“Agrippa said to Paul, “It is permitted for you to speak for yourself.” Then Paul stretched out his hand and began his defense: “I consider myself fortunate, King Agrippa, that today I am going to make a defense before you about everything I am accused of by the Jews, especially since you are an expert in all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently. “All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, which was spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem. They had previously known me for quite some time, if they were willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I lived as a Pharisee. And now I stand on trial for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers, the promise our 12 tribes hope to attain as they earnestly serve Him night and day. King Agrippa, I am being accused by the Jews because of this hope. Why is it considered incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? In fact, I myself supposed it was necessary to do many things in opposition to the name of Jesus the Nazarene. I actually did this in Jerusalem, and I locked up many of the saints in prison, since I had received authority for that from the chief priests. When they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. In all the synagogues I often tried to make them blaspheme by punishing them. I even pursued them to foreign cities since I was greatly enraged at them.” (Acts 26:1-11 HCSB)
Welcome back… sorry about last week, I was out of town and getting some rest.
Have you ever been in a situation where things didn’t happen quite the way you expected? I know that many of the dreams and hopes I had as a child are nothing like how my life actually turned out. Truth be told, my hopes and dreams as a child were simply “childish” and utterly fantastical. No real surprise that life didn’t quite turn out the way I had hoped. Sometimes our expectations are much grander than reality and sometimes our reality is grander than our expectations. For the most part, I think our expectations are generally higher than our reality. In other words, our dreams and hopes are usually much better than how things actually turn out.
I can remember lying in bed on Christmas Eve when I was a child with my head full of dreams of what would be under the Christmas tree the next morning. When I woke up the next morning, while the things I dreamed of weren’t under the tree I was still in awe of what was under the tree. My unmet childish hopes and disappointment quickly faded away to the excitement of my Christmas Day reality. While we certainly weren’t rich, I was blessed with parents who worked hard and Christmas was a day filled with new pajamas and underwear, nuts and fruit in our stockings, and a GI Joe, Lincoln Logs or a game to play with my brothers. As I grew up, I came to realize that my dreams and hopes would often give way to the reality of lesser but, somehow, better things than I had actually hoped.
I might have hoped for a go-cart but the bicycle I received for my birthday was more than enough to bring a sense of wonder as I rode down the street with the handle-grip streamers and my blonde hair blowing in the breeze. I might have wanted a trip to the fair to ride the roller-coaster (Zingo at Bell’s Amusement Park in Tulsa), but a piece of cardboard and the steep hill behind our neighbor’s house really was just as thrilling. What I’m trying to say is that our expectations might truly be a huge dream, but what God gives quickly causes our dream to fade away in the bright light of His incredible presence. That’s what happened in Paul’s experience with God and what I’m certain will happen in yours, if you’ll give Him that chance.
In today’s focal passage, we find Paul getting the privilege of fulfilling God’s promised witness of the Gospel before kings. Paul has been held prisoner in Herod’s palace in Caesarea for over two years. Former Governor Felix had hoped to extort a bribe from Paul or his supporters as he held Paul prisoner, but Festus desired to resolve this lingering issue. He could not find anything on which to base charges against Paul, so he asked for Agrippa’s review and insight on the case. Agrippa and Bernice have arrived and have entered the Tribunal Court with great pomp and fanfare and Agrippa has taken his place on the throne and He gives Paul permission to present his defense.
It is important to note that Paul addresses Agrippa with the honor that is appropriate to his position. While he doesn’t “gush” over Agrippa in an effort to win his favor, he does speak in a manner that is position appropriate. When Jesus was asked about the Jews paying taxes to Caesar, he asked one of them for a coin and inquired, “whose image does it carry?” When they answered, “Caesar’s”, he replied quite simply: “…then give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” (Luke 20:25 HCSB) Since we are talking about Paul’s response to Agrippa, it would be appropriate to also note how Paul states this same admonition: “Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor.” (Romans 13:7)
We live in a very divisive culture and many of us find it difficult to follow Jesus’ admonition and Paul’s restating of it in his letter to the Roman Christians to give our political leaders the respect and honor they are owed. But it isn’t just political leaders that cause us to struggle. You might struggle with a boss or your spouse. Maybe you struggle giving respect and honor to your pastor or someone else on your church’s staff or leadership team. Whoever it is, take just a moment to consider Paul’s situation and his response. He has been held as a prisoner on unjust charges for over two years. He might have every right to be hurt, angry and full of justifiable rage but the grace of God dominates his life, his speech and his response.
As Paul addresses Agrippa, he knows full well that Agrippa is not living in submission to God’s will and commandments. Agrippa is seated next to Bernice, but Bernice is his sister and his lover. What? Yes, incest and also adultery because Bernice is actually married to someone else. Sounds like an American soap opera or worse, doesn’t it? Here’s my point… It is easy for us to focus our eyes on people’s failures, and completely overlook their need. We see their failings while we overlook our own. When we do that we fail to offer them the same grace that Christ offered us. We see the guy on the corner with the sign that says, “Hungry, God bless…” and we find reasons to drive on by without giving him something to eat. We see the girl with the “Pro-Choice” sign and we only feel anger towards her and completely overlook the fear, loneliness and hurt in her eyes.
Paul was able to look at Agrippa and see more than just a “get out of jail free” card. He saw a man who knew, deep down, the hope that God offers, but was somehow overlooking it. Why was Paul able to see this? How could he look past the pomp, pride, sin and selfishness of Agrippa and see a hunger, a deep, deep need for God? How? By remembering his own journey to grace… by seeing his own journey to faith. We can see the needs of the hurting more clearly when we begin seeing ourselves in them. Sinners in need of God’s grace, sinners saved by grace.
