September 9, 2007
“King Agrippa — Almost Persuaded”
Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas
This is a lengthy section of Scripture that we have to read. It's all one narrative. This is Paul's defense. It's not strictly a trial, but it is a defense. It is, in technical language, an apologia. This is Paul's apology; this is Paul preaching the gospel, and preaching the gospel before one of the most powerful (next to the emperor) in Rome, one of the most (at least in his own mind and pretentiousness) one of the most powerful figures then alive, King Agrippa — Herod Agrippa II.
Paul has been, as you recall, in prison in Caesarea now for just over two years. He had given a defense before Felix — Governor Felix. Governor Felix has been called back. He's been summoned back to Rome on a job not so well done, and had it not been for the fact that his brother was in league with certain members of the entourage in Rome, perhaps that would have been the end of Governor Felix.
Governor Festus has been appointed in his place. You’ll remember last time, on a Sunday evening about ten days ago, we were looking at Paul's defense before Governor Felix. He had offered, you remember, a solution: that Paul go to trial in Jerusalem before the Jews. Not surprisingly, Paul turns that offer down. It would have ended in only one way: the Sanhedrin court in Jerusalem would have found him guilty, they would have exercised their right under Roman law to have Paul put to death on the grounds that he was a heretic and that he has blasphemed the name of God. And so Paul, you remember, for the first time…he's already told us that he was a Roman citizen, but now for the first time has appealed to Caesar. He's invoked this law which had been in existence now for perhaps a hundred years or so…he’d invoked the right of a Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar, to have his case heard before the emperor himself. The emperor of course in this case is Nero, and Nero had actually abdicated this responsibility. He didn't have time to hear these cases. He had abdicated this responsibility to one of his representatives in the court in Rome. And that would have been that. Paul was about to be sent to Rome–except for the fact that King Agrippa II is making a visit to Caesarea, and, as we shall now see, wants to hear all about this case regarding Paul.
Well, we’ll pick up the reading at verse 13 of chapter 25. Before we read the passage together, let's look to God in prayer.
Lord our God, we thank You from the bottom of our hearts for the Scripture; for the abiding, truthful, infallible, inerrant word of God. We ask for the blessing now of Your Spirit as we read the Scriptures together. Help us to so read it that we might perceive it to be in very truth Your word. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
“Now when some days had passed, Agrippa the king and Bernice…” [this is the sister, now, of King Agrippa] “…arrived at Caesarea and greeted Festus. And as they stayed there many days, Festus laid Paul's case before the king, saying, ‘There is a man left prisoner by Felix. And when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews laid out their case against him, asking for a sentence of condemnation against him. I answered them that it was not the custom of the Romans to give up anyone before the accused met the accusers face to face, and had had opportunity to make his defense concerning the charge laid against him. So when they came together here, I made no delay, but on the next day took my seat on the tribunal and ordered the man to be brought. When the accusers stood up, they brought no charge in his case of such evils as I supposed; rather, they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive. Being at a loss how to investigate these questions, I asked whether he wanted to go to Jerusalem and be tried there regarding them. But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for a decision of the emperor, I ordered him to be held until I could send him to Caesar.’ Then Agrippa said to Festus, ‘I would like to hear the man myself.’ ‘Tomorrow,’ said he, ‘you will hear him.’
“So on the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city. Then at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in, and Festus said, ‘King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man about whom the whole Jewish people petitioned me, both in Jerusalem and here, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. But I found that he had done nothing deserving death; and as he himself appealed to the emperor, I decided to go ahead and send him. 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 we have examined him, I may have something to write. For it seems to me unreasonable in sending a prisoner not to indicate the charges against him.’”
[Well, not just that, of course. You understand between the lines, he would look a complete fool before the emperor if he sent him to Rome with no charges!]
Verse 1 of chapter 26:
“So Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You have permission to speak for yourself.’ Then Paul stretched out his hand and made his defense.’”
[That's a beautiful touch, don't you understand, because it shows for a start that Luke is there. He's probably sitting in the gallery. He's taken note of the traditional way of beginning a speech. You’d motion with your hand. And Luke is telling you, ‘I was there, I saw this, I heard this, you understand.’]
