From chapter 22 through the end of the Acts of the Apostles, Paul spends most of his time dealing with Roman and Jewish bureaucracy, as those who wish to silence him only successfully keep the impassioned apostle from planting more churches. Even while a prisoner, Paul is still a preacher. The delegates and dignitaries who incarcerate Paul can’t kill him or else they risk instigating a riot or contravening Roman law. Nor were they apt to release him since he had proven to be such a lightning rod for the people.
I have to imagine that there were more than a few times when Paul was utterly confused and frustrated by all of this. I’m certain those within the early church were unnerved by this development. Why would God impede the greatest witness to the gospel the church had in those days? Why would God allow the leading voice of Christian truth to spend his final days behind bars? Wouldn’t the church have been better served if he was allowed to roam broadly and preach freely? It’s completely natural to think this way, but Paul saw it differently. He says as much in the opening chapter of one of his Prison Epistles: “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ” (Phil. 1:12–13).
Why would God allow the leading voice of Christian truth to spend his final days behind bars?
Chains may have restricted Paul, but nothing can restrict the gospel. The truth of Jesus Christ is still going forth. It’s still advancing, so much so that “the whole imperial guard” is aware of the reason behind his incarceration. While Paul’s enemies meant to do him harm by capturing him, all they did was give that preacher a captive audience. No matter where he is, no matter who is in front of him, Paul is making Christ known. It is helpful to keep all of this in mind when considering a passage like Acts 26, where Paul is given an opportunity to “speak for himself.”
It’s worth noting that his imprisonment has reached the two-year mark by this point (Acts 24:27). After a tearful goodbye to the church at Ephesus (Acts 20), Paul ventures to Jerusalem and is promptly arrested while preaching in the temple (Acts 21). After being passed around from hearing after hearing, he’s kept in custody by Felix the governor, during which time a new governor, Festus, assumes the office, and is immediately approached by the chief priests to discuss what he was going to do about “the Paul situation” (Acts 25:1–3). These religious figures were, of course, the same ones who had been giving the apostles headaches since the days when Jesus was still around. They were incentivized to see the release of Paul out of Roman custody since that meant he could be tried in Jerusalem, where they planned on murdering him.
But since Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25–29), he was Rome’s problem. Festus, then, holds a hearing to get Paul’s story for himself. This is cut short, though, when Paul makes his appeal to Caesar (Acts 25:10–12). This is significant since it meant that Festus no longer had the final say over Paul’s fate — that would be decided in a higher court than the one Festus occupied. What’s more, this adds another level of intrigue to the scene in chapter 26. When King Agrippa visits Festus and learns about “the Paul situation,” he, too, insists on hearing from this troublemaking preacher himself (Acts 25:22). Another hearing is arranged, complete with all the pageantry that Agrippa could muster. “The next day,” Luke records, “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” (Acts 25:23).
What’s critical to remember is that Paul is not on trial. They don’t even know what they’re charging him for (Acts 25:26–27). Paul has already made his appeal to Caesar, and to Caesar, he must go (Acts 25:12). Therefore, this is just an exhibition, nothing more than a pre-trial hearing at which the accused was paraded out in front of noblemen and intellectuals for pure entertainment. Whatever the case, Paul was well within his rights to refuse this audience, but he agrees, perhaps because he sees it as another opportunity to preach the gospel. And that’s exactly what he does.
Paul’s opening words are stunning. After two years of being imprisoned and largely forgotten, he begins his “defense” not by griping or protesting or complaining about all the injustices he’s endured, but by expressing his gratitude for the simple gift of speaking his peace, especially since none other than King Agrippa is his audience (Acts 26:2–3). To be precise, this is King Herod Agrippa II, grandson of Herod the Great, the last of the Herodian dynasty. Agrippa was a Roman-sponsored ruler over Israel who was familiar both with Roman politics and Jewish theology, making him one of the more compelling individuals Paul ever evangelized. Even though his primary allegiances were to Caesar, he still harbored some latent sympathies for the Jews.
Paul’s “defense” is unlike anything anyone expected. Rather than argue for his freedom through elaborate explanations, he proceeds to simply tell his story, from the beginning. For Paul, there was no explaining away what had happened to him. His was a life that defied reason and logic. And that’s because his was a life of pure grace.
Paul’s track record was phenomenal. He was a member of the most rigorous theological school, the Pharisees, which meant that he was intimately familiar with the doctrines and codes of the Jews who were accusing him. He mockingly albeit expertly points out the irony of this whole charade: “Now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, 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!” (Acts 26:6–7).
Paul’s “defense” is unlike anything anyone expected. Rather than argue for his freedom through elaborate explanations, he proceeds to simply tell his story, from the beginning.
