July 31, 2016

 

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe


Topic # IV: The Church Advancing to the End of the Earth (Acts Chapters 12-28)            


Subtopic F: Paul in Caesarea (Acts 23:23-Acts 26:32)                                     

                          

         Lesson: IV.F.5: Paul Before Agrippa (Acts 26:1-32)

 


Commentary

1 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:

With regard to both its form and its content we have here the high point of the speeches of Acts.  It is the most polished of all the speeches, adorned with rare words and marked by an elaborate, even grandiose, style.  The credit for this must go largely to Luke and yet Paul still makes himself heard.  As for content—at Antioch we had his gospel for Jews (13:16-41), at Miletus his message for Christians (20:18-35), but here we have his Good News for all the world, proclaimed out of his own experience of God’s grace.

Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Thou art permitted to speak for thyself.  As guest of honor, it fell to Agrippa to invite Paul to speak, and it was to him especially that Paul addressed his remarks (2, 13, 19, 27).

Having received Agrippa’s permission to speak, Paul acknowledged it with a [3]hand salute, one that showed his respect and recognition of Agrippa’s rank.  He gave the man his title, too—“king.”  Paul was a great believer in respecting constituted authority and in rendering honor where honor was due (Romans 13:1-7).  A man holding the position might be a scoundrel and his private life a scandal, but Paul acknowledged the office and recognized that “the powers that be are ordained of God.” Insolence toward those in authority, civil disobedience, and disrespect toward governing officials were as foreign to Paul as they are to the Bible.

 

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.

“Especially because I know thee to be expert in all customs and questions which are among the Jews.”  This is the third time Paul’s conversion experience is recorded in the book of Acts, which gives us some idea of the importance attached to it by the Holy Spirit.  It is the second time Paul himself tells the story.  His testimony is not as much from the heart as it is carefully reasoned.  Paul begins by speaking of his countrymen (Jews), and then talks about his conversion, and finishes up with his cause.  He was pleased to be able to state his case to such an imposing group, so he probably had spent lots of time in prayer and preparation.

He explains why he was particularly pleased to be able to state his case to King Agrippa. Of all the high officials residing in the country, nobody knew better than the king the history, principals, and passions that motivated the Jewish people.  Paul described Agrippa as an expert on those matters.  Of all government officials in the country, Agrippa could be expected to appreciate that Israel’s messianic hope had found its answer in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that the message Paul preached (no matter how hostile entrenched official opposition might be) was no strange cultish aberration but the consummation of Israel’s noblest and most deeply imbedded ideals.  Luke again emphasizes that Christianity is to be judged not as a new religion but as a particular community within Judaism (9:1-19; 18:13; 21:39; 23:6; 24:5, 14). Festus might not be able to understand that, but Agrippa could.

“Wherefore I beseech thee to hear me patiently.”  Paul did not promise to be brief.  The occasion was too important for some hop, skip, and jump approach.  The king and the court needed to know the deep issues involved in the gospel message that had caused such a stir among the Jews.  Paul therefore pleaded for the king to be patient. 

No doubt what we have here in acts 26 is Luke’s summary of Paul’s actual speech, which in all probability was considerably longer at the time it was given.

 

My manner of life from my youth, which was at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews;

Paul begins the third narration of his conversion with the words, “My manner of life from my youth.” Evidently the young Saul of Tarsus had made a name for himself in Jerusalem even as a youth, long before he had become famous in other ways.  He had made his mark.  In the first place, he had come from a well-two-do and influential family.  As a disciple of Gamaliel he had attended the most prestigious rabbinical college in the world of his day, and there his natural talents, intellectual abilities, his courage, independence, force of character, and personal charm made their irrefutable mark.  It would not take a person like Paul long to be taken note of as a young man of promise.  Like his new-found Master and Lord, Saul of Tarsus as a youth, in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions (Luke 2:46), would doubtless cause all who heard him to be astonished at his understanding and answers.

So, one way or another, everyone knew who he was.  Paul assumed that his past was known to the Jews, but for the sake of his present audience, he touched briefly on its most important points. He had been brought up in his own country; literally among his own “nation.”  This might have been a reference to Tarsus, but in view of [4]22:3, is more likely to have meant Judea, with “at Jerusalem” adding a more precise definition.  He had lived as a Pharisee, the strictest sect of the Jewish religion (26:5).  His purpose for stating this was to establish his credentials as a Jew (which was clearly impeccable) and then to suggest that there was no disharmony between his Jewish upbringing and his present Christian belief.

 

Which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.

When writing from Rome to his friends at Philippi, Paul gave his own summary of what that meant.  He said, “If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, and Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisees; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:4-6).  Everyone knew he was a “Pharisee,” the kind of Pharisee who went up to the temple to pray and who “stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank Thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.  I fast twice in the week, I give ties of all that I possess” (Luke 18:11-12).  Everyone who knew Paul, knew this about him, he was a committed Pharisee (See Matthew 23 for a description of the Pharisee.).

