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Bible Commentaries
Acts 26

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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Verse 1


(1) Then Paul stretched forth the hand.—The characteristic attitude reminds us of Acts 21:40. Here it acquires a fresh pictorial vividness from the fact that St. Paul now stood before the court as a prisoner, with one arm, probably the left, chained to the soldier who kept guard over him. (Comp. Acts 26:29.)

Verse 2

(2) I think myself happy, king Agrippa.—We note the characteristic union of frankness and courtesy. He will not flatter a prince whose character, he must have known, did not deserve praise, but he recognises that it was well for him that he stood before one who was not ignorant of the relations of Sadducees and Pharisees on the great question of the Resurrection, and of the expectations which both parties alike cherished as to the coming of a Messiah, and the belief, which some at least of the latter cherished (Acts 15:5; Acts 21:20), that their hopes had been fulfilled in Christ.

Because I shall answer.—Strictly, because I am about to make my defence, or apologia.

Verse 3

(3) Expert in all customs and questions.—The former word is used in its half-technical sense, as including all the precepts of the Law of Moses. (See Notes on Acts 6:14; Acts 21:21.)

Verse 4

(4) My manner of life from my youth.—The Apostle refers, of course, to the time when he first came up to Jerusalem to study the Law and the traditions at the fees, of Gamaliel. (Comp. his account of the same period in Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:5-6.)

Know all the Jews.—The noun seems to be used in its more limited meaning, as including chiefly, if not exclusively, the Jews of Judæa.

Verse 5

(5) After the most straitest sect.—Better, most rigid, or most precise. The Greek does not contain anything answering to the double superlative of the English. The word for “sect” is the same as that used in Acts 24:5, and translated “heresy” in Acts 24:14.

Verse 6

(6) For the hope of the promise made of God. The words include the whole expectation of a divine kingdom of which the Christ was to be the head, as well as the specific belief in a resurrection of the dead.

Unto our fathers.—Some of the better MSS. have simply, “to the fathers.” The Received text is, perhaps, more in harmony with St. Paul’s usual manner of identifying himself with those to whom he speaks. He will claim even Agrippa as of the stock of Abraham. (Comp. in this connection the anecdote as to Agrippa I. given in Note on Acts 12:21.)

Verse 7

(7) Our twelve tribes.—The noun is strictly a neuter adjective: our twelve-tribed nation. It will be noted that St. Paul, like St. James (James 1:1), assumes the twelve tribes to be all alike sharers in the same hope of Israel, and ignores the legend, so often repeated and revived, that the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel, after they had been carried away by Salmaneser, had wandered far away, and were to be found, under some strange disguise, in far-off regions of the world. The earliest appearance of the fable is in the apocryphal. 2Es. 13:40-46, where they are said to have gone to “a country where never man kind dwelt, that they might there keep the statutes which they never kept in their own land.” The Apostle, on the contrary, represents the whole body of the twelve tribes as alike serving God (with the special service of worship) day and night, and speaks as accused because he had announced that the promise of God to their fathers had been fulfilled to them.

Verse 8

(8) Why should it be thought a thing incredible . . .?—Some MSS. give a punctuation which alters the structure of the sentence: What! is it thought a thing incredible . . . ? The appeal is made to Agrippa as accepting the sacred books of Israel, in which instances of a resurrection were recorded (1 Kings 17:17-23; 2 Kings 4:18-37), and which ought to have hindered him from postulating the incredibility of the truth which St. Paul preached, and which included (1) the doctrine of a general resurrection, and (2) the fact that Christ had risen. The Greek use of the present tense, that God raiseth the dead, gives prominence to the first thought rather than the second. Agrippa, as probably allied, as the rest of his kindred had been, with the Sadducean high priests, not a few of whom he had himself nominated, was likely to reject both.

Verse 9

(9) I verily thought with myself . . .—The words have a tone of considerate sympathy and hope. He himself had been led from unbelief to faith; he will not despair of a like transition for others, even for Agrippa. (Comp. 1 Timothy 1:12-17.) On the relation of this account of the Apostle’s conversion to previous narratives, see Notes on Acts 9:1-20.

Verse 10

(10) Many of the saints did I shut up in prison.—The use of the term as applied to the believers in Christ (see Note on Acts 9:13) is remarkable as an example of courage. In the presence of Agrippa, St. Paul does not shrink from speaking of them as the “holy ones” of God’s people Israel—what the Chasidim, or “devout ones” (the “Assideans” of 1Ma. 7:13; 2Ma. 14:6) had been in an earlier generation.

