In our last essay we studied 25:1-22 in which we saw an account of Paul’s trial before Festus in Caesarea. In this essay we are studying 25:23-26:32, in which we find Luke’s account of Paul’s hearing before King Agrippa.
The day after Agrippa and Bernice came to pay their courtesy call on Festus, he convened his court; including his “military tribunes and the prominent men of the city.” Josephus tells us that the “military tribunes” were five chliarchs, or commanders of a thousand. And Luke tells us that Agrippa and Bernice entered the hall “with great pomp.”
The word picture that Luke paints is that of a formal court gathering, with Agrippa and Bernice in royal purple, with crowns on their heads, with Festus in the Roman scarlet that was worn on important occasions, and the tribunes in their dress uniforms. And the “prominent men” would have been wearing their best finery. So it was quite a scene.
Then Paul was brought in. I remind you that, in spite of all the formality and pomp, this was not a formal trial. Paul already had his trial, and he had opted to appeal to Caesar. This was an informal hearing to acquaint Agrippa and Bernice with Paul’s case.
In verses 24-26 we see Festus giving a little summary of the case. Although Festus was required by law to send Paul to the imperial court, he admitted that he didn’t know what to say in his written report to Rome about the case, because he had been unable to establish any wrong that Paul had done. And he was hoping that this hearing before Agrippa would provide him with the information needed for the report.
At this point Agrippa took over the examination of Paul. As you can see in verses 1-3, Agrippa gave Paul permission to speak, and he began his defense. It is quite similar to his defense from the steps of the Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem after his arrest, though adapted to the new situation.
Paul begins by expressing his good fortune to be able to defend himself before Agrippa, because Agrippa knows Judaism so well. For example, Paul knows that Agrippa knows the difference between the beliefs of Pharisees and Sadducees regarding the doctrine of resurrection. And he asks that Agrippa listen to him patiently. Then Paul launches into his defense proper. He begins in verses 4-8 by establishing that he is a strict Pharisee.
He testifies that the Jews who are accusing him know about his “own people,” meaning his family and other Pharisaic Jews from Tarsus, and about people in Jerusalem, meaning primarily Gamaliel, who trained Paul as a Pharisee (22:3). In other words, it was well known in Jerusalem that Paul had been, and still was, a strict Pharisee. It also was well known that Pharisees believed in resurrection of the dead. Therefore, Paul’s main point is that he is an orthodox Pharisee who finds it incredible that he has been put on trial for believing a doctrine that all Pharisaic Jews believe.
Paul’s reference to the “twelve tribes” in verse seven is of special interest. Paul declares that the twelve tribes of Israel are hoping to attain the resurrection. But ten of the twelve tribes disappeared from history after the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom some eight centuries earlier (732 BC). After their conquest, the Assyrians moved many of the northern kingdom Israelites to various parts of their empire; and they moved many non-Israelites into the area of the northern kingdom. Then the Israelites intermarried with the others; and by the time of Jesus, the area just north of Judea was called Samaria. The people group that lived there had become known as Samaritans. But irrespective of that history, Paul seems to be claiming that the Israelites of all twelve tribes, whether dead or alive, were hoping for resurrection. I find that very interesting.
In verses 9-11 Paul moves from his personal theology to his former fanatical zeal for persecuting Christians. We know from Luke’s account of the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:54-8:1) that Paul, as a young man, participated by guarding the coats of those who did the stoning. From that time on, he dedicated himself to persecuting Christians. He gained official permission to drag them out of their homes and put them in prison (8:1b-3). When they were put on trial, Paul cast his vote against them. In addition Paul went from synagogue to synagogue to punish them there.
John Stott, referencing Ernst Haenchen, says the “punishment” referred to here would have been a synagogue whipping, which I assume meant the standard 40 lashes less one. By this means Paul tried to force the Christians to blaspheme. Presumably that means he tried to make them deny Jesus as the Christ, in which case they would no longer be a threat. Indeed F.F. Bruce points out that Pliny the Younger, a later Christian persecutor, in a report he made to Trajan, declared that is exactly what he did. If he could get Christians to blaspheme Christ, then he would discharge them, because real Christians could not be made to do it.
