The Ancient Faith
CASES OF NON-CONVERSION: AGRIPPA
John W. McGarvey
The twenty-ninth verse of the twenty-sixth chapter of Acts:
“And Paul said, I would to God that whether with little or with much, not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, might become such as I am; except these bonds.”
I presume that one human soul is intrinsically as valuable as another. All are alike capable of infinite growth and development in the kingdom of God, or of everlasting sorrow and despair. And yet, there are some human souls concerning whom we Christians feel very little anxiety. There are two classes for whom we seldom think of praying when we are on our knees praying for the salvation of men. One of these classes is composed of a certain number of men and women whom we know, who have gone in and out before us many years as faithful servants of God, adorning the confession which they have made. In regard to these we feel perfect assurance that in the great day of accounts they will pass in through the pearly gates. We have not the slightest solicitude or anxiety in regard to their salvation, because we feel as if it were already fixed.
The other class is composed of another very large section of every community—men and women who never darken the door of a church—who are engaged in the frivolities and the enormities of an abandoned life when the people of God are assembled for His worship. The reason we are not concerned about them is because they appear to be so far away from the kingdom of God that their fate is assured—we have no hope of ever seeing them change their attitude toward the Church.
While it is true that our anxiety and our prayers seldom reach out to either of these classes, the most intense anxiety on the part of truly earnest and faithful servants of God is centered on a third class; that class is composed of men and women, boys and girls, who are standing very close to the dividing line between the Church and the world—some on this side, some on that—whose fate for eternity seems to be hanging in even balances. Is not that your experience?
Now we might perhaps be inclined to suspect ourselves of not having exactly the right feeling in regard to these three classes, were it not for the fact revealed to us by the blessed Lord that the angels in heaven have a very similar feeling, if not identically the same. For the Lord tells us that there is more joy among the angels of God over one sinner that repents—one of those close to the line who comes over—than over ninety-nine just persons that need no repentance. It is certainly a most delightful object for those bright angels to look down upon, ninety-nine men and women in this world who are proof against all the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, who need no repentance; but there is more joy among them when they see one sinner repent. The same kind of feeling that we have animates them.
I think I discover, too, in the apostle Paul, on the occasion of which I have read you to-night, a similar feeling. There were two men in the audience which he addressed on that occasion who constituted the principal figures in his own eye, and in the eyes of all the gay and gorgeous assembly who were seated there listening to his words. These were Festus, the Roman procurator, the successor of Felix, the Felix of whom I spoke to you this morning, and by his side young King Agrippa. Paul had already formed some decree of familiarity with Festus. Festus was a politician—a politician in the Roman empire, and whatever may be said about the corruption that is common in American politics, I presume it is modest in comparison with the corruption of Roman politics in the time of Nero. He had attained, by his political devices, to the high position of the procurator of the province of Judea.
He became acquainted with Paul in about this way: he found, when he came into the province and looked around on the state of affairs, a prisoner by the name of Paul, left there by Felix in bonds. He went up to Jerusalem naturally to look around on the state of affairs in that great city, though Caesarea was the political capital, and while he was there the chief priests and the scribes gathered around him and requested him to give a sentence of death against the man Paul. He was surprised at such a request as that, and he answered these men by saying, “It is not the custom of the Romans to deliver a man up to die until he has had his accusers face to face and been permitted to defend himself.” So he commanded the chief men of them to come down to Caesarea, and promised that he would hear the utmost of the matter. They came, and the prisoner Paul was brought out for the first time in the presence of this new procurator. The chief priests and scribes, by their attorney, stood up once more, and accused him in the same manner as before Felix. He listened to all they had to say. He heard Paul’s defense. And then, in order to gratify the Jews, he proposed to Paul, “Wilt thou go with me up to Jerusalem, and there be judged of this matter?” Paul, knowing full well that just two years before forty men in Jerusalem had sworn and bound themselves under a great curse neither to eat nor drink until they had killed him, and, supposing that these men were quite hungry and thirsty by this time, did not want to go to Jerusalem. So he said, “I stand before Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged”—(that is, Here in Caesarea, the political capital of the country, is where the court ought to be held); “to the Jews I have done no wrong, as thou, also, very well knowest. If I have done anything worthy of death, I refuse not to die; but if none of these things be true, no man shall deliver me into their hands. I appeal to Caesar.” This was his right, as a Roman citizen; and it meant that the proceedings in this court must stop immediately, and that he himself and his accusers and the witnesses should be sent, at the expense of the Roman government, to Rome; the whole of the case should be transferred to an imperial court, the Emperor himself being the presiding officer of that court. “Thou hast appealed to Caesar, to Caesar thou shalt go.” It was no light matter to appeal to Caesar and have to be sent one or two thousand miles away from home, to remain in prison until it suited the Emperor to hear the case. “Thou hast appealed to Caesar, to Caesar thou shalt go.” All that was lacking now to start him on the journey was a suitable vessel landing at Caesarea and destined for Rome.
