Through the Bible in One Year

Day 240

Acts 25:23-26:23

We have now seen Paul before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high council.  We have seen Paul brought before two Roman Governors, and what we must remember is that this has all happened while Paul has been held illegally in the custody of the Roman government of the province of Judea.  And now today we are going to see Paul brought before the last local official before he is sent to Rome to have his case heard by Caesar himself.

The 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. Festus said: “King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome. But 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. For I think it is unreasonable to send a prisoner on to Rome without specifying the charges against him.”—25:23-27

Because this was an informal hearing, the audience room was not the official place of justice but the office of the procurator.  The audience included a number of military officers (at least five were stationed in Caesarea) and the city’s elite.  Festus’s statement that all the Jews wanted Paul’s death was an exaggeration.  Festus presented his own findings that Paul had done nothing deserving the death penalty.  The basis for the hearing was Festus’s need to write a coherent report regarding the case that would be presented in Rome with the prisoner.

Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.”

So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defense: “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense against all the accusations of the Jews, and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently.—26:1-3

Paul’s defense was Christianity’s first great presentation to the elite in Greco-Roman society.  Though Agrippa was Jewish, he was throughly Romanized.  When given permission to speak, Paul motioned with his hand, a gesture commonly made by rhetoricians to announce they were about to speak.  Paul followed the conventions of the day in both words and actions to make the best presentation possible.

“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. They 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. And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today. This 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. Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?

“I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And 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. Many 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.—26:4-11

The essence of the speech is a defense of Paul’s theological “crimes” rather than his “civil crimes.”  Paul’s former life was known to the audience.  He had been a Pharisee on the fast track to political and religious heights.  The intensity of the Jewish leaders’ hatred of Paul may have had roots in the abandonment of them.  Paul consistently affirmed that their problem was his belief in the resurrection of the dead.  (He affirmed that in verses 6-8 without actually mentioning it until verse 8.) Connecting his belief in the resurrection of the dead to Christ’s resurrection led directly to his conversion by a resurrected Jesus.  In verse 8, he challenged the notion that it was incredible for the living God to raise the dead.  Paul then described his activity in Jerusalem as imprisoning believers under the auspices of the high priest as well as consenting to the deaths of believers.  He seems to be referencing more than simply the account of Stephen.  In his zeal, he tried to make Christians blaspheme (renounce Christ), and he followed them to other cities.

“On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. About 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. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’

“Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’

“‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. ‘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. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to 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.’—26:12-18

Directly addressing the king is a prominent shift in the speech.  These verses follow closely previous recitations of Paul’s conversion.  To kick against the goads is a Greek proverb.  It pictures an animal kicking against pointed sticks that were used to herd it.  Kicking against goads only harmed oneself.  Paul turned, then, from a path of destruction and followed Christ.  And Jesus commissioned Paul to turn others from darkness to light, from Satan to God, that they might receive forgiveness and an inheritance.

“So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First 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. That is why some Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. But 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 — that 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.”—26:19-23

Paul first recounted where he preached.  His ministry in Damascus, and Jerusalem, Judea and to the Gentiles recalls the outline of Acts in Acts 1:8.  Paul then described what he preached.  He was very careful to place repentance and faith before good works.  It was for the sake of the Gospel that his life was in danger from his countrymen.  However, he affirms that the Gospel is in accordance with Moses and the prophets.  And that is where we will pick tomorrow as we see both Fetus’s and Agrippa’s reaction to Paul’s argument in his defense.

Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:

Job 31-33, 2 Corinthians 3, Psalm 43:1-5 and Proverbs 22:8-9


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