Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)
Evangelism is a Contact Sport
If you’re any ordinary Christian, it’s likely that you might experience fear at the thought of telling someone about Jesus. The fears come in many shapes and sizes—some people fear they might offend someone. Others fear they don’t know how to witness effectively. Others simply have a general fear of hard conversations—you’re not a confrontational person. How do we navigate those waters? Is there some way to make the conversation easy, or less offensive?
One minister gave me preaching advice that has always stuck with me—and, its broadly true of all forms of evangelism. He said that preaching—and by extension, evangelism—is “a contact sport”. That’s helpful, and it’s inevitable. You’re opening your mouth in order to persuade someone, deep in the heart; to hit them in the nerve or in the heart and motivate them to action. You’re looking for a reaction. You’re looking to spar—to prick their conscience, and make them uncomfortable in their sin. This can be done in the subtlest ways, often—even if you’re simply saying “God loves you”. Those words alone can make people most uncomfortable, can’t they? You want them to respond. You want them fight back—or even more, to surrender.
Evangelism and preaching is a contact sport. In Biblical terms, it’s wielding the sword of the Spirit—the very word of God, which “never returns void” (Isaiah 55:11). God’s word always has an effect—it hardens hearts, or it softens hearts. It’s that simple, folks. That’s why this is a frightening matter. As the author of Hebrews said, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Declare that word, and you’re amid a most bloody and messy contact sport that’s designed to kill. It’s designed to pierce the soul and trouble the conscience. It’s designed to kill the old sinful man—and, by God’s grace, to bring new life to those who receive it, by faith.
An Evangelistic Sermon or a Trial Defense?
Today’s passage is an incredibly compelling story of Paul engaged in this contact sport we call evangelism—and, he’s contending with a king (and a most interesting king, as we’ll see in a moment). It’s shocking, if you really think about it. This isn’t really, supposed to be an evangelistic speech, is it? Why is Paul giving this speech in the first place?
He’s not in a synagogue, to tell people about Jesus on an ordinary sabbath day. He’s not witnessing on the streets. He’s on trial. This is supposed to be a defense speech, so that Paul might be declared innocent of the Jews’ charges. Paul could have simply said, “King Agrippa, I have not committed any crime against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar—and, no witness can prove otherwise”. He could have said that. It’s what he said in his defense speech in the lower courts, before the governor Festus (25:8). That simple word was plenty, for Paul’s defense.
Yet here, Paul is before a regional king rather than a provincial governor, and it quickly becomes clear that Paul is not just trying to clear himself of charges. He’s not merely convincing the King that he’s innocent—but more, that Jesus is Lord. Is that wise? Remember—this is the King who has power to declare Paul guilty, or to send Paul to Rome (where Paul desired to go). This was the perfect situation—this King, with one word, could give Paul a personal, free, guarded escort to Rome so that Paul could preach the gospel there. So, what does Paul do?
It’s in moments like these when the old adage “less is more” is often wise. A defense attorney might advise, “Say just enough to satisfy your examiners, and nothing more.” There’s no need to provoke the beast, right?
Paul doesn’t pull back on any punches, here. King Agrippa knew what Paul was doing, didn’t he? “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (verse 28). That’s where this is all going. That’s where Paul wants to take this.
Three Punches: Paul Compels, Paul Confronts, Paul Confounds
As we walk through this passage this morning, I want to see how Paul makes contact with King Agrippa through his speech and conduct. This is an amazingly compelling passage, the more you dig into it. It’s a compelling case for Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord—and, it’s a compelling example for us as we desire to learn effective ways to reach the lost. If you’re into outlines—you could say that (1) Paul compels Agrippa, (2) Paul confronts Agrippa, and (3) Paul confounds Agrippa. Those are the three punches, if you will.
Paul Compels Agrippa: Making Contact With Our Reputation
First, think back to how Paul’s trial hearing compelled Agrippa in the first place. Agrippa was compelled to hear Paul defend himself, he couldn’t help it. Do you remember how this hearing came about, if you think back to last week’s passage?
King Agrippa was the King over that region of the Roman Empire, under Caesar. Caesar had just appointed a new provincial governor over the Jews—this Festus guy who we read about. As King over the region, King Agrippa pays a courtesy visit to Festus to build rapport with his new governor. This is when Festus brings up this whole thing with Paul. Festus essentially says—“There’s this man who the Jews want dead, and he’s been sitting in prison for two years because the previous governor didn’t know what to do with him. When I investigated the matter, I found Paul to be innocent as well—yet, the Jews will try to kill him or riot if I let him go”.
