Paul continues his defense before Agrippa and Festus. He has explained his background as a Pharisee and persecutor of the church and how he was miraculously converted on the road to Damascus. Now he explains that his ministry has been in obedience to the call he received directly from God. In telling his story he has presented the gospel clearly and will touch on it again as he concludes. From the standpoint of making a defense Paul’s speech is effective, though the reactions of his two listeners are varied. The Roman Festus is not impressed and thinks he is mad. The Jewish Agrippa – who understands much of what Paul has explained – sounds as if Paul has made him think. Both men, however, come away convinced that he is innocent and deserves neither death nor imprisonment.
Paul tells Agrippa that he was obedient to the heavenly vision he saw on the road to Damascus. He took Jesus’ message to Damascus, Jerusalem, all the regions of Judea, and even to the Gentiles throughout the world. In every place he told them (note the second gospel presentation) to repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance. Do not miss the last phrase. Paul mentions matter-of-factly that those who turn to God perform deeds consistent with that turning. This is not another requirement of the gospel. He simply means that salvation changes the actions of those who are saved. Someone whose actions do not change cannot, therefore, claim to be saved. As James says, “Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).
It was his obedience to God’s charge to take the message of repentance to the Gentiles that made the Jews grab him in the temple and try to beat him to death (illegal mob justice that Paul wants Agrippa to note). They hated that he went to the Gentiles and hated that he did not require the Gentiles to obey the Law. The message they hated, however, is the message God commanded him to preach. That means the Jews effectively put him on trial for obeying his heavenly commission. They wanted to execute him for obeying what he had no choice but to obey.
The Jews were not successful because God delivered Paul from them, just as He promised He would (the fact that God told him He would deliver him from the dangers inherent in his mission would account for Paul’s fearlessness displayed throughout his ministry, and God’s continued and repeated protection of him is proof that Paul has been obedient to the charge he received). With God’s help he has and will continue to testify to both small and great (right now it is just the great) about what Moses and the prophets said was going to take place. The gospel is not some new teaching out of the blue. It is simply the fulfillment of what the forefathers of Judaism prophesied would happen. Jesus is the promised Messiah and the promises of the Messiah have been fulfilled in Him.
Paul ends by referring to the gospel for a THIRD time to illustrate what it is that Moses and the prophets foretold. They said the Christ (Messiah) was to suffer, and that by reason of His resurrection from the dead He should be the first to proclaim light both to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles (the NASB translates this verse somewhat awkwardly by having first modify proclaim light instead of resurrection – the meaning of the verse is that Christ was the first to be resurrected, a fact Paul discusses in his other writings – I Cor 15:20-23, Col 1:18 – see also Rev 1:5). By saying this, he brings the discussion back to his original point in verse 6. Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise made to the Jews regarding resurrection and the Messiah. And Paul is on trial for his proclamation of this truth. He has not forsaken his Jewish roots and has not forsaken the Law. He has simply proclaimed that the Law and the Prophets have been fulfilled in Jesus.
[Jesus was the first and so far only man to be resurrected. Others have been raised from the dead both in the Old and New Testaments, but they were raised in their earthly bodies and died again. Christ was raised to a glorified body and lives for all eternity. The souls of everyone else who has died seem to be in some kind of conscious intermediate state (Phil 1:21-24, Lk 16:19-31) awaiting the resurrection when their bodies – in a glorified state – will rise at Christ’s second coming (I Cor 15:12-58, I Thess 4:13-18). Those who are alive when Christ returns will be caught up – also in glorified bodies – together with the risen dead and all will meet the Lord in the air and live with Him forever.]
Since the Messiah came to bring light to both the Jews and the Gentiles (which Simeon foretold when he held baby Jesus in the temple – Lk 2:32), it means Paul’s ministry has been entirely consistent with not only the charge he received from God but also the messianic promise. So the Jews who accuse Paul for his work among the Gentiles do not just oppose him but actually oppose the mission of the Messiah and the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.
