Paul’s Trial Before King Agrippa

Acts 25:13-26:32
P.G. Mathew | Sunday, November 05, 2000
Copyright © 2000, P.G. Mathew

In Acts 26 we find the longest and most important of five speeches the apostle Paul made to defend himself and the gospel. Many charges had been leveled against Paul by the Jewish people, including the charges that he was against the law, against the temple, and against Caesar. Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea so that he could be tried on these charges. But the truth is, none of these charges was ever proven. Paul was innocent of these false charges; yet, because of politics, the Roman governors Felix and Festus did not set him free.

When Paul saw that he was not receiving justice at the hands of these governors, he appealed as a Roman citizen to Caesar Nero for an opportunity to defend himself in the court of Caesar. In Acts 25 we read that King Agrippa II and his sister Queen Bernice came to pay the new governor, Festus, a visit in Caesarea. While they were there, Festus consulted with King Agrippa II as to what he should write on the charge sheet to be sent to Rome with Paul. When Agrippa heard that Paul was there, he requested Paul be brought before him to make his case.

King Agrippa II and Bernice

King Agrippa II was the great-grandson of Herod the Great, who had attempted to kill infant Jesus and who did kill many baby boys in Judea. Agrippa’s father was King Agrippa I, who beheaded the apostle James and arrested Peter in an attempt to kill him also. The Lord was angry with King Agrippa I and he was killed in the city of Caesarea in A.D. 44, as we read in Acts 12.

King Agrippa I had three children: Agrippa II and his two sisters, Queen Bernice and Drusilla, who became the wife of Felix. When Agrippa I died, the seventeen-year-old Agrippa II was in Rome, being trained in the court of Emperor Claudius. Around A.D. 48 Agrippa II was made king of a small territory in the Lebanon Valley which had belonged to his uncle, Herod of Chalcis. In A.D. 53, in exchange for this small kingdom, Agrippa II was given the territories of Iturea, Traconitis, and Abilene. Later he was given the territory of Perea and certain cities of Galilee as well.

Herod Agrippa II was considered an authority on Jewish affairs, Jewish scriptures, and Jewish conflicts. Eventually Rome appointed him as the curator of the temple, which meant he had authority to appoint high priests and was also in charge of the temple treasury.

Agrippa II did not have any children, and when he met Paul, this king was living in an incestuous relationship with his sister Bernice, who was a year younger than him. At thirteen Bernice had married her uncle, Herod of Chalcis. She lived with him for seven years, bearing two children to him. But when she was twenty years old, her husband died and she returned to live with her brother, Agrippa II. Bernice was a pervert who lived with many people. After living with Agrippa, she became the mistress of Titus, the son of Vespasian. During the Jewish revolt, King Agrippa and Queen Bernice sided with Rome and, in fact, celebrated Rome’s victory over the Jewish people.

Agrippa’s capital was Caesarea Philippi, which he renamed Neronias in honor of Caesar Nero. Agrippa II called himself “Great King, pious Friend of Caesar and Friend of Rome.” The last of the Herods, he died in A.D. 100 at the age of 73.

The Setting

In this passage we find King Agrippa II and Queen Bernice visiting Caesarea to call on the new governor Festus and establish a good relationship with him. When Agrippa heard about Paul, he wanted to hear him. But just as Herod Antipas had wanted to hear Jesus Christ, not to believe in him but to be entertained by him, here also Agrippa wanted to be entertained and probably stimulated in his mind by the ideas of the apostle Paul.

In Acts 25:23 we read that this king and queen came to the auditorium of the palace of Caesarea, which was built by their great-grandfather Herod the Great, and took their seats. In the Greek text, the author Luke says they came in great fantasy,phantasia, dressed in purple and wearing gold circlets on their brows for crowns. Oh, what pomp and glitter! But Luke, by using this word phantasia, was indicating that all this pomp and glitter was simply a fantasy, nothing lasting.

The Bible tells us that the fashion and the pomp of this world is passing away and only the word of God and his kingdom shall last. Just look around you: Do you see any Herods today? How about the power of the Roman Empire? They are all gone. The word of God alone remains, of which Paul was an apostle. Where are Agrippa, Bernice, Felix, Festus, and all the Herods and Caesars today? I want you to know by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ that they are where the rich man of Luke 16 is: in hell, in agony, and in torment. Yes, they all lived lives of fantasy, dressed in purple. They lived luxurious lives every day. But the days of fantasy for them are over forever.

What an audience for Paul! King, queen, governor, the leading citizens of the city and leading Roman officials. It is possible that Paul’s friend Luke was there also. To such an august body Paul made his defense and preached the gospel.

