Scripture Reference: Acts 26
On Trial For ChristDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | August 16, 2015
Scripture Reference: Acts 26
Selected highlights from this sermon
Paul, being an obedient witness concerning the Savior, seized the moment when he was brought to trial before King Agrippa and Festus. In telling his story to the rulers, Paul ushered them into the presence of Christ. Despite being in the darkest of situations, his witness was ultimately for God’s glory.
If you are here today and you are in a dilemma (if you’re in a predicament), you came to the right place. You may be experiencing a relational predicament, maybe a legal predicament – especially if you’re facing that. If you are facing opposition, you are at the right place today as we open God’s Word.
This is a very short series of messages entitled The Legacy of A Converted Man. It’s the legacy of the Apostle Paul, and today I’m going to ask that you turn, if you would please, to Acts 26.
Many of you bring your cell phones to church because we know that today the Bible is on the cell phone. Everything has to do with cell phones. There is a story about a young man who was going to go on a blind date. Someone set this up for him and he thought that it would be nice to meet a woman he’d never met before. They could go out for dinner. But he said to a friend, “What if I see her and she’s just barely pretty, and I say to myself, ‘You know, there’s just no way I’m going to spend an evening with this girl?’” The guy said, “There’s an app for that.” He said, “What you do is you buy an app. You just touch the app and your phone will ring, and then you pick it up and you say, ‘Mom, Mom, is that you? Is this an emergency?’ and then you can get out of it.”
So, he bought the app. He goes and he opens the door for this young woman, and there standing before him is a very beautiful young woman, and suddenly her phone rings and she says, “Oh Mom, Mom, is this you?” (laughter) So if you’re watching (listening?) and reading on your telephone that’s fine, but it’s the 26th chapter of Acts.
Now what we’re going to do is we’re going to paint the picture. We’re going to set it up for you. We’re going to walk through the experience of the Apostle Paul and King Agrippa. And then we’ll see the application to our lives both as we go through the text, and as we end, so that we understand the Gospel and God’s intention for us in the midst of opposition.
Here’s the story. The Apostle Paul is in Jerusalem and he is accused falsely of beginning a riot. So what happened is he was taken to Caesarea. Forty people in Jerusalem banded together and they said, “We will not eat and drink until the Apostle Paul is killed.” So he’s taken 50 or 60 miles to Caesarea, which is the place where the Roman courts were. There’s a big complex of buildings there, built by Herod the Great, and this is from where the Roman kings often ruled.
So Paul is taken there, and then he’s brought before a man by the name of Felix. And Felix listens to Paul, and trembles and wants money so he continues to ask Paul to come so that they can discuss. And Felix moves off the scene, and a man by the name of Festus takes his place.
Now you’ll notice it says back in Acts 24:27: “When two years had elapsed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. And desiring to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison.” He is imprisoned for two years without a hearing and without a reason because the charges against him were false. And then what happens is Festus doesn’t know what to do with Paul. To release him back to Jerusalem, he’ll be killed there. To simply set him free would anger the Jews. And he didn’t know what to do. He clearly said, “I’d like to send him to Rome but there are no charges, so what do we do with this man by the name of the Apostle Paul?”
King Agrippa comes to the rescue. King Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great who tried to kill, and who did kill many of the babies in Bethlehem after Jesus was born. Agrippa was part of the Herod family, and these were basically evil rulers. And he’s married to his wife whose name is Bernice, and she actually is his sister, so you can see that what’s going on here is a bundle of sin of various kinds. And Paul is brought before him.
You know, I need to paint the picture for you so that you see this. In chapter 25 it says: “So on the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city.” And then Paul is brought in.
You know, I hope that God videotapes all of these things because if things get boring in heaven, we could always watch some videos. I’d like to see Luther at the Diet of Worms. “My conscience is taken captive.” Right over here, you know, is the emperor, Charles the Fifth, and all of these dignitaries, and there’s Luther, in effect believing that he was signing his own death warrant.
