Three Portraits on the Wall (Acts 25:23-27, Acts 26)

It has been my opportunity to visit Europe a total of four times – three missions trips to England and Scotland, and a fourth occasion in 2013 that included six countries on the continent. Such tours inevitably take you through quite a variety of castles, palaces and other prominent structures. A typical feature of these grand places is the number of portraits and paintings on the walls in practically every room. The famous kings, princes, dukes, earls, queens and princesses are all memorialized on the walls.

When you take a tour through these castles, the guide will stop from room to room and direct your attention to important features within it – ranging from who has slept there in the past, or who was beheaded there in that room. Frequently, however, the guide will draw your attention to the portraits on the wall, identifying the persons and giving some information about their lives, beliefs and activities.

So today, let’s think of Acts chapters 25 and 26 as a room with three portraits – Festus, Agrippa, and Paul. We pick up the story in Acts 25:23 where Agrippa has come to meet and interview the prisoner of Festus – this alleged criminal and curious fellow named Paul of Tarsus…

Acts 25:23 – The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high-ranking military officers and the prominent 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 a prisoner on to Rome without specifying the charges against him.”

Do you get the feeling that Festus is really glad that Agrippa has come along and is there to shed some light on this confusing situation? Indeed, Festus is not versed in either Jewish background or of “the way” … this new entity we know as the church. We need to read through the chapter (look around the room) and then we will be able to talk about the three portraits on the wall …

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 Jewish people 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 I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee. 6 And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors 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. King Agrippa, it is because of this hope that these 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 Lord’s people 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. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.

12 “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 About noon, King Agrippa, 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 and will see of me. 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 then to the Gentiles, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds. 21 That is why some Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. 22 But God has helped me to this very day; 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 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.”

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.”

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 to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”

30 The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. 31 After they left the room, they began saying to one another, “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.”

So let me now serve as your tour guide to take you behind the burgundy-colored, velvet ropes and right up close to examine these three paintings and characters.

  1. FESTUS

As we said earlier – he is the newer Roman governor who took over from the vile Felix. This is a portrait of a fully secular man.

It is more likely that the learning of Festus made him mad rather than the learning of Paul. The thought of a man dying and rising from the dead did not fit well with reason. Such talk was craziness.

Festus was, no doubt, a heathen, ignorant of any religion except the idolatrous temple worship, which in the time of the Apostles overspread the civilized world.

From what we read of his comments in the previous chapter, he seems to have been profoundly ignorant both of Judaism and Christianity.

Like most Romans, he probably regarded most religions with contempt. Romans were too proud to be openly religious, regarding most religion as either equally false or equally true in some general way.

The idea of a Jew being, as Paul declared, “a light to the Gentiles” was totally ridiculous. This would be like a homeless person declaring himself to be an expert on international monetary theory, or making him the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Is it not true that there are many in our world like Festus? A strong majority of folks! They are found in every rank and place of society from the richest to the poorest. We pass them on the streets and work with them on the job. They are frequently very good people with respectable lives.

But like Festus, they have no faith or religion, living as if having no eternal soul. They give little credence to matters of faith beyond some obligatory notice at special holidays, often to appease more spiritually-minded relatives.

They live as if there are no pressing matters of life and eternity rather than to care for the body, eat, sleep, work, get money, spend money … with no world to consider beyond that which may be perceived with the eyes.

Their greatest value is to let everyone alone in their beliefs, scoffing at the silly idea of religion as a sort of medication for the weak, scoffing also at the non-scientific and irrational idea of a miracle of resurrection from the dead and a spiritual world that is the true reality, or a creator God to whom one should be accountable.

Yes, the world is full of folks like Festus; he has a common face we see every day. But let’s move over to the next portrait …

  1. Agrippa

Agrippa is actually rather different than Festus, being of Jewish extraction and brought up as a Jew. And this accounts for Paul’s remarks that he knows he is familiar with the prophets and gives witness that he believes in them.

He was very much familiar with many ideas that Festus knew nothing about, so the concepts that Paul speaks of are not the ramblings of a lunatic to him.

Agrippa seems to have some sort of secret inner conviction that this man Paul had truth on his side. But that is about as deep as it goes. He saw … He heard … He felt … He was moved … He was at the door of the Kingdom, but he halted outside, not having the will to enter in.

Again, the world is full of a great many people like Agrippa, being found everywhere, even in our churches. Often these are people who have known the truth from their childhood, knowing the essential core teachings of the Scriptures. In their heart of hearts they know it is true, but that knowledge fails to break to the surface.

These folks are those that the Scripture says are among the ones who have not taken up their cross to follow Christ. They oft willingly confess their lives are not what they should be. Someday … sometime … they’re going to put it together. Meaning to and intending to, they live … and meaning to and intending to, they die. Kind, good, respectable people, not enemies, but not disciples and frequently not Christians.

So the portrait of Agrippa is a very familiar face as well … everywhere … even in the church.

But I think we’ll find the third portrait to be more compelling in every way.

  1. Paul

Looking closely at this third portrait, let me point out three distinct features …

  1. Great Boldness – to stand before high authorities and witness well for the Lord. Paul was always this guy that you don’t know what to do with, if you’re an authority who does not really like him. You can’t just persecute him – because he is happy to suffer for Christ … and you can’t just kill him – because he sees that as better yet.
  2. Great Confidence – in the meaning of the gospel he had come to experience in his own life. He is more than a man with boldness and nothing to say. The gospel message truly met the core need of mankind, being empowered by the work of the Spirit that goes along with the preaching of the truth. And we have this same message, yet we may tend to shirk from bold confidence in speaking it out … essentially demonstrating a lack of confidence in the source of this truth.
  3. Great Desire – to see all around him come to know the truth. Paul saw people in the light of eternity, as he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5 about the exercise of the Christian life … So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. … We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

So we walk away from the three portraits, asking ourselves in which we see ourselves reflected …

Are you today a Festus? Skeptical of faith? Really, you want to hold onto the things of this world as the true reality?  I encourage you to run to Christ today.

Are you today like Agrippa? Standing at the door of commitment? An “almost Christian” … or a “just barely Christian?”  That is neither a safe or happy place to be. So come through the door, or come clearly forward in your faith as a top priority of life.

Are you today running the race like Paul?  Bold / Confident / Desirous to advance the gospel to others?  Then run on with encouragement; and don’t be knocked off stride by the opponents and critics that strew the course of the Life Race.

(These notes and the main idea come from a sermon I first preached 29 years ago, with the inspiration of the illustrative picture coming from the devotional writings of the great British cleric J.C. Ryle.)

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Outsider Reactions to Insider Faith (Acts 25:23-26:32)

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?