It started as a simple conversation, but dinner that evening came served with a side of awkward. I was out with some friends during my college years when the conversation landed on the subject of religion.
We’ve probably all been there. That deer-in-the-headlights moment. You weren’t looking for a spiritual conversation, but the conversation found you. Ironic, isn’t it? Religion, along with politics, is one of those subjects you just don’t bring up casually. For some, these topics are off-limits entirely. But there I was. I don’t remember the exact question that was raised—or even my response to it. But I do remember the anxiety. I’ve never wanted to hide my faith. But in that moment I felt the pressure, the need to “get it right.” If they didn’t understand, how could I make them understand?
If you’ve been there, you’re hardly the first—or last. In today’s reading, we look at the way Paul shares his own spiritual story. We’ve heard his story before—of God’s radical grace and transformation. But in this passage we get to see it through an outsider’s eyes. How will the Roman officials respond?
…BY SAVING FACE?
Acts 25:23 – 26:32 The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high ranking officers and the leading men of the city. At the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. 24 Festus said: “King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. 25 I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome. 26 But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write. 27 For I think it is unreasonable to send on a prisoner without specifying the charges against him.”
I love the phrase “great pomp” (as opposed to mediocre pomp?). King Agrippa had arrived. This was a big deal. But a conversation with Festus, the local governor we met in Acts 25, it’s starting to look more and more like a government foul-up.
If you remember, Paul had appealed to Caesar. If the leaders followed through, Paul would be on his way to Rome. But Festus seems worried. What would he write to the Emperor? Would he look foolish for making such a fuss over an innocent man? Maybe by escalating it to the attention of King Agrippa, he could “save face” in front of his superiors.
The next lengthy section is a summary of Paul’s spiritual journey.
Acts 26:1 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defense:
2 “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense against all the accusations of the Jews, 3 and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently.
4 “The Jews all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. 5 They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee. 6 And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today. 7 This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. O king, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me. 8 Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
9 “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11 Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.
12 “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 15 “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ “‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
19 “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. 20 First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds. 21 That is why the Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. 22 But I have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen– 23 that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”
…BY THE INSANITY PLEA?
24 At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.” 25 “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. 26 The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. 27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”
We don’t know much about the faith background of Festus. Previously he’d seemed to be fairly open. But a man rising from the dead (26:23)? This was too much. So Festus is quick to dismiss Paul by the insanity plea. The message was too weird to be taken seriously. King Agrippa was familiar with Jewish custom; this was probably not the first he’d heard some of these concepts.
If we’re honest, we speak a very different language from the rest of our world. We speak in terms of “quiet times” and “devotionals.” We talk about something that “the Lord laid on my heart.” We insist we “have a relationship, not a religion.” What’s wrong with any of that? Nothing. But like Festus, there will always be those in our world who think such language is just plain weird.
…BY ONE CONVERSATION?
28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” 29 Paul replied, “Short time or long– I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”
Paul was expecting more of a reaction from the King. “Do you believe the prophets?” he pleaded. “I know you do.” But the King was unmoved. We can’t assume that a total conversion can happen by one conversation. Instead we need to pray the words of Paul—that God would accomplish His purposes regardless of the time that it takes, short or long.
30 The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. 31 They left the room, and while talking with one another, they said, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.” 32 Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”
Their conclusion? The man’s crazy, but no criminal. In fact, the craziest thing of all is that he appealed to Caesar rather than enjoying his freedom. Paul is arguably the greatest missionary who ever lived. Yet even he was labeled as crazy. Why would we expect any different?
The greatest sin of our culture today is to be too dedicated to any one particular thing. A “religious” person might be tolerated—maybe even admired for being morally upright. But a person sold out to Christ and His gospel is just…well, weird. No one wants to be labeled a “fanatic.” But if I believe the gospel, I can be secure in my own identity in Christ. Even negative reactions provoke me to bold love rather than cowardice. Following Christ demands I place others ahead of self and faithfulness ahead of success. “There is no failure here,” sings a popular musician. “Just when you quit.”
Are you praying for faithfulness in sharing your faith?