Post last updated on April 24, 2022
The Apostolic witness regarded the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. When the fact of the resurrection was combined with the records of Jesus’ life and death, these together became the essential characteristics of a different kind of news, even a new kind of news—the gospel. Paul directly refers to its distinction in his letter to the Corinthians, confirming its content (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). The gospel is the objective subject of Christian proclamation. It is in the gospel that we may distinguish antiquity’s heroes from history’s Redeemer.
Obviously, the facts highlighted in the gospel are not the world’s only facts; even so, they are the particular facts that persuaded and bound Paul to a way of life (1 Corinthians 9:16). They carried their own impetus and imperative—just as they have to every believer since its first announcement. The gospel, then, not only informs the unbeliever of the way of his salvation, but faith therein likewise makes the gospel a description of every Christian’s situation, for it ties together another’s past to his future, and extends earthly hope upon heaven’s mercies.
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This one word, gospel, carries such definite, objective significance that it is important to not misuse it and lose that reference. The word shouldn’t stand in as an adjective for all things redemptive or therapeutic; instead, it signifies history’s fact. Romans 1:15-16 is indicative of the New Testament’s frequent use of the word, where it refers to the facts that Christians proclaim. The vast number of New Testament references narrowly associate the word with the news of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Paul’s warning to the Galatians about another gospel only makes sense because of its typical use.
This said, the same word—still identifying the historical record of Jesus’ resurrection—is sometimes used to connect its fact to its effect. For instance, Ephesians 3:6 tells the reader that the promises of God are by the gospel. Colossians 1:23 speaks of the hope of the gospel. In such places, we see how the New Testament connects the historical reference to the believer’s state and situation. Again and again, the New Testament writers reflect upon the way that the gospel’s different aspects—Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection—are themselves the basis of Christian’s identity, experience, and hope.1It is in this respect that the gospel’s epistemological significance is confirmed. We know about God in the works of Jesus Christ (i.e. 2 Corinthians 4:6), but the believer is also made to know its correspondence to himself.
Galatians 2:20 gives us a well-known example of this connection. There, Paul writes that the life which he lived in the flesh was actually effected by the resurrected Lord. The character of his life is that which is present in the resurrected Lord, who lived in Paul by the Spirit. When Paul, at the end of the same letter, recalls his torture and suffering at the hands of men, he calls these “the marks of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:17). Paul’s identification with Christ’s physical suffering obtains its significance in relation to the cross, and that relation stands in contrast to the Jewish circumcision that was relegated to the past by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In other words, the Lord himself is the source of the believer’s life, but the gospel is its interpretative principal. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ discloses the controlling definitions of the believer’s life and hope, his ethics and his expectations.
There is a way, then, in which the New Testament repeatedly relates the Christian’s death, burial, and resurrection to their corresponding historical events in the life of the Son of God. Paul writes just this much in a well-known recommendation to the Colossians:
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory.Colossians 3:1-4
Paul employs a recognizable logic here. Because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and because the believer lives to God through Christ (even as he is also become dead to the world through Jesus Christ), particular hopes are their corresponding imperatives. Particular crosses and privileges belong only to the believer. Paul admits that the prospects of this kind of life remain hidden to most men; indeed, they are hidden in Christ; but, conversely, the believer’s actual prospects will be manifest to all when the Lord returns.
The point is that Paul’s estimation of the believer and his earthly course are associated with the Jesus Christ who has died, was buried, and then rose again from the dead. These three experiences, which belonged uniquely to the Lord, have become the ground of Christian expectation. Paul, then, not only prescribes the gospel for the hearing of unbelievers, but Paul routinely writes of the gospel and its entailments to believers, as well. The New Testament writers repeatedly relate the work of Jesus Christ to the believer, confirming that relation in the present work of the Holy Spirit. The life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus secures life and a particular kind of life for the believer. Acts 26 illustrates how the facts of the gospel become the content of Christian proclamation, but also the way in which the facts of the gospel order and highlight the acts and deeds of the believer.
