A Tale of Three Scholars
Acts 26:19-29 v. 24 “You are out of your mind, Paul!” v. 28 “Almost thou persuadest me to become a Christian.”
I want you to know this morning that it’s all right to be a scholarly person who loves Jesus. Some folks like to assert that the two cannot coexist in one person, that either you will cling to the intellectual or to the spiritual, but not both. Some say that once you get too much learning in you, all faith in Christ will be lost. But I come to tell you that the bible applauds people who were educated and who loved Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee reared in the Pharisaic tradition who loved Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea was well-educated and well-off and he loved Jesus. Simon of Cyrene was from an intellectually astute country famed at that time for its scientific and astronomical advances, and he loved Jesus. The people of Berea in Acts chapter 17 were of a more noble background than those from neighboring cities, and they loved Jesus. Educated people have long loved Jesus. Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo, and Louis Pasteur all loved Jesus. The Wright Brothers, George Washington Carver, and Abraham Lincoln all loved Jesus. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Ph.D. from Boston University, C.S. Lewis authored the Chronicles of Narnia and was professor at Oxford. J.R.R. Tolkien authored the Hobbit, and they all loved Jesus. Adam Clayton Powell was an esteemed congressman, Thurgood Marshall was a Supreme Court Justice, and Barbara Jordan was a legendary Congresswoman from the state of Texas, and they all loved Jesus. Former President George W. Bush loves Jesus, and so does his rival former Senator Al Gore. Barack Obama, graduate of Harvard Law School and head of the Harvard Law Review, former Senator from the state of Illinois and now the 44th President of the United States of America, and some twenty years ago when the doors of the church were opened he walked down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ and professed his love for and faith in Jesus Christ. Got baptized to demonstrate that faith and that love for Jesus. I want you to know this morning that it’s all right to be a scholarly person who loves Jesus. Jesus said to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. It’s all right to study seriously and to pray fervently. It’s all right to have your name written on the parchment as a graduate of an Ivy League school and at the same time to have your name written in the lamb’s book of life. It’s all right to study reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as to study Faith, Hope and Love. It’s all right to know Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln as well as to know Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It’s all right to have on your shelves the works of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, and to have in the center piece of your heart the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. I come to tell you this morning that it’s all right to be a scholarly person who loves Jesus. There is no contradiction. It’s not either/or. It’s not one or the other. But it’s all right to be a scholarly person who loves Jesus.
In our Tuesday lunch time bible study, Minister Audrey Alston has been taking the saints through the book of Acts. And we recently came across this chronological collision of three persons, well-educated persons in the 26th chapter of the book of Acts. Education in the Greco Roman world did not consist of universities and Ph.D. programs. Education in the early centuries of the Roman Republic consisted primarily of fathers passing on family traditions and skills to their sons. After reaching adulthood at the age of sixteen, the young man came under the guidance of an older man who groomed him in public speaking and other useful skills for a career as a member of a republic. As the Roman empire expanded and covered the rim of the Mediterranean world and beyond, Greek educational ideas and practices influenced the Roman Empire. The conquest of Greece aided this process by producing Greek slaves, some much better educated than their Roman masters. A Greek slave tutored the child in simple reading until he went to elementary school at six or seven to be taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. At twelve or thirteen the boy went to a secondary school, where he studied mostly Greek literature until the middle of the first century B.C.E. Upper-class Romans were bilingual at this time. Students read the great Roman poets Virgil (70–19 B.C.E.) and Horace (65–8 B.C.E.), the historians Livy (59 B.C.E.–17 C.E.) and Sallust (86–35 or 34B.C.E.), the comic dramatist Terence (186 or 185–?159 B.C.E.) and, of course, Cicero, whose treatises systematized Greek rhetorical instruction. The highest level of Roman education began at about the age of sixteen and focused on rhetoric.
