INTRODUCTION: Characters & Setting
The apostle Paul’s first trial defense was made before Felix (24:2ff), who was a close friend of emperor Claudius (and later of Nero). Felix was formerly a slave, whom Claudius freed and appointed as procurator of Judea in 52 CE. Felix was known for exercising cruelty and harsh oppression in Judea. Herod’s daughter, Drusilla, divorced her Jewish husband to marry Felix. However, after a very short rule, Felix was recalled to Rome by Nero to answer for his corruption and face a deputation of Jews sent to Rome to testify against him. He lost his procuratorship but received no further punishment because of his brother Pallas, who had retained his position as the emperor’s advisor. Felix later divorced Drusilla, and according to Suetonius he married a granddaughter of Antony and Cleopatra.
Paul was sent to Felix for protection by the tribune Lysias after being arrested on charges of profaning the temple (Acts 23:24ff.). Felix was familiar with the new Christian movement (Acts 24:22) – then called “The Way” – and listened intently to Paul’s message. However, when Paul told him of the Final Judgment, Felix became frightened and sent him away (Acts 24:25). Felix kept Paul under arrest for two years, seemingly hoping that Paul would bribe him to set him free. He left Paul in prison under the care of the new procurator, Porcius Festus, when he was recalled to Rome.
Festus is remembered by history as a vast improvement over his cruel and ambitious predecessor. Although he only ruled for three years, he subdued the rebellious Sicarii (“Dagger-Bearers”), cleaned up the financial mess, and restructured the administration. He ruled with a firm hand, but was also just and honest; he likewise used qualified Jews in his administration (which Felix had refused to do). Two years later, in 62 CE, Festus died in office.
Now, we want to remember that Paul had been in prison for two years when Festus first became procurator. Festus came to Jerusalem and invited the Jewish authorities to come to Caesarea (the Roman provincial capital) to testify against Paul (Acts 24–25). Here, Many Bible commentators suggest that Paul asserted his Roman right to appear before Caesar because he feared an unfair trial (a kangaroo court), however, we must remember that Paul acted under the direction of Jesus, who appeared to Paul while he was in prison under Felix’s rule and told him he must go to Rome:
Acts 23:11 (CSB) — 11 The following night, the Lord stood by him and said, “Have courage! For as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so it is necessary for you to testify in Rome.”
A hearing before Festus was required, so Festus invited Herod Agrippa and his sister Bernice to participate in this hearing because he needed political backing for whatever decision he reached since Paul had become such a controversial figure.
Enter King Herod Agrippa II, who was born in Rome in 27 CE and raised in the Roman imperial court. After his father’s dead in 44 CE, emperor Claudius felt that Agrippa II (17 years old) was too young to inherit the kingdom. So, in 50 CE, when he was twenty-three, Claudius made him king of Chalcis (a small kingdom in what today is Lebanon); three years later he made Agrippa Tetrarch of Iturea (North of Galilee) and Trachonitis (S.E. of Damascus), and in 61 CE Claudius’s successor Nero added Galilee and Perea to Agrippa’s kingdom.
King Agrippa, like his father, was popular with the Jews because he was a Jewish nationalist and appeared to observe the Jewish Law, although contemporary documents make it clear that he had little genuine religious interest. King Agrippa was an immoral ruler who was carrying on an incestuous affair with his sister Bernice while she was at the same time married successively to two of his half-brothers. Later, when the first major Jewish revolt erupted in 66 CE, Agrippa sided with the Romans and openly displayed his subservience to Rome. He was rewarded with more territories being added to his domain, and he continued to rule until his death sometime shortly before 100 CE. In about 75 CE, although he still ruled in Palestine, Agrippa moved to Rome with Bernice, and from then on he ruled from a distance. While he was in Rome Bernice left him to become the mistress of Vespasian’s son Titus. Agrippa never had any children, and thus he was the last of the Herodian dynasty. It is unclear what happened to his domain, but there is evidence that it became a part of the Roman province of Syria.
Agrippa II is the Agrippa of the book of Acts, before whom Paul stood trial (Acts 25:23ff.). He found Paul innocent, yet since Paul had appealed for trial before the emperor, Agrippa had no choice but to keep him in prison until he could be sent to Rome.
