Paul ended his third missionary journey by going to Jerusalem to bring an offering to the church there from the churches he’d founded on his missionary journeys. Some Jews from Asia, thinking he’d taken a Gentile into the temple, stirred up a crowd against him. He was rescued by Roman soldiers stationed near the temple and a few days later, on their commander’s learning of a plot by some fanatical Jews to assassinate Paul, taken by military escort to Caesarea, where the governor (Felix) had his headquarters. Felix couldn’t find anything wrong with Paul but, hoping for a bribe from him, kept him imprisoned. Similarly Festus couldn’t find anything wrong with Paul but, fearing that Festus might turn him over to the Jews to do them a favour, Paul appealed to have his case heard before the emperor, which was his right as a Roman citizen.
Some days later Agrippa II, ruler of an adjoining kingdom to the north, and his sister, Bernice, came to pay their respects to Festus. Agrippa’s being considered by Rome to be an expert on the Jewish religion, Festus laid Paul’s case before him to help him know what to write to the emperor about Paul. Agrippa told Festus that he would like to hear Paul himself, and the next day Festus had Paul brought before them (and Bernice) and the military tribunes and the important men of the city. On Festus’s introducing Paul to him and the others present, Agrippa told Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself” (Acts 26:1, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV).
In this article I’ll consider Paul’s speech and Festus’s and Agrippa’s response to it, as they are recorded in Acts 26. In summarizing and commenting on Paul’s speech, I’ll divide it into three parts: his life as a Pharisee, his conversion and call, and his subsequent ministry.
Paul the Pharisee
Paul opened by expressing appreciation to Agrippa for his being able to defend himself against the accusations of the Jews before someone “familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews” (26:3) and asking Agrippa to listen to him patiently. He went on to tell how he was brought up as a Pharisee and to attribute his being on trial to “his hope in the promise made by God to our fathers” (26:6). Although Paul didn’t specify what that hope involved, his going on to ask, “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” (26:8), indicates that it must have included the hope of the resurrection of the dead which was held by the Pharisees. He then acknowledged that, despite his belief in the resurrection of the dead, he had once thought that the claim by followers of Jesus that God had raised him from the dead was incredible. He went on to tell about his persecution of Christians not only in Judea but even in foreign cities.
Paul’s Conversion and Call
Paul continued, “In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests” (26:12). Then he described his conversion and call.
|Acts 26:13-18||Acts 9:3-19||Acts 22:6-16|
|13 At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me.||3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.||6 As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me.|
|14 And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew [probably Aramaic] language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”||4 And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”||7 And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”|
|15 And I said, “Who are you, Lord?”||5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?”||8 And I answered, “Who are you, Lord?”|
| And the Lord said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17 delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles–to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”|| And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. [However further on in the chapter Luke reports that when Barnabas took Paul to the apostles on Paul’s return to Jerusalem, he told them that Paul had seen Jesus on the road to Damascus (9:27).]|| And he said to me, “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.” 9 Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me.|
|8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.||11 And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.|
|Verses 10-19 describe Jesus’ appearing to Ananias and Ananias’s visiting Paul. It includes Jesus telling Ananias, “[Paul] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”||In verses 12-16 Paul describes Ananias’s visit to him. It includes Ananias’s telling Paul, “The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard.”|
The three accounts seem to differ on what happened on the road to Damascus, but the differences can be reconciled by recognizing that each account gives only some details of what happened. A comparison of the three accounts suggests that all in the group saw the light, heard a voice, and fell to the ground but that only Paul was blinded by the light, saw Jesus, and understood what he said. Also only Paul’s speech to Agrippa refers to Jesus’ quoting the Greek proverb, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads,” when he addressed Paul. Goads were sharp sticks used to prod oxen; the oxen’s kicking back would only hurt them worse.
The three accounts also seem to differ on when Paul was commissioned: Paul told Agrippa that Jesus commissioned him when he spoke to him on the road to Damascus, but the other two accounts say that Ananias told Paul that Jesus had commissioned him. Some commentators reconcile the accounts by suggesting that in speaking to Agrippa Paul merged what God told him on the road to Damascus with what Ananias subsequently told him. However it is certainly possible that Jesus commissioned Paul both directly when he spoke to him on the road to Damascus and indirectly through Ananias.
Paul continued, “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision” (26:19), and described briefly how he had declared the Gospel in Damascus, Jerusalem, and the rest of Judea, and to the Gentiles (on his missionary journeys). He then told of how the Jews had seized him in the temple and tried to kill him and asserted that he would continue to proclaim the Gospel, which he summarized as “that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim ‘light both to our people and to the Gentiles’” (26:23).
Festus’s and Felix’s Response
Festus interrupted Paul’s defence by calling out, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you mad” (26:24).
Paul responded by asserting that he wasn’t out of his mind but was speaking the truth. Then, observing that Agrippa surely knew about the events that he was talking about, Paul appealed to him, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe” (26:27), implying that if as a devout Jew Agrippa believed the prophets then he must believe the predictions that they had made about Jesus and acknowledge the truth of what Paul said.
Agrippa replied, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (26:28). The KJV translation of Agrippa’s reply, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian,” is often quoted, but most Bible scholars consider the ESV rendering to be the correct translation. Paul replied, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become [a Christian] as I am—except for these chains” (26:29).
Then Agrippa, Festus, and those with them rose and withdrew, agreeing with each other that Paul hadn’t done anything that deserved death or even imprisonment. Agrippa told Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar” (26:32). But he had and shortly afterwards he was sent by ship to Rome. In my next articles in this series on the life of Paul I’ll consider his journey to and stay in Rome.