In this message, Alistair takes an audience of pastors and leaders through a dramatic scene in Acts 26. Drawing from the details of the text, he points to the clarity and conviction of the apostle Paul’s faith as Paul stood trial before his accusers. Alistair encourages those in pastoral ministry likewise to be clear, to speak with authority, and to convey the message of the Gospel with a sense of urgency.
I want to read not the entirety of Acts chapter 26 but just a flavor of it. I set myself the exercise earlier this morning of reading out loud in my room chapters 24, 25, and 26. There was a Bible in there called, I think, something like the Holman Standard Bible. I never heard of it in my life. But it reads remarkably well, certainly in these narrative chapters, and I found it a great delight to read it out loud. I suggest it to you as an exercise, either on your own or even a group of two or three of you, to take a time-out in the next day or two and actually read this narrative section. And hopefully, it will backfill the things that are inevitably missing from the framework of time that is offered to us this morning.
Okay. We will begin in, actually, Acts 25:23:
“The next day Agrippa and Bernice,” his wife, “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!’”
Then Festus takes far too long in his introduction. He has actually told Agrippa that he’s going to hear from Paul. And it’s almost as if, when you get to the first verse of chapter 26, Agrippa is saying, “I thought you said I was going to hear from Paul. I don’t need to hear from you.”
And Luke records:
“Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You have permission to speak for yourself.’
“[And] 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 [accusation] 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.’”
He then proceeds to recount the fact that he grew up in a distinctly religious background. He goes on to explain to Agrippa that he was absolutely convinced of his monotheism, and therefore, he ought to do everything in his power to make sure that this crazy stuff about Jesus of Nazareth was absolutely put to death. He then explains that it was on one occasion when he was going about the business of silencing the followers of Jesus that he actually met the risen Lord Jesus for himself. And as a result of that, he tells Agrippa that he was commissioned to the proclaiming of this good news. And as he is beginning to work through this material, Festus—26:24—interrupts: “‘You[’re] out of your mind, Paul!’ he shouted. ‘Your great learning is driving you insane.’”
“‘I[’m] not insane, most excellent Festus,’ Paul replied. ‘What I[’m] saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I[’m] 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.’
“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 [has not done] anything that deserves death or imprisonment.’
“Agrippa said to Festus, ‘This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.’”
Just a brief prayer. I will use an old Anglican prayer, despite the fact that it’s a Baptist institution:
Gracious God, what we know not, teach us. What we have not, give us. What we are not, make us. For your Son’s sake. Amen.
Well, if you were present yesterday, you know that we have taken to ourselves the task of preaching the gospel or thinking about preaching the gospel from three different genres: first of all, yesterday, from Ecclesiastes, in the Old Testament; tomorrow, all being well, from the book of Revelation; and this morning, here, from this narrative section in the Acts of the Apostles.
There are three factors, among many factors, that inhibit persuasive gospel preaching, and they are these: confusion regarding the message itself, fear of the consequences of preaching that message, and complacency regarding the condition of those who are listening to the message. If you find diffidence in the pulpit, hesitancy—and I’m not talking about style, now, or personality, but an obvious and sincere lack of persuasive, beseeching, hortatory, didactic preaching—then you will usually find that one or more of these factors is present: confused about what we should be saying, fearful about how people will receive what we’re saying, or complacent about those who are our listeners.
Paul could never be charged with any of those conditions. And as we look at his approach this morning, I hope you will see that it is marked by clarity, by authority, and by urgency. Those are not points of outline in my study, but they are factors that I think you will find to be present, especially if you do as I’ve suggested and read the narrative for yourself out loud. He’s really clear, he’s very straightforward and authoritative, and he is urgent in the way in which he deals with the matters.
Let me just say as well, as we go into this, that there is a distinct difference between preaching from, for example, a Gospel or preaching from historical narrative. And the narrative, in this instance, should frame our approach. If you find that in your preaching you are able to preach the same sermon, using the same kind of outline, no matter what the genre is, then I think you need to go back and examine whether the text itself is framing the structure and content of your preaching.
There is a kind of homiletical training which suggests that you always have to have this kind of introduction, you have to have these certain points, these points need to appear in a certain order, and then you have to close it out in this way. All of that said, the genre of the text itself should determine the framework and structure of your messages. And I encourage you to be prepared to be as ruthless with yourself in relationship to these things. I don’t want you getting Fs in your homiletic class, but you do need to make sure that you are allowing that to be the case.
