Essay / Misc.

Agrippa on the Damascus Road

Paul before Agrippa from tifany window in new jersey
Paul has one shot at defending himself before Agrippa, and he throws everything he’s got at it. One of the things he’s got is the story of his own conversion on the road to Damascus, and in Acts 26 he re-tells the whole episode to Agrippa in detail. In some respects, Paul gives more detail here in this third re-telling (see earlier versions in Acts 9 and 22). For example, he gives us more direct quotation of what Jesus told him there on the road.

The most striking thing Jesus tells him is: “I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness … delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light” (Acts 26:16-18)

“A witness to the Gentiles, to open their eyes.” Remember that, and look over at the last thing Paul gets to say to Agrippa before Festus cuts him off, at the end of his speech in verse 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: 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.”

Paul’s point is that according to the scriptures, Jesus Christ will rise from the dead and proclaim light to the Jews and to the Gentiles. But “opening the eyes of the Gentiles” is precisely what Jesus told Paul he was appointing him to do. Obviously, Jesus is appointing Paul to be the agent he carries out his work through. Who brings light to the Gentiles? Jesus Christ does: Either directly or through the witness of Paul, Jesus Christ speaks for himself. He is not a dead man who needs agents to go speak on his behalf. He is alive, present and active, speaking for himself, to Agrippa, speaking for himself to Bernice, to Festus, and all the great and small gathered there.

“In a short time, would you persuade me to be a Christian?” asks Agrippa in Acts 26:28. Actually, it’s pretty hard to determine exactly what he says here, which is why the various translations are so different from each other. Agrippa’s sentence starts with a greek word meaning “a little bit,” and then goes on to say “you persuade me to be a Christian.” But that could mean “In a little bit you will persuade me,” or “you almost persuade me,” or “As if so little is all it would persuade me…”

That last possiblity, if it’s right, is filled with sarcasm: “Is that all you’ve got? A little speech like that is all you think it will take to make me a Christian? Me? Agrippa, the Roman king of the Jews? I already know the scriptures quite well, and I have a lot at stake in maintaining my position. I’m very well educated. I’m Agrippa! Nice try, Paul, you’re an impressive guy, but I’m an impossible convert.”

Things didn’t go well for Agrippa after this encounter; by the time he was done ruling Jerusalem there was no more Jerusalem to rule. The thing with Bernice didn’t exactly work out, but that was complicated from the beginning. I don’t know his whole story, but I know what happened here in Acts 26. It was Agrippa’s moment on the road to Damascus, and he blew it. Unlike Saul, he was disobedient to the heavenly vision. Unlike Saul, Agrippa kept kicking against the goads, hard though it must have been. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and committing to Paul the word of reconciliation. Paul says elsewhere, “we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (II Cor. 5) The word of God came to Agrippa and all he heard was the voice of Paul. He started this court hearing by saying to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself,” and the risen, present, active, articulate Lord Jesus Christ spoke for himself.

That is what the risen Lord does. Our job as Christians is never to speak for him as if he cannot speak for himself, as if he is not currently speaking for himself. Our job is to speak for ourselves, to give an account and bear witness of what he has done in our lives. Our job is to hear and obey. As usual, we have nothing to add to the work of God except our attention.

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