So to sum up Paul’s defense:
- Paul was raised a Pharisee according to the strictest sect of Judaism.
- Paul zealously persecuted Christianity because he saw it as a blasphemous challenge to the Law.
- Paul’s credentials and his history of attacking Christianity mean that he must have gone through some kind of incredible experience to become a leader in the very movement he hated.
- Paul did in fact experience a miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus when he was commissioned directly by a risen Jesus (whose appearance proved to Paul that everything he was persecuting was right and everything he was doing was wrong).
- Jesus charged Paul to preach the gospel to all men, but especially the Gentiles, and told him He would deliver him from the dangers his ministry would bring him.
- Paul’s ministry has been in obedience to the commission he received from Jesus and he stands before Agrippa now because God did in fact deliver him from the Jews who tried to kill him.
- Paul’s message is not some entirely new teaching but rather that Jesus is the Messiah and is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.
- Jews who oppose Paul’s ministry thus do not oppose him but Jesus who commissioned him.
Festus interrupts Paul with a loud voice and tells him he is out of his mind. He says Paul’s great learning has made him crazy. This is likely the first Festus has heard of Paul’s conversion, and the first time he has heard such a complete explanation of Jesus’ death and resurrection (remember that he referred to the dispute between Paul and the Jews in 25:19 as, “…they simply had some points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a certain dead man, Jesus, whom Paul asserted to be alive”). That God personally appeared to Paul and made him His apostle and that Jews and Gentiles can find salvation in a man who came back to life after being crucified is too much for Festus to accept. What Paul is saying is nuts and while Paul has impeccable credentials those credentials have apparently made him lose touch with reality. Festus may assume the other listeners in the room share his frustration and disbelief, which is why he has no qualms with interrupting Paul and bringing this nonsense to an end.
Festus is the perfect illustration of an unrenewed mind. To him the message of the gospel and the supernatural events associated with it are ridiculous and those who believe it are crazy. And that is how the gospel sounds to those the Spirit has not transformed. We should not let our familiarity and long-time acceptance of the gospel make us forget that it is a fantastic story that is easy to be skeptical of apart from faith. Consider: ‘God came to earth and became a man who was brutally killed and three days later came back to life. He then ascended to heaven but is coming back one day and everyone who believes in Him will join Him in the air and live forever in paradise.’ Do you see how hearing that without any outside help can sound like just another religious myth? Or think of it another way – think how easily we dismiss the teachings of other religions (Muslim men will have beautiful virgins at their disposal in heaven, Mormons existed in the spirit world before being born on earth and will someday rule as gods of their own planets, etc.) as just myths and nonsense. This is how the unredeemed mind hears the message of Christianity. Understanding this should make us even more thankful for the work of the Spirit in our lives. God not only DID come to earth and die for us, He enabled us to believe on Him through the work of His Spirit. He both provided redemption and the faith to BELIEVE that redemption. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! (II Cor 9:15)
It is important at this point to remember who Paul has been addressing. He made it clear at the start that he speaks for the sake of Agrippa (vss. 2-3) – no one else. He has testified presupposing that Agrippa as a Jew with knowledge of the Scriptures and the story of Jesus will understand the facts of his case. That is why He has spoken differently than he did in the prior hearings before Felix and Festus. Thus Festus’ harsh response, though it ends Paul’s testimony, does not mean it has been ineffective. Paul’s target is not the one calling him crazy and Festus’ skepticism does not have that much of an effect on his future. Festus has already agreed to send him to Rome. Agrippa is the one he wants to reach and who will largely determine the charges he will face (remember that Paul was present when Festus said the purpose of having Paul speak was for Agrippa to help Festus formulate charges against him – 25:27).
Paul responds to Festus respectfully (most excellent Festus) and says that he is not out of his mind but speaks words of sober truth. It may seem unbelievable that a man was crucified and rose again and then charged another man to take His message to the world, but it does not mean it did not happen. And the importance and certainty of the story makes it the sober truth. Salvation depends on the truth of these events and those who do not believe do so at their own risk.