“‘I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am going to make my defense [or apologia] today against all the accusations of the Jews, especially because you are familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently. My manner of life from my youth spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem is known by all the Jews. They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion, I have lived as a Pharisee. And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, to which our twelve tribes hope to attain as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope, I am accused by Jews, O King. Why it is thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth, and I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prisons, after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues, and tried to make them blaspheme; and in raging fury against them, I persecuted them…” [and note this detail, because he has not told this before] “…even to foreign cities.”
[Now so far we knew that Paul had persecuted Christians in Damascus. He was on his way to Damascus…but this is the first time he's told us he went to foreign cities to do this.]
“In this connection, I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. At midday, O King, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise, and stand upon your feet, for I have appointed you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen Me, and to those in which I will appear to you; delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.’ Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the Prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer, and that by being the first to rise from the dead, He would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.’
“And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, ‘Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you out of your mind.’ But Paul said, ‘I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly, for I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets? I know that you believe.’ And Agrippa said to Paul, ‘In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?’ And Paul said, ‘Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am, except for these chains.’
“Then the king rose and the governor and Bernice, and those who were sitting with them, and when they had withdrawn, they said to one another, ‘This man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment.’ And Agrippa said to Festus, ‘This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.’”
Amen. And may God bless to us that reading of His holy and exciting word.
Isn't that exciting? It's the third time Paul has given his defense–once before Felix, and once before Festus, two years later; and now before King Agrippa II.
King Agrippa II (King Herod Agrippa II) and his sister, Bernice [Veronique is what the Latin's called her...sorry if you’re called Veronique!] …they’re making a visit to Caesarea. You understand this is part of the Herod dynasty. You have Herod the Great at the time of the birth of Jesus; you have Herod Antipas (the Herod that Jesus called a fox); you have Herod Agrippa I (who had put James to death and had died that violent death in Acts 12); and now you've got the great-grandson of Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa II. It's a dynasty, a powerful dynasty… although Herod Agrippa II is not that powerful. He just thinks that he is. He has been given…when his father died in Acts 12, he was only 17 years old. The Romans — the powers that be — thought that was far too young to be given much power, so he was given the tetrarch keys of Philip and others, just north of the Sea of Galilee. It wasn't a terribly important dominion over which he governed.
He's making now, with his sister, this journey to Caesarea, no doubt to pay his respects to Governor Festus. He's fascinated by the case of Paul. He would be. He's a Jew, you understand. The Herods were Jews. Herod the Great, the great-grandfather, had been raised to prominence by Marc Anthony. Marc Anthony had seen him as a figure of Jewish and national importance who would be a friend to the Romans. You understand the Herods were playing two cards. They had a foot in two territories. They were Jews, but they were loyal to the empire.
Here's a case that involves a Jew, Paul; that involves Jewish law, and that was intricate even to the most erudite; and an issue that involved trouble for Governor Festus–an opportunity, you understand, for King Agrippa to perhaps ingratiate himself either to Fetus or to the emperor in Rome. He's fascinated by this case, and wishes to hear it. And Festus is more than willing for Agrippa to give him some advice, because he's about to send Paul to Rome, and there is no case!
One of the first things that you observe is the detail with which Luke records this defense before King Agrippa, and I can only think that part of the reason why we have three defenses in as many chapters in The Acts of The Apostles is because the function and purpose of The Acts of The Apostles is to serve as a defense for Paul when he gets to Rome. Luke is ensuring that the record of Paul's life is given in all of its detail when he comes to trial in Rome.
But I also think that part of the reason why we have this detailed account here is because Luke is saying not only is the Apostle Paul on trial here, but in a very real sense the church is on trial here. The church of the very near future to Luke and Paul is on trial here, and it may well be that in recording this detail Luke is saying to his readers — to you and me as much as to his original readers — there are lessons to be learned here. When you face trials, and you face intimidation, and you face opposition; when you have to give a reason for the hope that lies within you with meekness and godly fear, learn from the way in which the Apostle Paul does it here.
And I want us to see three things this evening as we look at this exciting narrative of Paul's defense before Agrippa.
I. First of all, intimidation.
Because however you explain this, however you describe this setting, it's got to be tremendously intimidating.
