Paul speaks in his defence
God had given Paul an assignment. He was to visit Jerusalem and then Rome. The journey would be dangerous and difficult but it was an important part of God’s plan.
Israel had rejected the Messiah and the Holy Spirit and was now under God’s disciplinary procedure, a procedure that involved a series of warnings in Jerusalem and finally a visit of a messenger to the nation who would carry out the judgment: Rome. This disciplinary process was followed in the previous judgment of Israel about 600 years prior to these events in Acts – we have been studying this previous judgment in Kings and we will see more of this process emerge as we begin our study of Jeremiah.
Just as God has a plan, so Satan opposes God’s plan. One wonders how well informed Satan is of God’s plans, but we can be certain that he is in opposition. It seems that Paul comes under this opposition at every turn. As Paul visited Jerusalem on this assignment he came close to death at the hands of the rioting Jews on more than one occasion, and now he has been held prisoner for 2 years during which time his name has been at the top of Jewish a death list. More difficulty lies before him, but he is on the victory side and in spite of all appearances, God is with him.
You will remember that Festus the new governor was keen to sort out Paul’s case, he had held a trial in which the Jews had brought many unproven accusations. Festus knew that Paul was an innocent man but he wanted him out of his hair and had suggested as a sop to the Jews that Paul could be tried in Jerusalem. This meant almost certain death for Paul. In response Paul had appealed to Caesar and this had set the course for the remainder of the book of Acts: in Fetus’ words ‘you have appealed to Caesar and to Caesar you shall go!’. The difficulty for Festus now was what charges to bring against this innocent man? A little local knowledge (especially of the Jewish religion) would go a long way. Enter Herod Agrippa II…..
- Paul’s intro
- Paul’s explanation
- Agrippa and Festus respond
- Paul’s intro
It seems that every good story has at some point a court room drama, and Acts is no exception. The dignitaries have entered with not a little pomp and Paul is put in position and granted permission to speak. Paul addresses Agrippa and indicates that he is grateful for the opportunity because Agrippa is well acquainted with the ins and outs of Jewish laws and customs. Paul is about to make a major speech and asks for patience as he begins his discourse. It is likely that the record we have in chapter 26 is a shortened version of a lengthy defence and explanation.
Paul first of all reminds his audience of his background. Since his childhood Paul had been a good Jew. He had not only been brought up in the traditions of the Jews and had spent time in Jerusalem but he had demonstrated himself to be devoted and diligent in his adherence to Pharisaical rules. So why was Paul in this predicament, here’s his reason: “it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today”. This begs the question, what was the hope of the Jews? I think there can be little doubt that the hope of the Jews was centred on the coming of the Messiah, but in what way would the Messiah bring hope? The answer is given in the promises given to Paul’s ancestors through the prophets and Moses (see v 22). So what did these prophets and Moses actually say? This is a huge topic and a major theme of the Old Testament, but perhaps we can sum the hope of Israel up in the words of Isaiah 9:
6For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.
The hope of Israel is founded on their expectation of the coming Messiah and the benefits that would be realised through his reign. As we study the Old Testament prophets we realise that the Messiah would bring prosperity and peace, safety from disasters and relief from disease. But not only that, there would be benefits for other nations too as they recognise and worship the God of Israel in Jerusalem. Israel would be the dominant nation in world affairs because God would make his home there. The scope and depth of the promises are astounding, but for them to be realised the people would need to get themselves right spiritually. As we read the gospel accounts this seems to be the whole point of Jesus’ teaching. He talked a lot about the kingdom, a kingdom that everyone was familiar with through their knowledge of the Old Testament prophets, but what the people needed was to prepare spiritually for it – it could not come until the spiritual state of the nation was right. So how did the nation respond and did they ready themselves spiritually? – The nation met the Messiah as Jesus presented himself to them over a period of 3 and a half years, and finally Jesus presented himself to them as Messiah as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. The people said ‘Hosanna to the son of David’ and ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.’ They were declaring Jesus to be the Messiah! But the religious leaders were incensed and called on Jesus to rebuke the people – do you remember Jesus’ reply? “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” Jesus had demonstrated his qualifications and abilities to fulfill and bring about the promises in the Old Testament prophecies (e.g. provision of food and wine, power over the dangers of nature, power of demons, power over disease) – but just one week after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem his body lay in a tomb. The nation had rejected the coming of the Messiah and had opposed all that he stood for. Paul admits that he had been part of this opposition, in fact he was a leading player. He opposed the name of Jesus, he put many believers in prison, and he supported their execution, he carried out a systematic plan of oppression and persecution. So what changed Paul? He met the risen Lord.
