Paul's Defense before Agrippa
Passage: Acts 26:1–26:32
Many of you have read books or seen movies that include intense courtroom scenes. To Kill a Mockingbird, A Time to Kill, A Few Good Men, for example. Or perhaps you grew up watching Matlock, or remember scenes from other shows like when Leo McGarry of The West Wing testifies before congress. You can picture the courtroom, the lawyer, the defendant, the witnesses.
But even more, you become so drawn into these moments that you become part of the scene. You feel like you’re in the courtroom or watching from the balcony, engaged, listening, waiting on the edge of your seat: What’s going to happen? What will he say? If that’s true, what does this all mean for me, for us, for society?”
We enter Paul’s defense in Acts 26 like this. Four times Paul has defended himself. Before the Jews, before the Council, before Felix, before Festus—his innocence and the integrity of his gospel ministry is undeniable. But now Paul stands before the king. With great pomp Agrippa enters the audience hall with all the military tribunes and prominent men of the city. They do it up fancy—regal robes and pageantry. But we’re on the edge of our seats to hear the man in chains. What’s going to happen? What will Paul say? If he’s right, what does it mean for me, for us, for others?
Agrippa Gives Paul the Floor
We begin in verse 1, where King Agrippa gives Paul the floor. “So Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You have permission to speak for yourself.’ Then Paul stretched out his hand and made his defense: ‘I consider myself fortunate that it’s before you, King Agrippa, I’m going to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, especially because you’re familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews.” Therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently.’” Agrippa knows Jewish customs. He knows their religious controversies. He even knows their Scriptures, we learn later in verse 27. That makes it easier for Paul to defend his ministry. So throughout his defense, Paul appeals to his Jewish background as well as the Jewish Scriptures.
Paul was a Pharisee
In verse 4, Paul begins with his Jewish background—he was a Pharisee. He says, “My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. They’ve known for a long time, if they’re willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I’ve lived as a Pharisee. And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I’m accused by Jews, O king! Why’s it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?”
If God is all powerful, it’s not hard to accept that he raises the dead. Within that conviction, at least some Jews (the Pharisees) believed that God would raise many from the dead on the last day (Acts 23:8). Paul belonged to that group. Yes, he goes further to say that God already raised Jesus from the dead. But he doesn’t get there until verse 23. Here he simply shows that whatever he will say about Jesus’s resurrection aligns with the resurrection hope of his Jewish compadres. Which is why it’s so baffling that he’s on trial—he shares their resurrection hope. The rub is that Jesus is the concrete realization of their resurrection hope; and they want nothing to do with Jesus.
Paul Opposed Jesus
But neither did Paul at one point? That’s where he goes next—Paul once opposed Jesus like they do. Verse 9, “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.”
What’s the significance of Paul’s past? It helps establish the credibility of his gospel testimony. The gospel he now preaches doesn’t align with his original set of assumptions about Jesus. He wasn’t predisposed to receive Christianity as true.[i] He hated these people who said Jesus is alive, Jesus is Lord, Jesus is King. He despised them…
Paul Encounters the Risen Jesus
That is, until he was forced to see Christianity’s truthfulness with a face-to-face encounter with Jesus. That’s next: Paul encounters the risen Jesus. Verse 12…
In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It’s hard for you to kick against the goads.” I said, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord said, “I’m Jesus whom you’re persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I’ve appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you’ve seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I’m sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
Consider the brightness of the sun at high noon. The light Paul sees outshines the sun. It’s a manifestation of the glory of the exalted Christ (Acts 22:14). Jesus himself says, “I appeared to you…you have seen me.” At this moment everything changes for Paul. The objective glory of the risen Jesus compels him. Even stronger, it forces him to live for Christ. That’s the idea behind “the goads”—sharp pointed sticks used to get the cattle moving. Paul has no other choice but to bow before Jesus’ majesty and obey.