Festus was altogether lost as to what he should do. Then, Paul appealed to Caesar, and that put Festus into a worse situation. You can’t send an innocent man to Caesar, without credible charges! So, he brings the matter up with his king.
Why do you think King Agrippa was interested in Paul’s case? Why did he care at all? At the very least, Paul’s reputation, is compelling. He’s innocent, he’s wanted for dead by the Jews, and he’s the leader of this massive movement that spread into all of Rome from Jerusalem. That’s compelling enough, don’t you think?
Compelled by His Own Religious Interest
Yet more personal and to the point—King Agrippa was interested in Paul because he presented himself as a pious Jew. That’s part of the reason why Paul says so boldly at the end of the passage (verse 27), “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” Paul was appealing to King Agrippa’s personal, Jewish faith. You also see Paul appeal to King Agrippa’s Judaism when he addressed King Agrippa. Paul says—
2 “I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am going to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, 3 especially because you are familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews.
So King Agrippa had a personal reason to be interested in Paul’s case.
Compelled by Paul’s Innocence
But honestly, there’s more to it. In many ways, Paul’s case intrigued the King because of Paul’s innocence. Paul was a leader of a massive Jewish revival and reformation—and, he’s been declared innocent by three different Roman officials already: (1) the proconsul in Jerusalem, (2) Felix the governor, and (3) Festus the governor. Yet, the Jews still want him dead. That’s compelling.
That’s how it’s supposed to be, in our witness. Personal integrity in our witness is a huge theme that runs through First Peter, especially. If you ever need a book to connect good works to evangelism, First Peter is your book. We need to walk the talk, folks. God’s word demands it for effective evangelism. Just for a little taste of what I’m saying, you could turn to First Peter 2:12 which says —
12 Keep your conduct among the [unbelieving] Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
That’s powerful. “they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation”. Our good deeds and innocence ought to be compelling—and of the inquisitive sort. It ought to draw people in, to challenge you, to investigate you, to question you. Later in First Peter, you get that famous passage about being ready “to make a defense to anyone who asks you for the reason for the hope that is in you” (3:15). Why should you be ready to make a defense? Because people will wonder. They’ll see your good deeds—that you don’t buckle even under the most intense suffering or persecution—and they’ll say “what’s your hope? Why are you enduring this?”. They’ll say, as Job’s wife did, “curse God and die! Why are you still holding out on your hope?”. Always be ready. What do you say in those moments, as your reputation has compelled people with intrigue? You say what Paul said in this passage. You say, as Paul does in verse 8, “why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? Jesus is alive! That’s the reason for my hope and good works!”.
Paul’s trials, here, are one extended example of 1 Peter 3:15—Paul is constantly giving a reason for his hope and good works. He’s constantly explaining why he keeps his innocence and faith through two years of suffering in chains.
Paul’s Diet of Worms Moment
So—between the King’s religious interests and the intriguing character of Paul himself, King Agrippa personally asks to hear Paul’s personal defense. And this sets us up for what might seem like Paul’s Diet of Worms moment. Perhaps you remember that story (I hope you all do, as good presbyterians, especially as we’re approaching Reformation Sunday). After Martin Luther had already been excommunicated by the Catholic Church for preaching the gospel, he is summoned to a hearing where he must defend his teaching and works before the most powerful rulers in Europe at the Diet of Worms. Presumably, they all want him dead. That was their tract record. He’s going before the same Roman Catholic Church who had already put to death John Wycliffe and Jan Hus on similar charges. He goes anyway, trusting in his Lord, and testifies to the word of the gospel before kings and emperors.
So also, here, after his reputation compelled Agrippa with an interest in his case. Paul knew who King Agrippa was. This was King Herod Agrippa II—so, he was of the Herod clan. This is the same family of Herodian Kings in the likes of (1) King Herod the Great who sought to have Jesus killed as a baby, (2) Herod Antipas who killed John the Baptist and sat over Jesus’s trial, and (3) Herod Agrippa I who had James executed. Now, Paul is being called to trial before the child of these men. It’s Paul’s turn. This is his Diet of Worms moment. What’s he going to do? Again, he fights back with the gospel, seeking to strike a nerve of faith and repentance into the last king of this Herodian dynasty.
So, Paul has compelled King Agrippa to hear Paul’s case. Let’s look at Paul’s testimony, where he confronts Agrippa with the gospel.
Paul Confronts Agrippa: Making Contact With Our Testimony
Paul confronts Agrippa in two ways, as I see it in this passage. Throughout his address, he weaves (1) the word of God together with (2) his personal conversion story. That’s what he does. He confronts him with (1) the word of God, and (2) his conversion story, which testifies to the word.
