Are You Really Listening?

“Now when some days had passed, Agrippa the king and Bernice arrived at Caesarea and greeted Festus. And as they stayed there many days, Festus laid Paul’s case before the king, saying, “There is a man left prisoner by Felix, and when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews laid out their case against him, asking for a sentence of condemnation against him. I answered them that it was not the custom of the Romans to give up anyone before the accused met the accusers face to face and had opportunity to make his defense concerning the charge laid against him. So when they came together here, I made no delay, but on the next day took my seat on the tribunal and ordered the man to be brought. When the accusers stood up, they brought no charge in his case of such evils as I supposed. Rather they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive. Being at a loss how to investigate these questions, I asked whether he wanted to go to Jerusalem and be tried there regarding them. But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of the emperor, I ordered him to be held until I could send him to Caesar.” Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I would like to hear the man myself.” “Tomorrow,” said he, “you will hear him.” So on the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city. Then, at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. And Festus said, “King Agrippa and all who are present with us, you see this man about whom the whole Jewish people petitioned me, both in Jerusalem and here, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. But I found that he had done nothing deserving death. And as he himself appealed to the emperor, I decided to go ahead and send him. But I have nothing definite to write to my lord about him. Therefore I have brought him before you all, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that, after we have examined him, I may have something to write. For it seems to me unreasonable, in sending a prisoner, not to indicate the charges against him.” (Acts 25:13-27 ESV)

We live in a world of rapid change. While many of these changes are occurring in technology, that is certainly not the only area of change we are experiencing. We have experienced rapid changes in medical diagnostics and treatment, communications, travel, and even cultural understanding and interaction. We have quickly become a global community through rapid communication methods, news dissemination and even cultural dynamics, cultural symbiosis and shifting cultural adoption and adaptation. What was once unique to a particular place or culture is often quickly embraced, adopted or adapted and, sometimes, even rejected on a global scale.

For example, things that were once considered strictly a part of western culture and thought have been adapted and adopted by the east and vice-versa. I can remember when the Beatles and John Lennon, in particular, first introduced America to transcendental meditation and the Dalia Lama. It didn’t take long for western pop culture to begin embracing and adapting these ideas into their lives, religious thought and music. Of course, that flow of influence flows both directions. I recently watched in utter fascination as a western TV personality encountered and talked to a remote Buddhist monk high in the mountains of Tibet when, quite surprisingly, the monk’s cell phone started ringing in the midst of the interview. I’ve often wondered if we realize that those things we consider to be technological advances may, in fact, be technological hindrances. We may have more ready access to information and data, but does that really result in a better life?

In today’s focal passage, the prisoner Paul continues to be held in prison by Festus, the Roman governor of Judea, as King Agrippa comes to pay his respects and, what appears to be, a courtesy visit to the new governor by the King of Chalcis. Marcus Julius Agrippa or Agrippa II, is the grandson of Herod the Great (see Matthew 2 – ruler of Judea at the birth of Christ and the king the Wise Men visited) and the son of Herod Agrippa or Agrippa I (see Matthew 14 – responsible for the beheading of John the Baptist). He is the eighth and last of the Herodian line and was only 17 when his father died and the emperor considered him too young to take his father’s place as the King of Judea. So, Claudius (emperor at the time) kept the young Agrippa in Rome but eventually he was given authority over the small Syrian region of Chalcis, the Jerusalem Temple, and appointment of the Jewish High Priest, when his uncle, Herod of Chalcis, died in 48 AD.

While Herod II had been granted authority over the management of the Jerusalem Temple and the appointment of the Hight Priest, he did not have authority over the city of Jerusalem or the Judean region. Thus, he may have been aware of the issues related to Jesus, Christ’s followers (the Way) and, most recently, issues related to Paul, the riot in the Temple, and Paul’s arrest but he had no direct authority over them. Herod is accompanied by his lover and sister Bernice. Yes, I did say that she was his lover and his sister and they were openly living in an incestual relationship with each other.

As Festus and Agrippa visit and exchange pleasantries and challenges related to their respective responsibilities, Festus mentions that Felix had ‘left some unfinished’ business for him to resolve – Paul the prisoner. Festus goes on to mention to Agrippa that the case laid out by the Jewish Council against Paul was not at all what he had expected. Nothing they had presented was worthy of Paul’s imprisonment, let alone the death sentence they had demanded of him. In fact, Festus tells Agrippa that the core issue was a religious matter related to “a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.” Festus, has heard the Jew’s charges and Paul’s response but he doesn’t seem to have a good grasp on the importance of either.

Many folks today face the same challenge. They hear the talk, but don’t really grasp the eternal importance of the issue. Growing up, I loved the Peanuts cartoon strip featuring Charlie Brown and his beagle, Snoopy. In the animated TV version of the story, whenever an adult would speak to one of the children their voice would be represented by an unintelligible noise much like a muted trumpet (whaaa, whaaaaah, wha, whaaa…). I suppose that if you don’t understand my reference, you’ll just have to watch an example here – I mention this because I think that some folk’s interest in and understanding of God and His word is a bit like this. When they encounter someone like Paul, all they really hear is just noise and not intelligible and eternally important conversation or insights. They seem to be deaf to the voice of God and blind to the presence and power of God. Festus appears to just hear noise…

You may think I am reading more into this story than is actually there. Is Festus really deaf to these things? Are Paul’s words and testimony related to Jesus really falling on deaf ears or am I being harsh towards Festus? Notice how Festus relates this information to Agrippa, “they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus.” He doesn’t see Paul’s words as being applicable to him, as a Roman. This issue doesn’t have anything to do with me, it is only a regional religious dispute about a certain man. Nothing I need to be personally concerned about.