And here’s another one. I mean here is King Agrippa, and all of his associates and his wife come in. They are dressed in purple, which was, of course, the dress of kings. Everyone comes in dripping with “bling,” and they sit there. And the Apostle Paul comes in, and history tells us that he was actually short and he was not very attractive. I won’t go into details. And he is in chains. So that’s the scene.
So Paul has an opportunity to defend himself, and what does Paul do? We’re going to move through this very quickly. First of all, he talks about his past conduct. I’m in Acts 26:4-6: “My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee. And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers.”
And then he goes on to verses 9 to 11: He says, “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 after receiving authority from the chief priests, 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.”
He makes two very important points. First of all, he says, “I lived as a Pharisee. I was the Pharisee of the Pharisees. I lived by all of the strict rules and I even went beyond those rules,” and then he said, “I have a very violent past. I mistreated people. I killed them. I was on hand when they were arrested. I tried to get them to blaspheme,” the Apostle Paul says.
Now let’s just pause for a moment. Was Paul sincere in his mistaken vocation of killing Christians? Of course he was. Did he believe that he was doing God’s will? Yes, of course he believed that he was doing God’s will. You must understand that today there are people who kill others in the name of God and believe that they are doing God’s will no matter how innocent the people are. All that you need to do is to look at the Middle East today and find that this is going on. And they are as convinced in their faith, absolutely certain that they are doing the will of God, the will of Allah, but they are sincerely mistaken. And what we must do is to understand here that the conversion experience of the Apostle Paul suddenly sheds light on all of this.
Now I’ve mentioned this before, but this is critical. You and I believe that Christianity is true. They believe that another religion is true. And both of us are convinced. But the great difference is this: Only Christianity (and only Christianity) grants you the assurance that when you stand before God you will be accepted. No other religion has that. I don’t care how committed they are to their religion. I don’t care how deeply they believe it. “At the end of time,” if you talk to them, they will confess, “We do not know whether or not Allah is going to accept us.”
Christianity is different. Because of the promises of Jesus that will become evident, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we have a personal assurance, and that’s one of the differences.
You know, about ten days ago I was flying from Detroit to Chicago, and I got out my iPad. Actually it wasn’t an iPad, nor was it an iPhone. It was an iPod. I probably have to explain to the young people that iPods used to exist. God knows what the technology is now! And I was going to listen to something. Well, no sooner does the plane get off the ground (in fact it wasn’t off the ground), sitting beside me was a very articulate man who told me that he was born and raised Episcopalian, but he had become a Buddhist. You can’t even imagine the delightful conversation that we had. (laughter) I’m serious!
When you are in a situation like that, what you have to do is just ask questions. I asked him, for example, first question, “Do Buddhists pray?” He said, “No, because we don’t believe anybody is in charge. We don’t pray but we do meditate.”
I asked, “How do you tell the difference between good and evil? How do you silence your conscience?” He said, “Well, I try to live in the now.” I said, “But what do you do if your conscience troubles you and you can’t shut it down?” It’s like putting a basketball in the ocean. You put it down over here and it pops up over there, and you can’t get rid of your past. What do you do? So I’m asking him all these questions and a whole lot of others. And then I finally said to him, “What if Jesus is right?” And he paused, and I helped him to understand who Jesus was by quoting one verse of Scripture after another about the claims of Christ.
I really do believe that this man will come to saving faith. He said that definitely he’d read the book of John. You know the 21-day challenge? I keep them in my attaché case. I had one for him. When I shook hands with him at O’Hare to say goodbye, I said, “Someday I’m going to be able to call you brother.” I really do believe that he’s going to come to saving faith in Christ. (applause)
But here’s the thing! What you have to do is sometimes you have to bypass a lot of intellectual arguments and you have to go for the conscience. And by the way, he thanked me a number of times for taking an interest in him.
So the point is that Paul says, “My past conduct was that I was a Pharisee.” But notice now he goes on to his conversion. This is what he says in verse 12: “In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 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. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’”
Notice that when Paul was gloriously converted, first of all, he saw a light. That is the Gospel. He was walking in darkness. He was managing his darkness, which is what many people do. The people in false religions manage their darkness as best they can. He was doing all of that. What light needed to shine on the Apostle Paul? First of all, he needed light regarding the Law. The Law that he was trying to keep could not save him. His works could not save him. It takes the light of the Gospel to show somebody that.
