FORCEFULLY ADVANCING: The Church in Acts, Part 6

Paul, Festus, Agrippa

Testifying About Christ, Acts 26:1—32

The events of Acts 26 really begin at Acts 25:23, where Paul is called to defend his faith before King Agrippa.  In all, Luke the physician-historian has recorded five such defenses in Acts, with this one being the longest and most carefully constructed.  Winn has observed,

This is the last major speech in Acts, and Luke intends it to be the climax.  He carefully paints the scene.

In Luke’s account, Paul is painted as the one who is the center of attention, assuming that position with a kind of quiet dignity.  Here we see Paul in his element:  preaching to a captive audience.  Festus had dragged Paul before King Agrippa, but Paul was in charge, doing what he did best.

Despite the fact that he knew he was in God’s will, and despite the fact that God was accomplishing things through the current ministry of Paul in Caesarea, Paul remained a prisoner for almost two years in this city which headquartered the Roman government which oversaw Judea.

A mere handful of days after Festus became governor of Caesarea, the miserable Jewish officials in Jerusalem appealed to him to send Paul to them to stand yet another trial.  However, these despicable Jewish leaders had in mind to ambush Paul along the way and kill him; a most effective way to silence a man they perceived as a troublemaker and a threat to their religion.  Festus instead invited these men to come to him and accuse Paul in his presence.  This they did, trotting out the same tired old charges without a single witness or any evidence that Paul was guilty of any kind of crime.  The new governor, anxious to keep the peace by pleasing the Jews, tried to convince Paul to go back to Jerusalem with his accusers, but Paul would have none of it.

As a Roman citizen, Paul claimed his rights and demanded to stand trial before Caesar.  This would accomplish two things.  First, he had already been a prisoner in Caesarea for two years, and standing before Caesar would allow for a final decision concerning his case.  Second, it would get Paul to Rome, which was where he wanted to be in the first place.  To his demand, Festus said this—

“You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!”  (25:12)

Within days, while waiting to be sent to Rome, Paul found himself standing before King Agrippa and his wife, who had come to welcome Festus as the new governor.  Agrippa was curious about Paul, and Paul took advantage of his curiosity to testify, not about himself and his innocence so much, but about God.

1.  The scene, 25:23—27

Festus said: “King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome(verses 24, 25)

Festus was a weenie to be sure.  Not only had he exaggerated the accusations against Paul, but he could have set Paul free himself, instead, he is seen pawning Paul off to somebody else.   Festus had nothing to charge Paul with, and he was hoping Agrippa, after questioning the man, could come up with some charge worthy of his being shipped to Rome.

When Agrippa and Bernice walked into the hall, Luke says this—

Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp… (verse 23)

The Greek word is phantasia, which means “show, showy appearance, display.”   The contrast between the prisoner and the potentate is skillfully brought out by Luke in a series of contrasts:

  • Agrippa came, Paul was brought;
  • Agrippa entered with great pomp, Paul entered in chains;
  • Agrippa was accompanied by Bernice, Paul stood alone.

But the contrasts had another side:

  • Agrippa was a slave to sin, Paul was a free man in Christ;
  • Agrippa was accompanied by a perverse and wicked woman, Paul was escorted by his unseen God.

Luke himself, in casting Paul as the main character is this drama, carries the contrasts even further, giving only summary statements from and about Agrippa, while yielding center stage to the apostle.

2.  Life before conversion, 26:1—11

Paul was not intimidated either by his chains or by the fact that he was standing before the regally robed leader of both the Romans and the Jews!  Here was his golden opportunity to share his faith, and despite his manacles, he motioned with his hand and began testifying.

(a)  Nothing to hide, vv. 1—5

I beg you to listen to me patiently.  (verse 3b)

In a way, this was the kind of situation Paul must have longed for.  After two long and bleak years in prison, he finally had a chance to speak to somebody in authority; Agrippa not only had authority, but he was also an expert in all things Jewish, so he would have listened eagerly to every work Paul spoke.

