Paul turned his testimony into a defense of the gospel.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 26
After several years in prison, Paul is given an opportunity to defend himself to the new Roman leaders in Judea. In addition to sharing his testimony, he also presents and explains the gospel. Likewise, we also need to be able to do both and know when the situation calls for either (or both)—with gentleness and respect.
“Are you going to persuade me to become a Christian so easily?” (26:28)
Getting Started: Things to Think About
High Profile Court Cases.
If you have an “Access Hollywood”-esque group, they might like this as an opening. We would call Paul’s case a very high-profile court case for his day and time. What kind of court case captures the imagination of a culture that makes it “high profile”? I really don’t know. It seems that social media access makes a big difference, connection to a celebrity helps, the condition of the defendant pulls in eyeballs, and the nature of the crime also seems to make a difference. So ask your class what high profile cases come to mind. Out there right now, I’m thinking of the Larry Nassar/Michigan State trial, the Cosby and Weinstein (and other) sexual assault cases, James Fields/Charlottesville, and all of the stuff going on in DC. Ask your class: do you care how these trials will turn out, and why? How do you think the people in Jerusalem felt about Paul’s trial?
History in Acts.
If you have Bible geeks in your group, this might be an interesting angle to get them thinking. How do we know the Bible is true? How can we convince others that the Bible is true? Well, some people care if the documented “facts” in the Bible can be verified. There are a bunch of such historical facts in Acts, including the names in our passage. Do a Google search on “Is Acts historically reliable” and see what you get. Skeptics have tried to argue that the Bible gets such facts wrong, but the more archeology we do, the more we realize the Bible is true. Here’s one site that I found:
Fear of public speaking (glossophobia) is the number one fear among societies. It’s a type of social anxiety disorder or performance anxiety. It affects 75% of all people, and it is an actual phobia in 19% of people! By comparison, fear of death is a phobia for 16% of people and fear of spiders for 13%. That’s amazing! Ask your class what kind of fears they have. A lot of us are afraid of confrontation, of punishment, and of failure/wrong answers.
Now—ask your groupto imagine they are Paul. Paul is making a public defense of himself with penalty of death on the line (not to mention the glory of Christ) with cross examination happening. How terrifying is that! Just another way to appreciate Paul and his situation.
Asking Someone to Make a Hard Choice.
Have you ever asked someone to make a very hard choice? How about when you were not certain of the outcome? Think about movies where the “war council” or the “legal council” are telling the main character what they need to do, but they can’t guarantee if it will work or not.
We’re probably never going to be in a grand scenario like that, but have you ever asked someone to make a hard choice maybe at work, or maybe something to do with health, or maybe a large purchase? What does it feel like to give someone a choice that involves risk? It’s uncomfortable, that’s for certain!
Well, Paul’s audience clearly didn’t realize how much risk was involved in the choice he was offering them. They looked at it from a legal, social, and philosophical point of view—how does this decision affect our standing with Caesar or with the Jews? Their standing before God was so much of a bigger deal, though. Here’s how my illustration works with this lesson: when we present a hard choice, all we can do is offer to be there for them as they deal with the choice. We can’t make it for them. We can’t manipulate the outcome. But we can help them deal with it. Guess what? That’s all we can do with the gospel. When they’ve made their choice, we can help them grow or we can keep calling after them.
This Week's Big Idea:
Sharing Your Testimony / Sharing the Gospel
You might take the opportunity to remind your group the basics of sharing your testimony in the Paul way:
Some object or topic that you have in common with your audience that can help transition you to your testimony.
Your life before Christ
How/why/when you chose to trust Christ as your Savior
What Christ is doing in your life right now
What’s beautiful about your testimony is it is yours. If you tell it from your heart (as you should), no one can argue with it. But here’s another thing: when you share your testimony, you are not asking for a response from your audience. A well-crafted testimony (like Paul’s) will include the basics of the gospel (how someone is saved). But in our passage this week, Paul takes another step—from sharing his testimony to explaining the gospel and calling for a response.
Do you see the difference? You can share the gospel without sharing your testimony. The reason testimonies are effective is they help connect your audience with a real-life example of someone who believed the gospel (you). But sometimes people just need to hear the basic facts of the gospel, and they may need questions answered. That’s what Paul was doing in this passage.
Romans 10:9 (“If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”) and 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 (“For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”) get to the fundamental facts of the gospel. Explaining those facts is the bulk of sharing the gospel. Let’s look at Paul’s approach:
He knew that his audience (King Agrippa) was a Jew knowledgeable in the Old Testament, so he based his presentation on Old Testament facts.
He explained that his understanding about Jesus was a reasonable conclusion from the Old Testament.
He carefully answered questions asked about his presentation.
Today, many people we meet will probably not be that familiar with the Old Testament, so we have to take a different approach. What does that person believe about God or being a good person (kind of like what Paul did in Athens)?
