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July 26th, 2015

Ready

Before a crossroads will often come a season in the wilderness; use it to get ready.

Acts 26:19-32

A different Paul

When we left Paul last week, he was standing in front of the Sanhedrin and tensions were high. The high-strung chief priest Ananias ordered Paul to be smacked in the face. Paul shot right back with an insult for which he had to apologize. Then Paul cleverly divided the Sanhedrin down the middle and had them arguing with each other instead of attacking him. That seemed to be a good thing until the meeting became so violent that the Roman commander Lysias, who had brought Paul to the Sanhedrin for questioning, thought Paul might get harmed or killed in the melee, so he removed Paul from the assembly. In Acts 22 Paul was edgy, impulsive, some even say devious.

In Acts 26 Paul stands before Agrippa and Festus as a different man, ready for anything. He is in control of his mouth and his actions. He is Spirit-filled, respectful, serene, and focused on the Gospel. He’s assertive without being aggressive. The question for today will be, “What caused the change?” What causes a believer to be ‘ready’ for whatever happens? We begin here: Who are Festus and Agrippa?

Festus and Agrippa

The name Porcius Festus probably means little to you, even if I tell you his title was “governor.“ It might help if I tell you he had roughly the same role as Pontius Pilate thirty years earlier. He is the official representative of the Roman emperor (Nero) charged with maintaining control of Judea – keeping the people happy enough not to rebel.

Festus is new on the job, and he’s inherited a mess from his predecessor, Felix. To be sure, every Roman procurator had a tough job. Any outside authority had better find a way to work with the religious leaders or there would always be trouble. There always seemed to be a group of people praying for a deliverer. Some were even ready to take matters into their own hands such as the terrorists known as sicarii, (“dagger bearers”), who concealed weapons under their garments to murder unsuspecting victims.

Claudius Felix didn’t handle this well from AD 52-58. When the high priest Jonathan accused Felix of poor administration, Felix hired sicarii to murder him. When an Egyptian would-be Messiah gathered a group to march around Jerusalem as Joshua had done to make the walls fall down, Felix attacked them on the Mount of Olives and killed 400 of them. When Syrians and Jews clashed in Caesarea, Felix again brought in the army and slaughtered many Jews.[1] Paul had earlier faced a hearing before Felix with the religious leaders present, the result of which was that Paul was kept in custody for two years while Felix waited for a bribe – once again revealing his character.

Now it’s AD 59. Felix is gone, and Festus has inherited his mess – poor administration, corrupt leadership, tension with the religious leadership in Jerusalem, terrorists on the loose, and unrest that would bubble into full scale rebellion in AD 66. Festus visits Jerusalem three days after he arrives in the province. The Jewish leaders ask that Paul be transferred to Jerusalem for a hearing. What they really want is to set Paul up for ambush and murder during the transfer (25:3). Festus instead invites them to Caesarea for a preliminary hearing. They angrily shout (25:25) charges, but present no evidence or witnesses (25:7). Paul maintains his innocence. When Festus seems inclined to transfer Paul to Jerusalem, Paul appeals to Caesar (25:12). This is Paul’s right as a Roman citizen, and Festus thinks to himself, “One sticky problem off my hands.”

The other larger than life figure before whom Paul stands is Agrippa, full name, Herod Agrippa II. Agrippa is the great grandson of Herod the Great, who’s known in the Bible for two things primarily – the slaughter of innocent Bethlehem babies when the wise men came asking, “Where is the one born king of the Jews?” and the expansion and renovation of the temple mount. When Herod was in charge Rome didn’t need a governor. He had the political oversight of a large territory as king, albeit a king who was appointed by Rome and needed the political skill to satisfy both Rome and the Jews.

One of Herod the Great’s other large-scale projects was the seaside city of Caesarea (named in honor of Caesar Augustus). Herod not only built a palace there, but a hippodrome (for chariot races) and amphitheater, plus a greatly expanded manmade harbor, which allowed Jews a port of entry when they came home for festivals. The large political, industrial, and military complex is still fascinating to visit today, 2000 years later.

Herod’s kingdom was divided into four parts after his death. Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, ruled Galilee during Jesus’ ministry. He’s the one who had John the Baptist beheaded and who was consulted by Pilate during Jesus’ trial. Herod’s grandson, Herod Agrippa I, ruled both Galilee and Judea for a while. He’s the king in the book of Acts who had James the Apostle beheaded and Peter imprisoned. He’s also the one who was so fascinated with his own glory that Acts 12 says he was “eaten with worms” and died on the spot in the amphitheater of Caesarea.

Paul now stands before Herod Agrippa II, whose kingdom is much smaller than that of his father or of Herod the Great. He is not king over Jerusalem or Caesarea. But after almost a century of rule by his family, unlike Festus, Agrippa knows Jewish customs and controversies (26:3). The first century Jewish historian Josephus says Festus also had authority to appoint high priests.