When they were put to death.—The history of the Acts records only one instance. Were there other martyrdoms besides that of Stephen, of which we know nothing? or does the Apostle speak in general terms of that single act? On the whole, the former seems the more probable alternative. He was breathing an atmosphere of “slaughter” (Acts 9:1). On this view, the language of Hebrews 12:4, “ye have not yet resisted unto blood,” must be referred to the sufferings of a later time, or. more probably, of a different region. In 1 Thessalonians 2:15, James 5:10, we have, perhaps, traces of widely extended sufferings.

I gave my voice against them.—Better, gave my vote. The words show that St. Paul, though a “young man” (see Note on Acts 7:58), must have been a member either of the Sanhedrin itself or of some tribunal with delegated authority.

Verse 11

(11) Compelled them to blaspheme.—The verb is in the imperfect tense, which may express either continued or incomplete action. It does not follow, therefore, that any of the believers yielded to the pressure; and the words may be paraphrased, I went on trying to compel them.

Being exceedingly mad against them.—The words express, with a wonderful vividness, St. Paul’s retrospective analysis of his former state. It was not only that he acted in ignorance (1 Timothy 1:13), he might plead also the temporary insanity of fanaticism.

Even unto strange cities.—The words show that the mission to Damascus was not a solitary instance, and the persecution may well have raged in the regions of Samaria and Galilee through which the Apostle passed. (See Note on Acts 9:3.)

Verse 12

(12) With authority and commission.—The former word implies the general power delegated to him, the latter the specific work assigned to him, and for the execution of which he was responsible.

Verse 14

(14) It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.—See Note on Acts 9:5. Here there is no doubt as to the genuineness of the reading.

Verse 16

(16) But rise, and stand upon thy feet.—The report of the words heard by the Apostle is much fuller than in either Acts 9:11 or Acts 22:10, and may fairly be thought of as embodying what followed on the actual words so recorded, the substance of “the visions and revelations of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 12:1), by which, in those days of blindness and ecstasy, the future of his life was marked out for him, and the gospel which he was to preach revealed in its fulness. In such states of consciousness, the man who is in contact with the supernatural life does not take note of the sequence of thoughts with the precision of a short-hand reporter.

A minister and a witness.—The first word is the same as that which the Apostle uses of himself in 1 Corinthians 4:1.

Verse 17

(17) From the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee.—The distinct mission to the Gentiles seems, in Acts 22:21, to be connected with the trance in the Temple, three years after the conversion. Galatians 1:15-16, however, agrees with what we find hero in connecting it with the very time when the Son of God was first “revealed in him.” The distinction between “the people,” i.e., Israel, as emphatically entitled to that name, and “nations,” the “Gentiles,” should be noted. (Comp. Note on Acts 4:25.) The relative “whom” probably refers to the latter of the two nouns rather than to both. In the Greek word for “send” (apostello), we find the warrant for St. Paul’s claim to be considered an Apostle “not of men, neither by man,” but by the direct personal call of the Lord Jesus (Galatians 1:1). The word that had been used of the Twelve (Matthew 10:16) was used also of him; and the pronoun “I” is specially emphasised.

Verse 18

(18) From darkness to light.—The words gain a fresh interest if we think of them as corresponding with the Apostle’s own recovery from blindness. The imagery, though naturally common throughout Scripture, taking its place among the earliest and most widely received of the parables of the spiritual life, was specially characteristic of St. Paul. (Comp. Romans 13:12; 2 Corinthians 4:6; Ephesians 5:8-13; Colossians 1:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:5.)

Among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.—Better, have been sanctified; the Greek participle being in the perfect. The word, as always, expresses primarily the idea of a completed consecration rather than of a perfected holiness (Hebrews 9:13; Hebrews 10:10; Hebrews 13:12); but the one thought passes naturally into the other. The last six words may be connected grammatically either with “sanctified” or with “receive.” On internal grounds the latter is, perhaps, the best construction. Faith, i.e., is theoretically connected with “forgiveness of sins,” as well as with the “inheritance,” which implies sanctification.

Verse 19

(19) I was not disobedient.—Literally, I did not become disobedient. The language of the Apostle is significant in its bearing on the relations of God’s grace and man’s freedom. Even here, with the “vessel of election” (Acts 9:15) “constrained” by the love of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14), there was the possibility of disobedience. There was an act of will in passing from the previous state of rebellion to that of obedience.

