Observe here, 1. The person whom the apostle makes his defence before: Agrippa, Agrippa a king of whom he begs the favour patiently to hear him. It is a great favour for great men so much as to hear an innocent, good man plead for himself; Agrippa, who, by reason of his birth and breeding among the Jews, was acquainted with the scriptures, the law, and the prophets.
Observe, 2. How the providence of God wonderfully procures St. Paul a liberty to speak for himself: hereby he had an opportunity at once to make known his case, and to publish the gospel.
But note farther, That as the providence of God procured him liberty, so the good Spirit of God gave him ability to speak efficaciously and effectually, with such evidence and demonstration, that he not only took the ears but captivated the consciences of the whole court, and almost persuaded the king himself to turn Christian.
Here the apostle begins his defence, with a relation of the innocency and strictness of his life before his conversion: he did and could appeal to all that knew him, concerning the unblamableness of his conversion.
Thence note, That an innocent and blameless life from our youth upwards, is a singular support and encouragement to us in a suffering hour, especially when we are called forth to suffer for religion and righteousness' sake.
Observe farther, The instance which the apostle gives of his strictness in religion: After the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee. Of all the sects among the Jews, there was none that took up such an extraordinary strict way of religion as the Pharisees; of this sect was St. Paul, before converted to Christianity, and in this he rested for salvation.
Thence learn, 1. That an extraordinary strict way taken up in religion, is thought by many a sure and sufficient foundation for their eternal salvation.
Learn, 2. That many may rest upon a strict way of religion, which yet cometh not up to, but is oft-times besides, the appointment of the word of God.
The Pharisees, for their unusual and supererogating way of exactness, concluded that they should certainly go to heaven, if any did; when, alas! many things which they practised with extraordinary zeal and strictness, were never required by God at their hands.
Our apostle had vindicated his life before, his doctrine now: he tells Agrippa, That for believing, expecting, and preaching the doctrine of the resurrection, he was questioned of the Jews; this he calls the hope of the promise made by God unto the fathers.
Others understand it of the promise of the Messias, which was made unto the fathers and was generally depended upon by the most pious among the twelve tribes scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth; and in the faith and expection whereof they fervently served God night and day.
Learn thence, 1. That the pious and godly among the Jews lived in hopes of the Messias' appearing, of a glorious resurrection by him, and of an eternal life and salvation with him.
2. That their hope of this promised mercy did cause them to serve God instantly day and night. Hope is the great exciter of industry and endeavour, expectation puts it upon action; hope of obtaining is the motive to every undertaking: the Christian's hope, or thing hoped for, is great and excellent in the esteem is high, the endeavour will be strong.
The Christian, who has a well-grounded belief and hope of a life to come, will serve God with an unwearied diligence and industry; if by any means he may attain the fruition and enjoyment of it: Unto which promise our twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night, hope to come.
As if the apostle had said, "The great point in controversy between me and you is this, Whether the dead in general shall arise? and, Whether Christ in particular be risen from the dead? Now why should either seem incredible to you? Is it too hard for God, who made the world, and upholds the world, and gives life to all living; is it too hard or difficult for him to raise the dead? If not, why should it be thought incredible or impossible?"
Learn hence, That the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust, is neither incredible, nor impossible, neither against right reason nor true faith.
Here the apostle frankly declares, That he was once as sharp and bitter an enemy to Christ, and to all that believed in him, as any one whatever; and thought himself bound in conscience to persecute all that owned him, and with threatenings and tortures compelled them to deny Christ; and being exceedingly fierce, he forced them to fly to heathen cities to escape his fury.
Where note, 1. That we ought to be upon very good and sure grounds, before we oppose and persecute any.
2. That some persecute others, and at the same time think they do well in so doing: I verily thought, says the apostle, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus. He spake as if his conscience would have troubled others, for that which was indeed their conscience.
Note, 3. That Paul, being a blasphemer himself, compelled the professors of the gospel to blaspheme. This he probably did two ways.
First, by his example; they imitated him in blaspheming, or speaking evil of the ways of Christ.
Or, secondly, by his cruelty: vexing them so in the professions of Christ, that some who were unsettled probably fell away, and blasphemed the name of Christ, which they had professed: He compelled them to blaspheme.
There is a compelling power and constraining force in example, especially in the example of persons in power and authority. Men sin with a kind of authority: Paul's blasphemous example compelled others to blaspheme.
Our apostle having declared his manner of life before conversion, proceeds next to declare the extraordinary manner of his conversion: He tells Agrippa, that as he went with a persecuting purpose towards Damascus, at mid-day, a light from heaven above the brightness of the sun, shined, round about him, and when they were all fallen prostrate on the earth, he heard a voice speaking to him in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
Here note, 1. How restless and unwearied persecutors are in the execution of their bloody designs and purposes: Paul, as he thought had swept and cleansed Jerusalem of saints before; after which he resolves to ransack Damascus, and undertakes a long journey, of five or six days, in order to that end: the worst journey that ever he undertook; a journey most maliciously purposed by him, but most mercifully disposed by God; and accordingly he is met with in the way: Christ appears to him, a sudden beam of light shines round about him, and a voice is heard by him, saying, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? that is, me in my members.