Now, there was no glitter associated with Paul. He did not have a great physique. In fact, elsewhere we are told that he was a little fellow, balding, with beetle brows, crooked nose and bandy legs. But we are also told that Paul was full of grace.

With neither crown nor purple gown, Paul entered the palace of Caesarea in chains, wearing a prisoner’s tunic. But as we read the Bible, we see that the Holy Spirit was resting upon him, filling him with wisdom and confidence.

Paul Begins His Defense

In this chapter we find the most exhaustive defense of all of Paul’s defenses recorded in the book of Acts. Paul began by stating that he was a Pharisee, brought up as a Pharisee by his father, who was also a Pharisee. As a Pharisee, Paul said he lived in strict adherence to the law of Moses. He said that, in fact, his faithfulness to Judaism was a well-known fact to which many in Jerusalem could witness.

As a strict Pharisee, Paul believed in the Law and the Prophets, which stand for the Holy Scriptures. Thus, he believed in the hope that was set forth in the Old Testament-the hope of the resurrection of the dead, that God would raise up the dead and give them eternal life. This hope was at the very heart of the revelation God gave to the Jewish people.

Not only did Paul tell King Agrippa that he was a Pharisee, but he also described his activities as a persecutor. Though as a Pharisee he believed in the scriptural hope of the resurrection of the dead, Paul was convinced that Jesus was a blasphemer and that the Jews had been right in condemning and crucifying him. He was also convinced that the Christians’ claim that Jesus had risen from the dead was patently false. So as a zealot and an activist, Paul became a fanatical persecutor of Christianity. He said he imprisoned the saints, which means Christians. He said he cast his vote for the murder of many Christians, which probably included voting to kill Stephen. He was instrumental in punishing saints in various synagogues and tried to force some to blaspheme, although probably without success. Probably he would give the Christians an opportunity to say “Jesus is accursed,” but they would not do it. Paul did all these things by the authority and commission of the high priest, even traveling to foreign cities to persecute God’s people.

Paul’s Conversion

Then Paul said he became a preacher of the gospel. On his way to Damascus to persecute Christians, he was arrested by the glory of the Lord Jesus. Beginning with verse 13 of chapter 26 we read Paul’s account: “About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.'” That is a bad translation. It should be “It is painful for you to kick against the goads.”

Paul continues, “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to 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'” (Acts 26:13-18).

Notice, then, this Pharisee, this persecutor of Christianity, was arrested by the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. He was blinded by the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was grounded by the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was humbled by the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was questioned by the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He was rebuked by the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, who told him, in essence, “If you fight against me, you will not win. It is impossible to oppose me. You will not succeed. And it will be extremely painful for you to try.”

I am sure the testimony of the martyred Stephen was in Paul’s mind when he was confronted with Christ. The same Jesus whom Stephen saw in heaven when he said, “I see heaven opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”-this same Jesus, in his glory, also confronted Paul on the road to Damascus. So Paul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” What was the answer? “Egô eimi Iêsous” “I am Jesus.”

Then Paul, blinded, grounded, humbled, questioned, rebuked and now convicted by the glory of the Lord, drew some conclusions. “Jesus is alive,” he thought to himself. “The Christians are right and Stephen was right. The Christians said there was an empty tomb and told of many post-resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ.” Then he thought, “And just look at the church of Jesus Christ. The faith of the Christians did not create the church; it was the fact of resurrection that created the church.” Everything began to gel in Paul’s mind and he concluded, “Jesus is alive! Stephen is right. Christians are Christ’s people. Above all, Jesus Christ is Lord.” That was Paul’s conviction.

Then Paul was commanded by the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ: “Get up! Stand on your feet!” Instantaneously he began to understand that Jesus Christ is Lord and that he, Paul, was only a humble servant. “Get up! Stand on your feet!” This was the language God used when he spoke to Ezekiel in Ezekiel 1 and 2. “Get up! Stand on your feet!”

Then Paul was comforted by Lord Jesus Christ, who said to him as he said to Jeremiah, “I will rescue you from the Jews and from the Gentiles.” A child of God is invincible and indestructible until his work is done on earth. So Jesus told Paul, “I will rescue you. No one will be able to touch you or destroy you until your work is done. This doesn’t mean you will not have any troubles and problems. You may experience beatings and problems and great hardship, but no one will be able to kill you until I give permission.” What comfort from the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ!

