Agrippa opens the inquest (Acts 26:1)
Though Luke described Paul’s speech as a “defense,” the occasion was a fact-finding investigation rather than a formal judicial inquiry (26:1). That is why Festus allowed Agrippa to preside at the meeting, for it was Agrippa who told Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself” (26:1).
Paul’s speech before Agrippa covered the same ground as his previous defense before the Jews at the temple and later before Felix. The speech was personal and autobiographical. Paul began by asserting that he was a good Jew and had not violated Torah. He insisted that the Jews had accused him because he believed in the resurrection. Paul painted himself as the victim of factional squabbling over whether Jesus was the Messiah resurrected.
Paul spent considerable time recounting his conversion experience. His point was that he had not become a Christian on a whim. Dramatic events in his personal life had led to his change of viewpoint. Paul insisted that his new Christian faith was an outgrowth of his Jewish beliefs as a Pharisee. He claimed that the Christian faith was organically connected with Judaism.
We will see all these threads unfold as Paul speaks. This will be our last chance to hear Paul in depth. After this, Luke will give us only brief snippets of his conversation with shipmates (27:10, 21-25, 33), and a short synopsis of his disturbing meeting with Rome’s Jews (28:17-28).
Acquainted with Jewish customs (Acts 26:2-5)
Paul began by acknowledging that his audience, particularly Agrippa, was not antagonistic to him. Not only that, he said of Agrippa, “You are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies” (26:3). Paul was talking to someone who understood the unruly nature of the Jewish religious situation in Jerusalem and had an interest in its theology. Also, Agrippa seemed somewhat impartial—since he did not rule Judea, he was insulated from political pressures from the high priests. Indeed, Agrippa had power over the high priest. Paul hoped such a person—one who was expert in the details of Jewish belief and practice—would grasp the fact that his Christian beliefs were the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes.
He pointed out that his way of life since childhood (both in Tarsus and Jerusalem) was well known among the Jews (26:4). “They have known me for a long time” (26:5). Paul was sufficiently prominent to have been a known quantity in Judea. We might say he was a bit of a religious celebrity in his time. He stressed his loyalty to Torah, saying, “I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee” (26:5). The term “Pharisee” described those who had bound themselves to live according to the law (Philippians 3:5). In applying the term to himself, Paul established his Jewish credentials before Agrippa.
Paul proclaimed the gospel because, not in spite of, his Jewish ancestry and culture. He characterized the Jewish and Christian hope as being inextricably linked. Paul wanted Agrippa to see a continuity between his Jewish upbringing and his Christianity.
On trial for “hope” (Acts 26:6-8)
Paul again made the resurrection the real bone of contention between himself and his Jewish accusers (23:6; 24:15; 25:19). “It is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today,” he told Agrippa (26:6). The resurrection was the promise all Israel was “hoping to see fulfilled.” He hammered home the resurrection: “King Agrippa, it is because of this hope that these Jews are accusing me” (26:8).
Paul pointed out that the resurrection was a Jewish hope. He implied that Christians—who have the same hope—are within the boundaries of what was accepted within first-century Judaism. Of course, the Christian view of the resurrection was much more specific, as it centered on a glorified Jesus. All hope for a general resurrection hinged on the specific resurrection of Jesus. This was the real “hope” of which Paul spoke.
The word hope is a key term in Paul’s defence (23:6; 24:15; 26:6-; 28:20). It refers to the believing expectation that God will fulfil the promises and prophecies made in the Old Testament, and for Paul it refers specifically to the belief that these promises have been and will be fulfilled in Jesus. (Marshall, 392)
It was absurd, Paul was saying, that he should be persecuted for proclaiming the very hope in which the Jews believed! The Messiah had promised that he would free his people. God had honored Israel’s hope by sending Jesus as the Messiah and then raising him as the forerunner of the promise to raise all the righteous dead. This was the specific “hope” Paul had in mind.
