Date: 12 November 2023
Speaker: Ps Luwin Wong
Sermon Text: Acts 25:1–26:32
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Religious persecution, more often that not, emotionally driven rather than justice oriented.
Paul was accused of blasphemy based on hearsay and rumors, his accusers also couldn’t agree on what the actual charges were, he too was a victim of a riot and mob violence.
And now, he was in danger of facing the same fate – that is, that his trial would not proceed according to the dictates of justice, but will instead be determined by the will of the mob.
We can still hear echoes of the Jerusalem mob chanting in unison just two chapters ago, saying, “away with him, away with him”.
Having gotten a better grasp of Paul’s situation in the present, we hear his defense, and are better able to appreciate his appeal.
ACTS 25:6-8 6 After he stayed among them not more than eight or ten days, he went down to Caesarea. And the next day he took his seat on the tribunal and ordered Paul to be brought. 7 When he had arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him that they could not prove. 8 Paul argued in his defense, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.”
Once again, his Jewish accusers were unable to establish the charges brought against him. Once again, he protests his innocence of any crimes against Jerusalem and Rome.
But once again, it proves insufficient, because Festus, the governor wanted to appease and acquiesce to the will of the mob, who intends to bring Paul to trial in Jersusalem, within their jurisdiction, that they might put him to death.
ACTS 25:9-11 9 But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, “Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and there be tried on these charges before me?” 10 But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar's tribunal, where I ought to be tried. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. 11 If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.”
In response, Paul appeals to Caesar. He will not die in vain at the hands of the Jews in Jerusalem. He demands to be tried by Rome instead.
But I want us to see that this isn’t a ploy for self-preservation, but rather, the preservation of the mission. Paul does not seek to escape death for the sake of living longer. How do we know? Because he went to Jerusalem.
He went to Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit informed him what awaits him there is persecution and chains. He went to Jerusalem against the advice of those who loved him.
ACTS 21:12-13 12 When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Paul, is willing to die. But only if dying is for the Lord Jesus. Otherwise he’d rather live for him.
14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” “Let the will of the Lord be done”, is the name of the game. And what is the will of the Lord? It is for Paul to arrive in Rome.
ACTS 19:21; 23:11 21 Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” 11 The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”
Paul appeals to Caesar because he chooses to escape the will of the mob, and obey the will of the Lord instead – that is, to testify to his resurrection in Rome.
ACTS 25:12 12 Then Festus, when he had conferred with his council, answered, “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go.”
This too, is in fulfilment of Paul’s mission which the Lord gave him at his conversion.
ACTS 9:15 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.
All of Paul’s actions, from his arrest to this appeal, has been undertaken for one purpose, to preserve the mission, to proclaim the Risen Christ.
Which is what we witness him doing in the rest of our text today.
There are three sections to Paul’s speech. All centred on the resurrection of Christ.
The reason he’s on Trial.
His past vocation as a persecutor of Christians
His present vocation as a proclaimer of Christ.
And what we shall see is that all of it, the reason for his trial, the reason for abandoning his past mission in life, and the reason for his present mission in life, all turns, all hinges on the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
ACTS 26:4-8 4 “My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. 5 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. 6 And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, 7 to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! 8 Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?
First, the reason he’s on trial. Paul insists that he is a known entity within the Jewish community. His reputation precedes him. And it is not that of a law-breaker, he is known to be law keeper – a fastidious, scrupulous, legalistic, law-keeper. A pharisee of the strictest party in Judaism.
In other words, they know Paul, the Jews of Jerusalem know him. And so they know that this trial is a sham, the charges are fabricated, Paul is innocent.
The reason he is on trial is because of a particular hope. A hope held by all Jews, a hope that rests upon the promise of God – the hope of a resurrection from the dead.
That is why he is on trial – because of his proclamation of the risen Jesus Christ. And he asks, “What’s the problem here, exactly?” 8 Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?
That’s the true reason for this trial. And then he transits to the next section of his defense before the governor Festus and King Agrippa – the reason for his past mission to persecute Christians.
ACTS 26:9-11 9 “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 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.
11 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 says, like the Jews of Jerusalem, he too was convinced that Jesus of Nazareth is a charlatan leading pious Jews astray from worshipping true God. And so he locked Christians up in prison and passed the death sentence against them, as we have seen in the martyrdom of Stephen.
In fact, Paul was so zealously opposed to Jesus of Nazareth that he went out of his way to persecute his followers – even to foreign cities. Why?
Because Paul did not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was who he and his followers claimed him to be – the Christ, the son of God, whose identity was proven by his resurrection. Paul didn’t buy that story, at all. To Paul, Jesus of Nazareth may have been a moral teacher, he may have been a religious leader, but he is ultimately a crucified blasphemer with pretensions of grandeur. He is a fraud who thinks he was God.
Paul did not believe in this Jesus of Nazareth. And his actions, his persecution of Christians bears witness to his unbelief.
Paul didn’t simply “not-belief”, rather he was certain, he was convinced that he ought to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. In today’s terms, he isn’t just a non-Christian, he’s anti-Christian.
That was who Paul was. A persecutor of Christians.
So how did he become who he is now - a proclaimer of Christ? What happened? Paul explains.