So, while Festus was waiting for such a ship to touch at the port of Caesarea, King Agrippa, the other figure in that audience of whom I spoke a while ago, comes down to Caesarea to make a formal complimentary visit to Festus. He brings with him his beautiful sister Bernice, younger than himself, and of course younger than Drusilla, who was now living in adulterous intercourse with Felix, and had been banished with him afar off into a distant land.
When a prince or an officer of high rank in those Asiatic countries visits another, there is a great deal of ceremony, with feasting, processions, everything that can make the visiting company feel happy; so Festus has on his hands now the task of providing splendid entertainments day after day for his royal visitors. He was conversing with Agrippa privately on one of those days, and he says; “Agrippa, there is a certain man left a prisoner by Felix, about whom, when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me, asking for sentence against him, to whom I answered that it is not the custom of the Romans to give up any man before the accused has the accusers face to face, and has had opportunity to make his defense. When his accusers stood up they brought no charge of such evil things as I supposed, but had certain questions about their own demon-worship” (for that is the right rendering of the word rendered religion in our version), “and of one Jesus, who was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive.”
I want you to notice for a moment or two what light this speech throws upon Festus, and the state of his mind. Here is a man occupying a very high position in the Roman empire. He is probably acquainted with every question that could be propounded in regard to Roman history, or politics, or war. Jesus Christ has been preached in this empire for more than twenty years. Churches in His name have been established all over it, and in Rome itself a powerful Church had been built up; yet, when this man hears of the dispute between Paul and the Jews about Jesus, he speaks of it as a controversy about “one Jesus” who was dead, and whom Paul affirmed to be alive; and it seems as if this was the first time the poor wretched heathen had ever heard the name of Jesus. He knew so little of either Judaism or Christianity that he thought the difference a mere question of demon-worship. How do you account for this amazing ignorance? There are some men in the world with whom the affairs of State are so important that they can never give any attention to religion; there are others who have so much property to look after that they have no time to consider the interests of their souls; there are some who have to labor so hard to make their bread that they can find no time to read the Bible and inform themselves about Christ. There are others who have just as much on their hands in all these departments as these have, yet they become proficient in the knowledge of the truth. There are members of Congress and members of the British Parliament today who would not recognize the Lord’s prayer if they heard it, yet that “grand old man of England,” as the people are so fond of calling him, who has had more of the affairs of state in hand for the last forty years than any of them, is so well posted in the knowledge of the Bible and of Christ that he dares to enter into combat with the mightiest infidels of Europe or America; and he has held his own with them. Felix belonged to the class who had not had time to think about religion, or to learn that there was such a being as Jesus being preached all over that empire. O, how far off he is from the kingdom of God! And Paul knew this full well.
