Before Agrippa

Audio Player

A few weeks ago my wife had a call at the door from a charity worker from a charity that shall remain nameless.  It was early afternoon, the only part of her day with even the potential to be quiet and restful, so this guy was already losing, but he started off and Steph told him that she wouldn't give out any bank details on the doorstep, but she would take a leaflet.  So the guy says, "Can I ask… do you know your postman?" Odd question, but Steph said no, we don't.  The rep continues, "Well, all you need to take money is a sort code and an account number and your postman handles those all the time." Now, if it had been me I'd have said something like, "Yes, I suppose my postman does have those details… if he illegally opens my post because he intends to use it to steal from me… Are you saying that I might as well give you my bank details because my postman could steal from me?!"  I think Steph said something much more charitable and closed the door.  It was a spectacularly poor pitch.

I wonder what the Apostle Paul would have made of it.  After all, he is a man on a mission to persuade people.  Towards the end of tonight's passage King Agrippa says to Paul, "Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?" and Paul replies, "Short time or long--I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains."  So surely after all these years of evangelism that we've seen Paul doing in Acts, surely he's got his skills honed.  Surely tonight it's pens-at-the-ready for Paul's top tips for evangelism.  Well, we'll see.

Tonight we see something of a turning point at this end of Acts.  We've been following Paul after his arrest inJerusalemas he has defended himself against the false accusations of the Jews in various places and in front of various authorities.  Tonight we're looking at the last of these speeches.  After this episode tonight Paul will be taken by ship, still under arrest, toRome, and chapters 27 and 28 are about that journey and his arrival.  So this is the last major speech.

Paul is inCaesarea, in the prison of the Roman governor there, as he has been now for over two years.  There's recently been a change in governor, with Festus replacing Felix.  Festus reckoned he would get this thing with Paul sorted out but instead, Paul appealed to be tried in front of Caesar, which leaves Festus with a headache.  He now has to send Paul to Caesar but he can't figure out what to write in his handover report to the Emperor.  And nobody likes to look stupid in front of the boss.  So in the middle of chapter 25, when King Agrippa pops by, the local king and at least a nominal Jew, Festus decides to get his opinion.  Last week's passage ended with Festus agreeing to let Agrippa hear from Paul personally. Let's pick up the story in v23 and we'll take in the rest of chapter 25 by way of setting the scene.

      23The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high ranking officers and the leading men of the city. [All the great and the good…] At the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. 24Festus said: "King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. 25I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome. 26But [here's the problem for Festus] I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write. 27For I think it is unreasonable to send on a prisoner without specifying the charges against him."

So this last speech is not a trial defence.  Festus already found Paul innocent.  This is an unofficial inquiry, trying to understand what the deal is with Paul and the Jews and trying to figure out what to write to Caesar.  And for Paul, it's yet another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to talk to a room full of regional leaders and dignitaries about the risen Lord Jesus.

So let's look at chapter 26 using these three headings:

1) Paul met the risen Jesus in a direct, miraculous way

2) Paul gives Agrippa and co. the opportunity to meet Jesus too

3) Agrippa and Festus both dodge Paul's gospel challenge

1) Paul met the risen Jesus in a direct, miraculous way

In 26v1 King Agrippa invites Paul to speak.  Look at v2 and we'll see what he says:

2"King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defence against all the accusations of the Jews, 3and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently."

A respectful beginning. V4:

     4"The Jews all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. 5They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee. 6And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today. 7This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. O King, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me. 8Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?"

Paul gives his background, and we've seen it before.  Born and raised a Jew, and in fact a devout and well-respected leader.  Not only that but he sees Jesus' death and resurrection and the growth of the church among both Jews and Gentiles as the direct continuation and fulfilment of Judaism.  He's made the point many times that this belief hinges on the resurrection of Jesus, hence the micro-apologetic in v8.  Of course God can raise the dead.  He's God.  Not that Paul was never sceptical about Christianity, v9:

     9"I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them."

But something changed, something turned him around. V12:

     12"On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13About noon, O King, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic,`Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.'

By the way, a goad is a cattle prod for driving and steering cattle or oxen, like when they're pulling a plough.  Kicking against the goads is pressing back or reversing into the spiked tip, resulting in pain.  The best thing for the cattle or oxen was to obey the master.

       15"Then I asked,`Who are you, Lord?'

     "`I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,' the Lord replied."

What changed for Paul was an undeniable, direct, miraculous encounter with the living, risen Lord Jesus.  Paul met Jesus, and Jesus then gave him a commission, v16:

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 of me and what I will show you. 17I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'

     19"So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. 20First to those inDamascus, then to those inJerusalem and in allJudea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds."

All of which brings us up to date, v21:

21That is why the Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me."

