1 So Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” Then Paul held out his hand and began his defense:
2 “Regarding all the things I have been accused of by the Jews, King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate that I am about to make my defense before you today, 3 because you are especially familiar with all the customs and controversial issues of the Jews. Therefore I ask you to listen to me patiently. 4 Now all the Jews know the way I lived from my youth, spending my life from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem. 5 They know, because they have known me from time past, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee. 6 And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors, 7 a promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain as they earnestly serve God night and day. Concerning this hope the Jews are accusing me, Your Majesty! 8 Why do you people think it is unbelievable that God raises the dead? 9 Of course, I myself was convinced that it was necessary to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus the Nazarene. 10 And that is what I did in Jerusalem: Not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons by the authority I received from the chief priests, but I also cast my vote against them when they were sentenced to death. 11 I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to force them to blaspheme. Because I was so furiously enraged at them, I went to persecute them even in foreign cities.
12 “While doing this very thing, as I was going to Damascus with authority and complete power from the chief priests, 13 about noon along the road, Your Majesty, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining everywhere around me and those traveling with me. 14 When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? You are hurting yourself by kicking against the goads.’ 15 So I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord replied, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But get up and stand on your feet, for I have appeared to you for this reason, to designate you in advance as a servant and witness to the things you have seen and to the things in which I will appear to you. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes so that they turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
19 “Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but I declared to those in Damascus first, and then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds consistent with repentance. 21 For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple courts and were trying to kill me. 22 I have experienced help from God to this day, and so I stand testifying to both small and great, saying nothing except what the prophets and Moses said was going to happen: 23 that the Christ was to suffer and be the first to rise from the dead, to proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”
24 As Paul was saying these things in his defense, Festus exclaimed loudly, “You have lost your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you insane!” 25 But Paul replied, “I have not lost my mind, most excellent Festus, but am speaking true and rational words. 26 For the king knows about these things, and I am speaking freely to him, because I cannot believe that any of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner. 27 Do you believe the prophets, King Agrippa? I know that you believe.” 28 Agrippa said to Paul, “In such a short time are you persuading me to become a Christian?” 29 Paul replied, “I pray to God that whether in a short or a long time not only you but also all those who are listening to me today could become such as I am, except for these chains.”
30 So the king got up, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them, 31 and as they were leaving they said to one another, “This man is not doing anything deserving death or imprisonment.” 32 Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been released if he had not appealed to Caesar.”1
Several years ago, my wife Jeannette and I were invited to a Christmas party hosted by a very wealthy and prominent family in the Dallas area. I’ve always been a “country boy” at heart, and I definitely proved it that night. Jeannette and I walked into the party as our car was getting the valet parking treatment. When we entered the house, several of our friends were there, and we quickly began to visit with them. An unfamiliar fellow walked up to me with his hand extended, so naturally I reached out, shook his hand, and introduced myself. It was then that he informed me that he was the butler, and what he really wanted was my coat.
I tell you this to prove that I have some appreciation for how Paul must have felt as he was brought before this aristocratic audience that Festus had gathered on this festive occasion described in Acts 25:
So the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience hall, along with the senior military officers and the prominent men of the city. When Festus gave the order, Paul was brought in. 24 Then Festus said, “King Agrippa, and all you who are present here with us, you see this man about whom the entire Jewish populace petitioned me both in Jerusalem and here, shouting loudly that he ought not to live any longer. 25 But I found that he had done nothing that deserved death, and when he appealed to His Majesty the Emperor, I decided to send him. 26 But I have nothing definite to write to my lord about him. Therefore I have brought him before you all, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that after this preliminary hearing I may have something to write (Acts 25:23-26).
This gathering of Caesarea’s elite was a gala event, something like the Oscar Awards, where the men wear their tuxedos and every woman comes decked out in some lavish dress. I’m sure all those who were invited came to the gathering in their finest clothing, but Luke seems to put the spotlight on Agrippa and Bernice. It was Agrippa and Bernice, Luke writes, who “came with great pomp and entered the audience hall” (Acts 25:23). I suspect that then, as now (in some circles at least), it was an unwritten law that no one dare upstage the most prominent guests by outdoing them in dress and drama. Agrippa and Bernice were in the spotlight. They knew it, and they loved it, and they intended to savor the moment as long as possible.