Then Paul was commissioned by this Lord Jesus Christ. In verse 16 he said, “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you.” And in verse 17 we read, “I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them. . . .” In the Greek it is “Egô apostellô se,” “I am commissioning you as an apostle.” In other words, Jesus was telling Paul, “Even as I commissioned the other apostles, I am commissioning you.”

The State of Unbelievers

Then Paul spoke about the state of every unbeliever. In verses 17-18 Jesus told Paul, in essence, “I will rescue you and I am sending you to the Jews and Gentiles as an apostle for this purpose: to open their eyes.” We must see something very clearly: Every unbeliever is blind to reality. Every unbeliever is deluded. Every unbeliever is insane. Every unbeliever suppresses the truth and believes in a lie. This includes your mother and uncle as well as the leaders, the scientists, the rich, and the powerful of the world. If you are not a believer in Jesus Christ, you are deluded and blind-worse than blind Bartimaeus. Satan has blinded the eyes of unbelievers so that they may not see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. We must be very clear about this truth: the state of an unbeliever is a state of ignorance and blindness.

Secondly, Jesus said he was sending Paul “to turn them from darkness.” The sphere in which unbelievers operate is called darkness. Unbelievers are ignorant, even while they claim to be wise and the Scripture says they are in darkness and blind. How terrible is the condition of the smart people of the world! When God looks upon them, he sees them as blind people, moving about in the cave of darkness.

Thirdly, Jesus said he was sending Paul “to turn them. . . from the power of Satan to God.” We are told here that unbelievers are under the power and control of Satan. I hope we will believe this truth. It is the very word of God. Never be fooled by the hollow philosophies and empty boasting of men! Such people are in the kingdom of Satan, rendering strict obedience to Satan in everything they do. So as Jesus was telling Paul, “I commission you, Paul, to go to both Jews and Greeks, that you may open the eyes of the blind, that you may deliver them from darkness to the light of the glory of God and from the authority and control of Satan to the authority and control of God,” he was describing the state of all unbelievers.

Now we must pause and consider to whom Paul was preaching these things. He was speaking to this august body-King Agrippa II, Queen Bernice, Governor Festus, the leading men of the city, and all others who were rich and mighty-the glitterati. By implication Paul was telling them, “King Agrippa, Governor Festus, pervert Bernice, leading men, you yourselves are blind and in darkness.”

You see, the Holy Spirit was resting upon Paul as he made his defense, making him bold, wise, and unafraid to declare God’s truth. So he told them, “You also are blinded, in darkness, and under the control of Satan. I am commissioned by the Lord Jesus Christ to open your eyes, to turn you away from darkness and bring you into the light, and to deliver you from the kingdom of Satan into the kingdom of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Then Paul began to preach the gospel to these people.

Paul Preaches the Gospel

In verses 22-23 we read that Paul told his audience, “I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen-that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.” Paul was telling them, “This is the content of the gospel that I got from the Law and the Prophets: Christ must suffer and be raised from the dead. I learned it from the Law and the Prophets. Additionally I learned, especially from the book of Isaiah, that Christ would proclaim life to both Jews and Gentiles through his apostles.”

What is this gospel? It is the news that One who is stronger than the strong one Satan has come and bound the strong one. In his death on the cross, this One defeated all other forces that are against him, and now he rescues the perishing, who were hostages of the strong man. That is the power of the gospel. (PGM) It is not that Paul had that power, but the gospel is power unto salvation to everyone who believes because the gospel is Jesus Christ, who defeated the enemy. So Paul’s argument before this group of great people was that the Old Testament scriptures spoke of the hope of resurrection for God’s chosen people, and that this hope was fulfilled in Jesus Christ as the first one to rise from the dead.

Paul declared that Christ’s resurrection proved that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah. Additionally, he argued, it guarantees the resurrection hope of all God’s people. He made this same point later in 1 Corinthians 15:20, saying, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Christ is the firstfruits, guaranteeing that there is going to be a great harvest of people who will be raised from the dead. The resurrection hope that is revealed in the Old Testament is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who is the first to rise from the dead. By his rising he guaranteed the hope of every Israelite who was a true believer in God and in his Son, Jesus Christ.

The Jewish hope in the resurrection and the Christian message are linked inseparably as a promise is to its fulfillment. So Paul was declaring, “I am not an apostate Jew, worthy of death by the Sanhedrin. No, I am one who stands in vital continuity to the true Jewish faith.” This is the same message we must preach to our Jewish friends even today, that Christianity is not a different religion but a fulfillment of all the promises of the Old Testament. Every Jew who believes in the Law and the Prophets must believe in Jesus, who is its central message.