“When He saw the crowds, He felt compassion for them, because they were weary and worn out, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36 HCSB)
One thing that I find interesting in this story is Paul’s acknowledgement that Agrippa knew all of these things. Paul notes that Agrippa is an “expert” in these Jewish issues and beliefs. Just like Paul, Agrippa knew all the right things ABOUT God but had somehow failed to KNOW God. I want to introduce you to two words that you may have heard but may not understand: orthodoxy (right beliefs) and orthopraxy (right actions). It is not uncommon for many to know or believe the right things and even strive to live morally upright and good lives, all while completely missing a real and abiding relationship with God. We can hold orthodox beliefs and live good, religiously moral lives and still miss out on a relationship with God. Paul had done this for years. Paul might have been persecuting and even killing the followers of Jesus, but he felt his beliefs justified his actions – he was doing God’s work. Right beliefs equals right actions. Or, so he thought…
Is that even possible? Is it possible to truly pursue God and embrace what we think are right beliefs and a right understanding of God and, yet, be entirely wrong? Or perhaps, right in our beliefs but wrong in our actions? Of course, it is. Paul’s view of God and his beliefs regarding God were entirely orthodox, until the day he met Jesus. He had fully embraced an orthodox Jewish belief in God and God’s word and was attempting to live those beliefs out. He was very sincere, but he was sincerely wrong and his encounter with Jesus clearly revealed that to him.
The next logical question is whether we have made the same mistake? The answer is, yes and no. There’s little doubt that we hold certain beliefs and we act on those beliefs and that our beliefs and actions are in direct opposition to God and His revealed will. Wait, what? Yes, some of what we believe and some of what we do is most definitely wrong and in opposition to God and His will. Let me explain…
One of our orthodox, or right, beliefs is that men are inherently sinful. We are born with a tendency towards selfish desires and ambitions. We are born fighting the authority and rule of God in and over our lives. Every one of us! Theologically it is called, original sin. It doesn’t mean that we are guilty of sin because of Adam’s sin, it really means that we are born with a sinful nature, a natural tendency of rebellion away from God and towards selfish desires and pursuits. By the way, this sinful nature continues to impact our desires, thoughts, choices and actions even after our new birth in Christ (see John 3). This means that even though we have been “born again” we still struggle with ungodly thoughts that can develop into sinful desires that may develop into sinful actions (see James 1:14-27, for example).
Bottom line, we still mess up WAY TOO OFTEN. We can know the right things, have the right beliefs about God and still make wrong choices towards God. We desire things that are against God’s will. We make things (worldly possessions, pursuits, and desires) a priority in our lives instead of making the Kingdom (reign or rule) of God our priority. We may believe and even desire the right things, but we often do or choose the wrong things (see Romans 7, for example).
Back to our story… Paul knew this and that’s why he doesn’t try and offer a traditional defense for the charges made against him. Paul recognizes that his personal freedom is NOT the real issue at hand in this trial. He could focus on his personal freedom and pursue it above everything else, but to do so would be to act in rebellion towards God. He stands before and sees a King who knows these things about God, too. Agrippa knows the traditional, orthodox teachings of the Jews but he, like Paul before Damascus, had missed the hope offered in Jesus of Nazareth. If Paul is laser focused on his personal freedom then the King might miss the truth regarding God, the truth embodied in Jesus of Nazareth.
If you and I live our lives with laser-like focus on our personal needs, rights and freedoms, then we will miss God-appointed opportunities to point people towards Jesus. They might not be a king, but it would still be devastating to their souls. Just for a second, I want you to pause and glance around you. Who in your life is being influenced by the choices you make? I recognize that we are each responsible for our own choices, but we must also recognize the influence we wield. As I right these words, my grandson sits across the room playing. I am a fool if I don’t recognize that my choices influence his life. I know the influence my father had on my life, and I must recognize the influence I have on others – God-given influence. Purposeful influence.
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled on by men. You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16 HCSB)
Now, just for a minute let me address those of you who might resemble Agrippa more than you resemble Paul. As I’ve stated, Agrippa knew the scriptures and the traditional beliefs of the Jews about God. But, Agrippa was more interested in satisfying his desires than he was in pursuing God. His god was his sexual desire and he sacrificed everything on the altar of personal satisfaction, lust and greed. Sound familiar? It should, it sounds like our culture. Nothing to hold you back, just be yourself. Don’t let anyone else define you, you be you!
Here’s the key, you were made for God. Deep down, you know that there’s something missing. You keep chasing, looking, trying, adjusting, experimenting, changing direction and trying again, and again, but nothing seems to fill the hole in your soul. It feels like a black hole, sucking in everything around it but never filled, never satisfied. That’s because the only thing that can fill the emptiness within you is the God who made you. He knows you better than you know yourself. Believe me, He really does. Jesus used multiple metaphors to describe it…
Hungry? I’m the Bread of LIfe
Thirsty? I’m the Living Water
Hurting? I’m the Great Physician
Confused and Struggling? I’m the Good Shepherd
Can’t find your way? I’m the Way
Seeking truth? I’m the Truth
Something missing in your life? I AM life.
Seeking God? No one comes to the Father, except through ME!
He invites you to come walk with Him, but when you do you must be willing to walk WITH Him and not away from Him. Here’s the deal… Paul had to come face-to-face with Jesus to realize that he knew all of the right things about God, but he wasn’t walking with God – he was walking away from God. It was only when Paul was confronted by the very thing he had rejected, that Jesus truly was the Son of God and God was not what he’d expected, that he abandoned his way of doing things and embraced God’s. Let me put this bluntly, no matter how orthodox your beliefs you still get some things about God and what He wants in you and from you completely wrong… but that’s ok, that’s why He gives grace and forgiveness. Just go with Him – anywhere. Wherever He leads… I’ll go.