Well tonight we return to the last leg of our series through the book of Acts. It may feel to those who have been at JPC for a while that we have been preaching through Acts in real time – in fact it’s only 7 years – which is about double time (we started in 2007!). Because we had a few weeks off for Easter - allow me to give us a brief refresher of the story so far: Luke wrote what we know as the book of Acts to show how the good news concerning Jesus would be preached to all nations beginning at Jerusalem; following his three missionary journeys Paul has arrived back in Jerusalem with the intention of pushing on to Rome next and maybe even further; however, there was a bit of a hiccup and he’s been the innocent victim of a lot of physical opposition from the Jewish authorities. He’s been rescued by the Romans and taken to Caesarea for his own safety.
And the issue since ch.22 has been: why have the Jews accused Paul? Is it a matter for Roman law enforcement? And the answer is given through 3 trials recorded between chapters 24&26: Firstly Paul defends himself before Roman Governor Felix, then before Felix’s successor, Festus, and now tonight we find him before Agrippa. Each time the same answer is given: Paul is innocent; he had done nothing that constituted a crime against Rome or Caesar and, in fact, the Jewish accusations were explained away as an ‘in-house’ affair. But what is different in this hearing is that Paul gets the chance to leave behind these issues of defending himself against the false accusations (concerning the law and temple) and instead he is given the wonderful opportunity to simply restate the gospel events of the death and resurrection of Jesus and argue that they are the fulfilment of Jewish scripture.
And as Luke recounts Paul’s witness he shows his readers three things. Firstly he shows them what they can expect from the world, secondly he shows them what such witness involves, and thirdly he again reinforces what to expect from God.
1. WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE WORLD
Luke uses this account as an example of how the world can react to the good news of Jesus. He shows us two reactions we can expect from the world.
a. Expect the world to accuse you of madness!
At the end of Paul’s speech, which was read earlier, Festus bursts out in a loud voice (26:24) “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly.
So who is the king here – let’s just rewind and take it from v.13 of Ch25:
Now when some days had passed, Agrippa the king and Bernice arrived at Caesarea and greeted Festus. (25.13)
Agrippa was actually Herod Agrippa II, the great grandson of Herod the Great. Bernice was his sister and rumours were rife that theirs was an incestuous relationship, but they had come to Caesarea to pay their respects to the new Roman governor, Festus. And this is hugely significant - stick with me as we trace through the story: we see that Festus v.14 laid Paul's case before the king. ie he took the opportunity to get Jewish Agrippa’s advice on this problem of Paul that he had inherited from his predecessor Felix. Festus briefs Agrippa noting how Paul is in prison, that the Jewish leaders (v.15) wanted him condemned, that Roman justice (v.16) would not allow an unfair trail and that in his opinion (v.18) Paul had no real case to answer and then, verse 19:
Rather they had certain points of dispute with [Paul] about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive. (25.19)
Festus correctly identifies what is at the heart of the issue – its Jesus. Is he alive or is he dead? Is there a hope of resurrection or isn’t there?
But how does he respond to hearing that gospel? v.20 we read that he is completely at a loss of how to proceed any further. He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t understand. v.25… as he himself appealed to the emperor, I decided to go ahead and send him. But I have nothing definite to write to my lord (in Rome) about him. Therefore I have brought him before you all, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that, after we have examined him, I may have something to write. (ie help me understand!)
All of which is to say that Paul gets to present the gospel to a Jewish expert who will provide Festus with an accurate briefing which can be sent to Rome. A briefing that will proclaim the true gospel in the heart of the empire as being nothing inherently threatening to Rome or Caesar. That is the significance of these verses.
But even after Paul has spoken again, Festus still doesn’t understand what on earth Paul is on about, and his mounting frustration erupts into an accusation of madness. How does Paul counter it? He appeals to the fact that the gospel is based on real events, real events that can be investigated. And of course for Paul there is nothing more crucial than the resurrection of Jesus which is emphasised greatly throughout this passage.