Above all, Greco-Roman education taught rhetoric, or the art of oratorical skills, to speak clearly and persuasively, a practical skill for future leaders of self-governing societies in which the spoken word meant a great deal. You will note in the bible, in the New Testament, that one of the distinguishing marks of the disciples was that they were from Galilee, and that it was noticeable through the way they spoke. When Peter sat by the fire awaiting word on the trial of Jesus, someone said, “you were one of them, I can tell by your speech.” Later, in the book of Acts, it tells us that Peter and the apostles were praised for their speech, especially because they were perceived to be unlearned men. Rhetoric, speaking ability, the ability to persuade with one’s arguments was valued most of all in the Greco Roman system of education.
Well, in our text, we have before us three different individuals, each with the highest academic credentials of the day. Each of them experienced an interaction with the story of Jesus, none of them sharing the same response as the others, all of which may resonate with somebody here this morning. Firstly, there was Festus, Prefect of the Roman province of Judea. Porcius Festus was appointed by Rome to this position, the same position held years earlier by Pontius Pilate. Since the historians of the day do not specify the early childhood of Festus, we have to rely on the generalities of that day to get a glimpse of his learning. Each of the Roman curators of a province was reared in the hallways of Rome, steeped in the philosophy of Cicero and in the politics of the Roman Empire. It is likely that Festus was trained well in history, in military matters, and certainly in speech. He was not, however, all that familiar with the ins and outs of the Jewish culture, the peculiarities of their faith and the various theological controversies of that era. But he didn’t need to be. He was a Roman governor, a prefect, he was large and in charge of the population over which he ruled but did not understand. He knew Cicero, but he didn’t know Jesus. He knew rhetoric, but he did not know resurrection. He knew Roman law, but he did not know Hebrew scriptures.
And so, when he entered office, Porcius Festus inherited a case leftover from the previous administration of Felix Antonius, a Jewish matter dealing with their religious leaders desiring to have Paul put to death, the same way that Jesus was, by using the Roman prefect to do the dirty work. Festus, while well-educated, was not prepared to render an intelligent verdict on the matter since he had no idea what the devil the scuffle was all about. But luckily for him, the neighboring tetrarch to the north, Herod Agrippa the II, was in town for a visit. And Herod knew Jewish theology, the controversies and arguments of the day, and was often summoned to give advice to Roman authorities on Jewish matters. Festus asked Agrippa then to hear the case of Paul and to advise on how best to proceed on the matter. It is that hearing, then, that makes up the bulk of the 26th chapter, Paul telling Agrippa his story so that Agrippa can advise Festus. Festus, educated in the Greco-Roman tradition, well-versed in Cicero and Livy, upon hearing Paul’s story of how Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected on the third day, Festus in all his education, in all his scholarship, in all his intellect said to Paul, “Are you crazy, Paul?” Like we said last week, scientifically, the resurrection of the dead was impossible, outrageous, and anyone who believed such a thing was a nut. The concept of Jesus rising from the dead was beyond Festus. When it came to Jesus, he thought Paul was crazy to believe that anyone could be resurrected from the dead. He had no capacity to understand a God who could raise the dead, who could redeem sinners, who could have a loving and personal relationship with God’s own children. And so Festus, while a scholar, heard about Jesus, but had no desire to understand Jesus, instead opting to mock the incredible assertions about Jesus. He was above this type of talk, above these holy roller Christians, above the need for the crutch of the religious faith in God. He was educated, powerful, successful. He didn’t need this God, no matter who testified for him. A tale of three scholars.