At this point, Paul turned to the audience and made a plea for everyone to accept this “hope.” “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” he asked the assembly (26:8). The real issue was the resurrection of Jesus. To put it in the words of Festus, it was “about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive” (25:19). Paul had one particular instance of “raising” in mind—that of Jesus. It was one resurrection that had been authenticated and verified. For Paul, to disbelieve in the resurrection of Christ was to disbelieve in the general resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).
Paul’s point was that this belief [in a resurrection] had now been validated by God in his raising one man from the dead, demonstrating by this very fact that this one man was Israel’s long-expected deliverer, the one in whom the ancient hope was to be realized. (F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, revised edition, The New International Commentary on the Bible, page 463)
Opposed the name of Jesus (Acts 26:9-11)
Paul admitted that he, ardent Pharisee that he was, had once denounced Jesus and denied his resurrection. Paul had persecuted people who claimed to have seen Jesus alive after his crucifixion.
Paul understood his opponents’ frame of mind very well; he had once shared it himself. He himself, for all his belief in the resurrection of the dead at the last day, thought it incredible that God should have raised the crucified Jesus; and when the disciples insisted that he had indeed raised him, Paul treated them as charlatans and blasphemers. (Bruce, 464)
Paul told Agrippa: “On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them” (26:10). Luke previously told us Paul had been involved with Stephen’s death (7:57-60). But now we learn that he was instrumental in the death of many Christians, something he would regret during his entire life (1 Corinthians 15:9; 1 Timothy 1:12-16). The phrase “I cast my vote against them” literally means “I cast my pebble against them.” It was a metaphor with the meaning of giving one’s approval to something. In what sense he gave “approval” is not clear.
Would Paul have been a member of that august body to have actually “voted against” Christians who had been brought before it? It is doubtful, not only on account of his probable age at the time, but also because of his apparently obscure origins. The Sanhedrin was an assembly of aristocrats, composed of men of mature years and influence. It is just possible, of course, that he had won a place in their ranks on sheer ability, but it is safer to assume that “voted against” means simply that he “approved.” (David J. Williams, Acts, New International Biblical Commentary, page 417)
Some commentators believe that Paul was actually a member of the Sanhedrin. Member or not, Paul was working hand-in-glove with the Sanhedrin. He was a sort of point man or agent provocateur for the council authorities in hunting down Christians (7:58; 8:1; 22:20). He went from one synagogue to another—including those in foreign cities—and punished Christian Jews, attempting to get them to blaspheme (that is, to deny Christ) (26:11).
Paul spoke as though quite a number of Christians had been put to death under the authority of the Sanhedrin. It is doubtful that the Romans had given the Jewish leaders unilateral permission to kill the Christians they had jailed. The executions were probably illegal executions, or trumped-up political charges about being a follower of a convicted revolutionary. The fact that the Jews got away with Stephen’s murder implies they escaped detection and punishment in other executions. Or the authorities may have simply looked the other way.
Conversion experience (Acts 26:12-14)
During a Christian-hunting journey to Damascus—with the authority and commission of the chief priests—a critical moment occurred in Paul’s life (26:12). He came face to face with the risen Christ.
This is the third time that Paul’s conversion has been recounted in Acts (9:3-19; 22:6-16; 26:12-18). The event was obviously important for Luke as well as Paul. But each of the three accounts was not an identical retelling. Each version included or deleted information—and each had its emphasis—so that it fit the audience and Luke’s context. There is a general agreement between the accounts, and with Paul’s own statement in Galatians 1. But there are differences in detail. For example, the present account made no mention of Ananias, nor of Paul’s blindness and subsequent healing. Paul also did not mention his being taken to Damascus. [For a side-by-side comparison of the accounts, see www.gci.org/acts/harmony.]
Paul did mention only here that the voice spoke in Aramaic, or literally “in the Hebrew language” (26:14). This is indicated by the Semitic form of his name in which the voice addressed him, “Saoul, Saoul…” The light Paul saw was described as having great intensity. It was “a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions” and everyone fell to the ground (26:13-14). The sheer brightness of the light and its occurrence at noon—the brightest part of the day—also added to the forcefulness with which Jesus confronted Paul. He was stopped dead in his tracks, as it were.