When Festus made these remarks to Agrippa they fell upon the ears of a totally different character. Who is he? The great-grandson of the Herod who slaughtered the babes of Bethlehem in the vain effort to kill Jesus in his cradle. The great-nephew of the Herod who murdered John the Baptist, and before whom Jesus was mocked and arrayed in a purple robe. Son of the Herod mentioned in the twelfth of Acts, who murdered the apostle James, and attempted to murder Peter, and who died a miserable death a few days afterward in Caesarea, where Paul was now a prisoner and Agrippa a royal guest. Agrippa was a youth seventeen years old when Herod died that miserable death. He is now a young man of thirty, with the title of King.
When Festus spoke as he did about “one Jesus,” I think that Agrippa must have laughed in his sleeve at the poor man’s ignorance. How familiar that name was to him! All his life long he had heard Jesus and the Church and the apostles spoken about, but he had heard all from the lips of men who cursed that name, and whose hands were stained with the blood of the friends of Jesus. What a surprise it is, then, that Agrippa immediately said to Festus, “I could wish to hear the man myself”—that one of that bloody, persecuting family has come to the point of desiring to hear an apostle preach! If a man had predicted it ten years before, he would have been set down as a false prophet or a fool. “Today thou shalt hear him,” says Festus. So, one more day’s entertainment is now provided for; and on the next day, we are told, Festus, and King Agrippa, and Bernice, and the chief captains, and the chief men of Caesarea came together into the audience room of the palace, with great pomp—Festus in his purple robes, King Agrippa with his crown, the beautiful Bernice in all her royal apparel, and the military officers arrayed in their uniforms. Never did the poor apostle stand before so gorgeous an assembly before, and perhaps never afterward. When all were seated, an officer was sent for the prisoner.
I have tried often to imagine how Paul felt, and what he thought when that officer came into his presence and said to him, “Paul, King Agrippa has sent for thee, to hear thee concerning the faith in Christ.” If the messenger had said, King Agrippa has sent for thee, Paul, that he may send you headless into eternity after James and the others that he and his fathers have murdered, Paul would not have been surprised. But, he has sent that he might hear thee. If Paul had heard a clap of thunder out of a clear sky, it could not have been more astonishing to him. What! shall I be permitted to speak in the name of my crucified Master to a Herod? Shall I have a Herod with open ears and open heart listening to the Gospel of Christ? O, is there a possibility of my reaching the heart of a Herod with the glorious gospel of the blessed God, and winning him to my Saviour? It seems to me that such must have been the thoughts of Paul; and with what a swelling heart he went into that assembly! I am not at all surprised that the sermon he delivered there is generally regarded by scholars as the greatest sermon that he ever preached in his life. He is led in. Festus arises.
“King Agrippa, and all men who are here present with us, ye behold this man concerning whom all the multitude of the Jews have plead with me, both at Jerusalem and here, crying out that he ought not to live any longer. But I found that he had committed nothing worthy of death; and, as he himself appealed to the Emperor, I determined to send him; of whom I have no certain thing to write to my Lord. Wherefore I have brought him forth before you, and especially before thee, King Agrippa, that, after examination, I may have somewhat to write; for it seems to me unreasonable in sending a prisoner, not withal to signify the charges against him.”
Such is the predicament the poor ignoramus was in. I have a prisoner to be sent two thousand miles to Rome to be tried, and I can not tell to save my life what charges are laid against him! I do not understand the case well enough, and I want some help; and especially that of King Agrippa, because he is an expert in the Jewish faith, and he can help me out of the difficulty by telling me what to write. Having delivered himself thus, he sat down.
Now Agrippa, assuming the position of the moderator of the meeting, if we should so speak, says to Paul, “Thou art permitted to speak for thyself.” As much as to say, Go a-head now, and say what you please. This gave Paul a free and open sea in which to set his sails, and to direct his course.
Did you ever notice exactly how he began his discourse?
