Reading 271 ON TRIAL AGAIN Acts 25–26“I have nothing definite to write his majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa” (Acts 25:26).It is unwise to judge any situation by appearances alone.
The chief priests pressured the new Roman governor to let them try Paul, who then exercised his right to demand trial in Rome (25:1–13). Festus asked King Agrippa for advice (vv. 14–21). Agrippa asked to hear Paul for himself (v. 22), and was treated to Paul’s most famous presentation of the Gospel (v. 23–26:32).
Understanding the Text
“Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem” Acts 25:1–7. Festus, who began his rule in ß.S. 60, was a fair-minded administrator far different from the governors of Judea before and after him. On arriving in Judea he immediately went up to Jerusalem to meet with the Jewish leaders. This was an unusual courtesy, for he might well have called them to appear in Caesarea. The chief priests assumed this was the ideal time to press for resumption of Paul’s case, before the new administrator understood the situation. Luke tells us their request that Paul be brought up to Jerusalem as a “favor” to them was part of another plot to ambush and kill Paul (v. 3). There’s no way to tell if Festus was made suspicious by their urgency. At any rate, God overruled, and the new Roman governor decided to hear the case in Caesarea when he returned there. The old saying “man proposes, but God disposes” remains true. “I appeal to Caesar!” Acts 25:8–12 When Festus asked Paul if he would go voluntarily to Jerusalem, the apostle appealed to Caesar. In the first century the right of such an appeal was limited to extraordinary cases, where violent or capital punishment might be imposed. The appeal resolved a major problem for Paul and for Festus. The danger to Paul was that Festus, as yet unaware of Jewish culture and beliefs, might make an unwise decision. The problem for Festus was how to get off to a good start in his relationships with the Jews, and still treat Paul fairly. A fair-minded person can usually find a way to do the right thing—or at least to avoid doing wrong. “Agrippa and Bernice” Acts 25:13–21. Agrippa was the great-grandson of Herod the Great. He ruled part of the ancient family territory to the north of Judea. Later he unsuccessfully tried to keep the Jews in his area from rebelling against Rome. His loyalty was appreciated, and he was given most of the ancient family lands to rule. Bernice was his sister, reputed also to be his mistress. She married twice, and became the mistress of the Roman general and later Emperor Titus, but spent most of her time in her brother’s court. When Agrippa made a courtesy visit to the new governor of Judea, Festus asked his advice. Festus had been unable to make heads or tails of the dispute between Paul and the chief priests. What could Festus report as the charges against Paul when he sent him to Rome for trial? It was an enviable position for Paul to be in—or for any Christian. If we are imprisoned, let it be for our faith, and not because we have broken any law. “I would like to hear this man myself” Acts 25:22. Agrippa was thoroughly acquainted with the Jewish faith and, according to Paul, was known to believe the prophets (26:27). His interest in hearing Paul may have been prompted simply by curiosity. But the Greek construction, “I myself also would like to hear this man,” suggests a more personal interest. We should be glad whatever motive people have for wanting to hear the Gospel. “You have permission to speak for yourself” Acts 26:1–23. This is the third report in Acts of Paul’s conversion. This time Paul emphasized his roots in Pharisaic Judaism, his persecution of Christians, and his discovery after his vision on the Damascus road that the resurrection of Jesus was in complete harmony with Moses and the Prophets. This is less of a defense than a direct and powerful evangelistic appeal to a ruler who was intimately familiar with Judaism and the Old Testament. Again Paul had shown his mastery of gearing his presentation of the Gospel to the person he wanted most to hear. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” Acts 26:24 Festus, completely out of his depth, interrupted Paul’s talk about resurrection. To the Roman, whose viewpoint was limited to this world, talk of the dead coming to life was mad indeed. Many moderns share Festus’ view. Life is limited to our brief days on this earth. We live, we die, and death is the end. One day the universe itself will wink out, as the heat is drawn from the last flickering stars, and an endless dark will fall. To talk of resurrection, to speak of life after death, may be comforting. But it’s mad. Perhaps. But the Festuses of this world need to answer one question. If belief in a resurrection is mad, what have they to lose by trusting Christ? If belief in a resurrection is not mad, what have they to gain? “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” Acts 26:28–32 Paul’s message had been directed to Agrippa. Now Paul challenged the king directly. Since Agrippa believed the Prophets, he must know that what Paul said was true. Agrippa equivocated. His reply, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” was neither a yes nor a no. In modern slang, Agrippa “fudged.” I can sympathize with Agrippa. Here he was, on the spot. Festus had just called Paul mad. If Agrippa said he believed what Paul proclaimed, wouldn’t the Roman ruler think him mad too? How tragic when any of us are unwilling to look beyond appearances. How tragic when fear of what others may think seems more important to us than truth we are invited to embrace.
Welcome to Oz (Acts 25:23–26:32)
Who can forget the Wizard of Oz, that bumbling huckster who, hiding behind his curtain, manipulated an awesome figure that magnified his voice and pumped frightening puffs of smoke out at those seeking an audience. He was a fraud. But at least he was a lovable fraud. I’m reminded of the Wizard as I read Luke’s description of the pomp with which Festus, Agrippa, Bernice, and their “high ranking officers” filed into the courtroom. You can almost hear trumpets blare, see each in his or her finery. Here they come, proud, wealthy, powerful. Taking their raised seats as they looked down on the ordinary mortals below. And then here came Paul. A small man, weighted down with chains, he shuffled into the room, stood for a moment, and when the investigation was formally handed over to Agrippa by Festus, Paul began his defense. What’s fascinating to realize is that the man in chains and not the finery-bedecked listeners had the real power. His talk, of a suffering Christ, of a resurrection from the dead, this is reality. The swords and spears of the guards, the chain mail worn by the officers standing beside governor and king, these are as gossamer and transitory as a butterfly’s wings. We need to remember Oz. And to remember Paul before Festus and Agrippa. Just as the Wizard of Oz was a fraud, so are the powers of this world. Look behind the curtain, see the reality, and they fade to meaninglessness. Look more closely, and you realize that the man in chains was free. And those who proclaimed their freedom by their pomp were bound. Eternally.
Don’t fear the Wizard of Oz, whatever guise he wears.
“The eyes of the world see no further than this life, as mine see no further than this wall when the church door is shut. The eyes of the Christian see deep into eternity.”—John Vianney