He had to have the correct light regarding himself. He wasn’t nearly as righteous as he thought he was. He was in the presence of God, filled with sin, and he needed grace. And so that light had to come.
He also was wrong regarding Jesus Christ. He thought that Jesus was dead. He didn’t know that Jesus could still speak so this light came upon him. He said, “I saw a light,” which is the essence of conversion, and he said, “I heard a voice.” And by the way, that voice spoke to him in Hebrew. And God can speak to you in any language of the world because God is a God who is able to speak the various languages.
Sometimes you have those who say, “You know, there are some books from God.” And I’m thinking of one in particular that can’t be translated because God only spoke Arabic. No, God speaks in different languages, and that’s why the Bible can be translated into every single language of the world because God has something to say to every tribe and every people and every nation. (applause)
So Paul needed light. He needed to hear a voice, and then God said to him, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” You remember that what a goad is, is a stick with a sharp point, so if you are working with oxen, and they are stubborn, what you do is you give them a poke with a goad. But there were also other kinds of goads, and that is this. They would put two or three on a plow, or whatever, behind the oxen so that especially if a young ox kicked, he would kick against the goads, and he would find himself in a great deal of pain. And in this way he learned that it’s a bad idea to kick against the goad, and “maybe I’d better stop kicking.” And by the way, when you kick against God, only you get hurt. It’s the ox that gets hurt.
What God was saying is, “Paul, you must realize something, and that is that you were kicking against what you knew to be true.” You know, I’m sure that when the Apostle Paul laid down in bed and tried to sleep, the images of the Christians that he had killed came to mind. I’m thinking, for example of Stephen where the Bible says that his face was like the face of an angel. Paul probably thought to himself, “What’s going on there? Why is it that I see these Christians with a glow on their faces? They die differently.” But he was stifling it. He was shutting it off. He was managing his darkness. He was justifying himself, just like people today. You know, the human mind is able to justify whatever the human heart wants to do, so the heart tells the mind, “Rationalize this. Figure it out. Live with it,” but it is hard to kick against the goads.
And some of you are finding it hard. It’s hard to fight against God. You’re doing it. You are managing it, but you find it hard to sleep because you know better down in your heart – your conscience.
So the Apostle Paul says, “That’s who I was.” And then Paul gives his commitment (his commission) to spread the Gospel. He says in verse 19: “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” I was thinking about that this week. Imagine if Paul had been disobedient. He ended up writing about 12 books of the New Testament, bringing the Gospel to Ephesus, and through Ephesus all of Asia Minor. All of modern Turkey heard the Gospel, the Bible says. Imagine if he had been disobedient to the heavenly vision, but he wasn’t.
And what is the vision? For this we have to go back to the words of Jesus in verse 18 where it says: “to whom I am sending you (namely the Gentiles - now notice) 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.”
Do you realize that when you preach the Gospel, when you share with a friend, whether you go across the ocean, or do it here in America, there is a battle between light and darkness, between Satan and God? The essence of all false religion [is demonic], including the misinterpretation of Judaism that Paul had where he thought that the Law could convert him, not understanding that the Law was to create conviction so that he’d go to Jesus. Do you realize that all false religion is basically demonic? And when we share the Gospel, the light of the glory of God and the face of Jesus Christ has to come into people’s lives, so that they see the light, and through the Word, hear the voice. And that’s what conversion is really all about. And so the Apostle Paul is sent to do that.
You know, the Bible says that in the end time people are going to deceive and they are going to be being deceived. And we’re living certainly in an age with all kinds of deceptions. Someday I’m going to preach on the topic of self-deception. Its implications are huge.
Now the Apostle Paul is giving his advice, and Festus has something to say in verse 24: “And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus (who is listening there with King Agrippa) said with a loud voice, ‘Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.’”