Now, let me then do what I’m suggesting to you and first of all say that it is imperative as we come to terms with this to sketch in a little bit of background. This would presumably come… It would be unlikely for you to just arbitrarily choose Acts chapter 26 for a one-off sermon. It would probably come in a series of expositions in Acts. But nevertheless, you would need to make sure that your people had an understanding of the background.
And in order to really set this in context, you have to go back to 24:5. And there you discover that Paul has been accused of being a troublemaker. The Holman Bible that I read this morning put it somewhere along these lines: “We have found this man to be a plague, an agitator of the Jews, a ringleader of a sect, and a desecrator of temple property.” Those are the underlying notions which have put Paul in custody and in front of a series of folks who are seeking to hear his case.
The trial had gone, in chapter 24, before Felix. He had heard the case without issuing a verdict. He and his adulterous companion Drusilla had on a number of occasions invited Paul to give a talk, and Paul hadn’t missed the opportunity to give the talk and had given quite a talk to somebody who was sitting there in adultery, as he discourses—24:25—on “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come.”
He obviously wasn’t trying to get himself released from jail, was he? He obviously wasn’t trying to get himself onto good terms with the ruling authorities so that he would be invited to the garden parties, so that he would be able to come in and out the back door of the equivalent of the White House. If he had been seeking to do that, then he certainly would not have challenged them concerning these things. He was very clear. He was very authoritative. He was very urgent. And Felix had no time for it at all. And in the King James Version, of course, we recall that “Felix trembled” and said, “I’ll get back to you when it’s a better time for listening to this kind of thing.”
Chapter 24 ends with the fact that he is left for two years in custody before Felix is succeeded by this fellow Porcius Festus. And here we go again. Festus makes a stab at it, but he’s quickly out of his depth. Paul, in the course of the dialogue, decides to appeal to Caesar. And when the Jewish king and his wife arrive to pay their respects to this fellow, Festus, there is an opportunity for Festus to get a little bit of help in the matter. And that’s what he says when Agrippa arrives: “I was hoping perhaps that now that you’re here you would be able to give me some kind of insight.” And you can read that in chapter 25. He says it, I think, in verse 14, and then again in verse 19, and he outlines the situation for the visiting king. There are “some points of dispute”—25:19. They’re disputing about matters of “their own religion … about a dead man named Jesus who[m] Paul claimed was alive.” A wonderfully dismissive way: “It’s some kind of intramural discussion, King. Paul is on about Jesus of Nazareth. He’s clearly dead. He actually thinks he’s alive.” And as a result of this, the king says, “Oh, this is quite fascinating. I’d like to hear him myself.”
And so, a large door of opportunity, in the providence of God, is now swinging open—a door of opportunity for Festus to hear, for Agrippa and Bernice to hear, and a big door of opportunity swinging open for the apostle Paul to make clear not simply the nature of his predicament but the nature of the gospel itself.
And in 25:23, which was where we began, the scene is set for us. If you want to know how I’ve outlined this for myself, my first heading for my own notes was “Sketch in the Background.” My second heading is “Consider the Scene.” “Consider the Scene.” And I have in mind art class at school, where we had to look at all of these various paintings, and our art teacher, Mr. X, used to… Mr. Walker, Tommy Walker. His wife taught me English. Tommy Walker was very keen that we learned how to stand far enough back so that we could take in the entirety of the painting or whatever it was.
It’s important as you’re studying the Bible that you stand far enough back from it; that you don’t immediately assume that you know this because you read it seven times; that you are prepared as a teacher of the Bible to be surprised by the text; that you’re prepared to come to it as an agnostic, not as a believer—not in the sense of you don’t believe the truth of it, but you just don’t know everything about it. If you come to it saying, “Oh, I know this, I learned this many, many times,” then you will not discover the things that you will discover if you’re prepared to come to it, as it were, on your knees, saying, “I wonder why it’s written in this way? I wonder how this unfolds?” So I put in my notes, “Consider the Scene.”
“Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp.” The silly part of my childhood mind says to myself, when I’m reading a phrase like that, “I wonder who he was?” But that’s just an indication of how infantile I am. And some of you are so bright, you don’t even get that. “The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp.” “They came with great pomp.” Of course, pomp is not capitalized, so it wasn’t a person. It’s not a proper noun. And “they came with great pomp.”