Agrippa travels to Caesarea to pay his respects the new governor of Jerusalem (25:13). He comes with his sister Bernice, with whom he is rumored to have an incestuous relationship. As soon as he arrives, Festus begins to discuss Paul’s case. Festus doesn’t get why all the Jews are so upset at Paul. He doesn’t know what he’s going to write to Caesar. He notably says of Paul what Pilate said of Jesus: “He has done nothing worthy of death” (25:25, cp. Luke 23:15). Agrippa says, “I would like to hear him myself.” The next day (25:23), Agrippa arrives in a style befitting a king – robes, entourage, red carpet, the whole bit. Festus has with him all the high ranking military officials and city leaders. Everybody who’s anybody in Caesarea is in that room for this official occasion.

Everything is on the line for Paul in Acts 26, the most significant crossroads in his life since he met Jesus. He might find a way to Rome, which has been his vision and was a promise from Jesus in a vision (23:11). But Jesus had not given him a timetable, and he had already been sitting in prison for two years since that vision. Paul might languish again in custody for another two years. He might get transferred back to Jerusalem – and he knows what the Jews have in mind (23:16).

But Paul is ready for whatever. Bound by chains with the trappings of royalty and power all around him, Paul demonstrates no anxiety. He shows no evidence of trying to manipulate the outcome. He’s focused on telling his story and letting God do the rest.

Can you remember or imagine a time in your life when your crossroads was in someone else’s hands? A judge? An academic panel? A doctor? A banker? An employer? A future father-in-law? Are you ready for whatever happens? What does Paul say in Acts 26?

Craziness or truth

I’m fortunate (2-3). Paul begins with appropriate courtesy toward Agrippa. It’s flattery, but it’s appropriate. Paul really is fortunate to have this opportunity. Unlike the Roman governor, Agrippa grasps the political and religious setting.

The incredible hope (4-8). One of the things Agrippa understands is the difference between Pharisees and Sadducees – the hope of the resurrection. Agrippa is no friend of the Sadducees, or vice versa. Pharisees are far less of a threat to him. Paul, who always uses the part of his story that will connect him to the people in front of him, says it is Pharisaical belief in the resurrection of the dead that has him on trial.

Former obsession (9-11). Paul relates his pre-Christian mission to “oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth,” going from Jerusalem to foreign cities.

Encounter with Jesus (12-18). Here Paul relates the story now familiar to the readers of Acts – his conversion. One element that’s new (and unique to Acts 26) is Jesus’ statement, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” The image is of oxen pulling a cart. If they back up or resist their load, painful pricks let them know it’s not a good idea. Jesus, Paul says, has called him personally to open the eyes of Gentiles.

What prophets have said (19-23). Still addressing Agrippa, Paul says what Jesus had said on the Road to Emmaus, that Moses and the prophets had predicted the death and resurrection of the Messiah as a light to Gentiles as well as Jews. This is the climax of his message – light in a dark world through Jesus Christ. It all makes perfect sense – the fulfillment and climax of God’s promises. Paul’s voice is passionate, but calm.

Festus: “You’re crazy” (24). Festus, the new procurator who’s just trying to get this case off his hands, has had little to say about his personal opinion so far except that he thinks Paul is innocent. Here his blood is boiling and he raises his voice, interrupting Paul. “You’re a maniac, Paul![2] Your great letters[3] are turning to insanity.” Festus’ general opinion of Paul is that he’s a bright guy the Jews have falsely accused out of their own insecurity. Paul has already stirred up trouble for himself by insisting many Jews are wrong about life after death and all of them who reject Jesus are wrong about him. Paul has gone a step further and included Festus and the Romans as living in spiritual darkness because of their way of life. From a legal perspective, Festus thinks Paul is an idiot. He’s not helping himself by insisting in this context that he has a religious message everyone needs. Festus is yelling, “Paul, shut up. Plead the fifth. Stop preaching the gospel.”

Paul: “Do you believe?” (25-27). Still calm, Paul answers Festus’ heated putdown, “I am no maniac, your honor. I speak words of truth and of self-control. The king understands these things, and I’m speaking confidently to him. Nothing I’ve spoken about would escape his notice, but it’s not been done in a corner.” Paul turns his attention from the procurator back to the king. “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” I’ve wondered all week whether Paul is saying this with an ironic wink or with a genuine sense that Agrippa’s soul is being stirred. I now think it’s the latter.

Agrippa: “Almost persuaded” (28). To whatever extent Agrippa had been drawn in, and shown it by his non-verbal signals, now he was on the spot and perhaps embarrassed. Paul asks Agrippa to verify for Festus and in front of all these dignitaries that the prophets do say Israel will be restored, they will be a blessing to all nations, and the Messiah must die and rise again to make it happen. Agrippa answers Paul’s question with a question: “Do you think in a short time you can make a Christian out of me?” Even his use of the word “Christian” shows Agrippa is on top of the current religious scene.[4]

Paul: “Not only you but all” (29). I don’t know what Agrippa thought Paul might say at this point, but Paul is so aware of this unique opportunity to present the good news of Jesus. A brand new Roman procurator, all his commanders, every city official, the fourth generation king, his sister, and all their attendants – they all need this message. And yes, Paul would love to make Christians out of them all. He says, “I’d love for every one of you to be what I am…” and then in the final glimpse of how completely calm he is, he adds a touch of humor, “…except for these chains.”

