was replaced by Festus as ruler – Paul was brought before him. Acts 25:7-8 “And when he was come, the Jews which came down from Jerusalem stood around about, and laid many and grievous complaints against Paul, which they could not prove. While he answered for himself, Neither against the law of the Jews, neither against the temple, nor yet against Caesar, have I offended any thing at all.” The high priest and others wanted Festus to send Paul to Jerusalem in order that he might be killed there. The reason is because Paul had preached openly about Jesus being crucified for the sins of the world and he affirmed that Jesus rose from the dead. Had Festus been persuaded by their rhetoric – it is possible that he would have been killed. But God had promised Paul back in Chapter 23 that he would “bear witness to the truth at Rome,” and nothing was going to stop that from happening. So, Paul was kept at Caesarea. Acts 25:10 “Then said Paul, I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged: to the Jews have I done no wrong, as thou very well knowest.” Festus did not dare deny Paul the protection of the Roman laws, since Paul was a Jewish Roman citizen. Acts 25:12 “Then Festus, when he had conferred with the council, answered, Hast thou appealed unto Caesar? Unto Caesar shalt thou go.”
Days later, King Agrippa and his sister Bernice, who was also his unlawful wife, came to Caesarea to pay Festus a visit. This Agrippa was the son of Herod Agrippa who was the great grandson of Herod the Great. He was known as Agrippa II. Festus explains Paul’s situation to Agrippa and says that he insisted that Paul get a fair hearing even though the Jewish leaders wanted to convict him. Acts 25:22 “Then Agrippa said unto Festus, I would also hear the man myself, Tomorrow, said he, thou, shalt hear him.” So, the next day Paul is brought before Agrippa and Bernice. Which brings us to Paul and his eloquent response in chapter 26. Verses 1-3 “Then Agrippa said unto Paul, thou art permitted to speak for thyself. Then Paul stretched forth the hand, and answered for himself: I think myself happy, King Agrippa, because I shall answer for myself this day before thee touching all the things whereof I am accused of the Jews: Especially because I know thee to be expert in all customs and questions which are among the Jews: wherefore I beseech thee to hear me patiently.” Paul was openly telling Agrippa that he was blessed to have someone who could understand where he was coming from. Remember Agrippa was a Jew, himself. At Verse 4 Paul begins his actual speech. He recounts his youth as a Jew and becoming an educated Pharisee. He knew and lived and followed the Law and traditions of the elders. Then the bomb! Verse 6 “And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers.” In other words, Paul is proving that what he is offering the world is a fulfillment of what they as a nation had long taught and believed. And what was this that Paul was saying – God promised unto the forefathers of the faith – the HOPE of the promise! The promise had been given all throughout the Old Testament that the Hope of Israel – the Messiah would come. Paul was saying that God was true, and he, Paul, was a witness to this Messiah, even Jesus Christ. That the Messiah did come and do what God said He would do. Having established this Paul now asks Verse 8 “Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?” I think the bottom line to it all is that they rejected the resurrection of Jesus – because if they accepted it, they would have had to let go of their former ideas and beliefs and allow Christ to reign. That was too much for them.
At this point, Paul steps back into his biography and begins to admit in Verses 9-18 that he himself had things against this Jesus of Nazareth. So, Paul is retelling here an account of his conversion whereby he presents the evidence that he was called of God to do what he had done. I need to mention that the manual states: “The book of Acts contains three accounts of Paul’s miraculous vision on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-20; 22:1-21; 26:9-20). Each of these accounts is slightly different from the others, and some provide more detail than others. Because the accounts were told to different audiences for different purposes, it is reasonable that Paul chose to emphasize different parts of the experience for each audience.” I can’t argue with that statement. But then the manual tries to compare the three accounts of Paul’s vision by stating that: “Similarly Joseph Smith recorded several accounts of his First Vision (see “First Vision Accounts,” Gospel Topic Essays, lds.org). The various accounts were given to different audiences for different purposes and provide insights that would not be available if only one account existed.” The book of Acts from which we have all three accounts of Paul’s vision was authored or written by one person, Luke. There is also one account in Galatians 1:11-16 in addition to several references to Paul’s vision, conversion, or commission elsewhere in Paul’s epistles (1 Corinthians 9:1-2; 15:8-9; Romans 1:4-5; Ephesians 3:1-8; 1 Timothy 1:12-16; 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11-12). Luke agrees independently with Paul’s epistles with regard, to the “who, what, when, where, and why” of Paul’s vision of Jesus Christ. Since Peter and other apostles accepted Paul as an apostle – clearly they had accepted his claim that the resurrected Christ had appeared to him. As an apostle, Paul articulated a revolutionary way of life based on love that broke down barriers and lifted human beings. Paul lived a life devoid of material wealth, power, and sexual fulfillment yet without advocating retreat from ordinary life. Paul suffered unjustly and repeatedly throughout his ministry and finally died for his testimony to the risen Christ.