In other words, the circumstances would be a bit like a miserable high school graduation where they play Elgar again and again and again and again till you’re just about going insane. It starts about twenty-five minutes before the graduation. You come early. You want to get a decent seat. And it’s bum, bum, ba-ba-bum, bum, bum. That’s okay. It’s nice—maybe once, maybe twice. By the time it gets to the forty-seventh time, it’s like scratching your nails on a blackboard. In fact, it’s anticlimactic when everybody finally shows up, ’cause it’s been played so many times.
“The high ranking officers,” “the leading men of the city,” all arrive. The Herods are here! The Herods are here. Wow! Is this the Herod whose great-grandfather was responsible for the slaughter of the boys under the age of two in Bethlehem? Yes. Is this the Herod whose grandfather was responsible for the beheading of John the Baptist? Yes. Is this the Herod whose father killed the apostle James and died a miserable death? Yes. Quite a group, wouldn’t you say? Not the nicest of people.
And the scene is straightforward. The humble apostle stands before this representative of the morally corrupt house of Herod. And the language as it is given to us makes the distinction very clearly: “Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp,” “the high-ranking officers and the leading men of the city.” Okay? They came. “At the command of Festus, Paul was brought.” There’s the distinction here. They arrived.
And as you look at this scene, you say to yourself, “Where does power lie in this scene?” Any onlooker looks at the circumstance and says, “Where is there authority and where is there might in all of this?” And people would inevitably conclude that the authority in this scene lay with those who had arrived with this great display of standing, with the indication of their status. Certainly, whoever this little Jew is, whatever he’s about to say, he’s in a position of abject weakness.
Now, we might pause at this in our preaching and say, “You know, this is actually a classic picture of the church in the world. This is a classic picture of the average Baptist church somewhere in rural Alabama, with a pastor and a hundred and ten people and a little Sunday school, and the world going by, and the town council executing its judgments, and the significance and authority of status—intellectually and commercially and socially—all appearing to be on the side of this.”
It’s a reminder to us that we need to allow our Bibles to frame our thinking. And some of you who are old enough like me to remember Chariots of Fire, when it wasn’t something that your grandfather watched, you may actually have that scene in your mind where Eric Liddell stands in the pulpit and he says, “He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.”
I wish I could get invited just once to the Prayer Breakfast in Washington, because this is my text. Give me one shot; this is what I want to preach. “Oh, you’ll never be invited back.” It doesn’t matter! You only need invited once:
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
the Creator of the ends of the earth,
fainteth not, nor is weary.
There is no searching of his understanding.
He gives power to the weak
and to those who have no might he increases strength.
Surely young men will stumble and fall,
But they that wait upon the Lord
will renew their strength.
He is the God who brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of the world to nothing.
It is quite pathetic to see the extent to which evangelical Christianity continues to hang onto the coattails of politicians in this country, as if somehow or another they actually control very much.
Agrippa has declared that he would like to hear, and so hear he will. And 26:1… You say, “We’re here for a long time this morning.” Don’t worry; we will move ahead quickly. He gives permission to Paul to speak. And notice the little eyewitness observation: “So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defense.”
It’s interesting, isn’t it? I always like to look for what’s surprising. It’s quite surprising that you have a detail like that: he “motioned with his hand and began his defense.” That’s eyewitness. Somebody reported it. It either was a characteristic of Paul that he always started in the same way, or it was characteristic of the time that when you began an oration, you began in that way—a kind of Shakespearean look to it, if you like, a kind of Polonius:
My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day … day, night night, and time is time
Were nothing but to waste [both] night, day, and time.
[And] since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.
That’s the kind of thing. And you remember the queen replies to Polonius, “More matter, [and] less art.” In other words, “We don’t need a lot of falderal, Polonius. What is it that you’re on about?” Some of us are masterful at getting to it and never reaching the place. Paul “motion[s] with his hand and began his defense.”
And you will notice, number one, he says, “I was a religious prodigy.” He’s gotta get quickly to the issue. “I was a religious prodigy. I was the LeBron James of Pharisaism.” That’s what he says. The people know this. They can verify it. “I was brought up in the strictest of backgrounds, and my life has been characterized by the hope of Israel.” “My whole life has been driven by the hope of Israel.”
