Paul's Credentials as a Jew
The hearing of Paul's case before Festus and Agrippa had now begun. Standing around were all the notable citizens of Caesarea, including the chief officers of the Roman army. Festus opened the hearing by requesting Agrippa's counsel on what formal charges Paul should face when he appeared before the emperor's court in Rome. Agrippa responded by inviting Paul to speak in his own defense.
Paul then stretched forth his hand, no doubt in a salute expressing respect for the mighty rulers before him, and began his speech in a manner exactly appropriate to the occasion. Without sinking into flattery, he expressed gratitude that Agrippa had consented to hear his case, for he knew that Agrippa was an expert on all questions important to the Jews. He implied that from such a man he could expect sympathy and fairness. Many commentators have noted that in this speech before Agrippa, Paul departed from his usual style and adopted a language that was highly formal and literary.
Paul started off by countering the accusation that Christianity was an illegal sect. As we have noted before, the Romans granted the Jewish religion official recognition. The Jews therefore had a right to pursue their religious customs without fear of Roman interference or censure. In answer to the Jewish leaders who painted Paul's religion as something outside the law, Paul declared that from the beginning of his life, he had always been loyal to his religious heritage. His enemies, if they were willing to tell the truth, could be called as witnesses to verify this claim. They could confirm that in his "manner of life," he was "from his youth," and presumably until now, a Pharisee. Therefore, he was, so far as Roman law was concerned, still within the fold of Jewish religion.
Paul then focused on the chief point of contention between himself and his adversaries—whether Jesus rose from the dead. Paul did not actually refer to Jesus' resurrection. Rather, he alluded to it when he said that he was standing on trial because he held to "the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers." The hope he meant was the hope of living again after death, the same hope that had always motivated the people of Israel to serve God diligently, so that they might share in the resurrection of the just. When the church supported this hope by proclaiming that one man had already risen from the dead, it was positioning itself in the mainstream of Jewish religion. Paul went no further in affirming the resurrection of Christ except to ask Agrippa the simple question, why would you find it incredible?
Paul's Role in Persecuting the Church
Paul continued by rehearsing the events leading up to his own conversion. He spoke of his initial antagonism to the way of Jesus, carrying him to the extreme of vigorously persecuting the church. With authority granted by the high priests, he shut up many saints in jail. When they were tried as offenders worthy of death, he cast his vote against them. In Acts we read that he consented to the death of Stephen, but his use of the plural pronoun when he said, "when they were put to death," suggests that Paul had a hand in the martyrdom of others as well. He was so relentless in oppressing believers in Christ that he went from synagogue to synagogue to root them out and punish them. He even tried to make them blaspheme—that is, blaspheme against Christ, not against the God that Paul thought he was serving. His wording does not indicate that he succeeded, only that he tried.
Finally, his zeal became so all-consuming that he sought to eradicate the church in places far removed from Jerusalem. Again, his use of the plural gives us new insight, for he said that he carried his campaign of persecution not just to one city, but to "cities." Therefore, Damascus was not the first place he went as a persecutor. Churches in other places had already felt his wrath.
But on his way to Damascus his life changed. In the next portion of the speech, Paul retold the story of his conversion, giving us the third rendition found in the Book of Acts. But here he added some details missing in the other accounts. He said that suddenly he was engulfed by a great light. The other accounts do not remark on its brightness except to say that it was great. Now Paul revealed that its brightness exceeded the sun. Like John, who also saw the glorified Christ (Rev. 1:16), Paul could not think of any other suitable comparison.
Another new detail divulged by this account of Paul's conversion is that the great light smote the whole company of travelers to the ground. An earlier account says that the others stood speechless while Paul conversed with the Lord (Acts 9:7). We may assume that Luke would not have given us both accounts in their present wording if he saw a contradiction. An easy way to harmonize them is to suppose that after the light struck them all down, the others soon regained their feet while Paul remained prostrate.
Continuing his defense before Agrippa, Paul recounted what the Lord said. The Lord's words were somewhat more extended than we would deduce from the other accounts, which omit any reference to Paul's future service for Christ. Yet we should not suspect that he is combining the message he heard on the road to Damascus with some message he heard later, such as during his first visit to the Temple after His conversion (Acts 22:18-21), for he says next that he "was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision [singular]" (v. 19). He therefore remembered the vision on the road as the source of the divine commission governing his life. Already on that occasion, Paul learned what his work would be. He would carry the gospel to the gentiles. Yet in traveling far from his own nation and preaching to multitudes alien to his own people, he would not be turning against the Jews and becoming their enemy. Rather, he would be God’s instrument for showing mercy to people besides the Jews. God wished to turn the gentiles from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to the power of God, that they too might receive eternal life.
His Career in Retrospect
No doubt with a ring of triumph in his voice, Paul then declared that he had fulfilled the solemn task Christ bequeathed to him. He had not failed to obey the heavenly vision, but had carried the gospel to places far and wide.
As Paul reviewed his life of service, he remembered that he preached Christ "to those first in Damascus, and Jerusalem, and to all the country of Judea, and to the nations [gentiles]." His message had always been the same. He urged his hearers to come into a right relationship with God by repenting of their sins and living lives devoted to good works. Paul stressed the good works that Christians do because he was addressing two leaders of government. He wanted them to understand that Christians are good citizens.
To counter the accusations brought against him, Paul denied that his enemies were sincere. All their attempts to portray him as an evildoer were a smokescreen for their real complaint—that they did not like his preaching. Now it was evident why Paul had just summarized his preaching as prodding men to good works. He wanted the rulers before him to see how unreasonable the Jews were. These Jews sought to condemn a man whose only offense was that he worked diligently to turn men from wickedness to righteousness.