(chuckles) No, excuse me, Festus. You may have this very, very wrong. Paul is not out of his mind, but you may be. You must understand what’s going on here in the text. Isn’t that interesting?
You know, Larry Poland is a friend of ours who was at The Moody Church. And He works in Hollywood, attempting to lead Hollywood people to Jesus Christ. He has a witness there. And he told some of us a very interesting story that he led a Hollywood executive, as I remember it, to saving faith in Christ. And over lunch this executive said, “You know what I find interesting?” He said, “Here I am through a successive number of failed marriages. My children are on drugs, and I was drinking more than I should have been, and nobody said anything. They just kind of accepted it. And now when I tell them I’ve become a Christian they say, ‘You must be crazy.’”
So Festus here says, “Paul, you are 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 (Remember King Agrippa claimed to be Jewish) and to him I speak boldly.” Verses 27 and 28: “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?” That sometimes has been interpreted to mean, “Do you think I’m almost persuaded to be a Christian?” I think that’s the way the King James Version translated it. It’s probably more accurate the way it is here. It’s a sarcastic comment. “Do you really think that in such a short time, you know, with your arguments, I’m going to become a Christian, that I’m going to become a part of this hated group called Christians? I don’t think so.”
And then the Apostle Paul answers and says in verse 29: “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 — except for these chains.” I mean, I prefer that they not be in prison, but may they all become as I am. And here the Apostle Paul gives us a great example of personal witnessing. He becomes our example. He is a prototype of witnessing, wherever he is, to the truth of the Gospel.
What Paul is really saying is, “I wish that all people would be just like I am, except of course, for these chains.” Just imagine for a moment that the Apostle Paul could say things that King Agrippa or Festus could never possibly say. They couldn’t say something like this: “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” They couldn’t say that. They couldn’t say, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me, and the life that I now live I live by faith in the Son of God who gave Himself for me.” They couldn’t say that.
They were not able to say the things that the Apostle Paul was able to say. They couldn’t say, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe.” They didn’t know that.
Just look at the contrast here. Actually they are on trial but they don’t realize it. It’s not Paul. Here they are with all of their regalia, with all of their entourage. There is King Agrippa dressed in purple, and he’s wearing a crown. And the Apostle Paul, in chains, is richer than he is, and better off than all of this pomp and ceremony.
You see, King Agrippa had a crown but he wasn’t able to say with the Apostle Paul, who said near the end of his life, “Behold, there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge shall give me at that day, and not to me only, but unto all those also who love His appearing.” Agrippa couldn’t say that, so Paul is saying, “I wish that all people would be like I am. I don’t want them to be in chains, but I want them to be able to testify to the truth of the Gospel no matter where they are, and in this way, show God’s grace and God’s power.
Let’s take another look at this to help us to understand it even more particularly in our situation. First of all, let’s look at this whole passage and realize that God is bigger than injustice. You know, God said, “I want to get Paul to Rome.” That was very clear to the Apostle Paul. He received six visions in the book of Acts, and one was that he was going to get to Rome, and so he knew that he was going to get to Rome. The question was how was God going to get him there?
And the way it happened is Paul was falsely accused in Jerusalem, taken to Caesarea, imprisoned falsely for two years, with no charges against him, brought up between Festus and Felix, and eventually King Agrippa, giving his defense. And that’s the way God got Paul to Rome. In fact, chapter 26 ends with Agrippa saying to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.” But he appealed to Caesar, and because he was a Roman citizen, they didn’t feel free to do anything else except let him go. And it’s in chapter 27 that he was shipwrecked on the way to Rome, and what a story that is! But that’s the way God got him to Rome. It was through misunderstanding, false accusations, false imprisonment, because God says, “Paul, I want you to remember that I’m not with you only in the good times.”
Isn’t that true? It’s true of me! In the things that happen to me that are good, I see God. I don’t see God in the things that happen to me that are bad, or at least in my judgment – bad. Injustice, and whatever else may take place! I don’t necessarily see God there, but God says, “I am there with you.”