And if you want, in your reading out loud, then you can go and look for the times that he mentions hope—the certainty of a reality not yet fulfilled, the conviction that God was going to come again, as he had done before, in the deliverance of his people from Egypt, and he was going to raise up a banner of salvation in the house of David. “That’s what we were looking forward to,” says Paul. “That’s what I grew up with.” That is the context of Zechariah’s song in the temple, where he says of Jesus, “You have raised up a horn for us, a horn of salvation in the house of David.”
And it was this hope which gave life, which gave meaning, which gave purpose to the synagogue gatherings, to the morning sessions, to the evening sessions, to the sacrificial system. And that is what Paul is pointing out. In verse 7 he says, “This is the promise our twelve tribes”—which is simply the nation in its totality—“this is the promise [that] our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God night and day. O king, [and] it[’s] because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me.”
And then he says, “Isn’t this crazy?” “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” It was the Sadducees that didn’t believe in the resurrection, but the Pharisees were clear: there is a resurrection to life, and there is a judgment that will follow it. Paul knew exactly what he was saying. Because the issue wasn’t resurrection per se; the issue was the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
And just in passing, the issue’s not resurrection today either. When I was a teenager in the ’60s, you used to get in these huge arguments about the resurrection. And rationalism, scientific rationalism, fought vociferously against any of us who were seeking to argue for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I don’t find the same arguments in the present generation. I find people are quite happy to just give up on the notion of resurrection or reincarnation or “coming around again” or whatever you might like to call it. It’s a different day. But what we’re talking about, what the New Testament is talking about in both the incarnation and the resurrection is a unique, unrepeatable event. “Why would anybody consider it strange that there’s a resurrection?” No, the real issue is this Jesus thing. It always is. It always is.
Now, he says, “I was the LeBron James,” and then he goes on to say that actually, he was engaged in opposition and in persecution. That’s verses 9–11. And he outlines his animosity. Then, in verses 12–18, he tells the king that there has been a divine intervention. Twelve to eighteen recount his conversion experience—at least one of the records that we have of it from Paul himself. And if your gaze is in the text, you will see that he is telling the king that he realized that Jesus is alive and that he is so closely connected with his people that to persecute them was to persecute him. And when this dawning realization came to him, as he picked himself up from the ground, he discovered that he had been rescued from his people and from among the gentiles, and he was being dispatched—verse 18.
So, just so you know, if it’s helpful to you, the way that I tried to move through this is I simply identified that in verse 4 and following he distinguishes himself as a religious prodigy. He then says, “But to be fair…” (And there’s a little transition in verses 8–9; there’s a transition there.) “But to be fair,” he says, “I was actually opposed to Jesus, and I persecuted those who loved Jesus.” That’s opposition and persecution. Then, in 12–18, there is divine intervention. God has divinely intervened. And then, in verse 18, he’s going on to tell that he has been commissioned. Commissioned.
And so I would pause there, as I pause now with you, reiterate again, “I am sending you to them,” verse 18, “to open their eyes [to] turn them from darkness to light … 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.” Verse 19: “So then, King Agrippa, I was[n’t] disobedient to the vision from heaven.” “And I set out to do what I had been asked to do.”
Now, it is at this point that the monologue is going to break beyond the bounds of propriety, and it’s going to issue in a dialogue. And so, what we need to do is summarize the balance of the material. If in preaching through narrative we are unprepared to allow things to just lie and leave them, then, frankly, it’ll take you a hundred years of your life to preach through the Acts of the Apostles. In other words, if you try and go through the narrative of Acts in the way that you would go through, let’s say, the Epistle of James, and you use the same methodology, and you hold yourself to the same sort of intricate word studies and syntax and all these different things, I suggest to you that you will bore your people to death and that you run the risk of failing to let them see that in this great, dramatic, historical sweep, there are overarching themes and implications that can only be fully grasped when you take them in their entirety. When you start to particularize them as an MO, then you will run adrift. You may want to debate about that. It’s fine. I don’t mind. I’m talking now homiletically.
So, he gives this explanation. And when you have explanation, then you get into the journalist approach, which is the who, what, why, where, when, stuff, right? If you do journalism school, you know that you arrive on the scene of the crash, you’re supposed to say, “Who? What? Why? Where? When?” And so, if you get that, then you can begin to put your paragraph together. So sometimes I come to something like this, and I just use the same questions. All right?