The light represented the presence of God and Christ. By its intensification, Paul was perhaps suggesting that the origin of his belief in Jesus was not based on whimsy. The Damascus road experience (with its overpowering light) could not be doubted. This was the risen Jesus talking to him, and there was no question about it.
Kick against the goads (Acts 26:14)
This conversion account seemed to concentrate its attention on Jesus’ divine commission to Paul given through the voice he heard. Luke’s account accentuated the role of the voice by being the only one to report Jesus’ words to Paul: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (26:14). A goad was a long-handled, pointed instrument used to urge stubborn oxen to move forward during plowing. A modern equivalent would be a cattle prod. This prosaic agricultural metaphor was well-known in the Greek world. The expression described opposition to deity. Howard Marshall points out its usage in Euripides’ Bacchanals: “Pentheus, the opponent of the cult of Dionysius, is warned: ‘You are a mortal, and he is a god. If I were you I would control my rage and sacrifice to him rather than kick against the pricks [goads]’” (794-795).
It was a proverbial saying, common in Greek and Latin, indicating that no man can resist the will of the gods. The metaphor is that of the stubborn ox kicking back at the driver who is prodding it on in the direction he wants it to go. (Neil, 243)
An ox who kicks against the goad only invites more goading. The only way for the ox to avoid the irritant is to go forward, to do the master’s bidding. The idea as expressed in Paul’s speech seems to have been that God had been pushing Paul towards the truth, but that he had been resisting. That is not to say Paul had been suffering from an uneasy conscience over his persecution of Christians. There is no hint of this either in Acts or Paul’s epistles. Paul claimed the opposite in Acts 23:1. Even to the last moment on the Damascus road, Paul was on his way to track down Christians, not find Christ.
In the words of F.F. Bruce, “The ‘goads’ against which he was now told it was fruitless for him to kick were not the prickings of a disturbed conscience, but the new forces which were now impelling him in the opposite direction” (466).
Appointed to witness (Acts 26:15-16)
Over half of the conversion experience narrative in chapter 26 was taken up by a description of the commission Jesus gave to Paul. In this account, the commission was delivered directly to Paul by the risen Christ. Ananias was not referred to at all. It was Jesus who spoke to Paul, telling him to stand on his feet. He was then told that he had been appointed as a servant and witness of Christ (26:16). There are parallels with the commissioning of some of the Old Testament prophets. One is reminded of the commission of Ezekiel (2:1-8). He, too, was told to stand. Then he was informed that he would be sent as a prophet to a rebellious house of Israel.
But Paul was to be rescued from his own people, and then sent to the Gentiles. Paul said Jesus had told him: “I am sending you to them [the Gentiles] 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” (26:17-18).
Paul would receive protection from Jews and Gentiles to enable him to fulfill his witness. But he would not be spared suffering in the process (9:16). Paul would turn the Gentiles from darkness (sin and ignorance) to light (understanding and righteousness) (26:18). Paul’s description in Colossians 1:12-13 of the Gentiles as being rescued from “the dominion of darkness” and sharing in “the kingdom of light” is a close parallel. Paul used this metaphor of darkness and light to represent salvation in his own writings. Some examples are: Romans 2:19; 13:12; 2 Corinthians 4:6; 6:14; Ephesians 5:8; Colossians 1:12-14; 1 Thessalonians 5:5.
Moving people from darkness to light was a way of describing conversion (1 Peter 2:9). This involved turning away from sin and evil as well (Ephesians 2:2; Colossians 1:13). In the Bible, the unsaved are pictured as being spiritually blind. Salvation is pictured in terms of restoring spiritual sight to the blind (Isaiah 35:5; 42:6; cf. Matthew 9:30). The Suffering Servant, a reference to Jesus, was commissioned to “open eyes that are blind” (Isaiah 42:7). Jesus applied this commission to himself (Luke 4:16-21, quoting from Isaiah 61:1-2). Paul, as the servant of the Master, was to take the news of that salvation to Jews, and especially to Gentiles—to open blind eyes. Paul was called to continue Jesus’ ministry of conversion, a ministry of spiritual healing.
