Acts (Part 36) - Paul Before Agrippa
Paul’s defense before Agrippa is the longest address of his recorded in Acts. For the third time Luke includes the record of Paul’s conversion experience. Again, we read of Paul’s progression from zealous Jewish Pharisee to preacher of the resurrection. Why all this repetition by Luke? Paul’s speech in Acts 26 provides, in the story of Paul’s attitude, conversion, and ministry, the story of the gospel. This is Luke’s point. God had established the old covenant which was being twisted by self-serving Jews (Paul’s life as a Pharisee). Christ came, rectifying the drift as fulfillment of the Law, giving birth to the New Covenant (Christ’s appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus). And now the New Covenant flowers in the gospel message building the kingdom throughout the world (Paul’s ministry to Jew and Gentile).
Festus, Agrippa, Bernice, and prominent citizens come with great pomp and self-focus to the hall in which they will listen to Paul speak. Festus introduced Paul and the reason for the session—to see whether Agrippa, one who has the grasp of both Roman and Jewish law, can assist in forming the accusation to accompany Paul to Nero’s court. Because the purpose is for Agrippa to hear Paul speak, Festus turns control of the meeting over to Agrippa, who, in verse 1, gives Paul permission to begin. Notice that Paul does not begin without permission as is standard in formal gatherings such as this. We saw the same thing in chapter 24 as Felix gave Paul permission to speak in verse 10. And this also provides indication as to why Ananias had Paul struck in chapter 23 when Paul began speaking to the assembled Sanhedrin before given permission (verses 1-2).
Paul stretches out his hand as he begins speaking (26:1b). Hand and arm (and even foot) gestures meant specific things in Greek oratory. Paul here was probably giving a “thank you / by your leave” sign of respect to Agrippa as he began. Paul opens expressing appreciation for being able to present his case to Agrippa. This is no sarcasm as Paul may have been as frustrated with trying to show Festus that the Jews’ charges were false as Festus was with trying to understand the charges. Agrippa understood Jewish law and Jewish politics.
Paul begins as he had before when presenting his case before a Jewish audience. He wants to show that ministry is not opposed to the old covenant, but actually comes through realization of the hope of the old covenant. Paul paints himself as a strict observer of the Law—a Pharisee. He argues that all his accusers have known him since he grew up in Jerusalem and had been zealous for the Law. He states that he is on trial for the same hope that the 12 tribes (synonym for Israel) hope to attain. And Paul earnestly expresses to Agrippa—the one who can understand the connection—the fact that he is on trial for this hope of resurrection.
Perhaps Agrippa appeared uncomfortable because of Paul’s passion directed to him. Perhaps, because of his familiarity in the Roman world, Agrippa can see and understand the perplexity and/or amusement on the faces of others there as Paul is seriously and intently speaking of people rising up from the dead. In fact, Paul himself may have heard stirrings and chuckles from the crowd at large disturbing his impassioned plea to Agrippa. Immediately after addressing Agrippa specifically in verse 7, he apparently turns to the crowd in verse 8 and responds to their amusement by asking, “Why is it considered incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” Paul’s point is that they all believed in a higher power god or gods. So why was it difficult to believe that a god like Artemis who could ensure the healthy life of a child and the rest of the panoply of gods that ordered the sea and storm and crops and wars, etc. could not call someone back from the grave. But whatever they believe, Paul is sure that his God—the one true God—can and did raise Jesus from the dead.
Immediately Paul turns back from this rhetorical question to the crowd and continues his orderly defense to Agrippa. In verse 9 Paul admits that he himself had persecuted Christians (as his accusers should also have remembered since he did it right in front of them in Jerusalem (26:10)). Paul says he “cast his vote” against the Christians. Literally, the Greek there is that Paul cast his pebble—the stone used to vote. Paul was probably not a member of the Sanhedrin since he would have been very young among a group that valued the wisdom of age. His statement probably is meant only metaphorically that he was in agreement with the violence meted out on Christians. His statement in verse 11 that he tried to make them blaspheme by punishing them means that his punishments were intended to make they deny Christ—a denial that he now considers blasphemy.
After establishing his background, Paul relates his conversion. The light “brighter than the sun” is meant to explain that this was something separate different from the sun which was bright overhead at the time. The voice from heaven asks him why he is persecuting Jesus, and comments, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” This is a Greek idiom that may have been difficult to translate or comprehend in the Hebrew or Aramaic that Jesus was speaking. This statement, since it doesn’t appear in either of the two earlier records of this incident in Acts, could possibly have been merely Paul’s explanation in Greek idiom to Agrippa what Jesus had told him in Aramaic. There is nothing inaccurate about Paul’s use of Greek idiom. Since he is translating Jesus’ whole speech, it is valid to translate into an idiom of the resultant language.
