READ : Acts 26:1-8, 22-29
What is Christianity really all about? It’s about a dead man, who is now alive!
Imagine that you are a curious fly on the wall of the Roman governor’s palace in Caesarea, the capital of Palestine. A new governor, Porcius Festus, has just arrived in the city to take up his duties. He cannot have been too happy about the prospect. Palestine was a long way from the limelight and big city delights of Rome. To make matters worse, it was a province with a long history of trouble and a well-deserved reputation as difficult to govern. It had served as the political graveyard of more than one civil servant’s career, as Pontius Pilate could attest. The big problem in Palestine was the Jews, an obstinate and often quarrelsome people who refused to be assimilated with their gentile neighbors and who constantly argued about religion. To a cultured Roman official – educated, urbane, and cynical – the Jews with their interminable wrangles over religious questions were simply incomprehensible.
When Festus got to town and settled in, he naturally strolled over to the governor’s palace to see about getting his new administration off the ground. He quickly made a discovery that politicians have been making the world over for millennia. It seems his predecessor in office had left a few loose ends dangling. There was an unresolved problem from the previous term, an especially sticky one named “Paul of Tarsus.” It seems this fellow Paul had triggered a riot in Jerusalem, and had been languishing in protective custody in Caesarea for the past two years while Felix, the former governor, tried to decide what to do with him. Repeated examinations had failed to turn up any offense of which Paul was guilty under Roman law. Yet simply turning him loose would have reignited the passions of the Jewish mob. So, in the end, Felix did what many politicians do – nothing. He sailed off, back to Rome, with Paul still in prison.
Now it was Festus’ turn. For some reason Governor Festus couldn’t quite figure out that the Jews in Jerusalem were still determined to kill Paul even after all this time. Festus tried to explain the situation to King Agrippa, a local prince making a courtesy call on the new governor. They had some points of dispute, Festus told him, about their own religion. “It’s about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive” (25:19).
From what we know about him, Festus does not seem to have been terribly bright, but he certainly got the main point right. This is indeed what the whole of the Christian faith is about. It’s not about religion or philosophy or politics or psychology. It is about a dead man named Jesus who is now alive forevermore, the Son of God.
THE PROMISED HOPE
King Agrippa expressed an interest in meeting this controversial prisoner so an interview was arranged. Paul’s appearance before King Agrippa and Governor Festus is one of the most dramatic episodes in the New Testament. This is actually the fifth interview or examination where Paul has spoken in his own defense since he had been attacked by the mob at the temple in Jerusalem more than two years before. Luke records all of these speeches in the later chapters of Acts.
Before Agrippa, Paul began his defense by zeroing in on the main issue: his relationship with his own people, the Jews, and his ancestral Jewish faith.
. . . Paul motioned with his hand and began his defense: “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense 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 Jews all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child . . . They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee. And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today. . . . O king, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me. Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
From the very first the basic charge made against Paul was that he had betrayed his own people, the Jews, and turned against their religion. He did this by becoming a Christian – by believing that Jesus Christ was the Messiah – and by preaching and teaching that Jesus had risen from the dead and was reigning as the world’s Savior and Lord. Paul refutes this charge by appealing to the evidence of his own life. Even his enemies – if they tell the truth – could attest that he had always lived in strict obedience to the Old Testament Law. As Paul sees it, the issue for which he has been attacked is nothing else than his “hope in what God has promised our fathers.” Paul is certain that all the promises God made to his Old Testament people of Israel have been realized in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Every faithful Jew looked for the coming of the Messiah, Israel’s hope and consolation. They expected the Messiah to free the Lord’s people, deliver them from their enemies, and establish God’s rule on earth. The only thing that distinguished Jewish Christians like Paul from their fellow Jews was their conviction that Jesus of Nazareth is this very Messiah. Christians believed then, as now, that all our highest hopes are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. And we believe that the proof of Jesus’ identity, of his power to fulfill the promises of God, is to be found in his resurrection from the dead.
TESTIMONY TO THE TRUTH
In his speech before King Agrippa and Governor Festus, Paul told the story of his life. He talked about his pre-conversion career as a rising star in the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem. The young Paul, or Saul of Tarsus as he was then known, had made a name for himself as a relentless enemy of the followers of Jesus during the first years of the Christian movement (vv. 9-11). Paul took the lead in persecuting these new believers, whose only crime was to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the Son of God. But Paul’s life and career as a persecutor of Christians changed radically in a blinding instant under the noon-day sun on a road outside the city of Damascus.
