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The Story and the Song

Date: Aug. 24, 2014

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Acts 25:13-26:32

Key Verse: Acts 26:29

“Paul replied, ‘Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.’”

I’m going to start today with a story. Don’t stop me if you have heard this already. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” That is the opening paragraph to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, a children’s book first published in 1937. It’s a little over 300 pages and is a prelude to the much larger, and not a children’s book The Lord of the Rings. It’s a story about seemingly meaningless creature called a hobbit, which is a person about the size of my daughter, between three and three and a half feet tall. The book is about the adventures of this insignificant hobbit named Bilbo Baggins and how he helped change the world. Over the course of the book, he goes from a scared, homesick hobbit to hero. It is a story with twists and turns and danger. There are high points and low points. There are times when everything looks dark, but he goes half a world away and back and he has a story to tell. Bilbo writes it all down in a big red book. No matter how great or small a person may be; we all have a story to tell. Life is hardly ever boring, as much as we like to disbelieve that. It is full of twists and turns, like a good story. It has high points and low points, and there are times where everything looks dark. Hey, we might even be going through those things right now. Stories help us to understand life, and we can know that we are not alone because a story relates to us. But what good is a story unless it is told? Paul has many opportunities to tell his story, but the one that we see in this passage is the most complete, yet. Let’s take a look.

We’re nearing the end of the book of Acts. After we finish today, there will only be two more chapters to go. So there is a lot more Acts behind us than in front of us. In the book of Acts, we have seen Jesus rise into heaven. We have seen the Holy Spirit come on his people. We have seen the formation of his church, and we have seen enemies become children of God. The one time enemy, Paul, was stuck in prison for two years. Paul was attacked by a mob because of a lie based on an assumption that wasn’t true. A Roman army commander Lysias rescued him and had him arrested, but he could never figure out what Paul did. In light of a threat to Paul’s life, Lysias sent Paul to the governor in Caesarea Felix, but Felix was corrupt and wanted to do the Jews who were accusing Paul a favor and left him in prison with no charge against him. When Felix was sent packing, Festus came in and didn’t know what to do with Paul. The Jewish leaders requested that Paul be brought back to Jerusalem, but it was just a ruse in order to kill him along the way. Paul knew something was up, so he used his right as a Roman citizen and appealed to Caesar.

This passage begins a few days later when King Agrippa and his sister Bernice came to welcome Festus to the area. King Agrippa was the great grandson of Herod the Great, the King when Jesus was born. The Roman Emperor appointed Herod king over Judea and the surrounding regions. After his death, power was transferred to three of his children, who ruled over separate areas. It was around this time that Rome decided to put some of the region under control of governors. So, governors ruled some regions and descendants of Herod ruled other regions. Agrippa was the son of Herod Agrippa I, who had the apostle James executed and himself died in Acts 12. Officially Agrippa is known as King Herod Agrippa II, but Luke never mentions the Herod part. So Agrippa and Festus ruled over adjacent regions, and out of great courtesy Agrippa came to pay respects to Festus.

So when Agrippa showed up, Festus thought that he might be a help to shed some light on this Paul situation. He said: “There is a man here whom Felix left as a prisoner. When I went to Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews brought charges against him and asked that he be condemned. I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over anyone before they have faced their accusers and have had an opportunity to defend themselves against the charges. When they came here with me, I did not delay the case, but convened the court the next day and ordered the man to be brought in. When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. I was at a loss how to investigate such matters; so I asked if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial there on these charges. But when Paul made his appeal to be held over for the Emperor’s decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar.” (14-21) Festus recounted everything that he knew and what had happened. Festus’ main issue was that he had no idea how to deal with the situation. Paul was a prisoner in a Roman jail, but the accusers were bringing up Jewish law, but before anything could happen, Paul appealed to Caesar.