Now, strictly speaking, you could say that Pau’s speech simply walks through Paul’s personal story. We could look at the three movements of that story. (1) Paul’s former life in Judaism, (2) Paul’s conversion in Demascus, and (3) Paul’s new life in Christ. Pretty simple—but I don’t want to miss the tact that Paul uses in those three movements of his story. Paul is winsome, here—brutal, even. Again, evangelism is a contact sport, and we see that in Paul’s speech, here.
So, let’s look at this a bit more thematically, and see four ways Paul personally confronts Agrippa with the Scriptures and his conversion story.
Confronting Agrippa With Scripture
First, let’s consider the way Paul weaves Scripture throughout his testimony, here. So, it doesn’t take long for him to bring the Bible into the discussion. In verses 2–5, Paul essentially gets everyone’s attention by reminding him that he’s got his roots in the Pharisees. He knows the Bible, believes the Bible, and hopes in the Bible just like his Jewish peers. Then, verse 6—
6 And now I stand here on trial because of my hope [i.e., could Paul subtly mean “our hope”, here?] in the promise made by God to our fathers, 7 to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king!
Do you see his reference to the Scriptures, there? We aren’t just talking about “the resurrection of the dead”, generically, yet. Paul doesn’t mention that until the next verse. At this point, we’re simply talking about Scripture. Paul is referring to Israel’s hope—that is, “the promise made by God to our fathers”. That’s what this is all about. Has God fulfilled his promises (written down in the Scriptures) or not? That’s the question Paul is pressing Agrippa with, here.
Yet more specifically, he connects Israel’s hope and God’s promises in the Old Testament to the resurrection. He does it so seamlessly, and so “matter of fact”. Without any transition or argument to say “the hope is the resurrection”, he just simply states the question—“Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?”. If God doesn’t, then there’s no hope, period. There’s no Messiah, no blessings from God, no forgiveness of sins as God promised—only death under God’s wrath.
It’s often thought that the Old Testament says little about the resurrection—and, especially about the resurrection of the coming Messiah. There are a few stories of God raising the dead in the Old Testament, and there’s no explicit reference to the Messiah rising from the dead. There’s no promise saying, “and he shall die and three days later rise from the dead to defeat sin, death, and the devil for good”.
What does the Bible say about the Messiah, and his reign? Let me read two standard Old Testament passages on the resurrection, and tell me if they make sense without the risen Messiah. The clearest ones are from Isaiah—
Isaiah 53, referring to the coming Messiah—“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief… he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities…”. The jarring imagery of the Messiah’s death continues for many more verses. Then, Isaiah 53:10, “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes and offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring, and he shall prolong his days, the will of the Lord shall prospser his hand.” That’s the Messiah, folks. It was the will of the Lord to crush him to death to make atonement for the sins of his people; then the will of the Lord shall prosper his hand. It makes no sense without the resurrection. That’s Isaiah 53.
Then, there’s the example the Psalms. This one is less clear, because it could be read as referring to David rather than to the Christ. But, the apostles made a bee-line to Christ with this one, so that Peter even says that King David spoke concerning the Messiah, Psalm 16:11, “I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad and my tongue rejoiced, my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruptions” (cf. Acts 2:25–28). Peter, at Pentecost, preaches Jesus’s resurrection from that Psalm, and 3,000 souls were convinced by the Word.
So we have Isaiah 53, and Psalm 16. Those are two passages wherein God promised the Messiah’s resurrection. And by the way—I’d do an injustice to this matter if I didn’t make mention of all the passages (especially in Isaiah) which describe the Messiah’s reign as eternal, and altogether glorious. Isaiah speaks of a servant—the Messiah—who would be given “as a covenant for the people, a loight for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind… behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare”—new things of light rather than darkness; life rather than death. Isaiah’s vision of this king and kingdom of light only expands as you keep reading. By the end of Isaiah, we’re filled with a vision of the new heavens and a new earth, where “the sun shall be no more… but the Lord will be your everlasting light and your God will be your glory”. There’s something profound going on, here, in Isaiah. A Messiah will come and proclaim light. He’ll have power over death and darkness. He’ll open the eyes of the blind—and, it’ll culminate in a new heavens and new earth that is defined by eternal light and life.
Tell me if that makes no sense without a risen Messiah. It sure doesn’t make sense if the Messiah is dead!
