"Then Agrippa said to Paul, 'You are permitted to speak for yourself.' So Paul stretched out his hand and answered for himself: 'I think myself happy, King Agrippa, because today I shall answer for myself before you concerning all the things of which I am accused by the Jews, especially because you are expert in all customs and questions which have to do with the Jews. Therefore I beg you to hear me patiently. My manner of life from my youth, which was spent from the beginning among my own nation at Jerusalem, all the Jews know. They knew me from the first, if they were willing to testify, that according to the strictest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee. And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers. To this promise our twelve tribes, earnestly serving God night and day, hope to attain. For this hope's sake, King Agrippa, I am accused by the Jews. Why should it be thought incredible by you that God raises the dead? Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities'" (Acts 26:1-11).
Festus has essentially turned this "examination" over to Agrippa to proceed as he sees fit. Agrippa, in turn, gives Paul authority to speak freely for himself. What an opportunity before such a group! Paul was always happy to address anyone with the gospel, but this was a unique opportunity to bear the name of Jesus to an earthly king (specifically, one who was an expert in customs and questions pertaining to Judaism)! This occasion is not surprising, however, for the Lord made a prophecy concerning Paul to Ananias decades earlier. Jesus affirmed in Acts 9:15 that Paul "is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel."
As Paul had done before, when addressing the mob back in Acts 22, he will basically do again, asking his audience to be patient with him as he speaks. He will tell of how he became a Christian and exhort his listeners to follow his example. His approach here will be to explain what the Jews have against him; namely, that he forsook the Jewish religious elite (which he had been rigorously trained for from his youth) by becoming a Christian and then went everywhere preaching Jesus as the Christ, the risen Son of God, to Jews and Gentiles. Paul will place special emphasis on his conversion to Christ and how his life was changed so dramatically by the truth.
Paul appeals to the patriarchs of old in 26:6, stating that he is judged "for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers." This hope, in ultimate terms, was for a resurrection and a better life beyond this one (cf. Heb. 11:10,13-16). Paul's faith in Christ and the general resurrection of the dead--consistent with the hope of the patriarchs--was not radical but reasonable, especially since God had already shown He could raise the dead. Jesus' resurrection was a well attested fact for those willing to consider the evidence.
Paul emphasizes his past mistaken way of thinking, when he zealously fought against Jesus and His church. He arrested Christians, cast his vote for them to be put to death, punished them, compelled them to blaspheme, and even traveled to foreign cities, like Damascus, to persecute them.
"'While thus occupied, as I journeyed to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests, at midday, O king, along the road I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me and saying in the Hebrew language, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads." So I said, "Who are You, Lord?" And He said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me." Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance. For these reasons the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. Therefore, having obtained help from God, to this day I stand, witnessing both to small and great, saying no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said would come--that the Christ would suffer, that He would be the first to rise from the dead, and would proclaim light to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles'" (Acts 26:12-23).
Paul again details the events that led up to his conversion in Damascus (cf. our lessons from 11/30/10, 12/01/10, 12/02/10, & 04/20/11 covering Acts 9 & 22). He was traveling to that city to persecute Christians (which shows he had no preconceived bias toward Christianity), yet he there ended up becoming one himself! After speaking with the risen Lord in a light brighter than the noonday sun, Paul's perspective was dramatically changed! Supplemental information is provided here detailing a bit more of what Jesus spoke to Paul at that time. Jesus desired to make Paul a minister and a witness for Him, and Paul was willing. Paul would serve Jesus Christ all over the world and would testify as a witness for Him countless times (as he was doing then before Agrippa and the others). Jesus would reveal much to Paul so that he would be well equipped "to open their eyes [via preaching] in order to turn them [change the direction of their lives] from darkness [sin] to light [righteousness] and from the power of Satan to God." This would accomplish two fundamental results: "[first] that they may receive forgiveness of sins and [second] an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me" (26:18).
Paul went on to tell Agrippa that he obeyed the heavenly vision (and hoped Agrippa would obey Jesus also). Paul was immersed into Christ for the remission of his sins (cf. 22:16), and he immediately began preaching the same message of hope to others. He preached first in Damascus but soon traveled extensively, being as zealous for Christ as he had been formerly for the Jewish religious elite. Paul went everywhere exhorting people to repent of their sins, be converted to Jesus, and live faithfully as Christians. This is the real reason the unbelieving Jews hated him and wanted him dead! He had done nothing wrong in the temple, but the Jews despised him and tried to kill him when they had opportunity. But, Paul was not defeated! God continued to help him to stand firm, "witnessing both to small and great, saying no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said would come--that the Christ would suffer, that He would be the first to rise from the dead [never more to die], and would proclaim light to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles" (26:22,23). Christianity wasn't a new religion, per se; it was the fulfillment of Judaism that had been predicted long before. Paul's eyes had been opened to the true purpose and ultimate fulfillment of Judaism. Jesus' resurrection was the first, but eventually all would be raised to meet God in judgment (cf. John 5:28,29), and man needs to prepare himself for such!
"Now as he thus made his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, 'Paul, you are beside yourself! Much learning is driving you mad!' But he said, 'I am not mad, most noble Festus, but speak the words of truth and reason. For the king, before whom I also speak freely, knows these things; for I am convinced that none of these things escapes his attention, since this thing was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you do believe.' Then Agrippa said to Paul, 'You almost persuade me to become a Christian.' And Paul said, 'I would to God that not only you, but also all who hear me today, might become both almost and altogether such as I am, except for these chains.' When he had said these things, the king stood up, as well as the governor and Bernice and those who sat with them; and when they had gone aside, they talked among themselves, saying, 'This man is doing nothing deserving of death or chains.' Then Agrippa said to Festus, 'This man might have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar'" (Acts 26:24-32).
Festus, not having the Jewish background that Agrippa did, believed Paul had gone crazy with all his studying (he couldn't refute the message, so he attacked the messenger). But Paul denies such, respectfully, and maintains his words are nothing but truth and reason. He then boldly states that he believes Agrippa knows the validity of his message. Jesus' resurrection and the various appearances afterward were well known and witnessed by over 500 people (cf. I Cor. 15:6). The Christian religion is grounded in real history; it is checkable and will stand the test of investigation. Jesus' resurrection and the preaching on Pentecost in Acts 2 began a powerful movement--the Way--which had turned the world upside down, so to speak. Agrippa admits, in his reply, that Paul is right. The king was knowledgeable about these matters and he did believe the prophets. Agrippa told Paul - "You almost persuade me to become a Christian." So close, yet still a tragedy! To almost become a Christian is to not become one at all; it is to admit that the evidence is compelling but that one is personally unwilling to make the necessary sacrifice to repent, be converted, and live faithfully for the Lord. Although it helped his soul none, Agrippa's words here are a testament to the powerful message of truth and reason Paul preached. Paul's reply to the almost-converted king is simple. He wanted Agrippa and everyone else listening to him to submit to Christ and become like Paul--except for being a prisoner, that is. Friends, what exceptions would we have to make in our lives before we could wish others to be Christians just like we are?
With that, the "examination" is essentially over, and Luke leaves it to the reader to determine whether Festus has learned anything helpful for his letter to Caesar. Agrippa and the others get up and discuss the situation privately. They all admit that Paul was "doing nothing deserving of death or chains." Yet, none of them demands Paul's release as an innocent man! Agrippa mentions to Festus that Paul might have been set free had he not appealed to Caesar, as if to suggest that Paul's appeal had tied their hands so that they could not have set him free if they desired to.
Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.