Agrippa was intrigued by the situation and by Paul, and he wanted to hear what Paul had to say. The next day, Agrippa got his wish. Agrippa and Bernice arrived with great pomp. There must have been an amazing procession of formality that could only be due a king. Before he entered, there was and announcement, “I present to you King Agrippa and Bernice.” Then music played a grand procession as they entered the room and did not stop until they got to their seat, and that took a fair amount of time because they were walking in that slow, formal way, while looking at the adoring fans and showing off his nobility. It didn’t matter that Festus was the only one in the room and he was probably wondering what was going on. After the king seated, high-ranking military officers entered as well as prominent men of the city. It looked like it was going to be a great formal event. Finally, Festus had Paul brought in. In contrast to the pomp of the king, Paul was brought in in chains.

When everyone was situated, Festus got up and spoke, “King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome. But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write. For I think it is unreasonable to send a prisoner on to Rome without specifying the charges against him.” (25:24-27) Festus was sending Paul to Caesar, but he had nothing to say about the situation, and who would want to waste the Emperor’s time? Festus was particularly interested in what Agrippa thought. Agrippa was unique in the room. He was very much versed in Roman life and law, but he also knew about Jewish custom and law. Agrippa would be able to bridge the gap of knowledge that Festus had. So, Agrippa tells Paul that he is free to speak.

Paul makes a motion with his hand and he begins speaking. This motion is not a motion to silence a crowd like he did earlier when he addressed the mob; this was a motion that was used to begin a formal discussion. Unlike earlier, Paul was not defending himself from allegations, but he was sharing knowledge to give Caesar some idea of what was going on. The audience was also different from the mob. The mob was comprised of everyday Jewish people, whereas his audience now was comprised of a king, a governor and other high-ranking officials. When speaking to this group, Paul’s language changes to a more formal tone and language used by orators and philosophers. Paul was changing himself, again, to reach the crowd his was now facing. He begins with formal platitudes, “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense against all the accusations of the Jews, and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently.” (26:2-3) At the end, Paul asks that they be patient with him. It was going to be a long story.

Paul’s story is similar to the one we heard four weeks ago in Acts 22. He starts with his personal background to relate that he is no different from other Jews. As he grew up, Paul followed the teaching of the strictest form of Judaism, that of being a Pharisee, but he was in chains now because of his belief in what God had promised. The funny thing is that the hope he had was not foreign to the Jews; it was the same hope that they had. Paul was very similar to the Jews who were accusing them, even in capturing Christians. We’ve seen it a few times before, but Paul, back in the day, would search out Christians and have them imprisoned, knowing that they would be killed. He did this in Jerusalem and in other cities. Paul received permission from the chief priests to travel to other cities and arrest any Christians he finds there.

On one of those journeys, Paul was heading to Damascus. As Paul said, “About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’” (26:13-14) In earlier accounts, Paul mentions that everyone that he was with saw the light, but this is the first time that it is mentioned that everyone fell to the ground. The point where Paul turned from being an enemy of God to a child of God happens right when Jesus shows up. What Paul quotes from Jesus is a little different here. Paul includes, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” This was a common Gentile saying that would be familiar to his current audience. They would understand its meaning, that it is hard to fight your destiny and that you are only hurting yourself while doing so.

Jesus had more to share with Paul, which, again this is the only place where these words are recorded. Jesus said, “Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (26:16-18) Jesus gives Paul a mission. Even though Paul was a newly minted Christian, he still had a job to do and that was to tell his story. He was to be a witness and witnesses simply just tell the story of what they heard and saw.

It was right around here when Paul was speaking to the crowd of Jews in Acts 22, that they go nuts. Talk of Paul speaking to Gentiles turns them into raging lunatics, but in front of Agrippa and Festus, Paul is allowed to continue. I want to read what he said at this point, because it is new information. Paul said, “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds. That is why some Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. But God has helped me to this very day; so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles.” (26:19-23) Paul did not hesitate to change his life. No longer was he seeking out Christians to have them arrested, but he preached repentance to everyone he came across, starting in Damascus. His message was one of repentance and demonstration of their repentance through their deeds. Now, we know Paul and we know that he fully believes the justification comes only through Jesus. Our actions have no bearing on our salvation, but here he brings up a very interesting point. Although our actions are no grounds for salvation, they can be proof that we have truly repented. A changed lifestyle is proof that we have truly turned from our sins.