When all the dignitaries had made their entrance, Festus gave the order for Paul to be brought in. What a contrast Paul’s entrance must have been, compared to the pomp and splendor of all these dignitaries. As I read this account, I do so against my background in prison ministry some years ago. I have watched a group of prisoners being brought in “on the chain.” The inmates who arrive from the county jail are dressed in very distinctive coveralls (often white or orange, in my experience). Their legs may very well be shackled, as well as their hands. A chain connected to these shackles runs the length of the line of prisoners. They march in, single file. We don’t know exactly how Paul looked, but we do know that he was in chains (Acts 26:29). Given some of the charges made against Paul, we can be certain that adequate security measures would have been taken to secure Paul and to insure the safety of Festus’ guests.
Festus took the floor long enough to explain the purpose of this gathering. His representation of the situation was not exactly accurate, or truthful. He made it sound as if the Jewish people unanimously wanted Paul dead.3 Certainly there were some who wanted him to be put to death, but not all. What about the thousands of believing Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 21:20)? And what about a number of the Pharisees who had concluded that Paul was innocent and that a spirit or an angel might have appeared to him (Acts 23:9)? Nevertheless, Paul did have his enemies, and they wanted him dead.
Neither did Festus speak forthrightly about his handling of Paul’s case. His choice of words leave ample room for one to conclude (wrongly) that Festus had determined to release Paul because he was innocent, but that Paul’s appeal to Caesar had prevented him from doing so. Furthermore, Festus implies that after some deliberation, he decided to grant Paul’s request and send him on to Rome. This too does not appear to be the whole story. It is my understanding that after Paul appealed to Caesar, there was nothing Festus could do to stop him. Festus does not mention to this gathering (as he had to Agrippa earlier) that he did not really know what to do and that he had sought to persuade Paul to go on trial in Jerusalem, rather than in Caesarea (Acts 25:20).
What Festus did make clear was his dilemma. When he sent Paul to stand before Caesar, he would have to provide something in writing so that Caesar would know why Paul was appearing before him. This was where Festus needed help. And so he tasks the entire group with determining just what charges might be upheld before Caesar. The report to Caesar will be a “committee report.”
So Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” Then Paul held out his hand and began his defense (Acts 26:1).
Agrippa clearly takes charge here. Festus had summoned for Paul to be brought in, and having explained the purpose of this gathering, he seems to have yielded the floor to King Agrippa, who was more than willing to take charge. From here on out, we are witnessing Paul’s proclamation of the gospel to Agrippa, first and foremost, and only secondarily to the others. Agrippa took pride in his “Jewishness,” and it is a very “Jewish-oriented” gospel that Paul proclaimed to him.
2 “Regarding all the things I have been accused of by the Jews, King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate that I am about to make my defense before you today, 3 because you are especially familiar with all the customs and controversial issues of the Jews. Therefore I ask you to listen to me patiently. 4 Now all the Jews know the way I lived from my youth, spending my life from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem. 5 They know, because they have known me from time past, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee. 6 And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors, 7 a promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain as they earnestly serve God night and day. Concerning this hope the Jews are accusing me, Your Majesty!
8 Why do you people think it is unbelievable that God raises the dead? 9 Of course, I myself was convinced that it was necessary to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus the Nazarene. 10 And that is what I did in Jerusalem: Not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons by the authority I received from the chief priests, but I also cast my vote against them when they were sentenced to death. 11 I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to force them to blaspheme. Because I was so furiously enraged at them, I went to persecute them even in foreign cities (Acts 26:2-11).
The question which has gone unanswered4 to this point in Acts is this: “What is it about Paul that causes such a violent reaction from the Jews?” Indeed, this is Festus’ purpose for putting Paul before this group of dignitaries (see Acts 25:23-27). When invited to speak on his own behalf, Paul proclaims the gospel. This is not only because Paul desires for these folks to come to faith in Jesus; it is also because the gospel is the reason why the Jews want Paul put to death. The gospel is thus the answer to their, as yet, unanswered question, and the answer to their need of a Savior.
For me, Paul’s words to Agrippa in the verses above were like someone turning on a light in a dark room. I don’t know why I missed the clues earlier in Acts, but Paul’s explanation suddenly brought everything into focus for me. It was not (as Festus indicated) “the entire Jewish populace”5 who wanted Paul dead; it was Paul’s former colleagues. His opponents were likely some of the Jewish men Paul had grown up with. These were not strangers; these were Paul’s classmates, no doubt, when they were all trained under Gamaliel. They shared the same belief in the resurrection of the dead and in the supernatural working of God (which included visions). These were the folks who shared Paul’s zeal for persecuting and killing Christians.