“After the most straitest (straightest) sect of our religion I lived a Pharisees,” said Paul, and to that he might add “for a long time.”  He was a well-respected Pharisee, and like Nicodemus, he was a master in Israel but lived in total ignorance of his need to be born again.  Everyone knew what he was.  He had won the approval of the most stringent religious sect of his day.  He had been a committed Jew, Judaistic to the core.

 

And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God, unto our fathers:

Unto which promise our twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night, hope to come. For which hope's sake, king Agrippa, I am accused of the Jews.

In other words, his accusation was no accusation at all.  All 12 tribes of Israel were united in having a distinctive hope that set them apart from all mankind.  The word Paul used for the “12 tribes” is used only here and it is in the singular, which shows that Paul regarded the 12 tribes as one nation.

And what was that great hope that so distinguished the Jewish people, the hope that was intended to make Jews a nation of missionaries to all other nations?  It was the hope, preserved in their sacred Scriptures, that God would send a Savior into the world to redeem people from the power, penalty, and presence of sin.  Again Luke emphasizes the continuity between Judaism and Christianity (Luke 1:5-23; 28:21-52).  The reference to the 12 tribes also evokes the hope of Israel that included the restoration of the [5]“lost tribes."

Israel’s hope, the world’s hope, lay in the promise of a coming Kinsman-Redeemer to be mankind’s Savior and Lord.  In the New Testament the word hope is picked up, magnified, and centered in the Lord Jesus, whose second coming is now the “blessed hope” of the church [“Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).].

The great hope of Israel had come.  That is the point Paul now makes.  Jesus had been born in Bethlehem as foretold.  He had fulfilled the Scriptures.  He had been betrayed and crucified and buried.  He had risen again—all as foretold.  He was God over all, blessed for evermore.

 

Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?

The point of the question raised here has been understood in various ways.  Some see it as a reference to the general resurrection and therefore as an appeal to the Sadducees, some of whom may have been present. Others find here a reference to the instances in the Old Testament in which life was restored (1 Kings 17:17-23; 2 Kings 4:18-37), seeing this as the first half in the argument that “there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked” (24:15).

Surely God can restore life to a human being that he has made. The argument in support of that statement may sound like this: “A God who can make a human body out of some 68 trillion cells, and make each cell so small that it takes a very good microscope even to see one and a super-microscope to see inside one, yet each one is a miniature city with power stations, transportation systems, methods of communication; who can make each such cell a highly specialized and fantastically complex chemical structure, can certainly raise the dead.  After all, when we stop to think about the astonishingly complex process by which a human body is created and to think about the even deeper mystery of life itself, it is no more incredible that we should live again than it is that we should live at all.  Why, indeed, should it be thought an incredible thing that God raised the dead?  It is incredible that men could raise the dead; but not that God did indeed raise the dead.”

 

I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.

“I verily (really) thought,” says Paul, “that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” The title emphasizes the essential humanity of the despised and rejected Savior.  That such a man should claim to be the Son of David, Messiah of Israel, and, above all, the Son of the living God was more than the unregenerate and religious Saul of Tarsus had been able to accept.  “Jesus of Nazareth” had been crucified and therefore was accursed.  Though he was a Pharisee and believer in resurrection, he had certainly placed no credence in the claims that “Jesus of Nazareth” had been raised from the dead.  No good thing came out of Nazareth.  That people should actually perpetuate the notion that this despised “Jesus of Nazareth” was the Savior of the world had been obnoxious beyond words to this very devout and religious Jew.

It was a telling part of Paul’s testimony.  It showed that he had not always believed in Jesus.  He had once been as much an unbeliever in Jesus as he had been a believer in rabbinic Judaism.  Here a note of shame creeps into the narrative.  By the emphasis of the opening words of verse nine, Paul showed that he now regarded his opposition to Jesus as an act of utter self-delusion.  The emphatic “I” of verse 10 (in the Greek) maintains that theme, as does the description of his victims as “the [2]saints.”  And not only had he put many of the saints in prison (the Greek has “prisons”), but had intensified his guilt by assenting to the execution of some of them. 

 

10 Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them.

Paul was known well enough to the Sanhedrin.  He had been their fair haired boy, their chief and most valued agent in persecuting the infant church.  His zeal had been well known and highly approved of by Israel’s leaders, who had armed him with the necessary authority to stamp out Christianity. And he had been thorough.  Through him believers in the Lord Jesus had been imprisoned and martyred. He had decided early on that the best thing to do was to lock Christians up, and if that did not silence them, then have them stoned to death.

“I gave my voice against them,” he said.  According to a Biblical law, when someone was to be stoned to death, “the hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death” (Deuteronomy 17:7).  Paul had on his hands the blood of those he had brought to death in his hatred of Christianity in its early days.

