King Agrippa, believe you the prophets? I know that you believe.…
! — This Agrippa was son of the other Herod of whom we hear in the Acts as a persecutor. This one appears, from other sources, to have had the vices, but not the force of character, of his bad race. He was weak and indolent, a mere hanger-on of Rome, to which he owed his kingdom, and to which he stoutly stuck during all the tragedy of the fall of Jerusalem. But he knew a good deal about the Jews, about their opinions, their religion, and about what had been going on during the last half century amongst them. On grounds of policy he professed to accept the Jewish faith. So the apostle was fully warranted in appealing to Agrippa's knowledge, not only of Judaism, but of the history of Jesus Christ, and in his further assertion, "I know that thou believest." But the home thrust was too much for the king. His answer is given in the words of our text. They are very familiar words, and they have been made the basis of a great many sermons upon being all but persuaded to accept of Christ as Saviour. But, edifying as such a use of them is, it can scarcely be sustained by their actual meaning. Most commentators are agreed that our Authorised Version does not represent either Agrippa's words or his tone. He was not speaking in earnest. His words are sarcasm, not half melting into conviction. And the Revised Version gives what may, on the whole, be accepted as being a truer representation of their intention when it reads, "With but little persuasion thou wouldest fain make me a Christian." He is half amused and half angry at the apostle's presumption in supposing that so easily, or so quickly, he is going to land his fish. "It is a more difficult task than you fancy, Paul, to make a Christian of a man like me." That is the real meaning of his words.
I. FIRST, THEN, I SEE HERE AN EXAMPLE OF THE DANGER OF A SUPERFICIAL FAMILIARITY WITH CHRISTIAN TRUTH. As I said, Agrippa knew, in a general way, a good deal not only about the Prophets, and the Jewish religion, but the outstanding facts of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul's assumption that he knew would have been very quickly repudiated if it had not been based upon fact. Mark the contrast between him and the bluff Roman official at his side. To Festus, Paul's talking about a dead man's having risen, and a risen Jew becoming a light to all nations, was such utter nonsense that, with characteristic Roman contempt for men with ideas, he breaks in, with his rough, strident voice, "Much learning has made thee mad." There was not much chance of that cause producing effect on Festus. He was bewildered at this entirely unintelligible talk. Agrippa, on the other hand, knows all about it. And was he any better for it? No! He was a great deal worse. It took the edge off a good deal of his curiosity. It stood in the way of his apprehending the truths which he thought that he understood. And although you and I know a great deal more about Jesus Christ and the gospel than he did, the very same thing is true about thousands of people that have all their lives been brought into contact with Christianity. Superficial knowledge is the worst enemy of accurate knowledge. For the first condition of knowing a thing is to know that we do not know it. The ground is preoccupied in our minds with our own vague and imperfect apprehensions. You fancy that you know all that I can tell you. Very probably you do. But have you ever taken a firm hold of the plain central facts of Christianity — your own sinfulness and helplessness, your need of a Saviour? These are but the fundamentals, the outlines of gospel truth. But you see them, far too many of you, in such a manner as you see the figures cast upon a screen when the lantern is not rightly focussed, a blurred outline. And the blurred outline keeps you from seeing the sharp-cut truth as it is in Jesus. Then there is another way in which such knowledge as that of which the man in our text is an example is a hindrance, and that is that it is knowledge which has no effect on character. What do hundreds of us do with our knowledge of Christianity? Our minds seem built in watertight compartments, and we keep the doors of them shut very close, so that truths in the understanding have no influence on the will. "Agrippa! believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest." "Yes! believest the prophets; and Bernice sitting by your side there — believest the prophets, and livest in utter bestial godlessness." What is the good of a knowledge of Christianity like that?
