To the End of the Earth: To the End of the Earth (56): King Agrippa- Almost Persuaded

Sermon by Derek Thomas on September 5, 2007

Acts 25:13-26:32

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Wednesday Evening

September 9,
2007


Acts 25:13-26:32


“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.’]

Verse 2:

“‘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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