Then Paul told how he pursued Christians to reign cities to persecute them. We know he was going to Damascus for that purpose when he was converted, but the plural he uses here suggests that he went to other foreign cities as well.
Next, in verses 12-18, Paul tells the story of his conversion and commission to apostleship. Paul tells how he and his companions were on the road to Damascus with authority from the high priests to persecute Christians there, when at midday they encountered a light brighter than the sun; and they all fell down. Then a voice spoke to Paul in Aramaic, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.” A goad is a sharply pointed rod that men have used for centuries to control large animals. You probably have seen elephant trainers on television using goads to get elephants to do what the trainers want. Some animals kicked when goaded, and the idea of kicking against the goads became metaphorically proverbial. Jesus was saying that Paul’s resistance to God’s will was a spiritual kicking against spiritual goads. This is the only place in the three accounts in Acts of Saul’s conversion where these words of Jesus about the goads appear.
Paul, who is stunned by the light and voice, answers, “Who are you, Lord?” And the Lord answered, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” If Paul was stunned before this exchange, he was doubly stunned now. This exchange meant two shocking things for Paul. One, Jesus was alive, rather than dead. The Christian gospel that Jesus had risen from the dead was true. And two, Jesus and the Christians were so closely identified with one another that to persecute Christians was to persecute Jesus.
And then Jesus commissions Paul to be a Christian apostle. Notice that first, he commands Paul to stand up, which reminds us of the commissioning of Ezekiel. When Ezekiel saw “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God,” he “fell face down;” but God told him “stand up on your feet” (Eze. 1:26-2:7). And then God commissioned him. Paul’s experience also reminds us of the call of Jeremiah (Jer. 1:4-10). In other words, it is a classic call to be a spokesman for God. Thus Paul began his journey to Damascus as an apostle of the high priests, but by the time he arrived he was an apostle of Jesus Christ.
Now then, there are several things to be noted in Paul’s commissioning. First, Jesus told him, “I have appeared to you for this purpose,” and the purpose was to be a servant and a witness. Second, Jesus told him, “I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles.” The phrase, “your people,” here means the Jews. As we have studied Paul’s ministry, we have seen that on occasion he needed rescuing from both Jews and Gentiles. Indeed he was in constant danger. And third, Jesus told Paul “I am sending you” to the Gentiles. The ministry to the Gentiles would be fivefold. He would open their eyes, turn them from darkness to light, turn them from the power of Satan to God, offer them forgiveness of sins, and offer them a place among the sanctified by faith.
In verses 19-23 Paul directly addresses Agrippa. He tells Agrippa how he was obedient to the heavenly vision that he experienced on the Damascus road; and then he summarizes his entire post-conversion ministry up until his arrest in Jerusalem. He also declares that his ministry was the reason why the Jews seized him in the temple. In verses 22-23 Paul declares further that God has helped him and that his preaching was in harmony with Moses and the prophets in three ways. First, they prophesied that the Messiah would suffer. Second, they also prophesied that he would be the first to rise from the dead. And third he would proclaim light to both Jews and Gentiles. Thus the resurrection of Jesus fulfills Jewish orthodoxy.
In verses 24-36 we see the reactions of Festus and Agrippa. As you can see, this was enough for Festus. He reacted by suggesting that Paul was out of his mind. Of course Paul denied that to be the case, and turned the conversation towards Agrippa. Agrippa responded by saying, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian? So Agrippa did not deny that he believed the prophets, but he would not accept Paul’s claim that Jesus fulfilled them. Scholars are divided over whether Agrippa was being sarcastic or sincere. Most believe he was being sarcastic. At any rate, Paul replies to Agrippa with one of the most dramatic witnesses in scripture: “Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.”
Verses 30-32 give us the conclusion of the hearing. Agrippa, Bernice and Festus get up and leave the room. Interestingly, on the way out, they say to one another that Paul was not guilty of anything, and he would have been set free if had not appealed to Caesar.