Jesus tells Paul to “get up and stand on your feet” (26:16). This is no mere needless repetition. Jesus is about to commission Paul for his mission. The one commissioned usually stood for his commissioning (Numbers 27:19; Ezekiel 2:1-1). The Lord’s emphasis on Paul’s standing then was so that he could confer on him this mission. And the mission was none other but the continuation of Christ’s mission. The disciples were charged with testifying of the resurrection and taking the gospel to the world. This was the witness/service specifically given to them. In Luke 1:2 we read that Luke’s record was based on “the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” Paul, then, is so named by Jesus as a “servant and witness” (26:16). Also, his message contains the same language as Jesus understood for himself in Luke 4:18 when he quoted Isaiah 61:1—a message of turning blind eyes (or darkened understanding) to the light and sight of the gospel kingdom.
Paul assures Agrippa that he was “not disobedient to the heavenly vision” (26:19). Paul is counting on Agrippa recognizing from old covenant Scripture the importance of the prophet performing his commissioned work. But this would also ring true to Festus and the others for their religious practices involved following omens, signs, and oracles.
Paul remarks that he immediately began his gospel witness in Damascus and then Jerusalem. He follows by saying he preached “in all the region of Judea, and to the Gentiles” (26:20). This is not a statement of chronology (for Paul did not immediately travel throughout Judea). Rather, Paul is emphasizing that in his subsequent mission he has spoken to all—Jews and Gentiles. His work in Judea was probably limited to his passing through several times on his way to Antioch and also in the past two years that he has remained in the area of Caesarea.
In verse 21, Paul gets to the point of his defense. He did nothing to desecrate the temple as the Jews had charged. Rather, it was for his preaching in faithful obedience to his meeting with Jesus—declaring a message of resurrection hope to Jew and Gentile—that the Jews arrested him. Paul emphasizes that his preaching of Jesus is exactly what Moses and the prophets preached of the Messiah’s suffering and resurrection (26:22-23).
At this declaration, Festus feels compelled to shout out. He say Paul is crazy thinking that the old Scriptures are talking about this man Jesus and his rising from the dead. Festus thinks his study has made him wild in his speculation. But Paul argues the point, insisting that Festus just doesn’t know the extent of Scripture’s prophecy of a Jewish redeemer. Turning back to Agrippa, he asks, “Do you believe the prophets?”
Paul’s question is exactly in line with his defense. Paul is saying that what he proclaims does not violate the Jews’ religion. Rather, it confirms and flows from it. So, he appeals to Agrippa to confirm that this is indeed the Scripture’s teaching. But he is doing so in an attempt to bring them along on his logic string. He points out (1) the prophets spoke of the Messiah suffering and rising from the dead, (2) Jesus suffered and rose from the dead, (3) Jesus proclaimed himself the Messiah. So now, Paul seems to begin again with these points drawing Agrippa into it. First, he asks Agrippa if he believes the prophets. But Paul does not want to appear as if he has changed roles to prosecutor. Agrippa is not on trial and would probably be offended at being questioned by the defendant. Immediately Paul backs off by answering for Agrippa, “I know you believe” (26:27).
But Agrippa doesn’t let the incident pass. Paul did ask the question. If Agrippa would deny believing the prophets, he would surely incur the wrath of the Jews. If Agrippa agrees that he believes the prophets, he is trapped by Paul’s logic sequence into proclaiming Jesus as Messiah. So he pulls back on the reins saying, “Are you going to persuade me to become a Christian so easily?”
But Paul abandons marching through the logic (knowing now Agrippa understands where he was going with it), and does something that we should all remember in our witness. Paul shows his heart’s passion for the lost. He says, “I wish before God…you…might become as I am.” Paul bares his heart, and demonstrates undeniably his sincerity and love. And this has a striking effect on his listeners. Notice their exit as opposed to their pompous entrance in 25:23. Now their minds are full of what Paul has told them, and they talk together, convinced that Paul is no criminal.
As the chapter closes Agrippa states that Paul should be allowed to go free—except their hands are now tied because Paul had appealed to Caesar. This should not make us think that Paul made a mistake in appealing to Caesar. That was necessary. If he had not, he already would be on his way back to Jerusalem to be waylaid on the trip and murdered. This statement is not meant to show what might have been, but rather to relate the impact of Paul’s speech on his hearers.