Speaking now, years later, to Agrippa, Paul gave an account of his conversion, the story of how the risen Christ appeared to him while he was on the way to Damascus to hunt for the Christians there (vv. 12-18). In retelling his story Paul emphasizes how the Lord Jesus called him to missionary service among the gentiles. The glorious figure who appeared to Paul on the Damascus road didn’t just convert and save him. He also changed Paul’s career, giving him an entirely new purpose and mission in life. After identifying himself as the Jesus whom Paul had been persecuting, the Lord commissioned Paul to tell the gentiles – all the peoples of the world – about his salvation.
I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. . . . I am sending you to [the gentiles] to open their eyes and turn them from the darkness to the 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.
Jesus’ words to Paul 2,000 years ago on the road to Damascus have great implications for us today. First of all, they remind us of the condition of people who do not know Christ. Such people are living in darkness, says Jesus, and in bondage to Satan. They suffer from spiritual ignorance, following false religions that do not lead them to God. They cannot see God clearly or know him as he truly is. More than that, they daily face the deception and oppression of evil spiritual powers. People without Christ know neither how to find forgiveness for their sins nor deliverance from evil.
Second, Christ’s commission to the apostle Paul shows us what the true work of Christian witness is. When Christians share the gospel, we are telling people how they can come to know the love of God through Christ, the Savior. Now, we don’t really have the power in ourselves to open people’s eyes and make them turn to Christ. Only God can help someone see the truth and change their life. But we can direct people toward the light, toward Jesus himself. We can help them see how much they need him, how important believing in him is.
Finally, Jesus’ call to Paul points to the wonderful privileges granted to those who turn from darkness to the light, from evil to God, from pursuing their own way to following Christ. All who believe in Christ will, in Jesus’ own words, “receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified – set apart for God – by faith in me.”
Paul continues his defense with a brief description of his subsequent missionary career (vv. 19-20). He obeyed the words that the risen Christ spoke to him. He followed Christ’s call and spent the rest of his life telling people out of every nation, race and background about the Savior of the world. Paul’s essential testimony is that he is not a religious innovator but a faithful preserver of Old Testament teaching. Christianity was no new faith; it was the fulfillment of all that was spoken by Moses and the prophets (v. 22). The Jewish scriptures specifically prophesied Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. They also proclaimed the promise of Christ’s light and hope to Jew and Gentile alike, the good news of salvation offered to all peoples. What Paul is saying here before the Roman governor and the Jewish king goes far beyond mere self defense. His primary concern is not to gain acquittal for himself, but to gain a hearing for the gospel. In speaking of the cross and the resurrection, the apostle is preaching to the judge and jury at his own trial! And he called them to make a decision about Jesus Christ.
A DIRECT APPEAL
The closing scene in Paul’s examination before Agrippa and Festus is one of high drama. As Paul fearlessly preaches the resurrection, Festus, the governor, interrupts with an outburst, “Paul, you’ve gone mad! Your study has driven you insane!” To this pragmatic Roman, taking God seriously enough to believe he would come in the flesh, die for humankind, and then rise again from the dead was evidence of an unbalanced mind. But Paul was neither crazy nor a wild fanatic. “No, what I am saying,” he replied, “is true and reasonable” (v. 25). Then the apostle turned to the king, dressed in his royal robes, surrounded by courtiers and servants, sitting easily in the place of honor and authority. “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets?” (v. 27). The question was really whether he would accept the Old Testament testimony to the gospel and put his faith in Christ. Agrippa was not used to being addressed like that! Nobody dared to question or challenge a king. The great ones of our world are generally held in such awe that no one speaks to them as if they were simple men and women with the same fundamental need of repentance from sin and faith in Christ like anybody else.
That moment, by God’s grace and Paul’s holy boldness, was King Agrippa’s opportunity to be saved. But he put it off. With a quip – “In such a short time do you think you can talk me into being a Christian? (v. 28), Agrippa laughed off the gospel’s demand upon him. And just that quickly his moment of opportunity passed by. Paul concluded with one last appeal (v. 29), but the King and his court rose to go.
But never mind about King Agrippa. His time is long past, and no one knows what became of him. Now it is your time, your opportunity. You have just heard the gospel. Do you believe the scriptures? What you must ask yourself is whether you believe in Christ, right now. Have you turned to the light and embraced the hope that comes through the Savior who suffered, died and rose for the forgiveness of your sins?