Finding a common ground on which to build a “case for Christ” is what we call apologetics, or explaining why Christianity is a reasonable philosophy/theology/worldview. Lee Strobel’s series based around The Case for Christ is an excellent starting point for someone who wants to know what sort of arguments are out there. The world is changing, though—people today want to know not the facts but the feelings. I think that’s much harder to work with because it’s so subjective. My recommendation: learn the facts. Know why you believe, and then when your gospel presentation drifts into the subjective, you have facts and truths to fall back on.
Context. What’s Happened to Paul.
Last week, Paul had been taken to Caesarea Philippi for a trial before the governor (Felix). Felix never actually handed down a decision, though, choosing instead to drag Paul out every once in a while for a mini-hearing. Two years (!) later, Felix is deposed and a new governor (Festus) is appointed. Before the ink is dry on the appointment, the Jews ask Festus to deliver Paul to Jerusalem for a “trial”. Paul invoked his right to trial in Rome instead. While Paul waited for transport, Agrippa and his sister (wife?) Bernice visited Festus and asked to hear from Paul before Paul left.
Part 1: The Gospel Told (Acts 26:19-23)
“So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. Instead, I preached to those in Damascus first, and to those in Jerusalem and in all the region of Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works worthy of repentance. For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and were trying to kill me. To this very day, I have had help from God, and I stand and testify to both small and great, saying nothing other than what the prophets and Moses said would take place—that the Messiah must suffer, and that, as the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light to our people and to the Gentiles.”
So I’ve already tried to explain the difference between a testimony and a gospel presentation. Paul has shared his testimony, and now he’s going to explain it (he would have done this is Jerusalem if the mob had given him a chance, I think). Note how respectful and knowledgeable Paul is about his audience. We don’t always have that opportunity, but when we do, we prove our care about the person we’re sharing the gospel with by trying to connect with them. Here, Paul gives an excellent summary of the human response to the gospel: repent and then live a life in accordance with that repentance. But note also that Paul doesn’t avoid controversy. His audience is aware of accusations that might be at odds with Paul just told them. Paul doesn’t shy away from it. In his case, he believes the accusations are false. But with us today, if someone rightly accuses us of hypocrisy or we have a reputation we can’t leave behind, we should use that as a way to explain what repentance is and how God forgives and gives us a new chance.
But here Paul goes into the details of the gospel. Because Agrippa is a Jew, Paul goes right to “Messiah”. We would probably have to explain the concept of a “Savior” or “Son of God” to our audience. In Paul’s presentation, “rise from the dead” would have been a key term because there was a lot of argument about that. And the reference to “light” would have directly connected them with Isaiah (9:2 and 49:6). If you need to, take this opportunity to explain the basic facts of the gospel to your class. You might be surprised to know how many Christians still cannot explain what the gospel actually is!
Aside: Felix and Festus
Here’s another interesting tale from history. After Paul’s arrest (see last week), he was taken to trial before Governor Felix. Marcus Antonius Felix was governor/procurator of Judea from AD 52 to 58. He was married to Herod Agrippa I’s youngest daughter, making him “King Agrippa”’s brother-in-law. The historians Tacitus and Josephus paint him as an incompetent and immoral ruler. Emperor Nero “recalled” him in 58, and that’s the end of his story.
According to Luke, Felix kept bringing Paul in for hearing because he hoped to receive a bribe. Felix seems to have been corrupt; he would apparently stir up unrest between the Jews and the Syrians, at which point he would send in the army to “keep the peace” and then plunder all the people, making the whole region extremely unstable. His brother prevented Nero from executing him.
Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. Festus only held the position from AD 59 to 62 when he died. Almost immediately after arriving in Jerusalem for the first time, the Sanhedrin asked him to reopen Paul’s case and try it in Jerusalem. It seems that they expected him to grant them Paul as a favor to make a good impression. Unfortunately, they had not improved their case against Paul in any way, making Festus quite annoyed. The obviously religious nature of the dispute and Paul’s appeal to Rome put him at wits end. He was grateful for King Agrippa’s visit, but it did not help him. Not wanting to appear incompetent, he sent Paul on to Rome with a detailed letter of explanation.
Festus tried to clean up Judea but died before making much progress.
Bonus Aside: “Messiah”
“Messiah” is a trigger word in Judaism (the Greek equivalent is “Christ”). It means “anointed one” and has a very deep connection with Israel. Kings and prophets were variously called messiahs, but with the failure of both offices, Jewish people turned their attention to a future capital “M” “Messiah” who would be God’s anointed in a perfect sense. Simply by bringing up this word, Paul sent the conversation to a very specific place. We have key words today that we use to “push buttons” (in good ways and bad ways). There is a place for that in sharing the gospel, but we need to be careful and certain that we are not taking our conversation in the wrong direction (by politicizing it or institutionalizing it).