ACTS 26:12-15a 12 “In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 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. 14 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.’ 15 And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
As he was on embarking on his past mission to persecute Christians, he encountered a light and voice from heaven – which are the tradition elements of a theophany – an encounter with God.
Paul thought he knew God, but this wasn’t familiar to him, and he was compelled to ask, “Who are you, Lord?” Which admits a deficiency in his theology, there is something about God which his learned Pharisee does not know – “who are you Lord?”
ACTS 26:15b-18 15 And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17 delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you 18 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.’
Lo and behold, the blinding light, the voice from heaven, identifies himself as Jesus. The Jesus of Nazareth whom Paul was persecuting. And he gives Paul a new life mission.
He is appointed as a servant and witness to the Lord Jesus Christ.
ACTS 26:19-23 19 “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance...22 To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: 23 that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”
This is the reason he is on trial, this is the reason he turned from persecutor to proclaimer. Because what the Scriptures has said has come to pass: and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass:
23 that the Christ must suffer and that, and he will rise again from the dead. And in so doing, will be light for the world.
This Christ is the Lord Jesus Christ. The reason Paul now proclaims is because he is Risen.
Paul who once killed Christians because he was convinced that Jesus was a lie, is now willing to die a Christian because he is convinced that Jesus is the light.
So here’s the historical fact. Paul, a first century Pharisee and famous skeptic of Jesus and persecutor of Christians, one day became so convinced that Jesus of Nazareth is the Risen Lord, that he is now in chains and willing to die for that belief.
The biblical explanation for this transformation, this conversion, this U-turn, in Paul’s life is that he encountered the Risen Christ.
What is the alternative explanation? You can say that the reason for the 12 apostles faith in Jesus was their emotional connection and investment in Jesus of Nazareth whom they followed for three whole years. You can say that these men were so shocked and grief stricken at his crucifixion that as a coping mechanism, they hallucinated his resurrection, which resolved their cognitive dissonance and restored to them the worldview they have come to adopt when they followed Jesus. In other words, the reason the apostles believed that Jesus is the risen Christ is because they wanted to believe he is the risen Christ, they needed to believe he is the risen Christ, and so they manufactured their belief that Jesus is the risen Christ. I don’t believe the evidence bears that out. But it’s plausible at face value.
But how to explain the conversion of Paul. Paul had no emotional investment in Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, any he sentiment he held vis-à-vis Jesus was negative.
Paul didn’t need to believe that Jesus was the risen Christ. He definitely did not want to believe it. He is emotionally, vocationally, religiously invested in not-believing that Jesus rose from the dead. But he did, he came to believe. And the question is how?
I believe that any alternative non-biblical explanation for Paul’s conversion pales in comparison to the one we have heard straight from the horse’s mouth – Paul believes that Jesus is the risen Lord is because he had a personal encounter with Jesus, as the risen Lord.
Is this not a plausible explanation, as implausible as a resurrection may be?
At this juncture, the governor Festus burst out: “Paul, you are out of your mind;
your great learning is driving you out of your mind.”
And it may be, that he is merely foreshadowing the responses to the Christian faith we hear today: that Christians who believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ are labouring under a delusion. We are delusional. We are not thinking straight; we are out of our minds.
And Paul replies, rather matter-of-factly:
25 Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. 26 For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner.
I am speaking true and rational words, these things have not been done in a corner.
In other words, Paul is challenging Festus to prove him wrong. Paul is saying: I reason on my side, I have truth on my side, I have verifiable facts on my side. If you are skeptical of my testimony, the burden of proof is on you to refute it.
And friends, fellow Christians, in our personal evangelism, we can take a leaf from the bible and follow in the steps of Paul, to proclaim the Risen Christ and to declare that reason and truth and history is on our side. And the burden of proof is on them to explain how it came to be that a rag-tag group of fishermen and tax collectors and nobodies were all prepare to die for the truth of these words: “The Lord Jesus is Risen”.
And how a skeptic, a militant, full-blooded skeptic, came to believe and was willing to die for the name he once persecuted to the death.
The reason the bible offers is simply this: because Jesus died and rose again.
But like what Paul experienced, we too can expect to be rebuffed and rejected without reason.
Hear the responses of Paul’s audience: Governor Festus and King Agrippa.
24 And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.”
28 And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”
Festus merely handwaves away Paul’s speech, simply saying: “You are out of your mind”. An Ad Hominem, if you will, which we know is no rational argument at all.
King Agrippa, who was Jewish, gets it. He sees the flow of Paul’s argument and he discerns its logical conclusion: “he too should believe in the Risen Jesus”.
But he too does not believe, and his reason is simply “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”
What does the length of time got to do with anything? Would reciting his defense more slowly increase the strength and persuasiveness of his argument?
Neither of Festus’s nor Agrippa’s responses make sense. And they certainly do not refute what Paul has said in his defense.
Which leaves Paul to conclude,
“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.”
Friends, preserve and persevere in the mission, keep in view the vision, remember what all this is for. Hermonites exist to glorify God by being and making disciples of the Jesus Christ.
We proclaim to one and all, so that all who hear us might become such as we are – believers, worshippers, followers of the Risen Lord Jesus.
May that ever be our goal, our hope and our prayer.