We need to learn from Paul. We too can expect a similar response from the world today – it is a worldview that says “You’re mad- I can’t believe that!” before any serious engagement with the claims of the gospel has occurred. When we meet such a worldview we too need to respond with the gospel events of the death & resurrection of Jesus, encouraging people to investigate the claims for themselves. Our problem today is that this charge is increasingly not linked to isolated conversations. It is a prevailing worldview that exists on so many levels throughout our culture and frankly that is why coming to church and meeting with other Christians is so important. Friends you need to be reminded that you are not mad for believing what you do about Jesus, about the forgiveness of sins and the hope of a resurrected life. The whole world around you today will laugh and sneer and mock and argue and accuse and insist that ‘you are out of your mind’. But you are not mad for sharing the gospel with your friends, families and work colleagues. You are not mad for living how you live in light of the gospel. You are not mad for giving up your time to serve others. You are not mad for reading the bible with your children. You are not mad for giving back to God vast sums of money that you could otherwise selfishly spend on something else. Listen to the words of Jesus… “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. (Mark 8:34) You are not mad!
If one response is negative, the other response we can expect from the world is potentially positive, illustrated in this account by Agrippa’s response to the gospel
b. Expect the world to ask “are you trying to convert me?”!
Look at Ch26v28: And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”
We can never talk about the gospel dispassionately as if it were just information. By its very nature it demands response! And Paul’s answer, which we’ll come back to later, is an emphatic yes! So, having understood what to expect from the world, Luke next shows us how to witness in light of that. My second main point is:
2. WHAT WITNESS INVOLVES
Back to the Luke’s narrative 25:22. Having been brought up to speed by Festus, Agrippa asks to hear Paul for himself. The opportunity comes the following day when, with great pomp and ceremony, Paul is wheeled in to give a defence, not just to the King but to a whole bunch of assembled VIPs. It is a great gospel opportunity. And Paul courageously turns from defendant to evangelist spending far more time on the gospel and the task he’d been given then he spent on the charges that had been falsely brought against him. And that’s a lesson in itself for us – to always get to the heart of the issue and not dilly-dally spending time in unhelpful distractions. True he starts in 26v.2 by saying that ‘he is going to make his defence against all the accusations of the Jews’ and that he begs Agrippa to listen to him patiently, but by the time his speech reaches its climax the defendant’s transformation from accused to passionate evangelist is complete. By doing so he provides a model of witness for believers in every age. Let’s look at what that includes.
i) Personal testimony of what God has done (v.4-15)
Throughout his speech, but especially between v4 and 15 Paul uses a very personal, testimonial style.
It’s “I once was…but then…. and now…..”
I once was… “….known by all the Jews... I …lived as a Pharisee… “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 … 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. “In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. In other words, I once was a professional Christian slayer – But then… … I saw on the way a light from heaven … I heard a voice saying to me ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? … And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But then Jesus invaded his life!
And now…v6 … I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers,
… I am not disobedient to the heavenly vision, … I have … the help that comes from God
Why does Paul do this? It’s not to draw attention to himself. In part it is to continue to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ is rooted in real events and how God uses real people to bring about his purposes.
Granted, not all of us have a literal ‘Damascus-Road-blinding-light-conversion’ experience – but every coming to the Lord is a unique gift from God, and all those who are saved know something of “I once was…but then…and now...” And God intends that, at least in part, each of us testify as to the difference that God has made in our lives to show how he is at work. However, strictly speaking what is most interesting about Paul’s testimony in this context is its necessity to establish the facts of the gospel events. Paul uses it, not as a testimony about himself, but to testify to the truth of the gospel event of the resurrection. In effect he is saying, “Look I have met this risen Jesus – I have encountered him – the resurrection is real! This is not made up!”
Next we see that witness involves a…
ii) Participation in and obedience to the task (v.16-21)
We need to understand exactly what the task is that we have been given. Paul was told in v.16 that his purpose was … as a servant and witness (of Jesus) Why? v.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 (Jesus).’ What a task! – And my question to you: Is ours any different? This is what making disciples is all about. This is what church growth is all about isn’t it? This is what growing to 2,000 in less than 4 years is all about isn’t it? We serve, we participate and God uses us to open eyes and help people turn from darkness and Satan to the light and God. In doing so they are forgiven.