I now realize that up until now I have not been reading Acts 23:9 carefully enough. Look at this verse once again, in its context:
6 Then when Paul noticed that part of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, he shouted out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead!” 7 When he said this, an argument began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 (For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.) 9 There was a great commotion, and some experts in the law from the party of the Pharisees stood up and protested strongly, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” 10 When the argument became so great the commanding officer feared that they would tear Paul to pieces, he ordered the detachment to go down, take him away from them by force, and bring him into the barracks (Acts 23:6-10, emphasis mine).
When Paul stood before the Sanhedrin and cried out that he was a Pharisee, I somehow mistakenly concluded that Paul had created a complete rift between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. To some degree this is true, but from what Luke has been careful to tell us, we can see that Paul’s words also created a split within the party of the Pharisees. Some of the Pharisees defended Paul, declaring him to be innocent of all charges, and even agreeing that he may well have had a vision from God (Acts 23:9). What I failed to see is that Luke makes it clear that not all of the Pharisees defended Paul. Thus, the riot was not just between Pharisees and Sadducees, but between those Pharisees who took Paul’s side and all the rest (Pharisees or Sadducees) who did not.
I had wrongly assumed that when Paul went to trial before Felix and Festus in Caesarea, it was only the Sadducees who came to accuse him. But that can’t be right, and Paul’s words to Agrippa prove it. Those who most strongly opposed Paul were Pharisees who had once been his closest friends and colleagues. They opposed Paul because they looked upon him as a defector and a traitor, as well as a serious threat to Pharisaism.
Let me attempt to illustrate what I am saying. Suppose (as you will see, this is a very hypothetical example!) that Osama bin Laden were to have had a dramatic encounter with Christ leading to his conversion while on his way to bomb a major city. And suppose also that he commenced going from one terrorist training camp to another, preaching the gospel. Now suppose further that an alarming number of these terrorists were professing faith in Jesus Christ. Who do you think would be most distressed and oppose him most strongly? I contend that it will be those who were most like him, but who have rejected the gospel he believed and now preaches.
Paul’s outcry in the Sanhedrin seems to have brought some Pharisees to his defense (and perhaps even to faith in Jesus as the Christ); but it also ignited the rest to strongly oppose Paul and his preaching. The more than 40 assassins who vowed to kill Paul could have included some radical Pharisees. Certainly some of the Jews who went to Caesarea to accuse Paul were Pharisees. This is why Paul could say to them:
14 “But I confess this to you, that I worship the God of our ancestors according to the Way (which they call a sect), believing everything that is according to the law and that is written in the prophets. 15 I have a hope in God (a hope that these men themselves accept too) that there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous” (Acts 24:14-15, emphasis mine).
Paul is not some kind of cult leader who has radically departed from Judaism. Paul is a faithful Jew who (like the Pharisees) believes in the resurrection of the dead. And like the Pharisees, Paul’s hope is in the promise God made to their Jewish ancestors. It is this “hope of the Jews” for which he is now being persecuted (Acts 26:6-7).
It is because Paul still holds to his fundamental beliefs as a Pharisee that his Jewish opponents are so violently opposed to him. The Sadducees do not believe in the supernatural, in the resurrection of the dead, or in visions, and so Paul’s claims are nonsense to them. But the Pharisees cannot so easily dismiss what Paul is saying. Paul is challenging his former colleagues to accept the implications of their own doctrine, and thus to trust in Jesus as the Christ, the promised Messiah, Who not only died on a Roman cross, but also rose from the dead. It is the gospel that Paul’s enemies hate, along with the fact that their former colleague has deserted their ranks to embrace it and to preach it.
Verse 8 marks a transition:
“Why do you people think it is unbelievable that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:8)
The NET Bible, along with a number of the modern translations (including the NASB), renders the “you” in such a way as to indicate that it is plural, not singular. In verse 7, Paul was speaking specifically to Agrippa (“Your Majesty”). But now Paul has expanded his focus to include (as I understand the text) his entire audience, which would include a number of Gentiles. Up till now, Paul was been speaking to Agrippa as a Jew. He identified himself as a Pharisee, who with great zeal persecuted Christians and opposed the gospel. He indicated that it was his hope in the resurrection of the dead (and of Jesus in particular, as we shall soon see6) for which he was being accused.
The resurrection of the dead was a fundamental doctrine of the Pharisees. Gentiles found such teaching foolish. When Paul preached to the Gentiles in Athens, he included the doctrine of the resurrection in his message. Note Paul’s words and their response:
30 Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to everyone by raising him from the dead.” 32 Now when they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, “We will hear you again about this” (Acts 17:30-32, emphasis mine).
