While the Jewish ruling classes met with a communal attitude and therefore sometimes vitally disordered, in this meeting at the presence of King Agrippa we perceive a hierarchical disposition; this reflected the Roman mentality, with the “landlord” Festus giving the first seat to those who, like Agrippa, are of higher rank (vv. 24-27). Agrippa thus takes over the presidency and it is, therefore, he who gives Paul the floor to speak (26:1) and whom Paul addresses first (v. 2).
Paul’s choice to address Agrippa alone may seem inappropriate, but it will prove necessary, because the audience was of a composite nature and, in order for everyone to understand, one had to limit oneself to the most superficial aspects. Agrippa, on the other hand, can be regarded as a Jew (vv. 3 and 27) and therefore Paul can tell him his testimony in detail, that is, in a manner similar to how he had addressed the Jewish crowd (22:1ff).
As usual, Paul presents his faith not as a novelty, but as the consistent way of being a Jew: «I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers» (v. 6); «saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass» (v. 22). As usual, emphasising the resurrection (v. 8).
Jesus is initially presented as «of Nazareth» (i.e., “Nazarene”, v. 9) and of Hebrew-language (v. 14), but then he is called the «Lord» (v. 15), through whom one receives the forgiveness of sins (v. 18): it was to this, as usual, that Paul wanted to get to, insisting on the need for a conversion that profoundly affects one’s own behavior (v. 20).
In addition to the forgiveness of sins, Paul mentions Jesus’ promise of a «place among those who are sanctified by faith» (v. 18): an expression that appears vague, but that takes on a particular meaning in the Jewish context. At the time of Joshua, the various families had each received a portion of the Promised Land (Joshua, Rev. 13-22); so the risen ones in the new Kingdom of God would receive a portion of it as well, as a gift: Jesus himself had also stated that the meek people «shall inherit the earth» (Mt 5:5).
Festus, who appears to be of Roman culture, poorly tolerated this kind of talking, but tries to remain calm in reverence to Agrippa’s function of presidency; at some point, however, he loses his temper and interrupts Paul by shouting: «Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind» (v. 24). The prisoner Paul is unperturbed even before those who, officially, hold his fate in their hand and replies in a way that we “transliterate” so: ‘Dear Festus, it is you who does not understand, but I am not surprised, because I have turned to Agrippa, who, in this matter, is more competent than you and with whom I would like to finish the speech, if you would please continue to stand aside’ (vv. 25-27).
Festus seems to be taking the hit and goes quiet, so Paul can conclude with an appeal to conversion extended to all (as it’s fitting in an authentic evangelistic preaching!), feeling fully free despite being in chains, and showing to those who thought they were free with what invisible chains they were held captive! There is, thus, a complete reversal of roles and, even if conversions are not recorded at the time, Paul leaves the trial with a sentence of full acquittal: «this man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar» (v. 32).
Was the appeal to Caesar “a small mistake with serious consequences”? No, because it was in God’s will that Paul arrived in Rome, as we have seen (23:11). Wouldn’t it have been better if he went free, and not in chains? But we saw that being in chains had allowed Paul to speak with great freedom to the entire ruling class of that area and we are led to believe that this was a “general test” of what could have happened in Rome, before Caesar’s court; an event which Luke did not have the time to tell us about and which we then allow ourselves to imagine, based on what we witnessed above.
Let us imagine then that, in the majestic Roman court of Caesar, crowded with high officials and noble idlers, it’s the turn of a prisoner of humble manners, pitied by those who see him and in the indifference of those who prefer to look elsewhere. But when this “little man” begins his speech, soon the silence spreads and everyone is involved by his words. The “little man” thus appears more and more like a giant and those who pitied him feel increasingly small, while no one can look away anymore or remain indifferent, being only able to choose whether to soften or become irritated: just as no one could remain indifferent before Stephen (chap. 7).
We would have preferred to send Paul to Rome fully free, but we must recognise that God had his reasons, reasons that Paul understood and appreciated, as he so wrote to the Philippians from the prison of Rome: «I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ […] Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice»; concluding the letter with the greetings of «those of Caesar’s household (Phil 1:12-18; 4:22), indicating how the Gospel had now infiltrated even the emperor’s dwelling place.