Paul gives his testimony to King Agrippa, Festus and others. They react against what he tells them but do not think he has done anything illegal but Paul has claimed the right to be tried by Caesar.
Paul gives his testimony to King Agrippa, Festus and others. They react against what he tells them but do not think he has done anything illegal but Paul has claimed the right to be tried by Caesar.
Welcome to this episode, which is the last in a series of episodes that all fit together as part of the period of time when Paul is being held in custody by the Romans, as a result of a major conflict, an incident that took place in Jerusalem between Paul and the Jewish authorities. I hope you have listened to the earlier episodes, which tell the story very fully. Luke has given a lot of time to this fascinating story, of which he was an eyewitness.
Background and Introduction
Now we are coming to the end of this process. The scene is the city of Caesarea, the Roman capital in the province of Judea, by the sea, and the governor at the time is Festus. He has inherited Paul as a prisoner from his predecessor, the governor, Felix. Paul has been in prison for two whole years in Caesarea without any charge against him. He didn’t know what was going to happen to him; this has been a time of waiting that required real patience on behalf of Paul. The Jewish authorities are still determined to try and bring Paul to judgement and ultimately to get him executed; that is their goal.
This has now been prevented because, in the last episode, we found that Paul exercised his legal right to be transferred to Rome for his case to be heard there, with the famous words in Acts 25:11, “I appeal to Caesar.”We saw how, as a Roman citizen, he could get himself transferred to Rome, so that they could decide whether he had broken any Roman laws or not. We are now in a situation where the governor, Festus, has agreed, “Paul, you need to go to Rome. We’ll ensure that you get transferred to Rome under armed guard by sea in due course.”
In the meantime, the governor, Festus, is being welcomed into the area by King Agrippa II, who rules a different territory to the north of Israel - Galilee and some areas further north of there, for the Romans. He rules a different territory but as a fellow ruler within the Roman Empire, King Agrippa and his sister Bernice are making an official visit to Festus. This is happening at the time when Paul’s case is being discussed. This is the situation we’ve found ourselves in, in the story. Festus has the idea that he will introduce Paul to King Agrippa II, and he will allow Paul to explain his case and his story to King Agrippa as well. King Agrippa is very interested in Paul because, as I said in the last episode, his father had been an opponent of the Church and had persecuted the Church and had even organised the execution of James the Apostle, the first of the twelve Apostles to die, a few years previously. King Agrippa II is really interested in Christianity, the Gospel and the Apostles. He’s heard a lot about them; he knows a lot about them and so he’s interested in hearing Paul’s story.
Paul Explains His Faith
That is where we take up the story today as we continue the narrative that Luke has given us. King Agrippa II has no authority over Paul; he can’t make any decisions; he is just interested to hear his case. It is the governor who has the authority and the governor has decided, Paul is going to Rome, to the Imperial Court, to be tried there. However, as we take up the story in Acts 26, we see Paul’s explanation of his faith and his life to King Agrippa. That is an interesting story to hear. Let us read the first part of this story. Acts 26:1 - 11,
1 ‘Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defence: 2 “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defence against all the accusations of the Jews, 3 and 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. 5 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. 6 And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today. 7 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. 8 Why 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. 10 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. 11 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.”’Acts 26:1-11, NIV
Paul wants to give a full explanation to King Agrippa. He has never met him before and it is a great opportunity to tell his story. King Agrippa comes from a Jewish background and so he is knowledgeable about Judaism and all their controversies and culture. He is also knowledgeable about the Church. He remembers what his father did against the Church, and he is thinking about the Christian faith right now, and he is interested in Paul’s story. Paul tells his story very significantly. He explains how faithful he was to Judaism all the way through his life. He grew up in Tarsus in Cilicia, in the province of Asia, that is southern Turkey, which he describes here as ‘my own country’, in verse 4. Then as a young promising Jewish boy in the synagogue, he was selected for elite education in Jerusalem and was transferred to Jerusalem where, as a teenager and as a young adult, he lived and trained in religious life. He trained to become a Pharisee under one of the leading teachers of the day, a man named Gamaliel. Paul is explaining the background and also the huge contrast of what he used to think, compared with what he now thinks. He explains to Agrippa that he was completely embedded in Judaism. He completely adopted the views of the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, the High Priests. He followed all the traditions of Judaism very, very thoroughly.