Did you catch the way Luke describes the beginning ceremony? The ritual, the pageantry? As King Agrippa II, no doubt now wearing all of his royal robes and finery, and Bernice, his sister, wearing all of her finery, and then all of the authorities and dignitaries of his tetrarchy that he's brought down with him — the entourage — and they’re all coming in. And the Romans, well, they just loved ceremony. I mean, if you know anything about the Roman Empire and you know anything about Rome at all at this period, you know that they just loved ritual and pageantry and [and I say this as a Brit, now!]…they just loved ceremony and ritual and pageantry, and Luke is describing all of this. And then Paul is brought in. And Luke tells us at the end of chapter 26, in verse 29, that he's brought in in chains. You've got the pageantry; you've got this enormously intimidating scene.
Do you know we only have one description of the Apostle Paul from ancient writing, and it comes from a book that you find in the apocrypha, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, and it describes Paul in this way:
“A man of small stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting…” [You would just know, wouldn't you, that Paul's eyebrows would meet!] “…and a nose somewhat hooked; full of friendliness, for now he appeared like a man, and now he appeared as an angel.”
That's the only description of Paul that we have extant.
Well, try and imagine that. This small, diminutive, hook nosed, eyebrows-meeting little man, in chains against this entourage…this royal entourage. And then Bernice…you understand…we're all…well, we've got young folk here, but we're adults here. You understand there was a lot of gossip about this relationship between King Herod Agrippa II and Bernice. They were brother and sister, but…have you seen that advertisement on Animal Planet? [I like Animal Planet. You can take away all the other channels, just keep Animal Planet.] There is a wonderful advertisement on Animal Planet. It's been running for the last couple of weeks. It goes like this: “My mother hates my boyfriend. We've moved 37 times in the last 18 months. And my uncle is my father.” It's about Meer cats. Well, Bernice wasn't far from this. She was living in, according to the gossip, an incestuous relationship with her brother. She would become the mistress of Emperor Titus. Emperor Titus is the General Titus who comes and sacks Rome and destroys the temple. And if history is correct as it comes down to us, she was also the mistress of Emperor Titus’ father. She was later abandoned because she was a Jewess, and Rome didn't think it was good for the emperor to be consorting with a Jew. And so she ends her life in great poverty and bitterness.
Well, that's the scene. And you've got that scene, and you've got Paul, and…well, you've got to say to yourself, “What courage! That this man is prepared to speak and to declare the whole counsel of God, to unveil his whole life before these men and women, and stand up for Jesus no matter what the cost.” You see, you think it's hard to speak about Jesus at the water cooler because you’re going to be embarrassed. And Paul's life is in the balance here. His life is in the balance here, and he's prepared to declare the whole counsel of God. Intimidation….
II. Secondly, confession.
Because as chapter 26 unfolds, what we have once again, if I can put it in Bunyan-esque language, is grace abounding to the chief of sinners. Yes, that's what Paul is saying. Grace abounding to the chief of sinners.
He does three things.
He first of all appeals to the witness of others about his character. There were those who didn't share his faith — fellow Jews — who could well attest and corroborate and confirm what he's now going to say about his former life: that he was raised in the strictest sect of the Pharisees. He's told this story before. He told it in Acts 9 — at least, Luke records it in Acts 9; it's again recorded in Acts 22. It's recorded now a third time here. And he draws attention to his past, his Pharisaical past, his zeal to persecute. And (didn't it grip you as we read it?) he went about trying to force Christians to blaspheme. I mean, you can think of the worst incidents in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, where we read of terrible things that were done to Christians and forcing them to blaspheme their God, and that's what Saul of Tarsus was. ‘That was my life.’ And he went to foreign cities to do this.
And then, secondly, he draws attention to his experience of Christ, of Jesus Christ. He mentions Stephen again; that incident on the road to Damascus, the light, the voice of Jesus that spoke; the realization that in persecuting Stephen and in persecuting Christians, he was persecuting Jesus, because Christians are in union with Jesus. And what is it? What is it that changed the Apostle Paul? What's the definite thing that changed him? It was the realization that Jesus Christ was alive. It was the resurrection. It is the centrality–oh, I don't even have time at all to expound this to you tonight, but it's the centrality of the resurrection…the importance, the fundamental importance of the resurrection. That Jesus Christ was dead. This man, as Festus himself said, Paul is speaking about a man called Jesus, a dead man who Paul is saying is alive, that He arose from the dead.