The turning of Gentiles “from the power of Satan to God” echoed another theme of Scripture. Satan’s kingdom (this world) is at war with God’s kingdom, and must be vanquished. The book of Revelation, for example, is a story of Satan “who leads the whole world astray” (12:9). He is vanquished by the returning Jesus and chained so that “the kingdom of the world” can become the kingdom of Christ and God (11:15; 20:1-3).
Obedient to vision (Acts 26:19)
Paul offered his experience on the Damascus road as a rationale for why he was preaching a message that angered the Jews. He was telling people about what he had seen, Jesus Christ, and following his commands, telling all people that he was the promised Savior. Paul said, “I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven” (26:19). Not being “disobedient” required that he preach to Gentiles everywhere.
Paul explained to Agrippa what he had been doing all these years. He gave a general summary of his missionary activity to the present. (Or rather, Luke put a summary in the book of Acts. Paul may have covered many more details when he was talking to Agrippa.) Paul’s work had occurred in: Damascus, Jerusalem, Judea and the Gentile world. This was similar to the commission given to the 12 apostles. They were to be witnesses of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (1:8).
Paul was not laying out a chronological summary of his missionary activity. There is no evidence in Acts that he witnessed throughout Judea after preaching in Damascus and Jerusalem, though Luke doesn’t necessary tell us everywhere Paul preached (9:20-30). Paul’s own letters say that he did not preach “in all Judea” in the early days of his conversion (Galatians 1:18-24). He traveled through Judea and into Jerusalem on several later occasions (11:30; 12:25; 15:3; 18:22; 21:7-16). He could have preached the gospel in Judea during these travels.
Repent and turn to God (Acts 26:20)
During his witnessing to Christ, Paul preached that people “should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds” (26:20). We have here something of the basic substance of Paul’s message. True repentance involves a new view of oneself in which the need for a Savior to do his work within is understood to be necessary. Thus, the stress in the apostles’ preaching on the need to accept and put one’s faith in Jesus and his saving power. There is a need to turn to God “based on knowledge” and accept “the righteousness that comes from God” instead of seeking a goodness based on our own merits (Romans 10:1-3; Philippians 3:9). Pagan Gentiles would also learn that they had been putting their faith in worthless idols, and they need to turn to the true God.
Following that, believers would begin living a life appropriate to conversion. They would be showing the fruits or evidences of the operation of the Holy Spirit in their lives (Galatians 5:22-25). In short, people do not make themselves acceptable in God’s sight because they first decide to keep his law. God first converts people through the Spirit, and this leads them to base their lives on his will. Obedience is the result, and not the cause of salvation.
The proof of genuine repentance and turning to God is a certain kind of life. But these deeds are not merely the reaction of someone whose life is governed by a new series of laws; they are the result of a new love. (William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, revised edition, The Daily Study Bible Series, page 179)
Spoke what was prophesied (Acts 26:21-22)
Paul insisted to King Agrippa that it was because of his preaching the gospel—particularly to Gentiles—that the Jews had seized him in the temple, and tried to kill him (26:21). It was only through God’s protection that he had survived the plots against him. Thus, he was able to “stand here and testify to small and great alike” (26:22). Paul explained that he was teaching only what “the prophets and Moses said would happen.” That is, he was attempting to prove through the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah. This was Paul’s mode of operation when confronting Jews with the gospel (17:2-3).
Paul said he was innocent of any wrong-doing to God or the Jews. He had only taught from the Scriptures—the Scriptures that faithful Jews called their own. Paul’s teaching about Jesus, in that sense, was just pointing out fulfilled prophecy. This is a central argument of Luke in both his Gospel and the book of Acts. The hope of Israel in its Savior was described in the Holy Scriptures and fulfilled in Jesus (Luke 24:25-27, 44; Acts 3:18-26; 10:42-43; 13:27).