PAUL’S OPENING: v. 1-3
1 Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” Then Paul stretched out his hand and began his defense: 2 “I consider myself fortunate, that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, 3 especially since you are very knowledgeable about all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently.
Paul uses a formal introduction before Agrippa that was meant to demonstrate respect and show honor to his God-ordained title.
- Orator’s opening (hand) demonstrates Paul’s skill and respect for this hearing
- Commentators note that Paul’s introduction, while respectful, does not utilize flattery
In beginning this way, Paul shows that he lived with an awareness of God’s sovereign authority over human rulers:
1 Peter 2:13–17 (CSB) — 13 Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority 14 or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. 15 For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. 16 Submit as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but as God’s slaves. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brothers and sisters. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
This concisely parallels Paul’s theology in Romans 13 and explains Paul’s actions here.
- Even though Herod Agrippa was an immoral
- Even though Herod manipulated – whom Paul loved – the Jews for personal gain
- Paul showed him reverence because of the Lord
- The Christian response is to do good for the Lord’s sake to those who practice evil
“Began his defense”: ἀπελογεῖτο – We often talk about Christian apologetics as the ministry of defending the gospel and glorifying Christ, and in Paul’s speech we get to see Paul make his defense of the Lord and his gospel message.
PAUL’S HOPE: v. 4-8
4 “All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, which was spent from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem. 5 They have known me for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest sect of our religion I lived as a Pharisee. 6 And now I stand on trial because of the hope in what God promised to our ancestors, 7 the promise our twelve tribes hope to reach as they earnestly serve him night and day. King Agrippa, I am being accused by the Jews because of this hope. 8 Why do any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
All the former charges against Paul have been dropped:
Acts 24:5–6 (CSB) — 5 For we have found this man to be a plague, an agitator among all the Jews throughout the Roman world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. 6 He even tried to desecrate the temple, and so we apprehended him. By examining him yourself you will be able to discern the truth about these charges we are bringing against him.”
Acts 25:18 (CSB) — 18 The accusers stood up but brought no charge against him of the evils I was expecting.
The remaining charge being brought against Paul was that he was teaching against the Law
Acts 21:27–28 (CSB) — 27 When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd, and seized him, 28 shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place. What’s more, he also brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.”
Therefore, Paul begins by calling attention to his former life as a Pharisee – the strictest sect of the Law.
PAUL’S FORMER LIFE: v. 9-12
9 In fact, I myself was convinced that it was necessary to do many things in opposition to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 I actually did this in Jerusalem, and I locked up many of the saints in prison, since I had received authority for that from the chief priests. When they were put to death, I was in agreement against them. 11 In all the synagogues I often punished them and tried to make them blaspheme. Since I was terribly enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities. 12 “I was traveling to Damascus under these circumstances with authority and a commission from the chief priests.
Now, you must remember what Jesus told his disciples about standing before human courts:
Mark 13:11 (CSB) — 11 So when they arrest you and hand you over, don’t worry beforehand what you will say, but say whatever is given to you at that time, for it isn’t you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.
The apostle Paul did not prepare cleverly devised speeches, but was led by the Holy Spirit and trusted him to provide the necessary testimony of Jesus Christ (Rev. 19:10).
“I myself was convinced”: Paul illustrates one of the fundamental realities of human nature; that we are all blind and have been convinced of Satan’s greatest lies.
Paul firmly believed in his cause and thought he was doing God’s will:
John 16:2 (CSB) — 2 They will ban you from the synagogues. In fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering service to God.
Remember that Luke wrote both Acts and Luke, and it is only in Luke’s gospel that we see this aspect of Christ’s redemption reflected in Jesus’ words:
Luke 23:34 (CSB) — 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided his clothes and cast lots.
“In opposition to the name of Jesus of Nazareth”: In Paul’s state of absolute certainty, he oppressed and persecuted the Church as mightily as he knew how:
Acts 8:1–4 (CSB) — 1 Saul agreed with putting him to death. On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and mourned deeply over him. 3 Saul, however, was ravaging the church. He would enter house after house, drag off men and women, and put them in prison. 4 So those who were scattered went on their way preaching the word.
