Acts 25:23–26:32 . . .
“Agrippa Comes to Grips with the Resurrection and Gospel”
Our text today gives us the longest of Paul’s defenses in Luke's Acts volume. This one is before Festus, Agrippa, and his sister/lover Bernice, along with many important dignitaries from the Roman capital, Caesarea. It's the third time that Luke repeats Paul’s testimony of his conversion. Paul especially focuses on the commission that the risen Lord Jesus gave to him: to go to the Gentiles so that they might repent and turn to God (26:18, 20, shown below). As in all apostolic witnessing in Acts, Paul’s testimony rests on the fact of Jesus Christ's resurrection. His message to us: Our response to the fact of Jesus’ resurrection should be repentance.
In other words, to say, “I believe in the risen Savior,” but to go on living the same way that the wicked world lives, does no more good than for a chest surgeon to say, “I believe that smoking causes lung cancer,” but goes on smoking a pack a day. If we truly believe that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, our lives must show it. Repentance is not optional for the believer. Paul’s defense here makes two main points: (1) The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a fact; (2) repentance is the only rational response to this great fact. Let's look for both points in today's study and discussion.
Picking up from where we left off in last week's discussion (see Warren's summary of Acts 25:1–22), when Festus asked for the charges against Paul, he was completely shocked at what he was told. None of the charges he expected were raised; instead, he found himself in the middle of a religious debate. Some time earlier, Gallio had recognized this and threw the case against Paul (and his accusers) out of court (18:12–17).
The real issue hadn't really been about violations of Jewish or Roman law. Festus now understood that this was a debate between Jews regarding their religion. To be more specific, it was a debate about a man named Jesus and Paul’s claim that he'd risen from the dead. Festus wasn't a theologian or student of the Jewish religion. How was he supposed to judge such matters? That's why he requested that Paul be tried in Jerusalem where the Jews would be better judges of such matters. He could still preside over the proceedings without abandoning Paul altogether.
Then came a second surprise, every bit as great as the first. Festus would never have imagined that Paul would refuse his suggestion. Festus had tried so hard to maintain control of this situation; once again, he's lost control. The real dilemma: Festus must send Paul to Caesar in Rome, but he dare not send him without having a charge against him. This is where Agrippa and Bernice come in. They understood such things. Surely they'd be able to counsel Festus regarding the proper charges to file against Paul.
Paul Comes Before Agrippa, Bernice, and Festus (25:23–27)
There's nothing new to be learned here regarding the dilemma that faced Festus. What's new is the ever-growing group of people that would hear Paul’s “defense.” Festus seems to have chosen to make this a festive occasion. A group of dignitaries gathered in a magnificent (no doubt) hall with great pomp and circumstance. Gathered weren't only Agrippa and Bernice, but also senior military officers, along with prominent men of the city. Anybody who was “somebody” must have been there.
Festus then gave the word, and Paul was brought in. While Paul stood before them, Festus gave this impressive group a word of introduction (vv. 24–27) so they'd understand the purpose of their gathering. It was a brief summary that left out some of the details we've seen earlier in this chapter. It shouldn't surprise us that Festus wanted to be seen in the best possible light. What's significant is that Festus very plainly declared that Paul wasn't guilty of any serious crime, certainly nothing worthy of death, which was what the Jews were demanding. So the dilemma builds: Paul has appealed to Caesar, and Festus must send Paul to Caesar, but he hasn't yet established any charges against him. The purpose of this meeting was to come up with appropriate charges. Festus could hardly send Paul to Caesar without a charge.
Paul’s Appeal to Agrippa (26:1–11)
What a scene it must have been! Paul stood before an impressive gathering of celebrities and leaders. They, having arrived and seated themselves with all due dignity and solemnity; he, in his chains, was likely accompanied by guards. Agrippa clearly took charge here. Festus had summoned that Paul be brought in. Having explained the purpose of this gathering, Festus seemingly yielded the floor to King Agrippa, who was more than willing to take charge. From here on out, we'll witness Paul’s proclamation of the gospel to Agrippa, first and foremost, and secondarily to the others. Agrippa took pride in his “Jewishness” and that it was a very “Jewish-oriented” gospel that Paul had proclaimed to him.
Paul began his defense by laying a foundation for King Agrippa, whom Paul understood to be in charge of the proceedings. There was good reason for Paul to have been pleased that Agrippa was the one to whom he'd speak. Agrippa was a man with much experience and knowledge pertaining to Judaism. Paul believed him to be a Jew who believed in the Law and the Prophets (v. 27). The issue at hand, in Paul’s mind, wasn't so much his own beliefs or conduct, nor his alleged crime of attempting to desecrate the temple. The issue was the gospel and whether or not it was legitimately considered a part of Judaism, or whether it, as the Jews charged, was a cult, distinct from Judaism, justifying opposition.
Intentionally, Paul set out to show that the gospel he proclaimed was the fulfillment of the hope of Israel, as promised by God through Moses and the prophets. Christianity, Paul asserted, was Jewish. Thus, at the outset of his defense, he expressed his delight that Agrippa understood such matters (unlike Festus). He also drew Agrippa’s attention to the “Jewishness” of his case, so that this factor would be prominent in his mind, and that he'd be attentive to the Jewish issues that Paul would raise. In the next verses, Paul will turn to his own involvement in and commitment to Judaism from a very early age. He began his defense by starting at the beginning, with his own faith and practice as a Jew in Jerusalem.
Next, Paul turned to Agrippa, a Jewish ruler, and asked, “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” (v. 8). If belief in the resurrection of the dead was a fundamental premise of Judaism, how was it that the Jews condemned Paul for believing in the resurrection of Jesus? Why did they find believing in an actual instance of resurrection (namely, Jesus') so incredibly difficult? Judaism wasn't consistent with itself in its response to Paul’s proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The doctrine of the resurrection, especially Jesus' resurrection from the dead, was the key issue.