The Christ to suffer (Acts 26:23)
The prophets and Moses had prophesied of Jesus. In Paul’s words, they said “the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles” (26:22-23). We can go to the Servant Songs of Isaiah to find the idea of the Suffering Messiah (52:13-53:12, quoted in Acts 8:32). A number of the Psalms also speak of a Savior who would suffer (Psalm 2:1-2, quoted in Acts 4:25-26). If the writers of the Psalms (David in particular) are seen as types of a suffering Savior, then many of these contain prophetical material regarding Jesus.
The other question about Paul’s statement in 26:23 is: Which Hebrew Scriptures speak of a Savior who must first rise from the dead? There are some, though they are not prominent. Peter quoted one of these texts from Psalm 17:10 (Acts 2:25-28). Also Isaiah had said the Servant would “prolong his days” and “see the light of life” after his suffering (53:10-11).
The question also arises as to whether the Jews of Paul’s day ever thought of the Messiah in terms of suffering. The apostles seem to speak as though this was understood, at least in a hazy way. Paul does so here before Agrippa as well. Howard Marshall writes, “Paul as a Christian appears to presuppose the identification of the Messiah as the suffering Servant, but it is not certain whether this step had been taken by the Jews, and it may well be that they disputed it” (398).
It may be in doubt whether pre-Christian Judaism conceived of the Messiah in terms of suffering, dying and being resurrected. The message of the apostles and Paul clearly went beyond the understanding of the Jews, for some of it came by revelation through Christ. The majority of Jews, whatever their view of the Messiah, did not believe this role had been fulfilled in Jesus.
Nonetheless, Paul insisted that God’s purpose was pre-figured in Scripture, and that its prophetical nature could be seen in the inspired writings. That purpose (which Paul said was fulfilled in Jesus) was in harmony and continuity with the true faith of Israel. To accept the reality of Jesus, the resurrection and the Holy Spirit was to realize the true hope of Israel stated in the Scriptures (3:24-26). Jesus was a light to all people—Jew and Gentile. This had been prophesied in the Scriptures (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6; 60:3).
Luke told his readers early on in his Gospel that Jesus was a “light.” The elderly and devout Simeon had taken the infant Jesus in his arms. Through the Holy Spirit, he prophesied that he would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:32, from Isaiah 49:6). Echoing Simeon’s statement, Paul made preaching “a gospel of light” the programmatic prophecy of his own work (13:47).
“You are…insane” (Acts 26:24-27)
Such thoughts “about a dead man named Jesus” were beyond the grasp of Festus. To him, Paul was speaking nonsense. He interrupted Paul’s speech, saying, “You are out of your mind… Your great learning is driving you insane” (26:24). To a practical Roman governor, this Jewish messianism was crazy talk.
Paul countered that he wasn’t insane. He insisted that what he was saying was “true and reasonable” (24:25). He referred to King Agrippa for support, as one who was familiar with these thoughts. Paul felt he could speak to Agrippa freely because of this. Besides, the controversy over the Christians was widely known. The gospel had been proclaimed for three decades and the arguments pro and con about Jesus’ death and resurrection would have been widely known and discussed.
Paul turned to the king and said, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do” (26:27). Paul’s leading question had its point. The Jewish king who knows the Scriptures should accept Paul’s case about Jesus, since it rests on the promises of the prophets. But Agrippa was like most Jews. He could accept the words of the prophets who spoke of a coming Messiah. That was a safe belief that did not require any immediate changes in what he did. But he did not believe they were fulfilled in Jesus; that was a dangerous belief that required personal changes.
“In such a short time” (Acts 26:28-29)
The conversation had suddenly become uncomfortably personal for Agrippa. Paul had challenged him to accept his claims about Jesus since he believed the prophets. He had been logically boxed in by Paul’s question, and he needed to get out it and still remain politically correct. Johnson writes, “Agrippa is sufficiently perceptive to see that if he agrees concerning the Prophets, he is already—for Paul’s purposes—already ‘playing the Christian a little,’ so he sidesteps the challenge by humorously identifying Paul’s ploy” (J.443).