II. NOW, SECONDLY, NOTICE HOW WE HAVE HERE THE EXAMPLE OF A PROUD MAN INDIGNANTLY RECOILING FROM SUBMISSION. There is a world of contempt in Agrippa's words, in the very putting side by side of the two things. "Me! Me," with a very large capital M — "Me a Christian?" He thinks of his dignity, poor creature. It was not such a very tremendous dignity after all. He was a petty kinglet, permitted by the grace of Rome to live and to pose as if he were the real thing. And yet he struts and claps his wings and crows on his little hillock as if it were a mountain. "Me a Christian?" "The great Agrippa! A Christian!" As if he said, "Do you really think that I — I — am going to bow myself down to be a follower and adherent of that Christ of yours? The thing is too ridiculous! With but little persuasion thou wouldst fain make me a Christian. But you will find it a harder task than you fancy." Now, the shape of this unwillingness is changed, but the fact of it remains. There are two or three features of what I take to be the plain gospel of Jesus Christ which grate very much against all self-importance and self-complacency. I just run them over very briefly.
1. The gospel insists on dealing with everybody in the same fashion, and regarding all as standing on the same level. Many of us do not like that. Let us get away from Agrippa and Palestine. "I am a well-to-do Manchester man. Am I to stand on the same level as my office boy?" Yes! the very same. At any rate, we are not to be classed in the same category with the poor and the ignorant and the sinful and the savage all over the world. But we are so classed. Do not you and the men in Patagonia breathe the same air? Are not your bodies subject to the same laws? Have you not to be contented to be fed in the same fashion, and to sleep and eat and drink in the same way? "We have all of us one human heart"; and "there is no difference, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." The identities of humanity, in all its examples, are deeper than its differences in any. We have all the one Saviour, and are to be saved in the same fashion. It is a humbling thing for those of us that stand upon some little elevation, real or fancied. We all need the same surgery, and we must be contented to take it in the same fashion. So some of us recoil from humbling equality with the lowest and worst.
2. Then, again, another thing that makes people shrink back from the gospel sometimes is that it insists upon everybody being saved solely by dependence on Another.
3. And another thing stands in the way — namely, that the gospel insists upon absolute obedience to Jesus Christ. Agrippa fancied that it was an utterly preposterous thing that he should lower his flag, and doff his crown, and become a servant of a Jewish peasant. A great many of us, though we have a higher idea of our Lord than that, do yet find it quite as hard to submit our wills to His, and to accept the condition of absolute obedience, utter resignation to Him, and entire subjection to His commandment. We say, "Let my own will have a little bit of play in a corner." "I, with my culture; am I to accept what Christ says as the end of strife?" Yes! absolute submission is the plainest condition of real Christianity. "Thou wouldst fain persuade me to be a Christian," is the recoil of a proud heart from submission. Let me beseech you that it may not be yours.
III. AGAIN, WE HAVE HERE AN EXAMPLE OF INSTINCTIVE SHRINKING FROM THE PERSONAL APPLICATION OF BROAD TRUTHS. Agrippa listened half-amused, and a good deal interested, to Paul, as long as he talked generalities, and described his own experience. But when he came to point the generalities and to drive them home to the hearer's heart, it was time to stop him. That question of the apostle's, keen and sudden as the flash of a dagger, went straight home. And the king at once gathers himself together into an attitude of resistance. Ah! that is what hundreds of people do. You will let me preach as long as I like — only you will get a little weary sometimes — you will let me preach generalities ad libitum. But when I come to "And thou?" then I am "rude," and "inquisitorial," and "personal," and "trespassing on a region where I have no business," and so on, and so on. And so you shut up your heart if not your ears. And yet what is the use of toothless generalities?
IV. LASTLY, WE HAVE HERE AN EXAMPLE OF A SOUL CLOSE TO THE LIGHT AND PASSING INTO THE DARK. Agrippa listens to Paul; Bernice listens to Paul; Festus listens. And what comes of it? Only this, "And when they were gone aside they talked between themselves, saying, This man hath done nothing worthy of death or of bonds." May I translate into a modern analogy: And when they were gone aside they talked between themselves, saying, "This man preached a very impressive sermon," or, "This man preached a very wearisome sermon," and there an end. Agrippa and Bernice went their wicked way, and Festus went his, and none of them knew what a fateful moment they had passed through. Probably they never heard the gospel preached any more, and they went away, not knowing what they had done when they silenced Paul and left him. Now you will probably hear plenty of sermons yet. You may, or you may not. But be sure of this, that if you get away from this one, unmelted and unbelieving, you have not done a trivial thing.
(A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.