The LDS church’s approach to deflecting criticisms of Joseph Smith’s – nine first vision accounts – are to argue that similar issues pertain to Paul’s vision. However, the comparative argument fails because it is based on isolated points of comparison rather than on comparing the two cases of Paul and Joseph as wholes. It is evident that the case for Paul’s vision is quite strong, while the case AGAINST Joseph’s vision is just as strong. The Mormons often point out that there are differences in the various New Testament accounts of Paul’s “first vision” of the risen Christ. No one argues that Joseph Smith should have told the story with the same details and in the same words every time. Thus, it is irrelevant that Luke’s report of Paul’s defense before Agrippa has a lengthier account of Jesus’ words to Paul than Luke’s other, parallel accounts of the same event. Specifically, Mormons appeal to the apparent discrepancy as to whether Paul’s companions heard Christ’s voice or not (Acts 9:7; 22:9). An obvious explanation of the discrepancy is that in Acts 9:7 they heard the voice, while in Acts 22:9 means they did not understand the voice. The Mormons would argue that if Acts can have discrepancies in its accounts of Paul’s vision, and yet that vision still have taken place, Joseph Smith can have discrepancies in his accounts of his own vision and yet that vision still have occurred. But this argument fails for three reasons: First, the apparent discrepancy in Acts is a very minor, inconsequential difference that has nothing to do with the credibility of Paul’s having seen the risen Christ. The difference does not come close to being as significant as whether Joseph saw God the Father! Second, the discrepancies in Joseph’s multiple accounts of the First Vision are significant because the accounts were given at various times over a period of several years and paralleled his evolving theology during those years from monotheist to polytheist. Nothing like that is going on with the accounts in Acts. These accounts appear in the same book, produced at the same time, and therefore cannot be evidence of Paul (or Luke) changing the story with the passing of time. Third, there are good reasons to think that the two statements in Acts are not contradictory after all, but complementary. To say that someone could not “hear” what someone else said – can mean that he did not hear the sounds – or that he did not hear them well enough to make out the specific words. Paul’s vision of Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus enjoys rich evidential support and is critical as an explanation for his dramatic conversion from persecutor of the church to apostle to the Gentiles. By contrast, Joseph Smith’s vision of Jesus Christ and God the Father in 1820 is not only sorely lacking in evidence but is utterly lacking in credibility on a wide array of fronts. That is why the manual’s attempt to compare Paul and Joseph’s visions is neither logical nor reasonable.
Then Paul ends his speech before King Agrippa by saying in Verses 19-23 that he did what God had called him to – by preaching the Good News to the Jews and then to the Gentiles, “that they should repent and turn to God.” “That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles.” In hearing this, Festus shouts at Paul “are you mad?” Paul calmly replies in Verse 25 “I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness.” Built into Paul’s response is the challenge: Test what I am saying against scripture. Challenge my testimony or witness but do not prematurely decide that I am wrong until you do. After defending his words of truth and wisdom, Paul turns to King Agrippa who was a Jew and says in Verse 26 “For the king knoweth of these things, before whom also I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner.” Agrippa would have been well acquainted with Moses and the prophets, the expectation of a Messiah, and the promise of His coming. He would have known of Pilate and Jesus’ death and perhaps even heard of His resurrection.
At this point Paul directly asks and answers for Agrippa. Verse 27 “King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know thou believest.” When he asked Agrippa, “do you believe the prophets?” Perhaps the King swallowed hard, and the expression on his face gave away his conviction. Because after a moment – Paul said kindly, “I know you believe.” After Paul confirms this knowledge to King Agrippa, the Spirit was calling to the man. And in that space, the king had a choice. Verse 28 “Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuades me to be a Christian.” We all want King Agrippa opportunities in life. We may have helped someone come to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior – but it is not our job to convert anyone. That responsibility is the Holy Spirit’s. Ultimately, the person has to choose. Considering the fact that Agrippa was a King sold out to the Romans, was illegally married to his own sister Bernice, and he was rich – there was just too much for him to lose – too much at stake. Verse 29 “And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds.” Paul is saying – this is my earnest desire, that with the exception of these chains, this bondage that I am in, I would to God that all within my voice could be as I am. There was nothing Paul could do to overcome Agrippa’s heart – that would need to be a work of God. Verse 32 “Then said Agrippa unto Festus, This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar.”
The rest of the chapters in the Book of Acts chronicle Paul’s harrowing voyage to Rome – as a prisoner where he was to be tried and executed. But, in the weeks ahead – we will be richly fed from the letters Paul wrote to the saints in various locations.
And, that concludes our study of Acts. Don’t forget we are on YouTube, iTunes podcast, Spotify podcast, and check out our website at Talking to Mormons.com.
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