Week of January 5, 2020
The Point: It’s hard to ignore a changed life.
Paul before Agrippa: Acts 26:2-5,12-18,24-26.
 “I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am going to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews,  especially because you are familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews. Therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently.  “My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews.  They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee.”  “In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests.  At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me.  And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’  And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.  But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you,  delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles–to whom I am sending you  to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”  And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.”  But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.  For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner.” [ESV]
“King Agrippa – Almost Persuaded? [25:13-26:32]. For the third time in the space of two chapters, the apostle Paul gives a defense. The first had been before Governor Felix over two years previously [Acts 24:1-27]. Then, following Felix’s recall to Rome, Paul made another defense before Governor Festus [25:1-12]. The apostle had declined the governor’s proposal that he be tried in Jerusalem in all likelihood before a court of Jewish jurisdiction. The outcome of such a trial was a foregone conclusion: they would have found Paul guilty of blasphemy and exercised their right under Roman law to execute him. Paul had appealed to Caesar, something he had not done before Felix, hoping that this appeal would ensure his transportation to Rome. Now that this possibility had been denied him, the only recourse left was to exercise his right as a Roman citizen to be heard by the emperor himself (or, since Nero had abdicated this responsibility, by his delegated official in Rome). That would seem to be that, and it looked as though Paul would now be summarily taken to Rome. But God had one more surprise in store for the apostle. Agrippa. Within days of Paul’s defense before Festus, King Agrippa II made a visit to Caesarea, accompanied by his sister, Bernice, to pay his respects to the governor [25:13-14]. During the visit Festus discussed the case with the royal party, no doubt looking for advice on how he might handle the situation. He had agreed to send Paul to Rome, but what if the emperor should decide that there was no case to answer and that the governor ought to have known it? At best, it will make the governor appear inept. At worst, it could cost him his post. Luke informs us of the initial dialogue between Festus and Agrippa in 25:14-22. The Herods were past masters of political intrigue and Jewish conundrums, and this case of Saul the Pharisee turned Nazarene, involving Jewish political ambitions and nationalistic intrigue, must have been of considerable interest to Agrippa. Seeking his advice would seem a politically savvy thing for Governor Festus to do. Festus, in relating the case against Paul to Agrippa, adds and omits certain details: he explicitly mentions the approach to him by the chief priests and the elders of the Jews during his visit to Jerusalem [25:15], but makes no reference to the plot made against Paul. For the first time he adds that the Jews asked that a sentence of condemnation be made against the apostle. That would short-circuit the judicial process, and the Jews would then have had no need to try Paul further. Hence the reason that the trial be held in Caesarea. In all of this Festus was upholding the honorable standards of Roman justice [25:16], carefully avoiding any reference to his desire for a bribe from the Jews! Festus, having convened the trial, expressed surprise that no charge against Roman law had been made by the Jews [25:18]. In Festus’s opinion, the allegations made against Paul were theological: it was, in Festus’s opinion, a dispute about their own religion [25:19]. And in what must be one of the most eloquent statements of the truth of Christianity to have emerged from the mouth of an unbeliever, Festus records his assessment of the heart of the trial: a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive [25:19]. If, as Festus now argued, the issue was genuinely theological, why had he not released the apostle? Festus may well have been at a loss as to how to investigate these theological matters [25:20], but his suggestion to have Paul tried in Jerusalem was, after all, against the clear findings of Roman law. Festus made no mention that Paul had protested his innocence [25:10]; he only affirmed that the apostle had gone over his head in appealing to Caesar [25:21]. The stage was now set for Agrippa to hear from the prisoner. Intimidation. Luke reruns the “trial” in slow motion, even though we have heard Paul make this case twice already. It seems as though in the trial of the apostle Paul we see a cameo of the trial of the church – as though Luke is saying to us: “Watch how the apostle engages in his defense and learn from it! You, too, may find yourself in similar circumstances, called to witness to the gospel when your life, or that of others, depends on it. These are the lessons you must learn.” What are these lessons? The first and