Paul now states his case for the first time before an authority – Agrippa II – who is Jewish instead of Roman, and a Jew who is unbiased and not one of his accusers. The setting is not technically judicial. Paul has appealed to Caesar so no further official hearings will occur until he reaches Rome. Festus, however – the provincial governor – wants Agrippa’s input on what he should charge Paul with when he sends him to Caesar (he freely acknowledges that Paul is innocent but that fact apparently has nothing to do with his incarceration). He explained the situation to Agrippa and the king asked to hear Paul for himself. He has thus called for Paul and introduced him, and the assembled guests now wait for him to speak.
Along with Festus and Agrippa in the auditorium where Paul is brought are all the military commanders and prominent men of Caesarea. It is an intimidating audience for Paul but one he seems to welcome. He will lay out his defense to the Jewish Agrippa in a way he did not when speaking before Festus and Felix, and will weave the gospel throughout the story of his conversion and subsequent ministry. His defense will be dismissed out of hand by Festus but fully absorbed by Agrippa. The king will be impacted to the point that he “almost” converts.
Agrippa asked Festus for this time with Paul (25:22), so he is likely eager for Paul to speak. Festus introduced Paul by saying, “I have brought Paul before you all and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that after the investigation has taken place, I may have something to write. For it seems absurd to me in sending a prisoner, not to indicate also the charges against him” (25:26-27). Agrippa now takes the lead in the proceedings and says to Paul, “You are permitted to speak for yourself.” Paul motions with his hand in a rhetorical style (a common gesture before formally addressing an audience) and begins to speak.
After making his defense before two Gentiles – Felix and Festus – Paul seems relieved to discuss his case before Agrippa. Up to now the only Jews to hear his defense have been the ones accusing him or the ones trying to beat him to death in the temple. Now he gets to explain his situation to someone who is both knowledgeable of Judaism and is unbiased. He begins his defense by flattering Agrippa but he likely means what he says. Agrippa really IS an expert in all customs and questions among the Jews (remember that Rome has granted him authority over the high priest and the temple in Jerusalem), so Paul can speak more fully and freely in making his defense than he did before Felix and Festus.
He launches into his defense by giving some biographical information. He came to Jerusalem as a youth (he does not mention that he was born in Tarsus) and was raised a Pharisee and lived that way according to the strictest sect of our religion. He says that all Jews (likely meaning the authorities who accuse him of forsaking the Law and defiling the temple) know this about him.
He now is standing trial for the hope of the promise made by God to Israel. For this hope he is being accused by the Jews. The hope (promise) is resurrection. This goes along with what Paul cried out before the Sanhedrin (23:6), what he told Felix (24:15), and also what he says in verse 8. He says this promise from God is what the twelve tribes hope to attain as they earnestly serve God night and day. This seems to be a reference to the restoration of Israel in the Promised Land after the resurrection (see Ezek 37:1-14). God promised Israel He would raise the dead, and the nation has looked to that promise ever since. There are messianic implications to this hope. As Israel looks to the promise of resurrection it looks also to the promise of the Messiah. The Messiah will usher in the new age of Israel’s restoration.
By saying he stands trial for the hope of the promise, he points to his belief and preaching that the promise is fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is the promised Messiah and Israel’s restoration under God’s rule is realized through Him. It is through Jesus and His resurrection that the promise of resurrection is available to all who believe.
In verse 8 Paul asks a rhetorical question. If the Jews believe in an almighty God and believe in the resurrection generally, why do they not believe that God raised Jesus from the dead? He does not say Jesus specifically, but that is implied by his words in verse 9 about persecuting Christians. This seems to be an aside, but it goes along with his statement about standing trial for preaching resurrection. Why is his preaching about Jesus characterized as outlandish when the Jews who condemn it are the same ones who believe in resurrection?
Paul recounts what he has recounted before for others. When he first heard about a new group of people following Jesus of Nazareth (Agrippa has likely heard of Jesus so Paul identifies Him fully so Agrippa knows exactly who he talks about), he persecuted them to the fullest. He locked up many of the saints and condemned some of them to death. He punished them in the synagogues – perhaps by flogging – and tried to force them to blaspheme (could mean that he tried to get them to speak against the Law or tried to get them to make statements about Jesus that he could claim were blasphemous) during the punishment. He also pursued them to foreign cities outside of Jerusalem in his furious rage against them.
By explaining this part of his story to Agrippa he establishes that he did not come to Christianity lightly. He used to be just like his accusers, so zealous in the defense of the Law that he killed others for blaspheming it. For him to now be on trial for preaching against the Law and defiling the temple something amazing must have taken place in his life. This sets up Agrippa perfectly to hear Paul’s conversion story.
Since his accusers know his background and his past zealousness for the Law, they also should realize that he did not come to Christianity on a whim. For him to be a believer means that something remarkable must have happened to change him. This is the same point he made when he argued with God over having to leave Jerusalem for his safety right after his conversion (22:17-21). He did not think he could be in danger because surely the Jews realized he was telling the truth since his change had been so dramatic. Unfortunately he was wrong, and what was true then is the same thing he faces today. His miraculous conversion does not convince dark hearts of the truth of his message.