Such as persecute saints for their sanctity, persecute Christ himself, and he can no more endure to see them wronged than himself; as the honour of the head redounds to the members, so the sorrows of the members are resented by the head: Christ said not thus to his murderers on earth, "Why bind ye me? Why buffet ye me? Why scourge ye and crucify me?" But here, when his members suffer, he cries out from heaven, Saul, why persecuted thou me?
Lord, thou art more tender of thy body mystical, than thou wert of thy body natural; more sensible of thy members' sufferings than of thine own.
St. Paul had given king Agrippa an account of his miraculous conversion in the former verses; in these he declares to him his extraordinary commission to preach the gospel; that Christ, who appeared to him from heaven, chose him to be a preacher as well as a professor of the gospel, assuring him that he would stand by him, and deliver him from the persecutions both of Jews and Gentiles, to whom he should send him, and would bless his endeavours to the opening of the eyes of their understanding, and to the turning of them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they might receive, by faith in Christ, remission of sins, and a portion of the heavenly inheritance among such as are regenerated by his Spirit.
Here note, 1. The honour which God is pleased to put upon the ministry of the word, his own ordinance: the apostle, who was only the instrument, is said to open the eyes of the blind, and turn sinners from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God: all which is properly and principally the work of the Spirit of Christ; yet he is pleased to put this honour upon his instruments, the ministers, by whom he worketh all this, and for which reason they are called co-workers, or workers together with Christ.
Note, 2. The apostle's mission, I send thee. Great is the dignity of gospel-ministers, they are God's messengers; their commission is sealed by the whole Trinity, and intimates both their dignity and duty. To intimate their holiness, they are called men of God; for their vigilancy, watchmen; for their courage, they are called soldiers; for their painfulness, harvest labourers; for their care of the flock, shepherds: for their wisdom, overseers; for their industry, husbandmen; for their patience, fisherman; for their tenderness, nurses; for their affectionateness, fathers and mothers; for their faithfulness, stewards. A very high and honourable calling; the Son of God despised it not.
Note, 3. St. Paul's commission in the several branches of it.
1. To open their eyes; that is, to enlighten their understandings, that they may know God and their duty to him: in order to which there is required, 1. Ability in the preachers; how can they open the eyes of others who are blind and ignorant themselves? Ought not they that undertake to be guides and leaders, very well to know the way themselves?
2. Perspicuity in the sermon: What hope can there be of opening men's understandings, when the matter delivered is closed up from them? It was St. Paul's aim to speak words easy to be understood, and it should be ours; it is the same thing to preach in an unknown tongue as in an unknown style, above the reach of our hearers.
Painted glass is more costly, but the plainer glass is the clearer and more useful. But we must take care, that though we come in plainness, yet not in rudeness of speech.
The second part of St. Paul's commission was to turn men from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God: in order to which he was turned from these himself. He has little reason to expect that God will honour his ministry for the conversion of others from sin and Satan, who is under the dominion of both himself. The minister's life is the people's looking-glass, by which they usually dress themselves.
Note, 4. The happy fruit of St. Paul's mission and commission both. That they may receive forgiveness of sins, and an inheritance among them that are sanctified. Wheresoever true repentance is wrought by the ministry of the word, there is forgiveness attained, and a title to the inheritance of heaven attained with it.
Note, lastly, A threefold metaphorical description of the sinful state of nature before conversion, and the like of a state of grace after conversion.
The state of nature is a state of blindness, To open their eyes.
A state of darkness, To turn them from darkness to light.
A state of slavery, And from the power of Satan unto God.
The state of grace after conversion is set forth by sight, light, and liberty. All this is Christ's work originally, but his minister's work instrumentally: I have sent thee to open their eyes, to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God.
Observe here, 1. How obedient the apostle was to the call of Christ: having had so glorious a vision, he did not, he durst not, rebel against the light of it: but immediately went forth and preached, first at Damascus, then at Jerusalem, then throughout all Judea, and at last among the Gentiles, the doctrine of repentance, and the necessity of good works.
Observe, 2. The ill requital which the good man met with for his diligence and faithfulness in preaching the glad tidings of the gospel: for this he had liked to have been killed by the Jews in the temple. Evangelium praedicare est furorem mundi in se derivare; "To preach the gospel is the ready way to bring the wrath and fury of the world upon themselves."
Observe, 3. With what thankfulness the apostle owns and acknowledges the merciful providence of God in preserving him both from the fraud and force of his enemies: Having obtained help of God, I continue unto this day.