Jesus himself spoke of this in Luke 24:45-48, where we read, “Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures,” meaning the Old Testament scriptures, the Law and the Prophets. “He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.'” The idea is that Christ must suffer, Christ must rise, and Christ must proclaim the gospel.

Finally, then, Paul was saying, “You know, the glory arrested me, confronted me, blinded me, grounded me, humbled me, questioned me, rebuked me, convicted me, commanded me, comforted me, commissioned me, and I complied. Nothing more, nothing less could I do.” When Jesus Christ confronts you, you will be humble, you will comply, and you will serve him.

Obedient to the heavenly vision, Paul began to preach, and he says he preached to all, both Jews and Gentiles. What did he preach? Repentance. Repentance means turning away from all evil. It must be a one hundred and eighty degree turn. We cannot be Christians and be in the sphere of evil. If you have been confronted by the risen Christ, you will gladly turn away from sin. True repentance is a gift that God gives to us, and when he does, we shall turn away from evil.

Turning away is negative, but positively, you will also turn to God, which is saying that you believe in Jesus Christ and entrust yourself in his service with all your mind, might, life, money, and everything else you are and have.

Additionally, Paul said, we must prove our repentance by our deeds. There is no such thing as cheap grace or theoretical repentance or empty profession. If we are confronted by the risen Christ, we will repent. We will turn to God in true, saving faith and render him absolute obedience. We are told his yoke is easy and his burden is light. If you find the yoke of Jesus Christ to be heavier than the yoke of Satan, you are not a Christian. A Christian discovers that the law of Christ is easy and a delight. It lifts our soul to the heavenlies and delights us in the depths of our being. It is inexpressible joy to obey Christ. So Paul said as an apostle that he opposed good works as ground of salvation, but at the same time he demanded good works as evidence of salvation.

Paul Makes an Evangelistic Appeal

Paul’s defense was not just a defense. When Paul finished preaching to this regal crowd, he made an evangelistic appeal to them. In Acts 26:27 Paul said, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets?” He was asking King Agrippa to testify to the truth to Festus. “King Agrippa,” Paul was saying, “you know these things. You are well-known as an authority in Jewish affairs and the Jewish scriptures. Besides, what happened is not something that was done in a corner. For about three decades people have been preaching about Christianity and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Do you believe in the Scriptures? If you do, you must say, ‘Paul, you are absolutely right.'”

What did Agrippa say? Remember, Agrippa saw himself as the great king, a pious friend of Caesar and friend of Rome. Yes, he was ruling a country-a very little country-and he was swollen with pride and intellectual arrogance. He did not believe in the Scriptures. He did not believe in anything. He was a pervert, even though he probably was a little better than his father and great-grandfather and great-uncle and other members of his family. But Agrippa was also a politician, so in verse 28 we read, “Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?'” In other words, Agrippa was saying, “Paul, do you think that in such a short time after such a brief message you can persuade me to become a Christian? Don’t you know how powerful and intellectually sophisticated I am?”

Paul answered, “Short time or long-I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” In other words, Paul was saying, “It doesn’t matter. I pray that all who listen to me will be like me, a Christian, believing in Jesus Christ, except,” and then he probably lifted his hands way up to show his chains and shook his hands to make noise, “for these chains.” This is bold, unafraid, evangelistic preaching.

The Response of Paul’s Audience

What was the response to the gospel of this august body of people, the elite sophisticates of their time? In verse 24 we read that when Paul began to speak of the resurrection of Christ, Festus interrupted Paul’s defense, crying, “You are out of your mind, Paul!” In the Greek it is Mainê, Paule, meaning “You are a maniac, Paul!” Oh, Festus could believe in a Jesus who died, but to say that this Jesus was raised from the dead was, in Festus’ mind, delusionary speech.

“You are crazy! You are a maniac!” Festus told Paul. In other words, Festus was saying, “Paul, we are naturalists. We do not believe in these supernatural ideas that stretch the very limits of our reason and destroy it by saying that somebody died and came back to life from the dead. You are a maniac! You’ve lost your mind, man! You don’t understand. You are unfit to live in this world of sophisticated people like us because you believe in this resurrection and in God.”

Paul had already raised this issue earlier in his defense, in Acts 26:8, when he asked, “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” Paul believed in infinite, personal, almighty God.

Is it incredible for you that God would raise the dead? It is not incredible for me. It is not incredible for me that God created the universe and so it is not incredible for me that God raised his Son from the dead.

