Festus’ responsibility is to define the charges against Paul for ultimate presentation to Caesar in Rome, yet the Jewish rulers from Jerusalem have not been able to articulate any charges at all. King Agrippa, son of a father who was zealous for the law of Moses, is himself president of the temple in Jerusalem as appointed by the High Priest. Agrippa thus takes command of the trial:
“So Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You have permission to speak for yourself.’ Then Paul stretched out his hand and made his defense: ‘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, especially because you are familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews. Therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently’” (Ac 26:1-3).
Paul stretches out his hand, not as the gesture of an orator, but to show clearly the chains by which he is bound. He then points out that Agrippa is familiar not only with Jewish customs, but also with their “controversies” such as the frequent disputes between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Paul is saying that the matter before the king is far more complex than his accusers from Jerusalem would have him believe, especially concerning the hope of resurrection of the dead:
“’My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. 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. And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, 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! Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead’” (Ac 26:4-8)?
Incisive irony! How can Paul, the most zealous and famous of Jews, be sentenced to death by these same Jews because he defends what the strictest party of all Jews believe in? His hope in the resurrection of the dead is identical to their hope! Even more amazing, Paul is the one who has gone far beyond anyone else in defending the hope of the Jews against the “heresy” of Jesus having risen from the dead:
“’I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 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. 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’” (Ac 26:9-11).
Paul’s testimony before the Jews ranges from having held the outer garments of these same Jews while they stoned Stephen to death under Paul’s supervision, to chasing down the “Jesus people” on the road to Damascus in a foreign country.
Whatever could have happened to dramatically transform Paul from an intensely loyal and murderous Pharisee to a leading defender of the Jesus people; from murderous to merciful?
Hurry back for Part 2 of Paul’s defense before Agrippa. It is truly (forgive me, please) – gripping!