Paul is finishing his defence in the Caesarean court. He’s using his own conversion story to do so, in a form shaped to challenge King Agrippa, which includes a summary of his gospel call (v20). That call has three elements: repent, turn to God and prove your repentance by your life.
Repent. Paul has described how his mind was changed on the Damascus road (Ac 26:12). Until then he had stubbornly resisted Jesus. But flooded with heavenly light, he could no longer do so; he had to bow to this Lord (v19). This lead him to speak of Christ to Jews and Gentiles (v20), with the same message to both: repent. The word means change your mind – the very thing that Paul did on that road. Paul’s fellow Jews needed to see that their thinking about God was wrong, their lives unworthy of him (cf Lu 3:8). Gentiles needed to know their paganism was offensive to God. Both groups needed their minds changed. Indeed, this is a feature of every true Christian.
Christians are people who have been shaken by God to see the deep wrongs within our lives. All human life, whatever the culture or religion, is broken – corrupted by humanity’s rebellion against God. The Bible says, therefore, that we need radical change starting with a new attitude. Paul experienced this grace deeply himself and it drove him to long that others would discover the same. Even in this courtroom he can’t simply think about his own defence, despite having a good chance of release (v30-32). Paul’s passionate concern is for his judges to see their need (v28,29). He calls us to the same attitude. As sinful people we are unreliable and so need a change of mind.
How does our thinking go wrong? We mistake events – Jesus’ enemies thought he was destroying Israel (Mk 14:58) rather than wanting her rebirth. We misread motives – Jesus’ enemies thought him demonic (Jo 8:48). We are blind to our real lives – Paul thought he pleased God (Ph 3:6). We are mislead by our feelings – Paul was driven by rage (Ac 9:1). We are twisted by sin – Paul was proud (Ph 3:8) and covetous (Ro 7:8). We must turn from this wrong thinking and it must be a lifetime’s habit. Christians do not only repent at conversion but maintain a wariness of our natural mind throughout life, pushing back against thoughts and emotions in order to test our thinking. This is hard: we often see the need in others but not in ourselves. But Christians must repent.
Turn to God. So what do we test our thinking against? God’s word. We have to repent because we have gone away from God. Repenting involves turning back to him and hearing his voice through his word. It’s challenging to do this, which is why the Jews turned on Paul when he spoke to them (v21). But God strengthened Paul and he is utterly convinced that what he says is true to the Old Testament (v22). Once, Paul had denied the Christ would suffer, be resurrected and then preach to the Gentiles, but now he sees that God always predicted this (v23). The meeting with Jesus on the Damascus road brought Paul back to God’s word and to God himself.
Well, Festus – the Roman Governor – cannot process all this. Talk of resurrection is blatant nonsense; Paul’s obsessive study of the Bible has turned him loopy (v24)! But Paul isn’t behaving like a mad man (v25) and, anyway, Agrippa knows the truth. The events of Jesus’ ministry and the subsequent formation of his church have been done in public, so the king is well aware of them (v26). More than that, the king believes the prophets so he knows for himself how they match Jesus (v27). So will he, can he, admit the truth? But Agrippa wastes his moment to reach for eternity. He deflects Paul’s question with one of his own (v28), though Paul prays that even now that attitude will change (v29) – showing great love for his enemies (Lu 6:27).
Prove our repentance. And that love is the evidence that Paul really has changed. All those who claim to have repented must show similar proof. We turn to God to escape our sin through Jesus. So we must not go back to it; our lives must be transformed. Though we may spend a lifetime battling with our sins, no Christians should ever excuse or shrug them off but, rather, seek their death. More than that, wherever possible we apologise to other and make good for our sins against them. This is part of repentance being visible. And when we see such good acts in other Christians, it should cause us to smile. Too easily we can notice the continuing faults in others. But we must also generously notice the fruits of change. Certainly they were visible in Paul, for all his ongoing imperfections, and so Agrippa and Festus find nothing against him (cf 1Pe 2:12).