Sermon for Sunday Evening, December 31st, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
[Act 25:13-27 ESV] 13 Now when some days had passed, Agrippa the king and Bernice arrived at Caesarea and greeted Festus. 14 And as they stayed there many days, Festus laid Paul’s case before the king, saying, “There is a man left prisoner by Felix, 15 and when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews laid out their case against him, asking for a sentence of condemnation against him. 16 I answered them that it was not the custom of the Romans to give up anyone before the accused met the accusers face to face and had opportunity to make his defense concerning the charge laid against him. 17 So when they came together here, I made no delay, but on the next day took my seat on the tribunal and ordered the man to be brought. 18 When the accusers stood up, they brought no charge in his case of such evils as I supposed. 19 Rather they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive. 20 Being at a loss how to investigate these questions, I asked whether he wanted to go to Jerusalem and be tried there regarding them. 21 But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of the emperor, I ordered him to be held until I could send him to Caesar.” 22 Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I would like to hear the man myself.” “Tomorrow,” said he, “you will hear him.” 23 So on the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city. Then, at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. 24 And Festus said, “King Agrippa and all who are present with us, you see this man about whom the whole Jewish people petitioned me, both in Jerusalem and here, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. 25 But I found that he had done nothing deserving death. And as he himself appealed to the emperor, I decided to go ahead and send him. 26 But I have nothing definite to write to my lord about him. Therefore I have brought him before you all, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that, after we have examined him, I may have something to write. 27 For it seems to me unreasonable, in sending a prisoner, not to indicate the charges against him.”
[Act 26:1-32 ESV] 1 So Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” Then Paul stretched out his hand and made his defense: 2 “I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am going to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, 3 especially because you are familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews. Therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently. 4 “My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. 5 They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee. 6 And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, 7 to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! 8 Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? 9 “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 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. 11 And 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. 12 “In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 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. 14 And 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 is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 15 And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17 delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles–to whom I am sending you 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 place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ 19 “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 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. 21 For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. 22 To this day I have 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: 23 that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” 24 And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” 25 But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. 26 For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. 27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” 28 And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” 29 And 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.” 30 Then the king rose, and the governor and Bernice and those who were sitting with them. 31 And when they had withdrawn, they said to one another, “This man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment.” 32 And Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”
We’ve seen now a series of defenses which Paul has had to make.
Paul before the Sanhedrin
Paul before Felix
Paul before Festus
Paul before Agrippa
This is Herod Agrippa II.
He is the great-grandson of Herod the Great. And while the Romans are really in control, they have Agrippa designated as “King of the Jews.” He is really what is called a “client-king.” He is just a figurehead, not in charge himself, but does as the Roman’s say. The Romans perhaps take advantage of Agrippa being Jewish to appease the people; for the people might prefer a Jewish leader over a Roman one. And it is a pretense of independency; the Jews are wishfully-thinking that they still have their own nation.
Of course, Agrippa, like the whole Herod clan actually descended from Edomites, which led them to be views with suspicion among the Jews. And Agrippa was buddy-buddy with the Romans, having spent time in Rome himself. So he’s a real mixed figure. Sometimes in the histories he is found advocating for Jewish practices, but ultimately his power is limited and his dedication questionable. In fact, when the Romans invaded some years later, Agrippa sided not with the Jews but the with the Romans. And after the war, he lived out the rest of his life in Rome.
II. Festus explains the case to Agrippa (25v13-21)
Well, in our text Agrippa has the case of Paul explained to him by Festus. And what does Festus say?
He explains that Paul was left a prisoner by Felix, but he (Festus) quickly addressed the situation, and found that it was a religious dispute, not a criminal case. And so Festus would have had Paul be tried in Jerusalem, but for fact that Paul had appealed to Caesar as was his right as a Roman citizen. So Paul is still around because they haven’t arranged him yet to board a ship for Rome.
The key verse in Festus’ speech is verse 19 – “they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.” There—and I addressed this a couple weeks ago—Paul had preached the Gospel to Festus. Christ is alive!
III. Festus brings in Paul to grant Agrippa’s wish. (25v22-27)
Well, since Paul remains there not have yet set sail for Rome, it gives Agrippa (who is visiting) a chance to meet him.
Agrippa says, “I would like to hear the man myself.”
And we have to wonder what Agrippa’s motives or reasons were here. Why did he want to hear Paul? So that he could hear the Gospel? Perhaps there was some inquisitiveness in what was going on. Certainly if someone had told me that Jesus of Nazareth had risen from the dead, I would be curious to know if that is true and to hear more about it. But Agrippa may have had other motives as well. Maybe he just wanted to make sure he knew what was going on in the land. He wanted to have inside information. If anyone asks later about Paul, he could say “I spoke to him myself.”