Paul began fervently but respectfully, expressing his appreciation for the opportunity of speaking.  Never have we seen Paul as polite as we do here!  His choice of Greek words also shows that Paul was a highly educated individual.

The apostle began by say that he had absolutely nothing to hide; his life was an open book to the Jews.  He was a Pharisee and there was not a soul alive who could accuse him on trampling on the law.  We may have thought it strange (or at least extreme) that Paul insisted on the circumcision of Timothy for example, and of his own continued, though voluntary, devotion to the Jewish faith, but here we see his great foresightedness.  He could in good conscience, stand in confidence knowing that he had done nothing against his Jewish heritage.

(b)  Once a persecutor, vv. 6—11

I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.  (verses 6a, 9b)

Paul insisted that he was being persecuted for proclaiming the very hope that the Jews continued to hold on to:  the coming of the Messiah.  God had given Abraham and the fathers of the Jewish faith this great promise and both he and the Israel still clung to the possibility of its fulfillment.   Furthermore, the Jews also clung to the hope of resurrection when the Messiah appears.

Against that backdrop of a common faith, Paul adds this—

Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?  (verse 8)

A remarkable double-whammy:  Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, and He rose from the dead!  The Jews had been so busy looking for the fulfillment of the Promise, they missed it entirely.  And so they hated those who believed it and persecuted them; among those who hated and persecuted Christians the most was none other than Paul.

3.  An encounter with Christ, 26:12—18

Here is another version of how Paul found Christ, and it differs slightly from the account he gave to the Jews in Jerusalem (chapter 22).  Given the two different circumstances and two different audiences, it makes sense that Paul would tailor his own story to fit them both.   In all, Paul recounted his conversion story three times in Acts, showing how important it was.

(a)  Christ reveals himself, vv 12—15

While Paul was doing his best to stamp out Christianity, the meeting that changed his life happened.   When the risen Christ confronted Paul and his traveling companion on the road to Damascus, He spoke to Paul in Hebrews—

Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.  (verse 14b)

The phrase “kick against the goads” was  well-known proverb in the Mediterranean world and Agrippa would have been familiar with it.  What it means involves three points:  Saul was kicking against the goads of—

  • A decent human conscience, that must have told him that his cruel treatment of Christians couldn’t be right;
  • The godly lives of the Christian community, which must have impressed him;
  • The face of Stephen and his prayer of forgiveness; that memory must have haunted Saul relentlessly.

Paul always looked back to this singular experience as the great turning point in his life and the source of his authority to speak the Word of God.

(b)  Christ commissions Paul, vv. 16—18

When Christ commissioned Paul, He spoke to the new apostle as He spoke to the prophets Ezekiel, Isaiah and Jeremiah:

He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.”  “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day.  (Ezekiel 2:1, 3)

You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.  (Jeremiah 1:7—8)

I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.  (Isaiah 42:6—7)

Paul’s mission was definitely a prophetic one that was to continue the commission originally given to the prophets and to Jesus Christ.  Christians today are similarly commissioned to carry on this ministry.

After his calling, Jesus warned Paul that he would face difficult times, especially opposition from both Jews and Gentiles, as was happening at this very moment. Paul was standing before a Gentile king, in front of Jewish accusers.  These words of Christ must have been the reason for Paul’s amazing courage—

I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles.  (verse 17a)

3.  Obedience to the call, 26:19—29

(a)  Following the vision, vv. 19—23

Verse 19 is one the most powerful declarations obedience in all the Bible—

I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.

In spite of the dangers Paul knew were coming, he never wavered in his obedience to God in carrying out the commission given him by Christ, and now it was on account of His obedience to God that he was being accused for no reason by Jews who were opposed to his preaching.  In trying to muzzle Paul, the Jews were, in reality, opposing God.  Verse 21 must have stung the Jews severely—

That is why the Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me.

Paul is basically accusing the Jews of opposing the very the very things they claimed to believe in!  So prejudiced against the Gentiles, they were blinded to the fact that the message of Paul was genuine and not so far removed from their own.