It was an undeniable, direct, miraculous encounter with the living, risen Lord Jesus that turned Paul's life on its head.  This is the third account of Paul's conversion encounter with Jesus in the book of Acts.  That's how special and how important it is. But it's not special in the sense of being normative, in the sense of establishing a pattern for how others meet Jesus too.  Paul doesn't give his listeners a set of co-ordinates leading to a spot on the road to Damascus so that they can go and find Jesus the same way.  It's not special to Paul because it's a new pattern for meeting Jesus, but because it proved the resurrection to him.  The resurrection of Jesus is the core or the foundation of his hope and his gospel message.  It's the foundation of his call to others to meet Jesus as well.  That's what he wants.  He's desperate that every person who hears him speak should have the chance to meet Jesus too.

And interestingly, while Paul's meeting with Jesus isn't the pattern for all of us, there are others in this passage who are given the opportunity to meet Jesus in exactly the same way that we can today.  That's what I want to talk about next.

2) Paul gives Agrippa and co. the opportunity to meet Jesus too

I wonder if you noticed any differences between this speech and some of the others Paul has made in recent chapters.  Paul says less about the charges the Jews were making, and less by way of personal defence, and after all this isn't a trial. But there are two things to notice that are new.  The first is that there's a lot more gospel content in this speech.  And the second is that there's a much clearer gospel challenge.  Gospel content and gospel challenge; let's see where those things come up.

First let's look for the gospel content:

v17b (this is Jesus commissioning Paul): "I am sending you to them 18to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me."

v20 (this is Paul describing his obedience to his commission): "20First to those inDamascus, then to those inJerusalem and in allJudea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds."

v22b (this is Paul again, describing his actions right now): "I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen-- 23that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles."

So there are several mini-explanations of the gospel woven into Paul's personal story.  That's the gospel content; now let's look for the gospel challenge. Look first at the number of times Paul addresses Agrippa personally.  First there's his opening in v2-3: 2"King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today […] I beg you to listen to me patiently." Then… V7: … O King, V13: … O King, V19: … King Agrippa... It's like there's no-one else in the room.  And when Festus interrupts Paul, he replies in v26,

26"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. 27King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do."

What do you make of this, Agrippa?  I've explained that Jesus' death and resurrection is what the Old Testament points to.  I've recounted how I met the risen Jesus myself.  It's a no-brainer.  And Agrippa certainly knows what Paul is doing, v28:

     28Then Agrippa said to Paul, "Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?"

     29Paul replied, "Short time or long--I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains."

So Paul gives Agrippa and co. the opportunity to meet Jesus too, not with a blinding light and a voice, but through the testimony of the Old Testament writers and Jesus' own commissioned messengers, the apostles, like Paul.

And that's the offer that comes to us today, in Gateshead, almost two thousand years later.  Perhaps you're here tonight as a visitor or a guest or a spectator, or someone who is here all the time, but you've never met Jesus.  You've never trusted him for that forgiveness Paul talked of.  You've never repented, which just means turning around or changing your mind.  Doing a u-turn from a life serving yourself to a life of relationship with the God who made you for relationship with him.  The offer is that you can meet Jesus.  You can have everything Paul describes, by believing the prophets and apostles, in other words, by believing what you find in the bible.  The offer is that as we read this written word of God we engage with the one it calls the living word of God, Jesus himself.

That's the strength of the Christianity Explored course that we run.  People engage with Jesus through Mark's gospel, and we pray that they'll trust him as Paul does.  Perhaps for you the credibility of the bible is a stumbling block.  Well, make sure to get the facts.  There are lots of reasons to take this book as reliable.  Don't jump to conclusions because, if it's true, Paul's offer is the most serious you will ever receive.  And don't delay, because you don't know how many times the offer will be made.  By all accounts Paul addressed Agrippa only once.  The offer stood for him and it stands for you.

If you are a follower of Jesus, let me give you some action points, and in reference to my opening gambit, you can even call these 'Paul's top tips for evangelism':

1: Be an opportunist.  Take your opportunities to share the gospel.

2: Take your opportunities even if they seem small and time is short.  You won't get everyone to take a seven-week Christianity Explored course.  Sometimes you only get one shot, but take it anyway, like Paul does here – 'short time or long', he says.

3: Pray.  Pray for opportunities, pray for boldness, pray for individuals, pray for groups, pray in anticipation, pray afterwards for specifics.  Pray because the success is up to God.  Like Paul says, "Short time or long--I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am…"

4: Talk about Jesus' death and resurrection and repentance, forgiveness and new life.  Paul could have trotted out the same old legal defence, which after all is what they wanted to hear about.  But in almost no time he gets to the heart of the gospel.  If you're having a great conversation but you come away without mentioning any of that, you're not sharing the piece of news that people most need to hear.

5: Make it clear that a decision is necessary.  That's what Paul is doing as he asks Agrippa whether he believes the prophets.