Our second scholar, Herod Agrippa II, is an interesting character. He hails from the line of Herodian kings who were appointed by Rome to rule over various provinces, such as Galilee and Idumea. The Herodian lineage is intriguing because they claimed to be from the remnants of Jewish people who did not go to Babylon as slaves back in the 6th century BC. The Jewish people regarded the Herodians as being nothing more than Edomites, rivals of the Jewish people who rejoiced to see the destruction of Jerusalem and the humiliation of the Jewish people. Kinda like how many of us get happy whenever the Cowboys lose to anybody, the Edomites didn’t really like the Jews. This heritage, then, was problematic for the Jewish people, and they did not enjoy being ruled over by the Herodian dynasty. But for the Romans, the Herodian kings did know their Jewish culture, were very familiar with the customs, with the theology, with the religious practices, and with the current theological disagreements. On top of this education, Agrippa was also reared in the Roman tradition. The ancient historians Josephus and Juvenal in their records of that time write that Agrippa was sent at an early age to Rome where he was raised and educated in the Roman court under the emperor Claudius. He thus had the same training and education as Festus, and involved in the cultural norms of the Greco-Roman world. Agrippa thus claimed to be a Jewish man fully aware of his obligations to God, fully aware of his own traditions and cultural norms and demands concerning ethics, sexuality, and purity. But he was also in a Greco-Roman world that didn’t share the Jewish views about such matters, that had an entirely different sense of sexual ethics, a much looser sexual ethic in general where men could have intercourse with pretty much whomever they chose whether married of not. Choosing between his Jewish heritage and his Greco-Roman education, Agrippa seems to have straddled the line, the best he could anyway, but gave in to the norms of the educated, more sophisticated culture of the Greco Roman world. Juvenal wrote that his sexuality even crossed the lines of Greco-Roman cultural norms when he began a sexual relationship with his sister, Bernice. Josephus wrote this as a rumor, but Juvenal detailed how Bernice would leave her husbands and return to her brother’s home for extended stays, including in our text where she was with Agrippa when he heard Paul’s testimony about Jesus.
And so here is Agrippa, hearing about the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus perhaps for the first time in his life, but having understood the tradition of the theology that it could happen. The Pharisees and the Saducees had long been on opposite sides on the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, Pharisees believing in it and Saducees not believing in it. Thus, when Paul tells his story to Agrippa about having seen the resurrected Jesus, Agrippa was in a different place than his contemporary Festus. He knew what Paul was talking about. He knew it was possible that Jesus had indeed been crucified and been resurrected. He had plenty of Greco-Roman education in him, but he also had an upbringing in the Jewish faith. And hearing about Jesus moved Agrippa. He was so moved by the testimony of Paul that his response is understood in the Greek language in a couple of ways. One, and most likely, he told Paul that he was being persuaded rather quickly to become a Christian himself. Educated in Rome, seated at the highest places of Imperial authority, but being persuaded by the story of Christ. The King James Version put that phrase in this most powerful way, “Almost thou persuadest me to become a Christian.” But while close to conversion, he determined that he would rather be in the majority culture, go with the hip crowd, hang with the power people, than to allow his heart to yield to the persuasive testimony of the apostle that Jesus had died for his sins and had been resurrected. Perhaps this is the most heart-breaking and sad verses of all of scripture. “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”
A tale of three scholars. One scholar, Festus, thought the story of Jesus ridiculous. One scholar, Agrippa, thought the story persuasive, perhaps even truthful, but chose to cling to the Greco-Roman culture and the privileges of power he enjoyed therein. But there was another scholar in that text. For the apostle Paul, while a Christian convert, was as well-educated as anyone in the room. Paul was a Roman citizen, and thus enjoyed the educational training and familiarity with the cultural norms of the Greco-Roman world. He had been well-versed in rhetoric just as Festus and Agrippa before whom he stood. Paul had no need for someone to defend him before royalty in a legal matter; he was educated enough to defend himself. He knew how to play the game. Not only was Paul a citizen of Rome and educated in Rhetoric, but he was a Jew among Jews as well, trained as a Pharisee, well-versed in the theological arguments of the day concerning the resurrection. In his former life, Paul had heard about Jesus of Nazareth, and by his own admission, he had determined that these Galileans were misguided at the least and subversive to the Jewish religion at worst. So convinced was Paul that some peasant carpenter and his fishermen followers could not be the long awaited Messiah ushering in a new era of peace and power for God’s people, he decided to persecute the early church. Luke recorded one such story of how the deacon Stephen had preached powerfully