No matter how bad things had gotten for Paul, his present predicament notwithstanding, God stood by Paul, both protecting him and enabling him to boldly proclaim the Gospel.   The word translated “help” in verse 22 comes from a Greek word meaning “aid” or “assistance given by an ally.”  God was Paul’s Ally in his ministry.  With God on his side, Paul could “stand,” or “continue” in his work, even while standing before Agrippa!

And what was Paul saying to Agrippa?  Verses 23 and 24 declare in the simplest terms his message to Agrippa and the assembled Jews—

“I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—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.”

Paul’s teachings were nothing new; there were based squarely on the Word of God; the exact same Word of God the Jews preached.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all preachers today did what Paul did?

(b)  A reprimand and a challenge, verses 23—29

To Festus, a Roman, such talk about sufferings and resurrections seemed like nonsense.  Thinking Paul’s statements were offensive to Agrippa, he shouted out loud, bringing Paul’s very sanity into question.   He thought that Paul had driven himself mad studying such things.  One commentator observed—

Paul has been talking to Agrippa as one Jew to another, and naturally the Roman Festus thought that anyone who had [Messianic] expectations in mind must be mad.

The fact is, many educated people think like Festus; talk of the Second Coming of Christ and of the resurrection make little sense.  However, to both Christians and Jews alike, this kind of eschatological preaching is central to their faith.

Paul remained respectful as he answered Festus, insisting he was far from mad and that, unlike Festus, Agrippa was very familiar with these teachings.  These verses show clearly that, even though shackled and restrained, Paul was in control and dominating the proceedings.  Then he did something unthinkable:  he challenged Agrippa!

King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.  (verse 27)

What a question!  The king could not deny that he was at least very familiar with “the prophets.”  Certainly the king was at least somewhat familiar with Christian teachings since there were not “done in a dark corner.”  As far as Paul was concerned, if a person gave mental assent to “the prophets,” that could inevitably lead him to a firm belief in Christ.  So the prisoner now becomes the inquisitor and asks the challenging question.

This question posed a real dilemma for the king.  If he gives a negative answer, he will offend the Jews; if he answers positively, he loses face if Paul asks him to believe the Gospel.  Before the king can respond, Paul answers for him:  I know you do.

Variations abound of Agrippa’s response to Paul, probably due to variants in the Greek text.  Here is a sampling of what Agrippa may have said—

You almost persuade me to become a Christian – NKJV

You with a few words are trying to persuade me to become a Christian – MLB

In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian – NASB

Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to become a Christian – NIV

In a short time you think you can make me a Christian – RSV

What was Agrippa trying to tell Paul?  Even before meeting Paul in person, Agrippa held no animus toward the apostle.  In fact, some scholars have noted that Agrippa was “kindly disposed” to Paul.  It is unlikely, then, that Agrippa is trying to ridicule or make fun of Paul.  He is simply being evasive because he knows that no matter how he answers, Paul will keep on probing. Not wanting to lose his influence over the Jews and not wanting to be identified as a Christian, he simply ignores the question and considers the matter closed.  He had no desire to keep going because he considered Paul guilt of nothing.   Lenski comments:

Agrippa had felt Paul’s touch upon his heart, and from this strange and unexpected power he withdrew.  It was his hour of grace, and when he left the room, he left salvation behind him.

Everyone agreed that Paul was innocent of any crime, and verse 32 is Agrippa’s verdict—

“This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”

With one short sentence, Paul was completely vindicated and Festus was found guilty!  The spineless Festus refused to release an innocent whom he knew was innocent, and now everybody knew what kind of man he was.

Conclusion

Paul took advantage of an unusual opportunity to witness for Christ.  Our opportunities to share Christ come to us daily, and we are not imprisoned as Paul was.  Do we make the most of every opportunity to testify about our relationship about Christ?

The events of Acts 26 happened roughly 20 years after Paul’s conversion.  Yet he was still empowered by that one experience.  He was still excited about the Gospel and about how it changes lives.  Hopefully our faith has not grown cold.  Hopefully we are as much in love with Christ today as we were when we first found Him.

(c)  2009 WitzEnd
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