Paul Obeys the Risen Jesus
Paul once tried to destroy the church. But Jesus confronts him, conforms him, and then commissions him to build the church: “I’m sending you to open their eyes…” So Paul obeys Jesus in verse 19…
Therefore, O King Agrippa, I wasn’t disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. To this day I’ve had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he’d proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.
We’ll return to these words shortly. I only want to pause and say never underestimate the power of the risen Jesus. If there’s anybody we would’ve labeled as least likely to become a Christian, it would’ve been Paul. Yet, the risen Jesus transforms this hardened man into a passionate witness for the gospel. Paul once opposed Jesus. But now he stands before a king, boldly testifying that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes; that Jesus is the only Savior for Gentiles like those filling the courtroom.
Paul’s Final Appeal for Everyone to Believe
Paul doesn’t even hesitate to confront the king himself about where he stands with Jesus. Look lastly at Paul’s final appeal for everyone to believe. Verse 24…
And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you’re out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” But Paul said, “I’m not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I’m speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I’m persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.” Then the king rose, and the governor and Bernice and those who were sitting with them. And when they had withdrawn, they said to one another, “This man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment.” And Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could’ve been set free if he hadn’t appealed to Caesar.”
Paul turns the tables once again, doesn’t he? Agrippa summoned Paul for questioning. But the event ends with Paul questioning Agrippa—“Do you believe the prophets?” More than that, Paul makes it so that the entire assembly must consider their state before King Jesus: “I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am.” Agrippa may be king of his region. But Agrippa must come to terms with the King of Kings, Jesus Christ.
So do you and I. Luke has brought you and me into the courtroom with him, and put us on the edge of our seat, so that we’re forced with the same question. Do you believe the prophets? Are you compelled to believe in the risen Jesus? Or, are you kicking against the goads, resisting Jesus’ messenger, questioning Jesus’ lordship?
Why Persuade Others to Believe the Gospel?
The whole point of Paul’s defense isn’t just to clear himself—though Agrippa certainly recognizes Paul’s innocence. Rather, he’s there to persuade the entire assembly to become Christians, to become followers of Jesus. He’s there to convince them of the truth and the glory of the gospel message he preaches.
It’s not a matter of “Well, from my perspective…” It isn’t, “Well, Christianity works for me…” It isn’t, “Well, it’d be nice if they became Christians.” No! He’s there to persuade, to reason, to convince that Christianity is true, that his gospel message is right, that there’s no other message of hope. Do you believe that? If you do believe that, are you seeking to persuade others to believe the gospel? Consider with me a few reasons why we ought to persuade others to believe the gospel…
1. The gospel is promised by God.
One, the gospel was promised by God in Scripture. Verse 6, Paul mentions the promise of resurrection hope made by God to the fathers. Verse 22, he preaches nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass. What’s that? “That the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light to our people and to the Gentiles.” Interestingly enough, nearly the same words are found on the lips of the risen Jesus in Luke 24:46-47. The Scriptures promised Christ’s death, Christ’s resurrection, and the gospel’s advance to all nations.
God promised these events. Sure enough, Paul announces that these very events did in fact happen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Even now the risen Jesus empowers the church to proclaim light to the nations. God has kept his promises. That’s why Paul asks, “Do you believe the prophets?” Point being, if you accept God’s promises, it’s not too difficult to see their perfect fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the Lord who pours out the Spirit as Joel promised (Acts 2:16-21, 33). He’s the greater David who reigns forever like Psalm 16 anticipated (Acts 2:30). He’s the Lord of Psalm 110, beneath whose feet all enemies will be crushed (Acts 2:35). He’s the prophet superior to Moses (Acts 3:22). He’s Isaiah’s promised Servant who suffers in the place of others (Acts 8:32-35). He wins the holy and sure blessings of David (Acts 13:34). Again and again, Acts proves that God keeps his promises. He’s faithful. He’s consistent. He’s moving all history to realize his purpose in Christ. The King has arrived. The King has won. He reigns. He’s coming again. Therefore, we persuade.