Explanation. Question number one: Why? “Why was I doing this, King? Why did I all of a sudden get out and start doing this?” Answer: “Because I was appointed.” “Because I was appointed.” In other words, “I’m not a bright ideas guy. I’m not here on my own authority. This isn’t something that I dreamt up. This isn’t something that I wanted to do. It’s not that I was considering going to law school, and I decided to go to seminary instead, and I’ve just gone to seminary, and so I’m here, and I’m going to talk to you.”
You won’t last long. The only reason to go is because you are sent. The only authority with which you can speak is the authority of divine commission. “I thought everybody was commissioned?” Everybody is commissioned to be a witness to Jesus Christ. Not everyone is commissioned to be a pastor and teacher. And the fact that a number of individuals have banged up against a pulpit to the distraction of their own souls and to the detriment of their own people is evident throughout the entire nation. Better to be a king or a doctor or a farmer or a plowman to the glory of God than to end up in this position uncommissioned, uncalled, unsent.
“What’s the deal here, Paul? Why are you constantly in jail? Why are you the proponent of these things?” Answer: “King, let me tell you why: because I was appointed.” That’s the why.
Where? Appointed where? You read it in verse 20: “in Damascus,” “in Jerusalem,” “in … Judea.” Tout le monde. To the whole world. To the whole world. Wesley said, “The world is my parish.” People ask me, “Well, why were you not in Scotland? Isn’t Scotland a needy place? What are you doing in America?” I was invited to come. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here. I was asked to come. But I don’t have a geographical concern. The world is our parish. We’ll go where we’re sent. We will do what we’re asked. We will stay and do as we’re told.
What? Why? “Because I was sent.” Where? “Everywhere he sent me.” What? “What is it that I am on about?” Well, you’ve got it very clear there—verse 18. “I’m just trying to encourage people to learn how to vote properly. I am seeking to register them so that we can overturn the implications of the Roman Empire. I’m dealing with the problems of homosexuality in the Roman Empire; I want to address that. I’m seeking to get a movement on the go in relationship to a number of these things. I’m putting together a very…” No, no, no, no, no, no, no. “What is it that you’re on about?” “Well, I have been sent to open their eyes, to turn them from darkness to light, 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.” That’s quite a calling, isn’t it? “To open their eyes.”
Let me ask you: How many people’s eyes have you ever opened, spiritually? None. That’s right. I’m glad you know that. How many people have you turned from darkness to light? None. How many spiritual resurrections have you presided over? Zero.
Let me give you another suggestion, when you finish reading all these chapters: go to a graveyard. I go there routinely—not in the winter; it’s too freezing cold. But in the summer, I eat my lunch every so often in a graveyard in Chagrin Falls. I understand the police may come and arrest me someday. They think I’m weird. But if they find me, they find me with my Bible, and they find me reading and eating my lunch. I don’t say this to my credit. I go there for a couple of reasons: one, to remind myself of my own mortality, and that they’re going to put me in there, and that time is going by; and two, to remind myself that I have as much possibility of having people in my congregation spiritually resurrected as a result of my words as I have standing outside of my car and asking Mr. Jenkins in tomb number seven, “Hey, come out of the dead! Mr. Jenkins, I know you’re in there. Come out! Come on now. Bring your wife with you as well. Come along. I’m waiting. I’ve only got so long.”
You say, “You’re an idiot! There’s no possibility of that happening.” You’ve got it absolutely clear. Why? Only God raises the dead. So when you preach, what possibility is there of that happening? Of people’s eyes being opened? Of people being brought from darkness into light? Of people being resurrected to new life? “One can plant and another can water, but only God can make things grow.” Who said that? The same Paul who said, “This is what I’m doing: I’m opening people’s eyes.”
Well, you are and you aren’t, right? Because God ordains people to salvation, but he also ordains the means whereby they come to salvation. And he uses our words and our stumbling and our bumbling; otherwise, we wouldn’t have any place at all in the economy of God’s redemptive purposes. It’s a great privilege, but we’ve got to know our place.
“And all,” he says, “I’ve been doing is in keeping with the prophets. You can read that for yourself. There’s nothing novel,” he says. “I haven’t come up with anything new. These people ought to know that. I haven’t come with a new bag of tricks.”