And how did the sense of divine goodness upon his soul provoke him to go on with his work, declaring no other thing concerning Christ, but what Moses and the prophets did of old foretell of him; namely, that he should be put to death, and should be the first that should rise again by his own power, and be the author of our resurrection.
Note here, That the sufferings of Christ were taught by Moses in all the commands given about sacrifices; and not by Moses only, but by the prophets also, particularly the prophet Isaiah, Isaiah 53 the evangelical prophet, and prophetical evangelist, who wrote as clearly of Christ's coming, as if he had then been come.
From whence the apostle argues, how black the wickedness of the Jews was, who went abroad to kill him for preaching the same doctrine which Moses and the prophets had taught before him.
Hitherto Festus had heard the apostle with great patience, but now he interrupts him, and tells him, he talks like a man that was crazed.
Carnal minds pass very uncharitable censures upon spiritual persons and spiritual things. Christ's kindred said, he was beside himself, Mark 3:21. Festus here judged Paul to be mad, thinking that he had over-studied himself: by meddling with matters too high for his capacity, and too deep for his understanding, he had brought himself into a deep melancholy; Paul, thou art beside thyself, much learning hath made thee mad.
But observe with what meekness and due terms of respect the apostle replied to this reviling governor, I am not mad, most noble Festus. Titles of respect and honour, given to persons in place and power, are agreeable to the mind of God, and countenanced by Christianity.
Observe, 2. What an happy victory and conquest the apostle had over his own passions; he waives the reflections Festus had made upon him; and had learned of his master, who, when he was reviled, reviled not again. It is an happy attainment for a man to be master of himself under a provocation, to be regulated by right reason, and not hurried by blind passion.
The apostle, knowing that Agrippa was educated among the Jews, tells him that he could not but hear of the life, doctrine, miracles, death, and resurrection, of Christ; all which were done openly, and not in corners: and he could not but believe the prophets, and what they had foretold concerning the Messias; and if the power of worldly interest did not overcome him, his life and practice would be answerable to his faith and belief.
Thence learn, That a right belief of the holy scriptures is of great efficacy and force to conform a person's life to the practice of real and universal holiness.
Observe here, 1. What an efficacy St. Paul's doctrine had upon Agrippa: though he would not be converted, yet he could not but be convinced; his conscience was touched, though his heart was not renewed.
Learn hence, That there is certainly that in religion which carries its own evidence along with it, even to the consciences of ungodly men.
Observe, 2. How sad it is, when persons have enjoyed the scriptures, the preaching of the word, and all means of salvation, and yet are but almost Christians, and shall never enjoy the least salvation; they are within sight of heaven, and yet shall never have a sight of God.
Observe, 3. That such as will be Christians indeed, must not only be almost, but altogether Christians: I would that you, and all that hear me, says the apostle, were altogether such as I am, except these bonds.
Where note, The extraordinary charity and Christian compassion of St. Paul: he wishes them his graces, not his chains; he did not wish them his bonds and imprisonment, but he wished them the same liberty and enlargement by Jesus Christ, which he enjoyed; he would keep his sorrows and outward troubles to himself, but wishes they were acquainted with his inward consolations and comforts.
A good man wishes others as well as he wishes himself; and if at any time he wishes that which is penally evil to the worst of his enemies, he doth it with an eye to their spiritual and eternal good.
A good man dares not wish ill to those that have actually done ill to him; but wishes, prays, and endeavours the best good for them.
Observe here, How Agrippa, Festus, and the whole company, acquit the innocent apostle in their judgments and consciences, yea, with their tongues declare, that he deserves neither death nor bonds; yet at the same time that they acquit him, they discharged him not, but he is left in his enemies' hands, and at last put to death by the Gentiles.
But how, may it be said, was God's promises fulfilled then, I have appeared unto thee, to make thee a minister and a witness, and will deliver thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom I now send thee? Acts 26:16-17
How did God deliver him from the Gentiles, when he was at last delivered into their hands, and put to death by the Gentiles?
Answer, As long as the wisdom of God saw it fit and convenient for the purposes of his glory, and as a real mercy conducing to the apostle's good; as long as it was a true and beneficial deliverance, so long God wrought deliverance for him; nay, rather than fail, in a miraculous manner, no chains could bind him, no iron gates nor prison walls confine him. But when he had finished his course, run his race, fought the good fight of faith, and done the work which God set him about, it would not then have been a deliverance, but a real detriment, to have been kept longer from his reward.
Now might the apostle say, Give me my robes and my crown. God now made his word good to the apostle, to deliver him from the people and the Gentiles by making death his deliverer and deliverance.
Thus faithful is God in his promises to his people. He will deliver them in six troubles and in seven, in every danger, in every difficulty; but when death is the best deliverance, they shall have it as a covenant-mercy and blessing; for all things are ours, if we be Christ's, whether life or death, 1 Corinthians 3:22.
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on Acts 26". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany