Agrippa was the most honourable person in the assembly, having the title of king bestowed upon him, though otherwise having only the power of other governors under the emperor, and, though not here superior, yet senior, to Festus; and therefore, Festus having opened the cause, Agrippa, as the mouth of the court, intimates to Paul a licence given him to speak for himself, Acts 26:1. Paul was silent till he had this liberty allowed him; for those are not the most forward to speak that are best prepared to speak and speak best. This was a favour which the Jews would not allow him, or not without difficulty; but Agrippa freely gives it to him. And Paul’s cause was so good that he desired no more than to have liberty to speak for himself; he needed no advocate, no Tertullus, to speak for him. Notice is taken of his gesture: He stretched forth his hand, as one that was under no consternation at all, but had perfect freedom and command of himself; it also intimates that he was in earnest, and expected their attention while he answered for himself. Observe, He did not insist upon his having appealed to Caesar as an excuse for being silent, did not say, “I will be examined no more till I come to the emperor himself;” but cheerfully embraced the opportunity of doing honour to the cause he suffered for. If we must be ready to give a reason of the hope that is in us to every man that asketh us, much more to every man in authority, 1 Pet. 3:15. Now in this former part of the speech,
I. Paul addressed himself with a very particular respect to Agrippa, Acts 26:2, 3. He answered cheerfully before Felix, because he knew he had been many years a judge to that nation, Acts 24:10. But his opinion of Agrippa goes further. Observe, 1. Being accused of the Jews, and having many base things laid to his charge, he is glad he has an opportunity of clearing himself; so far is he from imagining that his being an apostle exempted him from the jurisdiction of the civil powers. Magistracy is an ordinance of God, which we have all benefit by, and therefore must all be subject to. 2. Since he is forced to answer for himself, he is glad it is before king Agrippa, who, being himself a proselyte to the Jewish religion, understood all matters relating to it better than the other Roman governors did: I know thee to be expert in all customs and questions which are among the Jews. It seems, Agrippa was a scholar, and had been particularly conversant in the Jewish learning, was expert in the customs of the Jewish religion, and knew the nature of them, and that they were not designed to be either universal or perpetual. He was expert also in the questions that arose upon those customs, in determining which the Jews themselves were not all of a mind. Agrippa was well versed in the scriptures of the Old-Testament, and therefore could make a better judgment upon the controversy between him and the Jews concerning Jesus being the Messiah than another could. It is an encouragement to a preacher to have those to speak to that are intelligent, and can discern things that differ. When Paul says, Judge you what I say, yet he speaks as to wise men, 1 Cor. 10:15. 3. He therefore begs that he would hear him patiently, makrothymos—with long suffering. Paul designs a long discourse, and begs that Agrippa will hear him out, and not be weary; he designs a plain discourse, and begs that he will hear him with mildness, and not be angry. Paul had some reason to fear that as Agrippa, being a Jew, was well versed in the Jewish customs, and therefore the more competent judge of his cause, so he was soured in some measure with the Jewish leaven, and therefore prejudiced against Paul as the apostle of the Gentiles; he therefore says this to sweeten him: I beseech thee, hear me patiently. Surely the least we can expect, when we preach the faith of Christ, is to be heard patiently.
II. He professes that though he was hated and branded as a apostate, yet he still adhered to all that good which he was first educated and trained up in; his religion was always built upon the promise of God made unto the fathers; and this he still built upon.