Then, he explained that when the Church first appeared on the scene, he was totally opposed to the Church. You couldn’t find somebody in Jerusalem more opposed to the Church than Paul. We see this in the earlier chapters of Acts;. Luke has already told us this. Paul is reiterating to Agrippa what we already know from the text. In the very first persecution of the Church, the trigger was the martyrdom of a preacher named Stephen, who enraged the Jews so much that they spontaneously took him out of the city and stoned him to death, even though that was an illegal action. Paul was there, at the very beginning of the persecution; Paul was actually present when the first Christian was killed by stoning - the first martyr, Stephen. Luke records that he approved this death. In Acts 8: 3, we have these painful words to describe what Paul did to the Church,
‘But Saul’(or Paul)‘began to destroy the Church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.’
This is what he is alluding to when he is talking to King Agrippa. He describes himself as passionately against the Church. He didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah. He didn’t believe that his death on the cross was significant. He certainly didn’t believe that he had been raised from the dead - the central claim of Christianity. Paul is trying to show to King Agrippa that for him to change his mind, something dramatic must have happened because everything in him was against the Church. He was even willing to go to other foreign cities as described here, to find Christians. He thought he needed to track them down wherever they had gone, so that he could get them imprisoned, or maybe even killed, punished or beaten in other ways. This is the background for Paul giving his account of his conversion here in the next few verses. This is the Damascus road conversion and Luke has already described this to us twice. First of all, when it originally happened, then Paul has told his story once before and is now telling his story again. Luke allows Paul to tell his story once again. We have this story told three times in the book of Acts, and we will look at the significance of that in just a few moments.
Paul’s Conversion Experience
But let us hear it from Paul’s lips and imagine what it would be like to be King Agrippa, listening to the story. Acts 26:12 - 18,
12 “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 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. 14 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.’ 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. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 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 amongst those who are sanctified by faith in me.’Acts 26:12-18, NIV
Paul was travelling to Damascus because he had obtained letters, from some of the Christians in Jerusalem, which they were writing to their friends in Damascus. He saw these letters and could identify who these people were. This is recorded in Acts 22: 5. He had documentary evidence that a group of Christians was established in the city of Damascus, which is outside the country of Israel to the north and to the east - a major city with a Jewish community and a new church starting. He said to the religious leaders in Jerusalem, “Let me go and deal with them. I’ll stop that church, I’ll take people to prison, I’ll bring them back to Jerusalem so we can just cancel that church out.”
He was approaching Damascus, near the city when, as stated on the two previous occasions, something totally supernatural happened, totally unexpected. Paul was travelling with his companions and he saw an incredible light. It was not a natural light. This was a supernatural light because it is described as being brighter than the sun at midday. We find, all the way through the Bible, that God’s presence is frequently made known to humans by a supernatural light, characterised by intense brightness, an intensity of light that humans have not experienced in the natural world - even more intense than that moment when you or I might look and look directly at the sun, which we can’t do for more than a few seconds, without real danger. Even brighter than that was the light that Paul saw. The other accounts say that it made him temporarily blind. This light is frequently mentioned in the Bible, in the Old and the New Testament. For example, in the Old Testament, when the place of worship was first set up, the tent structure known as the tabernacle, in Exodus 40: 34, it says, ‘the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.’ This is like a bright cloud. In Revelation 1:16, even more powerfully, John has a vision of Jesus and it describes the following aspects of Jesus: ‘In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.’ These are other descriptions of that manifest, powerful glory of God, known by the Hebrew word ‘Shekinah’; the Shekinah glory of God.
Paul was stopped in his tracks. His footsteps towards Damascus halted temporarily. Not only did he see a light, but even more significantly, he heard a voice - the voice of Jesus, “Saul”, that was Paul’s other name - his Jewish name was Saul; his Greek name was Paul. “Why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads. ”Jesus was confronting Paul and telling him that his actions were like an animal fighting against the spiked stick that is used by the herders to drive them along. He is fighting to go in the opposite direction, than he should go. Jesus calls him to himself, “Stop persecuting me and become my servant and my witness”. Here is an amazing contrast, just in a moment. Here is Paul, the major enemy of Christ, being appointed as the major servant and witness of Jesus Christ. The message is extraordinary, and must have shocked Paul to the very core of his being. He hardly knew what was happening to him because something he had been unaware of; some reality is now being made known to him. He is suddenly beginning to realise in the depths of his being, that Jesus did rise again from the dead, that in fact this is the risen Jesus speaking to him. He is commissioned to be a messenger to both the Jews and the Gentiles, a messenger who is going to have the skill and the ability, by the Holy Spirit, to lead people from different cultures out of spiritual darkness and into the light of faith in Christ. What an extraordinary story! Even though this is the third retelling of the story, it still strikes us very firmly as Luke gives this account for us.