And by the way—throughout his appeal, Paul subtle makes reference to Isaiah’s language of resurrection, light, and glory. Did you catch that? Verse 18, Paul says that Jesus himself said to Paul, I am sending you to the gentiles, “to open their eyes, so they may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan [i.e., and death] to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me”. That has Isaiah’s promises written all over it. The risen Messiah is completing his kingdom work of light and life to the Gentiles through Paul, here. Then Paul reiterates it again in verse 22. “So I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles”.
Do you see how Paul is weaving Scripture throughout this entire appeal? To disagree with Paul is to disagree with Scripture. Paul isn’t simply saying “my faith is a reasonable expression of Judaism that Rome should recognize and permit within the pax Romana”. Paul is saying “my faith is the fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures—and, a radical fulfillment at that!”. To use Jesus’s words, “it is finished”. The promises are secured and being fulfilled through the Messiah’s resurrection and power.
To say it another way—Paul, in this speech, confronts Agrippa with Scripture. If Agrippa was a devout Jew who was accustomed to the controversies of the Jews (i.e., the resurrection), then he would have caught onto this. He would have been confronted with Scriptures, and their fulfillment in Christ.
Now, Paul doesn’t simply leave Agrippa confronted with Scriptures, and how they’ve so manifestly been fulfilled. He confronts Agrippa in another way.
Confronting Agrippa With Personal Testimony
He tells Agrippa his personal story—his conversion. We shouldn’t miss that. There’s a reason this story is described in detail three times in Acts. It’s shining evidence that Jesus is alive. Saul the persecutor becomes Paul the apostle in a matter of seconds!
There really a peculiar power to someone’s conversion story, especially when it’s well seasoned with references to Scripture and Jesus. That’s what Paul did, here—and, at the very least, Paul was pressing Agrippa with the question, “how did this happen to you Paul? Why are you like this?”. That’s an important question. Festus thinks he has the answer. “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind!” (verse 24). That’s one way you can explain away Paul’s change. It’s the crazy professor theory. You could think of the many movies from Hollywood where a professor or scientist disappears in his study for weeks, and he comes out a mad man.
But that’s not Paul’s story, is it? Paul didn’t say his studies changed him. He says Jesus changed him—and, I really think Paul meant for his story to be convicting as much as it is convincing. Paul says in verse 14, “when we had all fallen to the ground [because of the great light], I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads!”. That’s a compelling story that’s piercing to the conscience to anyone who is listening. “It is hard for you to kick against the goads!”. Of the many times Acts tells of Paul’s conversion story, this is the only time Paul mentions this statement from Jesus. I almost wonder if Paul mentioned it specifically for King Agrippa. “Agrippa, perhaps you’re kicking against the goads as well?”.
What’s that even mean, to kick against the goads? It’s an imagery that everyone at the time would have understood. At the time, goods were transported by ox-driven carriages. The driver of these carriages would keep the oxen moving with a whip—and, there were times an ox would get stubborn, and kick back at the carriage. So, they put goads—or spikes—on front end. It would hurt the oxen to kick back at their master’s commands.
Paul includes this detail—and, it’s truly convicting to anyone who is willing to hear. When the word is preached, the Lord and master speaks. He stirs the conscience, troubles soul, and convinces the heart. The problem is that many kick back to their own harm. Paul did—I can’t imagine his troubled conscience as the Lord spoke to him through Steven’s sermon and martyrdom in Acts 7. The master spoke, and the master graciously subdued Paul to himself. Perhaps Paul included this detail in order to stir Agrippa’s conscience. “Are you kicking against the goads, Agrippa? It’s painful, isn’t it?” Of course, Paul follows this with that glorious statement of Jesus’s forgiveness in verse 18. Jesus offers “forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith”. All you need to do is trust, by faith, in Jesus’s forgiveness—and you can stop kicking back against the goads, to your own harm. You can enter the light of his grace.
In short, Paul tells his personal story—and, he includes details that will pierce anyone who is listening carefully. This is a lesson for our evangelism. Relate to unbelievers that you remember the pain of resisting God—and, how you experienced the freedom of faith.
Paul is confronting Agrippa with Scripture, and with his personal conversion—and, it really all comes together as nothing less than a call to repentance and faith. If this really happened to Paul—and if the Scriptures really came to fruition, then there’s only one thing to do in response to Paul’s testimony. It’s not, “Paul is innocent!”. That’s not Paul’s concern. Paul wants faith and repentance.
Paul compelled Agrippa to hear his case, and Paul confronted Agrippa with the gospel. Now, consider how Paul confounds—or dismays—Agrippa.