1. See here what his religion was in his youth: His manner of life was well known, Acts 26:4, 5. He was not indeed born among his own nation, but he was bred among them at Jerusalem. Though he had of late years been conversant with the Gentiles (which had given great offence to the Jews), yet at his setting out in the world he was intimately acquainted with the Jewish nation, and entirely in their interests. His education was neither foreign nor obscure; it was among his own nation at Jerusalem, where religion and learning flourished. All the Jews knew it, all that could remember so long, for Paul made himself remarkable betimes. Those that knew him from the beginning could testify for him that he was a Pharisee, that he was not only of the Jewish religion, and an observer of all the ordinances of it, but that he was of the most strict sect of that religion, most nice and exact in observing the institutions of it himself, and most rigid and critical in imposing them upon others. He was not only called a Pharisee, but he lived a Pharisee. All that knew him knew very well that never any Pharisee conformed more punctually to the rules of his order than he did. Nay, and he was of the better sort of Pharisees; for he was brought up at the feet of Gamaliel, who was an eminent rabbi of the school of house of Hillel, which was in much greater reputation for religion than the school or house of Samai. Now if Paul was a Pharisee, and lived a Pharisee, (1.) Then he was a scholar, a man of learning, and not an ignorant, illiterate, mechanic; the Pharisees knew the law, and were well versed in it, and in the traditional expositions of it. It was a reproach to the other apostles that they had not had an academical education, but were bred fishermen, Acts 4:13. Therefore, that the unbelieving Jews might be left without excuse, here is an apostle raised up that had sat at the feet of their most eminent doctors. (2.) Then he was a moralist, a man of virtue, and not a rake or loose debauched young man. If he lived like a Pharisee, he was no drunkard nor fornicator; and, being a young Pharisee, we may hope he was no extortioner, nor had yet learned the arts which the crafty covetous old Pharisees had of devouring the houses of poor widows; but he was, as touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. He was not chargeable with any instance of open vice and profaneness; and therefore, as he could not be thought to have deserted his religion because he did not know it (for he was a learned man), so he could not be thought to have deserted it because he did not love it, or was disaffected to the obligations of it, for he was a virtuous man, and not inclined to any immorality. (3.) Then he was orthodox, sound in the faith, and not a deist or sceptic, or a man of corrupt principles that led to infidelity. He was a Pharisee, in opposition to a Sadducee; he received those books of the Old Testament which the Sadducees rejected, believed a world of spirits, the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, and the rewards and punishments of the future state, all which the Sadducees denied. They could not say, He quitted his religion for want of a principle, or for want of a due regard to divine revelation; no, he always had a veneration for the ancient promise made of God unto the fathers, and built his hope upon it.
Now though Paul knew very well that all this would not justify him before God, nor make a righteousness for him yet he knew it was for his reputation among the Jews, and an argument ad hominem—such as Agrippa would feel, that he was not such a man as they represented him to be. Though he counted it but loss that he might win Christ, yet he mentioned it when it might serve to honour Christ. He knew very well that all this while he was a stranger to the spiritual nature of the divine law, and to heart-religion, and that except his righteousness exceeded this he should never go to heaven; yet he reflects upon it with some satisfaction that he had not been before his conversion an atheistical, profane, vicious man, but, according to the light he had, had lived in all good conscience before God.
2. See here what his religion is. He has not indeed such a zeal for the ceremonial law as he had in his youth. The sacrifices and offerings appointed by that, he thinks, are superseded by the great sacrifice which they typified; ceremonial pollutions and purifications from them he makes no conscience of, and thinks the Levitical priesthood is honourably swallowed up in the priesthood of Christ; but for the main principles of his religion he is as zealous for them as ever, and more so, and resolves to live and die by them.
(1.) His religion is built upon the promise made of God unto the fathers. It is built upon divine revelation, which he receives and believes, and ventures his soul upon; it is built upon divine grace, and that grace manifested and conveyed by promise. The promise of God is the guide and ground of his religion, the promise made to the fathers, which was more ancient than the ceremonial law, that covenant which was confirmed before of God in Christ, and which the law, that was not till four hundred and thirty years after, could not disannul, Gal. 3:17. Christ and heaven are the two great doctrines of the gospel—that God has given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Now these two are the matter of the promise made unto the fathers. It may look back as far as the promise made to father Adam, concerning the seed of the woman, and those discoveries of a future state which the first patriarchs acted faith upon, and were saved by that faith; but it respects chiefly the promise made to father Abraham, that in his seed all the families of the earth should be blessed, and that God would be a God to him, and to his seed after him: the former meaning Christ, the latter heaven; for, if God had not prepared for them a city, he would have been ashamed to have called himself their God. Heb. 11:16.
(2.) His religion consists in the hopes of this promise. He places it not, as they did, in meats and drinks, and the observance of carnal ordinances (God had often shown what little account he made of them), but in a believing dependence upon God’s grace in the covenant, and upon the promise, which was the great charter by which the church was first incorporated. [1.] He had hope in Christ as the promised seed; he hoped to be blessed in him, to receive the blessing of God and to be truly blessed. [2.] He had hopes of heaven; this is expressly meant, as appears by comparing Acts 24:15; That there shall be a resurrection of the dead. Paul had no confidence in the flesh, but in Christ; no expectation at all of great things in this world, but of greater things in the other world than any this world can pretend to; he had his eye upon a future state.