Resist the temptation to think for a minute—especially you younger fellows—that the congregation is just waiting for you to get out there with the greatest and the newest idea. There isn’t a new idea under the sun. And what our congregations need is not so much novel or new information as they need to be reminded of what the prophets have written. They need to be reminded of what the Scripture says. And that’s why Paul and Peter do it all the time: “I intend always to remind you of these things, so that after my departure you may be able to bring them to mind.” “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.” “Remember, remember, remember.” “And I’m,” says Paul, “not coming to you with anything novel or new.”
Why? “’Cause I’m sent.” Where? “Everywhere.” What? “In keeping with the prophets.” Nothing novel. Basic Christianity. And to whom? Verse 22. To whom? “I have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike.” “To small and great alike.”
Here’s another fallacy that you’ll read about: you won’t be able to preach to anybody unless you’ve actually experienced what they experienced. Right? You won’t be able to do it. Because you have to be able to contextualize the thing to the individual.
If you think about that, who you gonna talk to? How large your congregation going to be? Maybe one person, two persons, maybe three people? How’re you gonna talk to factory workers? You didn’t work in a factory. How am I gonna talk to the cardiac surgeons at the number one cardiac hospital in the world, the Cleveland Clinic? I’m not a cardiac surgeon. How am I going to speak to the musicians at the Cleveland Institute? I can’t play the cello.
What do we know? That whether it is Romania, Bulgaria, Korea, China, India, France, Germany, the United States, the heart of man is desperately wicked. And the framework in which that man lives, no matter how much we endeavor to bridge the gap into where he lives, at the end of the day, we speak the same message “to small and [to] great alike”—the same message to the intellect, the same message to the child; the same message that in the Lord Jesus Christ there is the one who has come to bear all of our alienation, all of our sin, all of our rebellion. We tell that to the children in the Sunday school. We sit with the attorney in Cleveland as he announces the fact that he’s climbed to the top of his ladder and he doesn’t know why he feels the way he feels, with such a sense of futility and emptiness. And we say to him, “Have you ever considered the possibility that you propped your ladder against the wrong wall?” “What does that mean?” “Well, here…” And what do we do? We tell the same story.
Now, at this point there was an interruption. And maybe you would like to have an interruption now, and we can all go. But we’ll just draw this to a close. “At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense.” It’s great, isn’t it? So actually, in the morass of my notes, I’ve now moved from an explanation that is clear—and the explanation involves why, where, what, and to whom—and now we have this interruption, which is in verse 24. Perhaps Festus was beginning to feel the impact of Paul’s words. Perhaps he was regretting the opportunity that he created to have Paul speak. Maybe the whole deal really did sound crazy to him. Certainly, that’s what he does: “You[’re] out of your mind, Paul!” “You’re off your rocker! You’re too clever for your own good.”
I know this is finals week, or getting close to it. Some of you might wish that the final phrase of verse 24 was really true of you: “Your great learning is driving you insane.” I have a sneaking suspicion that it may be the absence of your great learning that’s driving you insane. But I don’t want to unsettle you, especially at this point in the morning. There’s plenty of time left in the day.
So, you’ve got an interruption. What do you do with an interruption? Well, here is Paul. You’ll notice, first of all, that if his explanation is clear, his response to the interruption is kind. It’s kind. You notice he deals with it respectfully: “I[’m] not insane, most excellent Festus.” Okay? He’s not unkind. He deals with it not only respectfully but candidly. “What I[’m] saying is true and reasonable.” You can’t say that unless what you’re saying is true and reasonable. If what’s coming from our pulpits is just a lot of harrumphing and bumphing and hortatory diatribe stuff, then when people interrupt us and challenge us, we won’t be able to say, “Well, what I’m saying is true and reasonable,” unless what we’re saying is both true and reasonable. The reason that some of us are up a gum tree is because what we’re saying is only vaguely true, and it sounds horribly unreasonable. The apostolic pattern is rationality on fire. It is Augustinian. It is faith seeking understanding. It is both true and reasonable.
He responds respectfully. He responds candidly. He responds skillfully. Notice what he does: the perfect lawyer here, he divides to conquer. He’s speaking to Festus, and he says, “The king is familiar with these things”—nudge, nudge—“unlike yourself, apparently.” He doesn’t say that. It’s there by inference. “The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him.” “I obviously can’t speak freely to you, because you’re the one who’s interrupting.” He doesn’t say that. He just knows that Festus will put the pieces together. “I can speak freely to him. I[’m] convinced that none of this has escaped his notice”—“unlike your notice, old Festus boy”—“because it was not done in a corner.”