the story of Jesus Christ, and how Paul held the coats for the angry mobs that had stoned Stephen to death. But one day, while on the road to Damascus to persecute even further the early church as it had sprung up there, something happened to Paul. Something happened to this scholar reared in the best of the Greco-Roman educational tradition, this Jew from the tribe of Benjamin, this Pharisee of Pharisees. Instead of assailing the notion of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected, instead of using his vast intelligence to mock and to shame those who believed in Jesus Christ as their lord and savior, instead of continuing his life of persecution of those who loved Jesus, something happened on that road to Damascus. He saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me, the bible says. But in reality he saw THE great light. He saw Jesus. Jesus talked to him. Jesus challenged him. Jesus revealed himself to him. And from that day on, Paul was never the same. And it wasn’t that Christ repudiated all that he had been, but that Christ redeemed and used all that Paul was. He was a scholar, but he was a scholar for Jesus. He was a Roman citizen, but he was a Roman citizen for Jesus. He was a Pharisee, but a Pharisee for Jesus. He was intellectually astute, philosophically sophisticated, as well-read as any citizen in the empire, but he loved Jesus. When I was a youngster, my mother told me that of all the people in the bible she wanted us to emulate, it was the apostle Paul. Be educated, but be a Christian, she said. Be intelligent, but be loving. Prepare for life and for the afterlife. And when you preach, be able to preach to everybody, the poverty stricken and the wealthy, the educated and the uneducated, to White folks and Black folks, to all of God’s children wherever they may come from and whatever they may be going through, whatever they’ve done and wherever they are. Be like Paul, a scholar who chose Jesus, a Roman citizen who loved Jesus, a Pharisee of Pharisees who loved Jesus. A nobel prize winning scientist if you can, but a Christian who praises God from whom all blessings flow. A Pulitzer prize winning writer, but a soul saved by the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. A holder of all the letters the institutions of higher learning can afford, but assured by the blessed assurance that Jesus is mine, oh what a foretaste of glory divine!
A tale of three scholars. Again, I want to encourage all of us to pursue learning, to employ well the minds God gave us, to educate ourselves and to educate others. But with all our learning, I ask you today this question that is perhaps the most significant question you will ever be asked: which type of scholar are you? Are you like Porcius Festus, educated in the best of that era’s schools? Have you received your Bachelor’s degree, your Master’s degree, your doctorate? Have you read the best literature of the day, and are well-versed in the prevailing notions of science and evolutionary theories? Are you so arrogant in your education that you have no room in your mind to contemplate the realities of a resurrected Jesus, who died for our sins, who rose again on the third day, who loves you and who desires to bring you into a right relationship with God the father? Have you no room in your intellect to fathom the vastness of an all-powerful God by whom all things exist? The bible has a word for folks like Festus, who though educated conclude that they have no need for this type of God. David said in the psalms, “the fool has said in his heart, there is no God.” Jesus looked at the idea of well-educated people storing up for themselves treasures on this earth, and determined to instruct them with the words, “Thou fool; this night thy soul is required of thee. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and to lose his soul?” Are you that scholar today, the Festus scholar who could not or would not contemplate the full extent of Christ’s love for humanity?
Or are you the Agrippa scholar, who knows what the Lord our God requires of thee but would rather be popular and in fashion with the cultural norms of the day? Maybe you were raised in church, you learned not to lie, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to covet. You know better. But this world is so filled with lust and greed, lust for sex, lust for money, coveting power and coveting possessions. Everybody is doing it. Our college campuses are not only a springboard for the educated but also a challenge to the ethics and faith instilled in you by the God who created you. And you’re torn, are you not, between the God you were raised to believe in, and the culture you’ve adopted by virtue of your learning and your degrees and your high-paying jobs. And like Herod Agrippa, you’re in the presence of someone talking about Jesus, and you know better, you know all about Jesus, and you know in your heart that Jesus loves you. But like Agrippa, rather than yielding to the leading of the Holy Spirit, rather than complimenting your tough mind with a tender heart, rather than completing your existence with a home in the heavens, you’re holding back. The saddest words in all the bible, the most heart-wrenching, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” Almost, but not quite. Almost in the savior’s loving arms, almost in his mercy and his grace, almost in his love and his goodness and his faithfulness. Almost assured of everlasting life. But not quite. The saddest thing would be to miss out on heaven’s eternity by the distance from here to here.