It is difficult to know how literally to take Paul’s statement in verse 10.  It claims to give an account of what he had done “in Jerusalem,” and from that we must suppose that he has reference to decisions made by the Sanhedrin, not some lesser synagogal court.  But would Paul have been a member of that august body and to have actually “voted against them” (“I gave my voice against them”)—Christians who had been brought before him?  It is doubtful, not only on account of his probable age at the time, but also because of his apparent obscure origins.  The Sanhedrin was an assembly of aristocrats, composed of men of mature years and influence. It is just possible, of course, that he had won a place in their ranks on his sheer ability alone, but it is safer to assume that “voted against” means simply that “he gave voice against them” (he approved of putting them to death); the expression used in 22:20.  As for Christians being “put to death,” Paul may have been using a generalizing plural for dramatic effect, but the circumstances in Judea that had made possible Stephen’s death may well have made others possible also.

 

11 And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities.

“And I punished them oft in every synagogue.” “Punished them” refers to the disciplinary floggings administered by the synagogue authorities, which the Christian Paul later had to endure.  Here he portrays his pre-Christian period, in which he had administered such punishment himself.  “Blasphemy” means to insult God or his representatives.

Each synagogue had its own lower court which was subservient to the Sanhedrin.  Armed with official papers, Paul had found it easy to enforce the edicts of the Sanhedrin against the Christians, especially since, in those early days, the Christian church was made up entirely of Jews and the synagogue was still their habitual place to meet.  Wherever he went, he made the local synagogue his center of operations. He worked out of the synagogues, which functioned as local courts with powers of discipline over their members, that is, over the local Jewish Communities.  Paul descended on the synagogues of Palestine like a grand inquisitor.  He rooted out the Christians and did his best to “force them to blaspheme” (the name of Jesus) (13:45; 18:6).  The real significance of the expression is that it leaves open the question of whether he ever succeeded.  In contrast to the abhorrence that he now felt for his own part in this, there is an undisguised note of admiration in Paul’s words for the fortitude of those who suffered at his hands.

To Paul in those days it was much more satisfactory to get a Christian to renounce his faith and to curse the Lord Jesus than to have him imprisoned and executed.  His lack of success in forcing Christians to blaspheme had infuriated him even more.  He extended his field of operations by reaching out to foreign cities.  As Christianity spread and took root in foreign lands (in no small measure the result of the widespread scattering of Christians through his own persecutions), Paul had pursued them there.

Paul knew for sure where his accusers were coming from.  He had once been there himself.  He had been one of them.  He had once thrown himself heart and soul, in the fierceness of his fury, into the great cause of uprooting what he had considered to be a deadly heresy.

One can imagine the keen interest with which Agrippa, Festus, and the court followed this account of Paul’s early anti-Christian activities.

 

12 Whereupon as I went to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests,

Next Paul spoke of the critical moment in his life.  His encounter with the risen Lord was a crisis both in the Greek sense of judgment and in the modern sense of a turning point.  As he had traveled to Damascus armed with the authority and commission of the chief priests, who were now, of course, his chief accusers; he was stopped in his tracks.

Nothing could have been further from the mind of Saul of Tarsus than conversion when he rose and saddle his camel that morning.  He would have scorned the idea with oaths and curses.  One fixed idea controlled him and that was to arrest as many Christians in Damascus as he could.  Again and again he gloated over the documents, signed by the Sanhedrin and sealed with the high priest’s seal that guaranteed the cooperation of Jewish officials in Damascus.  He would pull them out of his purse and read them.  He knew their wording by heart.  Nothing could have been further from his mind than the idea that he was wrong in his beliefs and behavior; that he was an active and guilty enemy of God; that Jesus of Nazareth was in very truth the Son of God, and that, at that very moment, He was not only very much alive but was actually preparing to come down from heaven to confront Saul face to face.

 

13 At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me.

14 And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? [1]it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

This was no private hallucination.  In Paul’s description, it happened At midday;” a dazzling light (“above the brightness of the sun”) shown from heaven causing everyone to fall to the ground, and they all heard the voice that spoke (9:7), though Saul’s companions could not distinguish the words and what was actually said (22:9).  Paul alone had understood it, for the “voice” had spoken to him in Hebrew (Aramaic; 21:40).  This had been intimated in 9:4 and 22:7 by the use of the Semitic (Hebrew) form of his name, Saul.  The voice spoke in the Hebrew language: in Aramaic, the native language of Palestine (6:1).  This detail is added to increase the solemnity of the revelation and to emphasize again that Paul (who is speaking Greek to Festus, Agrippa, and the assembled nobles) is a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5).  Though the risen Christ speaks in Aramaic, he quotes a Greek proverb; “it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”

This Greek saying is a common proverb, documented by at least three authors that illustrated how futile it was to struggle against the Greek gods who control human destiny.  Some believe that the statement means Paul had feelings of guilt and was violating his conscience by persecuting believers in Christ.  However, Paul wrote later that in spite of his blaspheming, violence, and persecution of the church he was shown mercy because he was acting in ignorance and unbelief—Though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:13).

The image created by the proverb is taken from goading oxen with sharp sticks to make them move faster; when the oxen respond by kicking, it only hurts them more severely.  The saying has a better explanation within its ancient context: it is useless for Paul to resist the divine purpose, for God has called Paul to become a Christian missionary, and God’s purpose cannot be resisted. 