Why should it be thought a thing impossible that God would raise the dead? Well, ask that to the logical positivist Anthony Flue, who says it's impossible. Jesus didn't rise from the dead because dead men don't rise from the dead, because miracles are impossible. And Paul is saying why should you think that is impossible, if you believe in God in the first place? And Paul is saying ‘I saw Him. I saw Him. I heard Him. He is alive, I tell you!’ And he appeals to the testimony of Scripture.
Isn't that interesting? I thought that was interesting — the order in which he does this. He begins with his own experience and ends with the testimony of Scripture. You know we Reformed types would reverse that. We’d start with Scripture and end with experience, but Paul is actually beginning with his experience and ending with Scripture, and I sort of wonder if we give enough place in church life about sharing our experience of Christianity, our experience of Christ, our experience of biblical truth. There have been times in the history of the church, especially in periods of great revival and awakening, especially in the eighteenth century, when that functioned in the life of the church to great benefit and to great effect. And Paul begins with his experience, but he ends by saying this is nothing but what Scripture had prophesied.
Do you remember what Luther said at the time of the Reformation? “We teach no new thing. We teach no new thing, but we repeat and establish old things.” That's what the Roman Catholic Church said about the Reformation, that it was new. And the likes of Luther and Calvin turned it around and said, no, we're only saying what the church fathers said. We’re only saying what the apostles said. We’re only saying what the prophets said. We’re only saying what the patriarchs said. Our history, our roots, go all the way back to Abraham and the prophets.
III. And then, if there's intimidation and if there's confession, there's interruption.
And Festus says, well, I suppose today he might say ‘You’re off your rocker. You’re out of your mind. You’re out of your mind, Paul. Much learning has made you mad.’ Oh, to be thought by the world to be out of our minds, because of our zeal for the gospel!
You know, I was thinking about the dear Korean missionaries. You know that's what your folk in Korea are saying about these dear brothers and sisters: they’re out of their minds for going to Afghanistan and putting their lives in danger. It's a senseless thing to do, isn't it? It's a rather silly and stupid thing to do. It's an irrational thing to do. Oh, to be thought out of our minds! You remember when Paul is writing to the Corinthians in II Corinthians 5, “If we are out of our minds…” [obviously there were people saying he was out of his mind] “…if we are out of our minds, we're out of our minds for God. I'm not ashamed of being thought to be out of my mind. I don't care what the world thinks of me. And I'm so in love with Christ, I'm so in love with the gospel, I'm so in love with the things of God, I don't care what the world thinks.’
Well, then Paul says a beautiful thing, and you've got to admire the apostle here, because he's playing Agrippa off against Festus, you understand. He's putting them in a difficult position, but he turns to Agrippa, and he knows that Agrippa has Jewish background, and he says to him, “Do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe the prophets.” It must have been a terribly embarrassing moment for King Agrippa, because potentially it could make him look a little silly if he suddenly says, ‘Yes, I believe. Tell me how I can become a Christian.’ And then he turns to Paul and says…well, he doesn't say quite what the King James Version says, which is a wonderful thing: “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” It's a wonderful text; I've preached many sermons on it. [I don't think that's what the text is saying, but they’re great sermons!] But actually, what he's saying is this. It's not quite as positive as that. It's actually pretty negative what Agrippa says: ‘Do you think you can persuade me in twenty minutes? Do you think by this little speech of yours you can….?’ He's offended, you understand. I mean, this man of pomp and ceremony and pageantry, he's been offended now. The gospel has come, and you can almost hear his conscience. This is the reaction of a dog that's in a corner that's beginning to growl, because Agrippa has been put in a corner, because he knows more than he's willing to confess–which is true of every natural man.
‘Do you think you can persuade me? You need far more learning. You need far more wisdom.’ Isn't that what the sophists of today are saying? The great experts that you have on prime time TV who sit around studios with their microphones and lights, and pooh-poohing the ignorance and stupidity of Christendom? Do you think you can convince me in twenty minutes? And, oh, don't you hear the heart of the Apostle Paul beating? “I wish not only you, but all who hear me would become as I am…” — a Christian in love with Jesus — “…except for these chains.”
Where does this boldness come from? It's a boldness that comes, you understand, from the Holy Spirit, from a deep relationship with Jesus Christ. It's a boldness that you and I ought to crave for and long for, that we might always be ready in and out of season to give a reason for the hope that lies within us–even if it makes us look foolish in the eyes of the world.
Father, we thank You for Your word. Hide it now in our hearts for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please stand. Receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.