Paul’s redemption testimony demonstrates the glory of God’s mercy so magnificently in two ways:
FIRST: By persecuting the Israel of God, he was bringing himself under the curse of God:
Genesis 12:3 (CSB) — 3 I will bless those who bless you, I will curse anyone who treats you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.
Paul was attempting to destroy the very fulfillment of God’s Abrahamic covenant and everything that Israel hoped in and for! He was bringing himself under the curse of God!
SECOND: By trying to force his Israelite brothers and sisters to stumble and blaspheme God, he brought himself under the wrath of God by Jesus Christ’s very own testimony:
Mark 9:42 (CSB) — 42 “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to fall away—it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.
The very Savior who came into the world to save the souls of men also warned of the wrath that would come upon people like Paul – who was then called Saul – but praise be to God that Saul received a new name, and so have we (Rev. 2:17)!
The Redemption of Jesus Christ
Despite such incredible offenses committed against God and Jesus Christ, the LORD had compassion on Paul and displayed the glory of his grace in him:
1 Timothy 1:12–17 (CSB) — 12 I give thanks to Christ Jesus our Lord who has strengthened me, because he considered me faithful, appointing me to the ministry—13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an arrogant man. But I received mercy because I acted out of ignorance in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, so that in me, the worst of them, Christ Jesus might demonstrate his extraordinary patience as an example to those who would believe in him for eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
The message of the gospel does not thrive among people who think they are already clean, who just want to add Jesus into their life like one adds a little sweetener into coffee, it thrives among those who have seen the glory of God’s mercy in Christ Jesus and are filled with an insatiable hunger that can only be satisfied by Jesus Christ himself!
This unspeakable mercy is what compelled Paul’s apostolic, evangelistic, and apologetic ministry:
2 Corinthians 4:7–18 (CSB) — 7 Now we have this treasure in clay jars, so that this extraordinary power may be from God and not from us. 8 We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; 9 we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed. 10 We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed in our body. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’s sake, so that Jesus’s life may also be displayed in our mortal flesh. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life in you. 13 And since we have the same spirit of faith in keeping with what is written, I believed, therefore I spoke, we also believe, and therefore speak. 14 For we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you. 15 Indeed, everything is for your benefit so that, as grace extends through more and more people, it may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God. 16 Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. 18 So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
The apostle Paul had tasted the extraordinary power of God’s mercy in such a tangible way that eternity forever blinded his eyes; all Paul saw before him was the incomparable eternal weight of glory that has been displayed in Jesus Christ!
The purpose of our evangelistic ministry is to cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God through the grace of Jesus Christ!
The purpose of our mission must never be:
- Building a church (that’s Jesus’ job: Mt. 16:18)
- Being known by others as spiritual persons (rather, let’s only desire to be known by God: Eph. 6:6; Lk. 10:20)
- Establishing our authority over other people (Mt. 24:48-51; rather, treat others as fellow servants: Mt. 18:33)
- Compelled by envy, rivalry, or personal ambition (Phil. 1:15-17; rather, be compelled by Christ’s love 2 Co. 4:14)
Even though Paul informs us that God often works through the ministries of those who preach Christ with selfish reasons in order to still save the lost, such preaching is in vain to God and these ministers are disqualified in his sight. The heart and spirit by which we preach Christ matters to Christ because the outcome of our evangelism is the holy worship of God.
PAUL’S CONVERSION: v. 13-18
13 King Agrippa, while on the road at midday, I saw a light from heaven brighter than the sun, shining around me and those traveling with me. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice speaking to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 15 “I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ “And the Lord replied: ‘I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. 16 But get up and stand on your feet. For I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 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 share among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
There is so much that could be said here. We could draw our attention to how intimately Christ dwells with us, that our sufferings are his so much so that Jesus told Paul that he was really persecuting him. We could point out how living in rebellion against God is like kicking against the goads and robs humanity of its peace.