Paul would then follow this matter through, showing how he, formerly opposing Christianity because of the same failure, through a confrontation with the resurrected Christ, was converted from an opponent of the gospel to one of its most renowned proponents. Initially, he felt obliged to attack and oppose the Name of Jesus of Nazareth, who was worshiped and followed by Christians as the risen Messiah of Israel (v. 9). He practiced his opposition in Jerusalem and far beyond, even to foreign cities (v. 11). With a vengeance, he sought to force Christians to renounce their faith in Jesus as Messiah. Many, he cast into prison; others he enthusiastically voted for their execution as heretics. In his opposition to Jesus, he worked closely with the Sanhedrin and had the cooperation and support of the chief priests, the very ones who now took the lead in opposing him.
Paul Completes His Before-and-After Testimony (vv. 12–20)
In vv. 4–5, Paul presented his “before” picture, having been raised in Jerusalem, following the Old Testament Law in the strictest sense as a member of the Pharisees. In vv. 10–11, he conveyed how he opposed Jesus Christ and anyone who'd put their faith in him. He was personally responsible for the imprisonment and death of many Christians. He even went to foreign cities to persecute them. Then he had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ and everything changed. In vv. 19–20, we see his “after” picture. The persecutor became a preacher! The murderer, a minister! The opponent of Christ, a proponent of Christ! The adversary of the faith, an advocate of the faith! He now traveled all over the world sharing the grace and love of Jesus. He was completely transformed. His was a powerful testimony of how Jesus will transform lives; he made sure to reflect this in his evangelism. From this point on, the message of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the center of Paul’s life and ministry.
Biblical Evangelism Requires an Appropriate Response (vv. 21–32)
After Paul utilized the Scriptures, centering on the person and work of Jesus Christ, and reflected personal transformation, he did one more thing that's essential to our biblical model of evangelism: He demanded a response! In v. 20, he said that he preached with the purpose of producing "repentance from sins" and" helping people turn to God." Every time he preached, he hoped that his listeners would respond to the gospel positively.
In v. 27, Paul brought King Agrippa to the point of decision. His question as to whether or not he believed the prophets required Agrippa to respond to Paul’s entire gospel presentation. Festus had already given a negative response when he accused Paul of being out of his mind (v. 24), and Agrippa responded negatively in v. 28 when he asked Paul if he thought he could be persuaded to be a Christian in such a short period of time. Paul said that it wouldn't be a matter of time, so long as Agrippa and the others responded positively. Meanwhile, Paul would pray for an appropriate, repentant response from Agrippa.
King Agrippa stood up, indicating that the interview was over. He and the rest who'd gathered left the room. On their way out, they spoke with one another about what they'd heard. They all reached the same conclusion: "This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment” (v. 31). Agrippa then turned to Festus and said (v. 32), “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.” Agrippa only restated the obvious conclusion everyone else had reached: Paul was innocent. But his final words (in our text at least) weren't entirely accurate. He assumed that Festus had found Paul innocent and that he fully intended to release him. In Agrippa's eyes, he saw Paul prematurely and unnecessarily appealing to Caesar. As a result, Festus couldn't release him and had to send him to Rome, thereby playing negatively into assassins’ hands.
Like Paul, when we evangelize, we need to be ready to receive a negative response. When this happens, we shouldn't argue, tease, or coerce, but simply pray for their response to change. We should be very careful how we do it. When we evangelize, we must remember that biblical evangelism always requires a response, albeit one that demonstrates repentance! There you have it, a biblical model for evangelism. Biblical evangelism utilizes the Scriptures, centers on Jesus Christ, reflects your personal transformation, and requires a repentant, life-changing response.
Closing Consideration Probably almost everyone here believes that seatbelts save lives. But that belief doesn't do you any good in a crash unless you'd actually fastened your seatbelt. Those who buckle up are those who truly believe that seatbelts save lives. How would you like your obituary to read: “He believed in seat belts, but he wasn't wearing one at the time of the crash”? Your belief is worthless if you don’t personally apply it. Do you believe that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead? Good for you! It's true! But if that belief hasn't led to your making a hearty effort to live a life of repentance from sin, it won’t do you any good on Judgment Day. Your response to the fact of Jesus’ resurrection should be active, demonstrative repentance. Amen!
- Q. 1 According to Paul, what issue is the real source of his conflict with the Jewish leaders?
- Q. 2 How does his conviction about Jesus' resurrection differ from that of the Pharisees, who in theory believed in a general resurrection?
- Q. 3 If you had been in that hall, what one-word impressions would you have of Paul when he concluded his speech?
New International Version (NIV)
[View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 25 and 26.]
† Watch this video clip of Acts 24:13–27:34, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke.
Paul Before Agrippa
23The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high-ranking military officers and the prominent men of the city. At the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. 24Festus 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. 25I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome. 26But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write. 27For I think it is unreasonable to send a prisoner on to Rome without specifying the charges against him.”
26 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.”
So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defense: 2“King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense against all the accusations of the Jews,3and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently.
4“The Jewish people all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. 5They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee. 6And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today. 7This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. King Agrippa, it is because of this hope that these Jews are accusing me. 8Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
9“I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.
12“On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic [or Hebrew], ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’
15“Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
“ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me.17I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18to open their eyes and turn them 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.’
19“So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. 20First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds. 21That is why some Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. 22But God has helped me to this very day; so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen — 23that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”
24At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.”
25“I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. 26The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. 27King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”
28Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”
29Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”
30The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. 31After they left the room, they began saying to one another, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.”
32Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”