“I think myself happy, King Agrippa, that I am to make my defence before thee this day touching all the things whereof I am accused by the Jews.” And O how happy he did feel to be permitted to speak to a Herod about these things, “especially,” he said, “because I know thee to be expert in all questions and customs that are among the Jews.” That was just as much as to say, I do not expect to find you so dull and stupid as that man, sitting by you—I can’t make him understand anything at all. Well, Agrippa must have been pleased with these the first words he had ever heard from an apostle. By expressing his gratification at being allowed to speak of these matters before him, Paul partly bridged over the gulf between them, and the two were coming a little closer together, don’t you see? But now, how will Paul manage to open the message of the gospel to such a man!
“My manner of life then from my youth up, which was from the beginning among mine own nation, and at Jerusalem, know all the Jews; having knowledge of me from the first, if they be willing to testify, how that after the straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee. And now I stand here to be judged for the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers; unto which promise our twelve tribes, earnestly serving God night and day, hope to attain;” and then, looking around upon the heathen assembly who did not believe as he and Agrippa did, he demands, “Why is it judged incredible with you, if God should raise the dead?” The King and I believe in that doctrine. Why did he tell Agrippa that he was a Pharisee, and always had been, believing in the great doctrine of the resurrection of the dead? I think it was because Agrippa was a Pharisee, believing in the same doctrine, and Paul wants to get close to him. He threw that remark out as a silken cord to wrap around the king, and draw him into sympathy with himself. You and I, King Agrippa, stand together against this audience.
His next remark, “I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth,” is the first time he speaks of Jesus. “And this I also did in Jerusalem: and I both shut up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, and when they were put to death, I gave my vote against them. And punishing them oftentimes in all the synagogues, I strove to make them blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto foreign cities.” Why did he tell Agrippa about all of that wickedness? Was it not intended to make Agrippa think within himself, Well, that man was once with us? He was once on the side of my father and my uncle, and my grand-father. He persecuted those people as bitterly and as bloodily as my family did. Such reflections were unavoidable: and by exciting them, Paul threw another cord of sympathy to draw the king a little closer to himself. He is going to win that young king to Christ if he can. That is what he is aiming at. Did he not also intend to raise another question in Agrippa’s mind? If that man once stood where my father did, and uncle and grand-father, what on earth could have changed him? What could have caused him to turn about and become the great propagator and defender of the faith in Christ that I know him to be?
Paul’s next remark was intended to answer this question, just as if he had heard Agrippa speak it out. He thinks he knows what is in the king’s mind, and he answers the question. “Whereupon as I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, at midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them that journeyed with me. And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice saying unto me in the Hebrew language, Saul, Saul, why persecutes thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the goad. And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. But arise, and stand upon thy feet; for to this end have I appeared unto thee, to appoint thee a minister and a witness both of the things wherein thou hast seen me, and of the things wherein I will appear unto thee: delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom I send thee, to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive remission of sins and an inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith in me. Wherefore, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision.” And did not the king’s heart say, Well, Paul, if that is true, you ought not to be disobedient to it. If you saw that, and heard that, then our family have been mistaken, just as you were. If this actually occurred, as you relate it, you had good cause for changing, and I wonder if we ought not to change too.
Paul uttered but a few more words when he was interrupted. Festus was sitting there, listening to this speech, and wondering. Not a single ray of light had it caused to penetrate his darkened understanding. He could not see through it at all. So, excited beyond power to control himself, he cries out, “Paul, thou art mad: thy much learning doth turn thee to madness.” Now brethren, what a strange thing that an intelligent and educated man like Festus, should have listened to such a speech and thought it the raving of a madman. This accounts for the fact that all this speech thus far was addressed to Agrippa, and not a word intended for Festus. Paul saw there was no use in trying to do anything with him. Agrippa was the man. The only answer that Paul gave to Festus was this: “I am not mad, most excellent Festus” (he addressed him “most excellent” not because he was so, but because this was the customary form of address to men of high rank), “but I speak forth words of truth and soberness.” He turns right back to Agrippa: “For the king knoweth of these things: unto whom also I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things is hidden from him; for this hath not been done in a comer.” Don’t think, Festus, because you are ignorant of it, that it was done in a corner. The king knows all about it. And well did Agrippa know about it; only he had heard of it from the wrong side.