Paul now tells about his conversion on the road to Damascus (the last time he gave his defense to a primarily Jewish audience he also told his conversion story (22:6-16) – this goes along with his desire for the Jews to understand the miraculous nature of his conversion and how it caused him to so dramatically change sides – this is not as important to a Gentile audience). This is the third account of the story (9:1-19) in Acts and the second that comes from Paul personally. In each account different facts are highlighted by the teller which allows a fuller story to come into focus when all three versions are compared. What stands out about this account is the additional detail regarding Jesus’ words to Paul on the road.
Paul received a commission from the Chief Priests to travel to Damascus and bring Christians back to Jerusalem for punishment. While on the road around midday he saw a light from heaven – brighter than the sun – shining all around him and those who were with him. Everyone in the group fell to the ground and he heard a voice saying to him in Aramaic (the Hebrew dialect), “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
This last expression – it is hard for you to kick against the goads – is not included in the other accounts but is a common proverbial expression of the day. A ‘goad’ is a prod – a sharp stick – used to drive livestock. To kick against the goads is to resist the inevitable. Kicking against the goad does not change what the goad is forcing the animal to do and may actually cause the driver to use the goad more severely. By saying this Jesus meant that Paul could not win in his fight against Christianity because ultimately he fought against God and what was inevitable.
Jesus’ use of this expression is actually very comforting. It is sometimes easy to forget that God’s side wins. The victory is not in question and there is no power in the universe that can change the outcome. He is omnipotent and His will is inevitable. God does not waver because the outcome is sure. Saul was an intense persecutor and a zealous opponent of the gospel. But all of his actions were for naught because he was resisting what ultimately was irresistible. It is hard for you to kick against the goads is really in the same vein as greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world (I Jn 4:4).
Paul responded to the voice by asking who it was who spoke to him. The voice answered that He was Jesus whom Paul was persecuting (thus establishing that Jesus completely associates Himself with His followers’ pain and suffering). That Jesus spoke to him obviously meant that Jesus was alive and was in fact who His followers said He was.
Jesus told Paul to stand up and then commissioned him. At this point in the story Paul seems to decide to ascribe the words Ananias told him after he reached Damascus to Jesus Himself on the road. In his account of this event before the Jewish mob he explained that Jesus only told him to go to Damascus and there he would find out all God had for him to do (22:10). Luke said roughly the same thing in his narrative in Chapter 9. Here Paul says Jesus commissioned him fully (including sending him to the Gentiles, a charge Paul actually received in the vision in the temple after he left Damascus – 22:21) while still standing on the road. The ultimate effect is the same as in all cases it is Jesus who commissions him. But apparently Paul wants to make the story more concise and so leaves out any description or activity of Ananias and combines all the words of Jesus into one conversation.
Jesus told him three things. He said He appeared to Paul to appoint him a minister and a witness to things both that he had seen (a risen Jesus) and also things that he would see through Jesus (further revelation). He said He would deliver Paul from the Jews and the Gentiles, meaning that Paul would be in danger from the people God sent him to but God would save him from them (which happened repeatedly throughout the missionary journeys). He lastly told Paul that He was sending Paul to the Gentiles, thus making him His apostle.
The mission Jesus sent Paul on was to open the eyes of the Gentiles so they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me. The Gentiles who believed the message would receive an inheritance among the people of faith. The inheritance would no longer be available only to the Jews.
Notice that in his explanation of the commission from Jesus Paul gives a gospel message. He wants to explain his actions and his ministry but he also aims to evangelize Agrippa. He will actually weave three different gospel explanations into his defense and prove once again that the gospel is never far from his mind and he never misses an opportunity to share it. As he has now shown multiple times, the fact that his life may depend on his explanation does not preclude taking the opportunity to give the gospel.
He is building his case that he preaches what he preaches because of his dramatic encounter with Jesus, and his message is simply the fulfillment of all the Jews have believed since the time of Moses. By explaining this, however, he has to give the gospel because everything he is and does is because of the gospel. Jesus personally gave him the gospel to convert him and then charged him to give his life to proclaiming it. Paul is not who he is if not for the gospel and he cannot explain his actions without the gospel. And he would not be standing before this assembly accused by the Jews if he had not preached the gospel. So he gives the gospel to Agrippa almost by default.
So from this standpoint, are we not all just like Paul? Or should we not be just like Paul? We do not have a “road to Damascus” conversion story but we were miraculously saved. We were not blinded by a great light and did not hear an audible voice telling us to take the gospel to the Gentiles, but we have the written account of Jesus telling all His followers to take the gospel to the ends of the earth and that He would go with them when they did. We may not be full time evangelists traveling around the world, but just as Paul had a vocation as a tentmaker we have a job that can be used as a means for presenting the gospel. We do not perform miracles and healings and we have not seen Jesus or been taken up into heaven, but we walk with the same Spirit and have the fully revealed written will of God at our disposal. We are not in the Bible and it is likely that no one will ever read our story in inspired accounts, but there is no reason we cannot bleed the gospel when cut and see our lives as so inextricably linked to it that it comes out of us at every opportunity – just like Paul.