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Paul’s testimony before Agrippa, then, is no mere biography, which normally attempts to account for a single life’s many and diverse details. It is more carefully crafted than this. Biography tends to highlight the salient events of a life; Paul’s witness before Agrippa featured those events which were descriptive of God’s work in the world. Paul, rather, narrowly relates the larger work of God to his own ministry. He makes God’s work through Christ the events that outline his own testimony. In this way, we do not here read an arbitrary catalogue of Paul’s deeds, but we find an arranged and intentional witness to the grace of God. Paul connects the facts of the gospel to the details of his own life and experience. Even the scene’s setting is striking in this respect: Paul in chains before King Agrippa, recounts the ways in which his ministry has been, in fact, a surprising but definitive witness to God’s redemptive work in the world.
The point to be made is that Paul’s very testimony—his witness before Agrippa—is itself consistent with the facts of gospel. Paul routinely proclaimed the gospel to audiences throughout the Roman Empire, but its facts—Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—were the prescriptive and descriptive governor of his manner and his expectations. He chose to live in a certain way because of the resurrection and what it promises to the believer and what it says about the nature of reality’s future form. Consequently, there is a traceable correspondence between Jesus’ resurrection and the character and kind of Paul’s works. The explanatory center of Paul’s testimony is, in fact, the details of the gospel. It is, therefore, instructive that one of Paul’s fullest and most personal accounts of his own life is to his sufferings (2 Corinthians 11:12-33), for when he there seeks to confirm his apostleship over and against the false apostles in Corinth, he chooses to highlight this connection. After all, Jesus was a suffering savior.
Accordingly, the course and content of Paul’s life is not explained by religious, intellectual, or psychological enthusiasms. This is the kind of explanation that Porcius Festus2Acts 24:27 introduces Festus into the biblical narrative, when the scripture shows him replacing Felix in the Roman government in Judea. Josephus also writes that Festus follows Felix as the procurator of Judea. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-20.html. 20.8.9. himself gave to the life of Paul, as recorded in Acts 26. Festus is with Agrippa on this day and hears Paul’s testimony, eventually interrupting Paul: “Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad” (Acts 26:24). Festus says that Paul is beside himself; that is, that Paul is acting irrationally, stirred and captive to his own passions; that Paul is like an irrational man standing beside his rational self. Paul understands the charge perfectly and denies it. He will not allow his audience to think that his zeal is mere enthusiasm: “I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness” (Acts 26:25). The historical facts of the gospel had become the prescription of Paul’s own words and deeds.
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What is left, then, is for the reader to see this chapter’s close connection between the outline of Paul’s testimony before Agrippa and the doctrine and deeds that it illustrates. This connection arises in the text, itself. It comes to the reader’s attention in the particularity and scope of the words that appear there. Significantly, Paul recounts his former life, the way that he was a witness against the church. Receiving authority from the chief priests in Jerusalem, Paul pursued believers even unto Gentile cities (Acts 26:10-11). Paul’s point, here, is indisputable: He recalls certain facts of his former life as a Pharisee to bring them into a purposed contrast to his later life as an apostle. Paul’s two different “lives” are accordingly brought into a comparison, with their explanatory difference becoming the facts of the gospel. Whereas Paul had possessed the authority of the chief priests to speak against believers, he later possessed a different and divine authority as an apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul’s former commission by the priests (Acts 26:12) is interrupted by a vision seen on his way to Damascus. At that time, Paul sees a vision of Jesus Christ, who endows Paul (then known as Saul) with a different charge under Christ’s own authority and commission. As such, in Acts 26 Paul now recites the words of the Lord Jesus and recalls and underscores his divine commission to the Roman authorities gathered around him:
But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.Acts 26:16-18
Paul’s gospel message, then, flows from its prerequisite and historical facts. Paul, once charged by the priests to witness against believers, causing them to blaspheme (a false witness), will now be the means by which those within his ever-growing reach hear the gospel and call upon the Lord. As such, Paul’s own words and witness were formerly used to scatter the church (Acts 8:1); but now he will go even unto the Gentiles. He will gather into the church those who were “not a people,” in order that they, too, might be included among the people of God (1 Peter 2:10). Paul’s witness against believers had caused them to blaspheme;3Likewise, in 1 Timothy 1:13 Paul remember that he, too, was once a blasphemer. now strangers will forsake their gods and the oaths that heathen worship demands so that they might receive an inheritance by faith in Christ Jesus (Acts 26:17-18). God’s work among all people is brought into view.