The heavenly vision . . .—The noun is used of Zachariah’s vision in the Temple (Luke 1:22), and again by St. Paul, in reference to this and other like manifestations (2 Corinthians 12:1). It is distinctly a “vision,” as contrasted with a “dream.”

Verse 20

(20) But shewed . . .—The verb is in the tense which sums up a long-continued activity, and stands in the Greek after the enumeration of those to whom the Apostle preached: But first to them of Damascus . . . and to the Gentiles I went on showing . . .

Throughout all the coasts of Judæa, and then to the Gentiles.—The words refer, in the first instance, to the visit after St. Paul’s conversion (see Notes on Acts 9:29; Galatians 1:17-18); but the special mention of the Gentiles as following upon “the coasts (i.e., the region) of Judæa,” points to an evangelising activity in Cilicia prior to the commencement of his work at Antioch.

That they should repent . . .—The three stages of the spiritual life are accurately noted: (1) the repentance for past sins, which is more than a regret for their consequences; (2) the “turning to God,” which implies faith in Him, as far as He is known, and therefore justification; (3) the doing works meet for repentance (we note the reproduction of the Baptist’s phrase; see Note on Matthew 3:8), which are the elements of a progressive sanctification.

Verse 21

(21) For these causes . . .—Better, perhaps, on account of these things. With this brief touch, avoiding any elaborate vindication of his own character, St. Paul indicates the real cause of the hostility of the Jews. The one unpardonable sin, in their eyes, was that he taught the Gentiles that they might claim every gift and grace which had once been looked on as the privilege and prerogative of Israel. The historical precedence of the Jew remained (see Notes on Acts 13:46; Romans 3:1-2), but in all essential points they were placed on a footing of equality.

Verse 22

(22) Having therefore obtained help of God.—The Greek noun for “help” is not used elsewhere in the New Testament. It implies the kind of assistance which one friend or ally gives to another of inferior power. It is found in the Greek of Wis. 13:18. Here the word seems used as being more intelligible to those who are outside the kingdom of God than the more spiritual, more theological, “grace” of which the Apostle habitually spoke.

Witnessing both to small and great.—The English version gives the right rendering of the best supported reading. Some MSS., however, have “witnessed to by small and great;” but this, besides the want of authority, and its involving an unusual construction, is at variance with the context. It was true that St. Paul’s life was spent in bearing witness that Jesus was Christ. It was not true that he had a good report of all men. The words “small and great” were significant as spoken when he was standing before two men like Festus and Agrippa. The phrase may be noted as occurring in Acts 8:10, and again in Revelation 11:18; Revelation 13:16; Revelation 19:5; Revelation 19:18; Revelation 20:12.

The prophets and Moses.—The more natural order of “Moses and the prophets” (Luke 16:29; Luke 16:31), and the order of the words in the Greek, which the prophets said should come, and Moses, suggests the thought that the sentence would have stopped naturally at “come,” and that the name of Moses was added by an instantaneous after-thought to meet the case of those among the hearers who, like the Sadducees, placed the Pentateuch on a higher level of authority than the Prophets.

Verse 23

(23) That Christ should suffer.—Literally, that the Christ was passiblei.e., capable of suffering. The great body of the Jews had fixed their thoughts only on the prophetic visions of the glories of the Messiah’s kingdom. Even the disciples of Jesus were slow to receive any other thought than that of conquest and triumph. Peter’s “Be it far from thee, Lord” (Matthew 16:22) expressed the horror with which the thought of a suffering Christ at first struck him. It was not till they were led, after the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, into our Lord’s own school of prophetic interpretation (Luke 24:25-26; Luke 24:44), and taught to recognise the under-current of types and prophecies that pointed to a righteous Sufferer, as well as to a righteous King, that they were able to receive the truth. So it was that a “Christ crucified” was still “to the Jews a stumbling-block” (1 Corinthians 1:23). The speech at Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:27-35) may be noted as showing the stress which St. Paul laid on this point. The Greek has “if” in both clauses where the English has “that;” but our idiom scarcely admits of its being so translated.

That he should be the first that should rise from the dead.—More literally, that He first by His resurrection from the dead (strictly, out of His resurrection) should show light. It was through the Resurrection only that the hopes of Simeon were fulfilled (Luke 2:32), and that light shone in on those who had been sitting as in the shadow of death. The “people” are, as almost always when the word is so used, God’s people Israel, as distinguished from the heathen.