It’s a great phrase, that, isn’t it? “Because it was[n’t] done in a corner.” This is an opportunity for us to say that there is light, that there is transparency to the Christian gospel and to the Christian message. This is not Tom Cruise time. This is not Scientology, where, on State Street in Santa Barbara, when you find the Scientology place, and you look at it from the outside, you say, “I don’t think I’m going in there.” And it’s probably a good idea. Because when you go in, you go in and in and in. It gets darker. It gets deeper. It gets more desperate. Like a Mormon temple: darker, deeper, more secretive, more desperate. Not remotely Christian. The closer you get in the Christian life, the closer you get to light and to transparency and to openness. And Paul was able to say, “The king gets this, because it wasn’t done in a corner.”
So, the explanation is clear. He deals with the interruption in a way that is kind. And finally, his application is then compelling. His application is compelling. He’s referred to the king in the third person, and now he breaks the bounds of normal, accepted practice. And while the king does not sit in the formal position as a judge, nevertheless, he is really assuming that role. And the one thing—the one thing—the prisoner doesn’t do is address the judge directly. But Paul is so much committed to his agenda now that he breaks the bounds of propriety, and he says to the king, “King Agrippa, I’ve got a question for you: Do you believe the prophets? Do you believe the prophets? You know the prophets. You know what the prophets said. Let me ask you: Do you believe the prophets?”
That’s one of the things that we can say to our Jewish friends when we speak to them: “Do you believe the prophets?” That’s not to bang anything over their heads. That’s a good question. It’s a legitimate question: “Do you believe the prophets?” The fact of the matter is, most of my Jewish friends don’t even know who the prophets were. They’ve never even read them. They don’t know what they said. And many times they will say, “I don’t really know what the prophets said.” Then we have an opportunity to say to them, “Well, this is what they said: they said that a king would come to rule over all of our rebellion. They said that a priest would come to deal with the predicament of our sin. They said that a prophet would come to speak to our ignorance.” “Do you believe the prophets?”
And then notice his little nudge: “I know you do.” He doesn’t go, “Do you believe the prophets? Ah, probably not.” No! “Do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” There’s something about winsomeness in preaching that can’t be taught. And the way we read this out loud will determine the way in which we understand Paul’s approach. So, for example, if you imagine that he was some kind of remote Anglican, he says, “Do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” It’s possible! It’s possible! I don’t think so. He was Jewish! “Do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” You gotta think Dustin Hoffman. No, seriously! Don’t think of Paul as some Southern Baptist. Right? “Y’all believe the prophets? I know y’all do.” No!
Paul has a question for Agrippa. Agrippa has a question for Paul. Presumably caught off guard, he responds in standard political fashion. If you don’t know how to answer the question you’re asked, respond with a question of your own. Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” Wow! That’s what you call a lay-up. Now all he’s gonna have to do is catch it and just slam it right down through the hoop. And that’s exactly what he does. Casting his gaze around the room, and perhaps with a wave of the arm with which he had motioned in the beginning, or perhaps—we don’t know—with both of his arms, he seeks to gather his listeners to Christ: “Short time or long[, Agrippa]—I pray … that not only you but all who are listening to me [here might] become what I am, except for these chains.”
“The king rose.” The door of providence had swung open for him to hear, for Paul to preach: dialogue, explanation, interruption, clarification, invitation—all present. Winsomeness, boldness, urgency. And I’ll tell you what: if you’d never read this before, you’d get to the end and you’d go, “Oh man, I can’t believe the way this finishes! Oh no!”
“The king rose, and with him the governor … Bernice and those sitting with them. [And] they left the room.” If you’ve watched, you know, any movies from Britain, you know that when the king rises or the queen rises, everybody else rises. If you remember Mrs Brown—Judi Dench played Queen Victoria—you know, if she took her soup spoon, everybody took their soup spoon. She put it down, everybody put it down. She starts, everyone starts. She stops, everyone stops. It’s unbelievable that someone can have that much authority! And that’s exactly what you have it.
“Do you think you can make me a Christian in such a short time?”
“I’ll tell you what: I’d like to make you a Christian and everybody in the room a Christian.”
“The king rose.” “We’re done now. All rise.”
Was it that they were so stirred that they wanted out? Was it that they were completely unaffected, they were bored, they’d had enough, they wanted to move on? They arrived with great pomp. And they now leave.