Do you remember Joseph? He was falsely accused, and the Bible says in the book of Genesis, “And the Lord was with Joseph and promoted him, so that he became an assistant to Potiphar. And then you know the rest of the story, how Potiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph. Joseph was thrown into prison, and was there two years. And in the very same chapter what does it say? It says, “And the Lord was with Joseph in prison, and blessed him there.”
Will we all remember that God is with us in our exaltations, and God is with us in our demotions? And God stays with us in both instances, and He can be depended upon to be with us no matter the circumstances.
And so what we have here is a great lesson. Injustice does not hinder the purpose of God. After all, Jesus was actually nailed to the cross because of injustice. Right? I mean, He was falsely accused. He went through this, and in the midst of that evil, the will and the ultimate purpose of God was accomplished. Paul reminds us that no matter what happens to us, whether it is in the legal system or elsewhere, what we must see is God in the midst of that which comes against us.
There’s another lesson, and that is that this happens to be a very good apologetic for the Gospel. If you don’t know how to share your faith, and you are afraid of all those questions that people might ask, why don’t you just tell them what Jesus did for you because what Jesus can do for us is what no other religion can possibly offer. You can change religions, but in the process, you do not change your heart. Your heart remains the same.
But those who trust Jesus as Savior discover that the conversion experience actually goes down to the level of desire and aptitude. That’s why the Apostle Paul could say, “I was evil. I was insolent.” In 1 Timothy when he discusses his conversion, He says (the Greek word means), “I was sadistic. I not only killed Christians and tormented them, and tried to get them to blaspheme the name of Jesus, but I enjoyed doing it,” Paul says. And this becomes the Apostle Paul who later on writes those words, “Now the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” Where else can you find a change like that?
E. V. Hill was a great African American preacher, and he preached a sermon from this pulpit one time during the pastor’s conference. By the way, he is in heaven today, and I remember how he began the message. He began by saying, “I have two wives.” He said, “One is in heaven, and the other is on earth, and I think that’s about the right distance between them.” (laughter)
But then he preached a message entitled God at His Best. And he talked about when God was at His best, and he very eloquently talked about creation. He talked about the stars and talked about beauty and talked about all of that. And he said, “No, no, that’s not God at His best.” And then he took us back to his background, a little boy, growing up in Mississippi, and having the Gospel explained to him with the help of his mother, and believing on Jesus. And he said, “That was God at His best.” And you and I must realize that conversion is the great miracle. And here the Apostle Paul, very, very enthusiastically tells his story.
And you may be here today and you may be kicking against God’s will. You are managing your conscience. You are in darkness and you are trying to live with it. Remember the words of the Apostle Paul. He said, “I saw a light and I heard a voice.” And today you can respond to both.
Do you remember the phrase Son of Sam? Many of you are far too young to remember that, but I do. He was a man who was terrorizing New York in 1977 – committing one murder after another. And sometime later he was arrested and his name was David Berkowitz. David Berkowitz was taken and put into prison and given I think about six life sentences.
Many years ago when I was in New York, Jim Cymbala, a wonderful pastor in New York, told me that he was meeting regularly with David Berkowitz, who at that time was the assistant to the chaplain in jail. And David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam (You can go online as I learned last night, and you can actually hear his testimony about the sense of darkness and evil.), said, “I had no control at all over what I was doing. I just did it, no matter who it hurt.” He is today a man having Bible studies in prison, and leading others to saving faith in Christ. Why? It’s because the Gospel actually saves sinners. Aren’t you glad for that, by the way? (applause)
Now if God has talked to you today, would you believe on Christ? Would you trust Him as Savior, whether you are listening to this here in the sanctuary of Moody Church or online or by radio? If God has talked to you, aren’t you finding it hard to resist Him? God calls you to Himself through the Word, through the Gospel, and through the message that transforms.
Our Father, today we pray that You might gather in for Yourself those who do not know You as Savior. We thank You, Father, for the great strength and witness of the Apostle Paul, the transformation that You brought. We thank You for his chains that represent Your grace in the midst of heartache, tragedy, and disappointment, and we pray in Your name, Amen.