Apparently Paul observed a similar response among the Gentile dignitaries who were listening to him. That would explain why he turns his attention from Agrippa to the others who were gathered. Do they find it bizarre that Paul should believe Jesus rose from the dead? Paul hadn’t believed the reports of Jesus’ resurrection, either. That is why he made it his mission in life to oppose anything having to do with Jesus the Nazarene (verse 9). And so, with the authority of the chief priests (who are now opposing him), Paul went about hunting down Christians and locking them up. More than this, Paul participated in their execution by casting his vote for their death. He went from city to city seeking out Christians. And when he apprehended them, he did his best to force them to blaspheme.
Did this gathering wish to understand why the Jews hated Paul so much and demanded his death? Then let them listen to Paul, who had been one of them in the past. Indeed, Paul was even more violently opposed to Christians than they. By knowing what Paul once was, they can understand his opponents. They are what Paul was not so many years ago.
12 “While doing this very thing, as I was going to Damascus with authority and complete power from the chief priests, 13 about noon along the road, Your Majesty, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining everywhere around me and those traveling with me. 14 When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? You are hurting yourself by kicking against the goads.’ 15 So I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord replied, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But get up and stand on your feet, for I have appeared to you for this reason, to designate you in advance as a servant and witness to the things you have seen and to the things in which I will appear to you. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes so that they turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”
Did his audience find it ridiculous that anyone would believe the claim that Jesus the Nazarene was alive? Just as Paul could identify with his opponents in their opposition, so he could identify with his audience in their disbelief. He did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and that is why he passionately opposed the gospel – until the risen Jesus intercepted him on the road to Damascus.
Paul was persecuting Christians when Jesus stopped him cold in his tracks. He was on his way to Damascus to apprehend Christians, with the full authorization of the chief priests. Suddenly a light from heaven shone upon Paul and those traveling with him. This light was brighter than the noonday sun. Everyone had fallen to the ground, Paul included, when he heard a voice from heaven, speaking in Aramaic and saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? You are hurting yourself by kicking against the goads”7 (Acts 26:14).
These words were meant only for Paul,8 for it was he that God was pursuing at that moment in time. Paul knew who he had been persecuting – Christians. But who was speaking to him? Paul replied, “Who are you, Lord?” The answer would turn his life upside-down and inside-out: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (verse 15). Conclusion: Jesus is alive, and He has identified Himself with those who call themselves by His name. Christians called themselves by Christ’s name. Paul persecuted “the name” (verse 9). And now Christ Himself was appearing to him, identifying Himself with those Paul had been persecuting.
Verses 12-15 are the account of Paul’s conversion, while verses 16-18 are Paul’s commission. Why is there no more gospel than what we read here? Because Paul was an Old Testament scholar who needed no more than the realization that Jesus was alive and that He identified Himself with the Christians Paul was persecuting. For a Jew like Paul, seeing Jesus as the Messiah (the Christ) was the key that unlocked the entire Old Testament. Consider these texts:
25 So he said to them, “You foolish people – how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the scriptures (Luke 24:25-27, emphasis mine).
12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we behave with great boldness, 13 and not like Moses who used to put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from staring at the result of the glory that was made ineffective. 14 But their minds were closed. For to this very day, the same veil remains when they hear the old covenant read. It has not been removed because only in Christ is it taken away. 15 But until this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds, 16 but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed (2 Corinthians 3:12-16, emphasis mine).
In various ways, the Old Testament revealed that salvation would be accomplished through the coming of the promised Messiah. That Messiah would suffer and die for the sins of the people (Psalm 22; 69; Isaiah 52:13-53:12). This is why our Lord could show how the Old Testament foretold His coming, suffering, death, and resurrection (Luke 24:25-27). Devout Jews like Paul had all of the pieces of the puzzle; they just couldn’t put them together in order to see Christ. Christ is the key to understanding salvation in the Scriptures. Once one turns to the Lord, “the veil is removed” (2 Corinthians 3:12-16).
While our text does not supply this information, Luke has informed us earlier that Paul was blinded for three days, and that this blindness was removed through Ananias (Acts 9:8, 17). During those three days of blindness, I can just imagine how Paul’s mind must have raced through the Old Testament, with the newly acquired knowledge that Jesus was the promised Messiah. How the Scriptures must have begun to come to life. How different everything now looked. Jesus was the missing key to what had previously been a puzzle.9
After seeing such a great light, can you imagine how Paul would now understand this passage in Isaiah?
