It is Thursday and our reading thru the New Testament brings us to Acts 26:1-32. It is the story of Paul’s next trial before a Roman authority. As you read the scripture pay close attention to Paul’s argument/defense. After you read the Scripture, come back and we’ll look at it together.
This is now the Apostle Paul’s third trial before Roman authorities. What is somewhat different here is that Paul does not mount a defense of his innocence as much as give a sermon of his life and encounter with Jesus. You probably noticed it already, but Paul’s speech to Herod Agrippa is focused around three things: his background and upbringing as a Jewish Pharisee; his encounter with Jesus that led to his conversion while on the road to Damascus; and, his commission, or call, and subsequent obedience to carry the Gospel message into all of the world.
King Herod Agrippa is a fourth-generation Herod. His family of Kings does not have a good background in terms of God’s people. His great-grandfather, Herod the Great, ordered the killing of all babies two and under, after hearing of the birth of a King of the Jews (Jesus) in Bethlehem. His grandfather, Herod Antipas, beheaded John the Baptist. His father ordered the execution of the Apostle James, the first church leader in Jerusalem. This Herod, Agrippa, was only in his early 20’s when Paul stood before him to make his appeal based not on Roman law, or Jewish subterfuge, but instead on his life’s testimony of his encounter with Christ Jesus and how it changed his entire life.
Paul begins with an appeal to Herod’s knowledge based on his own Jewish background (vss 2-3). Paul based his appeal on Herod having certain knowledge of Jewish beliefs and the subsequent controversies that existed between Jews and Christians - even though the largest number of Christians (at this time) had come from Judaism. He begins by telling Agrippa that he had been raised in Jerusalem to become a Pharisee. Paul was not an insurrectionist, nor trying to defame Judaism, but instead, affirming the promises of Scripture rooted in the Old Testament that the dead live on and the resurrection of the dead was affirmed in the Scripture.
Paul’s rhetorical question in vs 8, serves as the key pivotal part of his appeal - “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” Agrippa would have known immediately how the tension between the Jewish leaders and Paul began. The Sadducees who controlled the power in the Sanhedrin, and thus Jerusalem, denied the resurrection, and life after death. Paul was a Pharisee and they believed in the resurrection of the dead. Now Paul moves from his background as a Pharisee to his conversion to faith in Christ. It is not based on any kind of logical thinking about Christ, or the resurrection at that time in his life, but rather on Christ’s revelation of himself to Paul.
The change in his life could not have been more dramatic. First, he was a “Christ-people’s” hater, arresting, imprisoning, convicting, even executing the “Lord’s people” (vss9-11). He hunted them down and while on the journey to find more followers of Jesus in Damascus he had a dramatic encounter with Jesus himself. The testimony of Paul about this mirrors very closely Luke’s account in Acts 9. It’s the third time Luke has recorded Paul’s conversion experience (the second was in 22:5-21). The bright light struck him to the ground and blinded him, and Jesus’ own words were clearly heard by Paul - “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ Goads were spiked guards that hung from the back of an animal, horse or cattle, being used to pull a cart or wagon. If the animal tried to kick it would hit the goad instead. It was meant to remind the animal that rebelling will only cause them harm. Jesus is in effect saying, “Saul, why do you keep banging your head against the wall?”
Paul’s response to the revelation - “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Was immediately responded by Jesus - “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” Paul pressed on now knowing two truths. First, that Jesus was indeed alive, resurrected from the dead as the followers of Jesus had proclaimed, and secondly, that to fight against the church was to fight against Jesus. Paul recounts Jesus’ immediate commissioning of him - his call if you will - “Now get up and stand on your feet.”
Using three verbs in the past, future, and present tense, Paul sums up his life’s call. I have appeared to you (past tense) to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue (future tense) you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you (present tense) (literally it means, “I myself, Apostle you), to them to open their eyes and turn 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.” ’. (Vss 16-18). Without using the word, Paul testified to the Gospel! None of what Jesus called Paul to was based on his own gifts or abilities, but clearly on the work of Christ that would take place in and through Paul.
Paul says “I was obedient to Jesus in doing what he called me to do” (my paraphrase of vs 19). He went according to the pattern of Acts 1:8, first to Jerusalem, then Judea, Samaria, and to the rest of the known world preaching the Gospel - that to repent of sin, turn to Christ (God) and live Christ-like was his message over and over again. Paul ends it with two summary points: First, that the opposition of the Jews was based on the revelation and call he had received from Christ to the entire world, including the Gentiles, but that message was fully in accord with the Old Testament Scriptures. The Messiah came in Jesus but had to die and then be raised from the dead, and this message was not just for the Jews but also for the Gentiles (vss 20-23).
At this point, the trial is turned upside-down, and the accused becomes the judge, and the judges become on trial. Festus, who was relatively new, and probably unacquainted with Scriptures interrupts Paul - “You are out of your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you insane’ (vs 24). Paul counters that he is not insane, but appealing to both reason and scriptures and looks back at Agrippa putting him on trial - “King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets? I know you do.” Now King Agrippa has to reply - “Do you think in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” You can sense the tension as Paul is now putting the tribunal on trial. His appeal has turned into a call for a response - there is no neutrality when it comes to Jesus and the Gospel. There is not “I concede Jesus was a good man, a good teacher, a godly person, BUT...”. Agrippa’s response is to challenge Paul, and Paul’s answer is wise - “I pray...you, all...may become what I am, except for these chains.” I can see Paul lift his hands, rattle the chains, and look eagerly into their faces.
Like many, Agrippa, Bernice, Festus all walk away. That was 2000 years ago, and we have no record of any of them ever believing, receiving the Gospel message Paul brought to them wearing those chains. They knew he was innocent, but they also knew the pressure they were under with the Jews, and so they capitulated to the cultural pressure, “too bad...he still is going to Rome.” Paul is not under their control, but God’s control. Jesus stood before Paul to tell him he was going to testify in Rome, but it didn’t mean he wouldn’t testify along the way.
What do we do when given an opportunity to share the Gospel with someone else? I have lived this out hundreds of times. There’s no need to talk about my religion, or my church, or I believe this or that...there’s only one story. “Jesus is real, he came to die for my sins, and I know that he did. I committed my life, my trust, my hope in him. He died for me that I might receive eternal life - wouldn’t you like to have that too?”