There could be no mistaking who it was who had detained Saul.  It was the Lord from heaven, the risen, ascended Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, who was for so long the object of Saul’s blind hatred and bitter persecution.

The Lord knew full well the state of Saul’s soul.  Disguise it as he would, deny it as he might, the Holy Spirit’s arrows of conviction had already been at work in Saul’s heart.  He was kicking against the [1]“pricks,” an illustration taken from farm life—an ox that kicks against the pricks only earns itself more goading.  Ever since he had seen the face of Stephen, Saul of Tarsus had been in trouble in his most sacred inner soul.  He had seen the face of an angel.  He had heard Stephen’s testimony in the moment of death.  Stephen had actually seen the risen Christ standing at the throne of God.

 

15 And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.

Saul had wanted to make quite sure.  “Who art thou, lord?” he was immediately and forever convinced: “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest.” This means that though the risen Lord is absent, He still maintains solidarity with his people on earth, and to persecute them is to persecute Him. 

It dawned on him in a flash.  The answer to the need of his heart was Jesus, not Judaism—a living Man not an obsolete religion.  Well indeed had the Temple veil been rent when Jesus died at Calvary!

He saw in a flash that, in all his recent activities, far from doing God a service, he had actually been tearing down, with blind hate and foolishness, the very work God was now doing in the world.  And worse yet, he had been persecuting the glorious One who now filled his vision, the One who was indeed God manifest in flesh.  He had been persecuting Him, the One whom angels worshipped, the altogether lovely One, the chiefest among ten thousand, the Creator of the universe, the one and only Savior of mankind, the One to whom all of the prophets gave witness.

The revelation produced an instant revolution.  He was stopped in his tracks, horrified at his life.  He was the chief of sinners.  He was without God, without Christ, without hope.  Yet—why did that glorious One not crush him where he stood?  Why had He not done so years ago?  The astonishing fact of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ dawned upon Saul as he lay there prostrate on the ground.  He saw, perhaps, the nail prints in those hands.  It dawned upon him that Jesus loved him. The next few words proved it.

 

16 But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee;

“Now get up,” the Lord said to Saul, “I want to tell you what I have in mind for you.  There’s work for you to do.”

He was to be a “minister,” a “messenger (witness),” and a “mediator.”  He was to be a minister—meaning an under-rower, a common sailor, one in a subordinate position, one who acts under the direction of another.  The same word is used to describe John Mark and his relationship to Paul and Barnabas on Paul’s first missionary journey (13:5).  Paul was now under new orders.  He was to serve under the direction of the Lord Himself.

He was to be a messenger, “a witness.”  The meaning of the word is one who has information or knowledge of anything and can therefore give information concerning it.  It came to mean one who bore witness to the truth by his death and, in that way, passed into the English language as martyr.  The word was used by the Lord in commissioning His followers—But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samar′ia and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

He was to be a “mediator,” a vehicle through whom truth would be revealed, and he was to communicate that truth to others.  We know from the book of Acts and from Paul’s own letters how faithfully he discharged these obligations.

 

17 Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee,

Verses 17-18 detailed Paul’s calling and at the same time provide an outline of his life from his conversion to the establishing of churches among the Gentiles.  He was promised protection “from the people, and from the Gentiles,” but only in the sense that he would be enabled to fulfill his calling, not that he would be spared any suffering in the process (2 Timothy 2:9). 

Paul’s primary sphere of witness was to be among the Gentiles.  Much as his heart might yearn over his own people and nation, others were to be responsible for them.  Paul was to go to the regions beyond.  All his narrow-minded, rabbinic, Pharisaic, and Judaistic pride and prejudice was to be crucified.  His field was the world.

For the Jewish authorities it was unforgivable that Saul of Tarsus, their great champion, had become a Christian.  When he threw himself heart and soul into the evangelization of Gentiles, it added insult to injury, and they responded with a great show of rage—Up to this word they listened to him; then they lifted up their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he ought not to live.” And as they cried out and waved their garments and threw dust into the air” (22:22-23).  But the fact that he had been so successful where their own proselytizing had been such a dismal failure was the last straw.  If Agrippa wanted to know why the Jews were so vehemently opposed to Paul, here was the cause.

At the time of his conversion and call, Paul had been warned that his mission would not be an easy one.  He could expect opposition, both from “the people” (the Jews) and from the Gentiles.  But God would “deliver” him and come to his rescue.

Note that in this version of Paul’s call, he receives the commission to go to the Gentiles immediately and directly from the risen Lord (contrast 22:17-21), Ananias plays no role (contrast 9:10-19; 22:12-16), and there is no reference to Paul’s blindness, baptism, and receiving the Holy Spirit.

 

18 To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.

He was given a commission to open the people’s eyes.  This reflects Isaiah 42:7, where opening the eyes of the blind is part of the commission of the Servant of the Lord.  Here the call of Paul is shaped according to that passage, for Paul is called as a servant (26:16; Isaiah 42:1) who will bring God’s justice to the nations (i.e., Gentiles; 26:17; Isaiah 42:1, 6) and who will bring light to the Gentiles who live in darkness (Isaiah 42:6).  Like Paul the servant in Isaiah is chosen and called by God who places his spirit upon him, and foreign countries wait for his teachings (Isaiah 42:4; Acts 16:6-9).