1 But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. 2 The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them. 3 You shall multiply the nation, You shall increase their gladness; They will be glad in Your presence As with the gladness of harvest, As men rejoice when they divide the spoil. 4 For You shall break the yoke of their burden and the staff on their shoulders, The rod of their oppressor, as at the battle of Midian. 5 For every boot of the booted warrior in the battle tumult, And cloak rolled in blood, will be for burning, fuel for the fire. 6 For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:1-6, NASB95, emphasis mine).
Trusting in Jesus opens our eyes to behold things which we never would have seen apart from Him. Paul now had that one critical key which unlocked the mystery of Christ in the Old Testament.
If verses 12-15 are the account of Paul’s conversion, verses 16-18 are Luke’s account of Paul’s commission.10
16 But get up and stand on your feet, for I have appeared to you for this reason, to designate you in advance as a servant and witness to the things you have seen and to the things in which I will appear to you. 17 I will rescue11 you from your own people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes so that they turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified by faith in me’” (Acts 26:16-18).
In this account, nothing is said about Ananias or about baptism. Paul has just explained why the Jews are so opposed to him; he will now explain why he is so determined to preach the gospel at the cost of opposition and persecution. The Lord who appeared to Paul commanded him to stand up and to get going (so to speak). The Lord’s appearance was not just to save Paul, but to appoint him as an apostle. He was to bear witness to what he had seen and heard, as well as to what he would see and hear in the future. Paul was saved to be a witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, just like the other apostles (Acts 1:22; 4:2, 33).
Paul was not only commissioned to go proclaim the gospel; he was assured of the Lord’s protection as He did so:
“I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you” (verse 17).
Divine protection was promised from the Jews (“your own people”) and from the Gentiles. I’ll bet that got the attention of Paul’s audience. Paul was certainly not promised protection from persecution, for he had experienced plenty of that. But Paul had been spared from death on a number of occasions. Nothing will take Paul’s life until he has accomplished the mission God has for him. The shipwreck in Acts 27 is further proof of this promise of divine protection.
In verse 18, the Lord is much more specific about the ministry Paul is being given. He is being sent “to open their eyes.” This is what is now happening to Paul. He will be God’s instrument to open the eyes of others (Jews and Gentiles) so that they can “turn from darkness to light” and “from the power of Satan to God.” These are powerful descriptions of what salvation accomplishes. When God opens the eyes of those who are spiritually blind, they turn from darkness to light. Surely the “bright light” that Paul saw symbolized this. Paul’s ministry will also release men and women from the power of Satan, so that they may serve God. Paul describes this great transformation in Ephesians 2:
1 And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest… 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, 5 even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you are saved! – 6 and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them (Ephesians 2:1-10, emphasis mine).
The results of this salvation are two-fold here. Those whose eyes are opened, and whose lives have been turned around, will receive: (a) the forgiveness of sins; and, (b) a share among those who are sanctified by faith in Jesus. Through Paul’s ministry of the gospel, many will receive the forgiveness of their sins and will enter into fellowship with others who have placed their faith in Jesus. What a privilege Paul’s ministry is, and what a blessing it will be for those who are saved. Does Paul’s audience wonder what keeps him going when his adversaries are constantly seeking to kill him? It is the fact that he has been saved, and that he has been given the privilege of sharing the good news of this salvation with others.
If you have trusted in Christ, as Paul did, can you not agree that while we were not called to be apostles, we were called to faith in Jesus, and at the same time, we were commissioned to take the gospel to others? Is this not our high calling, as well as Paul’s? Is this not what we were saved for? I wonder how well we are doing at what God saved us to do, and what He has commissioned us to do.12
19 “Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but I declared to those in Damascus first, and then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds consistent with repentance. 21 For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple courts and were trying to kill me. 22 I have experienced help from God to this day, and so I stand testifying to both small and great, saying nothing except what the prophets and Moses said was going to happen: 23 that the Christ was to suffer and be the first to rise from the dead, to proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:19-23).
Paul tells Agrippa that he was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. Who is going to experience something like that and then tell the Son of God “No!”? Paul’s zeal and persistence in proclaiming Jesus as the risen Christ is not to be explained by merely human motivation. Paul is compelled by his heavenly vision and the commission that he received in it from the risen Son of God.