Paul Confounds Agrippa: Making Contact With Our Plea
Starting in verse 24, you see that the governor Festus interrupts Paul. Again, he basically says “Paul, your learning has driven you crazy!”. Paul responds to this as he should. Remember, Jesus commissioned him to proclaim light into darkness. He’s called to expose lies with the truth. So, what do you think he’s going to do?
He reasserts that he’s speaking truth and light. “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words” (verse 25). There’s a one-liner for evangelism, for you. “Don’t listen to this guy, he’s one of those crazy conservative Christians”. Say to them, “I am not crazy, but I am speaking true and rational words”. How do you think that’s going to work? Without the Spirit, it won’t. Without the Spirit, nothing will. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 2 that these matters are spiritually discerned. “
1 Cor 2:14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
The gospel and the resurrection is a crazy idea to anyone who does not have the Spirit to teach them. That’s just fact.
So, we should despair, right? We should fall into the error of hyper-calvinism and say “he doesn’t have the Spirit, no need to tell him the truth!”. That’s not what we’re called to do. We’re called to proclaim truth into darkness—whether the darkness receives it or not. We plant, God waters. So, tell people you aren’t crazy, and that you’re speaking truth. They need to hear it.
Then, appeal to their conscience. They know it, deep down. Romans 1 tells us they know it—God has revealed himself plainly to all humanity. They just don’t want God. They suppress the truth that God has instilled within them—that they are creatures responsible to their maker. Some are more keenly aware than others, but all unbelievers suppress this. Our job is to remind them. To make them uncomfortable as the suppress the truth. Prick whatever conscience they may have left.
That’s what Paul did to Agrippa, here at the end of our passage. In response to Festus’s question, Paul turns to Agrippa to single him out. “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” Stop suppressing the truth. It almost sounds like Paul is speaking to Festus’s conscience, there, doesn’t it? Evangelism is a contact sport, seeking to wound and heal the hart.
“I think, Mark, you just don’t Like It…”
This week, I heard one man named Bruce Gore tell an anecdotal story that I found compelling, and convicting. Bruce told of a conversation he had with a relative of his when they were both fresh out of college. He and his relative grew up in Christian homes—but upon finishing college, his relative had become an atheist. So, the discussions and debates commenced. Bruce sought to evangelize and win his relative back to the faith through all sorts of arguments that seemed compelling. Then, they finally came to an impasse after a particularly long, two hour conversation. Bruce said “let’s put all these philosophical and theological arguments aside and address what we both know.” He said, “I think you have a good understanding of what the Bible says and commands of you.” His relative said, “yes, that’s true”. Then, Bruce said “I actually think if you were honest with me, down deep inside, you would admit, you believe it’s true”. Silence. Bruce actually said that at this juncture, his relative looked at him with a smirky smile. Bruce continued, “…I think, Mark, you just don’t like it”. He said to Bruce, “that’s right”. That’s the last time they ever discussed the matter.
I fear, ladies and gentlemen, that’s the true story of far more people than we care to admit—and, we’re called to pull that out of people. We’re called to force them to admit that, or to surrender their souls to the Lord. That’s what Paul was seeking to do, here. He had given Agrippa the Scriptures and promises that Agrippa believed. He had given Agrippa a compelling story of Paul’s conversion that nobody could deny. Then Paul says, “I know you believe”—you just don’t like it. Agrippa’s response isn’t far from what Bruce Gore’s relative responded. Agrippa didn’t say “no Paul, I don’t believe”. That might be more troubling to his conscience. Yet he didn’t say “I do believe” either—that would require him to surrender his life to Christ. So, he gives a non-committal answer. “You would convince me in a short time to become a Christian?” He appeals to time. “If you’re going to do this, Paul, I need more time”. Isn’t that interesting? Many people answer this way, folks. “Let’s keep discussing. I need more time, more arguments”. Why is that? They’re unwilling to write Christ off completely, but they’re unwilling to commit to him.
Putting It All Together
This is an awesome story of evangelism, folks. It’s much more than a defense speech. It’s evangelism in the boxing ring—it’s a contact sport. Paul’s reputation compelled Agrippa, Paul’s message confronted Agrippa with the Word and his personal story; Paul’s statement at the end confounded Agrippa dead in his tracks. I can’t say for sure how deeply Agrippa’s conscience was troubled. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. In the end, he never believed. He resisted. Yet perhaps more importantly—Paul was faithful. He proclaimed light into darkness, and Christ was glorified through it all. May we learn from his example in our witness—and, may we be convicted. Stop kicking against the goads, and turn to Christ for salvation.
 From Bruce Gore’s June 13, 2015 Sunday School lesson titled “8. Charlemagne”, found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6ui0r2hlh0 (accessed 9/17/22).