21 Nov 2020
A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 25:23-26:32. 3). Paul before Agrippa.
Paul’s trial before Agrippa is the longest and most elaborate of the five. Luke sketches the scene with graphic detail, and Paul’s defence speech is more polished in structure and language than the others. One wonders if Luke was present in the visitors’ gallery. Otherwise Paul (or somebody else) must have rehearsed it all to him later, although Luke may also have had access to the official documents of the case.
*The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp* (23a). ‘They would have on their purple robes of royalty and the gold circlet of the crown on their brows. Doubtless Festus, to do honour to the occasion, had donned the scarlet robe which a governor wore on state occasions’. Following them, as they *entered the audience room*, in the pageantry of the procession, were both *the high-ranking officers*, the military tribunes who were ‘members of the procurator’s staff’, *and the leading men of the city*. When they had taken their seats, *at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in* (23). According to tradition, he was only a little fellow and unprepossessing in appearance, balding, with beetle brows, hooked nose and bandy legs, yet ‘full of grace’. Wearing neither crown nor gown, but only handcuffs and perhaps a plain prisoner’s tunic, he nevertheless dominated the court with his quiet, Christ-like dignity and confidence.
a). Festus introduces the case (25:24-27).
Festus’ account of the situation was a mixture of truth and error. It was true that the Jewish community had twice petitioned for Paul’s death, and that Festus had not found him guilty of any capital offence (24-25). It was not true, however, that Festus had ‘nothing definite to write to His Majesty’ about Paul (26) and that he could not ‘specify the charges against him’ (27). For the Jewish charges, as we have seen, were both definite and specific. What Festus lacked was not charges, but evidence to substantiate them. For lack of this, he should have had the courage to declare Paul innocent and to release him.
b). Paul makes his defence (26:1-23).
It was a dramatic moment when the holy and humble apostle of Jesus Christ stood before this representative of the worldly, ambitious, morally corrupt family of the Herods who for generation after generation had set themselves in opposition to truth and righteousness. ‘Their founder, Herod the Great’, wrote L.B.Rackhan. ‘had tried to destroy the infant Jesus. His son Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, beheaded John the Baptist, and won from the Lord the title of “fox”. His grandson Agrippa I slew James the son of Zebedee with the sword. Now we see Paul brought before Agrippa’s son.’ It was Rackhan too who was the first (in 1901) to call Paul’s defence before Agrippa his *apologia pro vita sua*. But Paul was not in the least intimidated. For he was accurate in his reference to Agrippa’s familiarity with ‘Jewish customs and controversies’ (3), and the Western reviser’s gloss, though not part of Luke’s original text, is surely correct in saying that Paul was ‘confident, and encouraged by the Holy Spirit’ (1). Paul tells his personal story, drawing attention to its three principal phases. He portrays himself (i) as the strict Pharisee, (ii) as the fanatical persecutor, and (iii) as the commissioned apostle.
First the apostle describes *his upbringing as a Pharisee*.
Saul must have been a familiar figure in Jerusalem when as a young man he sat at the feet of Rabbi Gamaliel (22:3). He is likely to have gained a reputation for scholarship, righteousness and religious zeal. Many Palestinian Jews still alive knew how he had lived as a child, first in Tarsus, then in Jerusalem. More than that, they had known him personally and could testify from their own experience that he belonged to the strictest party in Judaism, that of the Pharisees (4-5). It was surely anomalous, therefore, that he should now be on trial for his hope in God’s promise to the fathers, which he and they shared, namely that God would send his Messiah (foretold and foreshadowed in the Old Testament) to rescue and redeem his people. The twelve tribes were still eagerly expecting the fulfilment of this promise. But he believed it had already been fulfilled in Jesus, whose resurrection was the proof of his Messiahship and the pledge of our resurrection too. Why should anybody think resurrection to be incredible? The Pharisees believed in it. And now God had demonstrated it by raising Jesus from the dead.
Secondly, Paul describes *his fanatical persecution of Christ* (9-11).
Saul the Pharisee was convinced it was his solemn duty to oppose the name and the claims of Jesus of Nazareth as those of an impostor. Moreover, he had the courage of his convictions. He began his persecuting programme in Jerusalem. Armed with authority from the chief priests, he not only imprisoned many disciples of Jesus, but even, when they were ‘sentenced to death’ (JB), cast his vote against them. He searched the synagogues for the Christians in order to bring them to punishment. ‘The synagogue punishment of whipping will be meant here’. He tried by force to make them blaspheme (the phrase indicates that he by no means always succeeded), and in his ‘obsession’ (RSV, ‘in raging fury’) he pursued them even to foreign ‘cities’.
Tomorrow: Paul’s defence (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.