Now Paul, in a few pointed phrases, presented the heart and soul of the gospel message to every man and woman in that courtroom.  Festus, with all his Roman pride and paganism; King Agrippa, living in sin and shame, sinning against great light and opportunity; Bernice, with her sad, stained record; the tribunes with their air of easy command; the ranking members of Caesarean  society, living between two worlds—one and all were confronted with their own heart’s deep needs.  The words of Paul were a direct quotation from his Master in heaven.

This is one of those places in the Bible where God’s salvation is brought into sharp focus within the range of a sentence or so.  As we look at this marvelous message, given to Paul by Jesus there on the Damascus road, we discover two truths.

FIRST, we see how the Lord sees us.  He sees us as spiritually blind: “To open their eyes and to turn them from darkness.” That is exactly what had happened to Paul himself on the Damascus road as, bathed in dazzling light, aware of the lovely face of Jesus; he had listened to His gracious words, enthralled by His tender voice.

The Lord sees us as satanically bound: “To turn them . . .  from the power of Satan unto God.” We must never minimize the power and authority of Satan over the lives, beliefs, actions, words, and destiny of the lost.  The Lord never does.  People are Satan’s captives.  He is the prince and god of this world, the “prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2).  That is the way the Lord sees us—a much different view than we have of ourselves.  We need to be turned from “the power of Satan” to God.

SECOND, we see how the lord saves us.  He saves us by giving us freedom: “to open their eyes . . .  to turn them.” The power to do that is inherent in the gospel. Satan might have authority, but in the gospel resides power, the mighty, irresistible power of God, the power to open our eyes and break chains.  Satan is no match for the Holy Spirit.

The Lord saves us by giving us forgiveness: “that they may receive forgiveness of sins.” No presentation of the gospel is adequate that does not bring people face-to-face with the fact of their sin and their need for God’s forgiveness—a forgiveness that can be granted only by the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lord saves us by giving us fulfillment: “That we may receive . . . inheritance.” Salvation is far more than forgiveness.  We become children of God, joint-heirs with Jesus.  We have a salvation that cancels our past, provides for our present, and fills the future.  It is a full salvation, which gives us “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).

The Lord saves us by giving us fellowship: “That they may receive . . .  inheritance among them which are sanctified.” He makes us members of a new community; the community of those who are set apart from the world to live for Him. Man was not made to live alone: we all need the company and friendship of others.  The redeemed need the love and fellowship of those of like precious faith.

The Lord saves us by giving us focus: “Sanctified by faith that is in me.” This new life does not come about by chance.  It is not the product of our own good resolutions or determined effort.  It is focused and centered in Christ.  He is the One who imparts this life and who divinely energizes it.  All comes to rest in the glorious person of the once crucified but now risen and ascended Lord Jesus.

 

19 Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision:

Paul used here a deliberate figure of speech.  “I was not disobedient . . .” This figure of speech is known as tapeinosis or demeaning—deliberate understatement, the lessening of a thing in order to increase its intensity.  Paul was far more than merely “not disobedient.” He flung himself wholeheartedly into the new cause.  He gave himself wholly to the glorious One who now owned all the passion of his heart, all the greatness of his mind, and all the purpose of his will.  He was now as zealous to spread the gospel as he once had been to stamp it out.  Indeed, it was his burning zeal for Christ that provoked the enemies of the gospel, Paul’s former friends and acquaintances, into such outbursts of fury.

The conversion of Paul was an event of so revolutionary a character, of such far-reaching consequence and with such an impact on the history of the world, that it demanded an adequate cause.  That cause was Paul’s confrontation with the living Christ.

“I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision” indicates that the experience was real, but visionary (12:9).  Such visionary experiences are not for personal enjoyment or the stimulation of one’s religious sensibilities, but call for obedience, and Paul complied.

 

20 But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.

Repentance is a change of mind, regeneration is a change of heart, redemption is a change of state.  All are part of a genuine salvation, and all are produced by Jesus Christ.

So Paul took advantage of his opportunities, never flinching in the face of persecution, ever reaching out to all mankind with the life-transforming news.  In his letters, Paul himself emphasizes his independence from the original apostles and the Jerusalem church (Galatians 1:1; 1:11-2:14).

 

21 For these causes the Jews caught me in the temple, and went about to kill me.

And now Festus had what he wanted—the reason for the riot in the Temple and the subsequent arrest of Paul.  He was originally apprehended because some Asian Jews mistakenly thought he had illegally brought Gentiles into the inner court of the temple and defiled it (21:27-32).  The Tribune, Claudius Lysias, had simply done his duty and, as it turned out, had rescued a Roman citizen from mob violence.  Festus was now forced to face the fact that an innocent man, guilty of no crime Rome would recognize but rather the object of intense religious hatred simply because his views no longer coincided with those of his one-time friends, had been forced to appeal to Caesar because of his own incompetence and opportunism. 