Paul’s New Mission
Acts 26:19 - 23,
19 “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. 20 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. 21 This is why some Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. 22 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— 23 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.”Acts 26:19-23, NIV
Paul’s life was changed overnight. He started preaching. He wasn’t disobedient to the vision that had been given to him. He realised when he went into Damascus for those few days, that his whole life would have to change, that he’d made a terrible, tragic mistake in opposing the Church and he was being called to redeem himself. So, he started preaching; he immediately preached in Damascus, then he went into Arabia for three years and appeared later on in Jerusalem, Antioch and other places.
Paul began to think at this time - think again about the death and the resurrection of Jesus because these were the key events. He realised that the death of Jesus wasn’t just a tragic end of a failed rebel but was actually fulfilling the Jewish idea of atonement - the death of one person for another. Previously animal sacrifice had fulfilled the idea of atonement; the animal dies so that you gain forgiveness for your sins. Jesus had taken this upon himself and Paul began to understand it. So, he began to go over the Old Testament all over again, and he was explaining this to King Agrippa, who had a Jewish background, saying that he had to reconsider the Jewish background and the Jewish Scriptures, and realised that Jesus was the fulfilment of what the Scriptures actually prophesied, and that his resurrection was also the fulfilment of what the Scriptures prophesied. Let me give you an example of Paul’s thinking at this time. Here are some Scriptures that Paul would have considered as he changed his mind. In Isaiah 53 there’s a direct prediction of a human being, the suffering servant of God, who dies on behalf of others for their sins to be forgiven, and also prediction of a resurrection of that person. These are the kinds of passages that Paul would have considered as he began to realise that the Old Testament predicted the Messiah in the way that Jesus came. Isaiah 53: 4 - 6 say,
4 ‘Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we were healed. 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’Isaiah 53:4-6, NIV
Passages like this would have convinced Paul that the Messiah, God’s servant, had to die in our place, that we may gain forgiveness and healing. Moving on in Isaiah 53:10 - 11, predicting the resurrection, Paul would have reread this scripture in the light of the Damascus road revelation and he would have understood this to refer to the resurrection.
10 ‘Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. 11 After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.’Isaiah 53:10-11
Here is a prediction that after death comes life or resurrection for that individual person, the Messiah, who turns out to be Jesus. This is what Paul was trying to communicate to Agrippa - a fundamental change of mind because of the revelation on the Damascus road.
Reactions to Paul’s Story
How do Festus and Agrippa respond to this dramatic story? Acts 26:24 - 32,
24 ‘At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defence. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.” 26 “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable.The 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. 27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” 28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” 29 Paul 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.” 30 The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. 31 After they left the room, they began saying to one another, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.” 32 Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”Acts 26:24-32, NIV
Festus got angry and Agrippa got defensive. They didn’t want to engage with Paul. Paul will be heading for Rome, and the story takes a dramatic turn in our next episode.
Before we get there, let us reflect a little on what we can learn from this particular story. In this account we have three major reasons why people don’t believe the Gospel when it is presented to them. First of all, Paul kicked against the goads, according to the text, he basically, actively suppressed the Christian story. He heard about it in Jerusalem but he said, “No, no, no, no, that can’t be true”. There is an active, hostile resistance, where we suppress the information. He didn’t look into whether Jesus had risen from the dead or not. He just said, in principle it can’t be true. So, there is that very hostile response among some people. Festus’ response is cynical. He says, “Paul you’re out of your mind”. I can’t believe these claims about the resurrection. It is just impossible. He couldn’t believe these supernatural ideas. Some people are just cynical about the claims of Christianity. And some people, like Agrippa, are unwilling to look at the evidence. Paul said, “You know the Old Testament, Agrippa, let’s look into it. Let’s talk about it.” But Agrippa said, “No, no, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to look at the evidence.” These are three different ways that people avoid engaging with the Gospel, and that is still true today.
Despite that, we see on the other hand, the power of testimony; telling your story counts. I have mentioned this many times before, and Luke is emphasising this here, because Paul never tires of telling the story of how he became a Christian. We too, as believers should never tire of telling the story. For me, it is more than 45 years ago, but I am willing to tell anybody that story whenever I meet them. Never forget that God can use the power of testimony; the personal story. Your story will not be as dramatic as Paul’s, probably, but it still counts, and it is still important. As he kept telling his story throughout his life, you and I need to do exactly the same.
I hope you will join me for the next episode, which describes Paul’s journey from Caesarea all the way towards Rome by sea. It is a very adventurous and dangerous journey as we will find out next time.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- Think about the different ways people respond to the Christian faith.
- What is your reaction to Paul’s story?
- Read Isaiah 53:4 - 6 and 10 -11. What does this tell you about the Messiah/Jesus?
- Look at the topic of 'atonement' using tagging to help.