Indeed, this portion of scripture teaches the reader that one may review the details of Paul’s life as a Pharisee and find their corresponding contrasts to his life as an Apostle. It also reminds us that Paul’s eventual epistles describe doctrines that were, in fact, part of his initial calling, and not a product of human innovation. It was the resurrected Lord who appeared unto Paul and commissioned his ministry among the Gentiles; so then, when Paul later writes about the gathering of both Jews and Gentiles into one body called the church (i.e. Ephesians 1:9-14, Ephesians 2:10-15, etc.), we are reminded that his original commission contained the form, confirmation, and necessity of the epistle’s doctrine. Paul’s Damascus-road calling (recalled here in Acts 26) shaped his ministry and confirmed God’s single will to both Jews and Gentiles. This is the center and force of the text, which forces the reader to admit its cause, the resurrection of the Son of God.4This title harkens back to Jesus’ comparison to the first Adam enlarging his role than that of a Jewish messiah, though he never ceases to be that, either. 1 Corinthians 15:42-45 directly associates the resurrection to Jesus’ identity as the Second and last Adam.
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Finally, it may be that Festus’ own assertion that Paul is “mad” (Acts 26:24) is but an attempt at self-justification, rather than the accusation that it first appears to be. If Festus can explain away Paul’s words and record, and relegate them as symptomatic of an overheated zeal, then may Festus also continue in his own refusal of the gospel. The irony is that Paul admits that his former efforts were founded in the very kind of ungovernable passion for which Festus now accuses him. In Acts 26:11 Paul confesses to being “exceedingly mad” against the believers, so that this fury drove Paul unto unceasing labors in errands of condemnation. Paul’s apostolic ministry, however, was founded upon his understanding of history, articulated in the facts of the gospel—Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection:
Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come: That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles.Acts 26:22-23
We see, here, that the facts of the gospel themselves became the ordering features of Paul’s life and ministry; and yet, in Paul’s obedience, arises the scandal. His Roman inquisitors are bewildered. Paul bears his Savior’s reproach, doing nothing worthy of imprisonment (Acts 26:31); still, he is condemned. Paul can, nevertheless, recommend to his audience the very cause of his chains, for Jesus is also the cause of Paul’s future glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). In the end, there was really no surprise that Paul had once served the high priest; the surprise is that God later chose Paul. This, too, is indicative of the gospel. The Lord takes his former enemies and makes them his ambassadors.
Notes & References
|↑1||It is in this respect that the gospel’s epistemological significance is confirmed. We know about God in the works of Jesus Christ (i.e. 2 Corinthians 4:6), but the believer is also made to know its correspondence to himself.|
|↑2||Acts 24:27 introduces Festus into the biblical narrative, when the scripture shows him replacing Felix in the Roman government in Judea. Josephus also writes that Festus follows Felix as the procurator of Judea. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-20.html. 20.8.9.|
|↑3||Likewise, in 1 Timothy 1:13 Paul remember that he, too, was once a blasphemer.|
|↑4||This title harkens back to Jesus’ comparison to the first Adam enlarging his role than that of a Jewish messiah, though he never ceases to be that, either. 1 Corinthians 15:42-45 directly associates the resurrection to Jesus’ identity as the Second and last Adam.|