Agrippa turned and said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (26:28). The King James Version translated Agrippa’s reply to Paul in these words: “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” It is one of the most famous of biblical quotations, and many sermons have been preached on its words.
Unfortunately, it is almost certainly not what Agrippa said. The NIV’s translation is probably more faithful to the king’s thoughts. The Greek is difficult in this verse, and commentators translate it in various ways. But whatever Agrippa meant by his words, he was not almost ready to respond to Paul’s “altar call.” The king had been put into a quandary by Paul’s challenge. He was embarrassed by his appeal, but could neither agree nor disagree with certain parts of Paul’s question.
He could not admit that he did believe the prophets; on the other hand, he could not say that he did not believe them, for then his influence with the Jews and his standing with their religious leaders would be gone. So he turned Paul’s appeal aside with a smile: “In short,” he said, “you are trying to make me play the Christian”—for that seems to be the meaning of his words. He was not going to be maneuvered into anything like that! Bruce, 471)
Agrippa was not going to agree with Paul even a little bit. Otherwise he would be led into a logical box and would have no safe escape. So he parried Paul’s question with his facetious remark.
If he confessed belief in the prophets, the obvious follow-up would be, “Surely then you accept that Jesus is the Messiah?” On the other hand, to deny that he believed in the prophets would be unthinkable for a loyal Jew. So he answers, “In a short time you think to make me a Christian!” The answer is light-hearted, but not ironic. It is Agrippa’s attempt to get out of the logical trap in which he is in danger of being caught. (Marshall, 400)
To paraphrase, Agrippa was saying to Paul, “You think you can make me a Christian in this short time, don’t you?” He side-stepped the question by giving one of his own. This then led Paul to parry back with his own retort. It was probably a play on Agrippa’s quick remark. Paul said to him: “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am” (26:29).
Paul would have liked all his listeners to become Christians, to become free of their spiritual chains. The situation was made more ironic by Paul’s own manacles. After saying he wanted his listeners to become as he was, he must have raised his hands, and with a wry smile said, “…except for these chains” (26:29).
Mirror of Jesus’ trip (Acts 26:30-32)
Paul’s light touch may have elicited smiles and laughter from the audience; it was a good place to end the meeting. Festus, Agrippa, Bernice and some of the dignitaries sitting with them left the room for a discussion about Paul’s fate. Luke summarized their conclusion in a sentence: “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment” (26:31). In the words of William Barclay, “The end of the matter is that a rather bewildered company cannot see any real reason why Paul should be tried in Rome or anywhere else” (180).
This is the third time that Roman authorities (now with a Jewish king present) concluded that Paul was innocent (23:29; 25:25). Jesus, like Paul, had also been declared innocent three times by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Luke 23:4, 14, 22), with the Jewish leader Herod nodding in assent (23:5). For Luke, Paul’s ministry and trials closely resembled those of his Master, Jesus.
We cannot read this account of Paul standing before these sophisticated representatives of the Roman legal system without hearing echoes of Jesus’ trial and passion. Both Jesus and Paul go to Jerusalem ready to suffer and die in obedience to the will of God (cf. 19:21; Luke 9:51). Both appear before the Sanhedrin and a Roman procurator and governor. In both cases their fellow Jews cry “Away with him!” (21:36; Luke 23:18). Both were beaten and were at several times declared to be innocent (verse 31; 23:29; Luke 22:63; 23:4, 14-15, 22). (Willimon, (182)
But there were also differences between Jesus’ and Paul’s experience. Jesus’ death at Jerusalem was narrated in gruesome detail. Paul did not die at Jerusalem, nor would he die at the end of Acts in Rome. But to Rome Paul would go. After the Roman governor had declared Paul innocent, he could have released Paul. But it was not politically expedient to do so, and since he had appealed to the emperor, it was deemed appropriate to send him to Rome. As Agrippa told Festus: “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar” (26:32).