What was the response of Agrippa? In essence, he told Paul, “Well, if I say “Yes” to your defense, then I must believe in Jesus Christ. But if I say “No,” which will imply that I don’t believe in the prophets, pious Jews will stone me.” So what did he do? Always the politician, he did not commit to anything. But Paul said, in essence, “I am not a maniac. I am not crazy. The words I speak are words of truth and sobriety. They are based on historical events, that God acted in history and raised his Son from the dead.”

Let me ask you: Who was insane? Who was deluded? It was the glittering people of the audience who were deluded. They were the crazies, even though they called the one who alone was sane, crazy.

This is nothing new. I myself have been called crazy several times. Well, I am in good company.

The true crazies were Festus, Agrippa, Bernice, and all these people. Their eyes were blinded, according to the Bible. They did not see the reality of God and his word or their own pride of intellect. They all stood against the claims of Christ. They would not be saved.

Calling those who believe in God crazy is nothing new. In John 10:20 we notice the Jews called Jesus Christ himself demon-possessed and crazy. In 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul explained that the gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing.

Twenty-five years ago or so, I was on a trip to India and met some people from this country and Canada who had come to attend a philosophical discussion in a non-Christian religious institution. I joined this group and spoke to them, saying, “You know, you are coming from a country where the gospel is available, if you are really seeking God. But what you are doing here is looking for truth everywhere but where it can be found.” In other words, these people were, in a sense, looking for a grain of wheat in a large pile of cattle dung.

Such intellectuals hate the gospel, but they will believe any kind of cow dung that is dished out to them in the name of philosophy and sophistication. Again, this is nothing new. Remember how Jesus Christ answered Pilate in John 18:37 when Pilate said, “You are a king, then!”? Jesus replied, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” What was Pilate’s response? “‘What is truth?'” Pilate asked.” In other words, when Jesus Christ, who is truth incarnate, was standing before him, Pilate could only say, “There is no such thing as truth.”

Paul encountered a similar reaction when he preached before the philosophers of the Areopagus in Acts 17. In verse 32 we read, “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered. . . .” This is the same idea. These rationalistic naturalists told Paul, “Shut up!” and that was the end of that. They sneered at Paul, treating him as if he were crazy.

Paul had a similar experience when he testified before the previous governor Felix. In Acts 24:25 we read, “As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come,” which is judgment by the Lord Jesus Christ, “Felix was afraid and said, ‘That’s enough for now! You may leave.'” That is another side of these people. They all come in great pomp and fantasy, but they all are afraid deep within. So Felix put a stop to this convicting sermon by Paul.

So Festus told Paul, “You are crazy, Paul!” What did Agrippa say? “I am a powerful man, a great king. I am very intellectual. I even studied at the court of Claudius. I was brought up in Rome. Do you really believe that you can persuade me just like that to be a Christian and bear this wretched name of Jesus Christ and be like you?”

In Acts 26:30 we read, “The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice, and those sitting with him. They left the room,” thus putting a stop to Paul’s preaching. Tragically, neither Agrippa nor anyone with him ever believed Paul’s message. When Paul gave his address before the Areopagus, we are told some people believed, but here no one believed. The gospel was foolishness to them.

What About You?

What about you? If God has humbled you, arrested you, grounded you, questioned you, convicted you and given you understanding as to who he is, and you are saved, you can rejoice. You are included in God’s people.

But if you have not been confronted by this Christ, if you are still arrogant, if you will not bow down in service to Jesus Christ, then I pray that you pray to him, “O God, have mercy upon me.” Otherwise, you will soon join King Agrippa and Festus and Bernice and the rich man of Luke 16, and every wise fool who ever lived. One day you will stand before God in judgment, and you will not be saved.

What is the great hope of the Holy Scriptures? It is hope of the resurrection of the dead. God fulfilled that in his Son Jesus Christ by raising him from the dead. He ascended into the heavens and is seated on the right hand of God the Father. He is the Lord of all and head of the church, and because he lives, we will live also.

You may say you sincerely don’t believe in Jesus. Let me tell you, there was a pilot the other day who was very sincere. He sincerely thought he was on the right runway. He even told the controller that “I am on 5L.” But he was sincerely wrong. The plane was on 5R, and when it had accelerated to 165 miles per hour, it crashed into something and burst into flames. Eighty or more people died. I am sure all these people had plans, but instantly they were destroyed.

Soon we will pass away. The Bible tells us that “all men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8, 1 Peter 1:24).

I pray that those who have not bowed their knees to Jesus Christ will do so today. May God have mercy upon us all, and may he reveal his Son to us in all his glorious majesty, so that we may fall down and worship him and serve him all the days of our lives. Amen.