Festus knew the Jews well enough to know how fierce would be the passions Paul’s conversion had kindled in the ruling elite, and how Paul’s boldness in preaching the gospel would infuriate them.  But what would fuel the fires of their hate most of all was that this former rabbi, this former agent of the Sanhedrin, was now running all over the world telling Gentiles that they through faith in the detested Jesus of Nazareth could enjoy special privileges equal to and greater than those enjoyed by the Jews.

 

22 Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come:

“Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great.” Paul’s message was not something new, something he had concocted himself.  It was solidly based on God’s revelation in the Old Testament of Himself and of His purposes.

In the Gospel of Luke, the author had been intent on presenting Jesus as God’s agent, who breaks down the economic and social barriers that separate people, and especially on sounding the note that Jesus’ ministry meant “good news to the pour” (Luke 4:18).  In his efforts in Acts to show that Christianity is not a foreign superstition that appeals only to the “lower classes,” Luke has emphasized its appeal to, and reception by, especially the “upper classes” (4:34-37; 10:1-2).  But Luke has written the Gospel and Acts as two parts of one message and here reminds the reader that the Christian message includes both “little” people and “big” people—though at the moment Paul is pictured as addressing only a governor, a king, and assembled nobility (25:23).

“Saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come.” Again Luke stresses the continuity between Judaism and the church (Luke 1:5-23; 2:21-52), arguing that the Christian faith does not go beyond the Jewish Scriptures. The difference, of course, was in how these Scriptures were interpreted.  The Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) nowhere speaks of a Messiah who must suffer, die, and rise from the dead.  The modern reader of Acts might reflect on the fact that the pre-Christian Paul had studied the Scriptures thoroughly, and had never come to this conclusion.  It was only after his meeting the risen Christ and in the light of this event that he began to see that the Scriptures pointed to Christ.

 

23 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.

Had Paul been before a Jewish audience instead of a Gentile one, and had he been preaching a sermon instead of giving testimony in court, he might have pause here to introduce Scriptures supporting his testimony.

That the Christ should suffer was the theme of Psalm 22 and 69 and Isaiah 53.  That He would conquer death was the theme of Psalm 16:10.  That he would bring light to the Gentiles was the theme of Isaiah and Hosea and many other prophets.

 

24 And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad.

Festus had taken all he could, and he rudely interrupted Paul.  He called out in protest.  The only explanation he could think of was that Paul was insane; that his undeniable scholarship had gone to his head and befuddled his brains.  Magistrates could interrupt with questions and challenges, as Festus did here.  Undoubtedly referring to Paul’s Jewish learning and probably also his visionary claims (26:13-19), Festus gives the usual answer that educated Romans gave to concepts so foreign and barbarian to them as “resurrection.” Greeks associated some “madness” with prophetic inspiration; philosophers often considered themselves sane and the masses mad, but the masses sometimes considered philosophers mad (possibly how Festus viewed Paul here).

What stung Festus was Paul’s insistence on the resurrection of Christ.  To Festus that was a lot of nonsense.  Once a man was dead, he was dead.  Whatever it was that Paul had experienced on the Damascus road now obviously obsessed him, but it was certainly not a real encounter with a resurrected man.  Festus laughed at the notion.  Paul was laboring under the power of some strong delusion.  He was mad.  The word Festus used has passed into the English language as mania. Festus wholeheartedly rejected the main point at issue—the resurrection of Christ.

 

25 But he said, I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness.

“But he said, I am not mad.” The sanest man in that assembly that day was the man Festus said was crazy.  The only man in that room who took into account all the factors in life’s equation was Paul.  The only man there who had a true view and a proper perspective of time and eternity was Paul.  The others, the majority, look at life from the narrow viewpoint of self-interest, from the standpoint of power, prosperity, popularity, or prestige.  This world and its interest dominated their horizons. Only Paul looked at life from the standpoint of eternity.  Of all those there, only Paul had met Jesus.  Only Paul knew Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings and was being made conformable to His death.  Paul was the only man there in touch with both worlds—this world and the world to come.  Only Paul knew what it was, not only to be born, but to be born again.

“I am not mad, most noble Festus.” Paul did not respond in kind.  He was far too courteous a man and far too conscientious a Christian to speak evil of dignitaries.

There is no excuse for a Christian to be rude.  One cannot imagine the Lord Jesus being rude.  Even though Festus was quite willing to throw Paul to the wolves to further his own career, and Paul knew that was the case; even though Festus was prejudiced against Paul and took a sardonic satisfaction in the fact that he would now have to appear before Nero; even though with Roman pride and snobbery he accused Paul of being mad; even though he wholly rejected Paul’s defense and Paul’s clear-cut testimony to the reality of resurrection, eternity, and the world to come, Paul responded with Christian courtesy.  He called Festus “most noble Festus.” He gave him all the respect due to his rank.  Festus had a soul to be saved, and Paul was far more likely to reach him by being courteous than by being rude.