Festus then explains the reason he brought Paul to Agrippa. Festus doesn’t have anything to write to Caesar. He’ll be sending Paul but with no charges. Festus thinks, “perhaps this Jewish King Agrippa understands the religious charges against Paul and can specify some crime.” But, as we’ll see, Agrippa will conclude (with Festus) “This man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment” and Agrippa will say”This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”
So Festus isn’t left with anything to write about Paul.
How is Caesar going to handle this case? Will charges be sent? Or will accusers among the Jews go to Rome for the trial? I don’t think we find that answer in the Book of Acts.
IV. Paul speaks to Agrippa. (26v1-23)
Now as for Paul’s speech itself, there isn’t much new.
It is the same speech of Paul, more or less, but to another guy.
But there are some important things to note.
For one, we see Paul now preaching to a king. Even if it is a client-king, it is a king nonetheless. And so this fulfills the idea that he would preach to kings, even if he doesn’t preach to Caesar Nero, which I think he probably does.
That prophecy of Christ earlier in Acts is from Chapter 9 verse 15:
[Act 9:15 ESV] 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.
So that is fulfilled.
And then also, we see the amazing consistency of Paul’s testimony. It was the moment that changed his life. That experience on the road to Damascus.
Sometimes this speech of Paul’s is called a defense. But this is different than his defense before the Sanhedrin, and Felix, and Festus. Here it isn’t really a trial at all. It is not an official courtroom, but merely a discussion with Agrippa which Agrippa had arranged.
And then, perhaps like the other speeches, it isn’t so much a defense as it is a proclamation of Christ.
Paul speaks of his past, he gives his testimony, explanation how he came to faith in Christ. And that much have been incredible to hear. But over and above his testimony he has the good news to proclaim. He asks, “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” And he says “To this day I have 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: 23 that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”
The response is always fascinating. To this more important incredible Good News, Agrippa just responds, “you must be crazy.”
This is a deflection. Rather than looking at the evidence and making a conclusion, Agrippa interrupts and with a loud voice says “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.”
And this is a fascinating answer because Agrippa admits Paul’s great learning. He admits that all of what Paul said about himself is true … except for the stuff about Jesus and miracles and the raising of the dead.
Regardless of Agrippa’s position, Paul has “turned the courtroom into a preaching station.” Well, I said it wasn’t a courtroom precisely, but that is the best term I have for it. [REPEAT: Paul has “turned the courtroom into a preaching station.”] As they say in sports, sometimes the best Defense is a good Offense. Paul has shifted the discussion from a defense of himself to a proclamation of the Gospel.
V. Dialogue between Agrippa and Paul. (26v24-32)
Now Agrippa has this response, saying, in verse 28, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”
And many sermons focus on that verse. And the idea that ministers and commentators have run with is the idea that Agrippa ALMOST came to be persuaded. But this idea seems to be a misunderstanding of the text based on the King James translation.
The KJV says [Act 26:28 KJV] 28 Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.
The King James makes it a statement to the effect that Paul almost succeeded. But nearly all other translation put it it as a question.
The NIV for example has it translated like this:
Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28 NIV)
When understood as a question, it is clear that Agrippa is NOT saying “you have almost persuaded” but rather he is responding to Paul’s attempts incredulously saying “Do you really think you can persuaded me so quickly?”
Again, this seems to be a deflection. He should be considering the evidence, not questioning the speed in which the attempt to persuade him is being made. The evidence is either true or false. That is the decision he should be making. Agrippa misses the boat, making a decision on Paul saying “this man has done nothing deserving death” but not making a decision on Jesus.
Of course, to this question “Do you really think you can persuade me so quickly,” Paul DOES think so. But not by his own power, but by the power of God. Paul himself was persuaded quickly. As quickly as lightning.
Paul’s response is not only that he desires Agrippa to believe, but that he desires all who are there to come to belief.
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.”
And this verse has profound theological ramifications.
We know that God does not desire the salvation of ALL people, but that He has in his sovereign will chosen SOME for salvation.
But we don’t know who God has chosen. That is in his Secret Will. And so it is not possible for us to line up our desires for whom would be saved with His desire of who is going to saved.
Paul is not a universalist. He knows that some people are not saved, but he desires those in his presence that day to come to the Lord.
Why does he have that desire? The best answer I’ve found is to say the Christian “loves his neighbor AND desires the glory of God in their salvation.”
So this verse (Acts 26:28) gives us confidence that we may pray for the salvation of those who do not currently have saving faith. We may desire the turning, the repentance of our family members and friends because we love them and desire God to be glorified when they are converted and chance and forever saved.