That is the privilege we have in being involved.
Perhaps most forcefully though we see in this account that witness involves:
iii) Fearless commitment to the proclamation of the gospel (v.22-23)
Thank God for Paul’s courage here! He was undaunted by the company he was in. Note where his courage comes from: He’s not so much mighty apostle Paul but rather he is Paul trusting a mighty God! v.22 To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: And then note the content of his gospel proclamation: v.23 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.” Paul witnesses to a hope that is beyond this life. It is not a hope for this life only, nor importantly is it a political hope in this life that would be an inherent threat to Caesar. No! - the implication from Christ being the first to raise from the dead in v.23 is that all who trust in him will follow. Luke knows just how central that is to the proclamation of a faithful gospel - the fact of the resurrection proves the new creation, it proves what God had promised through the Scriptures.
We too must talk about the resurrection hope beyond this life. We meet worldviews all the time that are so short-sighted and only have hear-and-now hopes. We need to engage them with a gospel that has a beyond-this-life hope. And Paul also makes clear that this gospel is a message for all – Jews and Gentiles. The light is the light that the prophet Isaiah was talking about in our Old Testament reading – a light for all the nations, not just the Jews, so that salvation will reach to the ends of the earth. It is of course the light of Jesus.
And the fact that is for everyone and that God calls all to repent and turn to him, naturally leads on to the fact that witness involves…
iv) An invitation to respond (v.27)
King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.”
And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”
And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am — (And you can almost picture Paul suddenly remembering that he is still in chains. The defendant turned evangelist has just been brought back to the here and now: not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am) - except for these chains.”
This is where we return to the gospel reactions we can expect from the world. So often Agrippa’s words echo today - they’ve hardly changed at all. “Are you trying to convert me?” “You don’t belong to one of those churches that tries to convert people do you?” My wife had one the other week “If you try and convert me our friendship is over!” How does Paul respond? How should we? “You better believe I am!”
Friends we are in the business of making disciples and yet we hold back fearful of man and what the implications will be for our relationships.
Back in 2009 American comedian Penn Jilette, one half of duo Penn & Teller and also an atheist, posted a personal you tube video online in which he criticized other atheists who argue that Christians shouldn’t try and convert others. Here’s what he said:
"I don't respect people who don't proselytize; I don't respect that at all….If you believe that there is a Heaven and a Hell, and people could be going to Hell ... and you think it's not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward ... how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?
"How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you and you didn't believe it ... there's a certain point where I tackle you, and this is more important than that."
…and those are the words of someone who doesn’t have a beyond-this-life hope!!
Friends, lets respond to that challenge and let’s follow Paul’s courageous example and get involved in the task of witnessing, giving testimony to what God has done and of the hope beyond this life, and let’s make sure that that invitation gets out to all. So what happens when we’ve realised what to expect from the world, and have by God’s power and grace engaged in witness, what next?
My third and very brief final heading is
3. WHAT TO EXPECT FROM GOD (26 v30-32)
What happens following such an impassioned plea from Paul? Does the room collectively collapse in repentance and faith and turn to God? Well the response is positively underwhelming!
Then the king rose, and the governor and Bernice and those who were sitting with them. And when they had withdrawn, they said to one another, “This man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment.” And Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”
And I don’t know about you but I just want to scream at the text on my page and say something like: “Oh Paul – if you’d just hung on. Why oh why did you appeal to Caesar back in v12 of ch25! If you hadn’t of done you’d be home and dry now!” But to do that is not to trust and expect that God is control. This is the vehicle that God will use to get Paul to Rome and to proclaim the gospel at the heart of the empire – indeed to the very top of the empire!
It is a point that has been made time and again as we’ve gone through Acts, (which is why I make it only briefly here) – that even when we don’t understand what is going on we have to trust in God’s sovereignty – expect him to be in control and expect him to do whatever he needs to do to bring about the completion of his purposes.