Studies in the Book of Acts
Agrippa opens the inquest (Acts 26:1)
Though Luke described Paul’s speech as a “defense,” the occasion was a fact-finding investigation rather than a formal judicial inquiry (26:1). That is why Festus allowed Agrippa to preside at the meeting, for it was Agrippa who told Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself” (26:1).
Paul’s speech before Agrippa covered the same ground as his previous defense before the Jews at the temple and later before Felix. The speech was personal and autobiographical. Paul began by asserting that he was a good Jew and had not violated Torah. He insisted that the Jews had accused him because he believed in the resurrection. Paul painted himself as the victim of factional squabbling over whether Jesus was the Messiah resurrected.
Paul spent considerable time recounting his conversion experience. His point was that he had not become a Christian on a whim. Dramatic events in his personal life had led to his change of viewpoint. Paul insisted that his new Christian faith was an outgrowth of his Jewish beliefs as a Pharisee. He claimed that the Christian faith was organically connected with Judaism.
We will see all these threads unfold as Paul speaks. This will be our last chance to hear Paul in depth. After this, Luke will give us only brief snippets of his conversation with shipmates (27:10, 21-25, 33), and a short synopsis of his disturbing meeting with Rome’s Jews (28:17-28).
Acquainted with Jewish customs (Acts 26:2-5)
Paul began by acknowledging that his audience, particularly Agrippa, was not antagonistic to him. Not only that, he said of Agrippa, “You are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies” (26:3). Paul was talking to someone who understood the unruly nature of the Jewish religious situation in Jerusalem and had an interest in its theology. Also, Agrippa seemed somewhat impartial—since he did not rule Judea, he was insulated from political pressures from the high priests. Indeed, Agrippa had power over the high priest. Paul hoped such a person—one who was expert in the details of Jewish belief and practice—would grasp the fact that his Christian beliefs were the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes.
He pointed out that his way of life since childhood (both in Tarsus and Jerusalem) was well known among the Jews (26:4). “They have known me for a long time” (26:5). Paul was sufficiently prominent to have been a known quantity in Judea. We might say he was a bit of a religious celebrity in his time. He stressed his loyalty to Torah, saying, “I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee” (26:5). The term “Pharisee” described those who had bound themselves to live according to the law (Philippians 3:5). In applying the term to himself, Paul established his Jewish credentials before Agrippa.
Paul proclaimed the gospel because, not in spite of, his Jewish ancestry and culture. He characterized the Jewish and Christian hope as being inextricably linked. Paul wanted Agrippa to see a continuity between his Jewish upbringing and his Christianity.
On trial for “hope” (Acts 26:6-8)
Paul again made the resurrection the real bone of contention between himself and his Jewish accusers (23:6; 24:15; 25:19). “It is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today,” he told Agrippa (26:6). The resurrection was the promise all Israel was “hoping to see fulfilled.” He hammered home the resurrection: “King Agrippa, it is because of this hope that these Jews are accusing me” (26:8).
Paul pointed out that the resurrection was a Jewish hope. He implied that Christians—who have the same hope—are within the boundaries of what was accepted within first-century Judaism. Of course, the Christian view of the resurrection was much more specific, as it centered on a glorified Jesus. All hope for a general resurrection hinged on the specific resurrection of Jesus. This was the real “hope” of which Paul spoke.
The word hope is a key term in Paul’s defence (23:6; 24:15; 26:6-; 28:20). It refers to the believing expectation that God will fulfil the promises and prophecies made in the Old Testament, and for Paul it refers specifically to the belief that these promises have been and will be fulfilled in Jesus. (Marshall, 392)
It was absurd, Paul was saying, that he should be persecuted for proclaiming the very hope in which the Jews believed! The Messiah had promised that he would free his people. God had honored Israel’s hope by sending Jesus as the Messiah and then raising him as the forerunner of the promise to raise all the righteous dead. This was the specific “hope” Paul had in mind.
At this point, Paul turned to the audience and made a plea for everyone to accept this “hope.” “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” he asked the assembly (26:8). The real issue was the resurrection of Jesus. To put it in the words of Festus, it was “about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive” (25:19). Paul had one particular instance of “raising” in mind—that of Jesus. It was one resurrection that had been authenticated and verified. For Paul, to disbelieve in the resurrection of Christ was to disbelieve in the general resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).
Paul’s point was that this belief [in a resurrection] had now been validated by God in his raising one man from the dead, demonstrating by this very fact that this one man was Israel’s long-expected deliverer, the one in whom the ancient hope was to be realized. (F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, revised edition, The New International Commentary on the Bible, page 463)