2 “I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am going to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, 3 especially because you are familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews. Therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently.
4 “My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. 5 They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee. 6 And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, 7 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! 8 Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?
9 “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. 11 And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.
12 “In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. 14 And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 15 And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17 delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you 18 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 26:2-18 ESV
Paul is in Caesarea, where is about to give his defense before the governor, Festus, and King Agrippa. He has been provided this unique opportunity because the king happened to be in town and the governor was desperate to find some formal charge he could level against Paul before sending him to Rome for trial before the emperor. Festus had high hopes that King Agrippa, after having listened to Paul’s story, might be able to determine a crime for which to charge Paul. Up until this point, Festus had found Paul innocent of nothing worthy of death, which is what the Jews had been demanding. So, now Paul, with these two powerful men as his audience, began his defense. But what he will have to say to Festus and Agrippa will have little to do with the actual facts of the case against him. Paul was less interested in giving a defense for his actions than he was in providing a well-reasoned defense of the gospel. He was not out to prove his innocence and win his freedom. He wanted to win these two pagan political leaders to Christ.
But he started out by honoring the men before him, expressing his gratitude that he was being given the opportunity to speak before Agrippa, because he had knowledge of Jewish affairs. The emperor had assigned Agrippa the principality of Chalcis, and given him authority over the Temple at Jerusalem, including the responsibility to nominate the Jewish high priest. So, Paul was legitimately pleased to share his story with someone who had a working knowledge of Jewish religious affairs and the ability to discern the truth of what had happened that day in the temple courtyard when Paul had been beaten and arrested.
The next thing Paul did was provide Agrippa with a bit of background. He informed the king that he was a Jew and a former Pharisee. He was not part of some radical religious sect determined to stir up trouble or bring about insurrection against the Jews or Rome. He was a God-fearing Hebrew who happened to be teaching and preaching about the very hope of Israel.
6 Now I am on trial because of my hope in the fulfillment of God’s promise made to our ancestors. 7 In fact, that is why the twelve tribes of Israel zealously worship God night and day, and they share the same hope I have. Yet, Your Majesty, they accuse me for having this hope! – Acts 26:6-7 NLT
Paul wasted no time, but cut right to the point, clearly articulating that his only “crime” was that of claiming that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah of the Hebrew nation. Jesus had been the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Every God-fearing Jews since the time of the Patriarchs had believed in and hoped for the coming of the Messiah, and Paul was simply claiming that his arrest was due to the fact that the Jewish leadership refused to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. And Paul raised the real stumbling block for the Jews: the resurrection of Jesus. They had gone out of their way to see that Jesus was crucified by the Romans. To them, He was nothing more than a dead man, a former rabbi who had propagated heretical teachings, violated the Mosaic law and had constantly ridiculed them before the common people. But Paul and the apostles had been teaching that Jesus was alive. Yes, He had been killed, but God had raised Him from the dead. Which is what led Paul to ask, “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:8 ESV).
The resurrection of Jesus is the linchpin of the Christian faith. Even in Paul’s day, there were those who struggled with the idea of a man being raised back to life. Within the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high council, there were the Sadducees, who rejected the whole idea of a bodily resurrection, and the Pharisees, who embraced it. And within the early church, there were those who wrestled over the concept of Jesus’ resurrection. Paul had to address a group of these individuals who were part of the church in Corinth.
12 But tell me this—since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? 13 For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. 15 And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. 16 And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. 18 In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! 19 And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. – 1 Corinthians 15:12-19 NLT
Without the resurrection of Jesus, there is no Christian faith. There is no hope. Forgiveness of sin and any chance of being made right with God evaporate if Jesus was not raised back to life. His payment for mankind’s sin, accomplished by His sacrificial death on the cross, was incomplete if He was only a martyr. It was the fact that God restored Him back to life that proved His death had been sufficient and had fully satisfied the holy and just wrath of God against sin. The resurrection of Jesus was meant to provide us with hope of our own future resurrection from death and with the incontrovertible proof that we have been restored to a right relationship with God. Paul makes that point very clear to the church in Corinth:
20 But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.
21 So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. 22 Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. 23 But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back. – 1 Corinthians 15:20-23 NLT
So, for Paul, the real heart of the issue surrounding his arrest had been his teaching of a resurrected Messiah. And he provided King Agrippa with his own personal story of how he had become convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. It was at this point in his defense that Paul told of his conversion on the road to Damascus. The point of Paul sharing his testimony was that it revolved around the fact that he had experienced a face-to-face encounter with the resurrected Jesus. The whole reason for his radical transformation from persecutor of the church to a proponent of the gospel, was that he had met Jesus, the very one the Jews had coerced the Romans to crucify. Both Festus and Agrippa would have been aware of the events surrounding the death of Jesus. His trials and crucifixion had not happened in a vacuum. They would even have heard the rumors regarding his resurrection. But this would have been the first time they heard such detailed accounts backing up the claim that He had been raised back to life by God.
The next thing Paul did was bring his testimony to a powerful conclusion, focusing his attention on the one point that would resonate most clearly and personally to the two men in his audience: His calling to take the gospel to the Gentiles. He related to Festus and Agrippa the words spoken to him on the road to Damascus by the resurrected Jesus: “Yes, I am sending you to the Gentiles to open their eyes, so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. Then they will receive forgiveness for their sins and be given a place among God’s people, who are set apart by faith in me” (Acts 26:17-18 NLT). Look carefully at what Paul was doing. He was boldly sharing the gospel message with two powerful Roman political figures. They were Gentiles and, whether they recognized it or not, they were living in darkness. Agrippa was having an incestuous affair with his own sister, Bernice. But Paul was offering them forgiveness from sin and a place in the family of God, through faith in Jesus Christ. All they had to do was believe that Jesus was the resurrected Messiah, the Savior of the world. The main issue was going to be their own disbelief in the resurrection of Jesus. Which brings us back to Paul’s question: “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?”
Festus and Agrippa, just like every other person who has ever lived, were faced with the choice of believing the good news regarding Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, or rejecting it as farfetched and unnecessary. Paul knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was alive. His life had been radically transformed by the risen Christ. Now, he was offering the truth of Jesus’ resurrection and His offer of forgiveness of sin and eternal life to two men who desperately needed it, but would have to make the decision to accept it.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.