2. The gospel is historically true.
Two, the gospel is historically true. Paul first calls on eyewitnesses to come verify his way of life. Verse 5, “they’ve all known for a long time, if they’re willing to testify…” He was no Christian. He wasn’t convinced about Jesus’ resurrection. He thought it was a bunch of baloney, to the point of forcing Christians to recant. “Go ask these people,” he’s saying. He’s telling the truth about what he was.
He’s also telling the truth about who changed him and how. Jesus’ appearance wasn’t some private, subjective experience. It was midday. Other men were journeying with him. They all fell to the ground too. He also tells Festus, “I’m not crazy; I’m speaking true and rational words.” Christianity isn’t just some blind leap of faith. It’s totally rational. He tells Agrippa, “this hasn’t been done in a corner.” Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and the results of those events are historically true and verifiable.
In other words, Paul’s message isn’t a mere religious debate. Nor is he simply promoting a mythical story from which we glean timeless truths to live by. No! He grounds his message in eyewitness testimony and the objective, historical reality of the risen Jesus appearing to him. The resurrection of Jesus is a historical claim that everyone must face to their own salvation or their everlasting shame. Paul couldn’t ignore Jesus; neither can you. He is absolute reality. Therefore, we aim to persuade.
3. The gospel is really good news.
Three, the gospel is really good news. Notice how Jesus and Paul talk about it. It turns people from darkness to light. Verse 18, “[I’m sending you to the Gentiles] to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light” (cf. Acts 26:23). He’s borrowing imagery from Isaiah (Acts 13:47). What’s darkness in Isaiah? It’s moral depravity (Isa 5:20). It’s people sitting in their depravity without God’s special revelation. They call evil good and good evil. John says whoever hates his brother is in the darkness. That’s everybody apart from Jesus.
But in Jesus we find light. Jesus is the Light of the World. God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). The gospel announces light for those in darkness. It gives us understanding. It imparts a knowledge of God and his will for us. It even transforms us into light so others can see. “At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord”—Ephesians 5:8.
The gospel also rescues us from Satan’s power. Verse 18, “so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God.” Without Jesus, we’re Satan’s subjects. He tempts us. He accuses us before God—Colossians speaks of a certificate that spells out the penalty we deserve for breaking God’s law; and demonic forces use that certificate to blackmail us. He also oppresses us with the fear of death, so that in fear we follow him instead of Jesus.
But the gospel announces that Jesus overcomes every temptation for our sake. The gospel announces that Jesus died for our sins to cancel that certificate of debt. He jerked it from the enemy’s hands and nailed it to the cross. He stripped the demonic powers of their accusing might; and then topped it off by parading them around as defeated foes. The gospel announces that God’s Son “partook of flesh and blood, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
The gospel also announces the forgiveness of sins in Christ. Again, verse 18: “that they may receive forgiveness of sins.” God is holy. We’ve offended him by our wayward desires and attitudes toward his law. We stand guilty before God. The consequence is God’s punishment, eternal death. When God forgives somebody, he does more than just pardon us. Pardoning means he frees us from the punishment—we can escape punishment because God punished Christ in our place. But forgiveness also extends to the removal of sin, the cleansing of all that makes us guilty before God.
That’s why he goes on to say we find a place, an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in me. That’s not talking about progressive sanctification, our gradual growth in Christ-likeness. This is positional sanctification. Upon the moment we trust in Christ, he sets us apart as his own holy people.
The idea stems from the Old Testament. God himself is holy; and if he was to use someone or something, they/it had to be set apart as holy, as exclusively for God. Of course, this involved the blood of a bull and a couple rams being spilt and sprinkled on the altar and applied to the priests.[ii] Likewise, when the blood of Christ is applied to the believer, he/she is set apart exclusively for God’s holy service.
The gospel further announces the hope of resurrection in Christ. Notice verse 23: “the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light…” Jesus is the first to rise from the dead. Usually Paul would then make a point about how Jesus is the firstborn, the firstfruits; he’s our forerunner and our assurance that God will also raise us from the dead. But here the risen Jesus actively proclaims light to Israel and the nations. Meaning, Paul views his own ministry as an extension of the risen Jesus himself. The church is concrete evidence that Jesus reigns and is bringing all of Israel’s hopes for resurrection glory to pass.