But we want to focus on Paul’s divine mission:
“To appoint you as a servant and a witness of what you have seen and will see of me”: To often Christian evangelism is portrayed as providing a testimony about Jesus – from a safe distance. But this wasn’t how Paul saw his evangelistic ministry; he gave his testimony about what he saw in Jesus Christ.
Now, Paul saw the resurrected Jesus in person in such a way that you and I do not – or at least, most do not – and this is readily acknowledged by Paul, who said that we don’t know Christ in the world anymore (2 Co. 5:16). However,
The word of God is our spiritual meeting place wherein the radiance of God’s glory is revealed in spiritual terms (Heb. 1:3; Jn. 1:18):
1 Corinthians 2:10–16 (CSB) — 10 Now God has revealed these things to us by the Spirit, since the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except his spirit within him? In the same way, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who comes from God, so that we may understand what has been freely given to us by God. 13 We also speak these things, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. 14 But the person without the Spirit does not receive what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually. 15 The spiritual person, however, can evaluate everything, and yet he himself cannot be evaluated by anyone. 16 For who has known the Lord’s mind, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.
“I will rescue you from your people and from the gentiles”: Jesus assured Paul – and continued to assure him throughout his earthly journey – of the deliverance that he would work to save him from the Jews and the Gentiles.
“I am sending you to them to open their eyes”: Jesus did not send Paul out aimlessly. Jesus sent Paul out to open the eyes of the world to the tremendous mercy of God’s redemption in Jesus Christ.
“So that they may turn from darkness to light”: No one can turn away from their darkness unless their eyes first be opened. They would have no means of knowing where to turn. Once God’s grace has opened their eyes and they have seen the light of Jesus shinning in their heart, Jesus commands them to turn from their darkness to the light.
As we made note in our introduction, Paul preached this message of repentance to Festus, who was showing interest in the gospel, but when he heard this command, he turned away and began to use Paul for selfish ambitions, hoping that Paul might bribe him to be released.
This is the point in which persecution usually occurs against Christians because it is here that the wicked idols of our heart are challenged by the sovereign Lordship of Jesus Christ. Here we will discover many who love their idols and despise what they see in Jesus Christ. And this is where father turns against son, mother against daughter, brother against brother, and neighbor against neighbor.
“And from the power of Satan to god”: We are not only commanded to turn away from our lifestyle of sin, we are also commanded to turn away from the instruments of Satan’s power:
1 Peter 2:1–10 (CSB) — 1 Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all slander. 2 Like newborn infants, desire the pure milk of the word, so that you may grow up into your salvation, 3 if you have tasted that the Lord is good. 4 As you come to him, a living stone—rejected by people but chosen and honored by God—5 you yourselves, as living stones, a spiritual house, are being built to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it stands in Scripture: See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and honored cornerstone, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame. 7 So honor will come to you who believe; but for the unbelieving, The stone that the builders rejected— this one has become the cornerstone, 8 and A stone to stumble over, and a rock to trip over. They stumble because they disobey the word; they were destined for this. 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
“That they may receive forgiveness of sins”: Having been enlightened to the light of Christ by the grace of God, and having been instructed by his grace to turn from sin and wicked things to God, we receive the precious forgiveness of our sins by the washing of his blood through the administration of the Holy Spirit’s sanctification.
“And a share among those who are sanctified by faith in me”: Now, we believe – just as Paul preached – that we who have been saved by the grace of God have an imperishable hope that will be revealed when Jesus returns.
And it is this hope that was revealed by the prophet Daniel that I believe Paul had in view:
Daniel 12:2–3 (CSB) — 2 Many who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, and some to disgrace and eternal contempt. 3 Those who have insight will shine like the bright expanse of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.
PAUL’S MESSAGE: v. 19-23
19 “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. 20 Instead, I preached to those in Damascus first, and to those in Jerusalem and in all the region of Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works worthy of repentance. 21 For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and were trying to kill me. 22 To this very day, I have had help from God, and I stand and testify to both small and great, saying nothing other than what the prophets and Moses said would take place—23 that the Messiah must suffer, and that, as the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light to our people and to the Gentiles.”
