King Agrippa, believe you the prophets? I know that you believe.…
A chemist who is experimenting with some newly-discovered element keeps a record showing the various reactions which occur when this element is brought into combination with other substances. The book of Acts is largely a diary of spiritual chemistry: it shows what happened when the gospel of Jesus Christ was brought into contact with different classes and conditions of men. When Paul presented it to Festus and Agrippa it was received in a peculiar way and had peculiar consequences. This was an unpromising audience for the preaching of the gospel of Christ. But Paul believed that gospel was meant for great as well as small (ver. 22), for profligate as well as virtuous, for the whole sinful world.
I. THE CHARACTER OF THE ADDRESS. Paul now, as often before as after, told in a simple, straightforward way the story of his own life. There is no evidence for Christ more convincing than that of Christian experience.
1. God and man worked together in Paul's Christian life (ver. 19).
(1) There was first the heavenly vision vouchsafed to Paul for his spiritual enlightenment and guidance. His conversion was wrought from without. He had not been yearning for Christ, but had been opposing Him, when God came upon the scene and changed things miraculously. God can do wonders when He will. The hardest and most impenetrably stony heart becomes the warm heart of living flesh under His converting touch.
(2) Paul's conversion was brought about only when he had submitted to the vision. He was not disobedient unto it (ver. 19). "Not even Paul's conversion was irresistible" (Bengel). That is to say, it is not accomplished without the action of his own will. So God entreats us ever to come and obey Him, and if we are not His in Christ, it is because we will not be. The heavenly vision is freely given, but we must not be disobedient unto it.
2. Paul's mission. He was called for a Divine purpose. This he recognised himself at the very time when he had the vision, for his first words were, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?"(1) His mission was to declare far and wide, to both Jew and Gentile, "that they should repent and turn to God, doing works worthy of repentance" (ver. 20). He was to be a teacher to lead men to God. The ethical contents of his message were repentance and righteousness. He was to help men to better living.
(2) But Christ's atonement, although it is not mentioned here, is presupposed as the ground of this ethical teaching (vers. 18, 23).
3. Paul's persistence in his calling.
(1) Opposition arose to Paul's accomplishment of his mission (ver. 21). That God was empowering him meant not (as we often wish it might mean for us) the removal of obstacles, but their conquest. The projection of Christianity into a heretofore unchristianised community ought to have antagonism for its reaction as certainly as litmus paper is discoloured by the touch of acid.
(2) Paul obtained "the help that is from God" (ver. 22, R.V.). His mission came to him without his own selection, and the power to accomplish it was also other than his own.
(3) Paul stood unharmed as a result of this Divine empowerment (ver. 22).
(4) Testifying, testifying ever, was the work of his life (ver. 22).
(5) Paul was impartial to his life work (ver. 22). He testified both to small and great. All men were men to him. Nationality, age, social position, wealth, learning made no difference to Paul. He gave the gospel to everyone, for everyone needed it.
4. The contents of his preaching concerning Christ are given. He preached —
(1) A suffering Christ. Christ was the Prophet by eminence. But other prophets had suffered too, and for others beside themselves. Yes, but Christ had suffered the very penalty of others' sins, entering into the place where they should have stood. He was thus the only Saviour.
(2) A risen Christ (ver. 23).
(3) A world-enlightening Christ (ver. 23). And what was the character of Christ's enlightenment? The bringing of salvation into the world's night of sin. The emphatic point in Paul's expression is "both to the people and to the Gentiles." The gospel is just as much meant for those who we think would not appreciate it — the worst criminals in the slums, the stupidest heathen, the most self-reliant sceptics — as for the most devout and eager souls.
II. THE RECEPTION OF PAUL'S ADDRESS.
1. Festus. He interrupted Paul with a loud voice. The resurrection was a piece of nonsense of which he did not care to hear any more.
(1) He did not believe what Paul was saying. He considered it madness, irrationality (ver. 24). He had supposed from Paul's bearing that he was a strong, hard-headed thinker. He found out (as he thought) that he was only a bewildered mystic. A Roman wanted facts. Paul was giving him fancies. So easily do we men imagine that our minds are the measure of truth!
(2) He had contempt for Paul. His expression denotes it. With the pride of his nation he looked down on whosoever differed with him. Oh, wise Festus! This that is before thee in this chained prisoner shall yet put the wisdom of this world to scorn, showing itself to be the eternal wisdom of God.
(3) Paul's reply. Without resenting the scorn in Festus' interruption, Paul quietly and courteously defends himself.
(1) Agrippa was merely a curious spectator of Paul, but as he sat there he was unwillingly being tried by the great touchstone of life — the gospel of Jesus Christ then and there offered to him.
(2) Agrippa had some knowledge of Christ (ver. 26). It may have been superficial, and yet it carried responsibility with it. Paul appealed to it. It had in it the beginnings of salvation for a willing heart.
(3) Agrippa was evidently influenced by his companions. His manner was plainly not that of an independent, fearless man.
(4) He gives an ironical retort, as much as to say, "Ah! you are trying your rapid method of making Christians on me, are you! Before I know it, I suppose, you will have me converted.
(5) His real feeling was concealed. How much he felt under the pressure of Paul's personal appeal we cannot judge. God's call was at last heard and recognised. But it was not obeyed.
(6) Paul's reply. As he met the hard, unbelieving Festus with a simple protest of his own truthfulness, so he met the unwillingly moved Agrippa with a sober and infinitely touching prayer. With both men he left behind a seed, which might perhaps spring and blossom unto eternal life.
III. GENERAL LESSONS.
1. There are voices of God everywhere. No soul but hears them. Are we obedient unto them?
2. Christ is the centre of Christian truth and life and work. From Him should come our thoughts, our emotions, and our deeds. Let life be to us Christ.
3. The heart of man is desperately wicked. Who could resist Paul's preaching? Festus and Agrippa did. It is possible to resist the preaching of the Spirit of God.
(D. J. Burrell, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.