Brass tacks

“Let’s get down to brass tacks.”

I have no idea how that idiom came to mean what it means — to get right to the essentials of a matter under discussion. I’ve seen different theories. But frankly, none of them are very convincing (I’ll bet someone could even come up with an explanation if the phrase were “Let’s get down to tapioca pudding” instead).

Still, in his defense before Agrippa, Paul does indeed get down to brass tacks. The terseness of his description of his preaching ministry is, of course, partly the editorial work of Luke. One assumes that at such an important and public event as this, Paul would have gone on for some time — which is why he asked Agrippa to be patient with him from the outset (Acts 26:3).

He has told Agrippa about his childhood and his reputation as a zealous Jew and persecutor of the church. He’s told him about meeting Jesus on the Damascus road. He’s spoken of the ancient Jewish hope of resurrection, and his commission to preach repentance to both Jews and Gentiles. Then he continues:

For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. To this day I have had help from God, and so I stand here, testifying to both small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would take place: that the Messiah 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. (Acts 26:21-23, NRSV)

Paul’s Jerusalem opponents have accused him of desecrating the temple; this was the initial excuse for trying to kill him. But the animosity goes back further, to his days in Ephesus, where there was a riot against Paul and the gospel. It was some Ephesian Jews, in Jerusalem for Pentecost, who made the accusation and started the riot in the temple. “That’s the real reason they tried to kill me,” Paul tells Agrippa. “I told them to repent.”

Beyond that, however, Paul gives Agrippa a brass tacks summary of the gospel he preached. In the same vein as his earlier comments to Agrippa about resurrection — why should any faithful Jew be surprised by the idea that God would raise the dead? — he first emphasizes that the gospel he preached was the fulfillment of what readers of Moses and the prophets should already have expected (yes, you, Agrippa my friend…). 

Here’s what I told them, Paul says. It’s in line with what had already been prophesied long ago. First, the Messiah had to suffer. Second, he would be raised from the dead. And third, by doing so, he would announce the coming of the light not only to our own people, but also to the Gentiles.

Simple. To the point. But each of these prophesied truths was controversial in its own right:

A suffering Messiah?

No, we want a king who will triumph over Rome and restore us to our rightful place.

Raised from the dead?

Not by himself, before everyone else.

A light to the Gentiles? 

Hey, listen, buddy — do we have to beat you up again? 

There is much more that Paul could say (and probably did). But even in this bare-bones summary, he is hoping that Agrippa, the supposed expert in all things Jewish, might see the reasonableness of the message.

Agrippa might see himself as being the one in charge, the one examining Paul. But Paul, as the Lord’s apostle, sees an opportunity to preach the gospel to the king. And soon, he’ll get to the brassiest tack of all: “Your Highness, do you believe?”

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