(3.) Herein he concurred with all the pious Jews; his faith was not only according to the scripture, but according to the testimony of the church, which was a support to it. Though they set him up as a mark, he was not singular: “Our twelve tribes, the body of the Jewish church, instantly serving God day and night, hope to come to this promise, that is, to the good promised.” The people of Israel are called the twelve tribes, because so they were at first; and, though we read not of the return of the ten tribes in a body, yet we have reason to think many particular persons, more or less of every tribe, returned to their own land; perhaps, by degrees, the greater part of those that were carried away. Christ speaks of the twelve tribes, Matt. 19:28. Anna was of the tribe of Asher, Luke 2:36. James directs his epistle to the twelve tribes scattered abroad, Jas. 1:1. “Our twelve tribes, which make up the body of our nation, to which I and others belong. Now all the Israelites profess to believe in this promise, both of Christ and heaven, and hope to come to the benefits of them. They all hope for a Messiah to come, and we that are Christians hope in a Messiah already come; so that we all agree to build upon the same promise. They look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, and this is what I look for. Why should I be looked upon as advancing something dangerous and heterodox, or as an apostate from the faith and worship of the Jewish church, when I agree with them in this fundamental article? I hope to come to the same heaven at last that they hope to come to; and, if we expect to meet so happily in our end, why should we fall out so unhappily by the way?” Nay, the Jewish church not only hoped to come to this promise, but, in the hope of it, they instantly served God day and night. The temple-service, which consisted in a continual course of religious duties, morning and evening, day and night, from the beginning of the year to the end of it, and was kept up by the priests and Levites, and the stationary men, as they called them, who continually attended there to lay their hands upon the public sacrifices, as the representatives of all the twelve tribes, this service was kept up in the profession of faith in the promise of eternal life, and, in expectation of it, Paul instantly serves God day and night in the gospel of his Son; the twelve tribes by their representatives do so in the law of Moses, but he and they do it in hope of the same promise: “Therefore they ought not to look upon me as a deserter from their church, so long as I hold by the same promise that they hold by.” Much more should Christians, who hope in the same Jesus, for the same heaven, though differing in the modes and ceremonies of worship, hope the best one of another, and live together in holy love. Or it may be meant of particular persons who continued in the communion of the Jewish church, and were very devout in their way, serving God with great intenseness, and a close application of mind, and constant in it, night and day, as Anna, who departed not from the temple, but served God (it is the same word here used) in fastings and prayers night and day, Luke 2:37. “In this way they hope to come to the promise, and I hope they will.” Note, Those only can upon good grounds hope for eternal life that are diligent and constant in the service of God; and the prospect of that eternal life should engage us to diligence and constancy in all religious exercises. We should go on with our work with heaven in our eye. And of those that instantly serve God day and night, though not in our way, we ought to judge charitably.
(4.) This was what he was now suffering for—for preaching that doctrine which they themselves, if they did but understand themselves aright, must own: I am judged for the hope of the promise made unto the fathers. He stuck to the promise, against the ceremonial law, while his persecutors stuck to the ceremonial law, against the promise: “It is for this hope’s sake, king Agrippa, that I am accused of the Jews—because I do that which I think myself obliged to do by the hope of this promise.” It is common for men to hate and persecute the power of that religion in others which yet they pride themselves in the form of. Paul’s hope was what they themselves also allowed (Acts 24:15), and yet they were thus enraged against him for practising according to that hope. But it was his honour that when he suffered as a Christian he suffered for the hope of Israel, Acts 28:20.
(5.) This was what he would persuade all that heard him cordially to embrace (Acts 26:8): Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you that God should raise the dead? This seems to come in somewhat abruptly; but it is probable Paul said much more than is here recorded, and that he explained the promise made to the fathers to be the promise of the resurrection and eternal life, and proved that he was in the right way of pursuing his hope of that happiness because he believed in Christ who had risen from the dead, which was a pledge and earnest of that resurrection which the fathers hoped for. Paul is therefore earnest to know the power of Christ’s resurrection, that by it he might attain to the resurrection of the dead; see Phil. 3:10, 11. Now many of his hearers were Gentiles, most of them perhaps, Festus particularly, and we may suppose, when they heard him speak so much of Christ’s resurrection, and of the resurrection from the dead, which the twelve tribes hoped for, that they mocked, as the Athenians did, began to smile at it, and whispered to one another what an absurd thing it was, which occasioned Paul thus to reason with them. What! is it thought incredible with you that God should raise the dead? So it may be read. If it be marvellous in your eyes, should it be marvellous in mine eyes, saith the Lord of hosts? Zech. 8:6. If it be above the power of nature, yet it is not above the power of the God of nature. Note, There is no reason why we should think it at all incredible that God should raise the dead. We are not required to believe any thing that is incredible, any thing that implies a contradiction. There are motives of credibility sufficient to carry us through all the doctrines of the Christian religion, and this particularly of the resurrection of the dead. Has not God an infinite almighty power, to which nothing is impossible? Did not he make the world at first out of nothing, with a word’s speaking? Did he not form our bodies, form them out of the clay, and breathe into us the breath of life at first? and cannot the same power form them again out of their own clay, and put life into them again? Do we not see a kind of resurrection in nature, at the return of every spring? Has the sun such a force to raise dead plants, and should it seem incredible to us that God should raise dead bodies?
