Why are you so surprised?

You’ve said it. I’ve said it. Something happens that catches us off guard. We’re thrown for a loop. But when things calm down a bit, and we look back at what happened, we say, “I should have seen that coming.” In hindsight, it’s all clear. How did we miss the signs?

Welcome to the human race. We see what we expect to see. We see what we want to see. And that means that we don’t always see what’s there.

. . .

For the third and final time in the book of Acts, Paul finds himself giving his testimony, defending his apostolic calling. In Acts 22, he tells the story of his life and conversion to the hostile crowd in the Jerusalem temple. At first, they seem to listen. But when he dares to suggest that God would send him to the Gentiles, the murderous uproar begins anew, and everything else he said is forgotten.

In Acts 24, he tells a briefer story to then-governor Felix. Here, the focus is on matters more pertinent to Felix’s administrative responsibilities on behalf of Rome. The governor knows Paul is innocent of the charges brought against him, but keeps him in custody anyway for political reasons, and is eventually removed from office.

And now, in chapter 26, Paul finds himself testifying before King Agrippa and the new governor, Festus. Paul is actually glad to be speaking to Agrippa, since unlike Festus, whom Paul has reason to distrust, Agrippa is familiar with Jewish customs. Thus, he begins:

All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, a life spent from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem. They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee. And now I stand here on trial on account of my hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors, a promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship day and night. It is for this hope, your Excellency, that I am accused by Jews! Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? (Acts 26:4-8, NRSV)

Paul is addressing a Jewish king, and as he did in Acts 22, he tailors his story accordingly. He begins with the fact that his life as a devout Jew is well-known — and hints that his opponents have deliberately papered over this fact in their portrait of him as a revolutionary. No, he says. They know perfectly well that I was raised in Jerusalem and trained as a devout Pharisee, which is about as Jewish as you can get. So why am I here, having to give my defense? I’ll tell you why…

Here, Paul takes the reins. From Festus’ point of view, the issue is whether Paul is a threat to Rome. From the high priest’s point of view, the purported issue is whether Paul desecrated the temple. But just as he did earlier, when he created a ruckus in the Sanhedrin, Paul puts his finger on the real issue: his belief in the resurrection of Jesus (cf. Acts 23:6).

For his part, Governor Festus knows that this is the issue, even if he doesn’t understand it, and he’s already briefed Agrippa accordingly (cf. Acts 25:19). Festus’ problem is that he has no compelling reason to send Paul to the emperor over a theological matter that concerns only the Jews. But Paul has appealed to the emperor. How is Festus going to explain this? 

In making his defense before Agrippa, Paul puts the resurrection front and center. Moreover, he takes a tack that Agrippa is sure to understand: the expectation of resurrection is part of the historic Jewish faith.

The Sadducees (who probably dominated the Sanhedrin) of course, did not agree, and this is part of the strife between them and Paul. But it seems both the Pharisees and most Jews at the time believed in a future day of resurrection for God’s people (cf. John 11:24). Agrippa would know that Paul is not some wild-eyed heretic or cult leader, and could advise Festus accordingly.

Go figure, Paul seems to say. Here I am, accused by Jews…of what? Hoping in what all Jews should hope? Why should anyone be surprised that I believe in resurrection?

What Paul does not say, however, is that he believes specifically in the resurrection of Jesus. This would indeed be a new idea. The Romans had no concept of resurrection, period, and the Jews had no concept of the resurrection of an individual Jew in advance of all others. But even then, Paul seems to suggest, Agrippa could do the math: If we already believe that God can resurrect the dead, is it so unbelievable that he would resurrect one person first? 

. . .

Paul, of course, is far from finished with his testimony, as we shall see. For the moment, however, I wonder: why are we surprised at anything God might do?