Now we have to zoom out from the text to pick up on the argument of Paul’s defense.
- Paul’s lifestyle was devoted to the strictest observance of the Law
- Paul zealously believed in the law and persecuted Christians based on his convictions
- Paul embraced the whole counsel of God’s word, including the promise of the resurrection
- Paul’s hope in the resurrection seemed to strengthen his zeal to destroy what he considered to be a heretical sect
- Paul saw the resurrected Jesus and his hope in the promise of God was confirmed in the Messiah
- Paul was appointed by Israel’s Messiah to proclaim the good news of his salvation to the whole world
- Paul’s gospel does not oppose the Law but teaches repentance from sin and holiness in Jesus Christ
The case that Paul is making is that it was not him who had rejected Moses, but the Jews who were rejecting the one whom Moses foretold would come and in whom Israel would find the fulfillment of God’s resurrection promise!
PAUL’S PEACEFUL RESPONSE: v. 24-26
24 As he was saying these things in his defense, Festus exclaimed in a loud voice, “You’re out of your mind, Paul! Too much study is driving you mad.” 25 But Paul replied, “I’m not out of my mind, most excellent Festus. On the contrary, I’m speaking words of truth and good judgment. 26 For the king knows about these matters, and I can speak boldly to him. For I am convinced that none of these things has escaped his notice, since this was not done in a corner.
You will notice that Paul’s testimony is not focused as much upon himself, but upon clearing Jesus of the accusations that have been made against The Way. Paul is using civil mechanisms to honor and exonerate Jesus Christ from the charges that have been made against him by the Jews.
PAUL’S EVANGELISTIC PLEA TO AGRIPPA: v. 27-29
27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you believe.” 28 Agrippa said to Paul, “Are you going to persuade me to become a Christian so easily?” 29 “I wish before God,” replied Paul, “that whether easily or with difficulty, not only you but all who listen to me today might become as I am—except for these chains.”
There seem to be two things that Paul is doing here:
FIRST: Paul is checking to see if God has opened king Agrippa’s eyes to the light. He was not embarrassed or ashamed to look at the results of his preaching. He wanted to know if the word had found faith in Agrippa’s heart to take root.
SECOND: Paul may also be trying to back king Agrippa into a corner by asking if he believes the testimony of the prophets.
He is making an argument that had become very popular in first century Judaism, which saw that during Israel’s national period, the children of Israel benefitted from following the law because God blessed their nation. Now that their nation had been conquered, what good did it do to follow God? They began to draw out from Scripture the point that God’s promises carried weight beyond this life, and that there was reason to follow him even when there were no benefits to be gained on earth.
We can see this sentiment beginning to take shape among the Jews during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah:
Malachi 3:14 (CSB) — 14 You have said: “It is useless to serve God. What have we gained by keeping his requirements and walking mournfully before the Lord of Armies?
And Paul makes use of this argument again here:
1 Corinthians 15:17–19 (CSB) — 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Those, then, who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. 19 If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone.
PAUL’S INNOCENCE: v. 30-32
30 The king, the governor, Bernice, and those sitting with them got up, 31 and when they had left they talked with each other and said, “This man is not doing anything to deserve death or imprisonment.” 32 Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been released if he had not appealed to Caesar.”
Paul knew his own innocence and had seen the weakness of his accuser’s case. Likewise, Paul knew Festus’ reputation as a just and honorable ruler. I do not believe that Paul made his appeal to Caesar based on fear for his life (Phil. 1:21), but because he knew the direction of his Lord that he must testify in Rome, just like he testified in Jerusalem – chains and all.
Paul’s message is that Jesus showed the boundless mercies of God in him by delivering him from Satan’s power and displaying the glories of his perfect redemption for those who love God and are called according to his purpose; that there is grace for even the most vilest sinner – even those who act out against God’s own children – and that all the righteous wrath of God against evildoers, and all the curses of the Law that come against lawbreakers fell upon Jesus for our sake and were fully satisfied in him so that in the incarnate word of God we might observe his glory – full of grace and truth – and receive grace upon grace from his fullness so that our Heavenly Father might be revealed to us in Christ Jesus.