The Pharisees — the “fundamentalists” of Judaism — differed from some of their contemporaries since they believed in “a resurrection.” This resurrection, though, was something that would occur at the End of All Things, which is just to say that while they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the Messiah, they did believe in the resurrection of the saints. Paul adeptly exposes the ironic tragedy of their unbelief since he was being prosecuted for nothing more than preaching what was a core doctrine of their faith. Of course, for Paul, the resurrection was not merely a “future hope,” it was a present reality because of the Christ of God. The contention, then, wasn’t over the legitimacy of the resurrection (Acts 26:8), but over the fact that it was being proclaimed that Jesus of Nazareth had been resurrected.
This point becomes clear as crystal when all of the apostles’ sermons are rightly considered. Their stubborn testimony revolved around nothing more or less than Jesus’s death and resurrection. “With great power,” Luke notes early on, “the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33). How sad, then, that due to their own unbelief, the Jewish priests and elders couldn’t see what was right in front of them — namely, the fulfillment of all their hopes in the person of Jesus Christ.
Instead of wagging a finger at those in front of him, Paul identifies himself as one like them. “I was once where you sit,” he might’ve said, “believing as you do.” Some in that room had, perhaps, heard the rumors about the turncoat Pharisee who’d gone rogue, but now they were hearing it from the man himself. I imagine you could hear a pin drop as Paul relayed this part of his story. There before the showy tribunal of King Agrippa, notes R. C. H. Lenski, “stands the fiercest enemy Jesus had ever had, this enemy converted into the most fervent apostle — a miraculous transformation that is unaccountable save for what Paul now tells” (1035). It was while he was traveling to Damascus with notarized documents in hand that authorized him to bedevil even more believers that everything changed (Acts 26:12–16).
That day had been burned into Paul’s mind and soul. As he was marching to make more martyrs and blasphemers of Jesus’s followers, it was Jesus himself who showed up. In the beaming brightness of heaven’s glory, which shone brighter than the noonday sun, he appeared, not to scold him but to appeal to him and to appoint him to service. Indeed, what’s so amazing about that scene is that instead of reprimanding Paul for all the atrocities he had rained down on the church, Christ redeems and rescues Paul so that he might become a witness to and for Christ’s church. Despite his brokenness, rebellion, and unbelief, Paul was chosen by Christ himself to proclaim Christ himself. The mission he was given was nothing more than the simple message that in none but Jesus is found light, hope, and forgiveness. “I am sending you,” Jesus says, “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” (Acts 26:17–18).
Despite his brokenness, rebellion, and unbelief, Paul was chosen by Christ himself to proclaim Christ himself.
Paul goes from hunting the followers of Jesus to helping them, from harassing the church for believing in Jesus to heralding the message that it is all about Jesus. How could he be disobedient to this “heavenly vision”? (Acts 26:19). He couldn’t. He hasn’t. He tells all those in earshot that he’s been busy about the business that God in Christ gave to him, preaching the gospel far and wide, to both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 26:20). And it is only because he has been obedient to preach this God-given message that he stands before that tribunal arrested, accused, and threatened with death (Acts 26:21). But all of that doesn’t matter much to Paul, because his one purpose in life is to preach.
Even in a room full of critics, Paul doesn’t budge. He stands as confidently as ever in the knowledge that what he’s saying is the truth. It is the truth that changes everything. This is reminiscent of Martin Luther’s infamous trial at the Diet of Worms in 1521.
Luther was convinced beyond anything else that the gospel of God’s grace in Christ was free. And, accordingly, that news ought to be freely declared and dispensed to sinners everywhere. It was the word of forgiveness through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ that justified the sinner. Not works. Not indulgences. Not penance. There was nothing in the sinner, nothing the sinner could do, to merit what Christ willingly gave for free. That beloved German reformer had come to that conclusion by reading and examining the Word of God. How could he go against that? How could he turn his back on that which was so clear to him? How could he forfeit that? He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. For Luther, Ken Sundet Jones notes, “to recant meant turning his back on the Lord himself.”
Part of me believes that Luther’s stance in that hall was inspired by Paul’s before him. In a similar scene, centuries before, Paul stands as a solitary witness to the truth that changes everything. Before a council of political dignitaries and religious elite, he confesses that his entire being is “captive to the Word of God.” He can only say that which he has been appointed by God to say, which was “nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass” — namely, that the Christ of God would come to suffer the brunt of God’s punishment for the sins of the world by dying under the curse of it, but that he would emerge from that death as the Light of the World, “raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).Paul’s “defense,” then, is really just a sermon, one that testifies to the central truth of the gospel itself. It is the announcement of Christ for you, no matter how broken you are or how sinful you are or how messed up you are; no matter how dark your past, there is hope for you in the person and work of Jesus. Paul, indeed, was a living testimony to that very fact. He knew this to be true otherwise he wouldn’t be standing in that courtroom that afternoon. And even when he’s interrupted by Festus’s inflammatory outburst, he remains undeterred (Acts 26:24–29). His heart’s desire was to see everyone in that hall be as radically and thoroughly changed as he was. There is only one truth that can do that. There is only one truth that changes everything. It is the truth that fills the pages of Scripture. It is the truth God in Christ has come to die for our sins and rise from the dead in order that we might be forgiven and sanctified by faith in him.