He's prompting Agrippa to make a decision.  The gospel isn't a Wikipedia page to be read for interest; it's a contract offer, with a dotted line at the bottom.  We need to make it clear that there's a decision to be made.

So Paul met the risen Jesus in a direct, miraculous way and in this speech Paul gives Agrippa and co. the opportunity to meet Jesus too, in exactly the same way that we can today.  So how did he get on?  What did these leaders make of Paul's invitation to meet Jesus?  Turns out, not so well:

3) Agrippa and Festus both dodge Paul's gospel challenge

Let's take Festus first.  Look down part-way through v22, with Paul speaking:

"… I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen-- 23that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles."     24At this point Festus interrupted Paul's defence [we can imagine him slamming his hand down on the red buzzer…]. "You are out of your mind, Paul!" he shouted. "Your great learning is driving you insane."

He's actually angry.  He's shouting.  Perhaps it's because the resurrection of a physical body is so alien to traditional Roman beliefs.  But he could have talked about that calmly.  Perhaps he's angry because he's figured out that Paul is making a claim that affects him.  Paul's saying that Festus is created and owned by the God of the Jews, and that he owes that God his life for the crime of treason.  Paul's saying that he can't earn the favour of God or appease him in any way.  Paul's saying that Festus needs Jesus.  That's offensive when you assume it can't be true.  But Paul isn't mad, v25:

     25"I am not insane, most excellent Festus," Paul replied. "What I am saying is true and reasonable. [Perhaps he motions towards Agrippa at this point.] 26The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.

The life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus all happened in public.  It's all very recent history and would have been well known.  Paul didn't go off on a two-year study sabbatical and come back with this new idea for a religion.  V26: the king is Jewish, he knows the prophets, he's heard about Jesus – this will be making sense to him.

So it seems like a 'no' from Festus.  But what about Agrippa?

27King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do."

Tricky moment for Agrippa.  Suddenly it's all got very personal.  Maybe he reckons Paul is right, but there are a lot of people in the room, and a lot of Jews back inJerusalemwho would take a dim view of him if he agreed with Paul, and besides, Festus just said the whole thing was crazy… Quick, everyone's staring, think of something to say… remember the West Wing… don't accept the premise of the question, answer with another question, deflect, deflect… v28

"Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?"

What a great side-step… didn't say yes or no, kept all options open, made Paul look a little silly – genius.  Dodged a bullet with that one.

     29Paul replied, "Short time or long--I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains."

That is the heartbeat of this man.  He longs and he prays for everyone who hears him to meet the risen Jesus, as he has done.  That is the big idea and the thrust of this chapter.  Paul longs and prays for everyone who hears him to meet the risen Jesus, as he has done.

Verses 30-32 close off the account.  Before Paul can press him any further, Agrippa calls time, v30:

     30The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. 31They left the room, and while talking with one another, they said, "This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment."

     32Agrippa said to Festus, "This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar."

So there is vindication for Paul.  Festus has found him innocent, and now so has Agrippa.  There's also no further progress for Festus, who still has no idea what he's going to write for Caesar about Paul.

It's getting late but if you're still alert you might just be wondering how Luke came to record this little epilogue.  Perhaps they made their verdict known to Paul.  Perhaps Luke overheard.  Or perhaps there was a leak.  A servant – someone small, not great, someone who did respond to Paul's gospel message and talked with Luke.  That's pure speculation, but we do know that by God's work there is often gospel fruit where we don't expect it.  We don't know.

Three final points I want to make and then we're done:

1: Make sure you have met Jesus.  Paul longs and prays for everyone who hears him to meet the risen Jesus, as he has done.  We almost certainly won't meet Jesus in a similar way to Paul.  Instead we have the testimony of the Old Testament and the apostles, the New Testament to introduce us to him. So make sure you have met him.  Make sure you respond in the right way, with belief and submission and worship, not by getting angry like Festus or sidestepping a decision like Agrippa.

2: Expect rejection when you share the gospel.  Paul gets labelled as insane and then sidestepped here, in front of all the great and the good.  It happens.  But pray like Paul and do your part, because the results are God's part.

3: Be ready to speak personally.  This is not abstract theology that we've read tonight.  It's not Two Ways to Live according to Paul.  It's Paul's own personal testimony.  His background, what he believed and how he was living, the surprise of meeting Jesus, the change that brought, the gospel of repentance and forgiveness.  It's Paul's version of what we've been doing in these evening services, sharing testimonies of how meeting the risen Jesus has turned us around. Earlier I told you to be opportunists, to take your opportunities to share the gospel.  Now let me add to that: be ready to talk personally about how meeting the risen Jesus through the bible has turned you around.  Anecdotes and stories don't make the best academic arguments but they do connect with people.  They do ground the gospel in our real lives, showing it really working.  So be ready to speak personally.  That's definitely in the mix with Paul's top tips for evangelism.

Back to top