When Paul was on trial before Festus and King Agrippa, his arguments were becoming so persuasive that Agrippa responded to Paul, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian”.
Agrippa was an interesting person. He was around ten years old when Jesus was born, and King Herod, who ordered the murder of the baby boys in Bethlehem at that time, was his grandfather. Although his family were Edomites, through alliances with the political powers of the day, especially
the Romans, they became the royal family in Israel. Astute politicians who often resorted to violence, they were always aware of the fragility of their position and so they worked hard at relationships with the Jews, especially the Sadducees. Agrippa was considered to be very well informed in Jewish
matters and he appears to have had a genuine respect for the Jewish scriptures. Paul goes so far as to say to him “King Agrippa, Do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” It was to this statement that Agrippa responded that he was almost persuaded to become a Christian.
At that time in the Roman Empire, most people would have been religious to some degree or other, though the focus of their beliefs would have ranged widely from rank idolatry or paganism through to true worship of the living God. Amongst this hotch potch of beliefs, it was not uncommon for people such as Agrippa who were racial outsiders to Judaism, nonetheless to have some measure of belief in the God of the Jews. Some Romans, Greeks and other nationalities even made regular visits to the Temple in Jerusalem where they congregated in the court of the Gentiles. Most appeared sincere, but they stopped short of actually converting to Judaism, which would have allowed them to join in the Jewish temple worship and be recognised as God’s people.
Though remaining outside of Judaism, the more serious of these Gentiles who believed in the true God began to be known by the name of ‘God-fearers’. The bible terms Cornelius in this way, and the Greeks who came up to the feast at Jerusalem and who wanted to see Jesus were almost certainly the same as well. When Jesus threw out the money-changers from the temple, it was from the area set aside for these God-fearing Gentiles that he ejected them, and he did so because the area was to be called a house of prayer ‘for all nations’.
Jews, and subsequently Christians, have never found it easy to know how to relate to God-fearers. They are not part of God’s people, and though some remain outside, others clearly have the potential to be converted and come in. Sometimes we resist those who seem to be close to the kingdom, like some Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we embrace others who, like Agrippa, align themselves with a church because it suits them to do so, but who are only almost persuaded to become Christians and stop short of actually committing themselves.
The problem appears to be that we respond to an outward alignment to an organisation and not to the inward work of the Holy Spirit in hearts and minds. So, if someone is part of one of the respectable old denominations or an apparently flourishing new one, we give them the benefit of the doubt and treat them as Christians, though they may be very far from it. On the other hand, those who are perhaps exploring on their own or via a slightly odd group, or a sect such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, are treated with a great deal of suspicion and actively shunned, even though God may be at work drawing them to himself.
It is not easy to get it right. These days I find myself becoming more convinced that many within the churches, including some clergy and those in positions of responsibility, are no more than almost Christians who are not actually part of the people of God. On the other hand, whilst recognising that they may not yet have entered the kingdom, I am warming to and praying for, those who have an active, serious, committed faith, which may as yet be incomplete.