A Commentary by John Stott
Acts. 26:24-32. c). The judges react to the prisoner.
In place of an ordinary summing up to conclude the trial, Luke records a most unorthodox altercation between the bench and the dock. Its high drama may be captured best if it is set forth as a dialogue:
Festus to Paul (who *at this point interrupted Paul’s defence* and *shouted*): ‘*You are out of your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you insane*’ (24).
Paul to Festus (replying to him with great composure and dignity): ‘*I am not insane, most excellent Festus…. What I am saying is true and reasonable (25). The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner*’ (26), or ‘has been no hole-and-corner business’ (JBP,NEB).
Paul to Agrippa (boldly confronting the king, of whom he has just been speaking to Festus in the third person): ‘*King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do*’ (27).
The court gasps. Has any prisoner ever before presumed to address His Royal Highness with such impertinence? Agrippa is unhorsed. Too embarrassed to give Paul a direct answer to a direct question, and too proud to allow him to dictate the topic of their dialogue, he takes evasive action with an ambiguous counter-question.
Agrippa to Paul: ‘*Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?*’ (28).
The court gasps again. That was a clever riposte, by which the king regained the initiative. A murmur went round the audience as people discussed exactly what he meant. It was ‘variously represented as a trivial jest, a bitter sarcasm, a grave irony, a burst of anger, and an expression of sincere conviction’. How would Paul respond? Paul to Agrippa (in no doubt how he will interpret the king’s words, and determined to exploit them for the gospel): ‘*Short time or long – I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains*’ (29).
With those words Paul lifted his hands and rattled the chains which bound him. He was sincere, the prisoner Paul. He really believed what he was talking about. He wanted everybody to be like him, including the king – everybody a Christian, but nobody a prisoner. You could not help admiring his integrity. There was also a finality about his statement, for his judges had nothing more to say. So *the king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them (30). They left the room* (i.e. withdrew from the court) and began *talking with one another*.
The judges to each other (perplexed to know what to do): ‘*This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment*’ (31). They were all agreed about that. The prisoner may have been mad, but he was certainly not a criminal. Their private verdict of ‘not guilty’ was unanimous. Agrippa then had the last word, though what he said only increased the governor’s dilemma.
Agrippa to Festus: ‘*This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar*’ (32).
Agrippa was quite right in theory. But to acquit Paul now would be to short-circuit his appeal, and so to invade the Emperor’s territory. No provincial judge would dare to do that.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.