“But speak forth the words of truth and soberness.” “Sober” (or reasonable—NIV) speech was a virtue appreciated by Romans, related to the ideas of dignity and respectability; “sober” could contrast with “mad” (26:24), and philosophers who considered themselves the sanest of all, emphasize their sobriety.

 

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.

Paul politely excused the ignorance of Festus.  After all, Festus was a newcomer to the country.  Agrippa, on the other hand, was at home there.  He could not help but know about Jesus of Nazareth.

For three-and-a-half years Jesus had preached, crossing and recrossing the country from northern Galilee to Jerusalem.  He had taught God’s truth in a persuasive, authoritative, and unforgettable way. 

His illegal trial and crucifixion, His burial in the tomb of one of the wealthiest and most influential Jews in the country, and His subsequent resurrection had rocked the country.  The futile attempts of the Jewish authorities to cover up their crimes by making the resulting Christianity illegal were also public knowledge.

Nobody could factually deny the resurrection of Christ.  Christ had appeared again and again—on one occasion to more than 500 credible witnesses.  Nothing but deliberate refusal to face the facts could account for unbelief.  “This thing was not done in a corner:” it happened in the world of Caesar, Pilate, and Herod (Luke 3:1).  The mighty acts of God (2:11) are in the real world of history.  The facts were public knowledge, and all attempts to suppress them had failed.  With Saul’s own conversion the opposition’s star witness had turned state’s evidence, and the radicals had no further hope of silencing the voice of truth.

Agrippa knew only too well that the truth of the matter lay with Paul.  Festus might think Paul was mad, but the king knew he was speaking the sober truth.

 

27 King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.

The apostle turned suddenly to the king—Paul returns to his argument from Scripture, directed toward Agrippa although incomprehensible to Festus (26:22-24). Carried away by the marvelous truth of the gospel, Paul ceased to be the advocate in his own defense and became God’s advocate to the conscience of the king.  For Agrippa himself was now in court.  He had been conversant all his life with the Jewish Scriptures.  Did he believe the prophets?  Of course he believed the prophets!  Paul seems to have no doubt about that at all.  He understands Christian faith to be a matter of believing the Hebrew Scriptures, not of rejecting them.  But the equation may not be reversed—to believe the Hebrew Scriptures, does not make one a Christian.  One must first come to Christian faith before the Hebrew Scriptures testify to Christ (8:26-35).

  Agrippa was in a corner.  If he accepted the prophets he would be forced to admit that Christ Jesus fulfilled their prophesies.  His only escape was to parry the question with an inquiry of his own.

Despite the negative evidence of Agrippa’s life-style, the anguish of conviction had entered his very soul.  No man knew better than Paul how long a person under deep personal conviction could fight off the Holy Spirit’s siege of his conscience.

 

28 Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.

Agrippa was thoroughly alarmed; for Paul’s thrusts came far too close to home.  He is typical of those persons who are quite willing to listen to a sermon even to take a deep, philosophical interest in that sermon—just so long as the preacher does not make the claims of Christ personal.  Many will discuss and debate the issues of the gospel but will balk at a personal decision for Christ.

King Agrippa’s response to Paul’s question, “believest thou the prophets” was not serious at all, but rather ironic and sarcastic—“You have almost persuaded me to become a Christian.”  How many times has the Holy Spirit heard these same words?

So far as we know, the Holy Spirit never gave him another chance.  Heaven’s most gifted, persuasive, and Spirit-filled ambassador had presented him with the demands of God’s throne.  He shrugged them off, afraid, no doubt, of being told by Festus that he, too, was mad.  Well, he was mad.  So was Festus.  So are all who refuse to give up that which they cannot keep in order to gain that which they cannot lose.

 

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 replied, “I wish that everyone here was a Christian like me.” And holding up his shackled wrist, he added, “except for these chains.” The mission of the church is to all peoples, Jew and Gentile.  Paul the Jewish Christian prays that everyone might become believers in Jesus as the Christ.

Paul had one theme—Christ; one aim—to turn all men to Him.  If Agrippa and Festus turn down this heaven-sent opportunity to become Christians, perhaps there was someone else in that assembly who would heed his testimony, follow his example, and pass from death unto life.

 

30 And when he had thus spoken, the king rose up, and the governor, and Bernice, and they that sat with them:

The meeting was over, and one by one they rose.  The Holy Spirit was there, and He made notes in His book respectively and individually.  “The king rose up.”  As the appointed chairman of this unofficial court of inquiry it was he who brought it to a close—hastily, indeed, for he was afraid that Paul might bombard him with more of his soul-searching questions.  He had come as close to the brink as he wanted to come.

“And the governor.” Festus, too, had made his decision.  Paul was mad.  Christianity was for fools.  He wanted no part of it.

“And Bernice.” That poor young woman, so rich, so beautiful, so soiled, with the chance before her of being cleansed and set free from sin and guilt, she too rose up.  For her it was Agrippa or Jesus.  The choice, for her, was the kind of life offered her by her mother or the kind of life offered to her by Jesus, represented by Paul and his bonds.  Blinded by the lure of the world, by the lust of the flesh, and by the lies of Satan, she rose up.