Verse 24

(24) Festus said with a loud voice.—The description may be noted as one of the touches of vividness indicating that the writer relates what he had actually heard. The Roman governor forgot the usual dignity of his office, and burst, apparently, into a loud laugh of scorn.

Much learning doth make thee mad.—The Greek gives a neuter plural: Thy many writings are turning thee to madness. The word was one which was used by the Jews for the collected body of their sacred writings and traditions, as in the “letters” of John 7:15 and the “holy Scriptures” of 2 Timothy 3:15. Festus had probably heard the Law and the Prophets of Israel so described, and knew that St. Paul had with him “books and parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13), which he was continually studying. That one who had been crucified should rise from the dead and give light to the Gentiles seemed to him the very hallucination of insanity. So have men at all times thought of those who lived after a higher law than their own, whether their faith rested, as in St. Paul’s case, on an outward objective fact, or, as in Wis. 5:4, on a true faith in the Unseen.

Verse 25

(25) I am not mad, most noble Festus.—There is something characteristic in the union of a calm protest with the courtesy which gives to rulers the honour which is their due. Comp. the use of the same word by Tertullus (Acts 24:3). The painful experience of Acts 23:3 had, we may well believe, taught the Apostle to control his natural impulses, and to keep watch over his lips, so that no unguarded utterance might escape from them.

The words of truth and soberness.—The latter word was one of the favourite terms of Greek ethical writers, as having a higher meaning than the “temperance” of Acts 24:25, to express the perfect harmony of impulses and reason (Aristot. Eth. Nicom. iii. 10). Here it is contrasted with the “madness” of which Festus had spoken, looking, as he did, on the Apostle as an enthusiastic dreamer. There was doubtless a deep-lying enthusiasm in his character, but it was an enthusiasm which had its root not in madness, but in truth.

Verse 26

(26) I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him.—The appeal to Agrippa’s knowledge is two-fold. He knew that Moses and the prophets had spoken of the great Prophet and Deliverer whom the Jews knew as the Christ. He knew also that for more than a quarter of a century there had been communities of Jews in Judæa and Galilee and Samaria (see Note on Acts 9:31) resting on the belief that the Christ had come, and that He had suffered and risen from the dead. The congregations of those whom the Jews knew as Nazarenes were as far as possible from being an obscure sect lurking in holes and corners.

Verse 27

(27) Believest thou the prophets?—The appeal to Agrippa’s knowledge was followed by the assumption of his accepting the ground on which St. Paul invited discussion. He might, of course, dispute St. Paul’s interpretation of prophecy, but he could not, as a Jew, in the presence of other Jews, speak of the Law and the Prophets as Festus had spoken of St. Paul’s “learning,” and so the way might have been opened to that argument from prophecy which, when the Apostle was reasoning with his own countrymen, was (as in Acts 13:16-41; Acts 18:2-3) his favourite method of producing conviction.

Verse 28

(28) Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.—At the cost of giving up a familiar and impressive text, it must be admitted that the Greek words cannot possibly bear the meaning which is thus put upon them. The words run literally, In, or with, a little thou persuadest me; and this may be completed by, “with little speech,” “with little labour,” or “little evidence.” So in Ephesians 3:3 we have precisely the same phrase rendered “in few words.” Agrippa’s words, accordingly, are the expression, not of a half-belief, but of a cynical sneer. Thou art trying to make a Christian of me with very few words, on very slender grounds, would be the nearest paraphrase of his derisive answer to St. Paul’s appeal. It was. it will be seen, evasive as well as derisive; he shrinks from a direct answer to the question that had been put to him. In his use of the Latin term “Christian” (see Note on Acts 11:26) we may trace, perhaps, the effect of Roman associations. There certainly were Christian communities at Rome at this time (Romans 16:0 passim), and they would naturally be described there as they had been at Antioch. It may be noted that, of the prominent English versions, Wiclif gives “in a little thing,” Tyndal and Cranmer “somewhat,” the Rhemish “a little;” the Geneva agrees with the present version in “almost.” The meaning “somewhat,” or “a little,” is a tenable one. but Ephesians 3:3. as already stated, is in favour of that given above. The phrase was, perhaps, in itself ambiguous, and St. Paul accepts in one sense what had been spoken in another.