For if I preach the gospel, I have no reason for boasting, because I am compelled to do this. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16)
And so it should come as no surprise that Paul has faithfully proclaimed Jesus as the risen Lord, beginning in Damascus (where he was saved), and then proceeding to Jerusalem, all Judea, and then to the Gentiles. Paul is simply fulfilling the Great Commission of Acts 1:8:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Paul’s message was clear and simple: repent – turn to God – and demonstrate your repentance by works that are consistent with it. This sounds a good deal like the preaching of John the Baptist:
2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” . . . 7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance” (Matthew 3:2, 7-8).
To repent is to change one’s mind, and one’s course – to turn around. In particular, Paul calls upon his audience to change their minds about Jesus, just as he had done. Jesus is alive. He is the promised Messiah. He is God’s only provision for man’s salvation – for the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of eternity in heaven.
Christians will be tempted to understand Paul’s words differently than an unbeliever would. (Remember that Paul is speaking to a group of unbelievers.) He is not preaching “easy believism” or “cheap grace.” Like our Lord, Paul wants it to be very clear that trusting in Him puts one on a very different path. It was a path of darkness; it is now a path of light. It was a path leading to death; it is now a path leading to life. It was a path which was under Satan’s control; it is now a path of submission and service to God. It was a path of ease and comfort; now it is a path where one must “take up their cross and follow Jesus.” Faith in Jesus is a change in direction which will lead one through much opposition. That, I believe, is what Paul wants potential believers to know. There is no “bait and switch” in Paul’s gospel, just as there was none in our Lord’s preaching:
57 As they were walking along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 Jesus said to him, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” 59 Jesus said to another, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say goodbye to my family.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:57-62).
The gospel, then, is a call to repentance. This explains the Jewish opposition to Paul and to his preaching. Paul’s adversaries thought everything was fine just as it was, just as they interpreted and applied the Law of Moses. The problem is that the Law was not given to provide lost sinners a way to attain righteousness on their own; the Law was given to show men how sinful they are, and that they need the righteousness which only comes through faith in the Messiah:
20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:20-23).
It is not the keeping of Jewish commands (keeping the Law of Moses), nor the ritualistic observance of Jewish ceremonies, that saves. It is the sacrificial death of Jesus of Nazareth in the sinner’s place. It is His resurrection from the dead. It is faith in Him that saves. The gospel Paul preached required self-righteous Jews to forsake their works and to cling to the work of Jesus at Calvary. To an unbelieving Jew, renouncing your trust in law-keeping was abhorrent. And because this was what Paul’s preaching required, his Jewish opponents wanted to kill him.
This, Paul explains, is why the Jews seized him in the temple and sought to kill him (Acts 26:21). But God was with Paul, protecting him, just as He had promised. That is why Paul is still alive, standing before this elite group today.
Paul’s message seems so radical, so opposed to Judaism. Is it because Paul has cast aside the Old Testament Law and the writings of the prophets? Not at all! In reality, Paul’s message is precisely what the Law and the Prophets taught. It is not Paul who has departed from the Scriptures, but rather his adversaries. The Old Testament prophets foretold that the Christ (the Messiah) would suffer and die, and then be the first to rise from the dead, to proclaim “light” to Jews and Gentiles alike (Acts 26:22-23).
24 As Paul was saying these things in his defense, Festus exclaimed loudly, “You have lost your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you insane!” 25 But Paul replied, “I have not lost my mind, most excellent Festus, but am speaking true and rational words. 26 For the king knows about these things, and I am speaking freely to him, because I cannot believe that any of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner. 27 Do you believe the prophets, King Agrippa? I know that you believe.” 28 Agrippa said to Paul, “In such a short time are you persuading me to become a Christian?” 29 Paul replied, “I pray to God that whether in a short or a long time not only you but also all those who are listening to me today could become such as I am, except for these chains” (Acts 26:24-29).
I believe Festus was trying to solve his problem (his ignorance in understanding the accusations against Paul) in a way that made him look as good as possible. Thus, he paints a better picture of his dealings with Paul than is true (see Acts 25:24-27). He also makes this a gala event, with Paul served up as the entertainment. It was Paul who was supposed to come out looking bad. At least Paul could have been more intimidated by this gathering of dignitaries. But instead, Paul seems to be getting more and more fired up, and more zealous in his efforts to evangelize this group. Paul saw a group of sinners who desperately needed to be saved, and so he preached the gospel to them. It was getting to be too much, and Festus has had enough of it.