“And they that sat with them.” One by one the rich, the powerful, and the influential made their decision.  Paul was a most interesting person, a most entertaining speaker, a most persuasive advocate.  But who would want to change places with him?  No man in his right mind.

They filed out, and once more Paul stood where his royal Master once stood, friendless, forsaken, betrayed by all.

 

31 And when they were gone aside, they talked between themselves, saying, This man doeth nothing worthy of death or of bonds.

Paul was unquestionably innocent of the crime of which he had been accused.  Festus had been a fool.  The Sanhedrin had set him up, but that was cold comfort for Festus.  His face must have been a study in vexation as he looked anxiously at Agrippa only to have his worst fears confirmed.  Paul might be mad (in Festus’s estimation) but he was certainly not bad.  The king would look at Festus and nod his head judiciously: “Not guilty, Mr. Procurator.  The man is clearly not guilty.”

The departing officials, including a Roman governor and a Jewish king, have not been converted.  Luke’s point is that they do not need to be converted in order to see the injustice of Paul’s situation that “this man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment.” 

 

32 Then said Agrippa unto Festus, This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar.

So Festus’s problem was back in his lap, not only unsolved but aggravated by the opinion of Agrippa and the others that, far from having done anything that would merit having his case referred to the emperor, he was entirely innocent.  The sacred historian is not concerned with how Festus extricated himself from the corners of his dilemma.  No doubt he was able to concoct some version of the story that put himself in as good a light as possible and Paul in the wrong.

But appealing to Caesar was a two-aged sword.  Agrippa came right to the point: “This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar.”

This was in a.d. 59.  Nero had not yet revealed his true colors, or Paul would surely never have appealed to him.  Rome was enjoying what has been called a miniature golden age.  It was not until a.d. 62 that the radical change took place at court.  Burrus died, Seneca retired, Nero divorced Octavia and married Poppaea, a great friend of the Jews if not a proselyte.  In a.d. 64 the disastrous fire broke out in Rome, believed to have been started by Nero, who made the Christians his scapegoat.

Nero had come to the throne in a.d. 54.  Five years had passed and nothing had happened to reveal the monster (Nero) beneath the mask, when Paul refers his case to Caesar.  Indeed, Paul may have been released from his first captivity some short time before the drastic change in a.d. 62.  So his appeal seems to have been justified.  He had, however, drawn the emperor’s attention to himself, a fact not likely to be forgotten by the suspicious and sadistic Caesar once the mask was off.  In a.d. 66 the Jewish war with Rome broke out, and Jews of any extraction were objects of suspicion.

Paul had appealed to Caesar.  He was doomed; therefore, there would be more years of captivity.  No lower court had the power to alter the course of legal events.  Paul was an petitioner to the emperor.  To the emperor he must go.  Agrippa’s opinion would have been included in the cover letter for the case.  Because Paul had used his Roman right to appeal to Caesar’s tribunal, Agrippa and Festus can only refer him there with a letter specifying their own opinion.  This necessity was likely political rather than legal, and it extracted Festus from a difficult political situation involving Paul’s local accusers.  This appeal had earlier saved Paul’s life (25:3) and now it provides him free passage to Rome (19:21) and a public forum for the gospel there. 


Additional Notes

[1] “It is hard for you to kick against the pricks” was a Greek proverb; it was also familiar to the Jews and anyone who made a living in agriculture. An ox goad was a stick with a pointed piece of iron on its tip used to prod the oxen when plowing. The farmer would prick the animal to steer it in the right direction. Sometimes the animal would rebel by kicking out at the prick, and this would result in the prick being driven even further into its flesh. In essence, the more an ox rebelled, the more it suffered. Thus, Jesus’ words to Saul on the road to Damascus: “It is hard for you to kick against the pricks.”  Modern translations have changed the word pricks to goads. All translations except the KJV and NKJV, omit the phrase altogether from Acts 9:5. 

[2] Saints” is another term for Christians, those who belong to the church, the holy people of God.  Holiness in such contexts refers to being set apart for a special purpose, not to personal piety.  The church as a whole is set apart for the purpose of carrying on God’s mission in the world (9:13, 32).

[3] Hand salute.” On receiving permission from the judge (in this case, unofficially Agrippa), one could speak.  Paul’s hand is stretched forth in customary rhetorical style; gestures were an important part of ancient training in public speaking.  Studies of ancient gestures suggest that the gesture opening this kind of speech might include putting together the thumb and middle finger as the outstretched arm moved from right to left.

[4] (Acts 22:3, RSV) “I am a Jew, born at Tarsus in Cili′cia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gama′li-el, educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as you all are this day.”

[5] “The lost tribes. The ten lost tribes were ten of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel that were said to have been deported from the Kingdom of Israel after its conquest by the Neo-Assyrian Empire circa 722 BCE ("before the Common (or Current) Era"). Claims of descent from the "lost" tribes have been proposed in relation to many groups, and some religions espouse a messianic view that the tribes will return.


 

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