(This is long. Paul’s fault, not mine!)
Life has certain “defining moments”. The birth of a child or the death of a beloved are just two. In human history, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the defining moment. Paul declares this moment in his apologia to King Agrippa.
“A few days later King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to pay their respects to Festus. Since they were spending many days there, Festus discussed Paul’s case with the king. He said: ‘There is a man here whom Felix left as a prisoner. When I went to Jerusalem, the chief priests and elders of the Jews brought charges against him and asked that he be condemned. I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had an opportunity to defend himself against their charges. When they came here with me, I did not delay the case, but convened the court the next day and ordered the man to be brought in. When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. I was at a loss how to investigate such matters; so I asked if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial there on these charges. When Paul made his appeal to be held over for the Emperor’s decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar’” (Acts 25:13-21).
Agrippa rules for Rome over southern Lebanon and southern Syria. He is the great-grandson of Herod the Great, Judea’s king during Jesus’ birth. Bernice is his year-younger sister with whom he has an incestuous relationship (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 20.145-46; Juvenal Satires 6.156-60). The two arrive in Caesarea to pay respects to new Governor Festus. Over several days, the governor discusses Paul. Agrippa, probably curious, asks to speak with him. Felix agrees, hoping this “investigation” will provide an appropriate charge to send with Paul to Rome.
“Then Agrippa said to Festus, ‘I would like to hear this man myself.’ He replied, ‘Tomorrow you will hear him.’ The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high ranking officers and the leading men of the city. At the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. Festus said: ‘King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome. But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write. For I think it is unreasonable to send on a prisoner without specifying the charges against him’” (Acts 25:22-25).
Lavish ceremony marks the “investigation”. The contrast between prisoner Paul and the “important” leaders is stark. Festus admits Paul’s done nothing to deserve death; but he’ll send him to Rome because Paul has appealed. Hopefully he can be sent with a specific charge. King Agrippa invites Paul to speak.
“Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You have permission to speak for yourself.’ So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defense: ‘King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense against all the accusations of the Jews, and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently. The Jews all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee. And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today. This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. O king, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me’” (Acts 26:1-7).
The Jews know how I’ve lived, the kind of strict Pharisee I was, begins Paul—then quickly jumps to the heart of his defense. “ . . . it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today”. That hope? Resurrection.
“’Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead? I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them’” (Acts 26:8-11).
Paul admits it: he once opposed the name of Jesus—violently, obsessively. But something happened one day that changed everything.
“’On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” “Then I asked, “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the Lord replied. “Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may be sanctified by faith in me”’” (Acts 26:12-18).
“I am Jesus,” the Voice declared. He was appointing Paul to a mission “as a servant and . . . witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you”. Jesus. Jesus is alive! Risen from the dead! And he is sending Paul “to open [Gentile] eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me”.
“’So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds. That is why the Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me’” (Acts 26:19-21).
Paul explains he has been obeying the heavenly vision. And it was this that agitated the Jews against him.
“’But I have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen–that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles’” (Acts 26:22,23).
Paul claims his preaching is in perfect continuity with Moses and the prophets (see Isaiah 25:6-12). They said Messiah would rise from the dead.
“At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. ‘You are out of your mind, Paul!’ he shouted. ‘Your great learning is driving you insane.’ ‘I am not insane, most excellent Festus,’ Paul replied. ‘What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.’ Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?’ Paul replied, ‘Short time or long– I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains’” (Acts 26:24-29)
Resurrection is too much for Festus. Paul must be out of his mind. Too much learning has led to insanity. Paul appeals to Agrippa. Jewish-born, he’s familiar with “these things”. But, when Paul asks him directly if he believes, he retorts, “Do you think in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”
Agrippa has lost his opportunity and the “investigation” is over.
“The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. They left the room, and while talking with one another, they said, ‘This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.’ Agrippa said to Festus, ‘This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar’” (Acts 26:30-32).
Had Paul been mistaken to appeal to Caesar? Governor and king both decide Paul is not guilty of any crime against Rome. Had he not appealed, he could have been set free. I’ve always read that statement as an “if only”. Instead, it’s a God-sovereignty statement. The Lord’s night-message to Paul in Jerusalem makes Paul’s appeal as God-ordained . . .
“Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem,
so you must also testify in Rome”
* * *
Resurrection. The “defining moment”. Jesus was resurrected, and I will be. When I started preaching, resurrection was a nice, way-far-off hope. Now, at age 74, resurrection is a way-nearer hope. Soon I’ll leave to be with Jesus—or even better, Jesus will come. Either way–ultimately bodily resurrection.
Death is God’s curse for humanity’s sin (“ . . .for dust you are and to dust you will return.”–Genesis 3:19b). But death is also our enemy (“The last enemy to be destroyed is death”–1 Corinthians 15:26). Therefore, aging and suffering are too. God didn’t create us for any of that. Sin robbed us of life; but God will restore it. That’s his promise to Old Covenant Israel and to us who believe in the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.
“ And [the Lord] will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples . . . he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces . . . “ (Isaiah 25:7,8a). Together with ancient Israel, this is our hope.
Jesus’ resurrection marks the beginning of ours . . .
“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).
Marriage. Birth of children. Career job. A far-bigger “defining moment” is the moment we trusted our lives to Jesus Christ.
Because that’s the moment we became one “who belongs to him” for resurrection.