most obvious matter to note about Paul’s demeanor is his courage in what are extremely intimidating circumstances. The sight of Agrippa in his royal robes accompanied by Bernice in her finery, as well as formally appareled civic officials, must have been quite a spectacle. Agrippa’s kingdom was relatively unimportant, but he made up for it by visual theatricality and pageantry. Then, by way of graphic contrast, there is the diminutive prisoner, in chains [26:29]. How do we witness to people like Agrippa and Bernice? Writing at a later period, in a prison cell in Rome from which he would be taken out and executed, Paul would urge Timothy (and us!) to give a reason in season and out of season for the hope that lies within us [2 Tim. 4:2]. Whatever the circumstances might be, we are to be ready to witness to the saving purposes of God in Jesus Christ. We are to be ready to defend our commitment to the gospel no matter what the possible outcome to ourselves might be. In these present circumstances, with all the visual intimidation of the setting, and the possibility of violent suggestions from the Herods, Paul is ready to uphold the name of Jesus. Jesus Himself had told His disciples something that Luke records in his Gospel: when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say [Luke 12:12]. If the Spirit can enable the apostle to witness in such circumstances as these, He can surely do so in every circumstance, including those in which we may find ourselves. It is unlikely that most of us will find ourselves facing the potential consequences that Paul was facing here, but most of us do know the paralysis that often accompanies opportunities for evangelism. It is not the fear of persecution or physical suffering that deters us; it is the loss of our reputation or something equally trivial that holds us back! Faced with Paul’s courage here, it is both an incentive for us and a condemnation of our reluctance. Before Paul spoke, Festus introduced him to Agrippa, exaggerating the political pressure he was under [Acts 25:24-27]. For the second time, Festus declares Paul’s innocence. Paul is no longer Festus’s concern, and recording his innocence at the stage cost him nothing. He should have done something about it sooner, had he been sincere in his verdict. Confession. When Agrippa had granted Paul permission to speak, the apostle assumed the pose of an orator, motioning with his hand, thereby giving a signal that he was about to bring his defense [26:1]. This is not technically a legal defense, as had been the case on previous occasions. Agrippa’s desire to hear Paul lies outside of the legal process as such and is meant to be a means both to satisfy his curiosity and possibly to provide Festus with a way of dealing with the case without bringing the emperor into it. Paul is giving his testimony as to why he is a Christian before the highest officials in that part of the world. Once again he is about to speak about his love for Jesus Christ and how this came about. In a lengthy address that covers almost an entire chapter, Paul sets forth a three-pronged apologia. Paul is doing more than defending his life; he is bearing witness to the Savior. What are the main features of this apostolic defense/witness? First, Paul asserts his Jewish credentials [26:1-11]. After a customary rhetorical acknowledgment of King Agrippa, Paul adds the crucial point: especially because you are familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews. Therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently [26:3]. Though Paul’s formal trial was to be in Rome, it was important that the summary of case given to the Roman authorities by King Agrippa be an accurate one. And for that to be so, knowledge of Jewish belief and practice would be essential. As a Jew, King Agrippa is in a better position than most Roman officials to make such an accurate summary of Paul’s case. It was not in spite of his Jewish heritage but because of it that he had come to proclaim what he did. The Jewish hope and the Christian gospel are inseparably related. The one (the Christian gospel) builds on the other (the Jewish Scriptures). He appealed to the fact that the Jews knew very well what he had been and what he had done as an unconverted Jew [26:4-8]. Paul’s point is to identify himself with the Pharisees and, further, to claim that their opposition to Jesus’ resurrection and the offer of Jesus to both Jews and Gentiles is inconsistent with Jewish belief. It was a bold opening move on Paul’s part, appealing among other things to Agrippa’s vanity as an “expert” in Jewish matters. The Old Testament had anticipated a resurrection, Paul argues. Paul then expostulates: Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? [26:8]. Paul is no longer simply addressing Agrippa; he is appealing to Festus as well as any Gentiles who may have been present. Paul resumes the narrative form of his address in verse 9, drawing attention to his Pharisaic past, giving attention to a detail that has not appeared before in similar testimonies to his notorious conversion to Christianity [26:9-11]. In his zeal as a Pharisee to persecute and destroy what he at first regarded as a heresy, he admitted to having “voted” for the death of Christians. In an attempt to stamp out Christianity and force recantations, Paul’s travels were more extensive than he had at first admitted. Second, he draws attention to calling and mission [26:12-23]. Paul continues his defense by relating