Part 2: Objection Rebuffed (Acts 26:24-26)
“As he was saying these things in his defense, Festus exclaimed in a loud voice, “You’re out of your mind, Paul! Too much study is driving you mad.” But Paul replied, “I’m not out of my mind, most excellent Festus. On the contrary, I’m speaking words of truth and good judgment. For the king knows about these matters, and I can speak boldly to him. For I am convinced that none of these things has escaped his notice, since this was not done in a corner.”
Note that Festus (not Agrippa) interrupts the gospel presentation in the thick of it. How many people do you know that have just dismissed spiritual talk rather than try to take it seriously? Ask your class why they think that is. It might be fear and conviction, or it might be a I’m-too-smart-for-that-nonsense attitude. But note how politely Paul responds to the accusation. Getting defensive in a gospel presentation never works. I’ve heard stories of a gospel argument in which the Christian “won”, but humiliated the other person so much that the only thing that mattered (sharing the gospel) was lost.
Paul has the side of integrity. The facts of the case are clear to his audience. Other have brought accusations against him that they could not prove, and everything he has said can be verified from the Bible. His words are “sound and reasonable”, which is how we are supposed to share the gospel. But note how Paul drags Agrippa into this discussion. He seems to be putting Agrippa on the spot—which he is. Paul wants a response, a choice to be made. This is a bold move, and probably very unexpected. But it’s also really smart. Paul is not asking the king to say anything untrue; he wants the king to say out loud that the facts as they are presented are reasonable.
We probably don’t take that step in our gospel presentations—getting our audience to say out loud “what you just said makes sense” or the like. That kind of assent makes it harder for the person to come up with excuses.
Part 3: Invitation Given (Acts 26:27-29)
“King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you believe.” Agrippa said to Paul, “Are you going to persuade me to become a Christian so easily?” “I wish before God,” replied Paul, “that whether easily or with difficulty, not only you but all who listen to me today might become as I am—except for these chains.”
Paul makes this gospel presentation personal for Agrippa. “Do you believe?” At the end of the day, a gospel presentation is not about establishing facts, it is about asking a lost human to be brought back into a relationship with God the Father through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Agrippa balked at the scenario—either way he answered would put him in trouble with at least one group. He evaded by asking another question. His wording does not mean he almost became a Christian (which is how the KJV words it); he’s just trying to squirm out of the position. This word for “Christian” only appears here, in Acts 11:26, and 1 Peter 4:16. It is an insult (“little Christ”) applied to followers of “The Way”. Paul acknowledges that. He knows that for his audience (“respectable” people who like being respectable), the idea of becoming a Christian and having to walk around in chains would not be appealing. Yes, that might be shallow or immature, but it was reality. Likewise today we need to start with the reality of the people we’re talking to.
We have roadblocks today—the same ones Paul dealt with. People don’t believe the Bible. People don’t know the Bible. People have seen hypocrisy in those who claim to believe. But let’s all remember this: the power to save is not in our clever words or arguments. The power to save is in the Holy Spirit through the message of the Word of God. That’s why we keep using the Bible (like Paul did). And of course, like Paul did we need to focus on Jesus—who He is and what He did. There is no other name under heaven by which any of us can be saved.
Ask your group this: reading about Paul’s situation—thrust before very powerful people in a very powerless condition—are you emboldened to be a witness for Jesus? Is there someone you have been avoiding with the gospel because you are intimidated by them or their position? Put in motion this week a plan to change that. And write some notes that will help you keep your presentation clear and concise—put them in your wallet or your Bible. Practice and pray for your chance.
Closing Thoughts: Apologetics
Hopefully I’ve convinced you that you cannot argue anyone into heaven. In the 90s, Christians went through a phase of needing to intellectually defend everything we believed. “Christianity is reasonable and rational” was the theme. But then the culture changed with the millennium and “spiritual” people stopped caring about rational arguments and wanted instead to know how spiritually cohesive a religion/spirituality might be.
The truth is, there’s a necessary place for all of those approaches to explaining and defending our faith. Sure, many people don’t care about our rational defenses. But some do. And many people don’t care about the touchy-feely mumbo-jumbo. But some do. Every person out there has some question about our relationship with Jesus. They might be too afraid or proud to ask, but those questions are there. And our responsibility is to be prepared to answer them.
That’s why I’m very happy to have access to great books that present the intellectual arguments for miracles, and the transmission of the Bible, and whatever else. If someone asks me about that, I need to find that answer. And I’m very happy that people write books about a philosophical and emotional approach to Christianity. When someone asks me about that, I need to find that answer. The most important thing we can do, though, is make sure the person we’re talking to knows there is an answer. Ultimately, the answer is Jesus—the Way, the Truth, and the Life. But sometimes we need to knock down the little obstacles that prevent that person from coming to Jesus in the first place. That is the place of apologetics.