I do not know what it was certainly that caused Paul just at this moment to change the line of thought, and make a personal, direct appeal to Agrippa. I think it must have been something he saw working in his face. A watchful and thoughtful preacher, with self-control, will never make a direct appeal to a particular person in his audience, unless he sees evidence that the person is ripe for it. I think Paul felt, Now I have my man almost in my arms, and one more effort will bring him. He says, “King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets?” Then he saw the answer in the king’s face. “I know that thou believest.” This makes it uncomfortable to the king. He is impelled to speak. This personal appeal to him brings forth the expression, “Paul, with but little persuasion thou wouldst fain make me a Christian.” Do you think you can make me a Christian with just this one short speech? He saw through Paul’s design. He arose and wrapped his robes about him, and started for the door. Bernice followed him. Festus followed, and all that gorgeous company, one by one, filed out through the door, and left Paul alone with the soldier who guarded him. I think Paul’s heart sank within him when he was thus left alone in that hall. If he had been acquainted with our modern songs, this might have come to him:
“I feel like one who treads alone
Preachers often have such feelings after earnestly pleading with a congregation of dying men. The preacher sees the tears in some one’s eyes, the heaving of the chest, and that deep earnestness of feeling which makes him sure there are some who are going to come to Christ to-night; but when the last amen is pronounced, they march away and leave him disappointed. O, what a sad moment for Paul, when, after having the young Herod almost in his arms, he loses him, and is led back to his lonely prison.
And now, here is another man on whom the Gospel failed. O, what tremendous power was brought to bear upon his soul! How strange the providence that had first brought this preacher to Felix, and terrified him; then kept him there till Festus came, and till Agrippa came—that caused him to stand before all three, and bring to bear upon them the same Gospel power which had saved so many other souls, but which fails to save them!
When they got outside that audience chamber, they began to speak to one another. I do not suppose they felt like talking at first. The people began to say to one another, “That man has not done anything worthy of death or of bonds.” What brought them to that conclusion? They had had nothing before their minds to convince them of it except what the apostle said; but there was an air of honesty and earnestness and truthfulness in the words that fell from his lips, and the pulsations of a true heart behind them. They are strangers to him, but they are satisfied that he has done nothing worthy of death or of bonds. Agrippa was the last man to speak. After all the others had expressed themselves, he said, “Festus, this man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar;” and this is in the lips of a Herod! It was as much as to say, Father did wrong in killing such men. Our family have been wrong on this question. We ought, not to have murdered them. We ought not to have imprisoned them. That man ought to be set at liberty this day, if he had not appealed to Caesar, which makes it necessary to send him to Caesar. That near, my dear friends, did the Gospel come to saving Agrippa. You saw this morning how near it came to saving Felix, when it terrified him. All that he needed was to give way to that terror and throw himself upon the mercy of God. Both of these men went down to perdition. Both of them died without God and without hope. Is there any one of you here tonight that has been terrified by the judgment scene in connection with your sins? Is there any one here tonight that has been brought as near to the kingdom of God as this young king was, so that you have felt kindly and friendly to it, and have stopped there? Oh! let me beg you in Jesus’ name not to stop where they stopped. If Agrippa, when he heard that sermon, had risen to his feet and cast his crown in the dust, and taken Paul by the hand, and said, Paul, you are right; our family have been wrong; you are right; I will confess Jesus and stand by you the remnant of my days, what an honor he would have reflected back over his own ancestry, and with what a name, honored and praised and revered and loved by countless generations, he would have come down to posterity. How differently he would have passed into the eternal world. Oh sinner, take warning, and come now to the arms of mercy which are open to receive you.
[This was taken from J.W. McGarvey’s Sermons Delivered in Louisville, Kentucky (1894). Subtitles were added for reading ease].