"Paul Before Agrippa" Page 5 of 6 (series: Lessons on Acts)
by John Lowe
24 And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad.
Festus had taken all he could, and he rudely interrupted Paul. He called out in protest. The only explanation he could think of was that Paul was insane; that his undeniable scholarship had gone to his head and befuddled his brains. Magistrates could interrupt with questions and challenges, as Festus did here. Undoubtedly referring to Paul’s Jewish learning and probably also his visionary claims (26:13-19), Festus gives the usual answer that educated Romans gave to concepts so foreign and barbarian to them as “resurrection.” Greeks associated some “madness” with prophetic inspiration; philosophers often considered themselves sane and the masses mad, but the masses sometimes considered philosophers mad (possibly how Festus viewed Paul here).
What stung Festus was Paul’s insistence on the resurrection of Christ. To Festus that was a lot of nonsense. Once a man was dead, he was dead. Whatever it was that Paul had experienced on the Damascus road now obviously obsessed him, but it was certainly not a real encounter with a resurrected man. Festus laughed at the notion. Paul was laboring under the power of some strong delusion. He was mad. The word Festus used has passed into the English language as mania. Festus wholeheartedly rejected the main point at issue—the resurrection of Christ.
25 But he said, I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness.
“But he said, I am not mad.” The sanest man in that assembly that day was the man Festus said was crazy. The only man in that room who took into account all the factors in life’s equation was Paul. The only man there who had a true view and a proper perspective of time and eternity was Paul. The others, the majority, look at life from the narrow viewpoint of self-interest, from the standpoint of power, prosperity, popularity, or prestige. This world and its interest dominated their horizons. Only Paul looked at life from the standpoint of eternity. Of all those there, only Paul had met Jesus. Only Paul knew Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings and was being made conformable to His death. Paul was the only man there in touch with both worlds—this world and the world to come. Only Paul knew what it was, not only to be born, but to be born again.
“I am not mad, most noble Festus.” Paul did not respond in kind. He was far too courteous a man and far too conscientious a Christian to speak evil of dignitaries.
There is no excuse for a Christian to be rude. One cannot imagine the Lord Jesus being rude. Even though Festus was quite willing to throw Paul to the wolves to further his own career, and Paul knew that was the case; even though Festus was prejudiced against Paul and took a sardonic satisfaction in the fact that he would now have to appear before Nero; even though with Roman pride and snobbery he accused Paul of being mad; even though he wholly rejected Paul’s defense and Paul’s clear-cut testimony to the reality of resurrection, eternity, and the world to come, Paul responded with Christian courtesy. He called Festus “most noble Festus.” He gave him all the respect due to his rank. Festus had a soul to be saved, and Paul was far more likely to reach him by being courteous than by being rude.
“But speak forth the words of truth and soberness.” “Sober” (or reasonable—NIV) speech was a virtue appreciated by Romans, related to the ideas of dignity and respectability; “sober” could contrast with “mad” (26:24), and philosophers who considered themselves the sanest of all, emphasize their sobriety.
26 For the king knoweth of these things, before whom also I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner.
Paul politely excused the ignorance of Festus. After all, Festus was a newcomer to the country. Agrippa, on the other hand, was at home there. He could not help but know about Jesus of Nazareth.
For three-and-a-half years Jesus had preached, crossing and recrossing the country from northern Galilee to Jerusalem. He had taught God’s truth in a persuasive, authoritative, and unforgettable way.
His illegal trial and crucifixion, His burial in the tomb of one of the wealthiest and most influential Jews in the country, and His subsequent resurrection had rocked the country. The futile attempts of the Jewish authorities to cover up their crimes by making the resulting Christianity illegal were also public knowledge.
Nobody could factually deny the resurrection of Christ. Christ had appeared again and again—on one occasion to more than 500 credible witnesses. Nothing but deliberate refusal to face the facts could account for unbelief. “This thing was not done in a corner:” it happened in the world of Caesar, Pilate, and Herod (Luke 3:1). The mighty acts of God (2:11) are in the real world of history. The facts were public knowledge, and all attempts to suppress them had failed. With Saul’s own conversion the opposition’s star witness had turned state’s evidence, and the radicals had no further hope of silencing the voice of truth.
Agrippa knew only too well that the truth of the matter lay with Paul. Festus might think Paul was mad, but the king knew he was speaking the sober truth.
27 King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.
The apostle turned suddenly to the king—Paul returns to his argument from Scripture, directed toward Agrippa although incomprehensible to Festus (26:22-24). Carried away by the marvelous truth of the gospel, Paul ceased to be the advocate in his own defense and became God’s advocate to the conscience of the king. For Agrippa himself was now in court. He had been conversant all his life with the Jewish Scriptures. Did he believe the prophets? Of course he believed the prophets! Paul seems to have no doubt about that at all. He understands Christian faith to be a matter of believing the Hebrew Scriptures, not of rejecting them. But the equation may not be reversed—to believe the Hebrew Scriptures, does not make one a Christian. One must first come to Christian faith before the Hebrew Scriptures testify to Christ (8:26-35).
Agrippa was in a corner. If he accepted the prophets he would be forced to admit that Christ Jesus fulfilled their prophesies. His only escape was to parry the question with an inquiry of his own.
Despite the negative evidence of Agrippa’s life-style, the anguish of conviction had entered his very soul. No man knew better than Paul how long a person under deep personal conviction could fight off the Holy Spirit’s siege of his conscience.
28 Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.
Agrippa was thoroughly alarmed; for Paul’s thrusts came far too close to home. He is typical of those persons who are quite willing to listen to a sermon even to take a deep, philosophical interest in that sermon—just so long as the preacher does not make the claims of Christ personal. Many will discuss and debate the issues of the gospel but will balk at a personal decision for Christ.
King Agrippa’s response to Paul’s question, “believest thou the prophets” was not serious at all, but rather ironic and sarcastic—“You have almost persuaded me to become a Christian.” How many times has the Holy Spirit heard these same words?
So far as we know, the Holy Spirit never gave him another chance. Heaven’s most gifted, persuasive, and Spirit-filled ambassador had presented him with the demands of God’s throne. He shrugged them off, afraid, no doubt, of being told by Festus that he, too, was mad. Well, he was mad. So was Festus. So are all who refuse to give up that which they cannot keep in order to gain that which they cannot lose.
29 And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds.
Paul replied, “I wish that everyone here was a Christian like me.” And holding up his shackled wrist, he added, “except for these chains.” The mission of the church is to all peoples, Jew and Gentile. Paul the Jewish Christian prays that everyone might become believers in Jesus as the Christ.
Paul had one theme—Christ; one aim—to turn all men to Him. If Agrippa and Festus turn down this heaven-sent opportunity to become Christians, perhaps there was someone else in that assembly who would heed his testimony, follow his example, and pass from death unto life.