While the Roman Governor Festus may be blind or deaf to the things of God, is King Agrippa? Agrippa listens to Festus and then responds, “I would like to hear the man myself.” While Agrippa may have valued Festus’ opinion and insight on certain matters, he appears to recognize the importance of considering Paul’s words. Sometimes we make judgments about things based on the insights and input of others but given the eternal importance of a relationship with the God of the universe, we should consider the evidence and evaluate the truth of scripture ourselves. We should hear it and consider it for ourselves since our choices could have eternal personal significance, if true. You should consider these things for yourself. Don’t take someone else’s word for it. Don’t even take my word for it. Search it out for yourself. Weigh the evidence. Consider the arguments, both for and against, before you make a decision.

“Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:27-28 ESV)

Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important. — C. S. Lewis

I previously mentioned that Agrippa had been too young to assume his father’s position upon his death, but now Agrippa had been placed in power as the King of Chalcis. What I didn’t mention is that Agrippa is only 21-22 years old at this time. This isn’t some old man considering whether he should consider the truth of Paul’s claims, he’s still quite young. I remember quite well the spiritual struggle I went through at about the age of 21. I had been raised by parents who embraced the Christian faith and had taught me many of these truths. Yet, I reached a point in my own spiritual journey where faith had to transition from “the faith of my parents” to “my faith.” I had made a profession of faith in Jesus as a young boy, but I was no longer that boy – I was becoming a man with a family of my own, making choices and decisions on my own, and my faith had to become my own.

During this time, I felt a bit like Jacob as he returned home and had to face his brother, Esau (see Genesis 32). During Jacob’s journey home, he came to a point where he wrestled with God at the river Jabbok. Faith, real life-changing faith, is not just a simple acknowledgement of God’s existence and your belief of those facts. Faith is, ultimately, a wrestling match of two wills – your will and God’s will. It is facing the reality that you tend to ignore and disobey God’s will and pursue your own will – it’s really called sin. It is recognizing that in your sinful rebellion, you’ve been living according to your own guidelines and principles and not God’s. Faith is not only acknowledging the truth of God’s existence but also that His will and desires for you and your life are better than yours – and then crying out, “God, forgive me! I want what you want in my life more than I want what I want in my life. I surrender all authority in my life to you.”

Jesus put it this way: “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 ESV)

He is the WAY to God, He is the TRUTH of God and He is the very essence of the LIFE you seek. When Jesus promised “eternal” life to His disciples, it was as much a promise about the quality of life as it was about the quantity of life. Who wants a life that is empty and devoid of meaning and joy, of purpose and satisfaction? Nobody does, but that’s what our culture pursues – a life that is devoid of purpose and satisfaction. How can I make such a claim? What’s the proof? We keep seeking, chasing, grabbing, climbing and spending and we are NEVER satisfied. Why? Because what we really need, what we truly seek cannot be found in these things we chase – power, possessions, passion, and position. We wrestle for them but they leave us tired, scarred, defeated and empty.

God wants to fill us, but not with these THINGS – with Himself. That’s what I discovered in that wrestling match I had with God. I wanted God to accept me because of my value, my moral goodness, my hard work and my skill. In the midst of that wrestling match, I realized that God doesn’t love me because of who or what I have made of myself. He doesn’t love me because of me, He loves me because of Himself. He had made me in His image, but I wasn’t trying to become His image – I was trying to become MY image. I believed in God, but did I believe God’s image of me was best? Once I came to the realization that MY image was sinful and His image was best, then His grace flowed all over me. His love transformed me. He was everything I longed for and everything I needed. Are you willing to admit that your own image of your life keeps falling short of your dreams and goals and that God’s image of you might be best?

I want to end this week with an observation regarding Festus’ evaluation of Paul and the charges against him. Festus had listened to the Jewish Council’s arguments. He had heard their hate filled, vitriolic condemnation of Paul’s beliefs and actions. Yet, Festus found nothing in their charges that was worthy of death. In fact, he was even struggling to find ANYTHING to write up as charges against Paul as he prepared to send him to Caesar for judgment. In essence, Paul had presented his beliefs and the Gospel without offending Festus but not without offending the Council. How is this even possible? How could Paul’s beliefs and the truth of the Gospel and the resurrection of Christ be offensive to the religious people and not to the Governor? Why are the religious people offended and the non-religious people not?

In essence, that’s the heart of the gospel’s message and the difference between religious belief and true faith in Christ. Religion is man’s attempt at earning God’s favor through orthodox religious beliefs, moral behavior and religious fervor. The gospel of Jesus is the recognition that all of those (orthodox beliefs, moral behavior and religious fervor) fall short of what God desires and what God deserves. It presents the solution as the person of Jesus, the very essence of God Himself, coming in human flesh to demonstrate God’s love for us as the ultimate sacrifice for sin in our place. “But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us!” (Romans 5:8 HCSB)

Did you hear that clearly? If not, go back and read it, again. I don’t want those words to be just noise in your ear. I want that to settle into your head and your heart. I want to make certain that you hear God’s words and not just that you hear but that you also understand them, clearly. “He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. But to all who did receive Him, He gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:11-13 HCSB) That’s why we refer to this process of faith in Jesus as being “born again.” We were born of flesh and blood by our parents, but now we must be born of the Spirit, born again by God. (See also John 3:1-21)

Herod Agrippa II has now heard, next week we will see how he responds. How will you respond? Will you embrace the image of you that God has designed? Will you admit that your image continues to fall short of what you need, want and desire and that God’s image is best? Will you surrender yourself to His will, His image, His design for you? Are you really listening? I pray you are…

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