Light, rescue, forgiveness, resurrection—the gospel is really good news, beloved. We have so much to be thankful for. We have so much to enjoy. We have so much to encourage one another with. We have so much to celebrate at the Lord’s Supper today. But even more, we have so much good news to announce to a world sitting in darkness. We have the truth that will lead them out of the devil’s snares. We persuade others because light, rescue, forgiveness, and resurrection are good news.
4. The gospel creates a new obedience.
Four, the gospel creates a new obedience. Consider what Paul does by describing the way he used to live next to the way he lives now. He used to be an unjust, troublemaking, murderer—in raging fury he persecuted the church. But what happens once Jesus converts Paul? He becomes a man controlled by the Spirit. He becomes a man who, insofar as it depends on him, lives peaceably with all. Agrippa can’t help but see his innocence. But even more, notice verse 20. Paul teaches everyone to repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.
What is repentance? It’s certainly more than feeling bad about something. Some have said repentance is changing your mind, agreeing with God. It’s at least that much; but that’s still not quite enough. Repentance affects the will and your inner motives. The concept is closer to the Old Testament idea of “turning” to the Lord himself—which Paul also mentions here.[iii] Repentance is incomplete if all we’re doing is avoiding sin. Christianity isn’t mainly about avoiding bad stuff; it’s about adoring and following Christ. When that relationship happens a new obedience occurs. Turning to the Lord produces certain deeds that honors him.
The gospel creates new desires in us to follow the Lord. The gospel creates a love for his word, an affection for his glory. We persuade others to believe the gospel, because it’s only through the gospel that a new obedience will flow. True and lasting transformation can only happen through the gospel.
5. The gospel is for all peoples.
Five, the gospel is for all peoples. In verses 17-18, Jesus commissions Paul to Israel and the Gentiles to open their eyes. In verse 20, notice how Paul announces the gospel in Damascus, in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles. In verse 22 he says, “I stand here testifying both to small and great…”—meaning, the gospel is for people insignificant in society’s eyes and for people like kings and dignitaries.
In verse 23, Jesus’ mission goes to the Gentiles. In verse 29, Paul invites the whole assembly to become Christians—no matter who they are. And then let’s also not forget Paul himself. Jesus took an insolent opponent, hardened enemy of the gospel, and transformed him into an emissary for the gospel. The whole account screams again and again that God’s grace in the gospel is for all peoples.
Knowing that should affect our movement as a church. Our movement isn’t come-and-see; it’s go and tell. No matter the background, no matter the ethnicity, no matter the economic status, no matter the region, no matter the darkness people are in—Paul offered the gospel to all peoples and sought to persuade them. Why? Because that’s what the risen Jesus himself is doing: “by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light to both our people and to the Gentiles.”
But the way the risen Jesus does this is through witnesses such as Paul, and such as you and me. 1 Peter 2:9 says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
This gospel message that we possess brings light to darkness. It rescues people from Satan’s tyranny. When people believe it they can know the forgiveness of their sins. Isn’t it amazing that God has entrusted us with the very message that opens people’s eyes to glory? That frees people from satanic oppression? We’re but empty jars of clay, and yet Jesus gives us this treasure in the gospel to share with others. Let’s be faithful to do so as we view our lives as an extension of his mission. Persuade others. Convince them of Christianity’s truthfulness. If you have doubts yourself, wrestle with the word and come to the truth, so that you’re all the more confident to help others see. The gospel is promised. It’s true. It’s good. It creates. It’s for all.
[i]Keener, Acts, 3505.
[ii]E.g., Exod 28:41; 29:1; 40:9; Lev 16:19.
[iii]E.g., Isa 55:7; Jer 3:12, 14, 22; Hos 14:1; Joel 2:12-13; Zech 1:1-6; Mal 3:7.