On to Caesar (30-32). Agrippa and Paul agree that Paul could have been set free had he not earlier appealed to Caesar. Apparently under Roman law you couldn’t take back those words. Readers of Acts, however, know that neither Festus nor Agrippa is in charge. God wants Paul in Rome, and Paul wants to go to Rome. To Rome he will go!

Content whatever the circumstances

Once again, I come back to the question, “Are you ready for whatever happens?” Are you ready to face a situation in which the outcome is not in your hands? What situation might that be? Something might come immediately to mind for some of you – a parent or child or spouse making decisions that affect you, a financial or job situation that you can’t control, a medical diagnosis you just learned about.

But let’s be honest: every one of us is right at this very moment vulnerable to situations out of our control. Think about people who went to a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana Thursday night. Or those living in the St. Petersburg/Tampa, Florida area dealing with floods. Or the many families in our church and community who have experienced the sudden loss of a child or loved one this past year.

I don’t say that to evoke anxiety. Before a crossroads will often come a season in the wilderness – dry, desperate, disorienting. Use the wilderness to get ready for whatever happens next.

  1. Remember that Paul has spent two years in custody since that outburst before the Sanhedrin, much of the time by himself. My Sunday School class is studying Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline this summer. If you’re not in the class, see me for the book or borrow it from the church library. This week’s lesson is on solitude and silence, which we sometimes choose and other times is forced upon us – what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” The purpose of the solitude is to develop intimacy with God, to release outcomes, to invite the Holy Spirit to develop the fruit of the Spirit, to hone the gifts of the Spirit, to teach you to rest and trust.
  2. In the silence you listen, you read Scripture, you pray, you worship, but you also remember. I think Paul remembered that outburst in the Sanhedrin, took responsibility for it, and determined, “Never again.” He relived that moment over and over again. But he also relived those times in his life when God was so real – when he met Christ on the Road to Damascus, when his ministry was effective, when he lived through grave danger, when he knew he was directed. As you remember, confess and let his grace wash over you. Embrace the times of his provision and guidance. Be ready.
  3. Luke tells us that Felix allowed Paul to entertain visitors during his imprisonment (24:23). We know who some of Paul’s friends were – Luke, Timothy, and others Paul had met and whom he had led to Christ on his journeys (20:4-5), believers there in Caesarea (21:16), and others from Jerusalem who had plenty of time to come and go during his two years (21:17) – Those dear friends encouraged him and helped him process what he was going through. While solitude is good preparation for whatever unknown lies ahead, so is community. Paul had to allow those friends to push him toward the Lord as he vulnerably shared his worst fears and finest hopes.
  4. This is my favorite part. Although some scholars differ, many believe that Paul wrote several letters included in our New Testament during his two-year prison term in Caesarea. That means Paul wrote some or all of the following during this time – Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. These are among my favorite writings in all the New Testament. Let’s sample just one – Philippians.

1:12, “What has happened to me has served to advance the gospel.”

1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

1:27, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel.”

2:5, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.”

2:15, “Do everything without complaining or arguing.”

2:17, “Even if I am being poured out like a drink offering, I am glad and rejoice.”

3:7, “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.”

3:13, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on.”

4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

4:6, “Do not be anxious about anything, but…present your requests to God.”

4:11, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”

4:19, “My God will supply all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ.”

Festus said to Paul, “Your great writings have made you insane.” At the moment he said this, Festus was yelling and Paul was calm. Whether Festus was talking about what Paul wrote or what he read, they kept him humble and God-focused. At the crossroads or in the wilderness that precedes, read Scripture, read classics, read books that push you deeper into Christ. And write. Write your thoughts, your feelings, your prayers, your insights, your questions. It might become a book or blog, but write for yourself even if nobody else ever reads what you write. Festus was so wrong. Paul’s “great letters” kept him sane in his solitude. They made him ready. For whatever. Amen.

[1] This history comes from Josephus, the first century Jewish historian (XX, 148 W II, 250)

[2]“Insane” or “crazy” or “out of your mind” in English versions translates the Geek maine, from which we get “maniac.”

[3] Grammata in Greek, which literally means “letters” (of the alphabet), implying something written. This could be a reference either to Paul as a writer or a reader; possibly a compliment to Paul’s broad Greek and Jewish education, but it’s also possible Festus had learned Paul was writing epistles from prison.

[4] The word “Christian” is used only three times in the New Testament – Acts 11:26, where the disciples in Antioch are first called “Christian,” probably as an insult, because no other label fits, Acts 26:28 by Agrippa, and 1 Peter 4:16.

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