The Jews didn’t like the message that Paul had, particularly that he was giving it to the Gentiles too, and he said that is why they were trying to kill him. He had hope in the resurrection of Jesus, hope that he was sharing with everyone he could, and that’s why they seized him. But Paul knew that God was still with him and helped him to that very day. Paul was standing in front of a king, sharing his story. The funny thing is that it wasn’t just his story. It was the same story that Moses and the prophets foretold. It was the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection and how that message of hope spread to the Jews and the Gentiles. You see, Paul’s story is a part of God’s greater story. The literary term is called a frame story or an embedded narrative. A frame story is a story within a story. The inner story is intended to provide insight and meaning to the larger story. That is what Paul does. His story with his history gives weight and credence to God’s greater story. This is how the entire Bible is put together. There are all these people and things going on, but the overarching story is one of God’s creation and redemption of that creation. It was written by forty or so people over the course of a millennia, but it has one point and purpose, to show Jesus. Many of the characters of the Bible are foreshadows of Jesus. The tabernacle and temple are foreshadows of heaven. Moses and David are proto-Jesuses. Paul’s dramatic conversion proves that redemption is not beyond even the worst of sinners. It’s all about God and Paul’s story is no different.

So, why to people tell their stories? Why do people talk about their lives? There are a lot of people who like the sound of their voice. Others share their story because they like the attention that it brings. Who can blame them? A captive audience hanging on your every word can be enticing, even to the staunchest introvert. Those longing to be noticed love a little attention. But we shouldn’t tell our story because we desire attention. We need to tell our story because it is also God’s story. Like Paul, our lives are frame stories. Our lives are bits and pieces of God’s greater story. It is like we are an extension of the Bible in that respect. Therefore, we need to share our story for the same reason that the Bible was written. The Bible was written so that people would come to know God and believe in Jesus his Son.

Paul shared his story, not because he had to. He could have given a much shorter account of what transpired with the Jews. He could have been succinct, but instead he shared with we have here, and the reason is shared in verse 29, “I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” Paul was sharing his story so that everyone there could believe in Jesus. His message is even for us. We are a part of the “all who are listening to me today”. Paul is speaking to us, even now and he also gives us an example of why to share. Like I said, we need to share so that people would come to know God and believe in Jesus.

We might think that our story is insignificant and that our part of God’s greater story can be told by anyone. We might think that our lives are boring and unimportant, but that is something our society tells us. Movies, books and vacations are intended for us to escape from our lives and experience something truly extraordinary. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with movies, books and vacations, but they have been turned into an escape. People desire their true lives less and they look forward to the escape even more than ever. Our lives can be punishing and cruel, and we can feel alone in our struggles, but the fact is that the smallest of detail in your life is more interesting and important than any movie or book could ever be. We don’t need to look to Middle Earth or Hogwarts to look for meaning. All you need is right in front of you. Your story is a part of God’s story and your story is important to at least one person out there, right now. You have no idea who that may be, so you have to go and tell. That small seemingly unimportant detail could be the anchor that brings someone back from the brink of destruction.

You might also think that your story is not a part of God’s greater story. You might not be a Christian yet, how can your story be a part of God’s greater story? In Paul’s story, the parts before he was converted to Christ are just as important to those afterwards. Jesus died for Paul and he died for you. No matter where you may be in your walk with Christ, whether you have been walking for decades, just started walking or even haven’t taken the first step, Jesus died for you. By doing that, Jesus has brought you into his story, just like he brought Paul in.

So, what will you do with your story? Will it be a secret or will be a story that is told for the ages? All your twists and all your turns, all the high points and the low points, all the heartbreak and all the elation are a part of your story. It is a story that has meaning and purpose. It is a story that is not just about you. It’s God’s story, too. The day that Jesus died for you forever intertwined your story with God’s like a beautiful song. Pieces coming together in a majestic melody ready for the listening, ready to bring in more stories. Your story is designed to bring at least one person to God. The details of your life will relate. Your life is a story, and a good one at that. Share it well.

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