And Luke tells us the kind of conversation that was going on as they walked out. You know at the end of a graduation, when the faculty walk out, you know, and they’re kind of embarrassed, ’cause everybody’s still looking at them? They got the dumb hat on, and they’re walking down, and he goes… Whatever they’re saying, you know? You don’t know if they’re saying anything to each other. And here: “And they left the room, and while talking with one another, they said, ‘This guy hasn’t done anything to deserve death.’” Person says, “No, I couldn’t agree more. I couldn’t.” In other words, you’re just overhearing a little snippet of the conversation. And Agrippa, he says to Festus, “This guy could have been set free if he hadn’t appealed to Caesar.”
Now, when I was looking in commentaries, I found a commentator who said that the imperfect tense—whichever one it is—the imperfect tense describes “the eager conversation of the dignitaries about Paul’s wonderful speech.” I’m like, “How do you get that from an imperfect tense?” The imperfect tense describes “the eager conversation of the dignitaries about Paul’s wonderful speech.” I don’t think so! I think it describes the routine jibber-jabber that happens every time you preach the gospel, every time you lay your heart out, every time you proclaim the news in such a way that people may have their eyes opened, may have their heart stirred, may be brought from darkness into light, may be given forgiveness and a place with those who are sanctified. And within a nanosecond of the amen, of the benediction, the people are saying, “Are you going to Arby’s, or where are you gonna go for lunch? Did you notice he wore the green tie this morning? I’m surprised! I thought he usually wore the blue with the gray suit. The game starts at two o’clock. What do you think we should do? Are you gonna be back at four o’clock, or where will you be?”
My dear friends, it would be enough to drive you to complete distraction, were it not for the fact that you believe that God’s Word does its work. This is the apostle Paul. This is the commissioned servant of God. This is him laying out the story to the best of his physical, human ability. And they walk out the door addressing legal technicalities. It’s a bit like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” isn’t it, in T. S. Eliot? “And all the people come and go with talk of Michelangelo.”
How would you finish? Well, if I were preaching this to my congregation, I would say to them, “How are you going to leave?” “How are you going to leave? Will you bow down as Paul bowed down and acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord and King? Or will you simply stand up and walk out the door this Sunday as you’ve done on so many Sundays, passing off what has been said in a way that is trivial and in a way that is extraneous?” And then I would have said, “Please don’t do that. I beseech you, on Christ’s behalf, don’t dash off to deal with these trivial matters until you’ve first dealt with this great matter. For nothing matters more than this matters. ‘I beseech you, on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.’”
And then our duty is discharged, and we bow in prayer.
Our gracious God, how we thank you for the Bible—that it really is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Thank you that we’re not left with Time magazine and Newsweek and a bunch of crazy nonsense to try and dream up something to say. Thank you that if we were to expend our whole lives teaching the Bible, we would never complete it. We would never run out of material. We would never exhaust the immensity of its truth, the wonder of its loving impact.
And I pray for those who are the students of your Word, who are in the process of being set apart to the ministry of your Word, that you will free them from all sense of personal preoccupation and grant that together we might look away from ourselves to Christ, who is ultimately the Preacher. He is ultimately the great Teacher. And so, help us to this end, we pray. Thank you for this time, for one another, for those whom we represent.
May the grace and mercy and peace from God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Acts 24:5–6 (paraphrased from the HCSB).
 Acts 24:25 (KJV).
 Acts 24:25 (paraphrased).
 Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson, written by Colin Welland (Warner Bros., 1981). Paraphrased.
 Isaiah 40:28–31 (paraphrased).
 Isaiah 40:23 (paraphrased).
 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2.2.
 Shakespeare, 2.2.
 Luke 1:69 (paraphrased).
 The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., ed. Nehemiah Curnock (London: Charles H. Kelley, n.d.), 2:218. Paraphrased.
 1 Corinthians 3:7 (paraphrased).
 See Ecclesiastes 1:9.
 2 Peter 1:12, 15 (paraphrased).
 Ecclesiastes 12:1 (NIV 1984).
 A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. 3, The Acts of the Apostles (Nashville: Broadman, 1930), 454.
 T. S Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), lines 13–14, 35–36. Paraphrased.
 2 Corinthians 5:20 (paraphrased).
 See Psalm 119:105.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.