He then directs his words to Agrippa and says that the king knows about these matters (apparently meaning the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection and Paul’s subsequent ministry) and has not missed all that has happened. He says he knows the king has noticed because these things have not been done in a corner. In light of this he asks Agrippa a question – “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you do.” He changes from the examined to the examiner – from the one making his defense to putting Agrippa on the defensive. Agrippa obviously does believe the prophets as Paul says (he is a Jew overseeing the temple), but if he affirms Paul’s question and statement then he will have to deal with the implications of Paul’s teaching that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the prophets taught. For Agrippa to go along with this would be to confront the question of the gospel – something he is not ready to do.
Agrippa does not directly take the bait. He seems to understand what Paul is really asking him. Instead of engaging him on the question of his beliefs, he says, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian.” The exact translation and meaning of his statement is hard to discern. He could mean that he is in fact “almost persuaded” (KJV – “Almost, thou persuadest me to be a Christian”) to convert. It could also mean that he is verbally sparring with Paul and saying that it is too short a time to convince him to be a Christian (NIV – “Do you think in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” – ESV has a similar reading). He could also be making a sarcastic comment such as, “Are you kidding – you think you can convert me that easily?” What seems most plausible is that he tells Paul he is asking too much too soon. He is not going to accept the gospel after a short speech in an auditorium full of dignitaries. Regardless of which meaning is correct, his intention is obviously to put Paul off and not let Paul force him in a corner (nobody puts Agrippa in a corner) and make him choose between the old and new covenants. From that standpoint his answer is effective and shrewd.
Paul responds sincerely to Agrippa’s statement. He seizes on the king’s words and his reference to time. He says that whether it is in a short or long time he prays to God that Agrippa and all who hear him now would become as he is – believers in Christ. He also holds up the chains that bind him (no way to know how shackled he is since the earlier text – 24:23 – made it sound as if the conditions of his imprisonment are not overly harsh) and says that his desire for them to become as he is does not include being imprisoned.
After Paul replies, the hearing ends. The king and Bernice leave along with Festus and those who are sitting with them. When the group gets out of earshot of Paul and the rest of the crowd, they share their thoughts with one another. They agree that Paul is innocent of all charges and is doing nothing worthy of death or imprisonment. He may have religious differences with the Jews but there is nothing criminal in his actions. Paul’s defense has convinced them.
Nevertheless, he will not go free. Agrippa – perhaps remembering Festus’ words from the day before that Paul had asked to be kept in custody until he could see Caesar (25:21) – assumes Paul cannot be released and says, “This man might have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.” It is likely that Festus does in fact have the authority to release him, but he has already established that that is not going to happen and that Paul is going to Rome. Thus Agrippa is right effectively if not judicially. Festus is not going to go back on his decision to grant Paul’s appeal regardless of his innocence. So it is up to Agrippa to state the harsh truth – Paul is completely innocent but has been imprisoned for over two years and will continue to be imprisoned for the foreseeable future until he can secure a hearing before Caesar which he does not deserve.
Agrippa’s conclusion makes him the fourth man in authority to conclude that Paul is innocent. Lysias, the Roman commander in Jerusalem; Felix, the original governor in Caesarea; Festus, the next governor in Caesarea; and now Agrippa, have all decided after hearing the facts of Paul’s case that he is innocent. And yet not one of them has freed him because they were all afraid of the political ramifications of doing so. Paul has been and remains imprisoned for no reason other than that everyone who could free him is scared to. From another perspective, what the unanimous agreement on his innocence and the unanimous decision to nonetheless keep him imprisoned show is that he is where he is because GOD wants him there.
At the end of the hearing Festus finds himself back where he was before he had Paul speak. Agrippa’s statement of Paul’s innocence reinforces what he already knew and what led to the whole point of having Paul come before the king. Paul is innocent and does not deserve imprisonment, much less death. So the problem of what statement to send along with Paul to Rome to explain his situation remains.
The hearings in Caesarea are over. The time of leaving for Rome is at hand.