- Paul’s explanation
He was on the way to Damascus to persecute believers and on the way Jesus reveled himself to Paul in a most dramatic way – with a light brighter than the sun and a voice that said “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” On enquiring who was speaking the voice replied that it was Jesus who spoke. Paul now had the same experience as the disciples – they all met the risen Lord Jesus. One can imagine that at the time of Jesus’ death the disciples were disappointed with the outcome of their time with Jesus – two followers of Jesus summed it up thus “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” Their anticipation of Jesus as the Messiah evaporated when they saw Jesus dying on the cross – but that all changed when they met the risen Lord Jesus. This was all indeed about resurrection. Paul describes how Jesus gave him work to do. Here’s exactly what Jesus said to Paul; from verse 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 among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” This is Paul’s explanation as to why he is in prison and being cross-examined by Agrippa II. Note that his task was to speak about what he had seen – Paul was an eye witness. Our faith is based on what reliable witnesses saw. In passing it is of some interest that this commission is somewhat different from that of the disciples as described at the end of Matthew’s gospel. Paul had a specific task to be a witness of his encounter with Jesus – he was also commissioned to open people’s eyes and turn them from darkness to light. This is a helpful concept for us too. As we speak to people about Jesus and as we send the brochure to people’s homes in our town do we realise that we have the opportunity to open their eyes and turn them towards the light? There seems to be a misconception going around that to be dead in sins (as the human race indeed are) means that we are incapable of hearing and seeing the truth – far from it, we have the opportunity to confront people with the truth and they have the opportunity to “take the free gift of the water of life”. The death that sin brings is not a death of incapacity to respond but is rather a death of separation from God. Faith comes from hearing the message.
Now that Paul had described his encounter with Jesus he describes his response: he was not disobedient – he spoke of Jesus with people in Damascus, Jerusalem, Judea as well as with Gentiles. Here’s how Paul summed it all up: 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. Paul says everything that I have done is entirely consistent with the officially approved Jewish religion – I’m an innocent man.
- Agrippa and Festus respond
Paul was not only offering a cogent defence but he was confronting both Agrippa and Festus with the gospel too! Their two responses are of interest: firstly Festus tells Paul that he is insane. Paul replies that he is not insane and that everything he has said is true and reasonable. How often have we been accused of being insane as we believe in Jesus Christ! Our faith is not at all irrational, but is based on real events and reason.
Paul turns to Agrippa and said do you believe the prophets? I know you do! Agrippa was caught in the trap of Paul’s presentation of the truth. Rather than questioning Paul’s sanity, Agrippa postpones his response. “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” Agrippa knew the truth, he knew what he ought to do, but he failed to do it. Become a Christian? Maybe some other time. Never ever delay your response – there may never be another opportunity. Paul stated that whether it took a short or long time his desire was that everyone who heard him that day would become a Christian. We have the best news anyone could hope to hear in East Grinstead, let’s strive to open eyes and turn people from darkness to light.
It was time to end the hearing. As Agrippa, Bernice and Festus made to leave they had a brief conversation ‘This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment’. Paul was indeed an innocent man. We should be blameless too as we interact with the world and as we present Jesus.