And so in verse 24, Festus interrupts Paul, loudly exclaiming, “You have lost your mind, Paul! Your great learning13 is driving you insane!” This rude interruption doesn’t slow Paul up for a minute. Paul insists that he has not lost his mind; he is speaking true and rational words. His preaching is not the raving of a mad man. Having silenced Festus, Paul once again turns his attention to Agrippa. He is certain that Agrippa is very well aware of the reports of Jesus’ earthly ministry, rejection, crucifixion, and resurrection. These things did not happen in some dark corner, but rather out in the open. And so Paul presses Agrippa for some level of commitment:
“Do you believe the prophets, King Agrippa? I know that you believe” (verse 27).
Agrippa considered himself a Jew. He knew the Old Testament Scriptures. He knew what the prophets foretold concerning Messiah. Did he believe the prophets? Could he see that they spoke of Jesus?
It is not Paul who is on the spot here; it is Agrippa. Whatever the king believes about Messiah, he is not willing to commit himself before those with whom he has gathered on this occasion. And so he answers evasively:
“. . . In such a short time are you persuading me to become a Christian?” (verse 28)
It is hard to know whether Agrippa is injecting a little humor here or not. At the very least, Agrippa is giving Paul credit for working hard at getting him saved: “Paul, are you so quickly turning this into an evangelistic effort?” “Do you think you can convert me that quickly and easily?”
Paul makes no apologies for seeking to persuade Agrippa to trust in Jesus. Paul replies that, whether it be in a short time or by a more lengthy process, he is praying that Agrippa will come to faith, and not just Agrippa, but also those gathered with him on this occasion. And then, with a twinkle in his eye,14 Paul declares that he would desire for all present to be like him, minus the chains, of course (verse 29).
30 So the king got up, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them, 31 and as they were leaving they said to one another, “This man is not doing anything deserving death or imprisonment.” 32 Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been released if he had not appealed to Caesar (Acts 26:30-32).
Agrippa stood up, indicating that this interview was over. He and the rest who had gathered left the room. That was the one way to silence Paul – leave the room. But on their way out, they spoke with one another about what they had heard. They all reached the same conclusion: “This man is not doing anything deserving death or imprisonment” (verse 31). Agrippa then turned to Festus and said, “This man could have been released if he had not appealed to Caesar” (Acts 26:32).
Agrippa only restated the obvious conclusion everyone else had reached: Paul was innocent. But his final words (in our text at least) were not entirely accurate. Agrippa’s words reveal that he has believed Festus’ account of things. Agrippa assumes that Festus had found Paul innocent and that he fully intended to release him. The only problem Agrippa saw was that Paul had prematurely and unnecessarily appealed to Caesar. Because of this appeal, Festus could not release him. Instead, he would have to send Paul to Rome. The reality was different, as we know. Festus would not declare Paul innocent, nor would he release him. Instead, because Festus wanted to please the Jews, he sought to move Paul’s trial to Jerusalem, thereby playing into the assassins’ hands. It was Festus who forced Paul to appeal to Caesar. Now let Festus spend some late nights finding a way to explain what he has done to Caesar. But as for Paul, he is on his way to Rome, just as the Lord had indicated:
The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Have courage, for just as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome” (Acts 23:11).
Looking back over this chapter, what does Paul’s testimony accomplish? First of all, it explains why the Jews so vehemently opposed him and the gospel he preached. His opponents were once his colleagues. Now, Paul’s conversion and preaching threatened everything they held dear, particularly their religious system and their position in it. Second, Paul’s defense shows the falsehood of the opposition’s claim that Paul was not a true Jew at all, but the leader of a dangerous cult. Paul’s faith was rooted in that which the Old Testament foretold. Trusting in Jesus was not a denial of the Old Testament Scriptures, but a fulfillment of them. Paul was a “completed Jew.” Third, Paul’s defense was a clear and concise proclamation of the gospel to his audience. Fourth, Paul’s defense made it clear that he was not going to Rome because of anything wrong that he had done, but because this was God’s purpose for his life. It was where his conversion and calling led.
Our text supplies some valuable answers to the question, “What is the gospel?” The gospel has its roots in the Old Testament. As Jesus had said to the woman at the well, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). The gospel fulfilled the promises and prophecies of God in the Old Testament. The fulfillment of Israel’s hopes came through a Jewish Messiah (Jesus), and it was intended for the blessing of the Gentiles as well. If we are to preach the gospel as we ought, we should begin in the Old Testament (see Acts 17:24ff.), and then we should move on to Jesus in the New Testament (Acts 17:30-31).
The gospel is inseparably linked to Jesus, who not only came to the earth and lived a sinless life, but who died on the cross of Calvary and then rose from the dead. Jesus is not only the means by which sinful men can be saved; He is also the key to understanding the Old (and New) Testament Scriptures.
