Acts 25: 23 – 27 and 26: 1 – 11 Paul before Agrippa
The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high-ranking military officers and the prominent men of the city. At the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. Festus said: ‘King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome. But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write. For I think it is unreasonable to send a prisoner on to Rome without specifying the charges against him.’
26 Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You have permission to speak for yourself.’
So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defence: ‘King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defence against all the accusations of the Jews, and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently.
‘The Jewish people all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee. And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today. This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. King Agrippa, it is because of this hope that these Jews are accusing me. Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
‘I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.
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Luke starts by sketching the scene for Paul’s defence before Agrippa, a scene of pomp and majesty. Everybody of importance in Caesarea was there, doubtless in their best clothes. And against this, Luke gives us Paul, on his own and in chains. It’s a very appropriate and dramatic picture, and doubtless in general terms it’s correct, but how historically accurate is the account of what happened?
Just as yesterday there was a detail that made me feel the passage was authentic, so today there’s a detail that makes me think this passage is Luke’s story about the hearing rather than an eye-witness account. You see he writes:
“But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write. For I think it is unreasonable to send a prisoner on to Rome without specifying the charges against him.’ ”
Festus has just taken over as procurator. I cannot believe that he would say something as feeble as this in front of so many important people. He would surely have phrased his request very differently. For example, in Acts 25: 22 we read: “Then Agrippa said to Festus, ‘I would like to hear this man myself.’ ” To say that the hearing has been held at Agrippa’s request, acknowledging in passing his expertise, would surely be stronger – and strength was what Roman government was all about.
In front of this crowd of powerful and influential people, Agrippa gives Paul permission to speak.
Paul starts with flattery:
“ ‘King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defence against all the accusations of the Jews, and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies.’ ”
Or is it flattery? Perhaps he really feels grateful that he has a chance to make his case to this man, who is familiar with Jewish law but was who educated as a Roman. The two men, Paul and Agrippa, have common ground.
Next, Paul introduces himself, as a Pharisee who has kept the law all his life. He claims to be well-known for his strict observance of the law, as indeed he would have been; he had trained under Gamaliel, a notable rabbi of the period.
“I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors.” (Acts 22: 3)
He then talks about his hope in what God has promised.
“And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today.”
It is wrong to consider that “the Jewish leaders” means a group of people with identical beliefs. The Jews were split into sects with different beliefs. The Sadducees didn’t believe in any resurrection; the Pharisees did. Some Jews believed in judgment; others didn’t. Many Jews believed in a Messiah, but ideas about his nature, when he would come, and what he would do, were nebulous. Paul makes his points about being a Pharisee and having faith in what God has promised (the Messiah) to identify his beliefs. Hence “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?”. The idea that God should raise his Messiah from the dead was a respectable idea among Pharisees.
By establishing his theological position so clearly, Paul might have hoped to split his accusers as he had in Jerusalem two years earlier. However, I think that’s probably not the case. I think Paul has started to build his testimony to Jesus and the power of his resurrection.
What Paul says next is very honest. He says that he was initially just like the Jewish leaders who now accuse him. He had arrested Christians, punished them and when they were put to death, cast his vote against them. He was zealous in hunting them down, even to the extent of travelling to foreign cities. He had done all this on the authority of the chief priests – the very people who were now accusing him.
This shows clearly why the Jewish leaders hated Paul so vehemently. He had betrayed them. He had betrayed his faith, he had betrayed his birth-right as a Jew and, worst of all, he had betrayed his peer group. Of course they wanted to kill him; he was a traitor.
In a world where hatred so often inflicts misery on people, please help us all to love each other as your Son Jesus loved us.
In his name I pray, Amen