III. He acknowledges that while he continued a Pharisee he was a bitter enemy to Christians and Christianity, and thought he ought to be so, and continued so to the moment that Christ wrought that wonderful change in him. This he mentions,
1. To show that his becoming a Christian and a preacher was not the product and result of any previous disposition or inclination that way, or any gradual advance of thought in favour of the Christian doctrine; he did not reason himself into Christianity by a chain of arguments, but was brought into the highest degree of an assurance of it, immediately from the highest degree of prejudice against it, by which it appeared that he was made a Christian and a preacher by a supernatural power; so that his conversion in such a miraculous way was not only to himself, but to others also, a convincing proof of the truth of Christianity.
2. Perhaps he designs it for such an excuse of his persecutors as Christ made for his, when he said, They know not what they do. Paul himself once thought he did what he ought to do when he persecuted the disciples of Christ, and he charitably thinks they laboured under the like mistake. Observe,
(1.) What a fool he was in his opinion (Acts 26:9): He thought with himself that he ought to do many things, every thing that lay in his power, contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth, contrary to his doctrine, his honour, his interest. That name did not harm, yet, because it agreed not with the notion he had of the kingdom of the Messiah, he was for doing all he could against it. He thought he did God good service in persecuting those who called on the name of Jesus Christ. Note, It is possible for those to be confident they are in the right who yet are evidently in the wrong; and for those to think they are doing their duty who are wilfully persisting in the greatest sin. Those that hated their brethren, and cast them out, said, Let the Lord be glorified, Isa. 66:5. Under colour and pretext of religion, the most barbarous and inhuman villanies have been not only justified, but sanctified and magnified, John 16:2.
(2.) What a fury he was in his practice, Acts 26:10, 11. There is not a more violent principle in the world than conscience misinformed. When Paul thought it his duty to do all he could against the name of Christ, he spared no pains nor cost in it. He gives an account of what he did of that kind, and aggravates it as one that was truly penitent for it: I was a blasphemer, a persecutor, 1 Tim. 1:13. [1.] He filled the jails with Christians, as if they had been the worst of criminals, designing hereby not only to terrify them, but to make them odious to the people. He was the devil that cast some of them into prison (Rev. 2:10), took them into custody, in order to their being prosecuted. Many of the saints did I shut up in prison (Acts 26:10), both men and women, Acts 8:3. [2.] He made himself the tool of the chief priests. Herein from them he received authority, as an inferior officer, to put their laws in execution, and proud enough he was to be a man in authority for such a purpose. [3.] He was very officious to vote, unasked for, the putting of Christians to death, particularly Stephen, to whose death Saul was consenting (Acts 8:1), and so made himself particeps criminis—partaker of the crime. Perhaps he was, for his great zeal, though young, made a member of the sanhedrim, and there voted for the condemning of Christians to die; or, after they were condemned, he justified what was done, and commended it, and so made himself guilty ex post facto—after the deed was committed, as if he had been a judge or jury-man. [4.] He brought them under punishments of an inferior nature, in the synagogues, where they were scourged as transgressors of the rules of the synagogue. He had a hand in the punishing of many; nay, it should seem the same persons were by his means often punished, as he himself was five times, 2 Cor. 11:24. [5.] He not only punished them for their religion, but, taking a pride in triumphing over men’s consciences, he forced them to abjure their religion, by putting them to the torture: “I compelled them to blaspheme Christ, and to say he was a deceiver and they were deceived in him—compelled them to deny their Master, and renounce their obligations to him.” Nothing will lie heavier upon persecutors than forcing men’s consciences, how much soever they may now triumph in the proselytes they have made by their violences. [6.] His rage swelled so against Christians and Christianity that Jerusalem itself was too narrow a stage for it to act upon, but, being exceedingly mad against them, he persecuted them even to strange cities. He was mad at them, to see how much they had to say for themselves, notwithstanding all he did against them, mad to see them multiply the more for their being afflicted. He was exceedingly mad; the stream of his fury would admit no banks, no bounds, but he was as much a terror to himself as he was to them, so great was his vexation within himself that he could not prevail, as well as his indignation against them. Persecutors are mad men, and some of them exceedingly mad. Paul was mad to see that those in other cities were not so outrageous against the Christians, and therefore made himself busy where he had no business, and persecuted the Christians even in strange cities. There is not a more restless principle than malice, especially that which pretends conscience.
This was Paul’s character, and this his manner of life in the beginning of his time; and therefore he could not be presumed to be a Christian by education or custom, or to be drawn in by hope of preferment, for all imaginable external objections lay against his being a Christian.