once more his conversion on the Damascus road and the events that immediately followed it [26:13-17]. A crucial summary of Paul’s mission is given in Acts 26:18: he is sent to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. Paul now addresses Agrippa directly: I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision [26:19]. The gospel that he had been charged to deliver, first in Damascus, then in Jerusalem, then in Judea, and finally to the Gentiles [26:20], was nothing more than what the prophets and Moses had prophesied [26:22]. Once again, Paul summarizes the content of the gospel: they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance [26:20]. Paul made the appeal to Scripture: what he had taught was that which Scripture declared – no more, no less! Before noting Agrippa’s response, we should ask ourselves two pertinent questions: Is our defense of the gospel noted by fidelity to what the Bible says? Does the principle of sola Scriptura characterize the message of our evangelism? Specifically, do we give the same emphasis to the need for repentance as was so evident in the ministry of Paul and others in the New Testament? Interruption. Paul’s defense seems to take a decided turn in verses 21-22: For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great. The use of testifying in verse 22 suggests that Paul is no longer giving a defense but positively proclaiming to his audience. The apostle’s future is on trial, but that is no reason not to preach the gospel. Again, the gospel that Paul had been charged to deliver, first in Damascus, then in Jerusalem, then in Judea, and finally to the Gentiles, was nothing more than what the prophets and Moses had prophesied, that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles [26:22-23]. Paul now invites Agrippa to concur and endorse the logic of his argument. It is at this point in Paul’s apologia that Governor Festus interrupts him, accusing the apostle of being out of your mind [26:24]. This is not an atypical response. It was a charge that Paul had gladly accepted. To be insane (in the estimation of the world) for Christ is a truly blessed experience. Here, before Festus, Paul denies any insanity outright (in the sense meant by the governor): I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words [26:25]. Then, addressing King Agrippa directly, Paul appeals to his knowledge of the Old Testament: King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe [26:27]. By any standards, Paul’s direct challenge to King Agrippa was both bold and risky. On one level, it was calculated to embarrass the king before the lesser Festus. He could hardly be seen to be hoodwinked by a Jewish prisoner. Now was not the time to show weakness. On another level, it is a sign of Paul’s evangelistic heart that, despite the consequences, this was the only occasion he may have to witness to Agrippa, and he takes the opportunity given him by the Spirit to draw him directly into a personal confrontation with the claims of the Christian gospel by pointing him directly toward the Scriptures. Agrippa’s response was dismissive: In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian? [26:28]. As far as Agrippa was concerned, Paul had given an insufficient argument to persuade him of the truth of the Christian gospel. The apostle’s heart is revealed in the concluding exclamation: Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am – except for these chains [26:29].It is a stunning lesson that despite the impassioned pleas of the apostle Paul, not one of the three individuals before him was converted that day. Not one! Salvation is of grace from beginning to end. It is monergistic, that is, entirely the work of God the Holy Spirit. Paul may explain and even plead; he may set things out in logical and reasonable terms, overturning every philosophical objection along the way; he may speak of the realities in such a way as to move a man to an emotional response of some kind – but in the end, the work of regeneration is entirely a work of God. Regeneration is God’s grace that precedes our outgoings of heart toward God. One may sow and another may water, but it is of God to grant the increase [1 Cor. 3:7]. No such work of grace occurred in the hearts of either Agrippa or Festus that day in Caesarea. This, too, we must attribute to the sovereign will of God rather than impute any failure on the part of the apostle. Paul had been a faithful witness. And we must ask ourselves: how would we have fared in such circumstances?” [Thomas, pp. 687-702].
Questions for Discussion:
- What lessons do we learn from Paul’s testimony concerning how we are called to witness to the Gospel before unbelievers?
- What are the main features of this apostolic defense/witness? Why does Paul make the resurrection the central point of his defense?
- Thomas writes that we should ask ourselves two pertinent questions: “Is our defense of the gospel noted by fidelity to what the Bible says? Does the principle of sola Scriptura characterize the message of our evangelism?” How do you answer these two questions? How can you grow in making Scripture the fundamental tool for your evangelism?
- Meditate on 26:16-18 this week. What difference do these truths make to your life, your actions, and your attitudes?
Acts, Darrell Bock, BENT, Baker.
The Acts of the Apostles, David Peterson, Pillar, Eerdmans.
The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter Varsity.
Acts, Derek Thomas, REC, P&R Publishers.