Verse 29

(29) I would to God that not only thou . . .—It is clear that here also the English “almost” must be abandoned, and that we must take the words in a little or in a great (measure), or, with little labour and with great, as corresponding with what Agrippa had just said. Grammatically the words admit of three possible paraphrases, each of which has found advocates. We may suppose St. Paul to say—(1) “I would pray to God, not as you put it, lightly, but as fully as I can . . . .;” or (2) “I would pray to God that, whether persuaded with little evidence or much . . . .;” or (3) “I would pray to God that, both in a little measure and in a great. . . .” The first two of these explanations are open to the objection that they substitute a disjunctive alternative for the natural rendering of the two copulative conjunctions. The last has the advantage of so far taking the words in their natural construction; but, on the other hand, it takes the special phrase, “in a little,” in a sense different from that in which we have seen reason to believe that Agrippa had used it. It is, however, perfectly conceivable that, for the purpose of emphasising the strong desire of his heart, St. Paul may have caught up the half-sarcastic phrase, and used it as with a new meaning.

The MSS. present two readings, in a little and in a great, and in a little and in much; but this scarcely affects the interpretation of the passage.

Except these bonds.—The words show, as has been pointed out in the Note on Acts 26:29, that the prisoner was brought into court chained, after the Roman fashion, to the soldier or soldiers who kept guard over him. We cannot read the words without feeling their almost plaintive pathos. “Such as he”—pardoned, at peace with God and man, with a hope stretching beyond the grave, and an actual present participation in the powers of the eternal world—this is what he was desiring for them. If that could be effected, he would be content to remain in his bonds, and to leave them upon their thrones.

Verse 30

(30) And when he had thus spoken, the king rose up . . .—The act indicated, as far as it went, that the Apostle’s words had made a favourable impression. This, they felt, was no common criminal, no fomenter of sedition. The question how he was to be dealt with was one that called for serious consideration; but the result showed that he was treated from this time forward with more respect and courtesy than before.

Verse 31

(31) This man doeth nothing worthy of death or of bonds.—St. Luke obviously dwells on the witness thus given to St. Paul’s innocence. To us, knowing him as we do, the anxiety to record the witness seems superfluous; but it was not so when the historian wrote. The charge of what we should call lawless and revolutionary tendencies had been too often brought against the Apostle (Acts 17:6), and was too current against his followers, to make such a record one that he could willingly pass over.

Verse 32

(32) This man might have been set at liberty . . .—The decision to which Agrippa came showed the wisdom of the line which St. Paul had taken. The matter could not be hushed up nor got rid of. The authorities could not now free themselves from responsibility for the safe custody of the prisoner, and, by releasing him, expose his life to the conspiracies of the Jews; and thus the Apostle at last gained that safe journey to the imperial city which had for many years been the great desire of his heart.

It is not without interest to note the subsequent relations between Festus and Agrippa, during the short government of the former, as showing a continuance of the same entente cordiale as that which we have seen in this chapter. Agrippa took up his abode at Jerusalem in the old palace of the Asmonean, or Maccabean, princes. It commanded a view of the city, and, from a banquet-hall which he had erected, he could look down upon the courts of the Temple and see the priests sacrificing even as he sat at meat. The Jews looked on this as a profanation, and built a wall which blocked up the view both from the king’s palace and from the portico where the Roman soldiers used to stand on guard during the festivals. This was regarded by Festus as an insult, and he ordered the wall to be pulled down. The people of Jerusalem, however, obtained leave to send an embassy to Rome. They secured the support of Poppæa, already half a proselyte, after the fashion of the time among the women of the higher class at Rome, and, by the strange irony of history, the Temple of Jehovah was rescued from profanation by the concubine of Nero (Jos. Ant. xx. 8, § 11). Agrippa continued to display the taste for building which was the hereditary characteristic of his house. Cæsarea Philippi was enlarged and named Neronias, in honour of the emperor. A vast theatre was erected at Berytus (Beyrout) and adorned with statues. The Temple was at last finished, and the 18,000 workmen who were thus thrown out of work were employed in repaving the city with marble. The stateliness of the Temple ritual was enhanced by the permission which the king gave to the Levites of the choir, in spite of the remonstrance of the priests, that they should wear a linen ephod. Once again we note the irony of history. The king who thus had the glory of completing what the founder of his dynasty had begun, bringing both structure and ritual to a perfection never before attained, saw, within ten years, the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple (Jos. Ant. xx. 8, § 7).

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Acts 26". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/acts-26.html. 1905.
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