The gospel is a call to repentance and faith. The gospel requires us to change our minds about how we get to heaven, about who Jesus was, and about the kind of life we are to live. The gospel is the call to forsake trusting in our good works and to embrace, by faith, the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.
The gospel is a call to a radical change in our way of thinking and acting. It is not something that we merely attach to our thinking, but an entirely different way of thinking and living. While the change in Paul’s life may seem to be more dramatic than the changes we will see in our lives, the gospel should produce dramatic changes in us as well (see Ephesians 4:17ff.).
The gospel is not only a call to trust in Jesus, but the commission to share the saving work of Christ Jesus with those who are lost (see Romans 10:14-15).
Evangelism was a way of life for Paul and not just an occasional task he performed. He understood that he had been (as the words of one song have put it) “saved, saved to tell others . . . .” Paul looked upon every occasion as a possible opportunity to proclaim Christ to those who were lost.
More pointedly, Paul saw even the worst circumstances as an opportunity to proclaim Christ to the lost. In terms of his circumstances, this was not the best of times for Paul. He had been falsely accused of a crime, and there were numerous attempts on his life. Paul had been tried before the Sanhedrin, Felix, and Festus, and none had the courage to declare him innocent, although his innocence was obvious. Now, Paul stands before Agrippa, Bernice, Festus, and a group of other dignitaries. They cannot release him; they can only listen to him and suggest what things to write about Paul when he is sent to Caesar. How easy it would have been for Paul to focus only on his innocence or to chastise Festus for his failure to execute justice. But Paul takes this opportunity to preach the gospel when times are tough.
I would like to suggest to you that our worst times (so far as our own circumstances are concerned) are really the best times for proclaiming the gospel. Over the past few weeks, one of my family has been sending me copies of updates from the husband of a woman who is dying of cancer. At the time of this writing, she has (humanly speaking) only a few hours of life left on “this side.” Tears come to my eyes as this husband shares his love for his wife of 40 years and their faith in God in the midst of their trials. These are the times when unsaved folks watch us most carefully and listen to us with the greatest interest. Do not let your dark hours (whatever they may be) become an occasion for whining and complaining, for doubts and fears. Let them be times of faith and hope, and share Christ with those who desperately need Him. Nowhere is the light of the gospel more needed or heeded than in the darkest hours of our lives.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
2 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 33 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on August 27, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.
4 Unanswered so far as the Roman authorities are concerned. Neither Claudius Lysias (the Roman commander who first rescued Paul from the angry mob at the temple), Felix, nor Festus had ever ascertained what motivated the Jews so strongly to oppose Paul. Felix was more experienced and may have had a pretty good idea, but he wanted to please the Jews.
6 See verse 23.
7 I have read more than one explanation of the “goad” here. More than likely, it was a device (perhaps metal) that was used to prod an animal, and thus to speed it up. We might think of a cowboy’s spurs as serving as a goad, prodding the horse to quickly respond. For an animal to kick at such a sharp instrument only produces more pain for the animal. We might say in our vernacular, “Paul, you’re shooting yourself in the foot by attempting to persecute Me.”
10 “One is reminded of Ezekiel. When he saw ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord’ he ‘fell face down’ (Ezekiel 1:28b). But God immediately said to him, ‘Son of man, stand up on your feet. . . I am sending you to the Israelites. . . You must speak my words to them’ (Ezekiel 2:1, 3, 7). In fact, the commissioning of Saul as Christ’s apostle was deliberately shaped to resemble the call of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and others to be God’s prophets. In both cases the language of ‘sending’ was used. As God ‘sent’ his prophets to announce his word to his people, so Christ ‘sent’ his apostles to preach and teach in his name, including Paul who was now ‘sent’ to be the apostle to the Gentiles (17).” John R.W. Stott, The Message of Acts (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), p. 373. Stott then adds this in a footnote: “For the Old Testament prophets, see e.g. Is. 6:8-9; Jer. 1:4, 7; 7:25; 14:14ff.; 29:9,m 19; Ezk. 2:3; 3:4ff.; Amos 7:14-15. For the New Testament apostles, see Mt. 10:1-5, 16; Mk. 3:14; 6:7; Lu. 6:12-13; 9:1-2.” Stott, p. 373, fn. 31.
13 It is interesting that Festus seems obliged to acknowledge Paul’s excellent scholarship when it comes to understanding the Old Testament.
14 This touch of humor would not have been expected of a madman or of a fanatic. It may well have helped to put Agrippa and the rest at ease concerning the charges against Paul.