Studies in the Book of Acts
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).
Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012