Scripture

Paul: Preacher, Martyr and Humorist

Apostle Paul by Rembrandt, 1635

Humor is not so easy to find in the Bible. Maybe it’s the cultural differences. Maybe ancient punch lines are easy to miss in modern times. But because I love humor in writing and in movies, and even in music, when I happen upon it in Scripture, I always make a note of it.

I’d never regarded the Apostle Paul as funny. Read the book of Romans and you’ll likely scratch your head at the headiness of his logic. (And don’t use The Message—that’d be cheating.) As a preacher he may not have grasped the importance of timely comic relief, how you need to come up for air every once in a while. I mean, on one occasion he was compelled, probably out of guilt, to raise a man from the dead, one Eutychus who’d fallen out an upstairs window during one of Paul’s lengthier sermons—he’d preached past midnight.

But I recently read the scene where Paul addresses King Agrippa in a large audience hall gathering, attended by Roman military tribunes and the prominent men of Caesarea. He is defending himself against the claims made by Jewish chief priests that he is intending to usurp Roman authority. He begins:

“I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am going to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, especially because you are familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews. Therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently. —Acts 26:2-3 ESV

Paul launches into his oft repeated testimony, how he used to be Saul, a Pharisee’s Pharisee, but then met Jesus on the road to Damascus, where he’d planned to drag off Christians to tar and feather them—or something like that. From then on, he’d begun preaching the message of Jesus the Christ.

Either Festus (not George Costanza’s “Festivus” but the procurator of Judea) wasn’t interested in Paul’s sermon or just didn’t want to risk one of his military officers falling out a window, because he interrupts the former persecutor turned advocate of Christians.

And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” —Acts 26:24 ESV

Paul refutes Festus’s accusation respectfully. And when Paul asks the king whether he believes the prophets, the king says somewhat lightheartedly, “Do you think you can make a Christian out of me?”

And this—this is my favorite part. Paul responds:

“I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.” —Acts 26:29 ESV

I love it. Paul is saying, “I’d love for all of you to become like me”—meaning, a follower of Christ. But since he’s a prisoner, he’s wearing chains and so makes light of the situation. I want all of you to become such as I am—except, of course, for this prison jewelry (as The Message puts it).

I imagine he got a laugh not only from the audience but the king himself. And it worked. Verse 31 says they “quickly agreed on Paul’s innocence.”

That’s not quite the end of the story. But it’s where I’ll end, with a different perspective of Paul, preacher, martyr, and humorist.

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