Yet, as Paul went on to say, his enemies had not been able to stop him. In Jerusalem, God intervened to save his life, and with God's help Paul was still preaching the same message he had always preached. What was that message? It was merely to affirm the truth of the Old Testament Scriptures which look ahead to three momentous events: (1) Christ would suffer and die, (2) He would rise again from the grave, and (3) He would send light—that is, the knowledge of how to be saved—to both Jews and gentiles (Isa. 49:6). Implicit in Paul's words is the claim that Jesus was the man who fulfilled all these prophecies.
Hardness of Proud Hearts
Festus had heard enough. He interrupted Paul with a loud voice, accusing him of being crazy. He attributed Paul's dementia to much learning. From his sneering outburst in objection to Paul's message, we can draw several conclusions. First, it is obvious that Paul had the speech and bearing of a learned man. Even a ruler accustomed to men trying to impress him could see that Paul was a person of rare accomplishments. Second, it is equally obvious that Festus was a hard-headed skeptic with no use for supernatural religion. Earlier, he characterized Jewish beliefs as superstition. Now, he said Paul was crazy, no doubt because he could think of no other way to explain Paul's vision of Christ.
Paul calmly brushed aside the charge. He replied that he spoke words of truth and "sobriety," the latter term bearing the sense "sanity." Paul was simply denying the charge that Festus had just leveled against him. Yet to soften his rebuke of Festus, he called him "most noble." Then, evidently because he did not feel that further dialogue with Festus would be profitable, he paid him no further attention and turned rather to Agrippa. He must have hoped that the king's heart would prove to be softer than Festus's.
Paul was not content simply to defend himself. He wanted to persuade his hearers, especially Agrippa, to believe in Christ. Yet to issue a gospel invitation to a king required great delicacy. Paul started by expressing the conviction that Agrippa already knew a great deal about "these things," undoubtedly referring to the beginnings and beliefs of the church, as well as to the role of Paul in spreading the new faith to the gentile world. Therefore, without hearing more from Paul, Agrippa was already in a position to declare his view of Jesus. But instead of asking Agrippa about Jesus directly, Paul posed a different question. He asked whether Agrippa believed the prophets. To encourage an affirmative answer, Paul immediately expressed his confidence that Agrippa did believe them. Agrippa’s support for the Jewish religion was in fact a feature of his public policy. He himself had some Jewish blood, and one of his official duties granted by the Romans was to appoint the Jewish high priest. In contrast to the decadence of his private life, he put on an outward show of religious piety. Yet Paul's willingness to call him a believer in the prophets suggests that the king was not altogether a hypocrite. The apostle was evidently trying to stir some longing for truth in Agrippa's heart, to encourage some glimmers of awakening faith.
But Agrippa escaped the net of love that the great fisherman of souls was spreading about him. He responded, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." "Almost" does not appear in the Greek. The meaning of his words has been much debated, for they are cryptic, to say the least. A literal translation runs, "In a little you persuade me to become a Christian." The best guide to their meaning lies in Paul's response. He said, in a literal translation, "I would wish to God, both in a little and in much, not only thou but also all those hearing me this day should become such as I also am, except these bonds." Both "little" and "much" clearly speak of similarity to Paul. Thus, Paul seems to have construed his meaning as follows: "You persuade me in a little [that is, in a few matters or beliefs, or in a little measure or degree] to become a Christian." Other interpretations, since they make Paul's answer irrelevant or twist it to make it relevant, put Paul in the place of misjudging the man. But for Paul, Agrippa was a well-known figure. Also, Paul was present at the scene and could observe many nonverbal signs of the man's attitude. Of chief significance is that the Holy Spirit was helping Paul to say what was appropriate and needful (Matt. 10:17–20). So, we may be confident that the correct interpretation of Agrippa's words is the one Paul himself reached.
Whether Agrippa was genuinely touched by Paul’s testimony, we do not know. We can hope that he was. Perhaps in his desire to hear Paul speak, in his partially agreeable answer to Paul, and in his clemency toward Paul, we find some evidence that he was not altogether closed to the claims of Christ. But sadly, when viewed by itself, his last statement offers no evidence that he was on the verge of saving faith. In fact, he did not accept Christ. He too suffered from hardness of heart. A life of unbridled self-indulgence had eroded his guilt for sin and his sense of need for a Savior. Now, at the climactic moment in the history of his soul, he could not reach out and take eternal life at the expense of admitting he was a sinner.
His decision not to treat Paul in a hostile manner may have been politically motivated in some degree. His subjects included many Christians as well as many non-Christian Jews. Perhaps he was trying to take a middle road that would offend neither constituency.
The closing words of Paul's testimony, expressing his solemn desire before God that not only Agrippa, but his whole audience, were Christians like himself, breathe sad resignation to the unbelief all around him. We can imagine that he said them almost with tears.
Having heard enough to satisfy them, the rulers brought the hearing to an end. They rose from their seats and went aside to compare their reactions and consider their options. They all agreed that Paul was innocent—he had not done anything to warrant arrest and imprisonment. Much less had he done anything to warrant trial and conviction on a capital charge. How then should his case be handled? Agrippa offered his judgment that they had no decision to make. Paul had taken other options off the table by appealing to Caesar. Perhaps Agrippa was unaware that Festus had left Paul no choice. If Paul had allowed a trial to proceed in Caesarea with Festus serving as judge, he had little prospect of a just verdict. So, appealing to Caesar was the rational course to take.
Now, as Agrippa and everyone else well understood, there was no legal room to release Paul. As we have said before, it was considered an act of serious dishonor to Caesar to resolve a case that had been formally committed to his judgment. Festus's only remaining role was to send the prisoner to Rome with an adequate summary of the case against him.
© 2009, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.